“Bad wind...” Arteth mused, eyeing the dark clouds overhead.
Kaileena agreed wholeheartedly, to which he shrugged, “No flying today, my little fox. We can walk until the weather either gets worse or clears, and then decide from there.”
It’d been a week or two since the beginning of their incursion into the South District, and they had searched through four minor villages in their hunt for Yokai. Lord Takauji’s men had approached them on two occasions, but with a flash of her noble’s crest they left them be.
It was refreshing, being able to walk openly without concealing garments, and Kaileena admittedly no longer minded the scrutiny. No more was she an oddity in her own homeland; she knew that she was of a people with a noble heritage, and that she was a citizen of Teikoku in equal measure. Her birth father, Lenao, had been a citizen of high regard, a master enchanter and personal advisor to the Hitorigami himself!
By measure of blood, she’d been a noble before defeating Yokai. Perhaps the people they passed gawked at her approach not simply because of her appearance, but because of the fact that she was a hero. It wasn’t such an unpleasant thought...
“You couldn’t scry him out?” she asked, more a formality, and the Kamiyonanayo shook his head, “Most magicka users worth their salt will put up a defense against scrying. Relative strength is irrelevant; if the spell is in place, a divination has nothing to latch on to.”
“As we travel further into his realm...” Kaileena half-warned, half-observed, “The more that Yokai’s agents will feel tempted to attack us. All we need is one person for you to question, and we’ll know where he is.”
“I know, and I will be ready to rip apart whatever hiding hole he’s made for himself.” Arteth replied, “And beat the fool into submission. He will not harm you.”
“You agree this is the best means to confront him quickly?” Kaileena asked again, knowing aggression to be a defense when he was upset, and he nodded, troubled, “Yes...I just think lately that everything would be better if I were still in the lamp, and Yokai had been left as he was.”
“You deserved a second chance.” Kaileena said, and meant it, but Arteth’s frown never wavered, “You deserve a first chance.”
In a fit of uncharacteristic curiosity, Vala decided that morning she would walk in the sunlight, as did the lesser races.
A shift in perspective might offer some benefit, so she thought, and when the first hints of dawn’s reddish coloring appeared in the sky, she did not return to her shelter. Instead, she began to walk further away, into the wilderness bordering several small villages and homesteads. With her noble’s seal she could interact with the natives, if she so chose. Though perhaps a little subtlety was in order...
Her scarf was in place over her mouth, and her hood was drawn low, but otherwise, she made no effort to disguise herself, taking an old livestock trail unto a paved gravel road leading west.
Vala took in her surroundings; the birds, the now barren cherry trees, each of which had left a sea of petals in their wake. Embodying incredible beauty and swift death, there was something deeply poetic about cherry blossoms that warriors of this land resonated with. She could relate, for though she was immortal, mortality could strike at any time in the form of a violent death.
It was a humbling thought, but not one that would stop her from moving forward. Let fear infect the lesser races. Even mottled as she was, such things were beneath her.
Vala titled her head curiously as a small homestead came into view, just a bump in the distance but visible still thanks to the relative scarcity of trees. The house was probably inhabited by a small family, or perhaps some obscure sage, though she wouldn’t be able to say for sure without getting much closer. It might prove interesting, or at least diverting, to take a look...
When Vala could clearly make out the house, a small one-story affair, she began to crouch low, seeing other distant shapes... While she was exploring, and perhaps even seeking conversation, revealing herself to the wrong person could prove unpleasant. The encounter with Yokai had poignantly reminded her that Teikoku wasn’t entirely safe, after all.
Finding a ditch, Vala surveyed the house, around which were three humans; one male, two female, the second one being substantially younger looking. A small family, then.
Smiling and accepting the challenge for what it was, Vala resolved to reach the house in broad daylight, without alerting the humans. A little sport, to practice the reflexes and the mind...
As she got closer, kneeling beside a column of bushes, she in fact realized that the plants grew small berries, and Vala sniffed at the air, entranced by a powerful and oddly tantalizing scent. Some kind of human food, perhaps?
It was sweet, very much so, and it made her mouth water, which was curious because she remembered nothing other than blood to have that effect.
Vampyres didn’t need to eat, but they could, and many of her kin indulged from time to time. Nothing had ever caught her attention before...
”Interesting." Vala whispered to herself, circling the house and approaching a small windowsill, upon which rested a freshly baked pie, akin to a foreign recipe she’d seen in Minamoto’s villa.
Usually, the natives preferred dumplings filled with sweet potato or bean paste, or kompeito; small candies made from sugar the pirates harvested on their islands to the west, or even yokan, a curious jellylike substance made from red bean paste, agar, sugar, green tea powder, and chopped chestnuts.
Pies were usually left to foreigners, but then again, seeing all these transplanted berry bushes it made sense that they specialize in this foreign recipe. They probably made a living off of flaunting it.
Vala crept closer, licking her lips.
Hitomi flinched as he saw something out of the corner of his eye, but when he rose from harvesting the last of the season’s harvest there was nothing there.
Shrugging it off as his imagination, the retired archer of the Hitorigami’s army returned to his work, in this place he’d made his home. His wife, Makoto, and his daughter, Mariko, worked beside him, getting what they could before the first bouts of winter’s wind rendered their berries bitter, shriveled, and thoroughly useless as anything but next year’s fertilizer.
The dinner bell rang, a foreign custom they’d adopted with the recipes they used, and while Hitomi worked to finish up his basket, his daughter was already bolting for the door. He had a laugh at that, then shrugged and left his basket where it was. He was hungry, after all...some things just took precedent.
As he walked through the door, his mother, Mei, often jokingly called “Grandmei” by Mariko, busied herself in setting the table with Makoto. She couldn’t travel outside the house due to her advancing age, but managed her fair share by taking care of things indoors, like cooking, which was her passion. Indeed, Hitomi was very much looking forward to the day’s pie; raspberry and blueberry.
“Well, about time!” his mother scolded, “The potatoes are getting cold. Get the dessert off the windowsill. It should be ready by now.”
Shrugging, Hitomi walked over, and tilted his head, curiously.
“Did anyone come here today?” he asked, and when Mei looked back to him, he went to the table with the pie, a triangular void where a quarter of it should have been, and a gold coin, stamped with an odd sigil he didn’t recognize.
“How strange...” Mei said, scratching her chin, “I can’t say I remember anyone coming here today, ’specially not one who would buy a slice of pie for five times its worth.”
Hitomi looked sidelong to his wife, then his daughter. Their blank expressions told him they knew nothing of this, either. He set down the pie and the meal began, but not without a curious sidelong glance to his mother. Was she perhaps feeling the weight of her age?
Father had shown lapses of memory before falling to dementia and nearly drowning Mariko by accident. There was no way someone could have snuck up and taken a slice without someone noticing outside...
Vala licked her fingers with enthusiasm in her reflective cloud of ice crystals, wanting to savor the taste for as long as she could. That slice of pie had been worth the cost and then some! Never once had she considered eating the foods of the lesser races, but inhibitions be damned, this had been the day for it!
Perhaps she would explore some of the more native desserts when she inevitably returned to Fusestu to resume her duties to Minamoto. If pie was this good, maybe those little steam cakes would be worth her time too, or maybe those dango-dumplings served on sticks. That Kaileena girl had been ecstatic when they’d served those at the Hitorigami’s table.
Washing the last of the syrupy residue off in a stream, for she’d fed recently and could endure running water, Vala decided she would revisit that house another time, and with a simple evocation summoned an invisible scrying rune inside so she could observe them at a distance.
Now that she was able to see them up close, Vala confirmed the blood relation between the male, the oldest female, and the youngest female, and after a few seconds the middling female and youngest female. The girl was their spawn, then, and the elder was his mother.
In addition to the pie, they dined on a selection of dumplings filled with a white fibrous starch, steamed rice, and some dark mushroom-based soup. The inside of the house was small but filled with furniture, a low square-shaped wooden table and sitting cushions in the main area, threadbare rugs, as well as a large wood-fed iron stove and a much smaller oven against the wall.
Their clothing was rough, plain material, but clean and well maintained. They were well off, she decided, but not wealthy by any measure, probably trading their stock for the few royalties they possessed.
Their conversations, while somewhat muffled through the rune, fascinated her. It was curious, seeing them eat and talk with each other. There was a sense of contentment, of understanding, between them, to which Vala was wholly unaccustomed. Only the strongest survived in Skraul Society, even within families. Hells, she’d killed several of her siblings, either in assassinations or the retaliation thereof, while vying for one of the nine positions of Matriarch. There had been sixty daughters of Dur’Artoth; sixty contenders.
Before their arrival on Teikoku there had been eight.
The thought didn’t trouble her, for she no longer entertained any relation to her blood kin, nor did she particularly desire a place in the rigid but constantly shifting (for there were always casualties, only a few of which were because of outsiders) power structure. They’d turned on her, so she would destroy them and everything they held dear.
Why then, did looking at these humans make her feel so displeased, so...malcontent?
“Enough of this foolishness.” she decided, cutting off the connection to the scrying rune. She would see to her meditation and never return, resolving to ignore the sensations she was experiencing and the humans with them.
And yet, while she cut off the connection to her rune, she couldn’t bring herself to destroy it...
As Kaileena and her pet entered Higoi proper, Yokai sensed his agents as they readied themselves on several rooftops, enchanted bolts loaded into heavy iron crossbows. Each projectile, “donated” from the Hitorigami’s armory, would pierce any and all defensive enchantments, but Yokai knew the Kamiyonanayo would just take the brunt of the attack to spare Kaileena.
That was just as well; he needed to know what she knew; how to give life to the lifeless. If Arteth died...it’d just make it more difficult to extract that information from her. Difficult, but not impossible.
“I sense a trap.” Tengu projected, to which Yokai nodded, “They may come alone, but that doesn’t mean none watch them from afar, perhaps even without their knowing. It wouldn’t do for the Hitorigami to learn of our presence here, that he might galvanize Lord Takauji to greater action.”
The Lord of the South District was far too busy supporting the north to uproot their rebellion, but more than a few loyal enchanters and members of the Renmei Hyakusho had been paraded about by the bastard’s men in previous months, beheaded or sliced in half.
“Just get them. Quickly.” Tengu replied vehemently, but knowing her as well as he did, Yokai knew the demand to be a desperate plea.
“Yes, my bonded. Kaimei.” Yokai projected, activating another telepathic connection, “Are you ready?”
Yokai smiled viciously, readying his first spell: Tengu’s inherent storm summon ability.
They knew they’d found the right place as a thunderhead appeared suddenly, several hours distant of the village they’d seen before.
Rain began to fall, then pour, the wind becoming an ominous gale that billowed her cloak out behind her, before she just unclasped it and let it fly with a grimace.
“I thought you killed Tengu...” she said, flexing her fingers. Arteth nodded, “Aye, I did.”
A series of loud clicking noises was all the warning they had, and Arteth leaped to her, using his body as a shield. Kaileena, startled, hissed as she recoiled, a crossbow bolt embedded into her shoulder but, thankfully, not anything vital. Several protruded from Arteth’s body.
Activating her enchantments, Kaileena conjured a triplet of human-sized Turgon. Five ethereal daggers floated in midair, before pinpointing one unseen archer each and hurling themselves up to the rooftops.
Arteth roared, gesturing towards Kaileena, and she gasped, finding her flesh suddenly transparent and incorporeal. He then invoked his fiery aura and drew Verlangen, his enchanted twinblade, as a second volley of bolts again bypassed Kaileena’s wards and peppered his chest.
Eight illusionary duplicates surrounded him, and Arteth exhaled as his flesh pushed out the projectiles, the open wounds sealing themselves, and as he set his illusions out to scatter the archers, the real him vanished. Thunder pealed in the skies, and with a tremendous impact, Arteth wavered as a stray bolt struck him, ruining his invisibility.
Yokai appeared, driving an open palm strike in midair, cracking the natural chitin crown covering his skull and sending him staggering. A second bolt of lightning from above struck the space that Kaileena occupied, but passed harmlessly through her.
Gesturing with her other hand, Kaileena activated an enchantment in the star sapphires embedded into her palms, conjuring a phantom hand twice the size of her body. The hand turned into a fist and slammed into Yokai, or, as she cursed with realization, the space he’d occupied.
Arteth oriented on Yokai, his fiery aura extinguished, but Yokai slipped under the charge and struck with both hands forward, moving the momentum up and out and miraculously tossing the Kamiyonanayo overhead.
Recovering in midair and landing on his feet, Arteth retaliated with a diagonal slash that Yokai slipped under and kicked the inside of his knee, but was forced to retreat as Kaileena’s phantom hand and the conjured Turgon pressed him from the sides.
Yokai snarled and began to inhale, his mouth surging with energy. Cursing, Kaileena, not sure if such an attack could be absorbed by her Spell-Eater Strain or Arteth’s ward, cast the telekinesis effect of her staff to levitate upward by spreading it evenly below her feet. Another lightning bolt passed through her harmlessly, but overwhelmed the warding, leaving her exposed.
Yokai exhaled a gout of plasma, but it rebounded when a magickal barrier sprang into being around him, burning his face.
“What?!” he gasped, blinded, when suddenly a man with blue and purple robes leaped at him, baring a shimmering katana. Lord Minamoto?!
Yokai backhanded the sword, only for it to dig into his arm, bloodying and pinning it to his side. The Lord of the Central District forced him to a knee, grunting from the pain.
“Surrender, Yokai...” The Hitorigami said calmly, appearing two paces to the side of Arteth, beside Commander Itaku and Lord Kiromichi of the West District. Ryū and a group of his Silkrit also approached, forcibly leading or carrying soldiers of the Renmei Hyakusho Kaileena had disabled with her conjured daggers.
“Kaimei...” Yokai whispered to himself, “I hope you followed my directive.”
“This ill-conceived rebellion of yours ends here.” the Hitorigami said icily, his own powerfully enchanted sword readied, “For the good of Teikoku, I demand that you stand down, or face summary execution.”
Grinning, Yokai laughed, pretending not to mind that his arm lay skewered, “Oh? And will you, in your infinite mercy, my Hitorigami, see fit to end me after parading me about to the masses? You offer little incentive to acquiesce your requests.”
Kaileena approached, leveling off of some sort of levitation, “My Hitorigami, Yokai must not be killed. I need him. He knows how to defeat the Eternal Return.”
The Hitorigami cursed, “So be it. Kaileena’s need for you will keep you alive. Take it or leave it, renegade.”
Tengu hissed in his mind, “Kill them, Yokai, or-”
“Quiet!” Yokai snarled, causing those around him to tense, “Your argument is very convincing, Hitorigami, but I will also require that these men and women who’ve assisted me also be spared. I no longer fight alone for the freedom of this land, you see.”
“You’re a fool, Yokai.” Minamoto snapped, “You’ve harmed this land nearly as much as the Skraul, weakening it where it must be unified. You don’t fight for this land, but for yourself.”
Yokai smirked, his arm twitching involuntarily, “We will see if I’ve weakened it when the people cry out for my release. So be it. I surrender...only because I will soon be needed again.”
“Coward.” Lord Kiromichi chided, sheathing his unusual waving blade, to which Yokai scoffed, “Cowardice would demand that I throw myself onto your swords and be unable to see for sure if my efforts have borne fruit. I am confident in my actions and need not worry.”