The portal into the Veil opened, and Arteth, once the Tyrant King of the Dreadborne, then a Familiar Minion, and finally, a restored Djinn, stepped through, finding himself in his new home; the Iron Tower, which stood north of Kazeatari in the Central District of Teikoku.
It had once been the residence of Master Lenao, a Human who had fallen in love with a Silkrit. After his death, having held back his hour for two decades in order to see his beloved daughter again, the tower had passed to Kaileena.
Not too much had changed in the place, he realized, and yet, the feel of it was so very different.
The grounds of the tower, once unkempt, had been transformed into a lush garden, maintained by servants who had set up housing around the valley. The inside chamber on the lower level had been turned into a second study, also attended by servants, tirelessly searching for hidden lore while Arteth led a second similar effort in his home world of Moonshadow.
The bedroom, while still possessing the same bed and bookshelf, was much more homely, with an added fireplace and pantry. The shelves also held alchemical apparatus’, samples of ores and raw elements, as well as several potted plants, not flowers as one might expect, but certain rare herbs.
There was a small desk as well, with loose papers piled high, showing detailed alchemical formulae and complex mathematical equations, the result of tireless efforts to synthesize several legendary elixirs made by ancient elven magisters of old, based off of carefully documented lore donated by the El’Dari in Aurora proper.
But at this moment, it was the bed, or more specifically, the person seated on it, facing away, that held his attention. She was of the Silkrit race, a mortal humanoid species adopted by Lord Surthath.
Her skin, soft and pliable like a human’s, was a light, bright blue, though it darkened along her spine, and turned a curious shade of light brown (perhaps a legacy of her father, Lenao) on her belly, underbelly, underarms, and throat.
The narrow crest of feathers starting above her forehead had grown into a wide mane that reached halfway down the back of her neck, curving around her ear slits, with individual feathers ranging from the length of her smallest finger to almost thrice that of her index finger and much thicker. Having never quite gotten past her habits from an unfortunate period of time in Fusestu’s brothel, she still dyed them pink, alongside her finger and toenails.
Her tail twitched from one side to the other, occasionally curling on itself where the tip touched the length, as it did whenever she was deep in thought.
She was still facing away, so he got closer, moving silently, quite a feat for one who was well over nine feet tall and almost four hundred pounds.
“My little fox...” he whispered in her ear (or ear slits, as was the case), wrapping his arms around her. She flinched at first, then twisted her head to look to him with those bright, intelligent violet eyes, the reptilian slits wide in the scant illumination of the bedroom. How he could, and indeed, had, gotten lost in them.
She returned his embrace, and they kissed, gently but with passion.
Their relationship, admittedly, had become complicated after the events of Yokai’s tower. Initially upon meeting her, Arteth had served as a familiar as well as a sort of father figure to Kaileena, and then as a loyal friend as they confided in each other.
Given a physical form once more in no small part due to her tremendous sacrifice, he admitted that, in spite of their different species, he found her quite attractive, and in seeing for himself the depths of her compassion, gentleness, and inner will, things had seemed very simple for him.
It had been...difficult at first, with the memories of her enslavement and humiliation in the brothel of Fusestu, but in time, she’d reciprocated and fallen for him in turn.
“Arteth...” she replied in little more than a whisper, coming to favor that method of speaking his name. She was very tired, he could see.
Indeed, she’d gone many a restless night, as had he, trying to find a cure for her ailment. In defeating Yokai, the renegade enchanter who’d temporarily achieved godhood, Kaileena had drawn his power through her own body and used it to animate Arteth and shatter his phylactery. In doing so, she’d given him new life and slain their foe, but effectively killed herself in the process.
The power that Yokai had wielded, the Eternal Return, was inherently toxic to mortals, and even minimal exposure to it was lethal. Though the damage had been mitigated, they only had a few more years, perhaps less, to find some way to cure Kaileena of the caustic energy before it consumed her.
Even with the full support of the Renmei Kisai and several Djinn correspondents in Moonshadow, they hadn’t made much progress. The dark circles under her eyes served as a testament to many sleepless nights, pushing her comprehension of alchemy to its limit, making historically documented brews out of nothing more than a general hinting of ingredients, calculating to the smallest degree how much of what to use all thanks to a complex algorithm she had created a year prior.
Working with common remedies such as Dandelion and Echinacea Purpurea, all the way up to such obscure ingredients such as holy water sanctified by Anima, mithril shavings, and the fabled Elixir of the White Hare, Kaileena had come about as close to making distilled immortality as any mortal he’d ever heard of.
It was only then that he noticed she’d bathed recently, her feathers were still damp, and underneath the flowery scent of perfume and soap there was a faint hint of smoke. She hadn’t been studying tonight.
“Another skirmish?” he asked, and she nodded, breaking eye contact to look sheepishly at the far wall.
“Yes. And again I have taken life, when I only ever wanted to cherish it.”
Her entire body tensed, seemed to shrink into itself.
“I’m losing myself.” she said, shivering, “I can see them in my dreams. Their faces, anguished. Their eyes, accusing. So many, now. The longer this war rages on, the more I grow accustomed to killing...the further I slip from Anima’s teachings...the more I want to embrace death myself.”
Forcibly tilting her head back towards him, Arteth shook his, “None of that. Tonight, and every night after this, you stay with me. That way, you will not lose heart.”
They sat together for a time, staring into each other’s eyes. He rubbed noses with her, though he had to arch his neck to reach that low, “I know this war has taxed you, more than most. You weren’t meant for it. But you have done so much good. I’m so proud of you.”
She nodded, downcast, “I just want it to be over. All of it.”
They kissed again, gently, and as he entwined his fingers with hers, he felt a peculiar bump on each of her palms. Turning her hands over, he noticed she’d made a few alterations to her body since he’d last left; imbedded right into the flesh of her hands was a pair of star sapphires, smoothly cut, roughly the dimensions of large grapes.
“It pays to have an extra font of energy.” Kaileena explained, “And a convenient delivery system for it. I imbued them with several useful enchantments.”
“They’re beautiful.” Arteth noted, but found his eyes inexorably drawn back to hers, “Just like you. A perfect match.”
He leaned her back onto the bed, pulling at the string that held her kimono together, a soft lavender affair with a brown obi-corset, and draped the garment off her shoulders.
“You’ll have to indulge me if I’m acting selfish...” he mused, finding a comfortable spot, “...But being apart from you even this long makes me anxious. Makes me forget my manners.”
With that, Arteth shook off his lower robes; a warrior kilt of Moonshadow, replete with armor plates and a double-belt which held a unique scabbard. The latter clanged loudly when it fell to the floor, but he didn’t particularly care.
He lay with her for a time, caressing, kissing her cheek, her neck, her belly, letting his desire simmer. She returned the affection, weary but more than willing. They kissed, deeply, her entire body melting against his.
As he crushed her against him, meeting for another, even deeper one, the Djinn grunted as he positioned himself. Kaileena squirmed a little in his grip, but only to lift her legs around his waist, sighing plaintively.
Nibbling on her throat, Arteth was careful not to press too hard, lest the weight of his body harm her. Fragile, as if one careless motion could shatter her like glass. But she didn’t appear to notice, sighing contentedly.
She grew more insistent, pressing out her bosom, head thrown back. Their body warmth became stifling, and he had no doubt it was more intense for Kaileena, being pinned beneath him. They swapped places, to where he lay on his back and she rode upon him, legs splayed wide as her eyes.
Minutes, or hours passed. He couldn’t tell, though he suspected the latter. The temperature dropped, but the cold was overwhelmed by the roaring furnace that their joined bodies constituted.
As he finished, he dared to brush her cheek. She held his hand with both of hers, smiling distantly while she nuzzled it, and fell down to his side, spent.
Gasping for breath just as much as he was, neither fell asleep right away, holding each other in an embrace. Exploring the curves of her soft, inviting body, whispering entreaties of affection, Arteth knew in his heart that he would allow nothing to befall this unlikely love, this wondrous person whom he admired as much as he desired. She would live; indeed, if he could help it, she would live forever, happy and safe.
He slept contentedly...
Kaileena, for her part, was greatly thankful she was not a Djinn. If she had been she’d have been unable to lie about the progress made. It was actually the investigation on the mysterious identity of the Colossus; an iron construct powered by a gem containing souls, that had given her first conclusive answer, as well as one important fact about the Eternal Return. It did not directly attack the soul until the body was rendered inert, drained of all its vitality.
To combat the effects of its corrupting power, to prevent it from becoming lethal, one had to separate their soul from its host body. To defeat the Eternal Return and live, she had to bind her essence with a Black Gem. She had to become a Lich, an undead entity.
She did not sleep contentedly...
The first leg of her travels had been surprisingly uneventful considering that the nation was at war.
She’d moved south into Lord Takauji’s District without incident in just under a day, much of it in concealing forests at a pace that no human could manage. All she’d needed to do was hide in plain sight when forced to travel by the roads, flash her noble’s seal, be careful not to actually show her face.
Vala supposed that, in spite of things, she’d actually enjoyed the attention she’d received during her stay in Fusestu. The uneasiness her appearance provoked, laced with perhaps just a little desire.
She was beautiful, even in this lesser form, but she could by no means pass for Human. Her dark, ashen skin, pointed ears, extended lower canines, and lustrous blue eyes that burned with a light all their own, were decidedly inhuman. And her posture, though poised and graceful, was noticeably predatory; the practiced gait of a confident and ruthless warrior.
With the forests beginning to thin, Vala would find accommodations in a Human village nearby, the better to escape the light of the cursed sun. She would spend the next night scouting the adjacent countryside for a more ideal shelter.
She was well fed, thanks to her personal stores of Vitrium, and thus could safely, if not comfortably, travel in daylight, but she always preferred to walk at night, with her hood down, the moon and stars above her.
They mocked her, those countless, twinkling lights. Were they as close as Aurora’s resident star, their radiance would burn her to ash. But they presided over other worlds, other worlds she had seen. Other worlds she’d helped destroy.
Once she’d been a Matriarch, one of the ruling females of the Skraul Empire, second only to the Dread Hammer and his monstrous R’yzthaek. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, had lived and died by her whim. For most of her race, there was never more to be desired.
But had she ever once bothered to look at the sky as she did now? Had she ever pondered, ever dreamed, when she had held that power? Ever considered the point of it all?
“What a waste...” Vala said dejectedly, putting up her hood and scarf as the city marked on her map came into eyeshot, one she’d studied briefly in one of Minamoto’s books.
Higoi, “Golden Carp Village” was a decently sized settlement along the northern edge of the South District, south and east of Kazeatari. Though the city was known as one of the wealthiest in the empire, most of its population were simple fishermen, netting in the Golden Carp from which the city’s name was derived from the life-giving, lake-fed river that flowed down from the higher elevated eastern reaches.
Essentially two stretches of buildings on either end of the river, Higoi sported several bridges that served as the connective framework for intricate netting machines, which dragged out hundreds of fish when they traveled upstream to spawn, some as large as a hundred and fifty pounds! The outer ridge of buildings served mostly as housing, while the interior was all warehouses, fisheries, and hopefully, taverns.
There was no wall and no gate to enter through (how could they have one with a river running right through the city, after all?) and she wasn’t even questioned by patrolling guards at the late hour.
“This place won’t do well when the war finally spills over into the countryside.” Vala thought soberly, and entered the first tavern she saw, not bothering to get its name.
The place was absolutely packed, its patrons throwing away half their wages in drink and, by the disheveled, raunchy look of the females inside, in rutting. Grimacing, she threw down five coins and pointed to the stairs in the back corner. The barkeep, a grizzled bear of a man, nodded, tossing her back a key.
Vala made her way to the stairs, and half-gasped, half-snarled, as one of the Humans grabbed her buttocks to a deafening cheer from his drunk friends. Turning slowly, she used a bit of her latent power and dropped the temperature around his crotch by about forty degrees, coating it in hoarfrost and effectively killing any notions he might’ve been harboring. As the man cringed and withdrew, the voices died down, startled at the use of magicka.
“You could neither handle nor afford me...” Vala said coolly, flashing her noble’s seal, “Test me again and find out what other goodies I bartered from the Renmei Kisai.”
It was a bluff, of course; she had used magicka via latent ability, not by the use of an enchantment, but she was counting on the fact that a bunch of fishermen wouldn’t know the difference. It worked. The alarm diminished, replaced by amusement.
As she took the stairs, satisfied, and as the local drunks had a laugh at their fellow’s expense, the man offhandedly said, “Gosh. I think I’m in love.”
Yokai, concealed by an illusion that gave him the appearance of a nondescript Human, was very skeptical of this newcomer. Just enough for him to dare a silent divination that would reveal the woman’s true nature. He whispered a brief imprecation, recalling the image of the woman as she went up the stairs. There was a moment’s disorientation, and there she was in his mind’s-eye, her cloak fallen away to reveal an Orcish Vampyre.
“Vala...” he whispered involuntarily, an effect of the spell running its course, “Once Kogoeji-ni, Matriarch of the Skraul.”
Interesting. Very interesting, and, more importantly to him, very opportune...
She woke first, cradled against Arteth’s body, feeling the rise and fall of his chest and the deep, regular thump of his heartbeat.
Eventually a slight change in his breathing patterns told her that he too was awake, and she rubbed noses with him as his head dipped down, letting one luminous blue eye settle upon her. That orb held an unmistakable hint of mischief in it, and smiling, Kaileena fell on her back and let him mount her again. There was no grace in this lovemaking, just lazy energy as their bodies were worked back to wakefulness.
A few minutes of grunting, panting satisfaction later, she stood up, unsteadily, the familiar weakness in her legs intensified by the increased size of her lover. Arteth didn’t get up, but managed to cup her buttocks in his hand before she could slip away, and Kaileena giggled, swatting him away with her tail.
“If we keep this up...” she mused, “...we will never get out of this room.”
Arteth titled his head curiously, “What makes you think I want to do that? That a day in here with you is not my only aspiration...?”
A pity she had so much to do; several pending experiments, both alchemical and magickal in nature, that might provide the answer to her ailment. Likewise, she considered visiting her sisters among the Kodama. Just thinking of her adoptive faith and family comforted her.
Though she was a Silkrit; an alien in Aurora, they had accepted her fully almost at first glance, recognizing a kindred spirit. There, among Anima’s faithful, she felt at home as she rarely did among Humans, meditating, soothing her body, both with the hot springs, herbs, and a more spiritual form of physical intimacy.
She didn’t consider their rituals to be acts of lovemaking. In fact, it was a form of communal closeness, of the wearing down of one’s unconscious defenses and the total submission of self, which she’d never experienced in one of Teikoku’s infamous brothels, wherein every purely physical act had been experimented upon her body, in spite of her desires otherwise.
Arteth seemed to read her thoughts, and he grinned, “You say you wish to do more than mate on this day...how odd.”
They shared a laugh, “Fear not; you will not want for comfort once you’re cured, my little fox. In Moonshadow weeks will pass when the world will not see us, cloistered as we will be.”
Nodding, as if it were a certain thing, Kaileena started to dress, when Arteth stopped her, “Oh! I got you something while I was away. Look in my satchel by the desk.”
Curious, Kaileena took a peek and found two wrapped packages inside, and tore open the first one. Unfolding the material, Kaileena found a slim, tight gown, sleeveless and cut to show a slightly less than modest amount of breast. It was wide cut at the sides of the legs to allow movement, and reached down to her calves. It was soft, softer than silk, a peach-pink color, and she slipped it on easily, along with a series of elegant leather belts with many pockets for enchantment components.
She also found a pair of boots that reached up to her hips, very slim but durable looking, with spaces near the tops that implied hidden folds to hide daggers or other such things. Over the gown went a short-sleeved overcoat, which appeared to be loosely modeled after the outer layer of a kimono.
“I figured it would mesh well with your brightly colored skin and feathers. Do you like it?” Arteth asked, and Kaileena nodded happily, “Now that I’ve gotten over my aversion to pink I find that it suits me. Thank you.”
Curious, she motioned to the second package, and Arteth laughed, “Not until we get you cured. Consider it a gift for the future.”
Shrugging, Kaileena also went to her cabinet and withdrew her jewelry. Four golden bands went onto her horn nubs, each enchanted. One would cast a ward over herself to shrug off attacks, or attach to another person and funnel damaging energies to her to be absorbed. Another allowed an abjuration that could negate spells, and another could summon Turgon, eel-like extra-dimensional creatures with magickal abilities such as teleportation and invisibility.
Alongside these, she had a ring bejeweled with Alchemist Stone that served as a metaphysical battery to store magicka, and had once allowed her to absorb the life force of those the touched, though she’d recently negated that effect, considering it inherently cruel.
She also had a necklace with many amber charms, which allowed her to communicate with her Kodama sisters, and a golden bangle that conjured magickally honed daggers that could be used as deadly projectiles. She still had her pentacle staff, which could cast waves of telekinesis as well as reflect spells against their wielders, but it was magickally sealed in a second gold bangle that she kept on her person at all times.
The final item possessed no enchantment at all, but she’d sworn to herself that she would carry it always. To a casual observer, the bell-shaped lump of gold would appear valuable but otherwise unremarkable. Once, it had runes ringing its bottom, but its magic was spent, though the residual energies lingered.
It was the stopper for Arteth’s phylactery, the magic lamp that had begun her journey. She looked upon it, thoughtful, before secreting it into one of her belt pouches, where it would remain by her side.
Properly attired, she watched Arteth dress, putting on his red lower robe, titanium armor plates, and a double-belt that held the scabbard for Verlangen, his twin-sword. The twin-sword’s center gem, which ran between a pair of razor sharp lengths of titanium, aided him in casting complex illusions, and other than this, he needed no enchantments. He was a Kamiyonanayo of Lord Surthath, and could cast almost any effect as needed by calling upon the Codex of Power, the language of magicka, as was branded into his flesh via glowing blue runes...
They left her room, and watching him strut about, his torso nothing but rippling muscles and crackling magicka, Kaileena sort of regretted not considering his earlier suggestion. But today was important.
“You are ready to do this?” Arteth asked, and Kaileena nodded, troubled, “The most important task of this day...I have delayed it for too long. Gatsuyu needs to know what’s happened, and if he is willing, I would offer him shelter here in the tower.”
Her brother had escaped persecution during the days that Shinabi, their father; his by birth and Kaileena’s by adoption, had tried and failed to free her from her servitude to the Fusestu brothel. Kaileena had spent the last two years terrified of the possibility of her brother’s judgment, and had avoided their old home. In these two years, she had not approached him in any way, and now, with the potential for her death all too real, she had to talk to him. To know her brother’s heart again.
Kaileena decided to walk the two hour trip, Arteth by her side. It seemed fitting. The servants nodded to her as she passed, to which she returned where she could, thanking them for their work in trying to save her.
Kaileena stopped for a moment at the edge of the outer gardens to appreciate the thick obscuring bushes of Crape Myrtle, or Lagerstroemia Indica, forming a half-sphere around the tower entrance, which parted at the center.
Down the center was a marble walkway she’d commissioned, on either side of which burst thick but orderly groves of flowers and exotic plants that could survive in the climate of the Central District. There were camellias, with glossy evergreen leaves and rounded, plump flowers in shades from light pink to vibrant red, snowdrops; small white bell-shaped flowers suspended from short, delicate stems, and bergenia (or Bergenia Cordifolia); evergreen perennials which grew as clusters of brightly colored, leathery flowers in shades from stark white to dark purple.
But her favorite addition had been recent; a huge cherry tree stood near the end of the walkway, before the entrance to the tower, ringed in marble, growing over a thick tangle of hybrid flowers in a ranging plethora of bright new colors.
When she had felt like tearing out her feathers and screaming with frustration when one or another avenue of research failed, she’d thrown aside her materials and tried to breed out new sub-species of flowers. Genetics-through-botany at its finest. The effort had left her with orange-brown poppies, black roses, and most impressively, flax ranging from red, to blue, to violet, to indigo and pink, to green and yellow, orange and white, and just about any color in-between. The cherry blossom tree’s roots were almost fully concealed by the surging rainbow her efforts had yielded!
She smiled at that, taking a petal of a camellia and rubbing it between her fingers. It felt like fine, if textured, velvet.
Somewhat calmed, she continued on her way into the forests that she knew well, to speak to the last living member of her family.
After sleeping away part of the day and awakening to a decent helping of her Vitrium, Vala set out for the road, finding the sky a grim overcast.
South, south, and then she might turn east, into the bamboo forest, or perhaps west, to hide away in the grasslands. She intended to find a place, a quiet place, to meditate on the secrets she had been given with the death of Uejini, the Eighth Matriarch.
Koukatsuna, the drunken fool, had inherited the reflexes and superior strength of a low ranking Broodlord, but she...she had been given something more subtle, and inconceivably more valuable. When one vampyre killed another, a goodly portion of the victim’s strength and potential ability flowed into the victor, a sort of transference of power. Koukatsuna was no vampyre, but he carried the Blood-Forged weapons of one, and thus, had gained from the Matriarch’s death, though not nearly what a true vampyre could.
Not nearly what she could.
But to collect her gains she had to work for it; she had to train, and ponder, and grow into what she would become, or perhaps, become again. And so she would do this, someplace far away from the distractions of the war and ideally from people in general.
She (vaguely) remembered the consequences of her first growing pangs, and it hardly did one well to act so...undignified.
Restless, for she had more than grown tired of hiding her face, Vala increased her pace from a trot to an extended sprint through the low bushes and long grass, tireless, her footsteps utterly silent. The wind became deafening as she traveled beyond, sprinting into an unnatural run, almost a glide, faster than a loosed arrow, her dark cloak trailing behind her. She laughed, a pure, guileless gesture that dared the world to ruin her day.
The world obliged.
Vala darted out of the way as the air in front of her ignited, blackening the grass and starting a fire that spread unnaturally to encircle her.
“Toshisha!” she hissed, animating her weapon into its whipblade form; a column of barbed segments of ice ending in a double-edged point. Super-cooled vapor surrounded her like a shroud, and she simply walked out of the blaze.
“Show yourself, coward!” she bellowed, forming a protective sphere of floating ice sheets that would deflect projectiles.
“To one so beautiful...” a man said pleasantly, stepping out of a perfectly rectangular column of searing light. A dimensional door; a sort of short distance teleportation technique.
“...How could I refuse?”
Not a man; an Elf, actually. He was clothed in black and brown, and would likely have been mistaken for a peasant were it not for the black tattoos all across his body, completely covering his arms and feet.
“Get lost, El’Dari.” Vala replied, her voice equally as calm and piercing as her gaze, “I have better things to do than to upset Surthath by killing one of his bastard spawn.”
The Elf blinked at that, confused, “You speak of Surthath as if he is not your enemy...odd. But I am not here on Surthath’s behalf.”
“Then how about this.” she replied hotly, “I have better things to do than tearing you limb from limb.”
He laughed at that, a deep but musical sound, “I’d like to see you try. I might not be a god anymore, but I can certainly throw my punches.”
He dashed, superhumanly swift, and it was all she could do to swing Toshisha in a diagonal swipe to cut him off. But then he surprised her again, because when he parried with nothing more than his flattened palm, the whipblade deflected off an almost feline paw sheathed in amethyst colored scales.
His claws, for his other hand and both feet had similarly transformed up to the elbows and knees, came at her from multiple angles, flowing and overlapping smoothly in a flurry of martial prowess.
Dodging backwards, Vala whirled Toshisha in a defensive arc meant to dissuade attackers, but the Elf simply slapped the weapon away, slashing across her chest and scoring a shallow hit.
“Dragon scales?!” Vala gasped, her thick leather breastplate put to the test. She used her inherent unnatural speed to dart away, and the Elf smiled, “A gift from my dearest.”
Now it made sense; this was Yokai, but how was Yokai not dead?
“How could one who considers himself God be stopped by death?” Yokai asked innocently, as if reading her thoughts, and was upon her again. He pressed her savagely, but not mindlessly, using the flats of his hands, his elbows, knees, and palms just as much as his razor sharp claws. He knew Silat, then...a fine method of martial art, and combined it well with his magickally transformed limbs.
He ducked under her slash to deliver a wicked palm strike, one arm outstretched forward, the other back, his body hunched and his legs bent for momentum, and the blow cracked her ribs.
Grunting with pain, Vala replied with a blast of frigid vapor, and grinned wickedly as Yokai’s skin went blue from hypothermia. Not waiting for his reaction, her whipblade rushed in, coiling like a snake and launching in an impaling strike.
Yokai deflected the weapon, elbow up, body crouched low, and darted in with no more effort than slamming his legs up straight, landing four successive punches to her abdomen, then, infuriatingly, slipping away as the inner-most sections of Toshisha constricted and coiled in a snare that missed him by a hair’s breadth. Five hits to her zero, and her armor wouldn’t hold up much longer.
Feigning panic, Vala spun her whipblade about herself, obscuring her body within a small hill of slithering ice segments. Yokai took the bait, leaping in, only to find her outside of the trap. Toshisha squeezed shut, trapping him inside, and constricted while manipulating its individual segments, bringing them back and forward in sawing motions.
When the points reverberated off of each other without the wet sounds of gnashing meat, Vala ducked as Yokai appeared through another dimensional door behind her and slashed at the unoccupied air.
He charged her, but was upended thanks to her quick thinking in leaving a coil of Toshisha spun in another snare, that now wound around his foot, circumventing his scaled feet to find his still quite vulnerable upper thighs.
Blood in the water, Vala spun and hacked wildly with the other seven feet of her extendable weapon, the attack slamming against a conjured barrier of telekinetic energy. Snarling, she struck again, and again, wearing down the defense, before the double-edged point wound around the hindrance and unexpectedly snapped at Yokai’s flank, digging into his shoulder.
Yokai snarled a short evocation, and the ground under Vala rent, impaling both her feet and both her kneecaps with pointed lengths of stone.
Screaming, Vala did not relent, cruelly twisting Toshisha’s point into the fool’s body, deeper, deeper down, to snap the shoulder blade in half. Marrow gushed through the wound and her weapon, vampyric itself, drank in his blood.
Her vision wavered, but new strength would flow in from her weapon. She would win.
Yokai cast again, gasping for air, and it felt like someone had taken two boulders and smashed her between them. She coughed up blood as her ribcage impacted and punctured both her lungs. Her legs were held up by the rock spikes, but her body sagged, her grip on Toshisha maintained only by the fact that it’d voluntarily frozen itself to her hand.
She passed out.
The Skraul was done for, sustained only by the influx of blood. Unfortunately, that was his blood, and though his wound was already regenerating it was closing right around the tip of her weapon. It was a standoff; he could cast nothing else while maintaining his regeneration, but all the while, more energy was being siphoned away.
So he let the regeneration cease, long enough to rattle off an evocation. One that was cut off as the ice blade, seemingly of its own accord, twisted again, sending a flash of red hot agony through his body.
“Damn you!” Yokai snarled, slipping his other hand into his pocket, to hold the only enchanted item he could reach with his left shoulder pinned. The Dimensional Door.
He positioned it right under himself, and fell through, and the blade, again, seemingly of its own will, retracted rather than being sliced apart as the door closed behind him.
They crossed into more familiar grounds, well within the perimeter of forest she’d hunted in as a child. She recalled and located a thin stream filled with small colorful fish, and a cairn that likely held a passed traveler. It felt like a dream; like she’d fallen asleep and was awash in her memories.
Eventually...they neared the cabin. Every part of her was tense as a bowstring. Arteth was there, a hand in hers, and its weight and warmth was assuring.
With the house in sight, Kaileena marveled at how different it looked. Minamoto must have paid for renovations; an entire section had been raised up to the right, more than doubling the size of the house, and the garden had expanded a stone toss at least. A small structure that must have led to a cellar stood in front and to the right of the door, which was reinforced and of foreign make, opening by a knob and hinge rather than sliding along a base.
Kaileena gulped, took a few more tentative steps. Her right hand, which held Arteth’s, clenched. There was smoke rising from the chimney. Its occupants were home, though they likely hadn’t detected them yet. A strong urge to bolt gripped her.
Breathe. Breathe... The impulse wasn’t coming from her. Not entirely.
She gripped her necklace, a symbol of her faith, thankful for this support as well, went to the door, and knocked. Each impact of her hand on the door seemed deafening, made it feel impossible to run now even if she wanted to.
After what seemed an eternity, long enough for her to hope she was wrong, that nobody was home and she wouldn’t have to face this yet, someone stirred on the other side. Furniture was moved about. Footsteps, right on the other side of the door. She could feel her heart.
It was a woman that answered the door. She was plain, but very attractive, with fair skin, a thin, shapely neck, large, almost diagonally lidded eyes, and rich, vibrant hazel brown hair tied in a bun.
Their expressions must have been equally shocked, but something about her thin lips and small button nose evoked a distinct familiarity.
“Nagomi, yes?” Kaileena asked sheepishly, her voice breaking.
She nodded, mutely.
“Who is it?” a man asked from another room. She was wrong. Gatsuyu must have sold the house. Must have moved into the village. Maybe-
The man came from around a corner, approaching the door. It took time to process the changes that had come over him. He’d grown. Thickened. His brow was heavier, as was his chin, and he wore his hair in a messy, uneven cut, which was much longer than she remembered. He looked more a farmer now, with sun-bronzed skin, and the type of thick muscles earned by dragging a plow across hard soil. It took time to recognize this man, but she knew it was Gatsuyu.
They were quiet for so long that she realized they were waiting for her to speak. She swallowed, tried to, but the words caught in her throat. Her tail lashed the ground. And then Gatsuyu seemed to recover from his trance and lunged forward, locking her in an embrace. His entire body trembled.
“You’re back...” he gasped, “I thought... By the Kotoamatsukami, you’re here.”
“I missed you so much!” Kaileena cried, weeping into his shoulder, “I’m so sorry, Gatsuyu. It’s all my fault!“.
Something caught in her leg, and she felt herself pulled down, her brother in tow. “I-”
“No.” Gatsuyu interrupted her, “No words. Not now, please.” He swallowed, pulling himself back enough to lock eyes with her, “Come inside.”
Finally noticing Arteth, he winced, but motioned him in as well, who followed her into the house and set her down on a sitting cushion in front of a new wood burning stove. Nodding at their hosts, he took a spot beside her, legs stretched towards the heat.
Gatsuyu sat on the other side of her, opposite Arteth. Nagomi leaned against the wall, studying Arteth with visible unease.
“So...” he dared, as nervous as she was.
“So...” Kaileena replied in turn, eyes to the floor, her tail lashing from side to side.
“You are well, I see.” he said, to which she nodded, “And you too.”
“Minamoto has been generous since-” he paused, grimacing, “Since it happened. I guess he feels remorseful.”
“The house looks better.” Kaileena admitted, sheepish.
“It has felt empty since you left.” Gatsuyu dared, motioning to Nagomi, “But we have done our best to try and fill it.”
“As of the spring.” Gatsuyu noted happily, “It took a good deal of effort, but her father was swayed by the renovations to the house.”
“I look forward to being an aunt, then.” she replied happily. Gatsuyu nodded, not quite meeting her eyes.
Then, “I’m so sorry, Gatsuyu.”
He winced, as if struck.
Kaileena looked entirely away, hissing, “I never meant for them to-”
“Not your crime.” Gatsuyu snapped, “Theirs. I’ve never held you to what happened to my-”
He paused, apologetic, “-Our father.”
Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes, and he set his hand on hers. Then his eyes went to Arteth, and she tittered, “Forgive me brother; I’m overwhelmed. This is Arteth, a Kamiyonanayo of Surthath, my best friend, and a few other things besides. We have not yet considered propositions...but someday, perhaps.”
That gave Brother pause for thought, but he embraced him regardless, “A Kamiyonanayo, like the one guarding the Hitorigami?”
“You are well informed on current events, then.”
Gatsuyu shrugged, “War, invaders, something about a great army that drinks blood. I can say little. We heard that you were proclaimed a noble, but tell us about the rest.”
“Where to begin...?” Kaileena mused, “Well, there was the matter of Yokai. You have heard of him? He tapped godhood to try and claim Teikoku. The Hitorigami, when we met-”
“You...met...the Hitorigami?!” Gatsuyu gasped, and Kaileena tilted her head humorously, “I have met many people, and done a great many things. Let me tell you of them.”
Pausing, Kaileena continued, “Well, you see, I have a particular natural ability given to me by my natural father, a human, imagine that...that allows me to eat the spells of others. He, umm...that is, the Hitorigami, offered me a noble’s crest and a few other things besides to stop Yokai. Stop him we did, but not in time to prevent his power from being used to open portals to our world, from which terrible beings stepped through. Vampyres, undead creatures who drink the blood of the living and worship the Dread Hammer; those are the great enemy you’ve heard about.”
Gatsuyu absorbed that for a time, then, “Your father was human? Your birth father, that is? You met him?” to which Kaileena smiled, “Yes. He was Master Lenao, a powerful enchanter, very powerful, that had summoned Uchiki, my mother, born of a race called the Silkrit. They were the happiest pair, I hear, until Father’s hunt inadvertently caused Uchiki to die at the hands of the bear he’d been chasing. The rest is history.”
And that led her inevitably to the crux of her dilemma, “Lenao left me his tower north of here as inheritance, and, should the worst happen to me, I would offer it to the both of you, alongside my noble’s crest.”
Gatsuyu was irate, “The worst? What-”
“-I am dying, brother...” Kaileena interrupted, stopping him short, “I am trying to remedy that, but there is a good chance I will not succeed. You are my next of kin, and I would name you both as my beneficiaries, whether you like it or not.”
Both Gatsuyu and Nagomi paled at that, and she sighed, “Yokai’s power is poisonous to mortals. As it would have eventually killed him, by absorbing a fraction of it, I too will die unless I can prevent it. And I do not know how...”
Arteth sensed that the others noticed his burning red eyes, and he flicked his wings to get Kaileena’s attention, for she faced away and had not noticed her kinsman’s discomfiture.
He generally knew when someone was lying, and Kaileena wasn’t particularly good at it, either. She knew he knew as well, and sighed, looking back to him sidelong, “There is one way. But I will not consider it. Not ever.”
He and everyone else in the room began to argue, but she hissed and slapped her tail against the floor, “Not ever!”
Sighing, Kaileena crossed her arms, “The one possibility to escape the toxic energies is to separate my soul from my body and become a lich; a sickening, shriveled corpse that clings to a half-life for all eternity, an abomination in my eyes and in Anima’s. I would rather die than even consider it.”
“Arteth...” she said, eyeing him directly, “I would have you swear to me here and now that you would kill me should I ever consider it.”
If a Djinn could blanch, he must have just done so, because her expression softened, “Please.”
Before he could answer his perspective shifted, and he was no longer sitting in that little room of that little house. He was sitting in an endless void, the stars swimming in an endless sea of nothingness. Sitting on a lonely plain of grey sands, across from Surthath.
For a moment he was too stunned, and to a lesser extent, too terrified. But then he rose, unsheathing Verlangen, and scowled at his father, the person that had seen him turned into a raving monster, who had seen him split and caged inside of a dark, lonely place for centuries.
“What do you want?” he asked simply, frankly considering attacking Surthath outright in spite of the unimaginable foolishness of such an act.
“You cannot keep the promise asked of you.” Surthath replied, equally simply, and Arteth literally hissed.
“You have already decided on her fate then?!” the Djinn asked, “You desire her to become a lich to satisfy your damned prophecy?”
”The Second is the creator, the giver of life to the lifeless, yet bears only a false life herself...” Surthath said, quoting the words that supposedly foretold the Veil’s salvation, or destruction, “False-life, among other things, contemporary with the state of undeath.”
That was enough...
Arteth roared, darting forward with his twin-blade aimed straight for his father’s heart. Precisely as expected, Surthath stood, impossibly sidestepped the attack, and backhanded him, flinging his four hundred pound body aside like a rag doll.
He hit the ground hard, the air pushed from his lungs, and Surthath was there, slamming his head down into the earth and pinning him.
“Among other things, child.” Surthath said, “...Kaileena’s new identity is hers to decide. All she has to do is invent a new avenue of magicka.”
“Fuck you!” Arteth spat, “And fuck your-”
“You will not make that promise.” Surthath growled, his own eyes blazing with anger, “I still have the power to ensure it. The words will twist in your mouth. Now, be gone.”
Snarling in rage and humiliation, Arteth found himself standing in the middle of the house again, his chitin crown scraping the ceiling, blade bared in front of a very startled group of onlookers. He didn’t explain himself, pushing his way outside, where he threw his blade into the dirt, and went into a second tirade, seething, “This you shall not have, you fucking bastard! I will watch the veil ripped apart before I allow it! I will pull Moonshadow down from the heavens and into the void before I do!”
Just to settle his nerves, for he had been intentionally non-descriptive in the focus of his anger and knew precisely why, Arteth ignited the magicka in his veins and turned the sky red with searing heat and thunderbolts. Just for a moment, and then it calmed, as he calmed, spent.
Falling to the ground, he turned, to see Kaileena, terrified, shielding her brother, the others cowering in the doorway, and he chuckled bitterly, “Surthath will not allow me to make that promise. I am sorry, Kaileena, but in this you are on your own.”
She went a shade paler, understanding fully Surthath’s identity and authority, and her legs buckled. Gatsuyu took a hold of her, still eyeing him warily, one foot still in his home, as she began to shake.
She woke to the smell of burning meat. Not a bad start.
Then she felt her skin blistering.
Vala shifted and tried to rise, shakily, every part of herself aching horribly. The sun...it was only peeking through the thick clouds, but she was trapped; there was no shade, and definitely no way to burrow into the ground with the time she had.
Cursing, unable to rise with her half-mended wounds, she rolled up into her cloak, Toshisha inert and safe in her hand, and knew no more for a time.
“I miss what’s-her-face.” his Silkrit bodyguard complained, and Minamoto, Lord of the Central District, looked up from his pile of reports, eyeing his unlikely aid with amused curiosity.
Silver-skinned and distinctly reptilian, Koukatsuna was very distinctive among his kin thanks to the barbed swords he carried; Blood-Forged Blades of the Skraul, as well as the chromatically shifting Dragon tattoos all across his torso.
Of course, nothing to say of his virulent temper, which as of late had gotten even worse. He’d beaten an insubordinate officer unconscious.
“Vala had her own path to tread.” Minamoto replied, “I harbor no ill will for that. I cannot force a person to stay in one place or another, at least, not one like her.”
Koukatsuna huffed. Fearsome in battle...petulant in peace. Indeed, a good bit of that one reminded him of Lord Kiromichi. Those two might come to be the best of friends, if they didn’t kill each other first in a mutual fit of ill-conceived pique.
“You should be pleased.” Minamoto chided, “With both the Te Fukushu and Karyudo Kisai behind the vampyre lines, we’ve caused enough mayhem to prevent attacks on Fusestu and the surrounding countryside. With luck, we might be able to fully push them into the North District.”
“Humph.” Koukatsuna snapped back, “There are three Matriarchs left. I want to bag another. I have to do better than killing off the Eighth, the weakest of the bunch. I have a reputation to consider, you know!”
Vala had told him Uejini hadn’t been in the Dread Hammer’s favor when she and Koukatsuna had slain her. Otherwise, they would have likely failed. It must irk Koukatsuna that Starseeker, rest his weary bones, had defeated and slain one with the aid of the Te Fukushu, Adahj had likely killed another, Yokai had killed the strongest thus seen, and Kaileena had recently managed to kill yet another of middling strength.
It was foolish to put oneself on the same level as the Kamiyonanayo and a powerful enchantress like Kaileena, but then again, Koukatsuna struck him as being just a little foolish sometimes.
“Still three remaining.” Minamoto said, willing for now to play this game with his temperamental associate, “The strongest three. Koukatsuna would certainly do well to be patient for the opportunity.”
The bladedancer, a peculiar sort of warrior who channeled the body’s raw magicka into martial prowess, nodded, turning away and leaving him in peace to continue his work. Much needed and much appreciated; he had a war to win, after all.
Minamoto’s orders came in several hours later when he retired to bed.
“Two nights. Then we hit the vampyres again. If you must indulge, do it tonight.”
Replying only in a grunt, Koukatsuna closed the door and was on his way. Fair enough; he would drink tonight, then.
It was more than just pride guiding his impatience. Waru and Saku, his pair of vampyric Blood-Forged longswords, had a hunger all their own. And they were no longer satisfied with hybrids or Skraul chattel.
By the day their demands grew more insistent, and, try as he might to deny, dark, impulsive urges weighed down his mind, demanding that he satisfy them. Whenever he wasn’t out fighting, Koukatsuna intentionally left himself in a drunken stupor, fearing the possibility that the swords might dare to do more than merely suggest.
Likewise, he drowned himself in booze because it made him unable to remember. Remember her-no, wait...what had he been thinking?
Oh yeah. He had to appease them with Matriarch blood. Soon. His sanity couldn’t take much more of this...
His allies eyed him uneasily as he paced to and fro, occasionally hissing as his wounds sealed themselves shut thanks to his Draconic regeneration.
“It’s so, so very frustrating...” Yokai finally said, “...not being a god anymore. Having to reacquaint yourself with mortality and its limitations is all so...tiresome.”
Amaya, current leader of the Renmei Hyakusho, eyed him sidelong, but said nothing. Kaimei, having quickly worked his way into his confidence, shrugged, “We saw the battle and it could’ve gone either way. You’re still more powerful than any enchanter I’ve seen, at least.”
Shrugging as well, an admittedly incongruous gesture while his Draconic limbs were still revealed, Yokai took a seat in the basement of their new safe-house in Higoi, “That irritating venture aside, what progress have we made?”
Kaimei frowned, “The Renmei Hyakusho have spread their influence into both this village and Kazeatari, maintaining a safe distance from the iron tower as you requested. Recruiting is at an all-time high, with the people rallying to the cause of unseating the Hitorigami and no less than three of the Four Lords, for Minamoto has always been a respected leader, doing what he can within the limits of his precious honor. Stealing Lord Takauji’s taxed fish and rice shipments and dispersing them among the poor was a significant use of manpower, though every beggar and peasant of the South and Central District nods in respect at the Renmei Hyakusho and any that have some level of affiliation.”
Nodding, Yokai considered how, if at all, the Skraul might play a part in his plan, then sighed, “This revolution will have to be finished soon, before the vampyres finally decide to attack in full. Teikoku must be re-unified if it is to stand a chance.”
Kaimei, agreeing fully, dared to ask, “How do you plan to deal with the Skraul, sir?”
Chuckling, Yokai eyed the man sidelong, “Sir? Well...lest I’m mistaken there are only three Matriarchs remaining. Kaileena claims to have dealt with one just recently, and who knows, maybe she and her allies will score a few more telling blows.”
“And weaken themselves in the process.” Amaya reasoned, to which he nodded, “I have the tools at my disposal to deal with them. I just need to use them in the right ways, at the right times. For now, we have to consolidate our hold...and make sure that the Hitorigami remains oblivious. At least, in the specifics.”
“And Kaileena herself?” she asked, calling to mind a major curiosity shared by many under his employ. Kaileena, that oh-so-unusual of enchanters, had earned a great deal of respect among the Karyudo Kisai and the people in general for her heroism. And yet they would likely face each other in battle.
“Unless she puts me in a position where I have no other option, I would prefer that we not fight...” Yokai replied, “...I respect her far too much to kill her.”
For a moment, just a moment, a flicker of doubt crossed his ally’s expression in regards to that explanation, and Yokai laughed, “If you worry that she will paralyze me with fear having slain me before, fret not. I have a much deeper understanding of her now, and know a great deal that would disarm her, if not spell her undoing. But those are weapons I hope I never have to use. If I unseat the Hitorigami, she will have no choice but to ally with me to fight off the Skraul. I might not be a god, but outside of the Kamiyonanayo that have come at Surthath’s behest, I am the among the strongest beings on the continent.”