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

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Chapter 4

“We need to talk about this...” the Kamiyonanayo said, and Kaileena nodded, slumped against the palace wall, panting.

Tengu’s body was being carted out by day laborers, a good four dozen of them, upon a long train of carts all linked with chains. Perhaps they would bury her, perhaps they would burn her. Kaileena winced at the thought, despondent, unable to catch her breath.

The Hitorigami was currently marshaling an army to chase down Yokai’s lieutenants, and honestly, she admitted to herself she’d spent most of her stored magicka long before the battle ensued. Her performance had been just that; an act, a bluff. She’d been forced to tap into her own life energy, Blood Magicka, to fuel some of her last enchantments. Which, as the Eternal Return not only prevented her energy from restoring, but minutely drained it over time, doing so had been a very bad idea. Her herbs and mendicants would remedy the issue, but only for a time.

Soon, she would be too exhausted to leave the tower. After that, she would be too exhausted to move...

“So much death.” she gasped, wheezing, watching a few citizens wrapping fallen palace soldiers and carrying them way, “When will it end?”

Arteth shrugged, having little means to answer.

“Were the Skraul not bad enough? Now we have humans killing humans, all for some ill-conceived revolt. I have little doubt that seeing the Renmei Kisai aiding as they are in the war efforts the Hitorigami will see fit to free them. But still they flock to this man, this thing. I’d heard the rumors about Yokai’s resurrection...” Kaileena breathed, sighing, “That was why I’d been keeping an eye out for him. But I never really thought...”

“That he lives again does not reduce the bravery it took for you to defeat him.” Arteth replied, laying his hand on her shoulder, “Nor the service you did for this land.”

Kaileena nodded, too tired to say more, when a sudden thought jolted her, allowing her to rise to her feet. She waved the Kamiyonanayo away, focusing.

“Yokai is alive.” She said, and saw Arteth nod, “After I’d drained all of his life energy. With the Eternal Return running through his body, there was none of that left for him to use to rebirth. That means...”

“That means he found a way to cheat the powers that be...” Arteth breathed, his hands clenching, “To cheat the Eternal Return, and gain new life.”

“We have to find him.” Kaileena said, her body shaking with mixed fatigue and exhilaration. There was a way. Yokai had found it. They would find him again, and combat him. They would force him to tell them how he’d done it. For the first time in over a year, Kaileena had hope again. She would live!

“We’ve bloodied him this day.” Arteth noted, eyeing the fluid still searing with heat that stained his fanged blade, “And he has not the powers of a god.”

“But he is still formidable nonetheless. We will have to be careful.” Kaileena said with a nod, before embracing Arteth, letting him wrap her in his arms and quell the last of her exhaustion with a burst of magicka that fueled her newest enchantments, intended to fortify her failing body, “Soon, my little fox. Soon, you will be free again.”

He returned to the safehouse in Higoi, his body numb with wound shock, his shoulder seeping blood, his mind furiously racing though the concussion that plagued it. Tengu had failed. Tengu had fallen. By the hand of Arteth.

Yokai screamed in anger, raging without direction, snarling madly, shredding chairs and tables, hitting the stone floor enough to crack it. He fell to his knees, his claws driving again and again into the floor, until he brought them back to his face, and bent over, sobbing. What had he done?! Why had he not finished the Hitorigami sooner?! Why had he allowed Tengu to be-

“No...” a bestial yet unmistakably feminine voice whispered in his mind, and Yokai quivered in disbelief.

“No.” the voice repeated, oddly muffled, and Yokai looked down, to his belt, to the satchel that vibrated against his thigh. There should have been nothing in there but reagents, and an unused artifact that Tengu had given him long ago...

He reached in, and something burned his hand, even through the indestructible scales present in his half-form. He grimaced, but held on through sheer stubbornness, pulling the item free, to behold...

His black crystal, ovoid and about twice the size of his fist. A Black Gem. A powerful necromantic artifact, intended to house a soul.

“No...” Yokai gasped, understanding immediately what had happened, “No, no, no...”

Yokai...” Tengu whispered, “I had to. I wasn’t ready to die.”

Yokai found new tears, but steeled himself, “Necromancy...that is not your gift, my bonded.”

I found the inspiration for the spell.” she replied, “Right before my heart stopped. I suppose he didn’t think it was my time either.”

“Dur’Artoth.” Yokai cursed, a guttural snarl building in his throat.

I can still aid you, my bonded.” Tengu continued, “I will see your goal finished. Then, I suppose, I will die.”

“No!” Yokai snapped, “I will find a way to restore you. I swear it. Kaileena restored Arteth when he too was but a caged spirit. I will find them again, seek them out. I will force my answers from them, one way or another!”

Ryū heard the news via his informants that’d made their way into the more populated parts of Teikoku, particularly, Hitorigami City.

The Kamiyonanayo had failed, and Yokai had blooded the capital, taking a good bit of bluster from the human armies, though he himself had suffered grievous loss. That, at least, showed promise for a swift conclusion.

The matter of Dekeshi’s Flagship, however, did not. Brute force would not avail. Two of their most capable warriors, Adahj and Elurra, could not defeat the matriarch with their combined power, nor could Starseeker, who was reputedly more powerful than either of them. A direct assault had and would continue to fail. No, the vampyres were too prepared to be attacked at the present.

But Yokai? Perhaps when he was located efforts could be made for a two-pronged attack with the Te Fukushu and the Karyudo Kisai, two organizations well versed in assassination and hunting those with magickal powers, albeit for completely different reasons.

The Silkrit-Vampyre sighed, rising from a cross-legged position in his temporary quarters in the tavern of Karyu, a decently sized village in the south of Minamoto’s Central District, which the gracious lord had offered to his people after the successful defense of Fusestu from the Skraul.

He needed to think, and with dusk well underway it was more than possible to leave his room. Ryū didn’t don his black cloak, and instead wore a loose (as not to irritate the scars across his back) brown linen tunic made in a common style, and dark wool leggings. Normally he also wore a pair of sandals, but forsook them, choosing to walk barefoot, the better to let his toes dig into the grass.

Before he closed the door behind him, Ryū appreciatively eyed the several instruments he’d been collecting during their settlement, his tail flicking from side to side in consternation. During his mortal lifetime he’d been fascinated with instruments, as much a bard as a healer, spending many nights around the communal fire pit regaling his tribe of new melodies.

He missed those days...

He still had a Shamisan bought in Hitorigami city two years ago, as well as a Duclimer, made by one of his own kin and given as tribute, an imported set of matching Lute and Viol, gorgeously carved and inlaid with brass filigree, and a long ivory pipe called a Flute, which he was still learning to use.

But it was the rosewood Harp, which rose to shoulder height and had found a cozy place in the corner, that he’d truly come to love. The sheer range of tones he could tease from those strings was incredible, and it complemented his soft, melodic voice quite well, so much so he’d been accompanying one with the other rather than cheat the disharmony by alternating between voice and instrument in his usual style.

Indeed, after coming to peace with himself and viewing the loss of his family as an event in his past rather than a constant in his present life, he’d found himself far more able to sing, to release his pain rather than bury it under a suffocating rage. At times, he played and sang with and in front of others, but those were rare events indeed.

For the most part, he played alone, to heal rather than perform. It had been, and continued to be, immensely therapeutic, enough to consider waiting for a cure for his ailment rather than simply succumbing to it after the war came to its bloody end.

That was alright; most nights his people were active enough in their newfound community not to take note of his presence or absence. With a brief surge of regret that he wouldn’t play tonight, he closed the door, leaving his prized collection behind.

Not just the Te Fukushu resided in Karyu, for soon after the seeming demise of Yokai, Surthath himself had created a portal between the Silkrit home world and Aurora, allowing his remaining kin to enter the human world. Though some scattered, slowly integrating with the humans, many had chosen to live and fight beside their Te Fukushu brethren and had settled here in the Central District of Teikoku.

As he watched, transfixed, he saw a group of hatchlings, free of the common scars of Skraul abuse, playing loudly in the street, before being ushered into a large house by a scolding elderly female. He offered a nod as he passed, and the female bowed deeply.

That, more than anything, struck him deeply. When he’d been no more than a living weapon, lost in his poisonous hate, others had shied from him, for it was customary to ignore the dead. Now that he’d found a measure of his inner peace and forsaken his mithril mask, he’d slowly begun to rejoin his people.

He found Aika on her way to his destination, and fell in line without a misstep, silently. She flinched when the wind shifted, betraying his scent.

“Idleness not suiting you?”

“No. If I am idle in these days, it means there’s something more important I can be doing. Yourself?”

She hesitated for a moment, “Well enough. I am well enough. We just returned from another raid. A small band of feral half-breeds plaguing the nearby human settlements. Turned villagers, mostly. The survivors offered no tribute...but they also didn’t shoo us off at sword-point when we arrived the second time. They are strange creatures...these humans.”

Ryū nodded, “Aye, but they mean well at least. They make good allies, so long as you still keep an eye on them when you charge into battle.”

“Listen...” she added after a time, distressed, “I never really got to thank you for saving me back in the plantation.”

Shrugging, Ryū kept pace, “Those Skraul deserved worse for harming you. Before you’d trained with the Te Fukushu, I hadn’t considered you capable of harming a fly. That is no insult to your ability, you understand.”

It was Aika’s turn to shrug, “I was a scullery maid there, so I guess you were right to think so.”

“Really?” Ryū asked, “I would have imagined a minstrel. Have you never entertained with music?”

Aika looked at him askance, so he clarified, ““Aika” means “Love Song”. An odd name to give a scullery maid.”

“It was my foster mother that named me.” Aika said, averting her gaze sheepishly, “I asked her why, once, but she never really explained. I guess she just thought it sounded nice.”

“Still...” Ryū noted, “Love Song is a good name. I think it fits you; you have the potential for beautiful music I think. Take a peek at my collection sometime...if you see something interesting, I would be more than willing to teach you how to use any of them.”

“Really...?” Aika asked, her intrigue betrayed not by her tone of voice, but the slightest change in body language and a flick of her own tail, and he nodded, “Why not? I helped teach you bladework. The discipline and technique needed in either craft is much the same.”

“I think I would like that, Ryū.” Aika affirmed, “You go ahead. I want to check something else before I go in.”

Now approaching a two-floored manor that’d been renovated to serve as Shirudo’s office, Ryū passed right by the four armed sentries. There were a few attendants there that he recognized, but many more he did not, likely recruited either from the citizenry of Corpsespire or even from those that Surthath had magickally tracked down and transported in after the initial Skraul invasion.

Shirudo, looking far paler and more heavyset, stood at a large desk overflowing with parchment. Had he not been able to read previously, it would have been impossible for the poor bastard to keep up with it all, Ryū imagined. With the thought fresh in his mind he couldn’t wipe his smirk before Shirudo looked up and said, “In a merry mood, friend?”

“As always...” Ryū replied smartly, feigning interest in the sheaf of documents, before Shirudo sighed, righting the heavy sleeves of his voluminous brown robes cut in native style, “You know, you can always take the leadership back.”

“No, my friend.” Ryū laughed, “You seem to have it all taken care of.”

“Fine then.” Shirudo replied with mock anger, “I’ll be sure to get you working then. I have another assignment.”

Tilting his head in curiosity, Ryū let him continue, “I can say little now, but Minamoto has something in mind, just returned from another outing with Koukatsuna and the Karyudo Kisai.”

“Well, tell me more, Shirudo, tell me more.” Ryū purred, “Those two always have something interesting in mind.”

While those two continued their banter Aika went over to the stairwell, leading to a very large basement, one that had only recently been constructed. It was a long and steep decent, taking what would have been four more floors. There were a series of three solid steel doors down the stairs, securely bolted shut and rigged to a mechanism that, should any door be opened without the use of a proper key, the stairwell, as well as every space between the doors, would be engulfed in searing light from magnesium phosphorous orbs, which replicated sunlight radiation.

This was a necessary precaution, for the basement of the main office, above which resided an entire village of the Te Fukushu and a great many Silkrit civilians, housed Jhihro’s laboratory, where he experimented on the vampyre-hybrid Silkrit that had been brutalized into slavering monsters by the Skraul, searching for a cure to their (and also Ryū’s) condition, as well as devising new and crueler weapons against the vampyres as a whole.

As she sealed the third door behind her (she needed not worry about having a key on her person, for the hybrids were essentially unintelligent and could not use them) the Silkrit continued through a second hallway, roughly twenty paces in length, to a final door, reinforced by heavy supports and guarded by eight well trained Te Fukushu hunters.

They nodded in deference and allowed entry, and the moment the door opened, Aika could hear screams. Always, there were screams down here...

Swallowing down the gorge rising in her throat, she continued into a large chamber, with a row of cells eighteen-deep on either side, at the end of which resided a stairway, which led to a deeper, identical level, housing the more dangerous prisoners.

She passed through the first line of cells, each crammed with fifty prisoners, either all male or all female. Every prisoner on the upper level had been placed in a magickal stasis, for there was simply no way to feed them all. But the technique wasn’t completely effective; for one reason or another, some did not accept the induced slumber and had to be kept on the lower level, where Jhihro had his way with them.

It was that second lower chamber that was her destination, and, against her wishes and better judgment, Aika descended into the source of the screams.

Wild, mad vampyres hurled themselves against the steel bars of their cells, scrabbling and howling, maddened by the proximity to living prey. Each had Ryū’s unnatural crimson skin to varying degrees of darker shades, and their prominent fangs were fully extended, almost dagger-length. Most of those immune to stasis had been put down, for there were only so many cells, and when grouped together, the hybrids tore each other to pieces with savage abandon.

Near the center of the madness lay Jhihro’s equipment; bottles and beakers, alembics and tubes pumping all manner of liquids, sharp metal implements, and clockwork devices to which she could only guess their purposes.

The alchemist was busy with his twisted work, standing over a slab that held a male hybrid, naked and bound. She didn’t get close, didn’t want to know what the lunatic was doing, for this place always reminded her of her own time spent on a slab, being dissected by the Skraul for no other reason than their amusement.

“Electro-therapy...” Jhihro mused, in a tone of voice that told her he thought he was alone, “Electrodes placed at the base of the skull, or inserted directly into an artificial cavity. Subject babbles instead of howls, likely from the pain alone. No noticeable recognition of patterns or shapes. No word association. Frenzy, even after feeding, remains present, albeit dulled. Results are inconclusive, but not promising. Recommended termination of procedure, and, with risk of infection so great, the subject. Too bad, my good chum. I’d harbored some fine hopes for this procedure.”

With a disturbing lack of hesitation, Jhihro raised a large hand axe and swung down, beheading the hybrid. A brief gush of black blood, and the vampyre went still.

He turned, perplexed, then eyed her speculatively, his glazed yellow corneas narrowing, “Yes, how are you? Shirudo looking in on my progress?” to which she nodded stiffly. It was all she could manage.

“Well, as you can see, I’ve had little luck.” Jhihro replied glumly, unfastening a thick leather apron stained with blood and who knew what else, “Take a seat over there. You look like you’re about to faint.”

Because she was about ready to do something like that, or perhaps because something in Jhihro’s cold, mechanical tone reminded her of her Skraul masters, Aika did indeed sit, poignantly looking away from the dead hybrid, which even then began to disintegrate.

“Biochemical formulae have proven to be either ineffective or outright disastrous. Abjurations and transmutations show more promise, though the dark enchantments maintaining vampyric abilities and the severe inhibition of higher brain functions remains...elusive, yet somehow equally persistent. I’ve been tying up loose ends, testing a few surgical procedures that would at least make the damn things docile, but partial undeath is a stubborn thing, resisting many of the natural processes, you understand. You may tell Shirudo that I require a little more time before I can add to my report.”

“Then you’ve had no results at all?” Aika prudently added, and Jhihro hissed, “I did not say that, you little bungler! I know precisely how the condition behaves, activating almost like a virus, yet with the conditions suggesting a persistent enchantment. The aspect that I am most prudently studying, the inhibitors that render our half-breed kin mindless, is also a form of magickal enchantment, like an aura. They practically reek madness in their current state. I know turning them hadn’t made them like this. It’d made them like Ryū, albeit far weaker, for lest I am mistaken it was the matriarch herself that’d bitten him and transferred the virus, whereas here the immediate progenitors were arbiters and low ranking chattel. If I can at least break that effect, which renders them mindless, we could potentially have a far more potent fighting force than we do now.”

“Vampyres....fighting beside the Te Fukushu in the hundreds...?” Aika replied skeptically, and before Jhihro gave the obvious retort, she added, “Ryū was an exceptional case, and, we both must admit, he wasn’t exactly stable until now. I cannot imagine how our people, let alone the humans, would react to that news.”

He scoffed, “Everyone’s an expert. You have my report, little girl, now get lost! I have more experiments to run...though maybe I should wash a little first.”

Nodding, Aika turned to depart, then, remembering why she’s actually came, added, “I need another batch.”

Frowning, Jhihro scooped up a small pouch from a shelf and handed it to her, “Just as you requested; the new concentrations will be to your liking, I have no doubt. Go show the rest of Teikoku that my sun orb fluid should be in mass production by now, and it’s a crime I haven’t been properly compensated for it yet!”

Elurra woke up, much against her will, to find the room unoccupied. She sighed, trying to curl up as much as possible in her shackles.

Unfortunately, the Djinn stressed her private parts in the effort, which had still been recovering from Dekeshi’s abuse, and she cried out in pain, her entire body shaking. The chains rattled as she did so, and she knew she was making too much noise. It couldn’t be helped...

After a few minutes of anguish, Elurra tried to take stock of her surroundings, all the while trying to reach for her magicka. All her life, even in the days when she’d been human, it’d always been a part of her, a second layer of awareness beyond the mundane senses. All but snuffed out, now.

“Awake, my dear?” Dekeshi said innocently, behind her, her booted feet echoing loudly on the chamber floor, “Good. We still have so much ground to cover.”

Elurra winced in remembered pain, pushing her legs together, but the Matriarch cupped her chin, “Not discipline.” Dekeshi corrected, eyeing her directly as she came into view, her armored robes hanging loosely around the mockery of an elven body.

The basic shape was there, but Dekeshi was animated obsidian; cold and hard, and when Elurra’s imagination got the better of her, stiff like a corpse.

The matriarch grinned, forced a kiss, devoid of affection, her tongue digging into Elurra’s mouth like an eel. When the vampyre disengaged, Elurra gagged, and found her head tossed to the side.

“You know what can happen when you disobey. That’s good. But you still need to come to accept your new life.” Dekeshi mused, undoing the leather fastenings to her robe. As the garment fell to a puddle at her feet, she took a handful of Elurra’s hair and forced her head back up so they could lock eyes, “Satisfy me, and I’ll let you out of the pillory. Decline, and I’ll call the others back in.”

Blanching, for she’d experienced more than enough of their attentions, Elurra lowered her head. She sniffed, then opened her mouth as Dekeshi took a step forward.

It was the humiliation of it, the sheer audacity, that struck her. She closed her eyes, not wanting to think about it.

“Good...” the matriarch breathed, her legs weak, “Very good. You’re making much better progress than the others.”

Her eyes finding the floor, Elurra couldn’t disagree, but then the vampyre laughed cruelly.

“So much so, I think, you’ll only need a few more sessions. Boys!” she yelled, and Elurra panicked, hearing the Ogres she’d enslaved and broken filing into the room.

“But you said-”

“I lied...” Dekeshi laughed, “Obviously. Don’t worry, little Djinn; they won’t hurt you any more than your regeneration can fix. A ruptured bowel or womb won’t kill you.”

As the vampyre watched, a sadistic gleam in her eyes, Elurra wailed as the first slave began to penetrate her, painfully, unloving. She heard herself cry. Then...she could only scream.

He couldn’t sit still, so he pushed his chair to the side, vitriolic, eyeing the board as his champion suffered.

“Troubled?” Dur’Artoth asked innocently, twisting one of his tentacle locks around a gnarled finger, “That isn’t anything she hasn’t experienced before. You shouldn’t trouble yourself.”

Surthath snarled, “Not when she had no choice in the matter. I assume you enjoy this?” to which the Dread Hammer scoffed, “Since one of my daughters is the one initiating, hardly, but she’d given me so much trouble during the Dreadborne Invasion. It pleases me to see her get just comeuppance.”

His body relaxing, Surthath didn’t buy into the taunt, finding his seat. Elurra would find a way. She was the First, one of the necessary components of the Circle of Five who would decide the fate of the Veil. She would manage...somehow.

Other pieces demanded his attention; a wizard piece with a broken core, sculpted from amethyst. He was a piece all his own, and would play a great part in the events to come.

He very much needed to discover what part that might be, to properly react to it.

The other, far more curious, was a priestess piece wrought of shale. Her piece had been obsidian some time ago, but it was changing of its own accord. In its center, he could see a reflective surface, but was unable to determine its color.

And you, Kogoeji-ni...?” Surthath mused silently, “What part have you to play in this?

The first few days had been peaceful, even enjoyable. The current night seemed to be along the same lines.

Vala lay in the long grass, hands entwined behind her head and eyes up to the stars. Some progress had been made. By intense discipline and focus through meditation, Vala had devised a new ability; by forming a cloud of nearly undetectable crystals around her body through Toshisha, she could walk in the light of the sun without injury.

It certainly would make travel more convenient. Perhaps she would even dare to enter a human settlement, hood and scarf down.

Shrugging, Vala also contemplated the other skill she’d been developing, a pale reflection of her days as a matriarch. By concentrating her inborn but previously atrophied telepathic capabilities, she could communicate with, and perhaps, attack others, with a secondary link akin to the one she enjoyed with Toshisha.

Mindbreaking, it was called; a telepathic art intended to scour the thoughts of one’s enemy and to scramble the way bioelectric currents ran through the brain, flummoxing spells, breaking a warrior’s stance, and, in extreme cases, erasing memories and permanently damaging the brain.

It was a rare art. In fact, few but the Djinn could manage it. With enough practice she would be able to burn the brain right out of its carrier...pleasant, really.

Indeed, it was progress, but not enough, and not nearly fast enough. Minamoto and his allies wouldn’t last much longer against her people, and every capable warrior could improve their odds.

At least until the greater of the matriarch’s showed themselves. Vala herself had once been Kogoeji-ni, the Fifth of Eight, and remembering well her time as such. And that while each of were immensely powerful, there was a second, greater echelon in that ranking.

From fifth ranked and below from that time, the general strengths of the matriarchs increased exponentially. She’d done her best to describe the abilities of each of them, allowing Kaileena to secure their latest victory, but intelligence alone couldn’t decide all their battles.

And her sisters had all grown considerably since then...her memories perhaps less than adequate to judge their abilities. Ranshi had been all but a god herself, slain only with the Eternal Return, artificial godhood, and even barely so at that. The third and fourth were no doubt still nearly as powerful. And the first...

Vala shivered, fearing even to recall her name. Yes, with Starseeker; the strongest Djinn in Aurora, defeated, and Arteth, the Firstborn, present but severely weakened with his resurrection by Kaileena’s hand, the humans were in dire straits.

“Everything comes with patience.” she sighed, returning her attention to the stars, “And perhaps, a little luck.”

The thought pressed her, as it often did, as to what she would do if she gained her desired place in Moonshadow. Would she remain a warrior, without a battle to fight? When she struck down the matriarchs, every last one of them, and thus attained her vengeance, what then would she do? That burning hatred, that need for death and release, had sustained her, had allowed her to exist for so long, that perhaps her body would simply cease to function without it. Perhaps she would go mad.

“It doesn’t matter yet.” she mused, “First, they have to die, every last one, for what they’ve taken from me.”

They had taken her power, her face, and her proud (yes, proud!) heritage as a Skraul Matriarch, and worst of all-

“No!” she cried out, hand on her lower belly. Her entire body shook with remembered pain, and she shut out the memory, blanketing it under sheer denial. It didn’t do to remember that loss...

When they awakened they descended into the main hall, where the servants had prepared a hearty breakfast. Steaming hot miso soup; a dark shitake-based broth with tofu, fresh mushrooms, seaweed, and bean sprouts, filled deep bowls alongside rolled tamagoyaki omelet served with grated radish as well as a plate of steamed white rice.

They ate heartily, and found traveler’s packs readied, with several days of dried vegetables and seaweed, rice balls, sake, and a modest amount of honey, which she’d learned all Kamiyonanayo adored as a snack. Indeed, Arteth’s pointed ears perked up when he noticed.

“Don’t worry, Kaileena.” Arteth said, hands on her shoulders, “We can do this. We’ve beaten him before, and if the Dragon is no more he’s even weaker.”

“No.” she relied dryly, “He’s much stronger now. In his tower Yokai had been nothing more than a tyrant and conqueror. Now people flock to his call to avenge their wrongs, real or perceived, against the Hitorigami. They believe in him. That makes him far more powerful, and far more dangerous, because even if he dies, his rebellion will continue. Teikoku will know greater chaos that the Skraul might use against it. He may have handed them a victory already.”

“I could care less about Teikoku.” Arteth admitted, and as Kaileena looked to him, appalled, he lifted her face by the chin, “You are my priority. The world can burn if you cease to exist in it. I offer nothing more, my love, than my heart and its true nature.”

“Still.” he conceded, “The people here need not know the tyranny of the Skraul. Or the Dread Hammer...and he likely intends to bring trouble to Moonshadow, our future home.”

The fact that Arteth had left unsaid any implied connection between himself and Dur’Artoth, his monstrous alter-ego, was a very good sign.

Kaileena sighed, “We may agree to disagree, then. Where to first?” to which he considered, before replying, “The Hitorigami could not corner the rebels, but he clearly saw them moving south and east.”

“Lord Takauji’s district.” Kaileena noted, “So far as I know, having met him on two occasions, he is impassive towards me. That’s good. It’ll make it easier for us to travel in his domain.”

The Kamiyonanayo idly recalled the dispositions of the other three lords, for predicting their actions might get both of them out of an unpleasant predicament in the future. Lord Kiromichi, a truly roguish fellow, had barely noticed them in their meetings with the Hitorigami, but that was because whenever he wasn’t hurling snarky little jabs at his peers, he was staring into an enchanted orb, mesmerized. If he had any regard towards her, he’d kept it well hidden. Minamoto, the honorable ruler of Central District, had been very amenable, still apologetic for his failure in giving her family justice, and, so far as either of them could tell, the man had been truthful in his offer of friendship.

Lord Tetsyyubo the Cowled, who ruled the more harsh and militarized North District, had been utterly unreadable, and a potential cause for concern. But try as she might to dismiss the feeling, Kaileena imagined something indefinably predatory about that one, especially in the wordless stare he’d occasionally given her from his seat.

But when speaking to one whose entire body was covered and who always spoke in an emotionally void, gender-neutral voice, it was hard to tell. She unconsciously compared him to the colossus, the machine that had relentlessly pursued her in the Central District when she’d still been developing her powers.

The Hitorigami himself Kaileena ranked among her closest friends, seeing a kindred spirit; a maligned outsider who truly desired peace, both within himself and the world around him, unlike those like Kiromichi, who were often regarded as heroic but were in truth merely great warriors.

There was a very important difference. As the ruler of Teikoku, Mikoto could have easily ordered her to stop Yokai, and then turned her over to the brothel for her continued servitude, and there would have been nothing Kaileena could have done.

But not only had he given her freedom, he’d made her a noble, practically on par with the Four Lords. He’d given her the services of many enchanters and scholars who could instead be aiding the war effort, for no other reason than to preserve her life. And most importantly, he considered her a peer, an equal, a citizen of Teikoku, in spite of the fact that she was Silkrit.

She liked him as a close friend, owed him much, even having potentially sacrificed her life in his service, but more importantly, she trusted him, completely and utterly. That one would never give her cause for concern.

The exercise of considering their allies had been important for both of them. Arteth, for his part, had always been the strongest of his kin, and had never needed to worry about stepping on toes. Kaileena was equally unversed, having been raised as a farmer’s daughter and an occasional herbalist when the need arose. They were vulnerable enough against their enemies, let alone their allies, whose allegiances could be turned by a mere misspoken word.

“Any idea beyond south and East?” Kaileena asked, to which Arteth shrugged, “I fear we will have to travel by wing to search for Yokai’s influence. We know they are no longer in Hitorigami City or the Central District, not in force at least, so there’s a good deal of ground to cover.”

About ten miles of travel south of Hitorigami City, Arteth indeed took to wing, scouting out the nearest cities, which left Kaileena to her thoughts.

It was a pleasant walk, though her body was still soft and unfit from both her time in the brothel and her current, primarily scholarly existence. Winter was nearly under way, but no snow had come yet, though, lest she was mistaken, the North District was feeling a far more bitter chill than was normal even for late autumn.

For the moment, Kaileena was quite warm and comfortable in the light and colorful clothing that Arteth had given her, for the worst that the cloudy skies hinted at was a light rain. She liked the rain anyway.

When she was confident Arteth wouldn’t reappear for a time, Kaileena considered the Black Gem in her pack, recovered from Yokai’s tower after the Dread Hammer’s avatar had been defeated.

She’d spent some time in the last two years attempting to communicate with the souls within, and indeed, after sorting through the chaos of their confusion and fear, had made substantial progress in interacting with them.

Please, please...” Kaileena said telepathically, even as she grimaced at the sheer intensity of their voices, “No words for now. Enjoy the day with me as I show it to you.”

Under Arteth’s instruction and guidance, Kaileena had developed the ability to telepathically impart her sensations onto others, as she’d involuntarily done for him when he’d been trapped in a magickal lamp. Thus drawing from her stored magicka and not her life energy, she let them see, hear, and feel what she did; the pleasant chilliness of a late autumn day, the soft wind as it touched her skin, visions of the clear sky and thinning forests, filled with cricket chirps and bird song.

The souls in the gem quieted for a time, sharing in her experiences.

Eventually, she agreed to speak with them, one at a time. There were seventeen souls trapped within the facets of the gem, and she took her time with each. Most no longer remembered their names, which broke her heart, but they possessed fragments of memory, tidbits of who and what they’d once been.

One had been human, through probably a foreigner from the east. He’d owned a bakery and delighted in his craft, happy to share outlandish recipes with her, many of which she’d carefully noted and memorized. Another had loved the sea and traveled it often, lamenting a name; Abal, which meant “Wild Rose”. The face connected to that name had been irreparably lost. Another had been a mother of three, though, tragically, the names of all four involved also seemed to be lost.

Kaileena teased these little things from them, not out of a desire to satisfy idle curiosity but in an effort to spark more of those memories. The spirits had been nothing more than fuel for Dur’Artoth’s magicka for who knew how long, reduced to an item without identity. It would take a good deal of time and patience to help them regain a measure of themselves.

But Kaileena was more than willing, for no other reason than the fact that she had the means. As a member of the Sisterhood of Anima, the deceased Old One of Life, it was her unspoken tenet to heal others, spiritually as well as physically. These souls had found their way into her possession, and were her responsibility.

When she saw a shadow from overhead, Kaileena bade the spirits farewell, and, with a light sadness, the spirits replied in kind, returning to a dormant state. Arteth descended, his bat-like wings slowing his landing, his expression...tense...

As Kaimei returned to the safehouse in Higoi, part of several groups that had scattered after the assault on the capital, he found himself amazed they’d gotten out so easily.

“It’s because we look no different than peasants...” he thought to himself, “There are so many people on the move in the region trying to flee from the North and West District that we can blend in very easily.”

He knew he could never return to the Renmei Kisai, but he didn’t care. He was fighting for freedom, for justice, and that was more important than a life of safety.

It’d taken a few days for him to return to the safehouse on foot, though, by his guess, Yokai had been here all that time. He knew Tengu had been slain in the fight, and had a good inkling about how that would affect Yokai, and proceeded carefully.

He was in the basement of the tavern, seemingly unperturbed, but he leaned heavily on a cane, his other hand shifted to Draconic-form, readied to cast a spell. Yokai relaxed when he realized who was arriving, and sat down with a sigh, “How are our gains, and losses?”

Kaimei shrugged, “Others are still trickling in. Eighty of our forces, seven of them enchanters, were slain in Hitorigami City, but we dealt three times that number on the guard. It would be difficult to say how many will make their way back, but I imagine that casualties on the road will be minor. Another two hundred followed us out, mostly civilians, but they’re being herded to a place far away and will pose no threat in the event of duplicity. What of you, Yokai? Are you...alright?”

He shifted, wheezing, “Soon, yes, I will be. Flesh shaping takes a toll on you, you know.”

Baffled, Kaimei suddenly noticed that Yokai was shirtless, and that his upper chest sported a large bandage surrounded by gauze wrappings. A segment of the padding was still red...

“What did you do?!” Kaimei gasped, approaching him nervously. Yokai did not resist, so he began unraveling the gauze, revealing flesh that was puffy and red with irritation, forming a large protrusion. When there was nothing left but the bandage he removed it, and shuttered.

Nearly the entirety of his sternum had been removed, and in its place rested a large black stone tinged with cracks of purple, a smooth oval about twice the size of a fist. Skin and muscle ringed the implanted stone, badly inflamed, and if the stone was vertically symmetrical Kaimei guessed it was embedded almost two inches deep.

“I lost Tengu because I didn’t keep her close.” Yokai replied to his horrified expression, “Linked as we are, I can use her powers at will. We fight as one from now on. I’ve lost much to free our people, and I won’t lose her again.”

Deep beneath Teikoku, the Artifact stirred as it had not in nearly two centuries. The last time it had done so in fear, for it had sensed the emergence and, mercifully, collapse, of the Heart of Darkness and the Dreadborne Horde.

This time, however, it stirred with anger. It could sense a new influx of power, power that reminded it of its ancient enemy; the Dread Hammer...

Though it was not alive in the conventional sense, the Artifact remembered and resented the Dread Hammer, who had once defeated it. Surthath, another ancient foe, had also appeared, but that one did not concern the Artifact. The Lord of Magicka had always failed to sense the unique resonations the Artifact used to extend its senses.

The Dread Hammer, however, was a different story. It would have to be careful, very careful, as not to draw attention to itself. It would bide its time for the sake of one who would again be its rightful master. And then, together, they would swallow the Veil.

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