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

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Chapter 15

Mikoto appeared in a lesser-traveled street in the noble district of Shimobashira, flanked by dozens of his golems; all of those in service actually, minus the twenty still protecting Yokai’s prison.

Smoke, cordite, and blood scented the air, and the skies were a chalky, oppressive gloom, framed with tendrils of rising smoke and back-lit by the blinding flashes of cannon fire.

The streets, paved dirt and gravel, were roughly a stone throw wide, with buildings on either side. The windows and doors were boarded up, and many of the rooftops were aflame or collapsed.

“Seek out fleeing citizens and funnel them into the noble district. Do what you can to reduce casualties, but don’t hesitate to engage.” he ordered, and they proceeded instantly to their task.

Looking overhead, he clearly marked Dekeshi’s fleet...intertwined in great circling paths with airships propelled by what looked like massive balloons.

“Kiromichi, you damned lunatic...” Mikoto gaped, “I almost forgive you for your gross mistreatment of the West District for this sight. Almost.

Via his seal, linked to those carried by Kaileena and the Four Lords, he knew Lord Tetsyyubo was atop the walls leading into the noble district. Lord Takauji was also nearby, somewhere in the air, and Minamoto was out in the field.

It was refreshing to see his underlings joining common cause, knowing they detested each other...

Teleporting to Tetsyyubo’s location, Mikoto found himself amid a torrent of scrambling bodies. The gates of the noble district, thirty paces high and twice that wide, had been broken, demolished by cannon fire.

Elbowing his way out of the press, he saw the Lord of the North District as he pressed a line of advancing Koriko. As he lifted his sword, a ripple went out across the advancing line, and suddenly, the vampyre-slaves skittered away, wincing as if struck.

Lord Tetsyyubo charged into their wake, unmindful of their number. Before his accompanying warriors could so much as move, he killed over a dozen.

Kiromichi would have ripped them to shreds with sheer, brute strength, Minamoto would have swiftly attacked weak points, surgically dispatching his foes with absolute precision, and Takauji would have riddled them with bullets and shrapnel in the flashiest manner possible.

But Tetsyyubo...his technique was horrifying; all he would do was bypass their defenses, no difficult task with them fleeing outright, and carve a small incision in their bodies. As he did so, his victims (for victims they were) cringed, shivered, and then dropped dead, as if his blade had instantly shut down their bodies or stopped their hearts.

A dozen more perished in the next moments, and even his own soldiers backed away, uncertain. It was a chilling display; to strip a foe of courage then kill them outright, with no possible defense...

At that moment Mikoto sorely regretted allowing the man to ascend to lordship, for such a man who could so easily terminate life couldn’t possibly bear any respect for its inherent sanctity.

Shrugging away his misgivings, Mikoto roared his battle cry, and charged into the fray beside him. A nimbus of blue light enveloped his body; an impenetrable barrier that also fortified and rejuvenated those around him. A resounding cry issued across the field at his arrival, and soldiers; men and women both, attacked with renewed vigor.

He crossed several paces in the space of one and ran a Koriko through, drew back, and sliced its throat. An Orc rushed him, but a rifleman (riflewoman, he noticed, as he offered thanks) shot it through the eye. Pushing forward with the corpse as a battering ram, Mikoto tripped up a pair of Koriko as they recovered from Tetsyyubo’s enchantment. They struck his barrier, and their arms boiled away from the elbows, and with grim efficiency he dispatched them...

Using the trenches (cleared of bodies, thankfully) as firing positions, the rifle-bearers and archers bombarded the vampyre army, still half a bowshot thick.

Taking care not to approach the inexplicably repaired chain-gun defenses, Koukatsuna, along with Minamoto and those without sufficient ammunition, guarded the sides of those trenches against retaliation.

Unsurprisingly, the vampyres, unwilling to be shot at around the breeched wall of Shimobashira, decided to seek out easier prey, and hundreds had separated from the main force still filtering into the city.

He dealt more and more original manner of wounds to discourage them; ruptured kidneys, shredded groins, lacerated underarms, but they just kept coming unless he landed a blow to the throat or heart.

Snarling with impotent frustration, he knocked an Orc’s defenses out wide, came in close, and double-thrust into its underbelly. Shielding himself with the expiring vampyre, Koukatsuna used a bit of uncanny flexibility kick off of it, freeing his swords all the while, and came down through the clavicles of the vampyre behind it.

He paid for that when a Koriko chose that precise moment to bowl into him, cracking his head between its chest and the frozen ground when they landed. At least he felt his blades plunge into its body.

Dazed, Koukatsuna pulled them free and lashed out, only to have his swords ring out against fine steel; Minamoto’s katana. Groaning an apology, he let the Lord of the Central District pull him back on his feet and back to the trench.

Ryū stood in the open outside the ruin, surrounded by the sun’s light. Aika watched him, amazed, but Jhihro seemed more intrigued,

“ do you feel?” to which he shrugged, “Like I’m burning alive, but without the actual burning.”

He felt pulses of painful, searing heat within him, but they didn’t seem to come from the sun. It came from within.

“This is...wonderful.” Aika said, delighted, “You have reclaimed your place in the sun. Welcome back, my lord.”

“I am no lord.” Ryū said flatly, “And it’s not a good thing; I do not feel its warmth. I cannot take its light into myself, not truly. I am as far removed from it as I was in the shadows.”

Aika deflated, but he smiled at her with a tenderness he hadn’t felt in a long time, “But I still desire its warmth, as I always have. Unlike the Skraul I remember and long to truly walk in the light again.”

Aika nodded, “Well enough. It’s a long walk back to Karyu. We should begin at once.”

“Speak for yourself.” a Karyudo Kisai agent noted, “The task is complete. We will return to Commander Itaku for further instruction.”

“Very well.” Aika told her, “You have proven to be valuable allies.”

The Human nodded, managing a half-smile, and turned away, organizing the expedition home. Ryū might have suggested stopping in Shimobashira, but decided he was the only one able to pass through the horde surrounding the city’s walls, and thus, the only one able to meet up with the defenders.

He would go alone. It was a fitting metaphor for his life at this point.

Minamoto set down the Silkrit, appraising his injuries.

His right eye was swollen halfway shut, red from a burst blood vessel. The force of the impact had also caused a heavy concussion. Two ribs were fractured, and the right ankle was broken. He wasn’t getting up for a while...

“Stay here.” Minamoto ordered, and when the proud fool tried to gurgle out an expletive in response, he hushed him, “As your lord, I order you to stand down.”

The matter settled, Minamoto turned away, studying the field...

Kiromichi felt the telltale distortion in the air that accompanied teleportation.

Drawing his nameless blade, the Lord of the West District find a pair of Kamiyonanayo women. One was garbed in red robes and golden armor, the other, in a slim black gown that made him forget that she was immortal, powerful, and of a different species than himself.

The other one inclined her head, amused, as if reading his reaction, “We can help with the battle. How fares it?”

She slipped on her clothing and enchanted items. Instead of her jacket she donned a finely stitched brown cloak with a thick trim. Transferring some of the energies of the Phoenix stone into her armaments, she exhaled at its loss.

As prepared as she could be, she motioned for Arteth to begin. Sighing, he teleported them to the courtyard, to Yokai’s prison. A dozen golems stood guard, and, perhaps sensing her intentions, approached her threateningly.

With a flick of the wrist she sent them hurtling over the edge of the courtyard walls. Twenty of so soldiers were stationed within eyeshot and charged her. Weaving her ward spell, a field of rippling energy encircled them and the prison, stopping them in their tracks.

“Mikoto will consider this an act of treason.” Arteth noted dryly, and she nodded, “So be it. I understand the difference between what is lawful and what is just.”

“Kazeatari Serpent...” a soldier yelled threateningly, “Whatever you’re doing, stop it at once. The rebel must not be freed.”

As she tampered with the iron hinges sealing the coffin, a series of magickal wards, Mikoto’s work no doubt, sprang into being and bombarded her with searing heat, acid, and raw energy. Not a bit of it actually reached her; what once might have been formidable seemed trifling now.

“Stop her!” a guard cursed, “Stop the traitor.”

Kaileena obliterated the defenses with ease, including one that would’ve killed its occupant, splitting the hinges and opening the coffin. Inside was a sack cloth wrap in the outline of a body, with two small tubes sticking out the nostrils. A series of belts secured it, which she also removed with telekinesis.

Drawing the bag open, Yokai tumbled out, bruised, sweating, and mercifully unconscious. Grunting, Arteth slung him over the shoulder, and carried the trio back to their tower with another teleportation spell.

Ryū looked east, to Shimobashira, little more than a dark splotch in the distance.

Iki-o-Korosu keened with desire to join the fray, as did Hyosho and Kaminari, despite the deep pitted texture of their damaged blades, having been corroded by the rays of the sun.

Aika prepared to move south with the rest of the Te Fukushu hunting party, but he stopped her, more than tired of weapons and battle.

“I would speak to you in private...” he explained, “...back in Karyu. But I would hate myself if I perished in the next battle before being able to say what I must.”

She nodded, so he considered his words for a moment.

“It’s more than a walk in the sunlight I desire...” Ryū explained, for once at a loss for words, “A bard should know the words of his heart. Perhaps what I truly seek is what I lost within myself, buried beneath the anger and shame of my rebirth. A melody, I think, that I would like to find beside you...if you would have me.”

She shivered, whether in unease or hopeful anticipation he knew not, though he hoped for the latter, “I would very much enjoy that, Ryū.”

Squeezing her hands, he nodded, “Wait for me then, and I will come.”

Her family watched her and Arteth. Kaileena watched equally diligently over her guest.

He’d spent a long time in that...thing, and it showed. From what she understood they hadn’t fed him and only provided water every two days. Yokai suffered from intense heat sickness, second degree burns, and severe malnutrition and dehydration. His tongue was swollen almost beyond the point of being able to breathe, and deep, dark circles hung under his eyelids. Bruises covered him from head to toe.

Restraints or not, in his wild thrashing he must have connected quite a few solid blows with the iron encasing him. The deep cuts around the black gem lodged in his chest told her the Hitorigami’s surgeons had tried to remove it on several occasions and failed. That, or they’d tortured him by pretending to...

“Nobody deserves this.” Kaileena hissed, patting his forehead with a damp cloth, “This is just deplorable.”

Gatsuyu nodded. Arteth did as well, albeit grudgingly, “If his mind is intact, he will still seek to rule this land. How do you plan to deal with him?”

Kaileena frowned, “Oh...I think I know just what to do.”

Yokai groaned, stabilizing, and when he was coherent enough she offered him water via a soaked cloth. It was unwise to allow those nearly dying of thirst to drink too quickly, and that technique kept the intake to a few trickles at most.

Coughing, Yokai opened his eyes, squinting. He tried to speak, but she hushed him, “You’re in the lower level of my tower. Soldiers might attempt to invade this place, but they cannot breach my wards. Not anymore. You are safe.”

Nodding unsteadily, Yokai held out his arms, requesting to be helped to a seated position. Shrugging, Kaileena nodded to Gatsuyu and Arteth, who propped him up. He touched the gem in his chest, as if to reassure himself it was there, “Tengu? Can you hear me? Tengu?”

There was a pause, then his face lit up in boyish delight, “Good, then. Your mind is still well, though you, as I, have spent too much time in darkness.”

His gaze shifted back to her, “ long was I imprisoned?”

She considered that for a time, then, “A week, give or take. Probably less; my own track of time has been skewed as of late.”

He met her gaze directly, blanched, “Those eyes...have you cured yourself?”

“I have.” Kaileena replied, and Yokai nodded, smiling, “Good. I would like that we remain in this world, both of us. I need a rival.”

“You delude yourself.” Kaileena interjected, “By assuming that you are in the same league as myself.”

Yokai’s smile vanished, and Kaileena continued, “I will brook no threat to this land from you. Before you leave this tower I would impose a series of oaths upon you.”

Scowling, Yokai crossed his arms, eyeing Arteth, “It seems you have me at a disadvantage. Go on.”

“You will cease any and all attempts to subjugate Teikoku.” she began, “You will also swear to lead your rebellion against the Skraul and the mortal servants of the Dread Hammer, and no others lest I give you leave to. Upon the conclusion of this war, regardless of the victor, you will disband your revolution.”

“You dare to make such demands...” Yokai snarled, still trembling with shock, “I am-”

“Shut up.” Kaileena snapped, stopping him dead, “I will ensure the release of the Renmei Kisai, and that Lord Tetsyyubo answers for the brutal, unforgivable treatment of his citizens. I will check Kiromichi’s alliance with the pirates. I now have the power to do so, regardless of what the Hitorigami demands.”

“You will be labeled a rebel yourself...” Yokai protested, “A traitor, just like me. Why would you do this?”

Kaileena considered her response for a moment, then replied, “We decide what is important to us. I will give those who lack it freedom, and those who have been denied it justice. And I’m nothing like you, Yokai.”

He considered this, then smiled, “Do tell.”

Kaileena’s frown deepened, “You want to become a god, or so you think. What you really want is to be free, as I did. But in attempting to become free you enslaved yourself to your baser nature, elevating yourself above your people. You think to make yourself more, but as you strive for it you alienate yourself from those around you, and become the weaker because of it. Because of this, Yokai, you will never become a god, and you will never be free.”

Yokai paled, wavered just a bit more.

“I tell you this not because I hate you or wish you harm, Yokai...” Kaileena said softly, knowing the words that would shatter his illusions and hating herself for using them, “I tell you because I pity you. I pity you for what you’ve become, and what you could’ve become. I weep for the boy, the orphan enslaved to the Renmei Kisai, hating all the world, and himself most of all.”

He shivered, eyes glistening with unspent grief, “And what of you, Kaileena? You seem a bit more than mortal yourself...have you not elevated yourself?”

She shook her head, “I am still Kaileena, of Kazeatari. I am still the daughter of Shinabi and Lenao and Uchiki and Hana, and brother to Gatsuyu, and sister-in-law to Nagomi. I am betrothed to Arteth, whom I love, and a servant to this land, which despite its faults I consider worth fighting for. All that my transformation has wrought is my continued existence, not a desire for deification. If I’d been able to choose, I would have declined the powers I now wield, and offered them to another, wiser being.”

Speechless, Yokai slumped over, and Kaileena rested her hand on his, “I am sorry that I have said these things, Yokai, but I mean them.”

Nodding, he sighed, defeated, “You have my oath. I agree to your terms. When will you take me to my allies?”

“When you have rested and recovered somewhat. And...after Arteth and I help restore Tengu.”

Shocked, Arteth formed a caustic retort, and she silenced him with a look.

“I know what it is to have someone you love suffer in a prison more confining than any cell.” she continued, “I would not allow a soul, any soul, to experience such a horror.”

Yokai tightened his grip on her, though he no longer met her eyes, “I still think I’m glad you survived.”

Smiling, Kaileena could think of nothing to say besides, “Yeah. Me too.”

Ryū drove Hyosho and Kaminari into his chest, unlocking his true form. Iki-o-Korosu transformed as well, and became like a pillar of fire in his hand.

He took to the sky, forming his own thermal currents and updrafts. Power, raw elemental fury, churned in his breast, and Ryū screamed his rage and defiance and ecstasy.

Kiromichi’s fleet dueled with the Skraul fleet in winding circles, peppering each other with munitions. Both Human and vampyre ships succumbed to the abuse, and, breaking apart, fell from the sky to crash into the battlefield below.

A pair of winged Kamiyonanayo harried the enemy with spells, and he joined them, readying his own attack by focusing his newfound power. They gasped at his approach, and swerved to afford him room.

Dip a hand into the tides of fate...” he hissed, raising his trident, “...collapse the heavens and rain death from the skies.”

A peal of thunder answered his call, and the skies burned red. Pinpricks of painful light dotted the horizon, growing larger by the moment. The vampyres cowered, horrified, as droplets of searing pitch rained from the heavens, scalding their flesh.

He localized the rain of fire to the vampyre ships, and, waving his trident to and fro, forced the downpour to follow them as the few sensible ones sought to alter their courses. Kiromichi’s men responded without hesitation, taking that moment to focus one such vessel and punch four holes into its hull. The mainmast cracked, then sank as the ship split in half, sending purebloods and Koriko plummeting to their deaths.

Far from finished, Ryū took his trident in two hands and rushed a vampyre ship. He swung it down in a helm-cleaving strike more suited to a poleaxe, and a representation of Iki-o-Korosu’s three-pronged head appeared before him. Large enough to reach from one side of the vessel to the other, it cleaved the ship right down the middle, searing through wood and darksteel without giving way in the slightest, then disappeared.

Fanning the undersides of his fiery wings, Ryū banked about and flung his weapon into the next ship, which blew a hole in its hull then spun like a boomerang back to him. He drew it into himself, causing it to vanish from sight, and drew his wakizashi.

As the ship descended, spinning in a nose dive, he charged into the panicked and half-upended deckhands, weaving Hyosho and Kaminari’s true forms in a blurring display of absolute ruthless precision, hamstringing and splitting the carapace of a Koriko as he decapitated it, somersaulting, landing on the shoulders of a pureblood, snapping its neck, flinging it into its fellows, then blasting them all with a gout of flames.

Carving twin gashes into the chest of another pureblood, melting her mail coat to her flesh, Ryū crosscut her, severing her head, caught it in midair, and flung it to splatter on the chest of a Koriko, impacting its exoskeleton. With a double-thrust he pierced its sternum, and filled its body with superheated embers. Its exoskeleton blackened from the heat, and smoke issued from its mouth, mandibles curling in a deathly rictus.

As Ryū leaped off the ship, leaving the rest to their dreadful fates, he was ashamed to notice he was smiling...

Kaileena prepared to attend the battle, Arteth and Yokai beside her, the latter insisting that he come after being fortified with magicka.

“Be careful, sister.” Gatsuyu cautioned, taking her hand, “After...well, after what happened, I couldn’t bear to have something happen to you now.”

Kaileena nodded, “Nothing will, brother. I promise.”

With a disorienting lurch of magickal transport, they stood upon a large tower in the center of Shimobashira. The poor quarter was overrun. A few peasants scattered under an onslaught.

“Arteth...” she said, stricken, “Help them escape to the noble quarter.”

Nodding, Arteth took wing and descended into the chaos. She looked to Yokai, “What’s your disposition on aiding Minamoto out there?” to which he smiled, “If nothing else the look of surprise on his face will be nothing short of priceless.”

Adding a grin of her own, Kaileena observed the field more carefully; The Human defenders made their stand at the western entrance of the noble district.

Focusing her eyesight to unnatural levels of acuity, she clearly made out Minamoto and others waging a second battle outside the city, harassing the vampyre hordes near and within a series of trenches.

“We’ll go there first, then. Then to Mikoto.” she decided, “Minamoto is the most heavily opposed, and if successful he will prevent reinforcements from bolstering the push on the noble district.”

Yokai flexed his draconic claws, and prepared to use a second little trick he’d picked up but hadn’t had the chance to try out.

Why do you allow yourself to be ordered about by this girl-child...?” Tengu protested telepathically, and Yokai considered that for a moment.

There is no reason not to fight now.” he decided, “My cause is done for, or at least my rebellion will continue without my input. When the Renmei Kisai are free and Lord Tetsyyubo is removed from lordship or killed, they will likely submit to Kaileena’s leadership. And that will be the end of it.

But what of your wish to rule?!” she gasped, appalled.

I think she was right about me...” Yokai said, more quietly, “I would not be right to rule...but she didn’t make me swear not to become a god. That’s still a worthy aspiration, right?

Tengu was silent at that, and he grew concerned. Would she be content with his decision?

No matter, for in a flash of instantaneous transport they were in a series of trenches. Snarling, Yokai lunged at the nearest vampyre; an Orc. The beast snarled in reply, and met his charge.

But he was no novice brawler; with a series of precise jabs and palm strikes he deftly redirected its weapon in flight, and it speared another vampyre instead. Raking its throat with his claws, he maneuvered around and snapped the neck of the other before proceeding.

Humans darted out of the way, and he sprinted, leaped, and double-kicked a charging Koriko in the side of the head, turning its run into a tumble.

Bellowing his battle cry, Yokai doubled over as a pair of scaled ridges burst from his back. His rebirth had blurred the line between Man and Dragon, and he was about to blur that line further.

The ridges split outward, a thin coating of membrane connecting it, and a wing outstretched, slowly, painfully, joined by a second. His forehead split, sending rivulets of blood down into his eyes, and wiping them away, he admired through touch the pair of curled horns atop his brow.

Smiling, his fangs pierced his lips. He didn’t care.

Turning to face the next advancing line of vampyres, he breathed in deeply...

Minamoto engaged another foe; a monstrous Koriko. With a short burst of unnatural speed he sliced off the front right leg, and, as the beast lowered itself, severed its head. A pair of Orcs harried him, but were pressed away by...

“Totoanatsukami preserve us...” he breathed, as the night lit up, and a wave of burning liquid drenched a large group of vampyres. Confused, the Lord of the Central District squinted through the distance. What new enemy, or ally, was responsible?

There, taking wing was...Yokai?! He swooped down on a pair of scaled wings, and breathed death onto the enemy. Vampyres cried out, burned, and died, burned to husks in moments.

A second person, enclosed in a sphere of transparent energy, levitated across the field, leaving clusters of floating motes in their wake. From those motes emerged serpentine forms and weapons of light. No matter...for the moment he had reinforcements and that was enough.

“Regroup!” he shouted above the din of combat, “Regroup and prepare to advance! Send these fiends back to the hells that spawned them!”

The enemy flagship was destroyed. The internal command of the vampyres was crumbling. Their fleet was rallying only with the efforts of a secondary vessel.

Kiromichi ordered his ship to ramming speed. His own flagship was unique among the larger breed in his fleet. Shaped like a caravel, it was also equipped with a trireme-shaped front, almost like the prong of an anvil turned upside-down. It was a gunship, but, thanks to this unique design it was also a ramming and boarding vessel.

The rear exhaust plumes flared as additional combustibles were fed to the steam engine, rocketing the ship forward.

Its tip aimed right between a pair of left-facing wings, Kiromichi’s flagship accelerated to dangerous speeds, forcing itself inside the enemy ship’s range of direction. It tried to alter course, the right pair of wings almost completely stopping, allowing it to descend and break left under his ship.

Kiromichi would have none of it.

Summoning up a large portion of the accumulated energies in his shield-summoning orb, the Lord of the West District brought a flat slab of solid energy in the path of the Skraul ship’s course, forcing it to adjust its path again; upward facing and almost at a diagonal.

“Take it right in the nose!” Kiromichi ordered, and with one last burst of fuel his airship slammed right into the bottom lip of the Skraul ship.

The vessel buckled under the impact, and, as Kiromichi gasped with delight, upended, sending its crew flying right off the deck. Whoever had been managing the tiller must have gone with them, as the ship didn’t recover, plunging downward in a tailspin. His crew cheered with abandon, and Kiromichi allowed himself a smile. The barrier he’d created, roughly a stone’s throw from end to end, dissipated.

Smiling at the delicious cunning of his gambit, he ordered the artillery to bombard the remaining vessels, all the while passing word along that all of his smaller airships were to descend down for a bombing run. It was time to deal with the vampyres infesting the poor district...

“Shit.” Arteth cursed as he circled high, watching the Human commander make the right tactical choice and send his smaller, fleeter craft to attack the ground forces.

Tactically sound, it would nonetheless make his task of herding the terrified Human peasants into the noble district more difficult...

Redoubling his illusionary duplicates and increasing their energy upkeep, he changed tactics. Channeling Verlangen’s subtle illusions to affect the Human villagers, he charmed them into following the fastest course that would lead to a less defended, and less actively besieged, gate. His duplicates soared around the surging mass of vampyre slaves, goading them down side streets and dead ends whenever he saw any Humans, usually in pairs or small groups, trickle out of seemingly abandoned buildings and run unerringly down the paths he prepared for them.

Divvying up his concentration as only a Djinn of Surthath could, he maintained each of his active spells; the field of suggestive impulses, the duplicates, a field of invisibility and intangibility about his person, sensory fortifications that allowed him to see through the choking clouds of smoke and conjured darkness, and lastly, a contingency that would warn him if Kaileena was in mortal danger.

The smaller airships, thankfully, attacked the region around the broken wall of the city. Instead of long barreled artillery, they appeared to be lowering lengths of chain down along the battlements, upon which small groups of humans shimmied down.

“The chain guns...” he observed, noting the multi-barreled turrets placed at key areas, “They intend to haul them onboard.”

Lifting each with telekinesis, he affixed them to the ends of those chains, allowing the Humans to quickly raise them to the decks without having to manually transfer them.

After a few tense moments of leading dozens of Humans to safety, the ships descended further. The vampyre slaves, reduced but still daunting, crawled up the walls, perhaps to leap onto the airship decks.

“Idiots.” he cursed, readying his next spell, only to be stopped as a scream echoed up from a side street. Snarling, he redirected his duplicates to aid the airship, then descended down, leveling off to a rooftop.

He saw a young Human female leading a small cadre of grey-haired, frail Humans. It was strange, seeing the debilitating effects of time that so affected mortals...

He grimaced as he saw half a dozen Koriko, mandibles drooling, round a bend and close in. Wings folded, the Djinn leaped down, ramming his blade points-down into the lead vampyre. His field of invisibility and intangibility dispelled with the first strike, revealing him for all to see.

As the other Koriko, (and, for a moment, the one he’d skewered) tried to rush him, Arteth enveloped his body with an aura of flame, all the while empowering his weapon to pierce the toughest armor with ease. The fangs of Verlangen white-hot, he slashed the wounded Koriko across the throat, beheading it. The neck stump, cauterized shut, didn’t bleed.

Slamming its body into its fellows, he jabbed forward with his wing talons, piercing the black orbs of a second, all the while parrying a clumsy but enthusiastic strike from the bladed arm of another. His aura of flame darkened their hard chitin exoskeletons, but the undead slaves were oblivious to pain.

His blade lopped the limb off with the vampyre’s momentum alone, allowing him to instantly reform a passable stance, take Verlangen in a two-handed grip, and deal a cleaving strike to its torso, bisecting a lung.

The third Koriko, perhaps humbled, attempted to circuit around him, to the Humans still gaping at the end of the street, their shock overriding his illusions. Snarling, his wings unfolded, Arteth sped his pursuit with a quick burst of flight. Transferring his aura to the other two and inverting it, he left them to burn, running the Koriko through the back.

Bleeding raw arcane energy into the wound, the Koriko collapsed into itself as he teleported its spine and half of its internal organs to another part of the street.

Panting, Arteth glanced back at the other two half-breeds, only to witness the last of their death throes as they burned to ash. Looking back to the Humans, he tried to reinforce his existing illusions. It failed, they were far too alert, too focused.

Sheathing Verlangen, the Djinn folded his wings about him like a cloak, and tried his best to look nonchalant. No easy task; they couldn’t hear Kiromichi’s airships beginning their strafing run, but his sensitive ears, even half-deafened, could.

“Go to the noble district.” he commanded, remembering the tone of haughty authority he’d developed as Surthath’s Firstborn, “Move quickly. There are others I must protect.”

The young female rallied at that, trying to lead the others away, “Bless you, Lord Kamiyonanayo.”

Stricken, Arteth didn’t reply. It had been a long, long time since a mortal had blessed the likes of him. It was all he could do to leave with his dignity intact...

The enemy went to Yokai first, then, noticing her, veered her way, assuming a more easy target. Kaileena deprived them of that illusion...

Conjuring dozens upon dozens of Turgon, she rearranged the complexities of her conjuration enchantment, affixed it to a palm sapphire, and rent the Veil a second time.

A pair of Hydra emerged; one of Tu’Narcuteth’s insane, semi-sentient Djinn species, manifesting as a fat, reptilian body sprouting seventeen long, snaking heads. The beasts roared with glee and charged into the fray.

The summoning gate widened further, and also allowed passage of a trio of Gryphon; lion bodied, feather-winged quadrupeds with heads like that of an eagle, as well as a Manticore; a bat-winged lion with the tail of a scorpion.

Hardly finished, Kaileena poured one last ounce of strength into the portal, widening it further. The insane beasts she’d conjured scrambled out of the way to admit a monstrous Basilisk, a champion of the Totoanatsukami of Madness. Its bulk could have carried it well over the walls of Shimobashira. Its tail could flatten entire lines of soldiers.

With a heavy heart, she set it loose upon the vampyres, and the feather-winged serpent opened its wide, gaping maw, hissed its pleasure, and immediately constricted around a Koriko, squeezing its black blood and organs through its mouth.

Sickened, Kaileena levitated higher, and waited for the nightmare to end...

Kiromichi laughed as the enemy fleet adjusted course, breaking away from the circling strafe. He’d lost half his own fleet in the exchange, but he was hardly about to slink away in such a disgraceful manner... There was no retreat in a battle like this.

“Run them down! Every last one!” he roared gleefully, “I want this field scrubbed clean or it will be your heads!”

Kiromichi reports success against the Skraul fleet...” Mikoto relayed to Lord Tetsyyubo, fending off a spear thrust from an Orc, “They are in complete disarray. We need only deal with their ground forces.”

Indeed, even crammed as they were into the entrance of the noble district, the Hitorigami could see black ships descend from overhead, their mainmasts broken and aflame, their hulls ruptured and leaking shadows.

What we have may not suffice, Hitorigami...” the Lord of the North replied, “The slaves do not feel fear. The Skraul will expend them to the last to deal even the slightest damage here; there will be no victory until we’ve utterly slaughtered them.”

Nodding grimly, Mikoto reinforced their soldiers with minor wards that would absorb weapon strikes, all the while fortifying them with raw Fifth Element to reduce wound-shock and strengthen tired limbs. He didn’t have enough power left for true healing, as ashamed as he was to admit it.

The day led fully into night, but not before a quarter-hour period in which the conjured sheet of darkness in the sky had eroded, leaving the vampyre hordes almost fully exposed to the sun.

They used that time to inflict grievous harm to their forces, but, mindless, slavering beasts they were, didn’t balk.

Tetsyyubo’s line nearly broke from the strain, nearly lost heart and became overwhelmed. With the last of his enchantments, Mikoto strengthened their resolve with illusions. That cost hundreds of those remaining lives, and he hated himself for it, but the line held.

Over the course of the night in Shimobashira’s frozen hell, the Hitorigami caught glimpses of winged Kamiyonanayo, a figure enshrouded by flames; Ryū in his unleashed true form, no doubt, as well as a rainfall of tracer rounds as Kiromichi’s men finished the Skraul fleet and turned their full attention to the infestation in the poor district. He sorely hoped at least a few of his people made it out of those areas alive.

Minamoto reported in, declaring his stand in the trenches outside of Shimobashira a success. He would soon attack the horde from the wall. Mikoto snarled as he learned the identity of his rescuers; Kaileena...and Yokai.

Her betrayal was laid bare to him, as was his foolishness in leaving her unguarded, quite alive, and possessed of unknown but obvious power. There would be much to say after this battle...

Nightfall ran its course and still there was no end in sight. But then dawn lightened the battlefield, breaking through the foul enchantments of the enemy, lifting the hearts of Shimobashira’s defenders and striking terror into the vampyres. They could ignore debilitating injuries, the roaring gunfire, but...against the primal fear of the sun, their resolve finally broke.

Tetsyyubo’s soldiers pushed them out of the entrance to the noble district, then out of the city. Kaileena, beside Yokai, Minamoto, the soldiers of Fusestu, and her summoned menagerie met them as they tried to flee through the wall.

Harried from the rear, the front, and up above, the undead were driven to new heights of savagery. But they held their stand. The vampyre army broke upon their line, and were slaughtered to the last.

The field was covered in blood and ash. Only the Human dead remained as they were, hundreds of eyes that seemed to bore into her, would haunt her for the rest of her days.

Weary, Kaileena released her remaining summons and wards. It was all she could do to remain upright. Yokai joined her as she surveyed the field.

“Effective.” he said approvingly.

“Monstrous.” she replied in a broken tone, “So many dead...and not just ours. Every vampyre slave used to be a sentient being, like us, but were twisted and broken to serve as a pawn for the Dread Hammer. I hate him for this...”

She sighed, “So I have learned to hate. Let us find Mikoto and the others. Arteth tells me they gather in the noble district.”

“Sure it might not be easier to raise Tengu and send me on my way?” he asked, “Perhaps the Hitorigami is not aware of your duplicity.”

“Minamoto saw you.” she replied, “His sense of duty is almost sickening. No, Mikoto will know.”

Shrugging, Yokai took her hand, “I still don’t understand why you did what you did, but I am nonetheless grateful.”

Nodding, Kaileena levitated up and over the wall, Yokai spreading his newfound wings and following her.

Kaileena and Yokai were among the first to arrive, but he let the issue wait until all were present. Each of his four lords, the three Kamiyonanayo; one male, two female, and Ryū filtered in next. Mikoto nodded at a silver-skinned Silkrit, Koukatsuna, as he limped in, his body riddled with wounds.

Scowling at Kaileena, the Hitorigami cleared his throat, “Now then...there are a great many matters that must be attended. First, Kamiyonanayo, I would address you, alongside Ryū.”

Nodding, the two female Kamiyonanayo approached him, and he bowed, “I know not your names and I would rectify that. Regardless, we owe you a great debt for your heroic deeds this day.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” retorted the larger one, garbed in red and gold, “Dekeshi is dead, thanks to us and Elurra. The secret weapon that Dur’Artoth coveted is now useless to him. And, since you neglected to actually ask, my name is Illuthien. This is my handmaiden, Farcia.”

At a loss for words, for he was quite unused to such an imperious tone, Mikoto nodded, “Indeed, then. Illuthien, Farcia, you have my thanks, and that of my people.”

“No problem.” the Kamiyonanayo replied, “It was about time someone properly displayed the talents of one of Surthath’s children!”

Obviously directed at Arteth, he scoffed, “Surely you jest, sister. Surthath is hardly so caustic or clumsy.”

The female snarled, her runes blazing red. But in an instant her demeanor shifted from enraged to amused, “Test me again, fool, and you will learn the meaning of caustic.

“Arteth...” Mikoto continued, “Ryū...both of you have once again defended my lands at great personal risk. Ryū representative of the Te Fukushu, I thank your organization as well, for I presume the Kamiyonanayo did not face Dekeshi alone?”

Ryū grinned, brandishing a very familiar trident, “Indeed, and be sure to extend thanks to Itaku as well, for deploying Karyudo Kisai to aid us.”

“Kaileena...” he said, eyeing her less than graciously, “Approach me.”

Confident and determined as he’d not seen her in a very long time, she bowed, in a stately and coldly official manner, which upset him even further. It was the confirmation of the end of their friendship...

“This is the decision that you think is right?” he asked, leaving little doubt to his exact meaning. She nodded, “Yes, my Hitorigami.”

“So be it.” he replied coolly, “Your title remains, as do your privileges, and your tower near Kazeatari.”

Visibly surprised, he stopped her before she could say anything, ”Until such a time as I deem fit. If your....decision, proves ill for this land, all of this will be suspended, and I will declare you an enemy of Teikoku. You will be hunted down and prosecuted. Am I understood?”

“Clearly.” Kaileena replied icily, then stepped back. Arteth tilted his head, allowing one clear blue eye to fall upon him, its iris narrowed to a slit.

The Kamiyonanayo left it unsaid, but Mikoto received the message; “Not on my watch.

“Yokai...” the Hitorigami said, trying very hard not to make the name sound like a curse.

Fearless, Yokai approached, his scaled wings folded to resemble a draping cloak. His Draconic transformation had continued apace; his eyes, already an unnatural shade of purple, now glowed almost as brightly as Kaileena’s, and bore a similar reptilian slit.

“I trust...” he said, fingers tapping on Heikiku’s hilt, “That you will not trouble this land again?”

Yokai grinned, “I have but one enemy, and it is the Skraul. After that...I have much greater ambitions than Teikoku.”

“And those are?” Mikoto asked, inclining an eyebrow.

“What god needs to rule over ants?” Yokai asked derisively, “There is no true expression of power in that. I intend to rule all magicka in the Veil, lording over all practitioners and the spells they wield.”

It took every ounce of his willpower to keep his sword sheathed, but Mikoto dared, “You are a deluded, vindictive little wretch.”

“Not at all.” Yokai replied, “Only the strongest survive. Only the most clever influence. Only the most demented rule. To become a god, you must be all three. Thankfully for me, I am bereft of none of these attributes.”

This is a man you believe deserves to be free?” he asked Kaileena, in utter disbelief.

“He deserves to live.” she corrected, “And, so long as he keeps his word, deserves to live free. It is not our place to prevent him from basking in his own poisonous, sickening self-grandeur.”

To this, Yokai said nothing, smirking, and that made him wonder what else had passed between the two.

Sighing, Mikoto looked to his four lords, “Much remains to be done. I will see you first to hear counsel, Lord Tetsyyubo.”

Nodding, the Lord of the North District replied in his odd, neutral voice, “Of course, My Hitorigami. I am at your service.”

Mikoto took two steps forward, preparing to exchange words with his subordinate, when a flash of steel and a dull pain stopped him. Then, he had a most peculiar sense of falling, and gaining a view of his body toppling down after him...

Time froze.

Kaileena watched, in abject disbelief, as Mikoto’s head tumbled to the ground.

“No!” she cried, readying an enchantment. Grief and shock made her slow, however.

Lord Tetsyyubo lifted a finger from the hand that didn’t hold his bloodied black sword, and hissed a word she didn’t understand. At that pronouncement, Lord Takauji gripped his chest, coughed blood, and collapsed, quite dead, and a burst of virulent energies struck them all, causing excruciating pain.

Kaileena lifted her staff, began to cast through it, but Tetsyyubo darted forward, and, with unnatural alacrity, struck through Koukatsuna’s raised defense, then smote Lord Minamoto from left shoulder to right kidney.

Kiromichi had by now fully drawn his sword, but then, there was Tetsyyubo, his black blade thrusting in an impaling strike. It glanced off Kaileena’s telekinetic barrier.

Die!” Tetsyyubo hissed, but Kaileena nullified the lethal spell with an abjuration.

Ryū, Yokai, and the three Kamiyonanayo, bearing through the pain enchantment, rushed the Lord of the North District, who promptly covered himself with a shifting barrier of darkness. None of their attacks reached him.

“Organic conversion...” Illuthien cursed, “You are manifesting in the Faded Veil. Farcia, counter his spell, now.”

“Don’t bother.” Lord Tetsyyubo mocked, his genderless voice sickeningly mirthful, “The Dread Hammer’s power sustains me. You are outmatched.”

Farcia nonetheless pointed her forefinger, channeled her magicka, but frowned, flummoxed. Numb, Kaileena dared a glance at Mikoto, to hope against hope and see if he’d managed a final, life-saving enchantment. His body cooled in the dirt.

“Why?” she hissed, crying, “Why would you do this?!”

Byo’Ku, First among the Matriarchs of the Skraul, tossed aside her helm and her pretense as a ruler of Teikoku. She ran a hand through her bald pate, brushing the metal studs embedded into her brows, each possessing unique enchantments. Her voice, previously modified by enchantment, lightened into her own gruff but feminine tone, “Have you the need to ask?”

The Silkrit gasped, her unusual flowing eyes wide.

Modaeru, her weapon, keened with the royal blood flowing onto it. She decided to offer it more, “Thank you for all gathering here in reach of my sword. Know me as Byo’Ku, your tyrant, who will rule all this world as I do many others!”

“We will fight you.” the Silkrit said, “And you will not live beyond this day to see the fruits of your labors.”

“And I suppose that you will end me?” Byo’Ku asked, smirking, “I can see you are no ordinary mortal, not anymore, but...-”

“But nothing!” the girl snapped, “It is you, Matriarch, who cowers here, not I. Release your defenses, and prove your claims.”

“And fight a trio of Kamiyonanayo?” she asked, “Perhaps had I not just engaged in open battle for the last two days and a siege for weeks on end. Here.”

A shifting field spread from her body, coalescing into a gateway that would admit one, and only one, “Name a champion, and I will kill them for you.”

The mortal girl hissed, “A champion? No. I will have the honor of killing you myself.”

The male Djinn, Arteth, nearly pounced on her, but she held firm, “This is my fight, my love. I must fight it alone.”

Resting Mikoto’s body flat, placing his head between his shoulders, she drew Heikiku and its lacquered white scabbard, and belted it to her waist.

“Goodbye, Mikoto...” she said softly, “I wish fate had allowed us to part more companionably.”

Hardening her grief into resolve, Kaileena passed her allies, her friends. There was no question among them that she should be the one to deal with the Matriarch. All but one, at least.

“You shame me and my vow to protect you...“Arteth protested, knuckles white on the pommel of his two-pronged sword, “How am I to do so now?”

“By honoring me and bearing witness.” Kaileena replied, “That is all I ask of you at this moment. This, and that you wait for me. I won’t be long.”

The Kamiyonanayo snarled, readying another vehement denial, but she silenced him with a plaintive look, repeating “I will not be long.

Without hesitation, she turned approached the magickal gate, and joined the matriarch in the shifting plane known as the Faded Veil.

Immediately upon her arrival, the vampyre lunged forward, katana leading, but Kaileena knocked it to the side with her pentacle staff, accepting a shallow cut to the forearm.

Catching her enemy off-guard, Kaileena struck with the other end of her staff, strengthening the jab with one of her phantom hand enchantments. Recovering almost instantly, the matriarch paused, confused, “One hit should have killed can this be?”

Kaileena smiled fiercely, “The trick is in your name. Byo’Ku, “Death by Pain”. Your lethal enchantment causes almost immediate death, but not through a standard death spell, apparently. A single contact with your blade fills the victim with such exquisite pain that it stops the heart, forcing the body into shock. The trick then, is a complete immunity to pain.”

Experimenting with her newfound anatomy, Kaileena displayed this by coloring her hair feathers blue, then white, then black, finally, returning to their light pink color. She then cycled through eye color, height, weight, and other factors, eventually returning to normal, “As I am now I can completely influence my body’s cellular structure. Before entering the gate I completely walled off my body’s ability to feel pain, and thus, rendered myself immune to your enchantment. And as my soul is safely within my new core, a death spell would have been equally as ineffective.”

“Intriguing...” Byo’Ku nodded thoughtfully, “You are far more than a mere Silkrit to have such control.”

“You are mistaken.” Kaileena replied, “I am in fact far less...nothing more than a shell of carbon. I have fulfilled Surthath’s prophecy and name myself the Second of Five; the giver of life to the lifeless, yet I bear only false life myself.”

Smiling, Byo’Ku flourished her sword, “You properly introduce yourself to me. I thank you for this. So allow me to do the same.”

Driving the black blade into her chest, Byo’Ku groaned as her skin hardened, thickened. Her humanoid face widened, thickened, became more geometric. Solid plates of metal emerged from her flesh to form an impenetrable shell of armor. A closed helm with a crest of double-edged blades formed about her head. A folding visor slid down, hiding her features, a line of smaller, curving blades running down its center.

A red cloak of transparent material, filled with animated, screaming humanoid faces, draped from her back; the echoes of the many, many beings she’d slain. A sword; the same transparent red, filled the matriarch’s hand.

“So this is your true form.” Kaileena noted, “The Matriarch I killed had not assumed one.”

“Bah!” Byo’Ku snarled, “Karoshi? A simpering whelp! I am far beyond her, and will not so easily succumb to you.”

“How fortunate then...” Kaileena retorted, “That I am unimaginably stronger than I was then. Attack, Skraul.”

Byo’Ku bellowed her battle cry, her sword leading. Summoning a pair of village-sized Basilisk, Kaileena set them upon her. The matriarch leaped with supernatural agility, striking the first through the eye. Blinded but quite alive, the beast snapped at her, and hissed as its fangs broke upon her armor plating.

“You nullified their sensation of pain as well?” Byo’Ku mused, audibly impressed, “A fine flesh-shaping, fitting of a moderately accomplished Blood Magi. Let me try mine.”

A wave of magickal foulness burst from her body, and upon contact with the basilisks their scales turned soft and rotten, and their flesh sank inward to the bone.

Byo’Ku doubled in size, seething with unholy might drawn from her enemies. Kaileena hastily created a phantom hand, formed a fist, and slammed the construct into her. The magickal hand collapsed into itself, winking out of existence.

“More powerful, you say?” snarled Byo’Ku, resuming her charge, “How disappointing.”

Levitating, Kaileena cocooned herself in a layer of telekinetic barriers, drawing Heikiku in her other hand. Fortifying her barriers with its enchantment, she dived down, weapons leading.

They clashed, metal ringing on metal, and Kaileena hissed as her shoulders were popped out of alignment and the necrotizing enchantment bypassed her wards and her Spell-Eater Strain.

The Phoenix Stone burned in her chest as her flesh rotted, sending flakes of decaying skin and muscle floating away, new, healthy flesh rapidly generating underneath. Blood burst from the wounds, coating Byo’Ku’s metal flesh.

Kaileena’s entire left arm and shoulder rotted away and was recreated. Her internal organs putrefied, were consumed, and regenerated in moments. An entire swarm of Turgon appeared through a summoning gate, but were consumed by the Matriarch’s death field, strengthening her further.

“Die now, little-” Byo’Ku began, before Kaileena’s staff slammed into her forehead, between the crest of blades. Magickally strengthened, the blow sent her flying back, crashing into the ground and displacing so much dirt she was nearly buried beneath it.

“More blood magicka?” Byo’Ku hissed, rising to her feet, her helm dented.

“Yes.” Kaileena replied, “A new technique I fashioned after binding myself in this form; Organic Conversion. With blood magicka I have artificially strengthened my muscles. In short, I am gifted with ludicrous strength, all the while resistant to your spell which somehow pierced my Spell-Eater Strain, for as long as I maintain it.”

Sheathing Heikiku, for its edge could not pierce Byo’Ku’s armor, she charged with her pentacle staff. As they met, Kaileena’s staff slammed into her sword with such force that the top several inches of the ground under them blew away in a cloud of dust.

Breaking the guard, Byo’Ku followed up with a furious barrage of strikes, leading down, then middle, then up, then out, trying to force her guard to break. Kaileena had little martial training, so she compensated by pouring additional energy into her muscles, meeting skill with sheer bone-crushing strength.

Without her summoned creatures, she was bereft of her favored combat strategy, so she compensated by creating a swirling wall of body-sized blades; a more advanced version of her dagger summon. Willing that wall to spin rapidly in a circuit around them, so rapid that the ethereal weapons hummed through the air, she willed it to incrementally compress...

Koukatsuna prepared Minamoto’s body, refusing to allow any of his soldiers to even approach. He saw open hostility in the eyes of the Human soldiers; it didn’t matter if he’d defended his lord, even wounded, even driven to utter exhaustion, even if he’d done everything they could have.

He’d failed.

His duty had been to protect Minamoto with his life. Minamoto was dead, and he still lived.

“Forgive me...Lord Minamoto.” he whispered, wrapping the human in his own cloak. Sasu rested under that cloak, in Minamoto’s hands. No one else had noticed that Minamoto hadn’t fully drawn his sword, had died in treachery and not in combat. It would be Koukatsuna’s secret.

His task complete, Koukatsuna found his feet with great difficulty, and waited. Kaileena was an ally of Minamoto’s, as well as a citizen of Central District. She could restore both of their honors.

“Kill the bitch for me, will you.” he hissed, “Not like I’ll have another chance as I am.”

Their trade-off was drowned out by the deafening sound of her blade wall. A ceiling of blades closed off the only exit, and Kaileena snarled, altering the fundamental enchantment. Instead of spinning on a circular axis around her person, they rotated along an axis of their own, each blade appearing as a conical blur of motion. She slipped away through a short distance portal, forced a huge portion of her power into a field of inverted telekinetic barriers to hold the Skraul in place, and thus did her deadly trap close upon her enemy.

Byo’Ku screamed, as a hundred body-sized blades drilled into her armor from every angle. The Matriarch altered her siphoning enchantment, drawing from magicka instead of life energy, and the blades shrunk as she fed off them in a similar manner to the Spell-Eater Strain.

No.” Kaileena hissed, “I forbid it.”

Using her staff’s reflective enchantment, Kaileena turned the spell against its wielder, causing the vampyre’s absorption to feed off her own pool of magicka.

A blade tip punctured her armor, above the armpit, then another, in the thigh. The matriarch screamed as more and more penetrated her darksteel plates, gushing black blood. The Skraul attempted a teleportation, even in the face of the pain she was experiencing, but Kaileena countered with an abjuration, although with far greater difficulty.

The Phoenix Stone carried unimaginable power, but it was not infinite...

Father!” Byo’Ku cried out, “Aid me!

The blades dissipated, wiped away by a power far beyond her own. Kaileena watched nervously as the Skraul rose, her armor fragmented, the ground pooling with her blood.

Byo’Ku snarled, lunging with outstretched hands. Wary, Kaileena levitated away, forming another wall of blades. The matriarch smashed through them, oily black tentacles bursting from the holes in her armor. Kaileena wavered, and the vampyre pounced, digging her nails into Kaileena’ arms.

Pain, horrible pain, wracked her, and Kaileena screamed, watching with horror as the stone in her chest flared with light, attracting Byo’Ku’s attention. With a sickening grin, her tentacles dug into her chest, and with a wet pop the Phoenix Stone was pulled out through her sternum.

Byo’Ku smiled as the Silkrit’s body collapsed into itself, dispersing into ash. She looked through the barrier to the Veil, into Arteth’s horrified, blinking eye, holding her prize for all to see.

“Is this the best your whore could do?” she asked, laughing, “Is this the mightiest champion that this pitiful world could muster?!”

She hissed with delight, gloating at his despair.

Yes.” Kaileena’s voice echoed through her own lips.

Stunned, Byo’Ku screamed as the veins in her arm surged with a clear light tinted with pink. She tried to drop the stone, but could not.

“Foolish...” Kaileena said through her, “Foolish.”

She laughed against her will, “Had I not detailed complete control over my body’s cellular structure but mere minutes ago? My blood coated you earlier in our duel, seeping through the minute spaces between your cells. I was able to spread through your body like a virus, metabolizing and replicating billions upon billions of times.”

Horrified, the matriarch tried again to let go of the stone, and failed, “This is for Mikoto.”

Pain, exquisite, surging pain, wracked her body from the inside. Her armor split, bursting open, revealing ruptured muscle, broken bone, and burst veins. She looked with horror as her gauntlet split open, revealing a hand swelling to monstrous proportions. Her fingers like overstuffed sausages, the skin peeled off, and the muscles exploded, peppering the ground with blood.

Screams turning to wild, animalistic wails, Byo’Ku gasped as the flesh in her hand stretched out, shaping around the Phoenix Stone.

Sizzling with energy, the stone knit the flesh back together over itself, and as it did so, the flesh lightened, grew pink in color. Black blood turned red, and soft, blue skin covered the misshapen, gore-covered lump of flesh her arm had become. The matriarch watched on, paralyzed, helpless, as a Silkrit took shape.

Kaileena opened her eyes, a radiant violet that surged with energy, flexing newly formed fingers. Naked, the Silkrit pulled the last of the needed flesh from her ruined body.

Byo’Ku, released from the paralysis, tumbled to the ground, broken. Her torso had impacted, and half of her organs had been sucked out. Her cloak of souls, beyond her control, broke apart, releasing its contents in a crimson mist.

Choking on blood, the matriarch looked up. Kaileena’s gaze was not entirely bereft of pity, and as she lifted a hand, a ball of telekinetic energy began to gather there. A final, merciful blow...

“Why? Why would you offer this?” she gasped, fading, dying, and the Silkrit shrugged, “I never wanted to hurt anyone, let alone kill them, let alone kill them in this manner. I have no desire to prolong your suffering.”

“Not even to avenge your ally?” Byo’Ku asked, and Kaileena frowned, “My friend, though one I wish I’d treated better before the end.”

Coughing up bloody foam, the matriarch replied, “So be it. I offer you a final parting gift; I am not the most powerful Skraul you will encounter.”

Perplexed, Kaileena paused, uncertain, and she grinned fiercely, “I am..the First. The First Daughter of Dur’Artoth, but you aren’t listening. I was but the daughter of Dur’Artoth. Who mother?”

“Once again, a splendid move, though I can hardly grant you credit.” Dur’Artoth mused, watching without the slightest care as yet another priestess piece crumbled to dust.

Only two remained, as well as a priest piece in Carthspire, the R’yzthaek pieces, Darkmoor, and the Four Horned Piece. Otherwise, as Surthath’s side of the board swelled, his deteriorated.

“I think the time is right...” the Dread Hammer added, “Do seize him.”

A hand touched his shoulder, and Surthath rose in a fury, only to be pressed down into his seat as that hand was joined by a second. Snarling, Surthath looked up to see two figures. The first, whose hand dug into his shoulder, was none other than the boar-headed Rel’Gaarmathar, Old One of Destruction.

Smiling a mouthful of gold-ringed black tusks, Rel’Gaarmathar held a vicious Ransuer in his other hand.

The other was less outwardly threatening. At first Surthath had thought him to be a pureblooded Orc, albeit the noblest specimen he’d ever seen. Garbed in oddly scalloped leather armor lined with gold, a bow of finest ashwood hung from his back beside a quiver with a single black arrow. A dagger of polished obsidian rested in his other hand.

“Selevus...” Surthath gasped, “...I haven’t seen you in many an age. How goes things in your hunting grounds?”

Selevus, Old One of the Hunt, grinned, though his eyes held no emotion whatsoever, “Quite well, brother. Looking to expand the preserve, you see. The Veil sounds perfect.”

Though he couldn’t place why, Surthath found the complete lack of emotion incongruous; Selevus was patient, but also prideful. Surely, he would feel some manner of triumph by his duplicity, and voice it.

“Hey, don’t forget me...” squeaked a tiny, faint voice. Groaning, Surthath looked down, onto the board, on which sat a small, brown mouse.

“I heard there was a party...” the mouse squeaked in a voice of an elderly man, “A surprise party. I wanted to come to say hello.”

“Tu’Narcuteth...” Surthath replied, naming the Old One of Madness, Shapeless Chaos, and Depravity.

The mouse’s eyes shifted from brown, to blue, to yellow, and its fur darkened, then lightened, it voice changing to a posh feminine tone, “Good, good, good! I knew you’d love it! Everyone loves surprises.”

“As much as I hate to leave this family reunion...” Dur’Artoth mused, “I have business to attend to. But please, brothers, keep friend Surthath entertained for my sake.”

Enveloping himself in a field of pure darkness, the Dread Hammer disappeared, leaving the board to run its course.

“Damn...” Surthath cursed, now seeing a slight alteration in the destiny he had predicted for the Veil...

Ignoring the horrified, incredulous stares of those beyond the gate, Kaileena gathered her clothing and enchanted items.

Byo’Ku’s body lay still, her chest burst open from the force of her telekinesis. The spell had ended her life quickly, destroying her heart. She claimed the vampyre’s head, severing it with Heikiku. What was left was far too little for Dur’Artoth to reanimate before it disintegrated.

She stepped through the gate, cloak drawn over her shoulder, before her way out disappeared. Returning to the Veil, she stepped over to Mikoto’s body, and presented the head as it began to break apart into ash, “Rest well, my Hitorigami. Your foe will be joining you in the afterlife.”

Tossing the morbid thing away, she cleaned the black blood and grime from her body and clothes, though even after, she still felt soiled. Arteth turned her around, locking stares.

“I don’t know who or what I am anymore.” she said bluntly, unable to force her numbed feelings to respond to her words. The Kamiyonanayo, her wall and shield against the world, smiled, “You are you. That’s enough for me.”

Falling into his arms, she let herself be carried away, Yokai poignantly following a few paces behind.

I look down from my perch, hidden in ethereal form in the clouds. I am dressed for battle; beside my lower robes I wear a cuirass, greaves, and a pair of bracers, all forged of titanium plates, and a coat of mail tarnished in darkest murk.

A slimy, writhing cloak of tentacles reaches down my back to several paces behind me, dripping acid. A mantle of eye stalks tops my shoulders.

I smile, savoring the stink of doomed hope. My darksteel hammer in hand, I stand before the dozen shapeless R’yzthaek that I have not consumed; the most vile, cunning, and ruthless of the brood. Beside them, stands my lone remaining matriarch, Senbotsu, and behind her, my bride.

“What do you think?” I ask, motioning to the human world, “Would this destruction satisfy you?”

The Grand Matriarch frowned, “Not even close, my love. But it will be a wonderful start.”

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