It was certainly the prettiest cell he’d even been in...
The Hitorigami had opted to lock him in the vault, wherein lay the many treasures his family had procured over their generations of lordship over Teikoku. There were piles of gold and silver bricks, gems so finely cut as to capture the dim light of the torches, ancient parchments recording the land’s history and culture, all overflowing from every shelf and chest.
Sadly, he was barred from all of it, in a small cage in the corner, surrounded by the Hitorigami’s golems. His wrists and ankles were restrained by chains that were long enough to allow him to sit, lay down, or defecate into a small pot should he wish, but at the same time short enough to make any of those actions frustratingly difficult.
Without magicka he couldn’t communicate with Tengu, trapped in the gem embedded in his chest, and not hearing her voice made him melancholy, but he knew that after the initial despair at her new condition, the Dragon was well enough to endure the solitude without going mad.
At least, that was his hope...
He should have sent the thing away, but he’d been so certain of his ability to protect the both of them. At least, bonded to his flesh, she couldn’t be taken from him; a small blessing.
Yokai quickly invented ways to amuse himself; flicking detritus at his captors, making shadow puppets with his hands and feet, and generally doing something other than stare at a wall. Eventually he took up whistling, shifting the notes every ten minutes or so.
Had he been guarded by humans, they would have lost their temper and struck him by now, but the animated magickal constructs just stared blankly at him, seeking any possible attempt at duplicity. That, more than anything, exacerbated his boredom; what was the fun there?
But then the sealed door to the vault opened, and the golems turned to menace the intruder, before immediately returning to attention.
“Hello, Kaileena.” Yokai said jovially, noticing two interesting things; the Hitorigami wasn’t present, and neither was Arteth. She nodded in reply, studying him as if for the first time, so he did likewise.
Garbed in foreign, even otherworldly custom, the bright colors suited her well, though he had no doubt she smiled too rarely lately. She’d grown a bit since he’d last seen her; a distinct figure had begun to emerge from her slim, adolescent body, though she was still slender, fragile, as if she’d collapse with a strong gust of wind.
It was her eyes that had changed so much, however. In them, he saw experience, and no small amount of pain. A world weariness.
“The Hitorigami has delayed our conversation for long enough.” Yokai decided aloud, and again Kaileena only nodded, kneeling on the other side of the cage, her tail curling forward about her left knee. They sat in silence for a time, looking upon each other, perhaps waiting for some uncertain queue.
“You’ve changed much since your death...” Kaileena finally conceded, to which he smiled, “You have changed little, and that pleases me.”
Again, Kaileena didn’t immediately reply, and he nodded, understanding, “You thought to defend me when I was being carted through Hitorigami City...but in truth, you despise me.”
“I despise what you’ve forced me to go through.” Kaileena corrected, though her eyes narrowed, “In your own, twisted way, you want what is best for this land, and are willing to do whatever you feel is necessary to find that end. There are worse out there than you, though much evil has been committed by your hand.”
He didn’t argue semantics; the woman was dying because of him, after all.
“Fair enough...” he said, “I’ll tell you how I cheated death, though I fear it isn’t what you’re looking for.”
...It was over. All his ambitions eroded before his eyes.
His tower fortress was besieged, his homunculi army was being overrun by the Skraul, and he’d nearly depleted his godlike power defeating their general. Itaku and his assassins would be upon him soon, and even if he did oust them, what hope was there for a free Teikoku now?
“There is only one hope left for me.” Yokai concluded, his despair-stricken mind formulating a single, desperate chance at salvaging his plans. It was improbable, even absurd, but he knew it to be the only way.
“Tengu...my dearest and only friend...” he said, eyeing the exhausted, wound-shocked Dragon as she returned his gaze with one massive eye, “I would offer you a gift, ere you departed.”
Channeling the magickal energies of the tower in place of his body’s energy (for only in this was he capable of casting a spell without the corrupting power of the Eternal Return), he laid the foundations of his partial rebirth.
Tendrils of raw magicka enveloped Tengu, healing her near-mortal wounds and infusing her with strength, but its true purpose was in a powerful flesh shaping. Had the Dragon not contained an unfertilized egg in her womb all would have been lost, but as it was he imprinted his biological information into it, effectively creating a duplicate of himself, which would then rapidly gestate into an embryo.
Possessing all of his knowledge, memories, and magickal affinity, with the exception of the Eternal Return, it would live to see his work completed. Sadly, he, in his purest sense, was doomed, for the Eternal Return would consume his body, and then his very soul. This Yokai, the first Yokai, would be completely and utterly unmade.
But a new Yokai would emerge, and it would fall to him to free Teikoku. There was no other way.
“Rest, Tengu. We shall endure this.” he lied, preparing a second spell, one that would teleport her far from his side, where she would be safe.
“Together?” she asked, and Yokai smiled, able to, in a sense, truthfully reply, “Together.”
“That is the secret of rebirth then.” Kaileena breathed, visibly deflating.
“I am truly sorry, Kaileena.” Yokai replied, taking her hand through the bars of his prison. She didn’t resist him, nor did the Golems, apparently seeing no aggressive action on his part.
“The Eternal Return will end me, body and soul.” Kaileena said hopelessly, “I’m doomed, but I can copy myself, to let it inherit my life.”
“I would consider myself more the heir of the original Yokai; not a copy, nor a clone, nor a sequel.” he replied, “Think of it more as a next of kin than a copy, though it would in a sense be you...just a different you.”
The profoundly defeated look on her face broke his heart, “I truly regret the fate you face. Indeed, had it been me, I would have sooner surrendered than condemn you so.”
“If you’re exactly like the other Yokai, then no, you would not...” Kaileena replied, her eyes downcast, but Yokai shook his head, “No. I think in that way I am different than my predecessor. I can accept help from others, without the demands of interfering pride. I know the failure of utter self-reliance, for it was the first Yokai’s greatest failure to be unable to bring others to his cause, who might continue his work even after his death. I would have known to try and pass my legacy to you, not my doom. You, Kaileena, are my greatest failure.”
He lifted her chin, straining his reach, chained as he was, “I will help you copy yourself, for it is the very least I can do in apology. Indeed, I will cast the spell myself, if it suits you. I just need a ready womb, for Tengu is unable to so donate again. I just ask, in return, a single favor.”
Sighing with mixed fatigue and trepidation, Kaileena bid him continue, “Teach me how you brought new life to Arteth, for I intend to do the same with Tengu. A life for a life. A fair trade.”
Kaileena considered that, but frowned, “I will not allow such a beast free on the lands again. Swear to me, and again, to Arteth, that Tengu will combat none but the servants of the Dread Hammer. Arteth will see that oath bound by magicka as a geas.”
Nodding, for that wouldn’t overtly interfere with his plans, Yokai smiled, “If you find another way to save yourself, it will please me. If not, you will endure in another form, I promise you.”
The Hitorigami, watching the entire exchange through his golems, was not pleased. Itaku likewise watched, but said nothing.
If Kaileena wished to save herself, so be it, but Mikoto would not allow her to help resurrect Tengu. He had enough problems as it was, and hopefully, he would have one less in the form of Yokai, for the fool had betrayed a very important weakness, one that would have to be exploited in order to bring the people of Teikoku back in line. The land itself, perhaps the world, depended on it.
“Oh, Adahj...” Mikoto despaired inwardly, lest Itaku become privy to his thoughts, “If only you were still here. I could sorely use some advice.”
Something was wrong.
Struggling free of her makeshift bed, Vala darted into the night, her nose to the wind. It’d only been there for a moment, but she knew... There!
Even from such a distance, she knew the spoor of her own kind. A pack of Skraul were traveling upwind, to the west, and she paled as the import registered. The group was far too small to be raiders, and the location was far too isolated to suit such a number anyway. They were hunting...and she could think of one choice target for them in that direction.
Inhumanely swift, she devoured the miles in a sprint the pace of a loosed arrow, pursuing the scent.
“Please, let me be mistaken.” she cursed, unmindful of the fact that she’d left her cloak behind.
The scent changed direction, turning slightly southward, towards her. It seemed that a sudden shift in the wind had betrayed her presence as well.
“Toshisha!” she cried, calling her whipblade to life and coiling it behind her back for a surprise attack. The scent diminished; they were turning about...but would they leave?
Snarling in frustration, for she’d come to this region specifically because there had been no known Skraul activity, Vala closed in, pushing the limits of her endurance.
The house appeared in the distance, no more than a bump on the horizon, and with her target in sight, she instantly teleported with a minor spell...right into the midst of two pureblood arbiters and half a dozen Koriko.
Hitomi jolted awake. He wasn’t sure what woke him up, but he’d spent far too long in service to the Hitorigami’s army to immediately dismiss it as something innocuous. A warrior’s intuition never faded.
He belted on a hand scythe, then went for the yumi longbow hanging from the mantle, the lone relic of his past. Makoto eyed him drowsily, perplexed, and was about to offer words when a scraping outside startled her into motion to check on Mei and Mariko. He stood between the door and the only bedroom, wherein his family hid.
Makoto took the edge of the doorway, a fire poker in hand, and they waited. There was a cry of alarm outside, and suddenly the night erupted into clashing steel. A battle!
“The Hitorigami’s men?” Makoto asked him quietly, her eyes wide with fear, and he shrugged without looking back to her, “If that’s the case they would wish us inside, while they fought with...whatever else is out there.”
It went against his honor, but Hitomi meant those words; he could not endanger his family by opening that door, no matter what.
But the matter was answered for him...
Something slammed through the door, splintering it, and before he could release his arrow it soared right over his shoulder and hit the far wall.
Vala hit the wall hard, the air blasted from her lungs and a peculiar numbness spreading from her underbelly. She promptly ignored it, recovering and dashing around the male Human and running the arbiter through as he crossed the threshold, Toshisha spearing his darksteel mail and lashing at the Koriko behind him.
Summoning a sheathe of super-cooled vapor, Vala enveloped herself in biting cold, pushed the arbiter out of her way, and was subsequently forced back into the house by the Koriko, unmindful of its severed right fighting arm and one of its two right legs. Managing as best it could, the hybrid charged in before being skewered through the eye with a long arrow.
No time to check if the Human responsible for the missile was still alright or even aiming at her, Vala readied her stance as another of the three remaining Koriko charged the doorway. She used her vapor shield against her new enemy, turning its exoskeleton brittle with a wave of intense cold.
Toshisha spun into a coil, then lunged forward, slithering around a parry to run the beast through its neck, severing its internal, fleshy equivalent of a spine. The other arbiter didn’t advance, targeting her with a spell instead.
Snarling with rage and panic, Vala charged, increasingly woozy for some reason, surrounding herself with the length of her weapon as a gout of fire washed over her.
Spinning in a graceful dance, she wrapped her weapon around him, and pulled it tight. Into nothing...
Cursing, she spared a glance at the vampyre retreating with its lone remaining Koriko, and suddenly realized that somehow her weapon was no longer in her hand, and had indeed wrapped around him in their earlier exchange. More specifically, it had wrapped around a glowing vambrace on his right hand that allowed him to handle the weapon without injury.
Now genuinely alarmed, for her Blood-Forged weapon was the source of most of her sorcery, Vala gave chase. But she stumbled after the first few steps, delirious. Turning to find the Humans, all four of them, staring at her wide-eyed, Vala tried to offer reassurances of her allegiance only to find her words slurred, black blood dribbling down her chin.
It was only then that she looked down to find an entire Koriko fighting arm, bladed pick and all, impaled through her abdomen. She teetered, then collapsed.
Too stunned to do anything else, Hitomi ordered the women to bring the creature inside while he watched the departing monsters uneasily, too far away to shoot thanks to his failing vision.
Cursing, he retreated to the door line, and dared a glance back. The creature struggled feebly in his wife and daughter’s grip, but they managed to lay it (her, upon inspection) on her side onto the dining table.
Makoto looked back to him, grim, and he shrugged. Black blood seeped from the wound, and her breathing wavered, but the wound wasn’t fatal...yet.
“It’s barbed. I can see that much.” Makoto noted, while she sent Mariko to fetch the water in the bedroom. Granny Mei got the stove going, and Hitomi eyed one of the corpses, blanching as it began to break apart, committing it to memory while hoping that he wouldn’t suffer nightmares for the rest of his life. While part of the arm disintegrated with its body, its talon remained as it was.
By the Hitorigami, it was more a blade than an arm!
He’d heard of the enemy that the Hitorigami’s men were at war with...but how could humans defeat such beasts? His heart went out to anyone fighting out there...
Worried, the retired archer put the door back in place and wedged it shut. The window! He slipped into the next room with a curse, upturned the bed, and, with Mariko’s help, moved the frame back into the main area and blocked the window with it.
“There.” he gasped as they put it in place, “Locked up tight. They will see no reason to come again.”
He said that more to comfort his family than anything, because seeing what they’d done to the door...he didn’t doubt how hollow the words sounded to them.
“I need help here.” Makoto said loudly, too loudly, over at the table, as she gently cut away the creature’s armor around the injury with a knife, “There’s no way to pull this out, so we have to cut it short and push it all the way through.”
The woman, groaning, her eyes glazed and distant, offered no reply, so while he held her down, Mariko approached with a small hand saw at his command, the only appropriate tool.
“Now then.” Hitomi said calmly to her terrified expression, “You have the best hands for this...I know you can do it. She’s not going to like this, so be ready for that. Just find some good footing, bring the saw up and down from there, yes, right there, using your back and shoulder more than your arm. We have to get this out quickly, or our defender here will bleed to death. Can you do that for me?”
When his daughter nodded uneasily he bade her on, and after taking far too long testing the spot he’d marked, she drove the saw down, and the creature groaned louder, startling her.
“Easy.” he told her, “She’s not quite here, I think. Keep going.”
Breathing unsteadily, his daughter brought the saw back up, and continued, working at a slight downward angle, using her other hand on the creature’s side to brace herself.
After a few tense minutes, the end of the talon plopped of, leaving about six centimeters of its length in front of the woman’s stomach.
“Good job. Now, Makoto...you push it through. I’ll keep her still.”
As Mariko turned and helped Mei with getting the water to a boil and tearing an old tunic into strips, his wife eyed him over the creature, before putting both hands on the flat area of the bladed hand, and, with her arm muscles knotting, pushing the thing through.
The woman cried in pain, as it went in another two centimeters, the barbs of the tip pushing through her body, and even Hitomi, who’d fought in more than a few battles, felt a surge of uneasy sympathy as a gout of blood poured out from her back.
She shook, but he had a firm grip and kept her still while his wife pushed the limb another four centimeters.
“It’s caught on something.” Makoto gasped, sweating.
“Maybe a rope of bowel.” he replied hopelessly, honestly unsure if anything could be done, “We usually kept trying with these injuries on the battlefield; hoped it was the pelvis and not something softer that would be pulled out...say, what’s that tied to her belt?”
Noticing the flask for the first time, his wife uncorked it, and sniffed; “Not liquor...its rusty, but laced with mineral. A healing tonic?”
“Can’t hurt to try it. Give her one last big push, and whatever happens, we’ll try to get her to drink it. Mei, be ready with those boiled threads and bandages.”
Her hands were covered with black, tarry blood, but Makoto readied herself, then gave one great push. The woman seemed not to notice.
“She’s going into shock.” he cursed, gauging the paleness of her skin and the distant, weary expression on her face, but, seemingly waiting for that moment, the limb slipped right out, trailing a length of small intestine. It was trailing, but not punctured; the strain had merely pushed it out.
“Damn it. I’ll put it back in. Try the liquid and see what happens. Give me the thread and water, yes, there we go...try the liquid.”
At that, Makoto brought the vial to the woman’s lips, and lifted her head in such as way that it slid down her throat. The creature coughed up most of the first pour, but Makoto persisted, upending the vial.
The effect was instantaneous.
Seemingly reawakened from the draught she thrashed so violently that Hitomi was knocked back. Screaming beyond pain, she opened her eyes wide, tried to sit up, insides roiling inside the open wound. To his amazement, new layers of muscle covered the breach, sealing the organs away.
Fighting his shock, Hitomi pinned the woman flat on the table, “Quick! Get some of my-”
Suddenly she stilled, her face a mask of abject horror, and their eyes locked, just before the awareness drained from her face and those eerily bright blue eyes closed, as she collapsed once more. Leaving the room in utter, stunned silence...
He couldn’t return to the brood. For losing his superior and five of their six Koriko he would be executed on sight. His only chance was the sword.
Oh yes, he knew many tales, horror stories mostly, that centered around this distinctive whipblade...
His vambrace, powerfully enchanted to twist spells against their users, had bound the sword. He would learn how to break its will and make it his own. It was his only chance.
“Toshisha...” Furin whispered, “You will bring me great glory. With you at my side I will become a prime, and rise above the rabble that I find to be my prison.”
When it became clear that neither of them would be leaving for home, Mikoto had offered his “honored guests” one of the nicer rooms in the royal palace. Despite the structure reassembling itself throughout the night, the stay was enjoyable. Kaileena, for her part, needed the rest, and Arteth wasn’t looking much better than she was.
“After all of that...” she groaned, curling against his body, “The closest that I have to surviving is to do so vicariously.”
Arteth nodded, grim-faced, “We’ve found another way not to achieve our goal. I want you, not...a re-creation of you. I will again consult my kin in Moonshadow tomorrow.”
Kaileena said little else, too exhausted, and drifted away...
...Until something occurred to her, a particular combination of her previous endeavors.
Kaileena jolted awake and slid out of the blankets, her mate remaining asleep throughout. Digging through her things, she retrieved her prize; the black gem. She’d remembered in her dream an ancient legend from elven tomes; the Alchemist Stone.
Owned by Pirate Lords throughout the ages, Lord Nutaku had been the last to bear the item before Anima destroyed it in her emergence into Aurora over a hundred years ago.
But El’Dari documents attested, by the personal accounts of the heroes that had recovered it, that the unique stone had created a magickal dead zone, which could utterly destroy enchantments and spells.
Would such a thing be enough to simply nullify the Eternal Return? Could she replicate its effects if she found a fragment of it there?
“I’ll need to speak with the El’Dari Magisters personally...” she decided, “...and attain a detailed account. Perhaps with their consultation, or, dare I hope, firsthand experience, I can comprehend enough of that artifact to create something similar, through transmutation of other, lesser gems. Arteth, wake up!”
The sky turned a light blue at its edges. Dawn approached, though it was little relief.
Hitomi sat beside the fire, the she-creature still on the table, unconscious but from what he could see recovering quickly.
Never had he heard of such a restorative salve, though he had no idea what it could of been. Makoto had used every last drop of it. They’d ended up using the water to clean up the blood, and after that they’d all been too exhausted to do anything else.
Nothing for it, he again studied the woman to discover what he could. She had dark, ashen skin, pointed ears like an elf, and very sharp teeth, particularly a pair of jutting lower canines. In spite of this, she was very regal looking, with a soft, rounded face, short hair, carefully manicured nails, and armor of obvious quality.
She wasn’t very heavily muscled, but those she possessed were finely honed, like a runner’s. From what he’d seen of her whip-sword her technique was more finesse than brute force, putting even his native kendo to shame.
Hitomi hoped he’d done the right thing in saving her life; he didn’t know if he could put her down if the need arose.
What were those monsters and what were they doing marauding the countryside? The slim, dark-skinned creature that had perished beside its insect counterparts looked similar to the one laying on the table, but they were definitely not of the same species. Was she among them and then betrayed, or had she decided to fight them instead, appearing from somewhere else? Would they return for her, for one reason or another? When she awakened, would she attack his family?
It’d appeared as if she’d been fighting for his benefit, but there was little way to be sure. If she wasn’t one of them, what was she doing here?
“Father...” Mariko gasped, and Hitomi jolted to his feet, bow in hand, to see her retreating from the creature. Her hand was...smoking. He watched, dumbstruck, as a line of smoke slowly traveled up her arm.
“Get some water. No, wait!” he added, taking note of how the line of burning skin ran perpendicular to the light of the sun as it crept across the room, “Let’s...um, take her to the bedroom.”
The sun hurt her? That would be useful to remember.
They lifted her up and moved her into the other room, but as they did so something thudded against the floor. After setting her down where Mei could watch her, Hitomi went back and found a small pouch there. Taking it in hand as he sat back down, he upended its contents, revealing a Noble Seal, a broken glass ball, perhaps a magickal gewgaw, and a couple of very familiar looking coins.
Holding them up to the light, he laughed at the absurdity, “Well...I guess we have our pie bandit.”
Kaileena had collected her things, imparted a farewell to the Hitorigami alongside a solemn vow to return, and then Arteth prepared to send her on her way far, far to the east.
He’d also crafted an enchanted orb that would translate for her since he couldn’t accompany, assuring her she would know no welcome with him beside her. Kaileena had argued, but in the end submitted to his decision.
Elurra had, before her capture, made the El’Dari aware of the war and Kaileena’s own troubles, thus facilitating the exchange of knowledge on the subject. They would welcome her; indeed, they had expressed a desire to see her. But they didn’t know about Arteth, and, if pressed, she would try to evade the subject.
Arteth’s portal sent her careening through space, out of Teikoku and far beyond the bamboo forest. She held herself closely, surrounded by a miasma of blinding light and color, until she found herself standing in a circle of soft earth, surrounded by elves, like Humans but leaner, taller, and more heavily tanned, with wild tangles of hair in autumn colors.
She stood very still, nervous, then flinched as several cried out in delight, greeting her warmly. One of them, a male wearing crimson robes, bowed to her, and she returned it, though their styles were slightly different; where she kept both arms down and back stiff, the Elf spread his hands out wide to either side, head upturned, “You are Kaileena, of the lands to the west?”
When she nodded, he smiled, “Then well met, Kaileena Kazeatari. I am Narthutet, Arch-Magister of the El’Dari.”
“I regret not being able to speak in person before this point.” Kaileena noted, “Your people have been very generous in helping me research my...ailment. On behalf of my Hitorigami, I thank you.”
“You are quite welcome.” Narthutet replied warmly, “A fellow servant of Anima is kin here, but even if you’d been uninitiated we would’ve happily aided you in such a time of need. Let’s retire to my study and discuss your visit.”
Tasting scents of spiced nuts and wood smoke in the air, Kaileena followed him out of the circle, and the rest of the elves dispersed, returning to their buisiness.
“I apologize for the inconvenience of the walk.” Kaileena said, “The portal should have-”
“No, no...the portal worked just fine.” Narthutet said casually, “This city resists teleportation or other forms of magickal travel thanks to certain defenses erected millennia ago. We corrected the path for you, so you would appear in one of our worship circles, lest your allies unintentionally endanger you with an unsafe portal.”
“I see...” Kaileena mused glumly, “You have my thanks, then. Wait...you said this was a city? All I see are...oh...”
She gasped, suddenly looking at the impossibly, unnaturally huge oak trees around the path, noticing elegantly carved arches that suggested doorways and alcoves.
“Aye. This is Arion, which has been my home for a long, long time, though it’s been slow in healing these last two centuries.” Narthutet explained with a grimace, rubbing one of his hands tenderly, “A great many things were slow in healing.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” she replied, “My land suffers as well, thanks to the Dread Hammer and the Pirate Lords.”
“Two very familiar enemies.” he replied grimly, “Though we’d thought one to be destroyed forever. Tell me, how fares Elurra?”
He must have read her expression, because he paled somewhat, “I see. Well...that’s the wonder of the Djinn. She will rebirth in time. She’s done it before.”
“Actually, she was captured.” Kaileena corrected, “A means to free her is still being devised.”
“Then perhaps I will join you as you return to Teikoku.” Narthutet mused, “She is a good friend of mine.”
“Captured, you say?” someone said behind her, audibly distressed, and Kaileena jumped, not having heard him approach.
There was no mistaking this one for a hardened warrior. It wasn’t in his garb; his bright linen tunic and vest, cloak, and muted black breeches were hardly incongruous of the others. It was the way he walked; the sibilant, graceful stride, in a sinister, almost predatory sense, and the absolute calmness and certainty that emanated from him. He reminded her of Ryū distantly.
“Vilaseth.” Narthutet explained as a greeting, and the Elf scowled, “I will have words with the big man at Moonshadow for not telling me about this, but first, I have to see to my wife’s safety. Excuse me.”
Without preamble he pushed past them, back towards the circle, the only place where portals could be created if Narthutet’s words rang true.
“He’s married to Elurra?” Kaileena asked after a moment, and Narthutet nodded, watching him go, “They began their story during the invasion of the Dreadborne, and yes, indeed, I’ve never seen such an odd pairing in all my years. Still...the heart wants what it wants, or so they say.”
He turned into one of the trees with a shrug, and parted a thin veil, beckoning her to follow. Kaileena did just that, tasting the oddly-scented smokes that drifted languidly about the interior, so unlike the tobacco that Durethi and Itaku had enjoyed during their first encounter.
Unlike outside this room was more conventionally regal, with plush divans, incense, carpets, and drapes, many red, orange, and yellow in color.
“Representative of fire.” Kaileena noted, earning an amused chortle from her host, “Yes, indeed. My fascination, which my apprentice seems to have inherited. This is his room.”
Kaileena nodded, then paled, suddenly noticing a massive creature, so still as to appear as a part of the scenery at first glance. His dull yellow eyes burned fiercely as they studied her.
“Dral’rrche” Narthutet explained, “..a Rune-Magi, learning our craft from me in exchange for certain trivialities.”
Dral’rrche nodded politely, though he appeared to be as unnerved of her as she indeed was of him. Nearly as tall as Arteth and much bulkier, he was of a race to which she was unfamiliar; humanoid, but covered in grey, warty skin, with patches of thick moss growing all across his back and shoulders. His massive arms reached well below his knees, and were tipped with sharp claws.
Runes, similar to Arteth’s but of red paint, covered his chest, and an iris the color of burnished brass rested above and between his yellow eyes. It vaguely reminded her of the dot Vala marked her forehead with.
There were tusks emerging from his lower jaw, like an Orc’s but larger and thicker, each of which were carved like scrimshaw and tipped with a beaten gold orb.
He was shirtless, dressed in a fine woolen pair of breeches and a war kilt, the former red, the latter orange and strangely reflective, as if metallic.
“Wait...yes.” Kaileena mused, scratching her chin thoughtfully, “Durethi spoke of your people. You are an...ogre?” to which Dral’rrche nodded, “Yes, I am ogre. But think not from my size, blue lizard, that I am clumsy brute, as humans here do.”
“Not a chance have I to do so.” Kaileena replied honestly and cordially, smiling, “I say well met, fellow enchanter”.
“Enchanter?” he asked, his deep, gravelly voice shifting in tone, and Narthutet shrugged, “Their spell craft isn’t like ours. They channel through certain items, like jewels. It allows them to store magicka for later use, or even use by others...but without the items they cannot cast. Kaileena, if I may explain for your benefit as well, that we have no enchanters here. The elves and Humans of this land are Magisters, who cast with the spoken words of Surthath’s Codex. The Ogres, for their part, cast through written and drawn symbols as well as certain gestures of the hand. They are termed Rune Magi.”
“I see.” Kaileena said, considering Yokai’s odd lack of enchantments when he fought, “Very interesting.”
“Indeed. Now, to the matter of why you’re here. I understand the urgency of your research and am prepared to aid you if I am able.” Narthutet assured her, “Please, tell me what you seek.”
“The Alchemist Stone.” Kaileena replied simply, observing Narthutet’s expression, and more importantly, the flash of recognition, “Consumed by Anima during her incursion here. I would know more about it and its properties.”
“Hmmm...” Narthutet pondered, “Yes. I can see how a field of anti-magicka might offset the Eternal Return, which is itself a sort of living enchantment. Well thought. We have no research on the item in question, but I have an unlikely and dangerous solution.”
“‘Dangerous’ is hardly something I’m unused to.” Kaileena replied dryly, and he nodded with a noticeably soft chortle, for there was a twinge of uneasiness in it, “Same here. Now, while the item is gone and two hundred years have passed, I think we might have a chance to sample its residual emanations at the place to which it had been held for extended periods of time. Lord Nutaku’s Leviathan Flagship, and while it’s now at the bottom of the Outer Coast, exploring a sunken ship is by no means beyond my power. Give me a day to procure the necessary reagents, and we can see what we will.”
She awoke to the smell of burnt meat.
Confused, Vala tried to lift herself up, then hissed at her arm, scorched and blistered. A wave of nausea and dizziness assaulted her, and she fell right back down into...into a small cushion, probably used as a bed. Her armor was gone. In its place was...ah, a kimono, the native form of dress for human females.
Someone had dressed her?
Slowly registering details of her surroundings, Vala concluded she was in a small, lightless room. She lay against a wall, and on the other far wall was a sliding panel, a traditional door for the region.
Daring to try to stand, Vala managed, barely. Making her way to the door, she started to slide it open, and then blanched, seeing the four Humans out in the main area, looking back her way.
Hitomi, the male, said something in the native tongue, but without Starseeker’s translating orb she couldn’t make much of it. The dialect was all off.
Blinking at the stilted gibberish they were saying, Vala slipped out through the door, bracing her other arm against the wall for support. The female, named...Makoto, said something sheepishly, unwilling to make direct eye contact.
Puzzled, Vala looked around for her things, particularly the orb, only to find it at the table, broken.
“Damn it all...” she cursed, then teetered as another wave of dizziness struck her. The male led her gently to the table, and sat her down in his seat. Picking up her broken orb and having no way at all to fix it, she sighed, putting it back down.
Toshisha was gone as well, if she recalled correctly, stolen thanks to some thrice-cursed enchantment. Without it she was almost completely cut off from her magicka. The only thing she’d developed beyond it was her mindbreaking.
Come to a solution to her predicament, she looked at the male, then concentrated, pressing her fingertips against the bridge of her nose and forehead. She had only developed her psychic capabilities in the form of a weapon...she’d never tried to use it to communicate.
She would start simple then; object association. Vala pictured her flask of Vitrium, illustrated every detail of it, then channeled it to Hitomi. He stammered, stunned, before gaping, saying something excitedly to the others.
As she watched him, Hitomi, without fault, turned and picked up her flask, then offered it to her. She smiled, nodded, and then became horrified to find it completely empty, upending it and finding not a single drop emerging. That was enough to last her for months!
“I’ll just have to find something else...” Vala groaned, setting the bottle down dejectedly, then looked back to Hitomi. It was more difficult this time, since she hadn’t gotten a good look at the arbiter she had killed, but she sent a rudimentary image, with the implied desire to see the body.
Hitomi seemed confused for a moment, then nodded, pointing outside, and then gesturing his hands, with one held vertical, and the other, horizontal, orbiting around it. He’d...wrapped it? Good; that meant it hadn’t burned up in the sun.
Vampyres didn’t decompose like mortals, instead reverting to ash upon death. However, Toshisha carried a secondary enchantment that could delay this on one corpse, the better for her to feed upon it. Thinking ahead, she’d marked the Arbiter she’d slain not to decompose, hoping she could recover it after the battle. So long as it was still intact, the body could safely be fed on.
Having nothing else to add, Vala simply sat back, arms in her lap, then shrugged at them. The oldest and youngest females, Grandmei and Mariko, stared wide-eyed at the other side of the table, and Makoto hardly seemed pleased by the turn of events.
It was going to be a long day...
He said his goodbyes, few that they were, to Arion, stepping through the portal without looking back.
Elurra was somewhere in this cursed new land, aboard a ship with wings. Surely, that would be easy to find.
Vilaseth wasn’t troubled in the slightest that three Djinn had failed to take down this...Dekeshi. Subterfuge was his business, not theirs...
The portal brought him to a small alleyway in one of the ramshackle sections of Fusestu, and working his way out into the crowd, he practically vanished, death cloaked among the crowd as their own.
“Are you...certain this is safe?” Kaileena asked, eyeing the dark waters apprehensively.
Narthutet nodded, “Oh yes. My ward is fool-proof...if we’re imperiled by anti-magicka, we will all be teleported instantly back to shore. Never fear.”
The three of them (Dral’rrche had opted to come along) proceeded from the coast atop flying carpets, a new toy pioneered by an El’Dari Magister. Kaileena made of note of asking if she could buy one at some point...
Narthutet prepared the spells that would protect them from the biting cold, lethal pressure, and lack of oxygen of the ocean floor, while Dral’rrche conjured glowballs that would allow them to see. Kaileena would...handle any other issues as they presented themselves.
Last night, Narthutet had scried out the desired vessel, Lord Nutaku’s Flagship, which had for a time carried the fabled Alchemist Stone. Arteth was present via a telepathic link to her (and her alone) and would tell her if and when he observed enough of the residual energies to duplicate them via a spell or enchantment.
The complication, as she’d pointed out, was that their defenses, which would prevent them from drowning or being crushed into paste by the intense oceanic pressure, were magickal in nature...and they were in fact going down there to study anti-magicka...
“Trust me, Kaileena.” Narthutet said, laying a hand on her shoulder, “It’s all our lives that my wards will protect. I wouldn’t put such things to chance.”
“Very well.” Kaileena replied worriedly, “Let’s be done with it...I’m not a strong swimmer.”
The depth of the water wavered at points, dipping so low she couldn’t hope to see the bottom, before rising back up in sand dunes. They also passed what Narthutet called a coral reef, a massive underwater forest of colored stalks populated with the most vibrant, colorful, and varied fish Kaileena had either seen or heard of. The Hitorigami himself did not possess such a menagerie!
There were flat, spade-shaped fish with blue bodies and yellow fins, orange fish with yellow or white stripes, a peculiar orange-tan specimen with frightening looking spines like armor. There were octopuses with circular patches, mollusks with spiral shells, a peculiar creature whose body was the shape of a star, and a hundred other animals and plants she couldn’t identify.
“Are you seeing this, Arteth?” she asked telepathically, and felt the Kamiyonanayo’s contentment, though she could tell it was more at her enjoyment than his.
After the reef they observed little but deep sea, skirting around a minor shipwreck, a Galleon, as her elven guide had called it. An adventure for another day, perhaps...
The carpets halted when a divining orb he held flared bright red. When that happened they prepared themselves.
Narthutet and Dral’rrche cast their spells, either by speaking them, or in the latter’s case, drawing archaic symbols with the tip of a claw. He dipped his fingers periodically into a pouch in his belt, filled with a special ink that amplified runic magicka. They had to be careful to cast around but not upon her, thanks to the inability to control her Spell-Eater Strain, but, that finished, each stripped down to essentials and took a dive with a loud splash.
She kept on her golden bangle that could materialize her staff, the orb that could translate languages, as well as the belts containing many small pouches, into which she secreted her four horn rings and the alchemist stone signet she’d acquired in Fusestu. Her necklace, dagger summoning bracelet, coat, gown, and boots stayed with the flying carpet, and she would swim in her underclothes.
It was sort of funny, that even after being free of Fusestu’s brothel she was still taking her clothes off in front of men!
The saltwater felt uncomfortable against her skin, but thankfully, there was no chill to it. Narthutet had also included something in his wards that kept it out of their eyes. For Kaileena’s part, she needed no such thing, thanks to a pair of transparent inner eyelids that always closed when she was submerged.
Upon acclimating to their surroundings, they dived below, and would communicate telepathically from that point on until they surfaced. Arteth was careful not to clue them off to his presence.
Their carpets would hover above, awaiting their return, but otherwise, the only other way to depart would be the teleportation ward. In spite of his skill, Narthutet nearly exhausted his spells in what he’d already cast. From what he had explained, Magisters, like enchanters, eventually ran out of raw magicka, and needed to wait for it to restore itself. And unlike enchanters, they couldn’t store it for later...
A sudden weight, again Narthutet’s doing, dragged them down faster, and soon, the surface disappeared. Truly, the experience of losing track of direction was disorienting, for soon Kaileena could determine nothing in the endless dark expanse she found herself in.
Dral’rrche’s glowballs kept the sea-life at bay, though she caught glimpses of long, eel-like fish with great yawning mouths filled with teeth; barracuda, they were called. She didn’t like the dead, empty black eyes that stared back at her.
A tendril of translucent energy struck her, then forked to Dral’rrche.
“A lifeline...” Narthutet explained telepathically, “So none of us become separated.”
They dived deeper. Everything beyond the immediate scope of the glowballs was utter darkness. The earlier sense of wonder evaporated; this was a place of emptiness, of silent threat and oppressive tension. Were it not for Narthutet’s magicka, they would have been crushed by the pressure, to be gobbled up piecemeal by the marine fauna.
Kaileena shivered, in no way because of the cold.
“Easy. We approach...” Dral’rrche whispered in her mind, pointing a claw down to a point where the glowballs couldn’t delve deeper. It took a moment to register it was the ocean floor.
They proceeded, forward rather than down, across a blank landscape of sand, which, when stepped upon, threw up a cloud of obscuring sediment. There was an impression of sharp edges, like gnashing teeth, and finally, there it was. A great iron ship, the size of a large village, rent in half...each end tipping up as its center slowly dug its way into a massive undersea canyon.
“Fascinating...” Narthutet mused, “In its two hundred year drift Nutaku’s Flagship has slowly collapsed into itself, pushing farther and farther into this canyon. Its position must be precarious indeed by now.”
“Lovely.” Kaileena groaned, “If you feel that we can still proceed, let’s do so.”
Nodding, the magister led them to the center of the vessel, and sought out the lowest exposed floor.
“From what Vilaseth described of this ship the room we seek is on one of the lower floors, near the rear.” Narthutet mused, “Dral’rrche, we might need your cone-torch spell to melt through obstructions.”
Finding the lowest level open to the sea, they slipped into a hallway of corrugated iron, the glowballs spreading to either end. They swam forward about two bowshots before rounding a corner and passing a small intersection of hallways.
Using her tail like a rudder, Kaileena easily kept pace, and was able to spare glances down into individual rooms, seeing stacked beds reinforced with iron frames, stoves, and racks of long unused weapons. There were a few skeletons, most so thoroughly broken apart as to be unrecognizable, though there were a few corpses that looked like bloated greenish-grey blobs. To these she kept a respectful distance.
“These were the...Dreadborne?” she asked, and Narthutet nodded grimly, “Walking corpses, animated by Dur’Arteth the Destroyer. Worry not, for they are inert without their bindings, which were long ago wiped away. They remain because the local fauna no doubt hesitate to consume them.”
Near the chamber they sought Dral’rrche lifted one of his magickal gewgaws, which flashed with inner light, opening a door. Or attempting to, at least; it wavered on its hinges, but remained firm. Intrigued, Kaileena and Narthutet watched as the Ogre drew a symbol with his hand, and the water bubbled furiously as a line of white-hot fire struck the door and melted its handle.
Grunting in a wave of bubbles, Dral’rrche jimmied the door open with a length of iron torn from one of the beds. Smiling, he waved them forward, and gasping, Kaileena saw the contents of the room.
The outer wall had been ripped asunder, revealing the open ocean, and whatever had torn out that part of the ship had doubtless taken most of the contents of the room, but sitting there was a scattering of coins glimmering gold in the magickal light.
Scooping them up into a pouch hanging from the belt of his loincloth, Dral’rrche gave her a wide, toothy grin, “Spell components expensive. Good advice without charge; should seek out profit when you can.”
He handed her a thumb-sized ruby from that pouch, pointing to the star sapphires embedded into her palms, “For giving me idea to do that in future.” Smiling, Kaileena bowed, or at least offered something comparable, submerged as she was.
They rounded a corner, passed a completely demolished sliding doorway that was easily three wagons abreast, and found themselves in a massive chamber, the ceiling partially caved in.
“This...” Kaileena projected, “...had once been beautiful.”
Both the Elf and the Ogre promptly nodded. The center of the room, from what they intuit beside the broken fragments of one of the upper levels, was lined with many winding rings of inlaid brass, utterly tarnished by the salt water, breaking off into complex thamaturgic circles all over the floor and walls.
Following in a descending arc, the floor fell inward into a cone pattern, forming a valley that held complex framework lined with small pieces of obsidian, diamond, and amber.
“The energies of this place have almost disappeared...” Narthutet mused grimly, “My wards are barely detecting it.”
“But still it remains. Good...” Dral’rrche said, “Find what you need, so I can scoop out those diamonds.”
Narthutet created a bubble of air around his head, then spoke aloud, invoking a series of phrases that made the water ripple with energy and left Kaileena shivering even more. Suddenly, a void of darkness filled the chamber, ringed with crackling red electricity, slowly contracting inward.
“This will focus the residual anti-magicka.” Narthutet explained, “When it’s finished, see if you can draw it into an enchanted item.”
Nodding, she prepared her new ruby, pouring a small amount of magicka into it, not so much enchanting it as making it susceptible to receiving an enchantment.
When the void became no more than the size of her eye, Kaileena touched it, her hand igniting in ripples of energy as her Spell-Eater Strain took some of it in.
“Interesting.” Arteth whispered, “Here’s how the enchantment would function.”
A series of images and sensations appeared in her mind, which coalesced into a sequence she could cast. Pouring that information into the ruby, along with the anti-magicka she’d absorbed, it flared with an inner light. Arteth supplied some of his own energy, increasing its potency a hundredfold, until what she held in her hand was a truly powerful and dangerous item that could obliterate powerful magickal fields.
“Don’t activate that until we’re back on the coast.” Narthutet cautioned, “And once I have all other enchanted devices tucked somewhere far from it.”
Nodding, Kaileena put the ruby away, ”What now?"
As the afternoon continued and she telepathically explained to him that their mutual enemies couldn’t travel in daylight, Hitomi began to gather up his family’s things with the aid of his daughter, while his wife drew up as much of their crops that would survive winter as she could and potted them. Seedlings of those that wouldn’t survive the winter were also packed, that new ones could be grown to replace them.
From what Vala could tell they intended to hold up in a nearby trading post where soldiers kept a watch. Not a bad idea, though a few armed Humans would be overwhelmed by even the small group of Koriko that she’d neutralized. And who knew what else was in the South District now...?
While they worked, Vala relaxed indoors with Mei, who, upon spending a few hours together and acclimating to her, seemed to accept her as a guest.
Lounging in front of a small stove, Vala meditated, further focusing her limited telepathic capabilities. So far she’d figured out how to convey basic concepts with only her mind, as well as basic telekinesis and a few of the more complex offensive attacks of a Mindbreaker. It was upsetting that while she could communicate only with difficulty, she could subvert and cripple with relative ease. Precisely what she didn’t need at the moment.
She’d also attempted to reach out telepathically for Toshisha, but to little avail. The distance must be considerable indeed. Where had that damned arbiter taken it?
While Vala was prepared to endure for a time without it, she had every intention of reclaiming Toshisha, and with it, her vampyric powers. But not only was she incredibly vulnerable, she was too far from Fusestu to call upon Minamoto’s assistance.
Still, she was thankful for the help Hitomi and his brood had provided, though perhaps she’d earned it by killing the vampyres that would have butchered the lot of them. Then again, Hitomi might not have understood that at the time, and still he’d chosen to save her, though he hadn’t much reason to do so.
Crippled as she was, she was hardly useful. Any of her own kind would have just disposed of her, and Vala could hardly have faulted them for it. Again, in this sense, these Humans perplexed her. Thus far, between the Silkrit and the Djinn, she lived because of her usefulness against the Matriarchs. She entertained no illusions otherwise, and yet, these Humans seemed to have taken her in without question. Why?
Mei went to the stove to attend the teapot and returned with two mugs, as well as a plate loaded with small desert cakes. Smirking as the old female eyed her curiously, Vala declined. Within an hour or two Hitomi came in, handed her a thick cloak, and led her outside. Grimacing at the brightness, the shade nevertheless protected her from direct exposure to the sun, and Vala squinted to make out the wagon at the side of the small house, currently stocked with a great many crates and potted plants.
An old and tired-looking animal eyed her, behooved and fat, with a dull, sullen expression, tied to the front in some sort of harness. She’d noticed it sleeping in the barn during her early visits, but hadn’t been sure of its purpose.
Nodding, Vala allowed herself to be seated in the cart, scooting to the side as Mei was brought up too. A few other things, packs filled with clothes and other essentials, no doubt, were hauled onto the cart, and lastly, her pack, scarf, armor, and a vaguely corpse-shaped wrap were loaded into the back.
As she entered Hitomi’s mind, he stressed to her that when evening set in, she would be needed to help haul the wagon, or at least to get out and walk on her own so the animal hauling the cart wouldn’t be overly encumbered. Vala replied with an image of her doing so, and, if need be, using her limited capabilities against the vampyres, should they return.
Hitomi hesitated at that, perhaps some dormant protest at a female engaging in combat, as was custom here, and after a moment he also suggested comparison between her and the dead pureblood, as if in accusation.
Sighing, Vala hinted at the reasons that originally turned her against her kin, and paling, he let it go at that. Soon enough, Hitomi gave the pack animal a push, and they were off.
Dekeshi frowned, then left the room and her new prize. There was no fun to be had if her victim was insensate, and, unfortunately, that was indeed the case.
She let the treatment continue, however, for she was pleased. The regular attentions were taking their toll. She wondered if Elurra still entertained thoughts of escape, or even of revenge.
That was how she wanted them; Dekeshi was at heart a selfish lover, taking all the enjoyment for herself. There was fun in the breaking, in fact, that was and remained much of the fun, but the true joy was seeing the efforts of that labor; the reduction of a living thing to a predetermined set of responses, each of which tailored to please her. To look into the eyes of a captive, and see nothing there.
The term for it was Object Sexuality, but the bonus in her case was the delight in possessing living objects, animate mannequins that would dance and grovel at her whim.
And Elurra, once so filled with life, with such soft, tensile flesh, such animate expression, such gorgeous vivaciousness...that was a prize to end all! To turn Elurra into a living mannequin would be her greatest triumph; to spit in the eye of Lord Surthath himself by breaking his champion, and then torment him by witnessing her living death! Delicious...
Outside her pleasure chamber, there was a chorus of cannon fire awaiting her on the deck of her flying ship, alongside the suffocating stink of black powder. Her fleet had carried well into the West District, shelling villages along the inland stretch. The sun was out, but it was of no issue, thanks to the cloud of darkness surrounding the ships.
Chikara, generally the more vocal of the two primes, awaited her outside.
“News?” she asked, and he nodded tensely but with considerable excitement, “It has been found.”
The proclamation took a moment to register, but then Dekeshi smiled fiercely, “Then call off the attack and get us there. Immediately.”