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

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Chapter 3

Dekeshi awaited Chikara and Warugashikoi in her quarters; a captain’s galley at the rear of “Havoc’s Reign”.

As one of the rulers of the Skraul Empire, she hadn’t settled for anything less than lavish. The galley, more a hall, really, was roughly the size of a two floor mansion, complete with servant quarters, a full dining area with floating candelabrum and stocked trays of raw meat or potent spirits, a throne room and shrine with walls of stained glass, and a “trophy room”.

The last was her favorite by far, though the chamber only ever had one trophy at any given time. It was the place where she kept her current plaything before having her moved to the servant’s quarters, mind and will irreparably broken.

Vala, after her “demotion”, had spent some time there before earning a reprieve by their father. Elurra would be the next to experience her wiles, when the pretty Djinn was finally captured.

The twin primes; her own grandchildren, appeared suddenly by means of magickal transport, and the matriarch frowned, seeing now that she would have to wait to have her fun. They both knew it too, reading her expression effortlessly, and shifted uneasily.

“Speak.” Dekeshi chided, and Chikara stepped forward, “The coast is confirmed as cleared. All of the ancient sites are accounted for.”

“Pity...” Dekeshi mused, “I would have liked this part to have been wrapped up by now. I assume the others work apace as well?”

Chikara shrugged, “Most of the North District has been surveyed and we have agents working in the South District. The resonator would not be so active if the site were not somewhere in this cursed land.”

It seemed so, indeed. Humans had migrated here from far to the south for a reason. They too felt the faint emanations of something that they, at least, did not understand.

But Dur’Artoth knew well what Teikoku hid, and he desired it greatly. This entire invasion on Aurora waged for that reason. He wanted as much time as possible in order to find it before appearing in his full glory and leading them to the conquest of the Veil and all its mortal worlds.

“Soon, then. In the meantime, now that our work along the coast is done, it’s time to move inland.”

Both of the twins smiled at that, itching for more glory.

“Send the order to the rest of the fleet. We move into the West District, and we teach the humans the meaning of fear...”

They are moving West, into the mainland. Expect a bombing run.” Elurra whispered telepathically, both to Kiromichi and Adahj. That done, the Djinn bladedancer threw on her weapons belt and was out the door of her private quarters in Kiromichi’s Flagship.

I have my underlings working on it. We’ll get one good barrage if we can angle the ship right when they make their approach. Know their exact coordinates?” Kiromichi asked in reply, to which she had to calculate, “North-69, West-145. North of Yokai’s tower. Watch the channel. Be there in four hours.

Oh, and where will you be?” he asked, to which she replied, “Lying in wait. Good hunting.”

Invoking the latent magicka flowing through her body, Elurra teleported herself into the Faded Veil, the intermediary of realms both mortal and immortal, masking her presence from any of Dur’Artoth’s spies with shifting illusions. There she would remain until the opportune moment to strike.

She considered herself, among other things, a warrior, but to stop the Skraul she would play assassin. Vilaseth had taught her much of that...

“I’ll be joining in the battle.” Mikoto stated simply, as if it were that simple. Adahj didn’t want to needlessly risk them when he himself could not die, but respected his wishes, “You will be included in my personal wards, as safe as you could be anywhere else.”

While his counselors shouted their vehement protests, the Hitorigami donned a suit of armor the colors of winter; white, grey, and silver, with a dark, intricately embroidered linen scarf and cloak. Adahj would see that suit proudly stained black with Skraul blood before the battle ended, if he could...

For his part the Djinn wore his glassteel plate, his Everice weapons at the ready in the shape of flanged maces, for he knew that the primary combatants would be Koriko; a four-legged insect race with skin of chitin. They would need to penetrate through the beasts’ natural armor in addition to the unnatural one to have much effect.

“Kiromichi will hit them from the sea. We will have two dozen capable soldiers on the boarding party for direct assault immediately after, as well as a thousand strong in light cavalry should the flagship be threatened enough to descend.”

Mikoto frowned, dissatisfied, “They will still have ample time to unload their munitions all across the West District before we take them to ground. Need I remind you that it’s the most heavily populated area in the entire nation?”

True enough. For humans and most other creatures of the Veil, water was life. The West District, having the largest breadth along the ocean, definitely boasted the largest population, with Central and South running close second and third. It was the absolute worst place for the Skraul to attack and, indeed, Dekeshi had been relentless in bombarding the coastland settlements in recent days, provoking their retaliation. Thousands had died by her hand, and it was time to deal with her once and for all.

“The Matriarch has to die early on.” Adahj noted, “Her fleet is just too large to defeat without it being in total disarray.”

Mikoto nodded, aware of the previous failures against that one, “How long will you be able to prevent her from creating storms?”

“Not long.” Adahj replied bitterly, considering his most powerful spell, that of a complex abjuration that warped the residual magicka around the target, entrapping them and preventing the use of certain powerful abilities, “The spell is highly involved. We’ll just have to hurry.”

“So be it. Take me there.” The Hitorigami commanded, to which he obeyed, transporting them first to a patch of earth many miles west of the capital beside a copse of trees that hid a small pond. As an excellent ley-line to use in guiding long-distance teleportation, he’d favored this spot the moment he found it. They’d enjoyed an evening repast here on one occasion nearly a year ago.

Taking a knee, for in no other instance could he be at Mikoto’s height, Adahj embraced him, planting a brief kiss upon his lips, their tongues meeting before he slipped away, tilting his head so that he could affix a single eye upon him.

“Remember...” The Djinn reminded him, “I cannot die, at least not permanently. I don’t want you to risk yourself to save me. You have to live. You’re too important to this land...and to me.”

“I know this well.” the Hitorigami replied, eyes averted, “I do not wish to see you don’t needlessly risk yourself either, alright? We’ll deal with Dekeshi, and then the rest...and then I might make our relationship public.”

Surprised, Adahj only stared, before, “Are you certain? I don’t understand the stigma attached to it here, but I’m well aware of it...”

Mikoto shrugged, “I am beloved by the people. All in my family are, and in repelling the Skraul it shall be more so. They will accept you, in time.”

Nodding, Adahj averted his own eye, lest his mate see the moisture there.

Recasting his spell, the Djinn teleported them to a point along the Matriarch’s projected path; the village of Kaisui, second in size to Kiromichi’s destroyed capital of Kuchiwaki.

The West district was shaped something like a crescent moon, its interior beside the Central District. Its western end was a sort of lip of low-to-medium elevated land, a stretch too wide to be a peninsula. Kaisui was along the northern edge of that lip, south of Yokai’s Tower (The name had not been altered, though it was again in the possession of the Hitorigami’s loyal soldiers). A river flowed south of it, allowing the use of water mills and irrigation.

It was a prosperous place, filled with good, hardworking people, though most had fled long ago to refugee camps hugging the edges of the Central District. With luck, they could return home soon.

They materialized at the head of a small army and their boarding party of two dozen. Each was armed with either a katana or naginata, as well as a flintlock pistol. Standard infantry normally had a rifle, but in those cramped and frantic conditions there would only be time for one shot each before it was all close quarters. Then again, with maces in hand, Adahj could clear a room all on his own.

The humans startled at their arrival, and more so when they recognized him. While most had never laid eyes on their ruler, all knew the Hitorigami by his armor and by his voice, the absolute authority and confidence he displayed as he greeted the men. Their distress quieted almost instantly.

Adahj looked on, glad that most had difficulty reading his face, for only tears now could betray his thoughts at the sight of him.

“We have one hour at the most. They will come.” he noted, and taking a seat, banishing his tender emotions for another time, he found that Mikoto did not argue, grunting noncommittally as he spoke to each of the soldiers that might very well die in his name.

“Odd they didn’t think to contact us about this...” Kaileena mused as she put the scrying orb away. Arteth, sitting across from her now that they were back in the iron tower, shrugged, “You need to find your cure. That’s more important than a battle. At least, it is to me.”

She smiled at him, albeit wearily, before walking over, “Well, we’ve found well over fifty things that are not cures, at least. That’s progress.”

“What we need is some sort of concentrated life energy, like Vitrium but purer. It should at least slow the Eternal Return’s progress.” the Kamiyonanayo noted, to which she sighed, “Yes, but there’s just no sort of theoretical Liquid Life outside of what I’ve already synthesized.”

Before he said anything more Kaileena stopped him short, “I have no intention of living as some sort of quasi-vampyre. Besides, with more to feed on, the Eternal Return might just kill me even faster.”

Arteth grunted, “Well enough. Becoming a true vampyre wouldn’t help; the Eternal Return attacks the body in a way that bypasses sanguine regeneration. I also put some research into localized chronomancy; simply turning your body back into a state before becoming infected with its touch. No luck there; there were records of another mortal attempting that only to become a slightly younger version of himself, still dying. Likewise, simply transferring your essence into another body would not work; you would still be metaphysically linked to your original form. I fear that the powers that be are most pervasive, and bypassing them will be all but impossible.”

“Then we have to fight it head on; alter some aspect of my being that will render me immune to its corruption.” Kaileena noted, thinking, “Your father might have given us a clue, though I don’t think he realized it.”

Arteth scowled, but motioned her on, ““False-life, among other things contemporary with the state of undeath...Kaileena’s new identity is hers to decide. All she has to do is invent a new avenue of magicka”. It means that Surthath intends for me to be...changed, but not necessarily a lich. I shudder to guess, but are there other such altered states of being?”

The Kamiyonanayo scratched his chin, sinking deeper into his sitting cushion before the fireplace, “Another way to separate from one’s body is to become a wraith. It’s an incorporeal being constructed by manipulation of ectoplasm, not necrotic energy. It can animate other objects and could theoretically inhabit a construct.”

“Being unable to feel the touch of another living being doesn’t sound appealing, but against death, who knows. Anything else?”

Arteth shrugged, “None come to mind. I don’t like the options here...but then again, if my father intended for you to create an unheard of means to save yourself, then I would be unable to help either way.”

Kaileena pondered this, trying not to hiss with frustration, and the Kamiyonanayo drew her onto the cushion with him, pinning her within the reach of his arm, “You’re one of the smartest people I know, my little fox, and definitely the most inventive. You can find a way.”

Nodding her gratitude, Kaileena thought aloud, “Surthath clearly thinks I can figure something out, so let’s start with the things I know; Enchanting and Alchemy. I would think to enchant an item to contain the Eternal Return’s energy and then destroy it, but that seems impossible. There’s no potion or brew that will save me either...transmutation perhaps?”

When no answer was forthcoming, Kaileena just relaxed against him, resting her head on his chest, which rose and fell slowly but regularly. With the warmth of his body and that of the fire, she comfortably slipped into a half-awake state.

That was it for now, then. If there was a way to save herself without becoming a monster, then Kaileena would grit her teeth and find it, and Surthath be damned for forcing this on her!

She wished her friend the best of luck with Dekeshi, for her body was inexorably weakening, even as her understanding of Magicka’s complexities grew...

Dekeshi’s fleet made their approach at dusk, surrounded by an indeterminate miasma, magickal in origin, from which gauging their exact number was difficult.

“Clever.” Mikoto noted dryly, and his Kamiyonanayo ally nodded, drawing his ice weapons. The plan was set; after Kiromichi inflicted as much damage as he could on the enemy vessels with tactical artillery strikes, they would board the flagship and Adahj, Elurra, and himself would engage Dekeshi directly with their combined magicka. The men would deal with the Koriko and lesser Skraul. They had to.

Neither he nor the gods themselves could mitigate the casualties his people would suffer if they couldn’t halt their advance into the West District.

The fleet drew closer, and Mikoto heard the distant crackle, akin to thunder, as every ship in Kiromichi’s fleet fired in unison over a mile away. A moment later, those hundreds of shells hit the Skraul fleet, and it was like watching a miniature sun. Any mortal armada would have been obliterated under the relentless barrage, but not a single ship fell.

“Damn you...” Mikoto hissed, but Adahj touched his shoulder, “We expected this. The point is to whittle away at their protections so we can teleport up and possibly dispel it from there. Be patient.”

Nodding, the Hitorigami nonetheless began to pace, gripping the handle of his heavily enchanted Katana, Heikiku, or “Azure Sky”. He was no Itaku, or Minamoto, but he could pull his weight on the battlefield when there was need, especially when backed by his conventional magicka. With his armor shrugging off any and all projectiles, even those with enchantments, all he had to worry about was his blade-work.

Kiromichi managed a second shelling, and a third, and indeed, two ships along the periphery broke under the onslaught, falling from the sky aflame, but of a fleet of at least twenty-five, two kills wasn’t encouraging.

With that, Adahj slashed his hand across the open air, and a wave of energy coalesced into a thin vertical bar. It then spread outward into a flat doorway, twice a man’s height, its shimmering depths focusing into a solid black sheet.

“Ware, for we will need magickal light to see inside Dekeshi’s wards. Mikoto, you handle that.” Adahj noted, drawing and bending the flat sheet outward to the appropriate size necessary to engulf the entire line of soldiers, “On your order, my Hitorigami.”

Mikoto waited until the Skraul fleet went out of range of Kiromichi’s artillery by four hundred yards...five hundred...six-

“Now, take us up!” Mikoto yelled, Heikiku flaring a silvery blue that resonated outward from four teardrop-shaped blue diamonds set in its Tsuba Guard. The portal snapped backward, towards him, Adahj, and his boarding party.

They materialized instantly in a void, and a second burst of radiance revealed that they and the ground at their feet had landed right on the deck of one of the flying ships. The Koriko surrounding them recovered quickly from their abrupt appearance, attacking from all sides.

The soldiers drew edged weapons and attacked in four organized lines of six, forming a square to move on each advancing side, spears in front. One thrust with the spears to bloody, and then each spear wielder to the left stood sideways, allowing their sword wielding companions to swing, then returned to readied position all in the space of a few heartbeats.

Adahj leaped over their line and flung himself into the enemy, every hit from his maces cracking chitin exoskeleton and spewing blood, even as his magicka sought out Dekeshi, the better to cage her greater abilities. His bulk made attack from that side impossible, allowing the smaller human soldiers to bolster the other lines.

The Koriko slave-soldiers actually seemed to lose heart for battle, and aptly avoided him, seeking choicer prey. He boxed them in, forcing a short, brutal confrontation.

“Where is she, my friend?” Mikoto asked, and the Kamiyonanayo shook his head, “Elurra’s working on it. For now, just kill!”

Elurra was near? Perfect! She couldn’t see the pretty Djinn but her companions had betrayed her proximity.

Dekeshi readied herself, invisible and undetectable. She’d poisoned her weapon’s edge with a paralytic toxin, one that would incapacitate Elurra long enough for her to be bound. The battle was already working against the invaders; humans were just not up to par with blood-crazed, chitin-plated, six-limbed, ferocious killing machines.

Adahj, who’d defeated Enshi and thwarted the attack on Hitorigami City, plowed through the Koriko, striking mercilessly in places where the mortal line was weakening, all the while casting divination after divination, trying to locate her. While his attacks brutalized her thralls, the human lines nonetheless threatened collapse.

He was making progress in finding her, at least until Chikara and Warugashikoi went into the fray and began pushing him from his human allies in order to isolate and flank him. That was fine...she’d deal with Elurra, and her primes could take Adahj.

Even then, her crewmen were spearing humans, flinging them off the railing, or pinning them to the deck and shredding them, blood and meat flying in hails of gruesome chunks. Children could be so messy...sort of adorable, really.

Heikiku!” an armored human yelled, pushing them back, kicking and shrieking, by a tangible field of force, and Dekeshi blanched as she recognized him. Even through a summoned translucent barrier she knew that face, that scent. The Hitorigami himself...

A terrible pain erupted in her stomach, and Dekeshi looked down to find the points of a pair of crystal blades poking through her robes. “Gotcha.” Elurra snapped, cruelly twisting her thinblades in her gullet.

The matriarch twisted, impossibly fast, backhanding the Djinn, but before she could do more her entire body lit up with destructive magicka. Nothing made it through her personal defenses, of course, but the display blinded her momentarily.

As she recovered, three hundred and fifty pounds of Djinn slammed into her, the kinetic force absorbed by her wards, but the momentum pushed her back to the wall and splintered a support beam.

More annoyed than threatened, Dekeshi invoked a gust of hurricane-strength wind, and Adahj was pushed back, landing on fours. The wounds in her gut began to heal, and the Matriarch smiled, before a white katana impaled her through the sternum.

That was all that Adahj could manage before the twin primes were upon him again. He paid for his actions; each of their blades scored hits and drank in blue blood.

He flipped his Everice weapons in hand, heads down, and pushed out while twirling his wrists, parrying simultaneous strikes with a spinning flourish. Finding his footing, Adahj followed up with a series of attacks that forced each of the primes further to the sides, his weapons converting into slim rapiers.

As they got far enough from each other, he suddenly spun on the larger one, hoping for an easier target. The Skraul became a blur, moving so quickly that anticipating the counterattack was impossible.

The Djinn calculated in that next instant the more probable spaces the vampyre might actually be, and then deduced the two points that, when pushed simultaneously, combined for the highest probability of both hitting and putting an opponent off balance. Such a process would’ve been impossible for a mortal, but the mind of a Djinn, specifically, his particular brood of Djinn, had an incredibly developed cerebral cortex that could process information at an unprecedented rate. His points chosen, a forty-six percent chance of success, Adahj lunged.

And hit empty air.

“Stings...does it?” Mikoto asked, pushing Heikiku deeper into the Skraul’s chest, “Its enchantments are potent. Like Lord Minamoto’s, it’s meant to pierce defenses. Unlike that blade, Sasu, Heikiku is enchanted, alongside the ability to create magickal shields, to pierce magickal defenses, and fulfills that task with considerable gusto.”

Black blood poured from the Matriarch’s wound, and he scowled, “Your defenses are gone. You have lost, creature.”

Dekeshi smiled, then began to laugh, her veins surging with Dur’Artoth’s power, “Not quite...not at all actually. Look behind you.”

The Hitorigami, foolishly, obliged, to see Warugashikoi the Cunning lifting Adahj over his head with an outstretched hand.

“My grandchildren amuse me so...” she said amusedly, placing her hand on the human’s, beginning to pull the blade loose, “The stronger one gains speed by feeding, and the cunning one gains strength. It’s so delightfully backwards, so delightfully unexpected. Warugashikoi, do kill the pest.”

Stone-faced, he obliged, pushing his other arm all the way to the elbow into Adahj’s chest.

“NO!” the Hitorigami screamed, his face a mask of absolute panic, and she backhanded him, splitting his lip and sending up a hail of teeth, all the while slipping her other hand out, trident striking supernaturally fast.

Elurra gasped, slipping back, but the points still pricked her knee, and like that, she was on the deck, twitching. In his last moments, Adahj waved his hand in two swift gestures, and the Hitorigami and all of his remaining soldiers vanished. Then he too fell to the deck, his still-beating heart in Warugashikoi’s hand.

Elurra’s body wavered with the stirrings of an automatically activating teleportation, began to dissipate entirely, but Dekeshi had just enough time to cast a counterspell and ground her. Adahj’s body began to collapse upon itself, and knowing that a goodly portion of his remaining magicka would soon be released, she conjured another gust of wind that unceremoniously tossed him off the ship.

“Havoc’s Reign” wavered in the sky, knocking a few Koriko overboard, as a monumental explosion buffeted its hull. Even then, her fleet crossed over a large human settlement, Kaisui.

“Level the village and the surrounding countryside. Let nothing ever grow here again.” Dekeshi ordered, wincing as her wounds sealed, her enhanced regeneration rendering everything but a complete dismemberment nothing more than a minor irritant.

“And the thousand humans below?” Warugashikoi dared to ask, and her vicious smile was answer enough; ”What thousand?"

The combat ended, the Hitorigami escaped but one Djinn killed and another captured. All in all, a good day. The Koriko fed off whatever was left of the fallen.

Dekeshi lowered Iki-o-Korosu, sighing as her muscles strained. Still hurt a bit. That was alright, for sometimes pain could be pleasure...

Eyeing Elurra, now being shackled with darksteel, her body severed from her magicka as it flowed into the ore and was corrupted into shadowy energy, the Matriarch knew she would again explore that aspect of pain most extensively.

Mikoto tried, unsuccessfully, to rise from his knee. He had no luck there. Adahj was gone. Though he would live anew as all of his kin did, his resurrection would take years...decades even. Teikoku didn’t have that long. He didn’t have that long!

“Goodbye, then...” he said quietly, “...My dearest friend, should my end come before you return.”

He shook away his pain, looking to the sky, miles to the south of Kaisui, which was being bombarded by a hail of cannon fire. The men watched despondently as it, and the thousand strong he’d foolishly left in proximity, were obliterated.

It was too much. Too much. Despite himself and his code, he averted his eyes, and hated himself for it. Kiromichi’s fleet was no doubt in full retreat, and would become perfectly useless as the Skraul made their way further inland to butcher the West District.

Hitorigami!” Kaileena’s panicked voice echoed in his head, the telepathy no doubt thanks to her own Kamiyonanayo lover, “You need to get back to the capital.

I know that!” he snapped, ”...with Dekeshi-

Not Dekeshi, Yokai! He’s attacking Hitorigami City! You have to do something!

Yokai knew it was underhanded, even cowardly, to attack when his enemies were engaged with the Skraul in noble combat. But sometimes it just paid to be prudent. Teikoku needed to be unified.

His allies in the Renmei Hyakusho, alongside many of the citizenry, displeased by the current regime, waged their own battles nearby the entrance to the armory, where, among other things, the most powerful enchanted items in all the lands were stored.

They’d masked their approach by inciting small mobs and setting fires, stirring up the soldiers and leading them away from the sites of infiltration. That done, they quickly picked off the few stragglers with crossbows, favoring them over loud rifles that would betray their efforts.

Now he rode upon the Dragon Tengu, at the back of her neck where her spines would not impale him. Let this be a distraction to end all, the better to conceal the actual attack.

Tengu’s ferocity was unmatched; a hail of fangs and claws, undulating to scoop up guards and hurl them great distances, breathing death to scorch the rooftops and battlements. Roaring with feral glee, she was a terror, slaying twenty in the few seconds since she dropped out of the sky.

As the sentries around the palace retaliated to the initial rush, she activated her innate ability and called down a thunderstorm, attacking with sheets of cold rain and lightning strikes, which chained to reach multiple targets thanks to the clinging moisture. Despite the lethality of her efforts, most of it was only for show. Had he wanted to, Yokai could have slain dozens more with his innate abilities.

The armies in the city came to him in force, just as he needed them to, and a mental affirmative from Kaimei told him the armory was being breached.

The families of those who joined him, as planned, had already left the capital, on their way to Higoi, and would serve as a front for his rebellion when it became more direct and public. Makutsa, also his, was too dangerous to send them to, with the Skraul presence and the increased militarization of the region.

But as he now witnessed the complete disarray as Tengu leveled a four-floor building, he considered just taking the capital outright. The Four Lords wouldn’t dare resist him while their districts were being attacked!

Kaimei...” he ordered, “Instruct our allies to gather at the second location. With luck...

With luck, they would regroup, count their new trinkets, and attack in force. If he caused enough damage now it would be the quickest civil war in the nation’s history. He could even revisit the possibility of an army of homunculi, as he’d marshaled during his initial insurrection.

Yokai...” Kaileena’s voice echoed in his mind with an intensity he didn’t remember her possessing, “What are you doing here?

He smiled, looking for her among the masses. Tengu inhaled deeply, her mouth surging with the same crackling energy that regularly discharged from her spines, and released in it a killing breath of charged plasma, melting the outer wall into the cubical royal palace, much to the soldier’s despair as they tried in vain to shoot through her impenetrable coat of scales.

Yokai was suddenly ripped from his perch, and before gravity could take effect he found himself standing inside the palace, or what he assumed was such, across from Kaileena and the Hitorigami himself, who appeared wounded, a stain of red marring his white armor at the upper left arm.

He dared to observe further. The room was roughly forty by forty paces, mostly white stone. A pair of fountains flowed into the chamber, carrying cherry blossom petals. The Throne Room, then.

“I wouldn’t have guessed so much simplicity, My Hitorigami...” Yokai mused, eyeing his foes, “I imagined you more of a bejeweled gold type, who sat upon a pile of loot and the skulls of enchanters your family enslaved for generations.”

The Hitorigami shrugged, “And what would the man who thought himself god sit upon?”

“Men stay dead.” Yokai noted, and the Hitorigami took a step forward, brandishing his sword as Kaileena summoned her pentacle staff to her, “True, but you’ve already been killed once. Again shouldn’t be so difficult.”

Yokai!” Tengu projected, “A Kamiyonanayo attacks me. Deal with them quickly.

“I am beyond death. I am beyond You.” Yokai growled, his arms and legs shifting into Dragon-shape, armored in indestructible scales, “Let us see if you’ve learned anything since our last bout, Kaileena.”

As he recovered from evading the deadly breath of the Dragon, Arteth cast his magicka into Verlangen’s gem, creating seven illusionary doppelgangers. Each sprinted in a different direction and took to the air, the true Arteth maneuvering around the enemy as her serpentine body caught an updraft and ascended.

“Do not resist me, child of Surthath!” Tengu hissed, her massive wings allowing her to outpace him, “I do not wish to offend him by sending you back in pieces.”

Snarling an incantation which was mimicked by his illusionary doubles, he surrounded the Dragon with an aura of flame, and inverted it, burning her from all sides. Shrieking, more in anger than pain, the Dragon changed direction, only to find the aura following her, though it only covered the upper third of her body.

Tengu snarled out her own spell, and the aura, as well as his duplicates, were dispelled by an abjuration. As she began to draw in her killing breath, Arteth cursed and glided to a spot where he was shielded by one of the palace walls. He groaned as his feet touched ground, looking back to find the tip of his wing dissolved away, only a charred, smoking nub in its place.

Cursing, for it would be a few seconds before he could fly again, Arteth looked up to see the Dragon, who was in turn looking down at him, a second deadly breath attack readied. He gasped an arcane couplet, teleporting himself to an adjacent alleyway in the noble quarter.

Thinking quickly, he re-cast his doppelganger spell and sent each one running in a different direction, all the while casting a charm of invisibility upon himself. He sighed with fatigue and reviewed his remaining options. They weren’t encouraging.

Sadly, he’d used too much of his power lately in research. Most of his energy had been expended before the fight even began. If he was to defeat such an enemy, he would have to out-think her.

Each of the illusions took flight, charging the Dragon, and he again cast a teleportation. As the Dragon broke apart his copies, he slipped in, his invisibility lost, and landed on her flank, his wings narrowed to resist being influenced by the wind. Maintaining his balance, the Djinn brought out his blade as Tengu’s head snaked around and tried to snatch him up. Her scales might have been all but indestructible, but her gums were a different story, and she turned back, hissing, her mouth bloodied.

The Dragon snarled in frustration, but her spines began to crackle with energy as she called upon an isolated thunderstorm and gained in altitude.

“The storm strikes the highest targets, fool!” she hissed, flying directly into a swirling thunderhead.

“I know...” he replied, activating his next spell, “I just have to reverse who is what. A momentary reciprocity spell will do the trick.”

The Dragon tried to find a rapid descent and escape, almost succeeded, but four successive bolts of mundane lightning struck her back, and, for she now had his intolerance to the raw electrical output, screamed as her flesh roasted inside of her impenetrable armor. Sprinting almost vertically along her length, the Djinn carefully ended his spell, slashed Verlangen across her mouth again, then aimed for the eyes with his most lethal spell.

As the Hitorigami met Yokai’s charge, Kaileena activated her third horn ring and summoned a pair of Turgon; invisible, incorporeal beings from the Aether. The creatures hissed, and turned to Yokai, who batted aside the Hitorigami’s sword with ease, delivering a baleful series of lightning-fast open palm strikes to Mikoto’s abdomen, finishing with a shallow knee-kick that sent him sprawling.

Kaileena also activated the enchantment in her bracelet, and a trio of ethereal daggers, preternaturally sharp, launched through the air at him. The deadly projectiles bounced off Yokai’s right hand and knee as he curled into a defensive posture, and he bolted forward, backhanding one Turgon and shredding it with his claws, then sinking down and double palm-striking the other as it tried to flank him. Undulating his body in an almost serpentine manner, Yokai slashed at her, but his extended claws bounced off the ward generated by her first horn ring.

Using her pentacle staff, she flung him back with a burst of telekinesis, and backpedaled to regain a good distance. He hadn’t used conventional spells yet, and she had no intention of taking the brunt of his physical strikes.

Yokai, for his part, seemingly had no intention of letting her gain distance. His scale-shrouded legs pumped furiously, crossing a stone throw in an instant. A barrage of strikes rebounded off her ward, and Kaileena gasped with the sudden loss of magicka as it was consumed to maintain the defense.

Yokai snarled, breathed deeply, and exhaled fiery plasma, burning the ground into glass. The remaining Turgon hissed, and flitted away, seeking an opening. Emitting a conical blast of telekinesis strong enough to break bones, Kaileena struck Yokai in kind, and was rewarded with a crunching sound as his shoulder impacted.

Grunting, Yokai backpedaled, crying “again?!”, as his bones immediately began repairing themselves. Instant regeneration...

The Hitorigami rose, and after finding a his traditional kendo stance, delivered a low slash to the back of Yokai’s ankle, only for it to bounce off his impenetrable scales.

“How?!” he cursed, and Yokai knocked aside his parry and sliced into his exposed right thigh, “Dragon scales are a mundane protection, fool, and I know the specific nature of your enchantments.”

He caught the other Turgon as it tried to latch onto him again with an outstretched hand, and squeezed it to death contemptuously, “As well as those you possess, Kaileena. Submit.”

But then he stopped, at first perplexed, then...horrified.

“Tengu...” Yokai gasped, almost pitifully, “Where did you go? Tengu?”

An item pulsed in a satchel hanging from his belt, though he didn’t see it, and Yokai’s new purple eyes went wide as he reached some realization. Arteth appeared behind him, his spiked talons impaling Yokai to the floor through the shoulders.

“The Dragon is dead. And you have lost.” The Kamiyonanayo replied coldly, but, impossibly, Yokai whispered a final imprecation, just before Arteth clubbed the back of his head with the pommel of the fanged blade. A burst of sizzling energy engulfed Yokai, then dissipated, leaving nothing but his imprint on the floor.

As her fleet scoured the lands beneath them, Dekeshi had her prize placed in the trophy room. By her request, Elurra had been stripped naked and bound in a waist-high pillory, her ankles secured in a pair of shackles chained to the floor and anchored in an iron plate. For good measure, the entire room, crafted specifically for this reason, served as a dampener to all but the matriarch’s own clerical-based magicka, which was fed by the Dread Hammer himself.

The Djinn’s runes, normally blazing with inner light, were dull and faded, hardly recognizable. A pity, because reading those runes had given her quite a few ideas for new enchantments.

“You awaken.” Dekeshi mused as she saw Elurra stir, and the Djinn shrugged, appraising her situation, “Not a good thing, I would guess.”

Dekeshi backhanded her for that, putting enough force in the blow to knock out a tooth, “I forbid you to speak.”

Elurra opened her mouth, no doubt to offer some other snarky remark, but found that no sound emerged. Dekeshi backhanded her again, just to be prudent.

“Oh, worry not. I will find much better things for you to do with your mouth...” the matriarch laughed, walking over to the far wall, from which hung many assorted instruments, “...but we have time now. So much time.”

Yes...this would do nicely.

Along the south-eastern edge of Teikoku, Vala had found her temporary abode. Smugglers must have used it as a place to store their goods, or perhaps a hunter had made it as a shelter he could use while out in the bush. Either way, the small one-room shack she’d stumbled onto was secluded, a primitive sort of way.

She would’ve been embarrassed by a stay here in her days of palaces and servants and sparkling gems, but it would serve as a home while she meditated and mentally prepared to take back some of what was rightfully hers. When her traitorous sisters saw her again, they would tremble in fear!

It’d taken an hour or two to board up the door and bolt it shut for good measure. There were a few old tools inside for that, and now the only means of entry was through a window she’d obscured with a few fallen branches and a canvas tarp. When she wanted to enter the cabin she could simply remove the branches and slip in through the cloth.

Tommorow night she would scout out the surrounding areas for anything interesting or dangerous. The thought of Yokai showing up again was a problem, but she could project a telepathic aura that would prevent her from being magickally tracked. It would sap some of her focus at all times, but she could manage. The lessons bestowed upon her by the Djinn of Surthath had greatly enhanced her capabilities...and with her lost powers as a matriarch in addition, she would be invincible!

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