The Phoenix Fate, Book 2 of the Enchanter's Cycle

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Chapter 11

It was morning. Everything was ready.

Arteth stepped into the room, their room, back in the iron tower. Gatsuyu, Nagomi, and Mikoto took a place near the bedside. Kaileena lay there, having already arrived with Hana, who comforted her. The reconfigured gem hovered over the bed, ripe with promise.

The others nodded to him as he approached, but the Djinn had eyes only for Kaileena. She was clothed only in a thin sheet that covered her from the waist down, and a loose sarashi to cover her chest. She looked drawn, exhausted. Splotchy bruises dotted her body from head to toe, ranging from the size of a pinhead to that of a fist, the accumulation of weeks of petty injuries. Her breathing was shallow, irregular, and her eyes, though now focused on him, were glazed.

“Before...” he started, failed, and began again, “Before you do anything, there’s something I wanted to ask you.”

She blinked, half-comprehending his words, then nodded. He offered her a small box, opening it and revealing a ring. Its band was a series of three solid platinum wires, coiled elegantly with a braided effect. A blue diamond, square in shape and the size of a thumbtack, adorned its fitting, joined by two clear diamonds half the size.

“I should have done this a long time ago when my feelings for you first became clear. I cannot ask permission from a father, nor do I overly care about my own father’s disposition, so there is no excuse to wait. Kaileena...I would ask you to marry me.”

Hana and Nagomi gasped. Kaileena looked to Gatsuyu, who nodded, then back to him, smiling, “I would be honored.”

She lifted her hand, with great difficulty, he noticed with a wince, and he slipped it onto her finger, where the alchemist stone ring normally resided. It was a perfect fit.

“If I live an eternity...” Kaileena mused, “Or only for a another few minutes, I will never again know such happiness.”

“If you live an eternity.” Arteth parried, “I will ensure that you experience an equal amount for every day of it, my little fox.”

Her smile softened, and a sliver of fear crept into her expression, “All the more reason for this to work. You...might want to step back.”

Nodding, he did as she asked. The tension grew thick.

“What I will do now...” Kaileena began, meeting the eyes of everyone in the room, “Has never before been attempted by any practitioner of magicka in recorded history. In all likelihood, this will be my end.”

Gatsuyu balled his fists, his knuckles white. Arteth ground his teeth.

“I will separate my soul from my body.” Kaileena continued, “And bind it with the Phoenix Stone, which will protect it from the Eternal Return’s toxic energy. It will will then re-create my body through transmutation.”

“...You would think this a boon...” she continued, seeming to deflate, “It is not. I will no longer be Silkrit. I will be kin to none; a new species unique unto myself.”

“You are my sister.” Gatsuyu said, “You will always be my sister. Get well, however you can, and be done with this nonsense.”

“Agreed.” Nagomi added, “I would have a godmother for our offspring.”

Kaileena’s resolve took another hit, and tears formed in her eyes, “Thank you.”

“You are my friend.” the Hitorigami said unevenly, “Forget our words in my chamber. I was...not myself. See this over and done with.”

Kaileena nodded, shook away the tears, and began to gesture with her hands, activating the gem’s enchantment...

Koukatsuna beheld chaos, or perhaps a vision of the hells.

It was a single, flat plain, with both sky overhead and ground below dark and eerily indistinct. The City of Shimobashira was still half a mile away, but he wouldn’t know that for all the vampyres surrounding it from all sides, and, lest he was mistaken, right over the walls and onto the outer edges of the poor quarter.

A cloud of blackness, like roiling smog, blotted out the sun, casting the place in twilight, and while he could see focused beams of light interconnecting to hinder the slave army from amassing and rushing all at once, it was not a reassuring sight. It was surreal, seeing light only in focused horizontal lines in the distance and in the scant torchlight at one’s back, hinting at frozen corpses, jagged metal, and reflecting off of sheets of ice.

The caravan was at a standstill, knee-deep in blood and ash. His arms were numb. He’d been fighting the entire night and well into the morning, and it was wearing on him. Or maybe it was still night. Or maybe entire days had passed. Without the sun it was hard to say.

“My Lord.” he grunted, looking over to Minamoto, “Should we push the distance or try to shore up a defensive position? Open warfare is not my specialty.”

The Lord of the Central District considered it, “We won’t be able to remain out here for long, defenses or otherwise. We need to reach the city gates.”

Nodding, Koukatsuna readied himself, “Alright then, I’ll get you to the gate. Tell them to switch to swords and spears for a minute.”

He relayed the message, and the bladedancer was off, bolting forward, leaping right over the overturned wagon that filtered in the vampyre scum.

He crossed Waru and Saku and lashed out from either side, spinning into a roll with both weapons safely away from his torso. He charged right around the two Orcs he’d just decapitated with the momentum, brought his swords up close, and delivered a double-thrust-low into the groin of another.

It was a cruel move, as the distinctive barbs on his weapons tugged out a length of bowel and something he didn’t want to consider, but he struck the howling beast in the throat soon after, ending its misery.

He went into a frenzy, drawing as much attention towards himself as possible, giving the Humans a few moments to get everything ready and charge in after him. They’d lost more than a few soldiers, but the enchanted and finely forged weaponry combined with the improved training and insight was very poignantly making a difference. Instead of losing four of every seven as they had in the siege of Fusestu, they lost less than two of every seven.

So he raved, and snarled, and howled, weaving a furious, blood-soaked dance, hoping it would help their odds even more. All around him Orcs piled up, dying or dead. He ran circles around one, forcing its own momentum against it by slipping in a series of stabs inside of its own attack patterns and jabbing deeper and deeper into its armpits, groin, underbelly, and underarms when it lunged forward.

He callously backhanded a clumsy but powerful swing, and ran the beast up through the mouth. He slipped around another attack, hamstrung his next opponent, drove its weapon into the dirt with one blade, relinquishing it, while taking the other in an executioner’s grip and beheading it with a tremendous swing.

Soldiers poured in from the sides, marvelously flanking through the hole he’d punched in their slavering line. Koukatsuna had taken two hits, one a glancing blow to the shoulder, and another to the thigh that was bleeding and sending sharp spikes of pain through his groin, but he couldn’t stop. Too much fun...

Managing the steep incline as best he could, Vilaseth carried Elurra into the shrine. Cloaked in invisibility, he knew he didn’t have long to get out of there. His sweat would mark him for any vampyres that hadn’t fed recently. He sorely hoped Dekeshi wasn’t shirking on her deckhands by depriving meals...

He could levitate the both of them down to the surface, but first he had to get a clear shot. He kept his footfalls silent, even as he was carrying a hundred thirty pounds of dead weight. He passed through the shrine quickly, more than a little superstitious of his theft. He’d met that particular god, after all.

Back in the throne room he immediately saw a problem. Koriko slaves were positioned at either end of the doors leading up to the main deck. Almost twice his height, the insect creatures stood on four legs, with two pairs of arms, one small, one thickly muscled and tipped with blades. Their carapace, natural armor, was a sickly grey, like half-bleached bone. Their vision, from what the anatomy studies detailed, was more movement-based than not. The tiniest ripple or imperfection in his field of invisibility would tip them off...

Cursing to himself, for he’d been expecting to get much further before risking that wager, the assassin readied himself, daring a soft intake of breath.

Nothing for it, he kept going, hoping Elurra wouldn’t struggle in the next few moments. He could hardly bop her on the temple, since the important parts of her head were crowned with a natural armor of black chitin. They were designed that way specifically to resist such injuries...

He walked around the massive throne, the whole room painted in a menagerie of dulled colors from the stained glass windows, all blacks, reds, and yellows. Fire, blood, and death, eh? The seat itself was what he would expect; all hard iron and sharp angles around the edges, but centered with lavish cushions. Damn nobles...

His foot struck the surface oddly, eliciting a loud squeak. He stopped in his tracks, panicked. Moments ticked by, and the Koriko didn’t budge. Scolding himself, Vilaseth continued his approach, his heart pounding in his chest. He couldn’t remember for sure, and hoped the beasts couldn’t smell fear.

He held his breath, and continued, crossing within ten paces. Five. He could literally count the ridges of their chitin plates. He crossed between them, and...

They turned their heads towards him. Shit. He paused, hoping against hope. A moment ticked by. Two. Three.

They shifted forward, no more than a finger’s breadth from his perspiring face. Perhaps he should bolt., damn it, he would never make it to the deck before they swarmed him! Wait...wait...

A pureblood approached from above, carrying a wicked looking blade and an even more wicked looking seven-headed whip. The slaves turned back to attention.

By all the merciful gods!

Vilaseth inched to the right, so their paths didn’t directly overlap, and the vampyre passed him by without a moment’s pause. Having come so close to pissing himself, Vilaseth left with as much of his dignity intact as possible. He inched his way onto the main deck, Elurra shifting somewhat in his grip, halfway to catatonic. The steps became sodden wood, like that of a proper ship.

A step creaked as he rose the final stretch. A pair of purebloods looked his way, expectant. Their expressions turned to puzzled in an instant, then alarmed. Well, okay, the jig was up.

Sprinting now, the assassin charged for the port side, elbowing through a slave handling a secondary tiller. It occurred to him distantly that they were no longer circling around the excavation site. He saw only a straight formation, angled south...

He heard something scraping on the deck behind him, and made the last five paces before leaping off the edge. Something gored his kneecap, and his head slammed into something hard. Dazed, Vilaseth looked up to see his leg impaled to the side of the ship, just over the railing. Elurra slipped out of his grip, and tumbled away.

Shit. SHIT!

He did the only thing he could think of. His leg tendon was already halfway severed. He finished the job with his dagger.

Tumbling down to freedom, his eyes watery from the pain, he nonetheless increased his rapid descent by tucking in his arms and...legs. In the few seconds of his descent before grabbing Elurra, Vilaseth noticed dimly that his leg was still somewhat attached.

The Koriko had speared him at the bridge of the tibia, fibula, and patella. What he’d done on instinct was fully disconnect his fibula, allowing the leg to slide away from the bladed arm. The fibula was still attached to the base of the foot, and the tibia kept it all attached to the knee. Lucky...Elurra would be able to fix that up nicely...if he didn’t bleed out before she woke up. As the ground rushed up to meet them, Vilaseth began rapidly slowing their descent with the levitation enchantment.

“Now or never.” Aika mused, waving the Te Fukushu and Karyudo Kisai forward. The morning was young, and the shadows wouldn’t serve to hide them, but Jhihro had something else in mind.

“We strike fast.” he explained as she crept back to the group, “Use sun orbs to clear a path, and then barricade the entrance with explosives.”

“That stone is unnaturally sturdy.” Aika reiterated, and Jhihro smirked, “My thermite compound will melt diamond. Does that satisfy you? Yes? Good. Let’s go.”

As one they charged down the ravine. It was daylight, though overcast, and the retaliation was sluggish, uncertain. The Koriko slaves charged them, blindly, and as one they activated the sun orbs, forming a column of searing light. The vampyres, already weakened by the day, broke apart into clicking, burning husks, coiling into balls as they died.

With the downhill run, additional orbs were thrown down to hamper and terrify. It had no demoralizing effect on the slaves, of course, but Aika saw more than one dark-skinned pureblood flinch and back away. Only one remained impassive, a female...

“Matriarch!” she yelled, marking the target. Jhihro was on it immediately, a peculiar six-chambered crossbow in hand, “Yes, yes! I must have it.”

He fired the device, and six barbed bolts fired out, an interconnecting series of ropes attached to it. A net...

“Damn it, Jhihro!” Aika cursed, “We need it dead, not alive.”

Her mind afire with pain, the cold numbness of oblivion seemed a pleasant thing. But something persisted amid her distorted, hazy thoughts. A voice... Vilaseth!

Elurra rose with a wince, naked and prone on bare earth. What...?

She looked overhead, to see Dekeshi’s-

She screamed, curling into a fetal position. Pain. Pain. It was coming! She cried out, knowing this was a trick, a cruel trick, and that when she turned around it wouldn’t be Vilaseth. It would be Dekeshi, laughing at the amusement of this new torment, branding her with hot metal, lashing her with whips, gouging her with iron nails...

She whimpered, sobbing into the dirt. But the pain didn’t come...

Confused, shivering, she slowly, ever so slowly, glanced back. To find Vilaseth, prone. much blood.

“Vilaseth!” she cried, crawling over to him. Sputtering, she forced movement from limbs that had ceased obeying her weeks ago, kneeling over her husband. His leg was pulled apart. It’d been nearly severed. So much blood.

Without even checking for vital signs Elurra forced raw magicka through her body and into his, accelerating the natural healing process. The ragged flesh of his leg flared blue with arcane energies, the muscle re-knitting itself, the bones snapping back into place. He didn’t move.

“Gods...” she groaned, cradling his head in her arms. What had she done? He’d risked his life to save her...and she had failed to save him in kind. He was dead...he was dead! “Oh, my love...-”

“Get over it, doll.” Vilaseth wheezed, spat a red globule away from her, “Not going anywhere.”

Stunned, then elated, she cradled him, nuzzling her head against his.

“Yeah, yeah.” the assassin groaned, “Hey...what are those ships doing?”

She looked up, expecting Dekeshi’s fleets to descend upon her, only to find them all sailing south, but...

“Wait...those aren’t Dekeshi’s ships!”

Enshi dispersed into smoke, and the net passed right through her.

Musekaeru keened with anticipation, and the matriarch smirked, “Fear not, my pet. We will have our time yet. These runts will hardly prove a challenge.”

There were no Kamiyonanayo in wait to ambush her this time. This time, she would complete her task. She was a loyal daughter.

Choke.” she hissed, pointing to the onrushing Silkrit and Humans. Their attack faltered as they ran headlong into a cloud of noxious smoke, which passed into their lungs and tripled in density. In moments they would strangulate.

“Not so fast, milady...” a soft, sibilant voice whispered behind her...

Aika forced her way out of the smoke, spear and sun orb in hand. The Koriko were already turning away, charging the Matriarch as she fought with...

“Ryū?” she gasped, seeing none other than her mentor, his blades flaring silver as he battled with the Matriarch, their weapons creating a roaring chorus as they collided again and again in a rhythmic beat. A sun orb was flaring to life in their midst, and the Matriarch’s flesh cracked in painful rends. Ryū hissed with pain, but his cloak kept away the worst of it.

Kill her!” Aika snarled, but Jhihro stopped her. She spun back to him, but his gaze stopped her dead.

“We go for Dekeshi and whatever she sought.” he told her, not without a hint of disappointment in his tone, “We have our task.”

Nodding grimly, she went for the last stretch, and they left a whole line of sun orbs at the structure’s entrance before they crossed into darkness.

Unable to suffer more of his own sun orb, Ryū sped away, bringing Hyosho and Kaminari’s tips down into his chest. One double-thrust, an explosion of pain, then rage, and he was airborne, the world turned blood red as a phoenix mask covered his face.

He roared with savage glee as the power of his true form surged through his veins. Bladed wings of flame sped his ascent, and a column of fire reinforced Aika’s barrier as the Te Fukushu entered the ruins. He knew her to be on an important task, and needed not question why she would pass up a target as appetizing as a Matriarch. Kiromichi had received all the same Intel that Shirudo no doubt had...

Circling around to the Matriarch, Ryū descended...

Darkness blanketed the field, one which even her vampyric eyes couldn’t penetrate. Snarling her orders, the Koriko slaves surrounded her.

Dekeshi had absconded with her Alaae slaves, and at that moment she hated the wretch with every fiber of her dark heart. It’d been this way since childhood with that one...

Then, suddenly, lights began to twinkle in the vast emptiness, hundreds of them, a fiery gold that didn’t singe her flesh. Not orbs, they were slivers, at that distance tiny and inconsequential. Their actual size, however, was about that of a short sword. Short swords...wakizashi...

“Attack!” she railed, understanding the nature of this attack, when there was a sudden flash to her left. Two of the lights had winked out. Then another two, accompanied by another streak of motion, too fast to track. Another. Another.

Soon her world was a swarm of simultaneous shifts of light, every one accompanied by a wet cracking noise of split chitin and gooey flesh. Dispersing into smoke, Enshi drifted upward to escape the trap. She couldn’t pierce its borders.

Hissing with anger, she hovered at the peak, waiting. The Koriko snarled and clicked in the darkness, lunging with their bladed claws below her. Most hit nothing, a few hit each other...

Then, suddenly, it was over. The darkness receded, revealing a massacre. Koriko lay butchered, strewn about in the spots of their deaths, disemboweled, decapitated, impaled. Twenty had accompanied Dekeshi, and forty had remained with her. Forty corpses, including those slain by the meddlesome Te Fukushu, lay on the field of battle. She was alone.

Ryū stood, impassively, his aura of fire gone, panting. Blood in the water. Smiling, for she knew now that he’d exhausted his true form, the Matriarch descended, giggling. He’d cost her nothing; slaves were fodder, meant for precisely this purpose.

Musekaeru sang as they returned to solidity, begging her to unleash her new power. She didn’t disappoint it.

Ryū cursed as he saw the Matriarch change as he had. Driving her slim, dark blade into her chest, her oil-black flesh turned to an opaque, pale grey, inside of which he saw billowing ash and wisps of smoke. Tendrils of shadow burst from her back, forming a mantle of tentacles tipped with milky white stalks. Eyes...

A flat, long cloud of smoke billowed about them like a cloak. Other than this, she was naked. But her body held nothing distracting to him; she’d become an apparition, a wraith, almost impossible to hit with weapons and vulnerable only to spells. He didn’t have many of those up his sleeve at the moment.

“They say you are strong, Ryū...” The Matriarch cooed, giggling, “But you cannot slay me alone.”

Not arguing her logic, the vampyre formed a defensive stance, both arms bent and closed in, both wakizashi facing vertically and tilted up, “That may be, but that’s what they said about Kyokan. Do your worst.”

With Vilaseth stabilized, Elurra sat in a cross-legged position, preparing herself. Every ounce of her body ached in remembered pain, but she would not submit to despair again. She had a task to perform, one demanded not by Surthath but by her own necessity. She had to kill Dekeshi.

Though her experiences were still fresh in her mind, Elurra knew, knew, that the memories of it would haunt her forever, would cause her to doubt herself, would cripple her when she needed strength. Dekeshi had to die, by her hand. There would be no peace in her heart otherwise...

She willed her twin glassteel thinblades and her golden mail to the space in front of her, calling upon the reality-altering power of the Sixth Element.

She donned the mail and silks without ceremony, then belted on her weapons. Stepping back to Vilaseth, who watched her through half-lidded eyes, she began to offer him a portal back to Moonshadow, which he refused, “Go do your thing, if you’re sure of your readiness. I’m going to take a nap, I think.”

He would scold her later for allowing herself to be captured, but right now he understood that she had to do this. He knew her heart. She would not fail him again...

Koukatsuna gasped, daring a glance back to the sky. Dekeshi’s fleet was coming...

“Where the hell are Tetsyyubo’s men?!” he roared, backpedaling to avoid the clumsy swing of an Orc with an axe-headed spear.

Weaving Waru and Saku in a humming cyclone, he struck the weapon on its wooden shaft, chopping it in half, all the while slapping the beast’s weapon hand with his other blade. The melee took him away from his opponent, and sent a Human, run through with a naginata, careening into him. He put the poor soul down, knowing they didn’t have the resources to fix a gut wound like that...

As he watched, horrified, the flying ships circled over Shimobashira like carrion birds. Thunder split the artificial night.

Cannon fire echoed in his ringing ears. His view of Shimobashira disappeared under a hail of iron.

Lord Takauji shielded himself with a series of impenetrable barriers with one of his enchanted rings, covering his face with a sleeve. Perhaps he was screaming, or cursing. Such things were indeterminable.

Daring a look, he gasped, seeing guard towers collapse under the assault, split apart again and again as they tumbled to the ground. The air filled with bodies of the men and women of Shimobashira, their limbs scattered.

The courtyard was gouged with low flying cannonballs, and the walls blew inward with the strain. Vampyre slaves poured through the bowshot-wide breach. The Human defenders were swarmed. A chain gunner peppered one of the flying ships, but was set upon by the unchecked slaves before he could do much more than ruin the paint.

Lord Tetsyyubo hissed, from horror, rage, or a twisted pleasure, he couldn’t tell, “Fall back to the noble’s district.”

“Will that not leave the poor unprotected?” he asked, unnecessarily. The Lord of the North nodded, and turned to survey the defenses in preparation. To be fair, most of the poor were already on the field...

“I suppose someone will need to man the chain guns and harry the ships.” Takauji groaned, not at all desiring to enter the fray himself. He wasn’t hero material, after all.

“Do what you will...” Lord Tetsyyubo said dismissively, vanishing from sight.

Kaileena completed the activation of the enchantment. All that remained was to survive...

The Phoenix Stone surged with power, crackling rivulets of electricity running along its length. Gradually, the electricity descended, forming a cloud of static discharge the color of purest ice.

A stray length of energy brushed her skin, puffing her mane of feathers. Her fingers twitched, as the muscles received bioelectric signals mimicking those of the brain. She shivered, but kept her breathing steady. Unlike them, she had a good idea what the gem would do to her. It was all she could do not to panic.

Arteth gripped the bed frame, and she looked to him, trying to exude more confidence than she felt.

“I love you.” she said, gasping as a surge traveled through her body, carrying with it an aftershock of burning pain.

The Artifact knew it had failed.

Agents of the Dread Hammer approached now, passing through its clever maze with absolute confidence. No matter; it had a few other surprises in store. It had come much too far to fall into the wrong hands now. Its purpose would not be denied...

Activating its own latent energies, it spread its intangible fingers outward, activating its defenses.

Aika kept the scouts within twenty paces of the main force. The corridors, irregular and winding, seemed all too easy to get lost in. Odd swirling patterns reflected back to her, even though there were no sources of light in the spiraling pathways.

“What is this?” Jhihro asked softly, more to himself in all likelihood. Whatever it was, Aika had never seen anything so haunting, yet so beautiful.

She didn’t let it distract her, holding the scrying orb aloft, searching for enemies. This was a gamble to be certain, because she’d only seen the vampyre from afar, and thus far, the orb led her unerringly down a winding main corridor. It didn’t likely register solid walls, only offering a direct line to its focal point. She only ascertained this route was likely the correct one because all the other paths appeared to incrementally shrink as they went on, leading her to believe they only led to dead ends.

She stopped, stunned, and listened closely. There was something skittering in the walls...

“Light Orb.” she stated simply, just loud enough to be heard, and no more than three flared into existence. Revealing a swarming mass of insects all along the walls and ceiling...

Roughly the size of her thumbnail, they were black, with a v-shaped pattern of brownish-yellow along their backs. Antennae reached out, probing, and suddenly their backs split down the middle, becoming a set of wings. The air was filled with them as they took flight, their buzzing deafening.

“Torches!” she cursed, and a few Karyudo Kisai struck flint and rock to make a spark. This was not the enemy they were equipped for...

With little choice, Aika batted the pests aside, and ordered everyone to continue.

His arms drooped as he deflected blow after ringing blow. Undead as he was, the poisonous fumes of Enshi, who was supposed to have perished during her attack on Hitorigami City, had no effect on him. Otherwise, he would’ve been given a true death already...but he figured her onslaught might just do the trick instead.

The Matriarch hissed, ignoring those giving chase to, no doubt, another Matriarch. For that he was thankful, cynically so, as she carved another furrow in his chest. His blood; red infused with streaks of black, flowed from dozens of deep wounds along his chest, shoulders, and arms.

Hyosho and Kaminari drank his own blood, recycling it, but he was tiring. He no longer even attacked, just held out until the inevitable.

Enshi lunged with her sword, and he parried, crossing his blades over it and forcing it down. She struck him with an intangible hand, and he was pushed back, his jaw dislocated. It felt like he’d taken a mallet to the face. He fell to a knee.

“Disappointing, Ryū.” Enshi mused, “Disappointing. You slew my slaves, true, but they are easily replaced. You’ve no more than inconvenienced me, and given Dekeshi some sport with your worthless friends.”

Shrugging, Ryū didn’t back down, his vampyric regeneration popping everything back into place, “Nonetheless, I will not suffer you your pursuit of my friends until I am dead.”

Smiling, the matriarch approached, her short blade detaching to reveal a length of string. Snarling, for he’d fought in too many battles to be strangled like a defenseless hatchling, Ryū rose to his feet, when a flicker of silvery blue light caught his attention and broke his concentration.

Enshi batted the slave’s weapons aside with ease, Musekaeru’s garrote coiling about his neck. She would enjoy this...

She snarled, closing the snare. It caught on something and held fast. Enshi watched, baffled, as a field of blue light enveloped Ryū’s throat, and the garrote around it. A gust of wind on her back was the only other warning.

Turning, her weapon caught, the matriarch backhanded and felt her intangible knuckles impact something soft. The creature, the Djinn, backpedaled, twirling a pair of slender, curving blades. A Djinn...

“Once I found myself surprised by one of your wretched kind.” Enshi mused, “Never again.”

The Djinn, a female, smiled, “Fair enough. Where, may I ask, is Dekeshi?” to which the vampyre laughed, “You need not know, for you will not defeat me.”

“Defeat you?” the Djinn replied inquisitively, lifting its chin and motioning towards him, “That isn’t my honor. I leave that to Ryū over there.”

Hearing these words, he hissed as his wounds shrank into minor cuts, then vanished altogether. He felt energy, sheer vitality, returning to his body.

“A localized time dilation.” the Djinn explained, seeing both his and Enshi’s puzzled expressions, “Ryū, you will now be able to fight as you had before this battle had begun. I assume Dekeshi to be in that strange building over there. I take my leave. Good hunting.”

The field suspending Enshi’s garrote dissipated, and he caught the cord, expanding it until he could slip it off. Smiling, Ryū drove the tips of Hyosho and Kaminari into his chest, activating his true form. The world went red, and he roared as his flame mask covered his face.

The Matriarch retracted her blade, her cloak of shadow and smoke billowing in the wind, her eyes aflame.

Dekeshi snarled as the pathway suddenly dead-ended around a winding curve. Impossible! Her magicka-directed path was certain!

“Perhaps a wrong turn.” Warugashikoi dared, and she whirled on him, “Silence! let me think.”

Her Koriko slaves awaited any distractions in the last little stretch behind them, as magickal travel in or out of the structure was impossible. Dekeshi had cast a dweomer, a temporary enchantment, that attuned itself to the prize’s unique energy output. It was powerful enough not to lead Dekeshi down anything but precisely the right path to the item. What had gone wrong?

Remembering a favored trick in her father’s repertoire, the Matriarch reached out with her hand to brush the surface of the dead end. And passed right through seemingly solid material.

“Illusion” Chikara stated, earning a laugh, “Parlor tricks. Let us move on.”

Groans filled the cavern, and she hissed, puzzled.

“Now what?” she asked, unnecessarily, as the corridor filled with shrieking wraiths. Outlines of humanoid creatures, the undead spirits passed through solid walls to reach towards her. Both of her grandsons drew their swords, but Dekeshi had seen enough of illusions. She brushed one aside, and pulled back her hand, preternaturally cold from the chill of the grave.

“Iki-o-korosu!” she snarled, conjuring her trident from a dimensional pocket in one of her belt pouches.

“In the name of God Death...” she snarled, invoking Dur’Artoth’s divine power, “Be gone!”

A dozen wraiths dispersed into groaning vapors, and another twenty retreated. The rest remained. They hounded her and her grandchildren, their claws quite solid. The trio stood unharmed, all of them, thanks to Dekeshi’s wards, but it was troubling still, and taxing.

“Might I suggest-”

“No, you may not.” the matriarch hissed, calling upon the Dread Hammer to directly augment her abilities. Father answered, and she doubled in size, screaming as his divine essence poured into her body in a burst of exquisite pain and pleasure.

The wraiths cowered and fled, any within ten paces of her shriveling and finding a second, truer death.

“Your guardians cannot stop me! I am a chosen daughter of Dur’artoth! Submit!”

It was horrible...

Arteth gritted his teeth, balled his fists, and watched. There was little else he could do now.

Kaileena moaned, her eyes glazed, the Phoenix Stone jolting her again and again, bypassing her spell absorption. Her body quivered as if struck, and the pain etched upon her face was answer enough to the question of why. The cloud of static descended further, until Kaileena inhaled it through her nostrils.

The Stone would do its task, but first it had to physically bond with Kaileena’s body.

A pair of wispy tendrils still connected the stone to the cloud that her body had absorbed, invisible to most, but the Djinn saw both elements clearly. As the last of it entered her body, metabolizing through her lungs and into her bloodstream, Kaileena gasped, then sighed, every muscle slackening.

Then, as if tiring of foreplay, the Phoenix Stone blazed, and Arteth screamed as she did. Thumb-sized ruptures broke out across her body, spurting blood and bone marrow.

Nagomi paled, pressed her face into Gatsuyu’s chest. Smoke issued from the wounds, accompanied by crackling motes of energy which burned them shut. Kaileena whimpered, insensate, as the stone struck her again, blistering her flesh around the sealed breaks. Bone blackened under the skin, which soon followed it.

“We must stop this...” Mikoto gaped, “The stone is killing her...”

“New beginnings can only come from an end.” Arteth replied numbly, unable to take his watery eyes away from the sight of his love dying.

Kaileena screamed again, and the Djinn sucked in a breath as several more bones broke, putrefied, and burned black. Veins seared, forming a sickly pattern across her body. Yes, indeed, the Stone was saving her. But first, it would destroy her. He wept.

Aika hissed in discomfort. All across her exposed skin were painful bumps where the insects had bitten her. The others fared little better, but after a while the swarm had retreated, as if losing interest.

As the next winding curve was passed, she figured out why. The scouts reported back, detailing the next stretch of corridors, and more importantly, the Koriko slaves waiting for them. She softly called for an inventory.

Only a few of the crossbow bolts had been used in the initial charge; each Karyudo Kisai agent carrying a crossbow still had access to somewhere between seven and nine. Of the eighteen members of the expedition, none had been lost. But they had necessarily depleted all but two of their sun orbs in the charge, and each of them were winded and bleeding from insect wounds.

No less than a dozen Koriko blocked the path, no more than two. They were too many to engage directly, but she didn’t think the peculiar construction of the structure allowed any secondary routes. She also didn’t know how to configure the scrying orb to account for this if it did.

“We have to conserve the light orbs for engaging Dekeshi...” she mused, contemplating, “...or until we have an opportunity to steal whatever she seeks. In these cramped quarters, stealth is not an option. Ideas, Jhihro?”

He smiled, “Of course. I have just the thing in my bag of tricks. I just...haven’t fully tested it.”

Inwardly groaning, Aika nodded, “You take point then, wild card. Karyudo Kisai, back him up with crossbows, then charge in behind the Te Fukushu spear wielders. Standard thrust then retreat. These are Koriko, so don’t get in close like you would with a pureblood.”

Nodding, her allies readied their positions, the Karyudo Kisai lining themselves so they could swiftly form one side-to-side column formation around the bend.

Jhihro pulled something out of his pack. Orb-shaped, it split down the middle, and he detached its top half, revealing a much smaller orb that was covered in shiny metal barbs, like a rolled-up porcupine.

Protecting his hand with the bottom segment of the outer sphere, a casing, Aika realized, Jhihro turned a dial roughly positioned on the center of the barbed, inner orb.

“A little idea of mine, turning silver into a nitrate compound to coat the steel barbs, each one fitted individually, not as a cohesive whole. The interior mechanism is a simple explosive...” Jhihro hinted, before turning, digging his feet in as much as he could.

Rapidly inhaling and exhaling, he took off like a bullet, sprinting around the bend, stretching his arm out to throw. Immediately upon tossing the object he slipped back to the corner and covered his ear-slits. As the explosion shook the chamber, Aika rushed in and emptied the slim, balanced daggers from the sheath inside her fur-lined bracers and into her hands.

As she followed after the Karyudo Kisai, finding the Koriko scrambling after the explosion, at least seven down, she picked her targets sparingly. Throwing the knives into the air, she tossed a pair, then another, before catching the rest and repeating. The first two deflected off the hard chitin shell of one Koriko, but the next pair took the same in the eyeball, punching into its brain.

Spinning to gain momentum for her next throw, she aimed for the next closest, which was at that moment charging wildly for a spear wilder. With the backhand throw the knife cracked its shell around the chest, allowing her ally’s spear to slip in all the way to the shaft, piercing one of its hearts.

Winded but hardly stopped, the Koriko was joined by an ally, and together they bowled the Silkrit over and savaged him. The Karyudo Kisai surrounded and chopped them both to ribbons, but not before the damage had been done.

Another Koriko, riddled with crossbow bolts, came for her, and in a moment Aika had her prototype injector spear readied. Carried on four legs, the Koriko moved swiftly, but with precise timing she rolled under its stampeding legs, jabbing her weapon into its unarmored groin.

The sun orb fluid flowed out through the hollow needles at the spear’s head, and the Koriko thrashed wildly, collapsing in a cloud of smoke. Rolling out of the way with a grunt, Aika watched, mesmerized by the Koriko’s death throes.

Snapping back to alertness, she spared a glance at Jhihro, who was giggling madly as he danced along a line of foes, jabbing and stabbing and occasionally tossing a peculiar rotating orrey which cast beams of visible light, singeing vampyric flesh where it touched.

The Te Fukushu, backed by sword-wielding Karyudo Kisai, cornered and slew the remaining four, while Jhihro finished off any wounded enemies. The fight had lasted less than two minutes...

“Well done, Jhihro.” Aika said honestly, “That explosive was very handy. Do you have more?” to which he smiled, “Oh...maybe.”

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