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

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Chapter 6

Ryū didn’t complain when Yokai surrendered and was led away. If the fool could be forced to help Kaileena it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing to let him live.

Koukatsuna seemed terribly disappointed, though. “Didn’t even get to spill blood.” he complained as they waited for orders in the shade of a roofed pavilion, now that Yokai’s conjured storm was dissipating. Ryū was in no mood for a tan...

“We dealt with a powerful enemy.” Ryū lectured, “Quickly. Bloodlessly. Now we have nothing to contend with but the Skraul. You should be more pleased, my dearest apprentice.”

Koukatsuna, hot-headed and sullen as usual, bristled, “Apprentice? Not since we stalemated all those years ago. Remember?”

“Yes, but would we still do so with my new powers? I think you’d be harder pressed.”

When he scowled, Ryū shrugged, as usual, amused by their exchanges. Indeed, one of the reasons he’d mentored the former pit brawler was because he’d seen a bit of himself in the youth; each had been hotheaded, vindictive, and aching to prove themselves. Each had wanted, no, needed, to validate their existences and the hard choices that’d been thrust upon them.

Ryū, for his part, had been seeking to avenge his slain mate and offspring, whose fate was still undetermined, where Koukatsuna, for his part, needed to come to terms with what his Skraul masters had forced him to do to survive, largely involving slicing living things into tiny, tiny pieces.

Sadly, it seemed that Ryū had surpassed his student in that aspect, for though he still resolved to bring about the extinction of the Skraul race, it was indeed resolve and not hatred that guided him and gave him strength and courage. It was no longer a suicide mission for him.

For Koukatsuna, however...

“When the matriarchs show themselves I will find greater cause to surpass you, Master. At that time, beware.” Koukatsuna replied, thoughtful.

Despite himself, Ryū couldn’t help but indulge his temperamental student, “Very well. I can see we’ll get little done here jabbering away. Why not make it interesting?”

Koukatsuna perked up at that, “A wager, Master?” to which the vampyre nodded, “If I defeat you in combat, without using my true form or my enchantments, you will agree to...say...face sobriety for two months.”

That put the boy on his guard, “Alright. If I win, Master, you will agree to bow down and relinquish that lofty title to me.”

Nodding his agreement, he led his perhaps soon-to-be-no-longer-protégée to the center of the pavilion. Kaileena, Arteth, Itaku, and the Hitorigami had already departed with Yokai as their captive, while the Te Fukushu and the Karyudo Kisai cleaned the city of Yokai’s influence, (much to the disturbingly unified displeasure of the citizenry).

But Shirudo, overseeing the effort, as well as Lord Minamoto and Lord Kiromichi, remained on standby, awaiting their leave. There was audience enough to see their wager. And he was in the mood for a little diversion.

Shirudo and Aika, taking one look at their mutual expressions, sighed, knowing full well what was to come.

“Make a circle, friends.” Ryū said, and they did just that. Koukatsuna threw off his tunic, the better to display his Draconic tattoos, inked in hues of all the colors that shifted with the angle of the light that fell upon it. To say nothing of his muscles; he was only slightly taller but outweighed Ryū by at least forty stones.

He saw Aika blush at the display, though Koukatsuna, the way he was facing, couldn’t see her and take note.

Ryū drew Hyosho and Kaminari, while Koukatsuna drew Waru and Saku. Ryū, with his shorter, slimmer wakizashi, had the advantage of flexibility, where Koukatsuna, with double-edged longswords, had the advantage of reach.

Koukatsuna was ready for this test. There was no way he was going to be sober for two months!

They circled one another, Waru and Saku spread to his sides. Their eyes locked, his a dull brownish-yellow, Ryū’s an orange-red that burned like fire.

They charged in unison, Ryū’s wakizashi in reverse grip. Koukatsuna met the expected flurry with a double-thrust-forward, forcing the vampyre to dart to the side or be skewered. Spinning in a flourish, Koukatsuna met him slightly to the left, sweeping his longswords low, and when Ryū reversed direction, displacing the momentum, the bladedancer kicked out with his foot, his blades tied up in his last maneuver.

The blow connected, barely, clipping Ryū’s shoulder, and the vampyre rolled with it, coming up with both weapons thrusting high, forcing Koukatsuna to retreat a few steps.

They circled again, the measure of each other taken. The landscape was in his favor; Ryū preferred to use the terrain to his advantage, and thus worked best in cramped spaces and corners. On this flat, empty surface, Koukatsuna could anchor to a spot and use his superior bulk to his advantage. And with the vampyric reflexes he’d gained by killing a Matriarch, the odds were further in his favor.

Grinning, the bladedancer led, both swords high in helm-splitting vertical strokes. The seemingly straightforward tactic was a ruse; the moment Ryū rolled to the side, Koukatsuna shifted his momentum and cracked the vampyre in the ankle with the side of his knee, and, thus taken off balance, his mentor took the brunt of a savage head-butt to the arm. If he’d possessed proper horns like Ryū, the points would’ve penetrated, but sadly, all his mentor got was a bruise at best.

Ryū back-flipped, landing palms first, rolled away, and, displaying his remarkable agility, spun into a flourish even with his legs fully bent, attacking at knee level, and Koukatsuna was forced to retreat, just for a moment.

That moment was more than Ryū needed to be back on his feet, but Koukatsuna wasn’t about to let him get his center of gravity back. Snarling, he rushed in, swords leading; left and then right in downward diagonal strokes, which Ryū parried, wakizashi close to his body in order to absorb the impact. Koukatsuna lead with a double-thrust again, and Ryū crossed his wakizashi in an X, snagging them.

Grinning, Koukatsuna dragged his barbed swords forward along their edges, showering sparks in Ryū’s face and distracting him. Kicking out, this time the bladedancer felt Ryū’s gut take a hit, staggering him, but the vampyre also locked the leg between his elbows, lining his wakizashi up to thrust.

Bending backward, Koukatsuna used his uncanny ability to contort to duck under the blows, breaking the cross of blades to allow his hands to touch ground and steady himself. Kicking out with his other foot, Koukatsuna scored another hit on Ryū’s shoulder, enough to pull his other foot out and retreat three paces before twisting back up.

But the vampyre was waiting for him...

Ryū thrust forward, both blades leading his body, and Koukatsuna spun sideways, slicing one sword, then the other, maximizing his chance to connect. He would have none of it.

Their exchange took only a heartbeat or two; four strokes, each driving the right blade out and up. As Koukatsuna compensated by lowering his other sword, Ryū pretended to slip into the counter for his own trap by lunging forward.

Reversing direction at the last moment, he slipped away from the flourish, left blade low, right blade high, then charged in again in a double-thrust, inside of Koukatsuna’s guard. There was no counter. Each blade pricked the bladedancer; one below the lung, the other into the shoulder, and so ended the duel.

“Damn it!” Koukatsuna hissed, his tail curling in anger, stumbling back off the points of Hyosho and Kaminari and collapsing in a heap.

“Fear not, my favored disciple.” Ryū smirked, sheathing his wakizashi, “That could’ve gone either way. Soon, the boy will become a man, so to speak. But for now, the boy must put down the bottle. Two months.”

Snarling, he nodded, his weapons set aside, favoring the shallow wounds Ryū’s Wakizashi had left, “We’ll see who is what when the next Matriarch dies.”

At that, Ryū could only agree.

As Arteth teleported them back to Hitorigami City, to the royal palace, Kaileena looked to Yokai, still in disbelief at seeing him alive. Yokai didn’t miss the scrutiny, involuntarily trying to twist out of his enchanted restraints, “We can talk later. I’m sure our Hitorigami has something special in mind for me, and I would very much like to focus on that first.”

Mikoto shook his head, “I gave my word that you would live, and so it is thus. But it would do well for the people to see a criminal brought to justice.”

Yokai continued to struggle, seemingly without realizing it, and Arteth cuffed him upside the head. “Sorry...” Yokai mused, seemingly unabashed by his current predicament, “I have a bit of claustrophobia related to restraints. Classic Renmei Kisai apprentice, really.”

With a wave of the Hitorigami’s hand, eight armored constructs entered through the broken door of the palace, eerily reminiscent to Golem, her father’s personal assistant. Yokai, bound at the wrists and ankles, was led away, dragged like a slain deer. The Hitorigami led his constructs through the doorway, followed by Itaku.

Kaileena didn’t follow them right away. She had no intention of validating what was about to happen with her presence, but she figured that Yokai, whatever he’d become, deserved at least one sympathetic soul beside him. So she’d meet with him shortly.

“Forget not, Kaileena.” Arteth glowered, as always following her train of thought, eyes on the procession, “Yokai is the reason you suffer as you do, and that the Dread Hammer was able to invade this land. I have no sympathy for the bastard.”

“Yokai was a pawn.” Kaileena corrected, “Anyone could have tapped the Eternal Return. He’s just the one who happened to do it. His cause is just; he wants enchanters to be free.”

“He wants himself to be free.” the Kamiyonanayo rebuked, “He tried to play god in order to rule this land, and now he suffers for it. Care not for his plight, for you need not.”

“I care, no matter who he is, because I need to.” she parried, “For I fear no one else will.”

He was led, deprived of the dignity of walking of his own accord, out of the royal palace and into the courtyard of the noble quarter of the Hitorigami City.

The beloved leader stood proudly before the hundreds of people, who likely congregated daily to hear news of the wars. Nobles, laborers, and beggars were present in equal numbers, the former separated, divided by a series of rope barriers.

“People of Teikoku!” the Hitorigami proclaimed, “The traitor, murderer, and madman, Yokai, has been captured! See this cretin for what he is, and know that this land will prevail against its enemies!”

The reaction was likely not what the Hitorigami had expected. The nobles smiled and cheered for their Hitorigami, lifting enchanted katanas or symbols of office, while the middle class of merchants and laborers looked uncertain how to respond. But the beggars booed him.

“My people!” Yokai shouted, and the crowd quieted. Both Itaku and the Hitorigami drew their blades, alarmed, but Yokai merely laughed, “They speak of traitors, these men. Of murderers... Yet they leave unmentioned their treason. Their murders! Know that my defeat is a minor and temporary one. They cannot kill me, and I will not succumb meekly to these chains. Be ready for the time that I will call to you, and together we will reclaim this land in the name of the people of Teikoku. I will crush the foreign influences that rob this land, our land, of its purity; the Skraul, and the Pirate Lords, who our Hitorigami has thus far seen fit to pamper and protect. Be ready!”

For a few moments there was stunned silence from those loyal to the Hitorigami, then curses were shouted, and small fights broke out among those in the crowd. That was all it took to set the beggars off. It was utter chaos...those involved didn’t even check if they were fighting individuals of the other side, they just attacked whoever was closest.

The nobles, protected by their personal armies or bodyguards, retreated, but not before ordering a few of their own into the fray, just after the beggars were led away by the Hitorigami’s soldiers.

Sending them back into the city proper, however, would by no means prevent the riot and looting that was to come.

Smiling, Yokai was hauled away at the Hitorigami’s furious command, and a blow to the back of the head sent him careening into darkness.

“Damn it.” Mikoto groaned, rubbing his temples, and Kaileena, wide-eyed at the mayhem outside, could only share the sentiment.

Lines of smoke dotted the lower regions of the city, painting the skies a dark grey. Yokai was in the dungeon of the royal palace, for all the good it did.

“He’s ruined the morale we should have gained from his capture.” Mikoto cursed, but at this she didn’t agree...

“Inciting the crowd was precisely what you wanted to do out there.” Kaileena replied coolly, “He just did the same thing but better than you.”

As the Hitorigami seethed, Kaileena turned back to the window.

“For the moment we can do no more on this matter. How goes rescuing Elurra, the Kamiyonanayo aboard Dekeshi’s flagship?” she asked, and it was Arteth who replied, “Kiromichi hinted at something he’d tasked his engineers with, which would aid us in assaulting the Skraul fleet, but in the meantime stopping the fleet from wiping out the populace of the West District is more important.”

Chagrined, Kaileena took a seat in the entrance hall, to which they’d retreated as the crowd had grown more volatile.

“It’s all falling apart.” Mikoto sighed, sitting cross-legged on the floor, a most inappropriate position for the ruler of all Teikoku.

“Our disagreements aside.” Kaileena replied, “I consider you my friend. You have my aid in what comes next.”

“Kaileena’s will is my own. My blade is at your beck and call.” Arteth added, to which the Hitorigami nodded with a pained smile, “With the Karyudo Kisai and the Te Fukushu working in unison, I will do what I can to strike out against the Skraul while my soldiers continue the evacuation of the western villages. There is little else that I can do until Dekeshi inevitably moves to strike us here, for my most powerful enchantments are permanently fused with the royal palace, and take a significant amount of time to prepare...”

“...Go then, my friend, and when Yokai awakens, I give you leave to question him. Get well, then return to me...I fear I will sorely need your help if I am to salvage this unwanted war.”

As Ryū followed the Lord of the West District out of the village proper, a small vertical disc of glowing blue energy appeared, roughly seven paces in diameter, perfectly circular.

“An effect of my orb.” the seemingly distracted Kiromichi explained, unperturbed as only a few people could be with an armed Silkrit-Vampyre standing two paces away.

The platform swirled, then formed into a vague representation of a blur of yellow and brown. With a step into the platform and a whoosh of displaced air, the pleasant warmth of the dusk of Higoi became the sweltering heat of the coastal islands dotting the southwestern edge of the known world of Teikoku.

Ryū hissed in discomfort as a full blast of sunlight struck his skin and formed small blisters across his face, and threw up his hood in order to shade his eyes. His skin immediately began to repair the damage.

In spite of the indignity, the smell of sea-salt and the sound of the waves breaking upon the beach soothed him. He enjoyed a moment of looking for the first time upon the wide open sea. It was emotion personified; beauty, rage, and mystery. It was indeed like seeing the end of the world, where traveling too far away from the mainland would leave wayward travelers tipping off an endless chasm into nothingness.

Sighing, more in appreciation than melancholy, Ryū turned to follow Kiromichi inland, his sandals wrapped in cloth rags to protect his feet from the light.

This is a land for my people.” he mused, “Let the Karu reap their extinction in their dead world. They deserve nothing less.”

“Whatever.” Kiromichi replied, attempting to steal the mirth, “Just be sure to make yourself useful if you really want to serve me...and no eating my subordinates.”

“Of course, my lord.” Ryū replied with a grin that was completely lost on him, who, in spite of never stumbling, never took his eyes off his precious crystal bauble.

They said Kiromichi poured his life energy into it, giving all that wasn’t necessary to sustain his body, in order to tap into it at a later time. He must have stored quite a bit for a two person teleportation...

“You two had a decent fight.” Kiromichi noted, continuing his almost mechanical walk towards a large metal gate affixed to a small rocky expanse, “I could have beaten either of you.”

“True or not...” Ryū noted, “You use strength that you’ve collected over time, while we use what strength we always have.”

“That just proves the fatal defect of your strategy.” Kiromichi corrected, “For all time spent outside of battle, you waste your energy by letting it run freely. I detest waste.”

“Well then...” The vampyre said with a smirk, “Give me one of those orbs and I’d be sure to expunge my gluttonous ways.”

As they drew closer, Ryū revised his observation. It was no gorge or mountain they approached from the shoreline; the walls were blocks of stone, immense but clearly worked, forming a sort of divide, not an actual fortress.

“This isn’t a fortress...” Kiromichi explained, seeing his confusion, “Not in the proper sense. There’s a pier on the other side where we store a leviathan. Think of the island like a giant horseshoe, with buildings along either side. Where both arms of the island join we’re finishing up our work here, based off of complex but complete schematics never used by the Pirate Lords.”

“Never used?” Ryū asked, concerned, “Because they didn’t work?” to which Kiromichi laughed mockingly, “Because they’d never imagined having the kind of funds necessary to undergo such a project. But owning a quarter of a nation does wonders for petty monetary issues.”

“That money would’ve done well in the hands of your people...” he pointed out, but Kiromichi hardly seemed troubled that his district was being demolished, “I’m on to bigger and better things, m’boy. I’ve been thinking long and hard since this wondrous opportunity dropped into my lap. Arainami, rest her bones, might not have been the brightest of sorts, but she was on to something big... With what we’re creating at my disposal I intend to rule an entire nation all my own, as a Hitorigami. And I tell you this because not even you could stop it.”

Deeply troubled now, Ryū followed this man, in order to see for himself what could bring about such brash confidence...

Later that week Mei baked another pie, and again their mysterious visitor slipped away with a slice of it, a gold coin laying on the windowsill that was worth more than five whole pies. After two weeks and similar dessert dishes, including the more familiar recipes, Hitomi just asked Mother to make a second dessert and leave it there for them.

It became a bit of a game between them; him, his wife, and his daughter, to spot the pie snatcher, and yet time and time again one or all of them would happen to look away from that spot to attend their duties for just a few moments, then look back and see it missing, another coin in its place. Apparently, their guest considered it good sport as well...

“You think maybe we should just invite them in?” Makoto asked, to which he shrugged, “If I could see them, I certainly would. Can’t image how they keep slipping away; I was prized for my good eye back in the army, and yet I can’t spot someone in broad daylight as they creep around here.”

“Who do you think they are?” his wife wondered aloud, eyes distant, “Maybe they’re one of those runaway enchanters, like you hear about these days.”

Hitomi suddenly looked back to her, alarmed, “That might just be it. Some enchanter trickery would explain how they move about unseen.”

He shuddered at that, having heard more than a few unpleasant stories about that Yokai fellow and his insurrection. If it was an enchanter in the area, there could be some real trouble.

“They can’t have anything bad in mind.” Mei added to their conversation with a smile, “No criminal would announce where they are for the sake of a few treats.”

“They’re your treats, Grandmei...” his daughter Mariko corrected, and they had a good laugh at that, one that Hitomi found infectious, “It seems I’ve been overruled. Just keep an eye out, will you?”

Unlike his mentor, who’d went off to a pleasant trip by the sea by means of instant teleportation, Koukatsuna found himself stuck in Minamoto’s carriage all the way back to the Central District.

By itself, that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. Indeed, the two of them and Vala had very much enjoyed one such trip...but that time he could have, and had, gotten completely drunk.

“I’ll walk for a bit.” the bladedancer said irritably, more than happy to get out of that tiny wooden coffin, and Lord Minamoto gave him leave.

Dipping out of the carriage, he kept pace easily, for the horses (yes, Minamoto had a full team of horses this time!) were down to a slow trot, recuperating from the morning’s trek.

Now well into the beginning of winter, it was more than a little breezy by the time they skirted the edges of Takauji’s realm, but that was fine. He needed to cool off, anyway.

Damn Ryū! He had to hit where it hurt; the bottle. Maybe he’d give opium another try...

“Intoxicants will offer you no relief.” Minamoto said out of the carriage, seemingly reading his thoughts, and Koukatsuna scoffed, “Of course it will. I just need to be intoxicated constantly so I need not worry about it.”

“It might seem presumptuous.” Minamoto prodded, earning a groan for his misplaced efforts, “But I’d like to know from whence your anger comes. I’ve seen it before, in veteran soldiers who’d fought for so long they burned out, even went mad.”

“You want to know about Koukatsuna?” The Silkrit asked him sardonically after a few minutes of relative silence, “Fine then. You already figured out that the lot of us were slaves, yes?”

Minamoto nodded, and he continued, “Well, I tell you truly, not all Silkrit slaves were for eating.”

Koukatsuna was silent for a time, and he didn’t rush him, surprised he’d gotten more than an expletive.

“Some of us were raised to be fighters.” he continued, distant, “Not soldiers, mind. Even twisted from birth, we never killed our own. It was in our blood to know our own kind. Usually, the Skraul got bored, and after tiring themselves of torturing us for enjoyment and feeding, they found a taste for blood sport. There were small pits in every necropolis, and at least one on the larger plantations, where Silkrit, Karu, and animals of our world were locked up together. After a few rounds of that, they took their “Champions” and pitted them in single combat...”

“...Wagers were placed on every stage of this process, and eventually, rearing champions became an art form. What kind of person; the way they talked, the way they thought, they way they moved, became a very interesting thing to them. They got me when I was a hatchling, had me kill small animals, like these scaly things that looked like rats, then up to the bigger things. They had me chop them up, burn them, crush them with rocks. After a while, it stopped bothering me. After that, I started to like it. Eventually, I crept up behind one of their own, a chattel, and bashed his brains in. Went back to my cell with a handful of skull fragments that never disintegrated and made them into a necklace. They never punished me for that. Actually, they laughed. Said I was a natural...”

Koukatsuna laughed coldly, his hand drifting across his the rough tunic he wore, “...When I won a few matches, and believe me, not many got a streak going; most literally fell apart after the third win or so, they brought this “artist” in, to give me something that’d help me stand out in the competitions. He burned my skin with oils and needled it with this tiny little knife while I was strapped to a slab. “Dragon Claw” they called me. They cheered for me, loved me when I got a particularly good routine going; breaking my opponent’s legs, letting them crawl about the floor, yelping, before sticking them in the back. They really loved it when I threw down my swords, then just two lengths of iron, and clawed and bit my enemy to death.”

“...I loved the praise, I loved the attention, and I especially loved that they weren’t eating me anymore. It made me forget for a moment where I was...what I was.”

Koukatsuna laughed at the expression that must have been on his face, his own expression betraying a hint of his inner turmoil, and Lord Minamoto coughed and sat back down.

But that was it for then, it seemed; the bladedancer’s face, stiff but nonetheless revealing naked pain, froze over, returning to his neutral sour expression, “That was, and is, Koukatsuna. I live to fight, to kill. When I’m not killing I prefer not to think, or feel. So I’ll drink, or get high, or fuck, or do whatever I need to, thank you.”

Daylight agreed with her, Vala decided. Though she couldn’t feel the warmth of the sun, concealed in a field of gloom within the reflective crystals, the brightness and richness of color was infectious.

Despite her efforts to regain her former power, she felt less and less a vampyre all the time, and resonated with these waking hours in the light.

Vala sighed, watching the humans (for she’d made the house a necessary stop in her routine) at work and at play. They often traveled west to a proper village, but more often than not they were home.

They knew no ambition; they performed the same tasks, often joked about the same things, and generally lived days that could have easily been equated to every other. And yet, where many would resent such a bland, sedentary existence, there was such a sense of contentedness about these humans, these short-lived, strange creatures, that so thoroughly confused and intrigued her.

At times, with her magicka, she’d crept close enough to see the cataract growing in the right eye of the male, close enough to brush a stray lock of the daughter’s hair as she fussed over her announced mate. What was it about their contentedness that provoked such intrigue, such frustration, and, lest she was mistaken, such envy?!

Indeed, at times during their game Vala had truly been tempted to reveal herself, to let them see her and judge how they may.

This wasn’t rational, of course, for while she was grateful that her allies allowed her to fight beside them, it’d been painfully clear that they saw her as an ally and nothing more. She was a renegade Skraul, whose dark legacy would stand as a wedge between their perceptions and the genuine article. If she ever did decide to walk up and announce herself, to explain her visits, they would recoil and either flee or try to repel her with words or, more likely, weapons.

So why, why, did she indulge in this, then? What was it these peasants possessed that she so coveted?

Vala sighed in exasperation, then covered her mouth in panic. The male looked in her direction, but thankfully she was at the windowsill and not actually in the room. The sound was promptly dismissed as a trick of the wind. Silently cursing, she slipped away. It was late in the evening anyway; soon the humans would go to sleep. And she had much to do if she was to be any use in saving this land.

Ryū was led towards the pier with an increasing sense of foreboding.

What he’d been expecting of Kiromichi’s stronghold was a military fortress, not a city situated between two massive walls of rock that gradually sloped downward to the coast. He had no idea how such a formation had occurred naturally on an island, if indeed it had.

The leviathan was docked in the narrow stretch of water inside, surprisingly deep for such a formation. He suspected that somehow the inhabitants had dug out a good portion of the sand and rock to allow such a deep inlet.

The sun shining between the seaside canyon was largely covered from end to end by a great tarp ceiling, almost a mile long and supported by a metal framework that looked something like a ribcage.

There were seven levels of the boardwalk on each side of the docked leviathan, each level holding a column of small ramshackle buildings, with rope bridges, ladders, and supports throughout. On the highest level the bridges reached from one end of the canyon to the other, slightly above the highest point of the leviathan, offering passage both above and indeed, onto, the vessel.

There seemed to be, through the apparent chaos of his surroundings, a semblance of order. Blacksmiths and craftsmen kept their abodes clustered together, as did the shops, taverns, brothels, and small residences, all displaying what wares they had, if any, brazenly, in the plank and rope streets, creating a general din of human voices and activity. Torches blazed, their smoke filtering up through voids in the artificial ceiling, giving the place an arid, toasty feeling, the smell of the place somewhere between rotting wood, smoke, black powder, sweat, and fish.

The males were marked with the scars of many battles and the cold dispassionate looks of hardened killers, the dark-eyed females all carried poniards if not openly sporting swords and rifles, and the children, somewhat emaciated and feral looking, gave him a wide birth, not out of fear like most children would but instead a calm cautiousness of sizing up a potential foe.

All in all, this city would’ve been unsettling to most, though as a Silkrit; an escaped slave of the Skraul, Ryū found their dispositions to be more familiar than anything else, and the observation scared him somewhat. He sorely hoped his kin would come to acclimate to the lands of Teikoku better than these people...

“Home sweet home, hmm?” Kiromichi mused, given a wide and respectful berth by those around them, perhaps due to his reputation, his proximity to a red-skinned, red-eyed vampyre, or more likely, the escort of over thirty armed guards that’d followed them from the gate.

They pressed through the crowd, albeit with little trouble for that reason, and Ryū spared a glance at the leviathan itself. The size of a small city in and of itself, it put to shame anything his people had made... Then again, his people had known absolutely nothing but war, where the pirates seemed more of an on-and-off sort, constantly fighting, constantly plundering, but seldom warring.

“Alright, then.” Kiromichi said, “They’re at the coastline at the end of the city limits. We make the parts in here then cart them out to join the imported lumber, leather, and compressed gasses. It was no small expense, I assure you, but we’re nearly ready.”

“Ready for what?” Ryū asked with some trepidation, and Kiromichi grinned, “Soon enough, my new friend, soon enough.”

The ramshackle buildings began to thin out near the end of the city, revealing a few well-built manors, wrought of hardwood and quarried marble, some of which actually stretched above and below the three floors. All sported guards and reinforced metal fences, leading Ryū to the conclusion that even cutthroats had separations of classes. He’d been exposed to more than a few royalties enjoyed by the wealthier humans during his time in Teikoku, but indeed, some of the houses he saw now did shame to those of Minamoto’s inner court!

The sunlight poured in from the end of the cavern, well into the early morning, and Ryū again donned his cloak and drew it tight, earning a snicker from Kiromichi. When his vision cleared, and he managed a glance at the fleet spread from end to end of the horizon, he was at first confused. What was so special about-

“Oh...” he gasped, suddenly realizing the significance, and Kiromichi clapped him on the shoulder, “Oh yes, my friend. We’ll have quite the surprise waiting for the Skraul. I call them...Neo-Vimana.

Hitomi traveled west to the trading post with the last of his harvest. He’d been procrastinating for a while now, with their strange visitor, but he still had their coins and it was time he learned where they’d come from.

His wife and daughter had dismissed yesterday’s apparition as a trick of the wind, but he’d clearly heard someone sighing. Hitomi had looked to the source of the voice, only to see...nothing. It wasn’t a spirit, (at least, probably not) but anyone who could cloak themselves in such an enchantment was dangerous.

He’d indulged their visitor for long enough; it was time to learn of who or what they were, and why they seemed to find such interest in his home!

He passed the usual stalls like the butcher and smithy, and instead went into the enchanter’s pavilion. Heavily guarded, the soldiers there insisted on a search, and finding nothing suspicious besides the coins they let him pass.

Inside there were three stalls, each offering different wares; weapons, jewelry, and the like. He went to the enchanter specifying in odd artifacts, and she eyed him up and down, somewhere between perplexed and annoyed that a farmer would come to see her.

“How can I help you, sir?”

Hitomi bowed, stiffly, unaccustomed to enchanters, “I have some unusual coins. I was hoping you could tell me where they came from, and perhaps what they’re worth.”

Sighing, the enchanter held out her hand, and he couldn’t help but notice the old, faded scars across the woman’s wrists as her sleeves slid back enough. They were uniform and vertical, from wrist to inner forearm, almost to the elbow; the mark of an attempted suicide. The difference in exact width suggested different implements, over a long period of time...

Hitomi blanched, though the enchanter didn’t notice, wrapped up in studying the contents of his coin pouch. She held a lens with her other hand, and slowly rotated one of the coins before it, humming a tune as she did.

“Material: 99.2% pure gold, .006% zinc, .0045% copper. Remaining ingredients too minute to detect. A fine alloy, yet oddly non-malleable. Markings: runes, indicative of the Codex of Power. Source...” the enchanter said mechanically, before suddenly pausing, alarmed, “Unknown? That’s never happened before; my divining enchantments are fool-proof!”

Scratching her chin with a sour expression, she looked back to him, “I would offer you forty silver for one now, and contact you when I’ve determined the origin and value of the rest. Do you find this acceptable?” to which he nodded, but stopped her before she could proffer payment, taking hold of her hand. The soldiers inside flinched and took a step forward, but Hitomi wasn’t deterred.

“What’s your name?” he asked, and the woman’s expression soured further, “I didn’t know slaves could have names, sir.”

He paused, mortified, and the silence stretched.

“Forget it...” she snapped, her eyes averting, “You probably want it so you can complain to my owners. It’s Aoi.”

She motioned that he should release her hand. He did not. “That way out is no release...need to talk about it?”

The woman’s face closed up, and she shook her head. Saddened, Hitomi took his payment, gave directions to his house, and left the premises with forty silvers in hand; four times what a normal gold coin would be worth.

He should have been satisfied, but in truth, now he was even more distraught. What in all the hells was coming to his house, that could travel without sound, cloak itself in enchantment, and trade in coins not even a magicka user could identify? Was his family at risk...?

Tengu screamed in darkness, unable to see, unable to breathe. She was trapped, bodiless, floating inside a tiny prison. With her bonded she’d been able to at least experience his sensations, though she’d despaired at the inability to interact with the world around her.

But she was trapped, unable to know what was happening. Would they kill her bonded? If so, would they then kill her?

“I was to know glory!” the Dragon hissed impotently, her words punctuated by fear and despair, “I was to know adventure...”

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