Mikoto fell into his seat in Kaileena’s chamber. It was too much, too much...even for a second chance at life...even for all the power such an artifact would provide her.
The Phoenix Stone pulsated like a madly racing heart, Kaileena’s veins in tune with the beat. Much like the rare events in which she cast Blood Magicka, her veins glowed, as if filled with molten ore.
But instead of fiery yellow or red surges, the veins were colored pure white, like the surface of the Phoenix Stone. Her eyes burned with that same color, melting through her eyelids, illuminating her skull through the back of her head.
Gatsuyu snarled, “Kamiyonanayo, is there nothing you can do to ease this?” to which Arteth shook his head, “Her soul is merging with the stone. The pain transcends the merely physical.”
Beyond even screaming, Kaileena was arched upward by the belly, sickeningly, painfully, like a marionette. Knuckles white on the grip on his katana, the Hitorigami resisted the urge to vomit, would not so disgrace this enchanter, this woman who had sacrificed so very much for his cause by showing even an ounce of physical weakness.
If only he had known... If only...
Kaileena contorted even further, bending at a nearly impossible angle, certainly breaking her spine, a horrible, wailing, animalistic sound bubbling from her lips. Her mouth opened wide.
“It happens now.” Arteth said in a broken voice, and everyone in the room tensed.
An expectant silence stretched painfully. Kaileena herself terminated it, as her chest burst open, her ribs splayed to the sides. Arteth groaned. Hana and Nagomi screamed. Mikoto finally did vomit. But it was Gatsuyu’s utter, stunned horror, that surpassed their reactions.
A series of burning red runes circled out of the gaping, lethal wound, as her heart began to fail, beating unevenly, gushing blood and wafting colorless energies. Her flesh fully charred, leaving only the heart and the receding vascular network. But then, as the heart ceased beating, something happened that made them as one gasp in wonder.
A single mote of power, the color of a rosy dawn, floated upward from the heart. It was so small, so fragile looking, but it was the most beautiful, the most wondrous, and the most dignified thing he’d ever seen in his life.
Kaileena’s soul...the raw manifestation of her being.
It lit the room with a pale, soft pink radiance, leaving behind a warming breeze where the wind didn’t blow, and the smell of summer wildflowers. It rose, and though Arteth could see its beauty, he could also sense its terror.
“No...” he gasped, realizing the issue. The blood red runes, the cursed energies of the Eternal Return, finished feasting on her last dregs of life force and closed around the soul as it floated up to the Phoenix Stone.
Snarling, Mikoto readied his most powerful offensive enchantment, but Arteth seized his wrist, leaving the magicka crackling impotently in his palm. He said nothing, merely shook his head. Stricken, the Hitorigami looked back, to see the wisp of a soul slip into the stone before the runes could catch it.
They grasped like reaching hands, scratching at the surface of the Phoenix Stone, but unable to breech it, they dissipated in a puff of foul smoke, spent, unable to feed upon a host.
Where she lunged, he sidestepped. Where he riposted, she backpedaled, and when retreat was not an option, they blocked, their ringing metal forming a chorus as their weapons clashed, though his were no more than light and fire.
With the both of them weakening, the matriarch had returned to some sense of solidity; her attacks were still preternaturally swift and strong but there was a weight to them again; a sense of physicality.
The mantle of stalks atop the Skraul’s shoulders pointed in his direction, and his guts roiled with nausea. His defense faltered for just a moment.
Enshi lunged in, her sword leading, and he crossed his own blades and parried, forcing the block up. She then delivered a bone-cracking kick to his torso, but Ryū had leaped up, knees meeting it, and he soared backward into a somersault, landing on his feet.
The matriarch, relentless, pressed him again, but they both hissed in pain and faltered as the sun peeked out from the clouds. He’d lost his cloak early in the encounter, and had no protection from the direct assault of its searing light.
Ryū, unmindful, charged his foe, weaving his mithril wakizashi in thrusts, cuts, and shallow, deft slashes. Wherever he stuck, her own short blade was there, angled just so to stop one edge while hooking the other in the crosspiece. Not even against Kyokan had Ryū ever seen such precision with a single weapon style; it was like trying to reach around a solid wall.
Each wilted under the sun; Enshi’s moves became less confident, his, less swift. The ash swimming under the matriarch’s skin turned red, like burning embers. Ryū didn’t need to look to know his skin was erupting in painful white blisters.
“What an appropriate burial for you, your highness...” Ryū teased, “Struck down and staked down to burn in the sun, reduced to swirling ash and smoke.”
Enshi smiled wickedly, deflecting a double thrust and swinging low. Ryū leaped again, over the strike, and brought his weapons down, but she was already prepared, blocking both weapons with a single movement.
He opened his mouth, still obscured by the mask of flame, and breathed fire, which the matriarch countered with a burst of preternatural chill. A blow raked his shoulder, and the vampyre groaned as his flesh struggled and failed to regenerate.
The wound hampered his flexibility with that arm, and would not heal, exposed as he was to the sun. That might be it, then...
“Goodbye, Ryū.” Enshi said delightedly, “If nothing else, you were a worthy distraction, but there is much to do. A pity I cannot chase after the little Djinn, for I have much to repay their kind for.”
Djinn...wait, that was it. An idea dawned on him, involving the last battle this matriarch had attended, involving a Djinn which had illustrated a very exploitable weakness in this foe.
Purebloods didn’t need to breathe...but there were still ways to make them perish without air...
Throwing almost every ounce of his strength into one final attack, Ryū feigned a new pose, all offensive. No doubt assuming this to be his last ditch effort, the matriarch smiled and stuck her weapon out.
He jumped ahead a step, but instead of attacking with his swords Ryū bathed the air around them with fire, forming a perfect hemisphere. Heat drenched the soil, turning it to glass. His mask dissipated, and Hyosho and Kaminari nearly returned to their mundane forms.
“What are you-” Enshi gasped, nonplussed. The outer skin of her true form was immune to the heat...but it was still composed partially of air. And oxygen expanded with the introduction of heat...enough time in this state and the air composing her body would expand...violently.
Immediately she tried to levitate upward, but Ryū was there. Leaping onto her, gripping as well as he could her only partially corporeal form, Ryū clamped his arms tight and weighed her down. She rose a few paces; not attacking but not suffering the effects of an explosive expansion in a timely manner, either. That was it, then. He wouldn’t have enough time to let her burst apart on her own...
Knowing she would likely soon disperse into true smoke and pass through the flames, Ryū did the most distracting thing he could think to and kissed her, forcing his tongue into her mouth, and with his last bit of energy, breathed fire down her throat.
The absolute surprise on the matriarch’s face was all the answer he needed of his success; in that moment of confused panic she’d inhaled, breathing fire into her lungs. Even in true form, the body was the body, and was still susceptible to damage in the right places.
Her lungs collapsed and burst open, flooding her internal organs with his breath attack. A flash of light blinded him.
His hemisphere of flame winked out, and Ryū stood in the burning heat of the sun, the dying matriarch in his arms. She was corporeal again; a dark-skinned elven caricature, though her small, rounded frame, cherubic face, and short cropped hair made her appear almost Human.
And now she seemed very small indeed, her eyes wide and unseeing. She was trying to whisper something, and he leaned in close to listen.
“He called me back for a purpose...” she breathed, the inside of her mouth dry and burned black, “So why let me die now?”
Knowing who she was referring to, Ryū answered simply, “The Dread Hammer is chaos, as much as he is darkness. Perhaps his only purpose is purposelessness, his only reasoning a whim. I am sorry.”
“Oh...” was all she could reply, going limp. He held her gently as the awareness faded from her eyes.
Though he detested her kind, at that moment Ryū felt a peculiar sympathy to her last moments of despair and uncertainty. Barely able to stand, he set her down, then collapsed himself, burning away in the light of the sun. He couldn’t get back up...
As the matriarch expired, a strange power filled him. Koukatsuna had described an event in the death of Uejini where his swiftness and agility had been increased, as if via absorption of the matriarch’s power. Vala had likewise alluded to have gained something in that moment.
This influx of energy offered Ryū, on the other hand, no strength to rise, nor a new ability in which to save himself. It was...knowledge, or, more accurately, intuition. Fragments of thought drifted across his pain-wracked mind, hinting at a profound secret, a profound possibility.
It was no boon...
As understanding dawned, he cried out, seeing a glimpse of his own destiny, his ultimate fate. He screamed denials as he suffered in the sunlight, seeing at long last the confirmation of his greatest fear...
The stone hovered silently, the first stage of its enchantment concluded. Its center, once the same clear, prismatic, colorless material as the rest of the gem, was now an almost powdery core of rosy pink, glittering like the thousand speckles of an opal. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Arteth, beside himself, almost reached out to touch the stone.
The core flared pink, and the resulting electric currents were of that very same color. A sphere of translucent energy birthed and expanded outward from that emanation and encircled the gem, then flowed further outward.
They each took a step back, for when the sphere touched the blankets, sarashi, and what was left of Kaileena’s body, it obliterated them.
Kaileena’s ashes swirled out in a hail, buffeting each of the horrified onlookers. Arteth tried to brush them away, failed, and fell to his knees instead. Mikoto’s surface thoughts rang true. It was indeed too much.
“Kaileena...” he moaned, reaching out a single claw towards her, or what remained of her. Upon contact with the energies of the stone his finger dissolved away from the knuckle onward, but he barely noticed. Inside of the sphere, the stone again pulsed with light, though he could see now that it was muffled by some sort of substance coating it.
As he watched, transfixed, the material expanded, white and blurry yet filled with its own light, before rupturing like a waterskin, pouring out in all directions.
“Life energy.” he gasped, knowing the essential species of such magickal emanations, “Pure Fifth Element; the primal stuff of all living things.”
It formed the rough outline of a pupate, then contracted, sinking into itself, coalescing, concentrating...into what was definitely a fetus.
“The Stone succeeded in its purpose; it preserved her soul.” he said in a choked voice, only dimly aware of the others, “Now it creates a new body for itself to inhabit.”
The Phoenix Stone, roughly the dimensions of a human fist, embedded itself in the chest of the fetus, between the lungs and under the heart, which gave way to accommodate it. Unlike Yokai, who had removed a part of his sternum, the stone would inhabit a soft area inside the ribcage, sealed in by a layer of tissue.
The fetus expanded, aged through years of development in mere moments. Now, suspended in the sphere, was a fully grown Silkrit, Kaileena reborn. She appeared exactly as she had before, but without the drawn eyes, the bruises and cuts, and the weary, resigned expression.
Her lithe, naked body verily thrummed with power, the Phoenix Stone pulsating inside her chest. As those pulses grew fainter, she opened her eyes. He gasped. Those eyes were the same color as before; a soft violet, but they burned with their own inner light.
She looked to them, but he felt she was actually looking through them, beyond them. In her rapturous expression, he saw something...something more than mortal. She was no larger than before, a wispy hundred and ten or so pounds with tail and all, and yet she seemed to take up more space; she seemed heavier, more dense, more present.
He couldn’t explain the sensation, but he was poignantly aware of a detailing of the awe and terror a mortal had experienced when looking upon Surthath’s pure essence in the few moments before his mind had burned to dust.
She reached out, weakly, and touched the edges of her energy barrier. The sphere, more a bubble, popped, and she fell to the floor with a grunt. Arteth reach down and seized her, panicked.
“Kaileena...” he whispered, and all of the vitality drained from her face, replaced by dim confusion. She tried to look at him, but failed, going limp in his arms.