Chapter 1: Hunt prolog
Hunting nature's fiercest hunter.
Laying down in the roots of a frozen bramble patch one young woman was mentally counting down from eighty-six-thousand three-hundred and forty, to zero. Every twenty four hours she listened for a thumping, tree snapping, and crunching of snow that signaled she could proceed. Letting her thick fur outfit take the brunt of cold thorn's bite she stirred stiff bear skin wrapped limbs and scrambled forward. For the fourth day in a row at precisely one in the morning she crawled precisely two meters in exactly sixty seconds before flattening against the bare earth to begin her count again. Teeth gritted in an effort to stop her stomach from rumbling as sensitive ears picked out a roar in the distance which signaled the beast she was hunting had successfully caught either a deer or villager to eat. She hoped it was the latter, the deer were useful. Last month she had spotted the lumbering giant fly down from the mountain range she herself had crossed on foot at the tender age of six or seven. She was losing track. Held aloft by dark leathery wings it must have been one of the last of its kind. Man had hunted dragons since recorded history began, driving them further and further north until they raided towns and cities for livestock no more. At some point in her life she felt bad for them. Graceful creatures that commanded both flight and fire with ease which she secretly hoped would survive in one of the few bedtime stories her late father had told her. But that might as well have been in a past life with all that happened since then. Now, now she had only one thought in mind for the big reptile. Specifically its body parts. . . After a week of methodically crawling through thorns she could finally begin preparations. This night when it stalked forth from its new lair under the roots of an absolutely massive tree she would have enough time to work. Muttering the last line of a spell started before she moved out of the treeline, words held for a week in which she could not eat drink or sleep to ensure the channeling energy didn't backfire horrifically, when completed shifted the world around her into gray tones accompanied with an almost complete loss of sensation in her body. Passing through the brambles as if they no longer existed she rose up onto her numb legs to walk forward carefully. Body passing clean through the remaining plant life she broke into a floating sprint. Uncaring for the rocks, ground, nor knee deep snow left undisturbed in her dark swirling wake. Reaching the natural cave dug out under a great tree by Its claws exactly twenty meter's from where she started the run she stopped to bite her lip until it bled, wiping the dribble of black liquid safely on her thumb to use as a power source before weaving together another string of words and motions that filled her senses with bright light and the sound of shattering glass. Wasn't really needed, she could draw the necessary amount of catalyst from inside her body's veins, but it was an extra layer of can't fuck this up. “With this offering of my life release me shadows. I walk the path of the living onward more.” The world shifted back into its normal color, making her drop heavily to her knees. Shaking with the aftereffects of stepping through existence. Gasping for air she had to force bile back down while her body re-settled into the material plane it had briefly left. She'd been doing this for only a couple years and thankfully could bounce back without passing out now, but running through the space outside the world's eye still took more out of her than she would like. There would be more time to get accustomed to it later. Struggling back up to her ankle-wrapped feet she shuffled forward and cast aside the shredded furs sacrificed to the brambles. Down to just a chest binding and black fabric skirt she ignored the snow and slight kiss of the cold on her bare skin like every winter and started carving lines in the dirt floor. . . By the time the dark dragon returned she was ready. In its dripping maw was the last remains of its daily meal like predicted. Perched up in the highest nook she could find in the hollow she began another nervous wait until the sun rose. Only when she was completely sure that the carriage sized beast's breathing had slowed, thing asleep, did she drop to the ground. Traditional dragon hunting involved mobilizing great numbers of soldiers, knights, and mages to relentlessly launch arrows and spells against them until they could be brought in range of heavy ballista or died in a war of attrition. She didn't have an army with siege equipment. Nor any friends or human relations whatsoever. So when she spotted the black nocturnal predator and decided they could not coexist in her forest she needed to crack open one of her prized ancient books and give herself a refresher on some lesser used incantations. Including one in particular that would preserve this thing's skin. Probably. Maybe. Theoretically. Tiptoeing around to insure every shallow channel in the dirt floor was filled with the dripping blood from where the thing rested its head every day she smiled. While still incredibly nervous she was satisfied that the whole place wouldn't immediately explode in a misfire. Moving to the thing's side she started uttering the final spell in her hunt. “Flow forth from the fount of life. Power of the beyond coil and roll into my purpose. Destroy. Burn...” And for the love of fuck please don't destroy the whole valley. Words were whispered while she raised both palms toward what would be over the central point of the blood filled symbols on the floor, and Its heart. Channels came to life with a deep crimson glow that bathed the whole hollow in red light. Walls of red translucent material matching runes forming around her hands grew upward from the floor lines to lock the animal before her in place as it awoke. Writhing with pain the only thing it could move was its jaws. Parting them it blasted out one final deafening roar of defiance toward the morning sky as loud as it could until its muscles went limp forever more. Every major blood vessel ruptured by boiling from the inside. Incantation complete the walls of light shattered and dispersed letting its body collapse. Letting her own arms drop she was almost giddy with sleep deprivation and the success of single-handedly slaying a monster capable of destroying a small kingdom without killing herself in the process. But she wiped the drops of sweat off her brow and focused, she had no time to rest in victory. Pushing aside the hunger and tiredness from a week of work yet again she pulled out a small red half scissor kept snugly between her breasts. With a flick of her wrist it folded out into its normal size. Tool in hand she got to work harvesting one fresh corpse before the cold could damage her prize. One dragon's worth of black hide, blood, and bones. . . . In a nearby town resident's had gotten used to the frightful new routine. Every night the better-off would bundle up to hunker down in their cold basements and cellars. The poor and peasant farm hands were let inside the local church, a stone building that would likely withstand an attack by the Beast. And every morning they would all work to assess the damage of the night before, promise to organize some kind of response to put an end to the terror. Two months into this routine the people of this settlement woke up like many days before. Bundled up to stave off death from the heavy winter chill many of them were ready to go out and check the barns to see if any had been broken into again or burned down. Opening their doors in the early light they trudged forth into fresh knee-deep snow, and all collectively froze in terror when a bone-chilling shriek of death rolled like a wave in the valley around them. Rushing back into their homes no one dared step foot outside for hours. After days of complete silence from the old woods occupying several hundred acre's between the town and the mountains to the north some brave farmers had the courage to approach them. Border between logging land and the witch's claim made six years prior marked by dense foliage and old growth trees. It was there that they learned what happened to the dragon, the demon of the woods had slain it and strung up its skull on a tree beside the lone road that led north. Returning with the local priest and some hunters that normally trekked south they all wanted to know for sure what happened. It was unprecedented but there was unfortunately only one way to do that. Crossing invisible border the group of over twenty stayed together as they moved up the path until they rounded a bend, blocked by a figure in long black cloak standing in the middle waiting for them. The priest moved to the front as their designated speaker. While unable to see more than a deceptively delicate chin under the oversize garment's hood he was completely on guard as if facing a wall of angry bandits. He knew her true capabilities after the brief conflict which solidified the town's loss of prized woodlands. He hoped she knew how to speak. “Witch.” “Jackass, why are you here?” His eyes narrowed in confusion at the gibberish full of hissing. As a priest he had studied for years under an enclave of monks that kept old versions of hand written texts safe. The oldest were sparsely populated with phrases in it, a dead language that was even rare when they were put together. There were very few people that could read some words, guides to proper pronunciation didn't exist. No one knew enough of it to hold spoken conversations especially after the church decreed its ban centuries ago. This young wild teenager knew things she shouldn't. Physically couldn't. “Not a man alive can speak those damnable words, witch. Refrain from using the knowledge of demons and you might be shown mercy by our divine Lord on high. Do you even know Common? Or are you nothing more than a feral tramp in dire need of exorcism?” She brought a hand up out of her cloak to rub her temples. Shock and surprise from several of the party at the lack of adequate clothing on her ignored while she rifled through her head for the other set of words that she had not used in years of isolation. Continuing in roughly pieced together sentences that eventually came together into speech. “I... spoke... the... firs... group of... hintsman- Huntsmee-... No that was close what was it... ah Huntsmen you persons... people sent to kill... me... This woods mine, stay out. I don't bother you in town, you don't bother my land. If they didn't understand, fine. I said this now. I won't again.” She was frowning which only put the group further on edge. But it was not actually directed at them. On quick reflection her verbal expression had been disgustingly appalling. A far cry from her well read past. It seems spellcasting had done little to preserve her linguistic ability. Her father would have been ashamed after all the books he had let her read, the many newer books she failed to save from the chaos after his death. Her mistake. I've fallen so far? “I remember the result of our holy crusade. Some good men are still crippled by your wicked hand beyond my healing abilities. However, we do not come baring torches and His light to put your evil flesh to the fire today. We have come to ask but a simple question, one I hope your wretched mind can grasp.” Wonderful. Still an asshole. “I'm smarter, faster, than you bastards. Spit it out.” “The dragon. A beast enters the lair of a demon, weeks later a cry of death rattles men down to their bones for miles in all directions, today we find a skull at the border. Is the beast dead, or are you plotting some twisted... plot?” “You suggesting I had something to do with flying lizard?” “The beast and the devil go hand in hand. War between them wouldn't happen.” “I'm not a devil, and I ain't plotting shit. It's dead. Did myself. It was killing my deer. You go back to your stupid little lives, with stupid little fake gods, in your stupid little town.” His bony face almost snarled at the manner with which she was addressing the divines. But she had made the effort to hold the standoff and talk instead of attacking them. Few people sent on that hunt had come back alive, and even those who did had various missing limbs or deep scars. All told a tale of an impervious warrior that struck from the shadows unseen. Magic and red blade that rent flesh and armor asunder with frightful ease. Today would not be her reckoning, hopefully not their own either. “And would you have proof of this? A skull could be unearthed from long ago to deceive us.” “Proof? You want proof?” Before them the short girl's voice full of violent threat pulled her outer garment back together. “I know why dragon leather is prized now, comfortable. Took effort to structure by spell. Looks pretty good even without dye. Would be a shame to stain with blood. Oh wait, it can't anymore! Not after I done with the finishing touches.” “Explain yourself! What vile sorcery are you weaving!?” She didn't respond. Instead drew the material tight against her thin waist from the inside. Noticing black water forming on the material's surface he almost took a step forward to inspect it more closely. Until it rolled off and into the undisturbed snow around her, pure white powder quickly becoming tainted with deep crimson tones. Three of the men decided that was the all they needed to see and ran back down the road. The rest following shortly after leaving the pale faced priest alone to look up and receive a cold stare from inhuman blue eyes. “Next time you try to kill me, there won't be survivors.” “Y-You unholy-... You're a B-Blood witch!? This is beyond contempt for the great Lord of light's Divine creation, this is bastardizing of even the most cruel part of nature's bounty into- into heretical vestments that can only be from hell itself! May He above all show the deep pit of darkness within you no mercy!” He too turned and ran in terror, screaming out various prayers of protection as he disappeared back around the bend. In the following couple years only one more local crusade was attempted. Disastrously ending when twenty adventurous individuals who had come from a ways off to claim the bounty on a witch were cut down by a female knight now armored in revealing protection. With no other recourse the local priest and influential families wrote out a request for an inquisitor to rid them of their witch, carried by a traveling shepherd south toward Imperial territory. While this letter would be delivered to a clerk of the holy court located in the capital it would be lost in the thousands of other requests that would never be read. It and many other minor letters were swept up in a takeover by the sitting Empress. Lost until a young scholar meticulously rifling through official papers that were supposed to be sealed under Imperial order came across it. It was exactly the kind of information he had been looking for. More specifically what his Lady had been looking for.
Just a bit of a teaser. Been plunking away on this story occasionally alongside a couple others. Having a hard time picking the next one to put effort into.
Chapter 2: Bad blood
“You called Milady?”
“The Imperial machine at her fingertips is being pushed harder for results than usual. Content to rest on her laurels no more after her forty-fifth has passed. We are running out of time before we are forced into drastic action.”
“I see. That complicates things doesn't it.”
“Very much so. We need an expert and soon.”
“I still say it's a fool's errand, but I will report if anything comes up.”
She was a young general, a prodigy of the blade, and the heir to the throne. Her small personal army grown from her own personal imperial guard barely a few hundred strong had helped maintain the territory of The Gold Empire better than any of the old legions still standing dating back to its founding hundreds of years prior. Unit banner decorated from multiple conflicts over its short existence. Its leader in gleaming silver decorative plate armor inlaid with gold flourishes was not directing a field action today though. Today Satsuki marched along marble floors toward a more grueling assignment. One ostentatiously large seat of power. It was a cavernous throne room made of polished marble to reflect the light filtered through intricate stained glass windows depicting the pantheon of divines turning it into rainbows of color that filled the space in hundreds of hues. What once was the holy of holies for the Church of Aura was now the heart of Imperial control. Finally reaching the room's far end she knelt before a pale woman in a draping white dress casually resting upon an ornate chair built on the end of a massive gold and quartz sculpture taking up the wall behind her. Two great quartz pillars on either side in back corners glowing white with collected sunlight while The Empress conversed with her private servant. Marks of previous displeasure still blotching the dark skinned girl's face with the remnants of blows from earlier in the week earned by one failure or another. Woman responsible for them drumming her fingers in anticipation of the monthly report from the royal court mages. “And what did the old men say this time?” “Lady Ragyo they regret to inform you that they have been unable to get results even with less stringent precautions yet again. Humans have never been able to cast without stones this is a historical fact. They have been trying for years to figure out why or at least replicate the small spells your hands produced with no luck. The last few weeks have been no different. They once again claim what happened during your pregnancy must have been the life force being drawn from a child dying-” “Useless fools! The lot of them. I know what's possible, I felt the true power of the world coursing around beyond our grasp. Just outside that which fingers could touch... Senses opened like a child's eyes for the first time. There is power in this world and it will be mine. I will not be presented with failure or told it can't be done, go, tell them that I'm finished with their useless mucking about and we are moving forward with or without them! Send messengers to the collage in Ventia, their best surgeons are to be brought to the capital once the roads are clear of winter's annoying mess.” “Milady I would never second guess your decisions, but they might have a point. No one is quite sure what will happen if you directly implant a stone in your body, if you will even survive the procedure or channeled magic-” “I said go Hoomaru!” Sighing she let the servant apologize profusely and leave before collapsing into her chair. Frustration clear on her face as she looked down her nose at the waiting presence. “Satsuki?” “Mother.” “Rise.” Ragyo Kiryuin only got up to study her daughter when she properly stood at attention. Flicking back silver hair bleached of it's natural dark color years ago in a fit of euphoric hunger for power she went down to trace the various raised lines on Satsuki's upper armor with a finger, circling the twenty year old young woman like a shark. Lingering with frustrated hunger on the breast plate before taking another half lap around. Talking to the back of Satsuki's head as she picked up some of the girl's own immaculately clean black lengths in her fist to smell. Not so gently tugging her head back a little with a snarl, unable to directly touch the young woman otherwise. “You come to my throne unannounced and armed to the teeth ready for battle. Why?” “To inform you that I will be leaving for Honnouji early. Word from merchants is that the roads to the north have survived the winter far better than expected and I wish to return to my troops.” Grip released on her hair she returned to standing up straight without a word. She was used to it by now. Walking around Ragyo dropped back into her throne with an understanding hum. Throwing one leg slowly over the other she leaned back to stretch. Frowning at Satsuki's unchanging stone expression spied out the corner of her eye. Voice dropping into a bored monotone. “You should be out courting suitors among the court, not fooling around with metal toys and violent idiots out in the fringes of civilization.” “I can not rest idle while the Empire faces instability, mother.” “Always on with duty and honor... Daughter of mine if you keep this up much longer you will be too old and I will choose for you.” “I assure you that will not be necessary. I promise you I won't sit single for years more.” “...Fine, go play with your pitiful little soldiers and their crude pointy sticks. But I expect you back by the end of the year. You heard the news... I will need you to usher in the new year my dear Satsuki. In style.” “Of course, mother.” Ragyo's visible interest gone Satsuki turned around and left the throne room. Boot steps heavy from more than metal echoing down hallways as she went past hundreds of various servants and guards who worked within the Imperial palace without so much as glancing at them. By new year... Can't be done I would need to leave before the heaviest snow starts falling which means I will be back for... The old winter Solstice. This year is it then? We're not even remotely ready yet. She seeks the impossible and intends to press on regardless of what it will mean for the people. Pushing me to stay for the madness. Does she suspect me of not willing to kill myself for her own damnable gain? I've been far too careful... giving her anything she wants... But what if she has? Move faster. . . . In a quiet spot above a sizable fortification far removed from the intrigue and bustle of the capital she could comfortably sit staring out toward the world from a window in her bedroom. It was a simple space but she considered it more of a home than her real home. Slowly sipping hot tea she studied the uniform gray tile rooftops of the circular military settlement around and a soldiers drill yard immediately below the spire she was in. Behind her chair sat a young man on the floor hurriedly flipping through multiple books filled with his own notes at the same time. Unperturbed by the rustle of paper or morning wind full of water's essence she followed the spirited motions of a green haired man with a blunt sword as he clashed with a massive tower shield wielding blonde almost twice his height in a circle of cheering troops that were supposed to be training. Patiently waiting for her blue haired bespectacled compatriot to continue with what he had described in one rushed word after she opened the door with some surprise at his presence, Huge. “As requested I've been pouring over any new materials that were moved to the sorting room of the Royal library. The majority of the latest batch I got my hands on originated in the desks of clerks for the former high ecclesiarchy as I anticipated.” “I don't suppose you've made the effort to come here so quickly just to tell me about the office rumors of wrongfully executed men. Were you followed on the road?” “I would never waste your time with a useless report. I was also careful to mask my exit as usual though some of my assistants claim the fort is being watched. Assuming it's the usual curious eyes of the local bandit inclined types wanting to break in and see what there is to loot but that is easy enough for the garrison to deal with if and when it becomes a problem. Now, while a majority were indeed mundane miscellaneous paperwork and personal notes there was also a small stack of unprocessed aid requests stuck in among them by mistake.” “Go on.” “The majority of those were requests for funds to expand monasteries, repair churches, cover bribes...” “The usual goings on of theocratic bureaucracy.” “And there were many such requests. However... Here it is. Intermixed in the bunch was one singular request for an inquisitor.” Putting delicate cup down on the small table beside her she twisted around in her seat to give him a hard stare. “They voluntarily requested an inquisition of all things? Those zealous brutes would have butchered no less then a third of the town outright along with the accused and burned the rest of the place to ash now that they are effectively just an army of barely restrained assassins for the throne. What did these people consider so absolutely dire it left them that desperate?” “A witch.” “They took such offense with some old hermit or druid type taking residence near them?” “Oh no, she's someone much younger. More capable than a typical nature admirer or mystic. At least according to the account given by survivors of multiple hunts for her head.” “Survivors? Then this individual is both militant and capable enough to have inflicted casualties?” “Thirty-nine total presumed dead by the time of writing. The first prolonged engagement of two started when some hunters found a slaughtered logger camp. They claim to have attempted contact with some girl half seen in the darkness considered responsible but she just attacked them with their own shadows at range. After being unable to even find let alone hit her after a number of weeks they gave up trying to fight and retreated past a length of road she never followed them across. Some time passed before a second engagement with professional muscle hired. Three were trampled to death by a dark warhorse with glowing red eyes she rode into battle on, a handful of archers reportedly fired dozens of arrows that bounced off a set of rather odd black and red glass armor plating and significantly exposed skin before being beheaded by explosions from their own necks. Most everyone left cut down in a blur with slashing wounds inflicted by an unusual red sword and the shadows themselves again. Only a handful of survivors combined from both occasions to give testimony to what happened. One particularly being the priest who wrote the letter which he personally confirmed getting to see her from close range at a kind of meeting held between the attempts. Described her as a deceptively womanly teenager with gear irises in her blue eyes. Called her a heretic of the highest order, which could be taken in a number of ways but he specifically noted that she spoke the devil's tongue in that one occasion he spoke with her-” “Are you sure!? Absolutely positive that this is genuine?” “That's what was written ma'am, not too shabbily if I might add. Very nice handwriting. If it's accurate I can almost guarantee that to use that kind of magic she's Elven to some degree and knows it. Might just have been embellishment to cover up incompetence at dealing with some caster belonging to a bandit group. Though with this level of detail there is a fair chance it isn't hyperbole. I still don't personally believe it's possible to find someone fluent let alone an actual Elven mage of all things anymore, but I thought you would be interested regardless of my opinions on this particular aspect of the whole enterprise.” “Significantly. When was this message received? Can we learn more about her?” “Of that I'm not entirely sure, there were no dates within the text. What I do know is that it never got processed which means it must have been freshly delivered right as the High Order was... replaced to put it politely three years back. So no one up the chain knows about it because I stole it and this is the only such report of anyone speaking or using the language at all. I can try digging for more particularly about her eye's origin but I thought to notify you of this before devoting the effort.” “We finally have a lead and no time to lose. Find everything you can carry about the town, region, anything and start packing to travel. Notify everyone else to gather I need to brush up on some things.” . . While ultimately swearing loyalty to the Empire Satsuki was given enough autonomy to run her small city-state of sorts a few weeks travel north of the capital completely on her own. The island she had chosen originally only held a small forest and rocky shores, but today it was a formidable enclave of stone and glass. From the various docks around its circular stone base the fortified citadel stretched upward to a white spire that was the highest point visible on the horizon for miles around. Many had called it an extravagant show of Kiryuin power, some called it an economic stimulus which injected a great bit of new life into the formerly unimportant towns that sat along the great northern river's banks In reality she had a reason for this place to exist. While important it secondarily was a physical base to build an army out of. With those troops she had re-established Imperial control all along its border, save the political quagmire of individual towns and territories that started on the other side of the Northern river and spanning all the way to the north of the continent all currently far beyond Imperial influence. But primarily this fortress was meant to defend and conceal the ancient ruin beneath its foundations. A vast underground complex not formed by human hands and filled with ancient bones. Unfortunately that meant for the current stage of her plans she would have to leave the troops behind to ensure it's security. Sitting upon a simple throne at the end of a chamber near the tower's top her personal knights gathered as requested. Individuals hand chosen for their loyalty and capability in anything and everything she needed them to do. One by one taking their seats at a large glass table with a map of the continent embedded within its surface before her. A green haired man with a sword on his uniformed hip sat first. Sanageyama, the Monkey, had sharp ears and sharper eyes. To his left was Inumuta, the Dog, in simple robes carrying a sack of books he deposited next to his chair. Still sniffing out any wisdom he could from its contents one by one. In his hands he also carried a wooden staff he lay against the table edge that had a blue circular apparatus mounted on it's top that held a clear channeling stone, a delicate device necessary for a mage's work. Across from him sat the Toad a blonde haired giant man still wearing the base leather and cloth layers from his suit of armor. Always ready to defend the heir to the throne or her property. Taking the last chair immediately on her right was her longtime friend Nonon, the Snake. Pink haired woman was the shortest in their group but no less capable than anyone else. Her usual black beret sitting on her head with the symbol of her house and bow she had been using to practice shooting rested on the table. “Everyone, I'm going to be brief, we have roughly eight months. After that I must go to the capital and help initiate the winter solstice ceremony as Ragyo likely plans. I'm sure you all know what that means.” From down the table Houka snapped his book shut and got up to pace around the far end of the room mumbling to himself. Three other members to the meeting giving each other nervous looks. Uzu voicing their collective concerns. “Ma'am, didn't we have a few more years? You've managed to hold her off so far.” “She's grown tired of my excuses and frustrated at the failures of the court mages in coming up with an alternative method to grant her the power she seeks. This will be the last couple of seasons I will be allowed freedom of movement. She wants my blood and I'm afraid she knows that I probably know by now. We're out of time and options, we need to find someone who can make sense of what she's doing and what could happen. Houka?” “Recalculating estimates... So we have one possible lead and thus far no alternatives closer to home to explore. Correct?” “Affirmative.” “Wonderful. That in mind I've looked into any materials on the topography, history, myths, and legends regarding the north that I could gather without any of the librarians noticing in the palace before making my way back. Focus specifically on works made as recent as possible.” “Initial findings?” “A report scribbled on a sheet of scrap paper detailing the request I brought to your attention handed over by a traveling sheep herder upset about a young Witch of Ironwood exactly three years ago as estimated. Nothing happened after Sun Empress Ragyo seized control of the church and started consolidating positions under the throne. Otherwise I have some old political maps detailing small squabbles over land for where the place is and a stack of newspapers to dig through which could take some time. They haven't aged well, poor paper quality, you know how cheap print goes.” “And?” “Right. Immanent doom approaching. If we are to believe the report, and as far as I can tell with next to no direct information otherwise... yes, this young woman has used powers matching the descriptions in old folklore.” “Oh to be a fly on the wall following how her life has developed... Where is this place specifically?” “I double checked against our maps...” Grabbing his staff and pulling out a small wood bauble he used the top of the stone holder to push it across the table to rest right next to the major mountain range marking the absolute furthest north Imperial influence had ever gone in the centuries its stood. Five hundred years ago. Currently the border was the river Honnouji was in and even this was a recent development. “Unfortunately farther north than a simple leisure expedition or path of conquest could realistically go without raising a lot of questions back home. We'll need to move without drawing attention to ourselves. The place consists of two maybe three hundred people living on farmland carved out of a valley several kilometers deep into the vast northern woods. One pass leads in and a sizable ancient woodland that has remained untouched for generations and separates them from the Dragon's teeth mountains on almost all sides. By horse about a month of travel for a small squad of scouts.” “Sounds doable. Ira?” “Yes Lady Satsuki?” “I'll need to leave someone in charge of things here while we go find this person of interest. Can I count on you to insure Honnouji remains intact no matter what happens in my absence?” “Milady I, Ira Gamagori, am the imperial shield! This fortress will stand for the next thousand years if required on my honor as a member of the Gamagori family of smiths so I vow!” Rubbing her ears from the ringing Nonon shot him a glare before slapping him for yelling so close to her head. Young mage still standing at the other end of the table spun his staff around to hold sideways along the small of his back after clearing his throat. “Respectfully Lady Satsuki this would be an expedition to find a single person who may or may not actually exist as it is. Putting aside the list of ways this could go wrong, is it really wise to take this present course of action and have you confront a described as violent mage knowledgeable in who knows what personally without significant backup?” “As a novice caster you know the power of a spellweaver firsthand, as a scholar you should know the stories from times of old regarding the strength of the broken people's arts. Powers so destructive and unspeakably wicked that they had been deemed the work of Hell. Something we are trying to attempt to stop from being unleashed and actively sit over potentially. It would be prudent to take the only option available to us at this time lest we find ourselves on the receiving end of that destruction. Too late to do anything else about it. This witch might know what's needed, so I must go find her.” “I know the myths, but that's all they are. Fiction, fantasy. Say we find this reportedly all powerful mysterious witch though, how could we be so sure she actually knows anything about the crypt? What the Empress is planning? Let alone willing to even talk with us at all. There are just so many unknowns here.” “If there were any simpler way forward I would have chosen that instead a while ago. You know the stakes and rest assured what my mother is planning is no fairy-tale. Whether it works or not doesn't matter for now. We must do everything in our power to ensure we succeed and for that we need real old blood. Or the streets will be painted with enough fresh new blood to drown the countryside. I'm going and that's final.” “To defeat evil one must know evil. Gods have mercy upon us.” “I didn't know you were a practitioner?” “I'm not, but we are as you admit actively searching for a power only ever described as unholy damnation. If there are any deities out there willing to smite us for such an offense against nature we can only hope they understand why we are doing this and let us proceed without complications.” “...Amen to that. Anyone have any questions?” Around the table there was silence. Everybody was onboard. With a nod her knights stood, saluted, and went about preparing. One to take temporary command, three to start packing for their journey. Eventually the group of four disguised in simple military uniforms belonging to her own scouting corp and packed for the journey boarded a small boat that took them from the docks of Honnouji and deposited them in a town on the northern bank. Pushing onward with some horses bought for travel Houka used his staff to cast a defensive ward that obscured them from view in a brief flash of light. Moving field following the stone as it went making them appear as nothing more than a bubble of distortion over the land around them. Unfortunately someone was already on their tail. Giggling to herself she had been tasked by her master to study The princess and see what she was really up to over the last few months in her sand castle. She had been watching frustratingly from shore and spotted them leaving. Curiously alone with her friends and with no fanfare. Unable to hear them from distance she was dashing from tree to tree at speeds above what any human should be able to achieve thanks to some very special equipment granted to her for her service to the crown over the last thirty odd years. Giving chase to the group she was more than sure that little frowny brows was up to no good anyway. . . . As they made their way north-west Satsuki had learned through the efforts of her information specialist that the whole region had been fractured when a small kingdom failed to coalesce under a minor king further north beyond the mountains and a sudden turn of violence from the people spread chaos and suspicion for some years. In that fighting the man's heir disappeared without a trace leaving what groups that were left standing victorious to establish a number of city states, consequently many of these towns simply welcomed the traveling adventurers with cautious open arms uncaring what banner they served so they could bring much needed business to local inns and general goods stores where they occasionally stopped to restock on things. Houka drawing a map of places of interest to someday explore based on local legends of tombs and ruins as they went. After weeks on the road they finally approached a particular valley, within which lay a particular small town, and the heart of the old growth forest from which it had been named. The focal point of a regional tall tale told by bar owners and retired mercenaries as they got closer and closer. Somewhere among the densest trees of the Black forest where Aura's light could not bless a demon was living. A temptress clad in an unusual set of ornate armor which exposed a great deal of flawless skin who rode atop a pitch-black non-corporeal steed. Survivors claim she was quite a sight to behold, the memories of her form a prize for those who survived her unholy wrath. This helmeted female specter always appeared out of nowhere, dodged roots and arrows to ruthlessly kill off anyone who encroached on her land, then suddenly disappear as fast as she would come. Only leaving silence and the bloody corpses of dead and dying who had to desperately run to save themselves in her shadowy wake. Satsuki Kiryuin did not believe in ghosts or demons. Which meant the request they were hinging this whole operation on was likely true. Legends almost always have a hint of truth within. Her search was conceivably over and the woman in question might very well live up to those myths of old. Standing side by side they could see a church bell tower in the distance. Pushing north they entered the valley proper. . . Trotting up front of the four person staggered squad was Sanageyama. They would not be ambushed anytime soon with him on point. Behind him and to his right was Inumuta still carrying a sack of books alongside the standard field pack also on his back, staff in hand. Satsuki rode along behind his left. Her own black sword affixed to her belt grasping a small folded map and compass. She was playing the part of pathfinder squad leader. Ma'am sufficed. Behind her right was the most annoyed member of their party. Nonon brought up their rear and had been irritated at living like a peasant the whole way. Quiver of arrows on her lower back, bow across her shoulder, and several knives around her person at the ready she was to provide ranged covering fire in an engagement. Still wearing her usual black beret and dark leather layers that she wore under her own half plate armor usually. Uniform stuffed into her pack somewhere much to Houka's dismay. “You do realize that anyone that knows anything about professional military life will question why you're significantly under equipped, Snake.” “You can shove it if you think I'm putting on ten layers of shit in the middle of summer out in the middle of nowhere to find some angry busty tree-hugger that eats twigs and shits war Dog.” “Nonon, if you have grievances with my plans please feel free to tell them to my face.” “E-Excuse me ma'am. Apologies... But it's true isn't it? Magic is just magic, break the caster's stone or concentration and they can't fight. We have Dog and his friends already to back us up with fire and lightning if things come to blows later in the year, how valuable could one single woman be to figuring out some junk about dusty bones surrounded by shit no one can read?” “We are here to find a potentially irreplaceable asset to the war effort, and you will not jeopardize that by spitting venom instead of maintaining our cover. That's an order.” “Yes ma'am... Still a waste of time.” Continuing along the main road they left thin groupings of trees that had been common for the last week and started passing farm hands out weeding fields. Most stopping to stare at the procession as they went by. Eventually circles of children could be spotted following their progress from some distance on either side, dispersing as they approached the town proper. While it didn't have walls there was still a town guard. Several individuals in various mismatched armor bits brandishing spears and bows stopped them as the road went from dirt to cobblestone, the first farmhouses close by. Dismounting from her horse and walking to the head of their group Satsuki greeted a tall man of solid build wrapped in rusty chain-mail standing forward of the local defense line. “Morning good sir, would you allow us entry into this town?” “Names Ferdston. What's yer business?” “We are long range scouts from the Honnouji army under the Imperial banner. We're passing through the countryside to map settlements and locations of interest. Several individuals along our way claimed there was some kind of violence here?” “Imperials... Ah. I see. Just saying, we had nothing to do with how anyone who's tried to kill the witch have left. Stupid sods always ignore the warnings and get themselves killed by her. We're a peaceful community a few hundred strong, we got wheat and barley, and a lot of the area's trappers stay with us when they hunt in the woods south. Used to have a trade mission that went north but... No one's had the nerve to try for a while. Not much else to tell ya.” “We would like to have a look around for ourselves if you and your town wouldn't mind our investigation of course.” “So long as you keep yer nose clean we don't care if you stop through here. Lord knows the inn could use the coin if yer staying more than a day. Not my business if you die being stupid though. Yer free to come and go, just don't give us a reason to kick you out or chain you up in iron for a caravan to haul away with the excess harvest.” “We don't intend to die or become slaves I assure you. We are simply here for information and will not intentionally be a nuisance if we can help it. Now in my own opinion getting a word in from the source of some of those rumors should be a priority if possible. Is there any way to speak with this witch?” “If you actually want to speak to that woman-shaped-thing yer daft. I was with the only group led by Father Orion who's spoken with her and she just muttered some nonsense before butchering words of warning and contempt back at him. If you really want to know about the she-devil, just head up the road and into the town square. You can't miss the parish doors and Father should be there all day.” “I'll take it under consideration. We're still going to look for anything first hand though.” “I honestly wish you luck Miss Imperial, but if you go into those damn woods there's not going to be a rescue party to save yer skin.” “I understand and we'll be fine, thank you. Forward people.” . . . Sending Inumuta to inquire with the locals after leaving their horses with a stable Satsuki and her two remaining troops followed the map further north. Leaving town they walked past more fields and a patch of overgrown weeds before confronting a wall of heavy vegetation notably taller than anything growing along the way. Light within relegated to only single shafts illuminating the dark place due to its thick canopy of leaves. Following road as it turned alongside the old growth they stopped to investigate a hole through it. Sanageyama moving in a couple feet to pick up on any details. “A path cut down to move men through. Footprints point in both directions. Many in, few out. Specks of dry blood on the leaves not washed away by that rain two weeks ago means it's recent. Someone definitely came through here and lost a fight Lady Satsuki.” “Then here is a good place to pick up her trail.” “Ma'am I was not sure what to think before, but now I'm actually worried.” “Why?” “If it's been days and if the stories about no one entering these woods is true... We're downwind, we should be able to smell at least a hint the corpses these guys left behind by now.” “Unless someone or something removed them.” “...Honest recommendation we go in weapons drawn. This just feels wrong. Either it's wildlife or the target took them herself for who knows what.” “We won't learn anything just standing around here. Blades out, lead us in Uzu.” Pulling his longsword free from it's leather holder he swallowed a nervous feeling and scoured the ground deeper into the greenery until he picked up the path of broken twigs. Satsuki holding her own black blade while Nonon readied an arrow to draw when needed they were on high alert as they officially passed into the so called witch's realm. . . Back south Inumuta was in the right place at the right time. It was just before noon as he made his way into a quickly filling main square in the town's heart. Dozens of market stalls and hundreds of people getting lunch or buying goods going about their day. Just enough of them curious about the blue haired visitor with staff in hand to give him plenty of minds to ply for information regarding the area and his Lady's target of fascination. Or so it should have been. Slowly making his way toward the largest stone building he had seen so far at the far and of the square he managed to hold a number conversations, multiple at once in several instances, in which he learned everything from the town's major exports. Food, furs, and wood. New wood traded when surrounded by old forest? Odd. To how many different stores he would have to investigate later for some useful items. Small town yet three bookstores, two stocked from old dusty tomes from years of traders. Next priority. Might have studies in spells to read through. To the local culinary specialties and locations of interest for travelers. One major inn, usually serve all kinds, current possible place to stay the night, check offerings to ensure Monkey stays sober. Just about everything under the sun except information pertaining to the woman in the woods. Each and every time he tried to get a word in asking about her all he got in response was grumblings about a wretched existence and redirection to what an impressive looking traveler from the Imperial cities should be interested in instead. By the time he made his way into the church all he knew about the topic at hand was that the locals really didn't want to talk about a local heretic. Which in it's own way was quite a valuable thing to know as he approached an old man kneeling before a gold and quartz alter dedicated to the god of righteousness, oblivious to the world outside some prayer to the Lord of light, Aura, on high. It would be rude to interrupt but he was given an order to mine for information. So he cleared his throat to ensure he sounded friendly enough while making his way past rows of pews down the center aisle. “I do apologize for the intrusion Father Orion, I take it? I was wondering if I could have a word with the pastor.” Standing up the old priest turned around to look him up and down. Lingering on his hair and equipment. “I live to serve this congregation and all those under The Maker's holy creation. If a shepherd finds a lost sheep they do not cast it out to the wolves. I would be happy to spare some time to chat. But first tell me young man, what disciplines are you studying?” “I unfortunately have only so much time in my day to day, so direct study under teachers is rare. I did my time with the college in Ventia under master enchanter Drofus to learn the basics though and I am versed in minor illusions, healing, and an odd destructive cast which is admittedly more smoke than actual fire but it scares away the unwanted attention of nocturnal predators.” “A soldier versed in non-combat spells and no other weapon at hand?” “Apologies. Houka of Imperial forward reconnaissance first battalion, Father. While service was compulsory if we need to engage in bloodshed then we've done something wrong. Our squad is small with a member ill back with the rest of the army but we're well trained enough to have avoided violence thus far and we pray that our fortunes continue as such until our service is done in a few years.” “Dyed hair?” “Just because we serve does not mean we can't keep up with the fashions back home. One of my friends got a job in the capital and he sends us some things on occasion alongside letters back and forth.” At that a small smile stretched on the man's sunken face. Calculated lies mixed with truths earning him a motion to join for a nice conversation over a simple lunch in the attached residence. . . . “T-The hell!?” “I do believe we have stumbled into a graveyard. You did at least.” “I didn't trip Lady Satsuki! I just... needed to take a look at the tracks closer.” They had been walking, mercifully in darkness that shielded them from direct sunlight, through noon. Passing through an area full of broken vegetation they recognized as a battlefield. With no bodies to be seen. Continuing on there was a visible path they had been dragged along deeper into the woods. And one set of very shallow barefoot women's footprints. This tracking stopped when Uzu stepped through some brush and literally came face to face with their next clue, immediately leaping back up to his feet after he spied a four pointed wooden star shoved into the earth at the other end of the small pile of disturbed dirt he landed on. Looking around the forest clearing they counted almost sixty such items lined up in neat rows. Space left between the end of the graves on one side and the markers of the next so one could walk down the row without disrespectfully stepping on the plots themselves. Which ran counter to what little they had learned of the individual likely responsible. “The unfortunate men who cleared the path for us and then some I assume.” Re-sheathing blade Satsuki made her way up and down the rows to study them all in detail. Noting at the base of each and every one of the new additions was a yellow wildflower held down under a polished rock to keep it in place. While unsure of what the deceased's individual personal beliefs were, they were all laid to rest with what appeared to be full rights in the name of Aura. “I can't imagine it's easy to go and do this all alone. This took time and effort. Killed by a heretic yet laid to rest with painstaking respect... At least we know what happened to the bodies. Nonon do you have the time? It would be unfortunate if we were to be late getting back.” Still standing next to Uzu near the clearing's entrance she reached into her collar to pull out an ornate necklace, round pendant popping open at the press of a hidden button to display a gemstone clock face inside. “Sixteen minutes to four. We need to be back in that square by nine or so?” “Counting for the careful moving that can be hastened on the return segment of this expedition we should be able to continue until five or six and make it back.” Stooping over Satsuki picked up one of the smooth stones. Waving over their tracker to hand it over to him. “Tell me Uzu, do you by any chance hear the babbling of a brook somewhere nearby?” Holding the dark item he rolled it between his fingers before getting her point. “Smoothed by water? Not something you usually find in the middle of the woods.” “I would guess it's likely her source of drinking water as well. Which means if we find a stream...” “We find her.” “Well?” Standing up he closed his eyes and waited for a lull in the breeze. Letting his trained senses stretch past the still graves, past the large trees, to pick up on two pieces of information. “North?-east there might be some water, but before we go Lady Satsuki have you noticed something?” “What?” “There's no birds. No hawks, no songbirds, no crows to pick the bodies before burial. This place is completely empty. Why?” “That is a question we will have to save for either a local expert or our studious informant snooping about town. For now we keep going.” . . With sun beginning to fall she finally spotted her person of interest. Finding a small winding water way as anticipated they followed along it's path as best they could, significant effort that had involved climbing several obstacles paying off when they saw another large clearing ahead of them full of sunlight. More importantly a black hooded figure sitting in it's middle on an embankment of the stream. Ordering her two elite to wait behind the treeline Satsuki affixed sword to her belt and strode forth alone. She would rather avoid a fight with someone so potentially vital if it could be helped. Walking she made it to within a few meters of the person's back before a deep feminine voice called out to her. “Oi, stop right there with yer shitty clanking equipment before I- Fuck, um... Er.. I meam- mean, Stop yer... clanging noises.” It's real! Genuine conversational Sylvan. The language of the old ones, Elves. And rumored older Fae of legend. The first a race of beings dead at the hands of human ambition though the rare half-breeds can still be found being bought and sold among the sex slave markets for their attractive features or hiding among the people with their ears cut. The second was argued back and forth by scholars on whether or not they ever actually existed. Beings that were the first to walk the land with more than an animal's mind, channeled magic as easily as everyone else could breath air. This young woman was living proof that at least the language was real. Utterly fascinated Satsuki now had to convince her to help them. Unsure if she could move without upsetting her she attempted to speak from where she stood. “The... witch of Ironwood I presume?” Thankfully after hearing a range of noises from her throat the form started speaking roughly but understandably. “I... am what I am. Fuck off. If you've come to kill me, then draw noisy blade. You fuckers try though and you die. Oh I know about the other two, two other, assholes camped over in the trees. Leave.” “No, nothing of the sort. I've come-” She was cut off by a frantic shushing. Cloaked figure before her getting up with a crooked wooden spear to stoop over the water. Standing still and ready to throw the thing down into its surface. Graceful arm raised to her right completely bare save for some cloth wrapped around her right wrist. “...What are you doing?” That was the wrong time to ask. Words coming out as the wood was hurled downward, and evidently missed it's target. Chain of loud profanities in two languages echoing as the form dove in after it headfirst. Loud splashing movements erupting from where she struggled in the waist deep water for a brief moment which ended with a loud yell of irritation. “Son of a bitch the first fucking fish in this stupid stream in over a year was right there! Two fucking hours... wasted. Shit... Damn it. Grrr...” “Were you... fishing? In the middle of the woods?” As the young woman in black dragged herself up onto the grassy bank she spat back a sarcastic “Ya think dumbass!?... Dumbass.” before standing up and wringing water out of what little clothing she wore. Surprisingly adept at doing all of that without letting her hood drop. Studying her was easy enough while she squeezed the strange leather material of her cloak in places. And the stories weren't wrong, from what she could see the woman really was nothing short of a perfect figure. They were about the same height, body an evenly filled hourglass but toned from an active life. Scandalously short skirt reminiscent of courtesans Mother kept around low on her hips, nothing else but cloth bandages wrapped around ankles, arms, and conceivably ample chest. Flawless skin completely unmarked even after living surrounded by hostile woods radiated with life. Particularly of note her hands looked far too soft to be a person of the land. Or practiced in combat enough to kill over fifty people with them. It was as if a young noble had sold all her possessions and moved into a mud hut the day prior to their arrival. Or she was really an elf. Looking her over Satsuki was drawn to her face to find the most unusual aspects of her appearance. A pair of striking blue disks just under shocks of vibrant translucent red hair in among visible mop of otherwise pure black. Her hands tugging the front of her hood back down over the glass like bangs while those eyes narrowed at her. “Ruined dinner... Get the fuck out of my woods before I end you like the last fucks!” Slapping a hand offered to help pull her up the bank aside the dark silhouette stomped over to her likely abode with silent feet and shoved her way through the entrance. Turning around in more angry annoyance when Satsuki followed her and stopped the wooden door before it could close more than halfway. “I told you to leave and this is gonna be yer last warning-... Eyebrows!” “I just want to talk with you miss, apologize now at the very least.” She looked taken aback. No longer outright angry but still heavily skeptical. Satsuki needed to proceed cautiously. “Considering this recent development allow me to feed you in repayment of my error.” Warily the still unnamed young woman let go of the door and turned to stare into the darkness of her hovel under a tree. Particularly the large fire pit in it's center that was currently empty. Hooks above for drying meat bare. Turning her head back she asked only one flat question. Practice from talking to herself paying off while letting words calmly come back to her. “Who are you?” Satsuki gave a slight bow before an apology for forgetting her manners. “Kiryuin Satsuki, ruler of Honnouji.” “Never heard it- of, it.” “It's a recent development within the Empire some ways south of here. Given your probable rate of interaction with society at large I don't suppose you would have.” She seemed to have struck a nerve with the last statement as one rather strange blue eye twitched at the mention of her possible seclusion. She would have to diffuse this misstep immediately. Putting her hands up and calling up old memories of even older books in the royal library she hoped her pronunciation was at least remotely passable while the girl's frown returned. Some force prickling senses somewhere around them as a cold dark smoke started creeping around their feet. “I'm sorry!” Her anger disappeared in an instant along with the growing darkness. Silently mouthing the words herself multiple times with a slow step forward. Responding quietly with wide eyes. “Y-You actually know this?” “Ah... Before you continue I'm afraid my knowledge of the old tongue is limited to small written phrases, I hope that apology was correct. It's extremely difficult trying to decipher Sylvan let alone attempt to speak it without materials to learn from. Regarding my comments I sincerely meant no disrespect. I'm sorry that was rude. Was it a wrong assumption on my part?” It was for only a moment but there was a very noticeable flash of interest on her face that was replaced by another small frown and slump in her shoulders. Eventually sighing before letting out a barely audible “No.” Turning around she shuffled further in and crouched down to inspect a bunch of rough pots under a small table. “...Leave.” “I just want to talk.” “And I just want some peace and quiet but I can never have that now can I! Nooo everyone comes to bother me. Kill me. I tell them to piss off. One of the last group came up to try and cop feel instead! So I lopped his arm off before he could. The rest of them got offended at that. And now you're here bothering me! I just want to be left alone damn it.” “Might I inquire why? You don't strike me as the usual hermit living alone collecting plants. Surely a young woman such as yourself would rather live somewhere more civilized than this?” “You don't know me...” “No, I don't. Nor can I ever claim to if you don't give me the chance-” “I don't need you. I don't need to know anyone. Just fucking leave before I'm forced to make you!” “No one?” Stomping back over and staring deep into Satsuki's face her eyes were outright glowing blue. Hair following with a soft red under her hood. “Humans are fucking persistent assholes. Like you! Fucking leave before I put you in the ground!” “Humans?” She opened her mouth to yell but nothing but a rush of air came out. Snapping mouth shut she pulled cloak closed from the inside and took a step back. She had said too much. “...How did you find this place? It's impossible to get here on foot.” “We found the cemetery I'm assuming you maintain. The stream was nearby so we followed it here.” “That's not an easy thing to do with packs and shit.” “We persevered because I need to talk to you.” “...Why?” “Your reputation precedes you. They say you're capable of some very unique forms of magic. Very old forms of magic. And it sounds like you know Sylv.” “And knowing that you came here anyway?” “You have so far not attacked us recklessly which when factored in with the well maintained graves I would think you didn't start the fights which cut the lives within it short. If you do not wish to go back to town with us, fine, I'll cut to the chase. We need someone who has a complete knowledge of Sylvan to help us with an archaeological dig.” “You came all the way here... To tell me you need someone to dig up some old bones for you?” “No, manual labor has been covered for some time now. We just need an interpreter to tell us what we actually found. Read the words carved all over the place. For any service rendered I am prepared to compensate you significantly for the work.” She turned around and grabbed the door again. “I'll pass, leave.” “Ten imperial platinum pieces a day once the work starts.” “That's supposed to entice me?” “A soldiers wage is two silver a day. twenty silvers is a gold. A hundred gold is a platinum. Only banks deal in it normally. I'm offering you a thousand gold a day to just translate stone carvings for us. You could buy a fully furnished two bedroom freestanding house in the capital in a week. It's not a hard job there is just no one else we can find who can do it.” “Do I look like I give two fucks about money? I couldn't spend it if I wanted to...” “And why is that?” “...Just fucking leave.” “Seeing as the sun is setting would you at least join me for dinner? Maybe we could work something-” “No and no. For the last time no! Take your assholes and leave.” Before she could get another word in the door was slammed in her face. No answer came to her knocking or loud pleading. Finally Satsuki yelled out that she would be back tomorrow along with a last apology and pulled off her pack. Extracting various small bundles and putting them in a metal cup of sorts meant for boiling water by campfire. Leaving the clearing she headed back to town with her knights in tow. All three oblivious to the woman curled up on a cot of hay swearing under her breath every time her stomach gurgled. For months now game had gotten more and more sparse. The local deer were gone, birds chased away by arrows or something migrating north constantly as the years went on, and she knew nothing of farming. Her last scrap of dried meat was eaten days ago. Her thoughts turned to the offer of food. A free meal. She stamped them out mercilessly. This Satsuki just wanted to trick her. It was just an offer too good to be true. Lure her out and then ensnare her in a trap like the lumberjack wannabe slavers years ago. She didn't need people, she'd managed to survive on her own so far without them. And she intended to keep it that way. “Stupid hunters slaughtering the stupid deer like there was an infinite amount of them when they leave the stupid woods... Damn them. Damn them all...” Until another hunger pain racked her frame. She was weak and she knew it. That last group of mercs had taken an actual fight to repulse, had this new chick ambushed her with arrows it might have actually injured her. And that was something she could never afford to let happen. Groaning loudly she rolled off the cot. Climbing her way upward in the space she pulled material away from a small window hidden at the base of the tree and studied her immediate domain. Coast clear she dropped to the floor, regretted doing so, and shoved her way to the door. Cracking it open she scanned the field before spotting the bundle at her doorstep. Getting down to her knees she sucked down her pride, took the thing inside, and moved to her fireplace to study it.
Enter the varied Knights of Honnouji and we have contact, unfortunately not how Satsuki wanted it to go, but contact nonetheless.
Messed with ages a little so things might make some more sense. Kept a bunch of "facts" from the show though with edits where needed.
Hope the world building is understandable/reasonable. New to having to make up a whole universe of places and OCs basically. Also hope I haven't accidentally copied a name from somewhere else.
Now to figure out how to tag this thing.
Chapter 3: Change on the wind
Beds, books, and a burdened witch
Rumor of the latest witch hunt had circulated among the locals. This was almost a monthly occurrence now, but this time people got interested in the details. Actual troops from the Empire itself poking around looking for her. Group returning to civilization they passed shops and houses along cobblestone streets, people doing double takes as they passed upon remembering half heard gossip through the day. Staring at them with varying expressions of confusion and respect for still breathing but went back to their daily lives. Very few people had seen the witch and lived, they either didn't enter the woods or the gods smiled down on them to prevent a meeting at all. Regardless the people gave them a wide berth as they moved toward their next destination. Just off the town square Satsuki looked around for a blue head while the area was becoming deserted. Window shutters being closed and market stalls getting packed up for the night. From a side alleyway Inumuta appeared with a new bag of reading material in one hand and glowing with mage light staff in the other on time. “How did your task go?” “In some ways better than expected in others not so much. I've hopefully learned some useful information, if not I've got quite the bit of reading ahead of me which might prove more or less useful after clearing out any books of note available for sale in town Ma'am. How did things go on your end?” “Not much better I'm afraid.” “Nothing?” “Oh no we definitely found the woman and she lives up to at least some of the rumors. I can even confirm that she does speak Sylv, and quite frankly she's the most gorgeous person I've ever seen... However. She's just completely and utterly uninterested in even ludicrous amounts of coin or discussion at all.” “Then the priest's words were true. Against all odds she actually exists. A recluse from human society? Would fit given history of conflict and current circumstance. Sounds about right unfortunately for us. So many things I need to ask about her side of the story. What forgotten knowledge she knows.” “Oh?” “People that would actually stay on topic had some very choice words about her life around here after she showed up around twelve years ago. To avoid making a scene I would recommend further discussion continued in private.” Following his directions they found a long building near the square with a sign advertising ale. Entering the inn more than one table went quiet after getting a look at the newcomers but eventually turned back to their own discussions and business. Ignoring the pause Satsuki went up to the bar and got the attention of a portly man behind it. “Welcome! How can I help you little lady? I've got everything travelers need.” “You're the owner?” “Yup! Will it be food, drink, or...” Tilting his head to the side he looked past her toward Uzu, man currently eyeing one of the waitresses bent over wiping a table clean. “Lodging?” “All three if there are any private rooms for a party of five or six available... Excuse me?” Raising an annoyed eyebrow at him he kept staring past her. Turning she followed where he was looking, tapping their swordsman on the shoulder he nervously snapped to attention away from the girl winking at him with a blush. She turned back to the inn-keeper and broke his own hardening stare with a small forced cough to keep them on track. “Is there a room of sufficient size available or not?” “Yeah. Merchant suite at the end of the floor isn't filled.” Walking down the bar he opened up a small lock-box underneath to pull out a large key ring. Removing two identical metal keys he slipped the first onto another ring holding a dozen already on his waist and came back to put the second attached to a gray strip of cloth down on the bar in front of her. “How many nights ya in for?” “Not sure. Assuming a few days at least for now until our business is concluded. Can we eat up there?” “Its got a table with seats for six. More if you have others with yer group that want to cram in but only six beds. Anything more is your problem. I'll send Wendy along to get you sorted. This time of year is usually quiet enough so stay long as you like and pay by the day long as you need, full ale for the lads?” “Light all around, we can't be hungover tomorrow.” “Alright. Room will be twenty copper for full service with simple meals including breakfast in the morn. Lockup's at midnight and open around five.” Digging into a pocket on her belt she pulled out coins and swapped them for the key. He didn't release the strip attached to it just yet though. He jerked his head so she would lean over and spoke a bit lower. “That doesn't include service if you get me. They're decent girls working here. If you're looking for entertainment for the blokes that's not you I need to send a runner out and it's gonna cost extra.” “Good sir, I can assure you that will not be necessary. We are soldiers on duty.” The edge in her voice made her point clear to the man as he shuddered a little under her glare. Finally handing the key over he called for a young teenager who skipped over with a smile and wide eyes. Introducing herself with a click of her shoes and a mock salute for the real professional soldiers she led them up a set of stairs and down the hall to a door at the end of the floor. Inside the full suite had a large open common space that took up a full corner of the building split into a general dining and a sitting area. Windows facing out toward the main square on two sides. The wall to the left of their entrance held four more doors that led to three smaller rooms containing two beds each and at the far end a bathroom with full set of amenities in the forth. Making a beeline to get first dibs on the unexpectedly civilized facilities Nonon locked herself in there to start washing off sweat and dirt from their trip so far. Waitress sent away to start gathering drinks and dishes the two men shrugged and went into the room next to the bath to start removing packs and excess parts of their uniforms. . . . With a snap of her fingers and a thought of Ignite wood sparked into a modest fire that illuminated her one room hovel. Legs crossed under her on a cushion of skins she turned the metal thing in her grasp around to try and figure out what it was. Settling in she pulled out her speech aid from the dark of her cloak. Giving the worn pink blob of stuffing with a curly tail a gentle squeeze before setting it down so black button eyes could look up at her. Focusing back on task she turned the tin over to dump it's contents on a stone shelf that served as her general purpose counter space. Four balls of fabric fell out, the last clattering on impact suspiciously. Putting tin down she checked that one first. Longer than the others and marginally heavier. Unfolding cream colored cloth she found a silver fork and knife set. “Really?” She frowned but spun them around in her hands to hold properly. “They're not that great... Okay I admit it they're a lot better than my own tries at utensils, happy?” Begrudgingly admitting they were leagues better than the rough carved things she tried to make out of bone she turned and stuck her tongue out down at the silent toy pig. Twirling pair again she set them down in their proper places, reaching into her cloak she pulled out a round slate stone she used as a plate and set it between them. This was surrendering to herself and it almost physically hurt to do, unfortunately to do otherwise would be to let herself starve. So she was going to at least do things properly. Untying the remaining bundles she found a potato rapidly sliced open and baked with another simple thought while holding. The next some strips of dried meat that started to make her mouth water with a rich smell of smoke and earthy spice. “You know what kind this is?... Me neither. Who cares though, meat!” Down to the last bundle it revealed a small block of spongy material she couldn't figure out until a piece crumbled off and brought heavy memories flooding back. It was bread. Real bread. It was dry and completely tasteless, it was honestly terrible. She still almost swallowed it whole on the spot. Eyes watered as thoughts of a particular metal stove came back to her. Yearning painful pangs in her chest for Nanna's baking. Of days spent going about without a care as her kind was oft to do in the days before the first era, learning about anything she could get her hands on with the help of Nanna who was allowed to use the ladders to pull out books on the toppy shelves. Holding the last pinch of stiff material in her hand she placed it on the slab next to her plate and stared at it with wet eyes, devouring the rest of the food as fast as it would go down with the aid of proper cutlery. Notion of a possible poison be damned. She would live another couple weeks. But then what? It was summer and she had already depleted everything edible in the place. With fall coming she would normally be able to restock, but this year already looked grim. Fall and winter she could coast by but what about the next spring after? What if it was another drought like two years ago where she was so weak she almost never left bed? Looking around at clay walls decorated with her pitiful attempts at jewelry made of river rocks and stick figure flowers drawn before hitting it all with fire to harden her frown grew deeper and deeper. She'd made it thus far on magic, sweat, and what little outdoors knowledge she got out of uncle Mohawk when she was something around five. Even after Nanna chased them back into the cabin when he tried to give her a bow to shoot that last winter together. Uncle Mohawk. She was competent now but honestly not an absolute expert of everything outdoorsy, not like him. He knew what mushrooms and plants you could eat year round, how to track a deer for days without magic or inhumanly light steps, and how to start a fire with nothing more than a pair of twigs. She was technically living out here sure, and figured out a huge number of things through trial and error to great success, but she was really just surviving. Fighting off violent assholes year after year while constantly fighting off hunger. The only reason she wasn't just skin and bones, or dead, was her damn bloodline. Setting the silverware down she picked up her plate and the bread. Weighing them in outstretched palms like a set of fine scales until the sun's light disappeared from the far wall through what windows she had. “What do you think old buddy?... Hmm?... Mmmhmm... True... We don't have to stay.” Finally coming to a decision she placed the stone down and swallowed the bread in a bite. Potato skin tossed into the fireplace she slapped both hands down on the slab rattling the items on it while the brown scrap burned, her mind made up. Carefully she packed the fabric and metal items back up in the curved pot and stashed it in her storage void. Gently taking her trusty pig in hand she got up and grabbed a water skin. Dousing the burning wood with a slosh that sent ash all over the floor to collect in old broken channels now baked in. One by one grabbing what few possessions she let sit around to stuff into the cloak as well for a trip. Outside in the dark lit by fireflies and small balls of magic that eddied like water in the stream she closed the door and with her free finger drew a shape on it's surface that sucked in some of the ethereal light. Rune momentarily glowed blue before the front of the whole structure turned into nothing more than a brown haze of obscured thoughts when observed. Safe until she got back. “Don't wuss out on me now. We've snuck out plenty of times! Plenty of times... That ended j-just fine the last time... yeah. It didn't, didn't it.” Guided by the stars before her nerve could waver she turned south and walked beside water to leave the glade. Obstacles passed as a cloud of darkness within the mostly light barren woods. Traveling farther than land memorized her legs stopped when toes fell side by side in the last line of grass and weeds along a pale dirt road. Perfect rows of planted fast growing trees were directly across. Taking a deep breath she looked down into the reassuring buttons staring up from the crook of her arm and crossed the border. Mildly annoyed at the occasional rock under foot she followed the man made path. Rustling fields of grain under the rising moon beckoning her forward as they swayed in the wind toward buildings with soft yellow glows in their windows. This was just a visit. Her first ever such trip outside the woods on reflection. She just wanted to see how things were in the so claimed civilized society that kept sending people to butcher or sell her. How they were surviving. And maybe return the silverware without Eyebrows noticing. Nanna always said give back what you borrow. . . She was nearly invisible against the black sky. Pig safely stashed back in his place she landed softly on rooftop after rooftop much like moving from tree limb to tree limb in the woods. Unnoticed by the residents underneath her feet she was trying, and failing, to make heads or tails of the place. She could figure that the big stone building with the tower was the local church she decided against leveling on the spot but other than that everything looked the same. Every house, every shop, and every cobble street was all made in the same style from the same materials. The dark cover of alleyways abandoned in frustration she had moved upward to get a better view of the place. Not that her vantage point just above the buzzing of lives helped figure the place out, or her mood. Everywhere she looked people were going home or eating dinner with their families. She'd been just able to keep herself fed for years and every single one of these people were stuffing themselves happy as could be without a care in the world. They weren't fighting, they weren't suffering with some need. Yet they for years have tried to drive her from the woods. Woods that it looks like they didn't need what so ever. Looping back to the main square she stopped on a corner rooftop and sat down in a huff against a chimney. Blood boiling furious. Spoiled fuckers everywhere... And they have the fucking nerve to try and force me out!? For what! What do they need!? They already have everything! Clenching a fist she aimed at a chimney nearby that she wanted to belt a solid hit on and shatter. Pulverize the thing until it was dust. Just a hair away from opening up a hell storm of fury on the town as a whole, drive them from their homes to see how they liked it. But the old reminders from Nanna always came back. ...You can't just break things when you feel like it Ryu. Things can't fix themselves, humans don't always heal. How would you feel if someone broke your toys or ripped the books when they felt like it? Go ask the cooks for a broom, I'll help you clean this up now but you can't do this again, okay?... Her fist slowed until it lightly tapped the bricks. Forehead leaning against it she let herself calm down. It wouldn't help to waste the effort or completely destroy her bones like an idiot. Focused back on her task she turned to face the horizon again. Town is a town, she must have gone to a... what... Inn? That. What does an Inn look like though? Its gotta be big. Have rooms for people to sleep. Do they have more than one here? Do they have any? Fucking damn it... wait... Her nose picked up something strong enough to break her jumbled thoughts and derail her completely again. Something familiar. Getting up she followed it to a building a street over from the square. Back on ground level there was still light coming from within the shop. Peering through an open square side window her heart skipped a beat. It was a bakery and the man in charge was still working somewhere in the back. Dozens of varying loaves just sitting in baskets near the sales counter waiting for someone to take them. She wanted it. Bad. Biting her lip she thought about going for them. It was reckless, unnecessary, and could possibly start a war in the middle of enemy territory. Fuck it. Nature won out over nurture. Stepping into smoke she passed though the window. Solid again she reached for a roll but finally stopped her hand. ...Put it back Ryu. Someone put time and effort into making it and they sell it to buy things they need like food and clothing. If you want something ask for it and we pay for it fairly, I still have coins for a well behaved girl... It was wrong. Even among the gluttons this guy made something to earn a living. Even if it was going to go stale and be turned into pudding or something the next morning. Already berating herself for caring she stuffed a hand into her cloak and pulled out a worn leather bag that lightly jingled as she opened it. Reaching into the purse she grabbed a fistful of metal and put it on the counter to study. Frowning when all of them looked different. Some were big, some small. Brown, shiny silver, and gold alike. She had no idea what they individually were or where they came from, she had just taken them along with anything non-perishable and intact off the people that came for her head. Nanna never mentioned if it was still stealing if they were dead and didn't need to buy things anymore. It must be fair if they wanted to kill her surely. Too bad it was wrong to kill the baker right now. Picking up a small brown disk she turned it over, and recognized the insignia on the back. Satsuki had it on her belt buckle. It was a brown Imperial thing. Which made this likely a copper. Standard something wage was what, silver? A little silver. This is just bread. It's food. One loaf has gotta be cheap, so... Copper. But how much of it... None of the baskets had signs or any other indication of price or product everywhere she looked. And for the life of her she couldn't recall prices from over a decade ago the few times she got to see the market against father's wishes. Why have useful information somewhere for those who need it, eh, asshole? Known coin in one hand she pushed the rest into a single pile under her other on the counter. Quietly she willed red glyphs on her palms to form and gave silent instruction in whispers. “Form of ore be free, follow the guidance of the master mold. Reshape.” In seconds the pile of various coins melted into red light. Reformed into uniform brown disks. Each a perfect replica of the coin in her left hand. Putting the one used as a master away she figured sixteen had to be enough. “Hello? Oh! Didn't hear you come in can I help you?” She froze with her head down. Jumped a little at the call from across the counter. She somehow missed the guy walk over from the back. “Sorry, didn't mean to scare ya miss!” Her head inched upward while internally panicking until she could see his face. In turn he could see the front of her. Which made him put his hand on his chin with wide eyes. “S-Say, who are you? Not from here that's for sure.” “Uh...Uhh...” “No wait, I know who you are!” She braced herself for a scream and a start to hostilities. Already thinking of how she could shut the man in a white apron up as efficiently as possible without ruining the bread with blood splatter. But she had no need. “You're with those Imperials right? My cousin saw you guys this morning walking into town, woman with dark clothes. You don't have pink hair though that liar. Obviously red.” “Y-Yeah.” “Well, welcome to Ironwood friend! You won't find a better baker anywhere near here I promise. So what can I do for ya?” She hadn't lied, she only answered a different question. With a need to get out she nervously pointed at the baskets between them. “Fresh off the road, need a little rest, and some fresh bread! I get you. Rumors going around yer looking for the witch, can't fight on an empty stomach am I right!” “Fights a... strong word.” “Oh right can't just go in there and pow one, two, three, knockout to haul her off to the fire. Tell you what normally this stuff that goes unsold I sell to my neighbor to make feed for his cows but that's a waste, cows don't deserve it. Heck I made some of this right before lunch its just been a slow day. Crying shame is what it is... Sorry, point is I'll give ya four loaves for three C.” “Oh, that not- you don't need to-” “Nonsense! You are a beautiful young woman out in the world and you need bread! Bread that I won't sell for much anyway. In fact...” He turned and headed into the back to pull out a small bundle and a cloth flour sack. Coming back out to the front he took a basket of loaves and put them in the fabric bag along with the extra item. “Last slice of today's pie wrapped and ready to go. Got the apples in and had to make em into something. Was gonna have it after I got home but I believe in being a good man of the bakery! On the house for a lovely lady. Just don't tell anyone.” Silently she gathered the requested coins and deposited the rest in the purse to be tucked back into the storage void. Receiving a bag that smelled like heaven in exchange for the due payment. “Anything else ya need? Don't hesitate to ask!” “...Actually, the unit was... supposed to regroup in an Inn? I don't know where that... is.” “When you step outside hang a right then a left back to the square. From there just head to the first open right, one street down you can't miss it on the corner!” It took her a second to remember another soft chiding made as an effort to help her work past herself. “T-Thank... you.” “Don't mention it! And if yer ever in the neighborhood you know where to find the best bread in town! Have a good one, Aura with you.” Spinning on her heel with bag in hand she hurriedly walked out of the bakery. Blushing with a frown after hearing the guy mumble to himself as she left. “THAT's what city women look like!? Gods, I need to travel someday to see your bounty...” Street empty she turned into an alleyway to jump off opposing walls up to the roofs once more. Following the given directions she settled down behind a chimney across the street from a long building full of lights, sounds, and life. Trio of men stumbling around by the door already headed home from their night on the town. She had to get closer to figure out where Eyebrows was in there, if she was in there, but there was something to do first. Sack brought out and opened she pulled out the small slice of pie. Unwrapped then mashed it into her mouth as fast as she could chew. Sweet, flaky, tender pastry filled her mouth with savory flavor. Nose with buttery warmth. She shuddered as long forgotten sugar hit her taste buds and dissolved. Fingers licked clean she sat there staring at them. I'm getting... Fuck I miss real food... Stop, focus! Tying the bag of bread back up before she could give in to its promises she shoved it into the darkness around her shoulders. Smell disappearing with it. Back on her mission she waited for the revelers in the street to be occupied with themselves, or the floor she couldn't tell but it still worked, and took a running leap to clear the gap. Carefully she crawled around the roof and made her way over to the far side to start checking windows. It was at the other end she finally spotted them. One of them at least. From her upside-down vantage point peering through a window and open interior door she could see Satsuki sitting in a chair staring down deep into a cup of something billowing steam into her face. Letting go of the roof with one hand while sliding down she pivoted herself to rotate into the wall, passing through the gaps in the window frame instead of smashing into it. Careful to stand in the shadows behind the door she re-solidified and dug around in her cloak. Tied bundle of metal pulled out she very carefully set it down on a bed to ensure it wouldn't make a sound. Letting it go when she was sure it was firmly on the bedding she nearly had a heart attack when a fork inside clattered. Luckily for her the main room's door opened at the same time, loud hinges protested a lack of oil as two other people walked in. Settling down in a crouch she listened into their conversation. Might learn why they're really here. . . Plates empty and the overly nosy waitress sent away with them her trio had gone down to get a handful of small things while she made herself a cup of tea. Tiny red ruby enchanted to heat up on command drying next to her after being used to boil the water she was waiting to cool. They had gone over what they had collectively learned thus far, and none of them had come up with a solution to their current problem. There has to be SOMETHING that she wants. Uzu settled at the bar with coins to spend and tales to impress women to spare left only two to come back and sit around the long table they had eaten on. Houka pulling out his small brown book now filled with notes gathered through the day from a pocket in his shirt. Already scribbling more ideas. “So Lady Satsuki how shall we proceed?” “You're the closest thing we have to an expert, suggestions?” “Hardly an expert... the witch though... Basics. We need more data honestly.” Pulling eyes from her tea she rubbed her nose while Nonon took a deep pull from her mug. Distracting thoughts of skin she had no idea from where they were coming from pushed aside while trying to continue. “Is it possible her more extreme looks you described came from being owned and not her heritage? Perhaps we could locate who did and buy her freedom.” “Aside from an exquisite cloak she was dressed in rags, but no shackles, tattoos, or branding you would find on an escaped slave changed for a master's taste. And they had to be real the only obvious magic that I could see was black smoke that felt like ice when she was upset.”
“I'm still surprised that you angered her and lived given what's happened to everyone else.” “Not intentionally, apologized immediately as best I could like anyone should which seemed to calm her significantly. Thankfully. I have a feeling that there is a disconnect between both sides. The people claim she is just a violent demon. She strikes me as a rational sort that more or less explained she was tired of people trying to bother her. Us included.” “Yet current kill total estimates are around the upper forties-” “Graveyard had fifty-eight stars if we neglected to mention that. Assumed humans.” “Interesting, but isn't better. Travelers or locals?” “We didn't go around with shovels digging them up Dog.” “A pity.” “Ew.” “It's a valid way to learn how they were killed and where they originated. Back to the witch, now that we're back to basic info does she have a name? You have neglected to mention it as well thus far. Could help in figuring where she hails from originally which would be very useful in figuring what she could want from there regardless of what shape or form it takes.” Satsuki put down her cup and stopped to think about it. Leaning back she let her head fall. “How did I neglect...” “Satsuki are you sure she didn't do anything to you back there? You've been distracted all night. This isn't like you at all.” “I can assure both of you that I'm fine. Must be stress...” “Maybe you should turn in early tonight?” “I'm fine! No more of it. We need idea's on what we could offer to make her interested in the work. My health even if she did do something is secondary regardless.” “We could just knock her over the head and drag her back. She's an elf just smack her with your sword once and she'll be out like a light.” “Absolutely not Nonon. We're not harming the woman or anyone else if we don't have to.” “I must agree that violence is out of the question, too risky to directly attack her. The force required to shock the brain-stem could fracture an elf's neck doing that. Maybe some sedatives though-” “We're not drugging her either Houka.” “Not even a little to make her more accepting of-” “No. Real suggestions only.” “Well... Anything relating to history, magic study, property... a title?” “Don't know, maybe, probable hard no, and what would a title do with no property or pay behind it?” “Prestige and authority? You asked and it's in your power to grant.” “To a point.” “...True. That leaves us with magic. Tomes, artifacts, or instruction under tutors? Is she classically trained? Would she accept the aid of assistants? Maybe we could acquire some slaves for her...” “Dog, DOG. Did you just honestly suggest we buy people, to give to an elf?” “Just throwing out ideas. Maybe she'd get some personal joy from owning humans in a reversal of social order? I don't know.” “Oh sure and well just get her a whole closet of iron necklaces and matching bracelets. I'm positive she won't take that the wrong way!” “Let's put buying people aside and go back to the simpler options. What do we already have and what could we offer back in Honnouji?” “What about Nonon's clock, isn't it elven made?” “Hey fuck you Dog how about we give her your staff!” “I need that to cast, it's quite different.” “I'm not ditching a one of a kind heirloom that's been in the family for centuries!” “Settle down people. I won't ask either of you to give up your private possessions unless absolutely necessary. We have a vault and a dig site, out of that we must have something back home that could be considered interesting.” Nonon shrugged and pointed her empty mug across the table. “His department.” Getting up she stretched and headed out to return the glass and check on their pick up artist before he did something stupid. Closing his book of notes Houka went over to his bed and bag. Pulling out a ledger he readjusted his glasses and started going down lines. Calling out anything that might work. “Preserved beast corpses for biological study?” “Unlikely.” “Arms or armor? She sounds to be in need of a full set of armor given she wears one half naked. I'm sure we have some items that can be altered to fit her. Maybe a fine sword?” “Already has her own equipment and yet to hear them not working no matter how they have been described.” “They weren't sitting on a rack inside her home somewhere?” “No. Probably has it all well hidden if it's fully enchanted... Maybe it's revealing out of necessity to allow ease of equipping? Without aid a suit of full plate would be difficult if not impossible to don. Especially not quickly.” “Speed... How about a wardrobe then? She was wearing rags right, I could write Shiro and see if he can come to Honnouji to do some work. We could add properties to make them into useful equipment like the Inquisitors do.” “Not a bad idea. Add that to a shortlist, what else?” “Hmm... A general variety of staves, rings, amulets, and whatever you personally have locked away in the tower I don't know of.” Flipping pages he continued skimming inventory down the list hundreds of items long. “I have a rough idea of it all but it will take some hours to pick out individual items of note ma'am. It is late so maybe you should rest and throw a fresh mind toward the problem tomorrow.” Her tea finished she looked out a window to see lights of others going out one by one. Thinking about it she reluctantly nodded and stood up. “Sleep would be too easy a way out to relief from our desperate need to work as a distraction. But I will trust the task to you for now. Don't forget to get some yourself and ensure Uzu knows he has first watch for the night. I did say we were on duty.” “Will do ma'am.” Oil lamp in hand she moved toward taken room. Unaware of the panic that caused within. Crossing the threshold she felt eyes on her but missed the black mass in the corner melt under the far bed before she could turn toward where it was. “...My nerves might actually be shot.” Closing the door she put the lamp down by the wall on a table between beds. Pack picked up off the bed she pulled out one of two chairs and dropped it there for the night. From under that far bed hidden listener quietly pulled her cloak together and cast another obscuring ward on herself. Likely safe from being spotted she inched forward to observe Satsuki, looking for an opening that would be safe to get out from either possible exit. Until she stepped out of her boots. Still sensing some kind of eyes upon her she checked that the door was closed then went over to inspect the window. Frame tugged in places to insure it was not able to be opened. Suspicion confirmed she turned back to face the room and finally noticed the bundle on the other bed. Stepping over to pick it up with a raised brow blocking all avenues of escape. “My meal kit? But I left it back in the... woods.” Turning around now she was seriously confused. Going down to her knees she checked under her bed. Finding nothing she spun around and leaned further down against the bed to check beneath it. Staring straight through the fiercely blushing woman just millimeters away holding her breath unseen with a growing sense of unease. Until a knock came at the door surprising them both. “Ma'am, Uzu is back and in a bit a stupor. I'll be taking first watch with him while reading. Sorry for the interruption.” She got up, sighed, and thanked the man for his notice. Sitting on the edge of her bed to study the bundle again. “How did this get here...” When she moved to tuck the items back into her pack the other woman found her opening. Back as smoke her cloud snuck out under the door while Satsuki snuffed out the lamp and laid down to think. . . . She rushed forward to dodge the pink haired one heading for another bedroom and came to a stop under a table to drop out of the smoke and finally breath. Too close, way too fucking close. But she couldn't rest until she was back outside in the night. Poised to continue she closed her eyes and listened. Racket of people on the main floor tuned out she needed to focus on these soldiers. Where they were. Two were resting, one standing outside the door, but a fourth was moving. Ready to go she waited for the door to open. Tense seconds passed until it finally cracked. Swinging inward one with green hair stumbled in and toward the third bedroom. Her world went gray as she carefully pushed off and went around the man. Taking just two steps in he stopped though and drew his sword to slur a shout. “Have at yous!” Instinctively she ducked forward under the blade as it slashed into a candle holder sending it crashing to the floor. Fucking what!? It was impossible. But sure enough his steel weapon sailed through where she had been harmlessly, it would have taken her arm otherwise. She couldn't be heard, her body and everything on it untouchable outside existence. All except the energy displaced in her wake. He must have felt the shift in air temperature almost a meter away. She didn't expect the light field that blinded her on the other side of the doorway and tore her thoughts from the swordsman. Pain racked her body caused by a nullification field that fought to rip the magic out from every cell in her body to stop it from moving. Blinded with pain she made a mistake, she screamed. Air let loose from her lungs created a noise unheard by the Imperial squad, resounding through the black and white world instead. Floating there she curled up and clawed at her throat that wouldn't draw in any air. She was choking in the vacuum of the void. The only real hard limitation to how long she could stay there. She had about a minute before she passed out and eventually died forever lost to the material plane. With no guaranteed way to cast her way back she reached into her cloak to pull out an emergency escape plan. Grasping the frail green crystal she hoped it worked and crushed the prepared emerald in her hand which caused the world to fracture. Four person squad mustered to readiness once again stared at the nothing Uzu had swung at were forced to shield their eyes from the bright green explosion in the hall that sounded like a chandelier had fallen. Stumbling forward Uzu coughed from the white smoke cloud that spread from the blast. Hand waved in a feeble attempt to clear some of it he found and moved past Houka to catch a glimpse of a black form shuddering from it's own gasps and continued his attack. “There you are!” Firm grip on his sword he swung down with the shout. His target heard his weapon and rolled aside quickly into the cover of smoke. “From the fount of life, release, force!” “Wha-” When a bright red light flashed after the strange words he didn't have time to even blink before a solid thump hit him square in the chest, emptied his lungs, and flung him like a toy back into the suite with a trail of smoke. Landing through the solid wood table he hit the floor with a groan. Unable to get up with the room spinning in all his senses. Voice recognized Satsuki ran forward to stop Houka from attacking as well. “Stand down!” Confused he obeyed but followed her deeper into the rising cloud as is dispersed, and nearly dropped his staff. “Mi-... Mil-... M-Milady-” “Are you alright!?” “Ow... Let go!” She tried to help pick the woman up but the black cloaked figure threw the hand off before she kip up'd to her feet. Fixing cloak she glared at them. “You cared so much you came to deliver it in the middle of the night?” “S-Shut up.” “I was going back tomorrow you didn't need to trouble yourself with this.” “I was... just in neighborhood. Bye- ooor not!” Trying to turn and walk away she spotted a man come up some stairs down the hall. With haste she turned to smoke and moved back directly past both people standing in the way to duck behind the doorway. Both of them feeling frozen down to their bones from the rush of air through their clothes. Inn-keeper crossed his arms and stared at the scene. “Just what is going on up here!?” Composing herself she coughed into her fist to turn his attention away from where Nonon was trying to disarm Uzu before he hurt himself in the remnants of furniture. “One of my troops has gone and gotten himself into a state that I will beat him for. I'm terribly sorry about the damages we will pay for them. Right Sanageyama?” “Iziss... what?” Satsuki promised that he would be punished and told Nonon to throw his purse over. Snatching the bag off his belt with a smirk she juggled it away from his awkward grabs and tossed it to the doorway. “Hey! “You fucked up Monkey pay the price. Heads up ma'am!” While Houka stood dumbfounded at what he just experienced Satsuki caught the bag and pulled out a few silvers. Coins handed over to cover the damage and then some she told the man that there shouldn't be any more disturbances and wished him a pleasant evening. Frozen in place Houka pushed back into the room with a shove she closed the door. While Uzu finally got to his feet to put Nonon in a headlock she frantically tried to free herself from Satsuki scanned the room. Stopping on the dark corner to her right no longer lit up. “I know you're there somewhere.” Her knights collectively remembered that they were dealing with an intruder and looked toward the shadow. Trio surprised when a person actually walked out of it frowning. Two somewhat recognized the cloak, one stumbled forward in amazement. “If you don't back off we're gonna have a problem.” He tried to study every square inch of her as deeply as possible, not believing what he was seeing tonight collectively. Lady Satsuki hadn't exaggerated in her descriptions. Flapping his mouth open and closed he couldn't settle on any of the millions of questions to ask first. “You keep staring and I'll eyes rem-, remove your eyes, fish mouth.” Pushed aside Satsuki ordered him to tend to Uzu's condition and motioned their guest over to the surviving circle of couches on a rug. “You're already here, we might as well talk about why.” With just a quick glance around there was a number of gaps she could slip through. But the guy with the staff and glasses currently using his stone to barbarically mend small bruising spots in the green guy's back would just use another Null field and start the mess all over again. That somehow annoyed her more than the fact a regular human actually felt her pass at range. Black material pulled close she went over to the offered seating much to Satsuki's relief. She held her questions as the witch poked and prodded chairs until shrugging her shoulders and sat down on a sofa with knees crossed. Hunching forward to stare down at her toes, arms in her lap. Taking a seat across Satsuki waved away her knights to drag Uzu to his bed so they could talk privately. “I will thank you for returning my silverware, but I have a strong suspicion you didn't come here just for that. Nor do I believe you frequently visit this establishment given your reaction to the owner and our previous discussion. I would ask if you've reconsidered my offer but that's getting ahead of myself. We should start with proper introductions. You remember my name, yes?” Given a clear opportunity to attack while she was on the floor, Satsuki hadn't. Maybe that conversation wasn't all lies. Someone who actually didn't want her dead for once. So she cleared her throat. “Ryuko... I know some magic. Live in my woods. Nothing else to say.” “I was honest with you please be honest with me. You just used multiple rather unique spells without a stone in sight. There's more to you. Even from your appearance that much is obvious.” “Just Ryuko... Okay, yeah I know some more useful things than you'll find in a usual library. What of it?” “You're an elf, aren't you?” That earned her a rise in Ryuko's face to look her in the eyes. And a snort. “... What. Of. It.” “Nothing directly, I have no ill feelings toward your kind. But the knowledge you have of your people is invaluable. The ruins we are exploring are tied to them. It's full of Sylv carvings and what we're fairly sure are Elven skeletons.” “Elves don't build tombs. Bodies get burned and spread to the wind to return the magic used in their life back to nature. Or something... Mysticism bullshit.” “We do know that much. Which is what makes the site so unusual. As far as I know it's a one of a kind discovery. You must have gone through quite a lot to learn what you know and the effort likely included experimentation or study of the arcane arts to learn or recreate certain spells. Are you not interested in the study of magic, particularly of the Elves? You have no idea, we have no idea, what you could learn there.” She didn't answer, but looked away without arguing the point. Or actually answering about her heritage. “I'm offering to pay you handsomely to do what you want to do. What's the problem and how can I solve it?” “...Why?” “Because we need an expert and you're the only-” “No. Why?” Looking up again Ryuko had a test for the history lover. A game she hadn't played in years because Sir Oinken always cheated. “You're not doing this because you're interested in old spells. Human's can't use the good ones, it'll shatter any stone you can carry.” “You don't believe this is an academic pursuit?” “You said you were a ruler not an archaeologist. I don't.” The switch hadn't been a surprise. It was bound to happen given the subject matter. Satsuki braced her head on her hand to prepare for what would be one of the most important verbal bouts of her life. She had to use what little she knew, and straight up guess the rest. “I beg... to differ.” She smiled when she got an eyebrow to raise on the face across. The faintest trace of a mischievous expression coming as the woman uncrossed her legs and hunched forward. Arms spread on the couch to either side. With Uzu down for the night Houka and Nonon silently took seats to watch what was going on. Man taking notes as fast as his fingers would let him write. “Oh really? Miss didn't know much and wanted to talk in common thinks she can keep up with proper conversation?” “Yes really.” “Where did you learn?” “Library.” “This ain't shit you can just find in the reference section.” “Family well off. Good stock.” “Bullshit, the only legitimate ones left were handwritten by apprentices against their masters orders. Those caught were burned to death along with anything they wrote. Everything left had to be plucked from where they were hidden.” “Well off... means... well off... um...” Biting her lip she was stretching anything she could think of to describe the old tomes held by the Royal library written by scholars during The Brush Crusade. Before the authors were killed for heresy anyway. She had no idea how to say that though. Minutes passed with her eyes closed searching. Ryuko's canine displaying toothy grin growing slowly at the same time. Left with a pause too long for recollection she conceded, ducked her head, and asked. “Royal?” Clapping her hands together Ryuko jumped up to stare down at her with mirth and a smug smile. Putting one hand on her hip and poking Satsuki in the chest with the other when she looked up. “Ha! Yoe- rah- nah- val- eyy. Royal. You fake.” “I'm not a fake I just didn't know how to say royal library in the capital. Human written books made trying to decipher Elven... prisoner transcripts. Only two books in full Sylvan are there and both have been beyond anyone's ability to even partially comprehend.” “Which means you lost!” As suddenly as her merriment began it abruptly ended. Processing the flatly delivered statement. Turning to face Satsuki again she grabbed the woman's shoulders and stared at her seriously. “What. What do you mean books?” Outwardly she remained stoic. Inwardly she was ecstatic. Finally something she wanted. And of all things it was directly tied to the greater mission at hand. She had no idea how they were going to get their hands on them, but no matter what they would undoubtedly be safer in Ryuko's ownership rather than in her own mother's. For now anyway. “In the central library of the Imperial capital overseen by the Royal family, that I am a part of, and the High Court of mages two tomes reside under lock and key. One is completely unknown, the other based on guesses of diagrams is some kind of celestial book. Pictures of the stars and heavenly bodies in the four seasons. Technically it is under my authority to transfer them to you.” She searched Satsuki for a hint of a lie. A joke. She had only five of them, and they had been the only five her father could confirm left existing during his study in life. Collectively her source of indispensable casts and knowledge of the world's inner workings beyond the visible. One of them was the only reason she herself was even alive. While her father's ability to decipher magic and the old tongue itself was distinctly amateur at best, especially compared to enchanting, he had diligently attempted to figure out one in particular since he was young and from that knew the basics of what to do when everything surrounding her birth transpired. Releasing Satsuki everyone looked on in interest when she stuck a hand deep in her cloak and it returned holding a large red book. It's leather binding rippled with age, pages edged in worn gold. Bracing the heavy tome on one arm she cracked it open. Carefully flipping fabric pages that showed its age Nonon had to hold Houka down to stop him vaulting over the seat in front of him to take the book from Ryuko. Particular page required found she turned the book around to show Satsuki and pointed at an incredibly detailed graphic of four different night skies surrounded in thousands of words in small print the woman couldn't understand. “Does have it-, it have, this? These exact depictions. Like this.” “This is... I think so? It's been a while since I've seen it personally... What... What does all of this say?” “...It's not Elf.” “What? Then, what is it?” Book snapped shut she held it to her chest and put a hand on her forehead. Recalling old words that had been told many times to her in the crib until it was ingrained deep in memory. An ancient lullaby actually on the previous page but she translated as best she could in common. Voice and red light of her hair enrapturing her audience. “Oh by the trees, by the breeze, by the churn of the seas. Child poor sweet child of Gaia born in the eves of these. Forever marked, life blood sparked, most at ease within these you shall be. Proud gold of the life rich sun, Bright bronze of the summer fields, Royal red of the trees falling to slumber, and Purest white of dead winter's frozen kiss. Go with the wind, go to the glades, for there is your home child. There is buried the blades of your prior execution. To frolic and fight bitterly among the souls of thine kind. Scene of the war unending fought in the era before time. To recharge and retread the steps of thine soul's mind. Oh poor poor sweet child, you must grow strong, don't dally long, you must resist the world that will do you wrong...” Repeating the words in the original tongue she stared upward. Swirl of small white lights gathering around her to dance at her beckoning call. Reaching forward they moved with unseen wind to gather in her palm. Room's temperature falling well below what the summer night should bring sending chills through the audience watching magic itself grow thick and collect turbulently. Roused from his sleep Uzu joined the three stunned stares from the door frame he leaned against. Opening her eyes warmth flowed back into the air and the concentrations of magic left unabsorbed to dissipate she clutched her book with both arms. Staring down at Satsuki she answered the question from the group's earlier private conversation. “I need it... I want them. On top of whatever you offered Kiryuin, the two books from the first era. Then, I'll do it.” Shaking off her daze and letting faint blush die down Satsuki stood up and put out a hand. Hesitantly taken by soft fingers she smiled. “That's a pretty high price to pay Ryuko, the court won't just let me grab and walk out with them in my bag. Even if I technically own them.” “That's your problem Eyebrows. When do we go get them?” “Not tonight. Best to get on the road in the morning to start the journey back. If you want we have spare beds so you don't have to trek all the way back to your clearing. Unless you have things to pack for an extended journey.” In the not so far off central square the church's bells started to ring halting the conversation. Ryuko's ears picking up the clatter of hundreds of boots and weapons around them besides the sound that hit her down to the soul.
Congregation in danger.
And we start to get deeper glimpses into the inhuman mind of the last party member joining for a while. Gamagori Ira will rise into his own eventually worry naught, just not now.
I also did say grim dark was coming for the record. How dark remains to be seen.
Chapter 4: The Order
“By the wisdom of our last living elders there is only one path to surviving the relentless onslaught of the Aou-rah obsessed blind-weavers. It is my deepest regret to inform the Forum that as the solstice is upon us we will use it to turn to the old blood and beg forgiveness of our ancestors for what we are about to do in this hour of hopeless desperation-... Electors please remain calm! We have made this decision as our brothers and sisters are slaughtered with a zeal unseen! It is our hope that we will be judged as cruel survivors who fought the insane by our descendants, and not found as corpses who became the last generation after tainting nature by returning The Inheritors to existence... Truly this might be the end of days... I'm sorry. I am so very sorry...”
- Chief of the Emergency War Council, General Gláros, Year 7102 Second Era.
Underfoot the season's first snow brought its comforting chill which bled through her leather shoes with every step. For reasons still beyond her the feeling was far from unpleasant. If she took off her socks and slippers it would be even more so but then her steps wouldn't crunch so loudly in the air, and she liked the noise. It pushed away her nervousness in the surrounding low whistles of wind. Friend and loyal protector from unknown threats that needed to be vanquished hugged close she needed to borrow his infinite bravery and unflappable focus. The morning wake up call was only two hours away and she needed to be back or Nanna would be upset. Today the monthly traders from the south were leaving for the season. She wanted to watch them leave up close for once, but Papa had strictly forbidden it. She wanted to see them though. So she ducked out her window and down the usual tree. Careful movements to ensure nothing would snag on the frozen garden plants, and to avoid the staff that were normally only ever friendly to her but would be cross and upset at her flight. Free of the grounds she sat in a quiet spot and put her shoes back on to keep socks dry. Nanna would know if she came back with them wet. From there she just took the right pristine paths through white fluff toward the harbor. It was an escape from the order of days set in stone for her to follow from sun up to sun down while at home and not the cabin. And she usually hated that order with a passion. Its restricting routines binding her to boring lessons on stuffy decorum and regular educational instruction she was supposed to know. But Nanna was always quick to gently remind her that life had order for a reason every time she tried to stop and do something more interesting. Always helped her through the day structured so everything she had to do would get done in a timely fashion. Then she could do what she wanted, within certain limits. Right now though she had nothing to do but sleep, and how could she sleep when the pretty ships she only got to see from afar were sailing away? . . Leaving the woods filled with dark pines and wooden skeletons that towered above she pulled her wool hat down securely so it would stay on her head while sneaking through smelly alleys and back streets. Correct district reached she peaked out from behind a crate that smelled like deep sea fish. Hidden ears twitching when wind shook iron signs rusted from the salty air. Street clear of life she clutched her compatriot and ran forward, ducking under bare tables and empty net racks until she could see the water and beamed. Still floating out in the bay among the hundreds of smaller vessels were the great wooden galleons of the trade mission to the south. The Empire. Their pretty sides full of carvings draped over in places by banners and bunting that contrasted wildly with the simple fishing boats and ships that normally lived in the bay. Their large rectangular gold flags hoisted high above the rigging to flutter like golden mercury in the wind. They all looked ready to set sail silhouetted against a backdrop of stone that formed the natural wall which protected the bay from the sea's occasional anger. Behind a barrel she crouched down to hide. It was close enough to have a great view and also allowed her to watch the mass of other people who had come to see the traders off down the docks to her right without them seeing her in return. It also gave her a view of something nobody else noticed. Down at the end of the pier in front of her another young girl was sitting to dangle her feet out over the crashing water's spray. Bubbly individual rocked from side to side while she waved at the sailors readying to leave with both hands. Until a heavy gust of wind blew up from the south through the city. Cruel air whipped down streets slowly filling with morning bustle before it got funneled into the bay and pushed brunette off her perch on the pier directly into the freezing harbor below. When the girl started to scream, only one pair of ears picked up the gurgled words over the crash of waves. “I CAN'T SWIM!” Frantically looking around no one else had noticed. There were no adults she could tell. In her scanning of the scene she saw that down to the dock's left the beach hadn't frozen over yet for the winter. With no other obvious options and mind made up she set Sir Oinken down hidden behind the barrel before breaking cover to run forward. Movement finally noticed the crowd yelled out for her to stop as she approached the end of the wood planks, they only started to move when she jumped. Propelled by strong lithe muscles on lightweight bones she sailed over the brown head that thrashed against salt water to land hard. Sinking under the freezing water that pulled at her clothes as they saturated, but she didn't panic. She fought the weight and started to kick like Uncle taught her in the lake when she got to stay at the cabin while Papa was busy in the mid winter weeks. The effort was significantly harder than swimming in the still body of water that danced with pretty light in the nights but she persevered. By all rights she couldn't give up, honor bound she shouldn't. ...When someone needs help, and you can offer, you should try your best Ryu. You're so very gifted and I'm sure you will use that talent to help others in great ways someday. Help make the world a better place one effort at a time as will be your duty like your father now. Maybe you could even mend the old wounds between peoples if they got to know you. Trust yourself to know what to do when the time comes Ryu, always... Finally breaching the surface to get her head above water she took in a lungful of air before a wave crashed over her. Determined to succeed she powered forward to reach the other girl from underneath the swells. When she got an arm up under a shoulder and struggled to get them both above the surface the girl panicked more at being grabbed. “Waaah!!!” “Calm down!” Brown eyes opened startled at the voice and the girl stopped fighting, stunned. The wool cap had been taken by the sea and ripped from her black and red hair. Left her ears exposed. She didn't care though. With the other girl in her grasp she turned and aimed for the beach. It took her a few minutes to drag them both against the currents and waves that rolled over them and into water that helped drag them to shore. While sandy rocks were successfully reached the girl wasn't moving at all by then, not even shivering as her skin tinged red from frostbite. Worried Ryuko put her head down and while a faint heartbeat was still to be found breathing had stopped completely. When she pushed down on the girl's chest water dribbled from her mouth. She couldn't breath because she was full of water. If she couldn't breath the girl would... Break. Stop functioning. End. She would Sehzhihos, die. Ignoring the sharp spark of pain in her mind she looked around for anything or anyone who could return the girl to full working order. all she spotted was a shard of glass, and her hand. A plan formed but it was risky. It would work in theory but she'd never done it before to such an extent. Especially not in a person. With no time to come up with another idea she reached over and grabbed the green shard, carefully grasped it, and sliced across her palm. The cut filled with salt stung worse than anything she'd ever physically felt. She couldn't just sit and cry about it though, she needed to be strong or this girl wouldn't live long. Squeezing hand into a fist for a few seconds blood dripped out. Holding the girls mouth open she squeezed out more until the pool inside was dark red. Saturation hastily considered sufficient she put one hand over the other and put them on the girl's chest. “F-Flow forth from the fount of life. Power of the beyond coil and roll into my purpose!” As practiced with certain thoughts and the initialization a red rune of light blinked into existence under her hands. A temporary channeling construct her father made her practice over and over to protect her heart and targets from possible uncontrollable accidents. It made her smile already though. If it was working she could control the blood. She could do this! Body before her rolled on the ground as blood flowed down through the water that filled lungs. Red liquid obeying simple commands followed where she moved her hands instead of being burned up as catalyst immediately. And murmurs flowed through the crowd that gathered a few meters away rooted in place watching in horror. Somewhat sure that enough water was now suspended in the blood mix Ryuko moved her hands over the girl's mouth. Flow willed along a flood poured out. Clear liquid separating to splash on the rocks and short brown hair by her knees, red liquid going straight up for the red light in her hands to gather in a ball. When the girl sputtered and took a first deep breath on the ground she smiled in relief. Using the blood to heal her hand before wiping dried flaky remnants away. Then she helped the girl sit up and cough out the last of the water. “Are you- A-Are you okay? Do you feel any burning in your trachea, larynx, or lungs? Heart rate steady and pulse within normal rates? Anything feel off at all? Anything feel... explody?” “I'm... I'm f-fine. J-Just Cold... But... A-Aren't you-” Her shivers were strong but they stopped with a gasp when a rock beaned Ryuko in the back of the head and blasted her vision for a moment. Confused with tears in her eyes and a ringing in her ears she spun around and got to watch another rock streak toward her head and graze off a temple in another hit breaking skin. Crumpling in a daze of pain as blood dripped down past her view and onto the rocks. “W-What?” Knocked down to her hands and knees by the various rocks being thrown the crowd started to close in while she covered her head. Arms beneath soaked coat and sweater going sore from welts and bruising. “No stone? She's a witch!” “The knife-ear's using fucking blood magic on her!” “Get the hell away from her witch!” “Wait guys that elf's got the hair of the-” “Aura above that's why she's never seen!” “Call the priests! Call the guard!” “Save the girl from the witch before it curses her or something!” Before they could grab her she struggled up and sprinted to get away. Crying as more rocks hurled at her back forced her to stumble with each successful hit. Each one followed by an audible cheer. Under fire she still managed to reach the barrel and snatched up her pig. Worry of being seen forgotten she ran right through the streets with blood clotting in her hair. Rushed past confused individuals ahead of the mob that was spreading like fire. Halfway home the church's bells started to ring in a way she had never heard before. It was a frantic melody that would haunt her nightmares for years. Her head was throbbing, ears ringing, and town criers were yelling out to angry crowds. A heretic was among the people. That a call to arms to restore order to the parish was underway that was quickly becoming a sea of armed angry people. And torches. At the time she didn't know what a heretic was. Didn't know why everyone was trying to hurt her. Didn't know what she had done. All she could do was cry out herself while dodging suspicious hands that grabbed for her and Oinken. Face hot and wet from saltwater, blood, and tears. “N-Nanna! Papa! NANNA!!!” . . . The sound of commotion somewhere on the floor below was a distinct change from the last few minutes. Same damned bells toiling away while Satsuki's muffled voice ordered her troops to be packed and ready to move yesterday. Woman's hand shook her shoulder to bring her attention back. But stopped when she noticed bleary eyes staring beyond the horizon. The look of a soldier who just went through the worst hell imaginable. “We have to get ready to- What's wrong?” Ryuko just frowned while forcing feelings back down before any of them spiraled out of control. Logically working through events the bells couldn't be about her. She would have heard the yelling downstairs had it been someone running to alert the town that she was here. Yet a growing commotion in the streets barely audible over the stupid metal noisemaker was not giving her much reassurance. Stashing book away before anything could happen to it regardless she snuffed out all the candles in the sitting area with a wave of her hand. Only answering after she carefully moved to study the world outside a window from behind its frame. “Noth-... Nothing. What are you doing?” “Going out there to find out what's happening.” Incredulous Ryuko looked back over at Satsuki. Bright eyes wide seemingly looking through her casting a faint blue glow upon her cheeks under the cover of her hood. “Why would you do that?” “We need to know the situation so we might be ready to respond to it no matter what it is. I have an idea already, but hope it's wrong. Come on.” Attempting to grab a hand Ryuko slipped through her fingers and started backing away into a corner of the room. “Ryuko if my suspicion is correct you are going to be in a lot of danger in particular. We can make you a disguise at the very least to throw off suspicion of who you are.” “I have what I have and that's all I need.” “Not if you want to step out there and potentially get picked out as the local terror that goes bump in the night instead of just one of my soldiers.” “Let's get something straight Kiryuin, I don't belong to anyone. If some assholes are here to rob the place it's not my problem. If you're vacating the building then I'm just gonna get a view up high and wait until you wanna leave. Worry about your own problems.” “And how will you do that exactly?” “That's my business-” “I've hired you to do a job. I need to be sure you make it through this along with the rest of us intact to do that job. If your method is fool proof than by all means tell me, if not we need to equip you in something bearing the proper marks of my command. Anything, really.” She was going to argue but stopped herself to dig a frantic hand into storage. Swearing under her breath when she remembered she had no more emergency escape crystals. She had used the first of the pair to test if they worked years ago. Even under normal conditions the move through the void was, while mundane, still technically risky. Especially if her mind betrayed her while traversing... The Mirror. Which meant she had to minimize her time there for now, which meant she would be moving around the hard way. Damn it. Need to make some more later. Kept putting it off too many times. There was another way to survive the space, but that wasn't something to be done lightly either. The armor was the best she could make, but it was still not even a fraction as good as the real set. It was rather taxing on her resource reserves to use and it was currently difficult to restock with the lack of suitable animals around to drain. It would work in a pinch though. And if confronted by violent people the resupply issue would work itself out rather quickly. Turning to try and just leave Satsuki stepped over to block her. Look in the woman's eyes giving her pause. Worry? Faced with two options out only one had an almost guaranteed chance of ending in a fight with somebody. The alternative was whatever Kiryuin was plotting. With a sigh she crossed her arms and looked back expectantly. “Fine. We'll try your way... Now what?” “Now we make you look like another scout. An... unorthodox auxiliary for an Imperial unit but one nonetheless. So I must first ask what's your shoe size.” “...What?” . . Eventually Satsuki and Nonon sorted out their excessively finicky new member in anything she begrudgingly agreed to put on from their combined available clothing. Long white rain cloak layered on top of her black one and kept well closed all the way around by a gold imperial clasp and chain, borrowed leather gloves and boots meant for horse riding to hide her too delicate for a soldier hands and feet from being spotted. Packed and ready for the road they shared simple name only introductions and left the suite in formation, bodies used to physically block line of sight to Ryuko from certain angles in a loose square around her. Moving downstairs they received some odd stares from those observant enough to remember how many of them had walked in. Everyone else huddled around any windows facing out toward the street to watch figures on horseback rush by. Unfortunately one particularly well built man who smelled of farm fields even from a distance got up and blocked their path to the door. His empty mug waved around at them pointing out their number while words slurred from a face red from ale. “Listen 'ere Imperials... I may not be book learnin good... but I can count good enough... Four of ya showed up, now five of ya are leavin right now without a word! How the fuck many are yous... Is this your fault!?” A pair of his less confrontational friends got up to try and pull him away but he shoved them off and then threw his mug past Satsuki and Uzu at the front of the procession, both unable to catch it in time. In a twirl of white and black material though Ryuko plucked the thing out of mid air before it could hit her with a dark gloved hand up to her elbow, spun around, and tossed it just hard enough to land intact on a coat rack to their right. Which earned her a rousing cheer from the line of men still finishing their mugs at the bar and a look of disbelief from the instigator. Pushing him aside with the sheath of her sword Satsuki got to the door and motioned her squad out into the night's burgeoning chaos quickly. “A scouting unit must always have an extra pair of eyes to watch them as they watch others. We will forgive the transgression on account of drink but any more would be difficult to overlook at present. I bid you good night.” Outside the answer to the cause of the commotion came in the form of runners carrying various supplies towards the edge of town. Following the road south in search of answers things started to come together as they approached the main entrance of sorts. The local guards were hunkered down behind makeshift cover surveying dark fields further out. A noticeable line of orange wicks in the distance. Small streaks of orange coming from the line to pepper buildings all around them in a staccato of solid burning rain. While most were put out by soft summer wind the few that didn't were attacked by men wielding buckets. Dry straw roofs of the outer farm houses around them set alight forcing the people inside into a frenzy to help put them out in short order. Among the watchers they spotted the large man from earlier in the day. Satsuki broke from their position behind one corner and ran across the road to get behind the same wall as him. White hooded follower just walking behind her without fear or worry confusing those who turned back to look at the form move. Shoulder tapped the man pulled back and faced Satsuki. “Ah, good evening Miss Imperial. I'd offer to congratulate you still breathing if you went on that little investigation into the woods, but we're looking to be in a bit of a spot right now.” “Ferdston. What's going on?” “Jin's boy was on watch and spotted a wall of fire start up over there in the distance. Arrows came down in minutes hitting him in the shoulder. We're lucky he made it to the barracks and got some more men up instead of becoming target practice. And the bells means Father's up. Good. People shouldn't die in there sleep at least.” “You don't seem to be worried about death at the moment.” “Worrying won't help right now. We're going to need to put a stop to them or else.” “Any idea who they are?” “Don't know yet, don't really care. All I know for sure is that anyone trying to kill us isn't worth getting to know... Speaking of worry who's your friend that I don't know? Cause either their nerves are stone or they're crazy.” Turning in place Satsuki quickly pulled Ryuko out of the road to whisper with her. “Are you trying to get shot!?” “You said follow. Nothing can touch me Kiryuin.” Leaning into Ryuko's hood Satsuki stared her down with a hard glare at an uncomfortably close distance. Unexpected disarming blush stopping a harsh hiss before it could roll off her tongue. Unneeded rogue urge to lean forward the extra inch to indulge in the pursed lips right there free for the taking forced aside. This was becoming a consistent pattern she really didn't need to contemplate right now. Ignoring it, and the intermingling breaths that brushed her face, she pressed for a clarification in a volume below what anyone else could hear. “What was that last bit?” “Are you for real right now? Yah- zhi- yoe- nah- say- zhi- zas. Kiryuin. How do you not know that!?” “...Language lessons later. At least try to blend in.” “Whatever.” Turning back to the large man she repeated most of what she said in the Inn which satisfied his curiosity at the extra individual. Sagely nodding at least taken as such. “You Imperials wouldn't happen to have an army or something also hiding up in the trees?” “Not presently no.” “Shame. A legion would've been handy about now.” Careful what you wish for... “Quite. You think your guard can stop them?” “Even if only every individual light over there is a person with a weapon we might slow them down at best. We've fought off bandits plenty before sure. But only raids made of twenty at most over the years. This? Nothing this size. We're trapped and they probably know it.” “What about the north road?” “Even if miracle of miracles in His name and we evaded the witch along the way going into the mountains without proper preparation is suicide... Hang on something's moving out there. Everybody on yer toes someone's coming!” The sound of arrows hitting things stopped as a small grouping of flames started to grow in size. Three figures on horseback now visible approached down the road toward them with torches in hand. And cleared up who was behind the assault. Against the warning of those around her Satsuki stepped out from cover with a scowl and hand on her sword. Hooded form confused still following on her heels. Standing at the edge of the cobblestones they watched three riders come up to a few meters away. Figure at the head in a long black coat gleaming with golden seals on its front. Her wide brimmed matching hat bore a gold band with a four pointed white star outlined in deep red upon it. The mark of the Inquisition. Moving away from the honor guard of fully armored paladins the blonde woman finally stopped her horse's trot and sneered down at them. “Oh my what do we have here? Why, good evening our esteemed Princess of Steel! Fancy meeting you in this rotten backward corner of civilization at such an hour. Shouldn't children be in bed by now?” “High Inquisitor Harime. You finally got kicked out of the capital by my mother and run out of rats to torture in your spare time?” The blonde's smile fell along with any mock respect in her words. Confused murmurs at the mention of Inquisitor and princess circulating among the group of grizzled men meters back at the barricades. “Why are you here Nui. And just to clarify who is the army behind you? Surely I would have been informed of a field movement of the first legion past my own territory.” “Only the finest of the boys here on business! Here's a better question for you little Satsy, just what are you doing here?” “Research into the land and its people-” “Oh no you don't, don't you lie to me you cold little bitch! Why are you here!?” “Excuse me?” “I know you're up to something frowny-brows. I can feel it... And I'm not alone! You've been a sneaky little spoiled brat resenting her highness your whole life. Resenting her personal care! There's no way out of here. We're going to purge this little hole of apostates, you, and your friends then burn this place to ash so I can carve whatever it is you're doing out of your bones!” “You will stand down and apologize to my feet!” “You think you can order The Inquisition around?” “By my mother's decree you bow to the royal family. So yes, by the authority invested in me as a representative of the state stand down and bend your knee!” She just laughed at the solid order shouted up at her. “Listen here little girl you've finally slipped up and made a terrible mistake coming out here. Your authority only goes to the border and I only listen to the rightful justice incarnate sitting on the throne by His holy decree of course! Goodbye, princess Satsuki. I look forward to having the boys capture you alive so you can entertain them. Some meaty blessed cocks up your ass should loosen those lips up for interrogation very nicely!” Done with Satsuki for now she turned to leave but stopped when her eyes crossed over the silent hooded form just behind the furious glare attempting to burn holes in her face. Likely female individual was vaguely uniformed but not dressed in a way any of Satsuki's regular menagerie of followers did. Ever. This person was an unknown. That was incredibly interesting and suspicious. She must be taken for interrogation as well. “You, in the hood. It's disrespectful to look at your better while hiding your face!” Stepping forward annoyed Ryuko ignored a hushed warning and rose her hand. Some of those spoken by this woman and Satsuki had been familiar, even though she had never heard them before. Too familiar. Red circle formed in front of her palm at the call of her mind and words. Nui couldn't even think to dodge the bolt of red energy that flashed from it and smashed into the various magical protective fields imbued into the layers on her chest with a crash of sparks. The next thing she knew the horses were panicking and she was almost bucked off into the dirt. The paladins with her equally surprised threw their torches into the dry grain fields earlier than planned in a rush to get hands on their swords. Getting her steed under control Nui immediately ordered them to follow her retreat. That had been magic. Hand cast magic. She hadn't been injured. But even with her layers of protective enchantments that should be enough to disperse anything directed toward her, she still felt that. She didn't see the equally stunned face of the caster surprised that the bolt hadn't outright blown a hole through its target. Instead galloped back to her gathered army of the most loyal troops at her disposal in the distance. Mind racing at the possibilities. It was just a hidden stone. It was just a trick from Satauki's four-eyed nosy annoyance. It couldn't be anything more. It couldn't possibly be anything more. The Order had ensured that much with significant effort and utmost devotion. Any and all Elven magic users had been assuredly wiped out generations ago. But if it was? Still riding at speed she pulled out a trinket and unlocked it. Forcing a gloved thumb inside the golden thing a ring of white gemstones lit up around its edge. The signal was active, Inquisitor in need of backup. Regardless of what Satsuki was actually doing there was no way she could survive the full weight of the Inquisitorial legion. Even with whatever the hell that was. Even if she had to mobilize every armored paladin and monk with a butter knife to do it the princess plotting possible rebellion needed to die before she could lay a finger on the Empress. Nothing would stop her holy ascension no matter what! . . Fields of grain catching almost immediately started to burn before them in a wide reaching inferno that was only stopped from completely encircling the place by irrigation ditches. Standing there the two women were troubled for different reasons. Ryuko's summing up to a simple How did that not rip her stupid head off? A human with defense wards? Satsuki's were far more reaching in scope. This was not in her plans. Ragyo would never want her dead in such a time or place. The throne's psychotic hand was acting on its own alongside an unknown number of zealots to an unprecedented scale. Stepping up next to her other side Houka brought the end of his staff down. His own thoughts split between trying to decipher the strange red casting and the fairly problematic tactical situation they were now in. “Recalculating estimates. Odds now below two percent chance of success. Not good, not good. Nui.” “Unfortunately.” “With an unknown number of the Church's proverbial finest, and is burning the fields to prepare for a mass charge.” “Looks like it from here.” “Want's us dead under mass extermination protocols.” “Options?” “I'm going to be blunt. Besides pray for a miracle-” They both turned to face Ferdston when he moved up next to them in the road. Hand on his chin in frantic thought that made his deep voice shake. “Are you by any chance...” “Princess Satsuki Kiryuin, Lady of Honnouji. These are my knights. Yes.” “She was?” “High inquisitor Nui Harime.” “T-That was familiar... The magic?” “A rushed and unfortunately useless against an inquisitor's gear shot from a prepared piece of her equipment when a weapon is too slow to draw.” To her relief Ryuko remained silent and Ferdston bought the answer before he turned his attention out toward a majority of the season's harvest going up in smoke. “A-Aura... An Inquisitor... Mercy, the Inquisition!? Why! What have we done!?” “If I could tell you how that woman's sick mind worked my life would be significantly easier. If not you it would have been some other unfortunate people undeserving of their attention.” “We don't stand a bloody chance against them!” “Calm yourself and keep a level head as before, I'd start getting people ready if I were you. Houka, we need options. I'm not seeing much.” “Besides the obvious run?” “You know me better than that. Not that we realistically could anyway.” Plodding forward Ryuko went up the road to retrieve Harime's lost hat to study it while the knights gathered around Satsuki. Houka's mind piecing together anything he could think of on the spot. One thought in particular from earlier in the day making him stare at the not quite Elven woman squatting in the road covered in cloaks. “We can move as many civilians as possible away from the front here and dig in for the assault at the very least. If we had the time I would suggest trenches to slow them down. We'll need traps. Or... You know, they do say she killed a dragon. We don't have adequate manpower, room to maneuver, or the element of surprise. If there was ever a time to call upon a potential one woman army this would be it.” Satsuki looked around and saw men shift on their feet talking among themselves as well. These people had answered the call to action not knowing what they were up against. They were supposed to be the most enthusiastic among the defense here and they were second guessing themselves already. Turning around she also studied the form sitting in the road lit by orange bonfires and turning over the black hat to no doubt study with her mesmerizing eyes. She didn't see the wince caused by a field of painful static in Ryuko's head after thumbing dust off the remotely familiar star symbol. Or the rest of the effects of her curse. Desperate times. Desperate measures. It's never going to be easy is it? Yelling out she got Ferdston's attention again and waved him over. “What?” “Is there a hill anywhere near us? Something overlooking the fields or town as a whole.” “One west before the treeline, why?” “I want to get a better view of the situation. Sanageyama!” “Ma'am!” “Start helping organize any available fighters with this man, Inumuta get anyone in charge who would know the land well together to draw up possible maneuvers that can be employed at present, Jakuzure anyone with a bow on the rooftops and ready to return fire ASAP. Oh and Houka I'm going to need a light.” . . . Ball of mage light contained within a glass lantern in hand Satsuki stepped through grass toward the hill she was told of. Unnervingly silent woman mechanically following still just studying the hat in her hands with a blank expression. Coming to a stop next to a singular large tree she looked out at the view. Able to scan the majority of town and the fields with just a turn of the head it was indeed a perfect vantage point to plan defense lines from. And far enough away to ensure none of the locals would hear them talk. After some minutes of silence Ryuko put the hat away in her cloak and spoke. “There a reason for us to be out here Kiryuin?” “I needed to speak with you away from the people's ears. Do you know what's happening?” “Vaguely. Some pyromaniac assholes want everyone dead?” “Close but the situation is worse then that. Harime is with the Inquisition. And she likely wants me dead in particular or in chains. Any variation of helpless would do I imagine.” “Why? What the hell is an Inquisition?” “Seriously?” “It's not like I keep track of what the fuck is going on abroad Eyebrows... I have an idea though.” “It's the militant branch of The High Order. The church. They live to purge nonbelievers and anything else deemed heretical.” She expected some choked noise of recognition. A comment on something given her emotional reaction to everything else thus far. An attempt to run off at the very least. She didn't expect Ryuko to double over laughing in her beautifully melodic voice that broke occasionally from the strain of unused motions on her lungs. If the situation weren't so grim she would have been content to just let the the sound continue. “You find this... funny?” “These bastards have been trying to burn me at the stake for a years. Their own bullshit church comes to kill them all with fire when I'm leaving? This is fucking hilarious!” “People are dying and you laugh? You hate them that much?” “People hate me.” “Not all of them.” “And how do you know that everyone doesn't-” “Because I don't.” That stopped her. Pulling fabric closed around her she stared out toward the sky. “You're not from here Kiryuin.” “Neither are you.” They let an extended uneasy pause sit between them. One unsure what to say, the other patiently waiting for a response. From on high they watched men and women rush to fortify the town. People desperately trying to save their lives and livelihoods as the rain of arrows started again ahead of the impending invasion. White lamp flickering as its limited power was spent. Satsuki had tremendous patience when called for, but with valuable time ticking away she broke the pause herself. “It's true though isn't it? There are good people out there that don't care who you are. Humans. They don't hate your... you. Those you've known before included perhaps?” “...They're not here.” “Then why did you come here?” “I didn't exactly have a choice in the matter.” “Everyone has a choice.” She spun around to glare at Satsuki. Eyes a pair of bright blue disks lit with her emotion. “Yeah, and people use those choices to fuck me over no matter where it is or what I do... No more tiptoeing around. I know what you're doing. You want me to do something about this don't you?” “Any aid that can be rendered to save these people would be appreciated-” “Then you can fuck off! They don't deserve it. No one does...” “Then you believe these people deserve to die? All of them. Burn and suffer under the hands of violent cruelty while you stand by and deny them aid? Every man, woman, and child regardless of what they have or have not done? They can't flee, don't stand a chance in large scale combat, and face mass execution. Do you condemn them all to die as judge, jury, and executioner?” A lone shriek higher than the others before carried with the wind. They both turned at the noise and spotted a commotion in the streets. A procession that moved deeper into the houses followed by a yelling girl. Satsuki recognized it as the waitress, yelling out “Papa! Papa!!” in more frantic calls as time went on until one final shriek rolled. And then there was a telling silence. To her right she could see the other woman tense up. Something in that struck close to home in her. It would be wrong to use such a thing to pressure her into acting, but their options currently didn't leave much room for anything else. “I don't know what you've suffered through. But you can help stop them from suffering now. You've to my knowledge pieced together as an outsider never openly initiated conflict with them. Houka spoke with the priest and not even he gave a single account of you ravaging the town. Only unsubstantiated rumors of curses. I would posit this as evidence that you don't feel they are all worthy of an untimely demise, for if you truly did you could have easily wiped the whole settlement out yourself according to the rumors of your combat prowess that circulate the region as a whole. An invincible black knight, a warrior possessing unsurpassed power and fury. Such traits though would also prove invaluable in an endeavor to save this town... I'm going down there to fight, to help those who need it, what about you?” “...I don't help people Kiryuin... Not anymore.” “Yet you promised to help me?” “That's... different... You're paying me.” “I'm sure they would be grateful toward a lifesaver. Many might drop some of their anger and fear toward you as a form of exchange if nothing else in repayment.” “As if... Why are you so damn persistent on this? It's not like you have any reason to care about the fucks.” “It's my responsibility to care. I took a vow, and up to my dying breath it will be upheld. So long as I am able if there are people suffering I will find a way to help... As the heir to the throne it will be my duty to protect those of my kingdom. If I turn my back on these people now there is nothing to say I won't turn my back on those who entrust the power of governance to the crown I will be given. And if I do that it might as well be torn from my head, melted, and sold to pay for the coronation of a better person than I. With the given field of options before me I am left with a need of your help to help them. I need you.” She looked over and caught Ryuko openly staring at her. Woman quickly turned away with a blush when noticed. Satsuki watched her look out into the fields deep in thought after that for a while. Still hearing the cries of people losing loved ones to volleys of invisible black daggers that sailed through the night. Conflict playing out in the twitches of her face. Until finally the woman groaned out a response she didn't catch. “Duty to the people... Responsibility to my land... The last of it... Talking like Nanna did.” Turning back Ryuko hesitantly met the gaze. But no matter how deeply she searched it there was no trace of hidden agenda behind the face. Nothing but the genuine concerned look that came with an eyebrow quirking up in the white light of the lamp. Satsuki spoke carefully. She acted properly even in the face of outright belittlement. She was a genuine article of a rare breed of person Ryuko hadn't known in a long time. What she was supposed to be. And it made something deep in her chest tighten up. Tearing eyes away she really had fallen farther than she thought possible. From those thoughts her wounded pride surfaced. She resolved herself to respond in kind. As she had been taught. As she might have known long before. As she should. With a deep breath she straightened her posture for once that creaked her spine upright. Like Nanna said she should always be doing to keep her head high. To speak clearly so as to always be understood with her voice meant to be heard. Moving purposefully she undid the golden clasps on the white cloak and pulled it off. Item returned to its place in Satsuki's pack along with the belt, boots, and gloves of her disguise with some hesitation on the part of the other woman on where this was going. Next she reached up into the black hood to undo a pair of leather knots that held it in place, grabbed the sides, and pulled it down off her head. After rubbing the sore spots on her long ears reaching up and out noticeably past the top of her hair she ran fingers through her wild locks of black and glowing red to spread them out for the first time in a while with a sigh. Closing her eyes she let the wind flow over her head before speaking with genuine effort. “Fucking fine... For the record I am not doing this for them. They are all fools misled by the authority they have been indoctrinated by for generations. They would sooner stab me in the back than repay a favor to my person regardless of merit in the act... Fool me once... Alright Kiryuin... Here I am. What is it you actually require or expect from a so termed insane living relic that by all counts should have remained dead in the annals of history?” Met with silence she glanced over and caught Satsuki's own wide stare hastily redirected. She was surprised at, but rapidly welcoming, the shift in Ryuko's vocal expression to a refined voice with sufficient pauses to ensure correct enunciation. Her even tone contrasting with wild ethereal appearance was also rather annoyingly distracting. Heated thoughts of taking hold of those graceful cheeks in a fit of passion to stare deep into those eyes until she could be lost within them forced away yet again tonight. What is wrong with me today!? We're both... I... I can't seriously be... To her?... I don't have time for this. “Just... I do apologize but this is not something I am completely familiar with. Half-blood Elf Fae?” “I would be exceptionally surprised if you or anyone else were. Something like that... Yes, I am a Fae. But not quite a High-born if you want what... we called ourselves... I think? From what I know this flesh only took a fraction of what that would bring. This blood was born of Elves, the Low-born, likely as the closest vessel for my... soul?... The proper classification term you seek is Nymph. Elven Nymph. Anything else I could tell you is conjecture from what little there is written and my own possibly delirious observation. It gets complicated alright?” “I can only imagine and even then it's probably not even close to the reality is it?” “That entirely depends on how good your imagination is... We do have things to do right now though don't we?” “Indeed full discussion will have to wait for a different time unfortunately. We presently stand against an army that has never lost a battle to turn away, and we only have less than professional troops in any number to do it with. I am sorry, genuinely, for needing to push you to war but anything you can do would help.” “If it's war you're looking to stir up you might not find a better person anywhere or at any time... I can fight, but just so we are clear if I hit them they are going to die. In numbers. Anyone you know in that gathering out there that you would care about if they ceased functioning?” An odd way of putting it. “Know, yes. Care for? Absolutely not. Some in particular if there was adequate time I would ask you to go so far as to leave alone so I could personally put them down. But that would be a nonsensical waste of effort for no tangible gain. So I won't.” “No pulling punches then.” “Pulling punches? You would seriously not bring your all to a battlefield?” “My all would likely wipe the town and everyone in it out of existence. I have not tested the upper limits at my disposal for certain things... And to be fair there is no need to drop a millstone to kill a spider.” “Just be sure to be as effective as you can. I don't want you dying out there when we still have work to do beyond tonight.” “They won't kill me I have... precautions for that. Can't promise to stop all of them though. Sheer numbers make tying up troops a futile exercise eventually.” “Even stopping one would be one less for the lines to deal with. Thank you. Is there anything you will need?” “I carry everything I need at all times. When does the attack start?” “Our guess is when the fields are done burning giving them a clear path to march through.” “Could take a while. Midnight?” “Solid an estimate as any. I need to go back to the center of town to help organize the defense. Should I take your removal of items as a sign you're waiting here?” “No, the assholes will undoubtedly go crazy on you like whenever I'm brought up. And if they kill you that makes securing what I'm owed significantly more difficult. I'll just... follow you... I guess.” Her chest tightened again when a warm smile was aimed at her with a sincere “Thank you, such protection will be unnecessary but I don't mind the company. How they react to you though remains to be seen...” This was starting to get annoying, if her heart was breaking down from overuse already then she was doomed no matter what happened. It might be prudent to reign in her usage of magic in the field to smaller casts just in case. She kept this all to herself as they started walking back. Worry gnawing away at her after the lamp went out and she casually replaced the simple mage light with a snap of her fingers and barely a thought, Kiryuin giving her another soft word of thanks and smile preceding another bout of that internal tightness. . . . Allowed past a hastily constructed checkpoint they were completely ignored as they made it into town. People were too busy to study the duo moving toward the main square filled with anyone capable of using a weapon. And a stream of people moving in and out of the church, bells now silent, with the injured. Small pile of corpses already next to the building. Spotted by Houka he came up to Satsuki and tried not to gawk at the woman nervously looking around with her hood down. “Lady Satsuki! The central church has a decent basement along with a large crypt, it's been decided that any non-combatants be gathered inside. Then we can concentrate any wards the priest and myself can sustain to protect the building with. As to direct forces we have roughly eighty men willing and able to fight at our disposal, although realistically about two thirds of them will actually be capable of much in my opinion. Nonon has already taken anyone with a bow up to the bell tower with every arrow anyone could find and Uzu is organizing those on ground level. He says we could hold two or three major roads. Current debate is on whether we should employ the use of dropped houses into the street to try and direct which way the Inquisition can attack from. It would also lock in where our forces could counter attack from though.” “Don't damage the town without significant consent just yet. Where is command?” “Just inside the church. If I may be so bold as to ask a question on the state of a uh certain individual ma'am?” “Ryuko has agreed to help via offense.” Scribbling that down on a hurried note he followed them toward the church. Ryuko's unease growing as they approached the building slowing her steps until a steady hand circled her shoulder and helped nudge her along. Passing through the great metal doors people moving about stopped. Further into the space past another set of doors pews that faced a quartz alter were full of people praying for protection. To the left in a small wing of the building the injured were being attended to. To the right a circle of old men had been arguing over a map laid out on a table. Joining the circle the a hushed silence hung in the air. Open stares all around the building aimed at them. Specifically at Ryuko. The stillness was broken by a pointed finger of the oldest at the table. “I-Imperial... You... An Elf? I-It's- IT'S HER!” “Father Orion if you would please remain calm-” “I'll be calm when I'm dead! Word spread after you disappeared and now we know why, Princess Kiryuin herself? And you brought the she-devil here!? Into the town, the house of Aura itself! Are you mad!? SHE'LL KILL US ALL!” With a roll of her eyes Ryuko tapped Satsuki's arm and responded herself. “Would you just shut up for once? You have actual problems to worry about from your own fucking church asshole. I'm here to help you, you undeserving fucks.” “Calm down Ryuko... Yes I am who you have heard. This is Ryuko, your so called witch. Introductions out of the way do you know what's coming then? Who's trying to slaughter your congregation?” To his credit the old priest bowed his head and placed his hands on the table instead of yelling more. Visibly distraught from the multitude of events happening all at once. “Lord on high preserve us it has come down to this... In all my years I never imagined the weight of The Order would fall on us all. These are good people who have done nothing! They must be here for You, witch-” “No. Harime is likely here because I'm here, to some degree I must apologize for drawing her attentiom. My people found your letter, not the remnants of the Order. The Inquisition only answers to the throne now and Harime is the worst of the lot.” “The Order wants to kill... the heir? W-Why have you brought this madness upon us!?” “I didn't. She is. I'd rather this all have gone as quietly as possible, but that is firmly out of my hands now.” “Quietly? Why did you come here? What have you done!?” “That's a private matter-” “My neighbors, my flock, are dying and I'm standing in front of a heretic in the middle of the Lord's house Princess!” “I needed her in my employ for specific reasons and she's agreed to the terms. She will be out of your hair as soon as we leave after helping you now. Right Ryuko?” “You're making me think this was a bad idea Kiryuin.” “Bear with me and try not to antagonize them.” “That is entirely on them.” “...T-The witch has a name?” “Oh big shocker there! Like any of you ever bothered to ask.” “Your vile ways struck us first!” “As if. I will remove your lungs if you keep talking bullshit asshole.” This could not be allowed to escalate. Before any kind of fight could break out Satsuki unhooked her sheathed sword and slammed the metal end cap onto the stone floor. The sound echoed throughout the building and out into the square to get everyone's attention effectively enough. “Yes, her name is Ryuko. And she is person. She's sharp as a tack, is remarkably pleasant and refined company beneath some rough edges, and she will leave you alone if you leave her alone. Now, collect your wits and hold your tongues because we have work to do together if you want to have any chance at saving your town! She's agreed to selflessly help you in your hour of desperate need even after all the resentment that has fomented between you. I won't ask you to change your perceptions of her in an instant but if you are looking for some all powerful reinforcements in a miracle you got one. And only one. None of us can expect any more so put aside your blind hatred or fear and focus on the job at hand! We will be using all available volunteer forces on the defense of the town and the church, Ryuko has promised to take on the enemy across from our battle lines directly. Any man that thinks they will fair better without her help is welcome to walk out of this town right now and fight alone where they will undoubtedly die alone! Well, ANYONE AMONG YOU!?” Turning in place she studied each and every face visible. Their eyes all blinking away to escape her commanding scrutiny. When the town clock up above in the tower struck eleven the square was still silent. Not a soul moved from where they stood. Not one word of protest uttered. Nervous glances were thrown by neighbors toward friends, business partners to spouses, all looking to see if anyone else would object. Catching a glance of Ryuko herself the woman was staring at her feet with a glowing blush all the way up to the tips of her ears from the unexpected glowing praise of her character. Satsuki broke the silence satisfied. “No one? Good. For everyone who's stayed we will do everything in our combined power to save this town. Now someone get some runners in here and spread the word, do NOT fire upon or otherwise attack the witch, Ryuko! Any who do will be considered a traitor on the spot against the town, your fellow man, and my forces directly as a member of my Imperial command from this point henceforth!” Turning back to the map while her orders were put to motion in a flurry of activity Satsuki put her hands on the table and gave it a good once over. Flat land and no real fortified positions anywhere to defend from. And no idea what Ryuko was going to do. At least with Nui openly wishing to kill her she knew just how the psychopath genuinely felt. It would be prudent to put her down for good if possible with such a chance at open conflict. If only it were so easy. . . . At midnight the town clock struck another muffled chime. Bringing with it a wind that swept through Ironwood from the north that made men stationed at temporary walls shiver. From the unseasonable cold or their nerves they couldn't say for sure. Inside the church and its catacombs hundreds prayed and cried. All hoping to see the morning sun tomorrow. In the tower Nonon and various archers waited. Houka and the priest working on shielding the building from a rain of expected fire nearby. From there she could see a pair of figures out near the edge of town standing on a roof. One the probable source of the cold air surrounded in tiny lights flickering in the distance. Just ahead of the main frontal defense line comprised of the best fighters available a small building with a mostly solid roof at the very edge of town was being used as an observation platform. Satsuki stood there waiting when the wind blew through her hair from behind. Far in the distance the fires had been gathering into shapes, assault formations. But the woman beside her with cloak billowing out toward the field was not studying the enemy as well. Smokey edges of black material around her were releasing tiny white lights with each flap in the breeze. Fingers leafing through a heavy gray tome, as old if not older than the previously spotted one, muttering to herself in Sylv while scanning the pages. But she was there as promised. Book snapped shut and returned to wherever it was she kept them her eyes finally switched to scanning the distance. “This is seriously everyone you could find to fight that?” “A small sleepy town in the mountains is typically not burgeoning with professionals trained and ready to fight wars at a moments notice. Let alone simple foot soldiers to conscript in numbers. It is what it is, so we will make do.” Behind them up the road various individuals comprised the actual line itself. Shields of questionable origin and spears of differing lengths occasionally shaking. Many among them were not sure just what was more terrifying to look at in front of them as a whole. “How many are out there you think?” “Conservative estimates range from three to four hundred. The Inquisition as a whole has around a hundred paladins, three dozen inquisitors, a handful of High inquisitors, and roughly three thousand troops to call upon. As of now we don't know for sure how many of that number could potentially be behind the visible lines. That's also not taking into account their ability to impress other regular legions into service In Aura's name to bring as many troops as they think they could require though.” “...Because of course they can. Fucking clock worshipers.” “We shouldn't be dealing with anything near their full strength if that puts you at ease. Logically this is a small town and Nui likely knows it would be a waste to mobilize thousands of troops to kill dozens of armed militia. Especially if she's doing this without orders from her master. Besides, the inquisition has not fielded anywhere near its full strength anywhere since the-... Crusades.” She noticed the wince on Ryuko's face and hastily apologized for mentioning anything of the sort. But her words were waved off before the hand was used to rub temples throbbing with pain. Her headaches were returning. This was getting annoying as well. “Just go do whatever you are going to do Kiryuin. And don't die on me.” “I shall say the same to you of course. Good luck... Or I suppose it would be better to say...Wind guide your fate to good fortunes, I think?” She turned her head at Satsuki with something of a disbelieving look. Brows raised far up into her hair. “Was I right?” “...Technically not wrong.” “Close enough.” Focusing back on her task with steady breaths she felt out for the unseen currents. The power of life that flowed all around and through everything. Particularly the large swirls she was calling forth toward her from around. She was going to need a lot of it to avoid burning up her reserves too quickly. This was going to be much more than repelling ragtag invaders. This was a return to war. Racked by another static spike into her mind she was getting seriously annoyed by the inconvenient timing of their return. They had started when she was five. Left her alone for a while after coming to the woods. A force bleeding into the fringes of her consciousness at seemingly random. Imprinting sounds and images into so called flesh memory in wickedly painful lances. The Books said they were her soul returning her memories. The Elves called it the madness of the Inheritors. The curse of Fae blood. A Fae soul. Regardless of the truth this resurgence triggered by something was significantly stronger than most anything she'd felt recently and it forced her to pause in her gathering. Forced her to experience the lucid waking dream that overtook her senses of a so called past mortal life. . . . Deep among the static and warped thoughts her vision was always cloudy. The sounds heard muddled among a bottomless well of shouts and pain. The only definite sensations were metal bindings suspending her upright in a blindingly white room lacking distinguishable features until a hidden door opened. Two near identically uniformed individuals then entered carrying items. Their faces too far up to see. “Damn it's only been four days and already in mostly one piece?” “I keep telling you the power of the Inheritors was crazy man. Crazier then they are already. This one is among the especially resilient though. There's a reason the techs spent so much effort on finding them. Hold her still, I'll unhook the fuel line.” Stuck staring at the floor with a limp neck she wore only the barest necessity in clothes she couldn't name but somehow knew every detail of intimately. Her focus dragged more to the small number of hoses shoved through her skin constantly warm from the substance pumped through the loop installed in her abdomen. Then a pair of gloved hands that held her ankles so she couldn't kick. With the aid of a large knife one of the two intruders carved her gut open to pull the blood covered tubes out and let them fall in sloshes still attached at both ends to the ceiling. Her dry throat only able to give a hissing growl of protest into a gag locked on her face as she struggled against the pain. “Damn it hold her! And you shut up. You're pumped with so much power it'll be over in a second. Look, it's already sealing up.” All she could make out beyond tears was the bright white burn of light as her body worked the unseen fabric of power to re-knit flesh. Left hanging she was next doused in water by a hose to wash the mess away into drains hidden in the base of the walls. “Orders came down from command Thirty-seven. You're going right back to the front today.” “Wait we're taking her from the tank to the field without re-orientation?” “Desperate times man, it's either we lose people to the clock-worshippers or send in these poor bastards.” “This ain't right man, this just ain't right...” “None of it is. But keep it to yourself before someone hears that and they put you in the penal battalion for treason corporal. We have a job to do and lives to save. These things can't die so long as we have fuel and if we lose yet another of the ancient collector arrays we're all going to the front to get killed instead. Now help me undo the locks so we can get her to the depot for gear up. She needs to be on a bird in two hours.” . . . Those able to watch the scene swallowed more nervous feelings as the formations deep across burnt fields started to advance. All eyes moved to Ryuko and what she would do in response. Some concerned as she swayed on her feet, mind not quite there for a minute. Her eyes flew open when Satsuki grabbed her by the shoulder and shook her. Another concerned look bringing another tightening in her chest. Brushing the hand off she let the dull throb in her skull go away before fully shaking herself awake. She recognized the scene playing out deep in the field. But she had never seen it. Not with her eyes. Ignoring the sense of familiarity she pulled her small red half scissor out of her chest wrapping. With mental command it unfolded to match the general size of a longsword she stabbed point down into the roof in front of her and started an incantation with her hands on top of its hilt. Smoke rolling off her cloak that chilled the air even further while eyes and hair glowed brightly in the night. “Armor of the Winter Court feast on life and anchor to bone, protect thy champion.” Forced to back away from a swirl of cold black wind that engulfed her Satsuki looked on to spot red lights emerge from within. Form visible when it cleared. It looked more like a jeweler's work than a blacksmith's. It shone like it was mostly made from perfectly cut obsidian or deep black glass. Adorned with glowing red lines and a general faint red glow all over the design was excessively ornamental at best, outright ridiculous at worst. She stood on red high heeled sabatons that formed the basis of tight fitted armored black greaves up to her knees. Further up her legs matching cuisses over black leather followed the shiny angular design up to a pair of red glowing straps that connected them to her waist. Hips protected by a much too low and short fauld constructed of heavy leather pleating just long enough to cover her rear from behind yet open to the front, each outer rectangular section capped at the bottom with a small silver spike. From there the only thing running up her back from red waist band was another red glowing strap that disappeared under a matching dark red cape that covered her shoulder armor and billowed with the wind. Two more red straps around her front connecting to two angular silver caps at the ends of more black leather not so much containing as sitting on indeed shapely breasts leaving almost the entirety from her waist to upper chest completely exposed. Her hands were encased in delicate plate gauntlets black on top and red on the palm. Forearms up to her elbows covered by vambraces that matched the grieves and looked solid at least. Past them more black leather ran under plating that went up to a pair of small angular pauldrons on her shoulders. From breasts up leather and more metal plates formed a fairly decent in comparison to her midriff amount of solid protection for her collar and shoulders still following angled lines all the way up her neck to a full face, one piece, helm that came to a point in front under a red glowing glass filled slit where her eyes would be. The helmet in particular was adorned with a number of flourishes including most notably a pair of long metal protrusions on either side that resembled her ears. Even in it's absurdity Satsuki had to say that the form lit by glowing red lines from top to bottom followed the wearer's feminine curves perfectly. Its parts attached in ways she couldn't see with its complete lack of clasps or locks. Not even rivets. The design was visually impossible to put on or take off traditionally and borderline alien. It was far removed from anything produced by man or anything taken from the elves that now lies in the royal armory. With just a slight push Ryuko jumped from the roof with sword in hand. Form enshrouded in smoke briefly again she landed riding the back of a black smoke steed and charged. Their enemy was not content to just take a charge however and soon the battle for Ironwood erupted when the enemy's own cavalry maneuvered around from a back line to counter such a push back. They were expecting something more significant than only one rider though. They had no idea how much that one rider would do. . . Storming forward down the dusty road her vision was tinted a fraction red but otherwise unobstructed. Far away in the darkness her eyes allowed her to make out individual soldiers unsure of what to make of her behind their metal shields. Just one woman, charging an angry mass of troops who dedicate their lives to hunting people like her and have done so for over a thousand years. While arrows directed at her passed through her smoke steed and pinged off her body's shimmering protective shield harmlessly, she started to think about her present situation. Why the fuck did I agree to this again? Still some minutes away from the enemy's own advance group she allowed the mental tangent continue. Going over today's events as a whole that started with the disruption in her glade. To now rushing toward a mounted platoon of golden knights in defense of people who would never do anything close for her. She needed to be ready for horse riders. But as she physically prepared to start fighting her thoughts just went back to why. She was not getting anything directly out of this. She'd tried the selfless noble bit before and that ended brutally for everyone she actually cared about as far as she knew. Potentially worse the further back she wished to entertain notions of. All she could really think of was that face looking at her after asking her to do the right thing. And that tightness returned in her chest. She went because Satsuki asked her to. Out of time to think further on the subject she was just seconds from impact when her vision filled with another wave of static. Scenes of almost identical description to what lay before her path flashed showing her a charge through ice and snow toward men of similar armor. Similar banners. . . . While falling through the sky she spotted three similarly, though not identically, armored women around her. Each skin bearing suit shimmering with different colors, construction, and lights. Collectively they watched their dropship going down past them. Flaming hull suicide crashed at full speed plowing into the advancing enemy line trailing thick black smoke the whole way. Its power assembly detonating to kill at least a dozen or two more of the enemy as the last hurrah of its two crew. In theory they could have bailed out and lived. But in death the four found actual respect for the pilots. They had fought the enemy to their end instead of running. Just as a soldier should. Ignoring falling debris from it and other such boats being torn up by bolts of energy from below they dodged similar shots aimed at them which pelted the mountainside they landed on in formation. Hitting the ground running their heavy metal boots smashed through the ice and snow beneath them as they turned downward speed into forward momentum toward the enemy. They didn't actually know why they were fighting. Didn't know the strange people they were fighting. They just followed orders. Suggestions to fight and kill from the low-born who had stolen them from their rightful slumber and pointed them at violent targets. Fight as they had done time and time again for as long as any of them could remember. The current targets were significantly easier to individually put down than each other at least. Enemy within range all four called forth their ghostly mounts and drew their swords. Tips pointed forward at a line of cavalry rushing to meet them they started the chants. The first volleys of shots to thin the enemy's numbers. At their call bolt after bolt of power created massive explosions which vaporized platoons of enemy combatants before them in an instant. Holes deep into the line created became their entry points into the gore filled confusion where their blades began a whistling song punctuated by severed limbs. Given form in large swaths of blood. The moves were an elaborate whirling death delivered from a bygone age. Bodies practically immune to the enemy's normal weapons flailed at them desperately in response they could not be stopped. Numb minds uncaring for the splashing red rain and shrieks of terrified death they wrought. . . . Fighting against the pain in her skull threatening to rip her consciousness away temporarily she bit her tongue and concentrated on that pain to keep her anchored firmly in reality. Without thinking though she also readjusted her sword grip to match that in the vision, pointed it forward properly, and started to call up spells. From the fount of life flow into my purpose, force, detonate! Over her gauntlet a red circle formed and from it red bolts of energy rolled down the blade to gather at a single point where red light sparked, matching the glow of lines on her armor from head to high-heeled toe. Two seconds to contact the woven magic following mental command released. A full knight charging at her with his lance aimed for her exposed chest didn't have a hope of doing anything more than register that the woman did something before he and his horse were hit by a bolt of magic that started a chain reaction in his blood. Power amplified by the initial charge both bodies exploded in a blast of red light that vaporized him and the mount, tore the riders on either side apart bone by bloody bone, and forced the rest to back off in shock. Letting her jump through the hole she created in their line and charge the marching infantry directly. Black hooves striking them like warhammers as the construct began trampling bodies into the dirt. When weapons attempted to strike her in return they simply bounced off, wielders carved effortlessly by her magically enhanced blade now fully extended at another mental call and swung from side to side. Horse controlled by her mind she dedicated more of her attention to firing off more spells, five at a time, from the fingers of her left hand. Targets gutted by remotely opened rifts sending organs out of the material plane into the shallow end of the void. She became a whirlwind of violence tearing men armored for war and their horses asunder with ease. Mental static burning within her head melting scraps of scenes of war into her current battle. The harder it burned, the more efficiently she swung. Every eruption of blood fueling her to hit harder, move faster, and lights burned brighter. As she carved her way through the lines magic eventually started hitting her. While the individual insignificant bolts of energy and fire hitting her were nothing to worry about letting them all concentrate on her would be foolish. She knew the technical limits of her armor, knew that she didn't have the same near invincibility that the original had thanks to inferior base materials and her incomplete knowledge of its construction, but so long as she didn't let magic weaves amass to shatter her protective shielding she would be fine. So she circled around to plow back through the lines specifically aiming to kill anyone waving a stone around as more troops focused on her. Which was the plan. Of which she moved into the next phase of. Black barely existent hooves when not crushing flesh and steel were splashing through a field now flooded with blood. Feeling out to the power within it resonated with her call and swirled toward her. She started calling upon another spell while the massive quantity of blood flowed up into her boots to refill her reserves. From the fount of life flow into my purpose... She was going to turn the whole circle of carnage into a red locking surface to trap as many of them by their feet as possible in place, then while they stood useless target them with more mass fractures into the void to destroy their bodies. Until another horse rider blindly charged at her. Woman's higher pitched voice screaming out as she passed wielding a dagger. It was the blonde from before. Ryuko ignored the coat wearing woman as just a nuisance. She didn't expect the short silver blade forced at her to shatter the red disk on her gauntlet, punch through her defense field entirely, punch through her armor, and then slice a deep line clean through her arm in a shower of blue sparks and red blood. Pain flared from where she had been cut clean through shattering her concentration. In an instant her horse dispersed into smoke and she crashed to the ground at speed with the knife embedded in her arm. This was not the worst of her problems though. When her concentration was broken it also severed her from the magic weave she had been carefully constructing around a large area. Unrestrained and unfinished the spell completed itself. Too much power coursed in lines caused them to shift through the air until one by one they overlapped which created looping failure points that kept drawing in any and all available magic to fuel ever more instability. The lines of its flow became so saturated they were visible to the naked eye. The uncontrolled chain reaction burned every ounce of available magic in the air it could until it reached critical mass. Igniting a burst of raw power it detonated in an explosion of red light that set fire to the sky itself to rival the midday sun. In an instant night became a red day and a crack of thunder that resounded for mile after mile became the loudest sound heard by man since The Second Era. Scores of troops around the epicenter were erased in a flash, scores upon scores more killed by the shock-wave that erupted dead center of the enemy line. Even more were flung off into the air injured. Screaming for their lives fearing the end of days. For the lucky ones it would be the end of their lives quickly. For the rest it would leave them crippled and dying to hit the ground where only then they were finally released of their pain for good. Both women caught in the blast as well were sent tumbling through the air propelled through the flying cloud of burning pain, debris, and gore. Only intact by virtue of their magical defenses. . . . Even after only two hours of fighting things already looked grim. Ryuko had gone into the eye of the proverbial storm and tied up a sizable number of troops. Probably including the personal ire of an enraged Nui as they had yet to see her since she turned away from the town. However the inquisition had indeed come to Ironwood in force and several divisions had broken off to attack the town itself directly as per their orders to purge all who stood in the way. Faced with the veteran troops of the Inquisition heavy fighting ensued that slowly but surely forced the defenders all the way back into the town square. Battered, bloodied, and bruised the last ring of survivors stared down the wall of steel and flesh baring marks of the inquisition. Backs almost to the doors of the church itself those few among the defenders who had survived the fight thus far were already at their limit. Four of the two and a half dozen left collapsing from exhaustion or outright succumbing to their wounds even while a stand off was held meters apart. In the distance fire could already be seen burning sections of the town down and casting the stage of their last stand in an ominous orange light. Archers long since out of ammo and things to throw from the tower moving down to ground level to fill in the few gaps in the line they could with backup weapons. Satsuki and her knights had not escaped injury from the melee, shallow cuts marred their once white uniforms with blood and dirt. Leader's own face cut at a cheek from a spear unexpectedly hurled at her. Uzu's attempts to give the line time to pull back and reform time and time again earned him an unknown number of wounds that he ignored to keep standing his ground even now. Even Houka was hit by a number of stray arrows trying to re-apply an un-burning ward to the far end of the roof from the bell tower. They were on their last legs. But she was currently worried about something more pressing an issue overall, what was going on in the field. As if delivered from the gods her thoughts were given answer in the form of a single blast that forced everyone down when the ground itself trembled. From the south the night sky lit up pure, angry, red. Winds more powerful than any storm shattered every surface of glass around them, anything not nailed down sent flying through the air carried by the impossibly large shock-wave. Screaming above the gale Satsuki ordered anyone to take cover. They didn't actually hear her, but they scrambled to get as close to the base of the church as possible in their terror and hunkered down waiting for the unprecedented chaos to end. If it was going to end. When it finally let up she looked out across the square and saw the enemy had fared about as well as they had sitting under their raised shields. Too much to hope for that to have whisked them away. That idea quickly found more merit than she had originally thought possible when a soldier's mangled corpse fell from the sky into a clear area and splattered against the ground with a crunch. Looking up collectively at the sky returning to darkness they saw a cloud of debris and dust higher than the mountains themselves falling back to to the fields outside of town. Even her own jaw fell at the sheer scale of what she was coming to realize was the after effects of a spell. A spell from red light. Ryuko had undoubtedly been the source of that impossibly large explosion. That had been the power of Old magic. Fae magic. The legends spoke of destruction and war on a scale unfathomable. Told tales of power beyond comprehension that destroyed the land in ways inconceivable. They were true. And Ragyo was trying to harness, That. Rising to their feet not one person was sure of what they had just witnessed and experienced. Hardened men of age shook like frightened children. No one knew if that was over. If there was going to be another. Nevertheless the trained troops across from them rose to their feet and returned to their formations. Which was a problem for Satsuki and everyone around her. It was quickly eclipsed by one much more pressing. Her eyes went wide when the probable source of temporary daylight landed between the lines returning to a stand off. Hard. The black, red, and flesh tone form crashed into the stone floor with enough force to shatter an impact crater she then bounced out of. Spinning wildly her body landed and came to a stop some ten meters away clutching her red sword. Even from range it was easy to see she was littered with bloody injuries that sizzled as they healed rapidly in red light. Steam poring out of various places on her armor before it dissolved entirely into smoke leaving Ryuko to lie on the ground under the tattered remains of her cloak. Rolling onto her back she lay there bruised all over, but smiled up at the black sky through grit teeth. “Ryu- Ryuko!” Grunting in pain she shoved her left hand up holding an overly familiar item she had studied on the way down. Nui's knife. Its owner landing similarly to how she had in the street near the opposite line. With the help of a knight armored in gold who came forward from the back of the Inquisition's line half of her hair was filled with blood. Holes and burns sparking in a rainbow of color from failing magical enchantments visible all over what was left of her garb after they had taken the vast majority of the impacts. One of her arms hung limp and broken as she indignantly rose to her feet to scream at Ryuko with none of her usual cutesy manner. “WHAT THE UNHOLY FUCK DID YOU DO YOU BLOODY BIMBO WITCH!?” Pulling herself up to unsteady feet Ryuko paused to hack up some blood onto the cobblestone with a frown. “That's not good... First off that shit was your fault for fucking with my casting. Second this was my dad's and I'm taking it back. And then third I am going to put your ass deep into a grave you crazy murdering- fuck...” She was forced to double over and grab her gut with another splatter of blood dripping from her mouth. “Come on, can't deal with this yet... pull it together.” “You will return that to me this instant so I can stab out every single one of your organs!!” “Stealing is wrong.” “I took it fair and square over a corpse!” “Blow it out your ass!” Knife secured in her storage void thankfully still accessible she forced herself back upright properly. And immediately stumbled forward onto the ground. She managed to get back up to her knees at least the second time and stare bitterly at Nui. Ryuko was done. Satsuki had no more ace in the hole to stop the literal hundreds of troops trying to slaughter every last man, woman, and child in Ironwood. Trying to come up with anything they could do she didn't expect the tap on her shoulder. Surprised to find the pastor who excused himself past her, walked past Ryuko, and approached the other line where he fell to his own knees before the remarkably still breathing Nui. “Inquisitor please hear my plea! This town has been nothing but devout followers of the Lord Aura for as long as it has existed! Why do you come to kill His faithful!?” Another tall man in full golden plate came forward and hefted his sword onto his shoulder. Taking his helmet off to hold against his breastplate. “Who are you lowly man?” “O-Orion, brother. I am Ironwood's pastor, have been for almost fifty years. These people are loyal to Him! They are loyal to the Lord Aura! Why do you seek their deaths!?” “Brother Orion, your flock has been charged with aiding a traitor to Empress Ragyo. And harboring... that... that wretched abomination against mankind! For these crimes you must be purged.” The pastor was begging for mercy and Satsuki could do nothing as whispers circulated the crowd behind her. “They really are here for her aren't they?” “We should just give her to them and live! Her and the witch.” “But what if it's a trap?” Things were going from bad to somehow worse. “B-But brother-paladin we have done nothing but fight to kill that heretic for years! Let the people of Ironwood prove their loyalty-” Tense seconds passed after the paladin turned to Nui abruptly. Woman seething in rage in turn waved over a circle of similarly dressed like her individuals to whisper among themselves. One uneasily staring over at the defense line in front of a church itself. When a judgment was reached the paladin walked back to Orion and two inquisitors pulled out stones to start trying to save Nui's life. “Brother Orion, you wish your flock to be spared?” “Y-Yes! By His name please show the loyal His justice and mercy!” He walked further past the man. Sword raised he pointed it toward Ryuko meters away and yelled out in a commanding voice. “Hear me defenders of Ironwood! If you truly fight to uphold the world's order by Aura seize the traitors and help us kill this witch to end her destructive ways!!” Glancing back Satsuki could see the conflict on the townspeople's faces. They were being offered an out to save their loved ones. Real or not. All they had to do was switch sides against foreign people they really didn't know. Sell them out to the Inquisition. Even after they had just fought and bled with side be side. These people didn't deserve to be forced to make such a decision. Didn't deserve any of this. Nodding her head slowly Satsuki grasped how the situation was developing and looked to her knights who filtered past the defenders to stand with her. Cracking a kink out of her neck she started walking and they followed. Reaching Ryuko they now faced an encirclement of hostiles on all sides that collectively outnumbered the group of five by at least thirty or forty to one. Holding her black blade in her off hand she reached down to help Ryuko up to her feet by the shoulder. Surprised despite herself at how light the woman really was. Which only combined with her overall frail state to fill Satsuki with a deep guilt she channeled into a tightening hand on her sword. She'd put Ryuko up to all of this, she was now committed to defending this woman to the last. “I told you Eyebrows... This is what happens when I help people.” “An I told you so I take it?” She silently nodded against Satsuki's once white uniform in response. “A good guess then.” Ryuko was faring even worse than they were upon close inspection. Heavily bruised flesh noticeably dripping with sweat. Skin glistening in the dim orange lights that danced above them engulfing the town. “You don't look to be in a good condition.” “Yeah well, you are not so pristine yourself right no-ow... Fuuuck...” “Don't suppose you have any ideas?” “Two. The first would be burn up what's left of my blood reserve in the... what's left of the cloak to blow up the town, the valley, possibly the surrounding mountains, and all of us in a blaze of glory that would be told for ages as the last stand of some assholes who made the biggest hole in the ground ever.” “We're trying to avoid dying if possible. I know it doesn't quite look like it but still.” “Whelp... Option two it is then. Give me a minute. If I stay conscious that long...” Reaching into an intact section of dark material she pulled out a silver ring and slipped it on a shaking hand while the troops around them moved to form an actual circle. Including the last few members of the town guard with faces grim and full of their own guilt they swallowed down. Back to back Satsuki and her three knights held their weapons out. Daring the enemy to close in. All four curious when white lights blinked around them while Ryuko muttered to herself in Sylv. Hands doing something under a red circle in her palm. When the wall of swords and spears started closing in she coughed out one last mouth of blood and spoke. “Okay... Everybody... hold on to my hand behind your backs... and literally prepare your assholes, this is could be... rough.” “Why?” “Well Eyebrows... I've threaded more reinforcing lines into the enchantment... so I can overpower the effect without it instantly failing... But it was only originally meant for one person as it was... Maybe two... And it's older than all of you combined... So we might not make it in one piece... Take that as you will.” “Probably dying is still better than definitely dying. You heard the woman people.” Still brandishing weapons at the ready they all followed her instruction to take hold of the frail hand behind their collective backs. The paladin now leading the combined forces realizing something was happening ordered everyone to attack immediately. But it was a hair too late. “R-Ring of Lynnval, I Recall!” Men had to shield their eyes from a bright white light that enveloped the group. When it dispersed only blackened stones and dirt burned from the power were left. The princess, her knights, and the witch of Ironwood vanished without a trace. Leaving the town to its fate at the hands of the Inquisition.
I'm going to say outright I am not happy with this chapter. But after fourteen rewrites (the vast majority of which only between the bit from the Inn to the hilltop discussion basically) I've come to the conclusion that I can't make it better. So here we go.
Yes Ryuko just lit up a tactical blood-nuke outside a peasant village. And everyone having a really bad day. Even Nui and she's technically on the winning side.
Lot of stuff crammed in that amounted to all of around one night that I didn't feel like splitting up. Do tell me if its been fucked up in the process.
Lastly while not plot necessary I decided to have a little fun pulling in different things for names instead of using completely made up stuff. Some might be Easter eggs / spoilers... Or not. Who knows!
Chapter 5: Sanctuary
“No good deed goes unpunished.”
In the beginning there was the creation of a great canvas upon which the gods gave birth to the heavens, stars, and cradle earth. In this perfectly constructed place life was free to frolic among wondrous gardens and vistas. All was good. Over time the creations that lived and breathed grew more and more complex. Divine creations made to outdo all others before them in some regard. Eventually one god crossed the final line. From Gaia's hand the first intelligent life capable of fully recognizing the world for what it was, and the self for what they were, came to be. They were vain perfectly beautiful beings that spent their days as they wished. Did anything they pleased regardless of outcome be it good or ill. They had no care of consequence at all within their minds in that perfect world. They had no rules handed down from above. They were free and unburdened by guilt. They were the First Ones. Life completely and utterly unrestricted. The Fae. As time went on the other gods frowned at these beings and the destruction wrought by their hands. Unchecked and unchallenged by the world wonders crafted carefully by the gods were soiled in a chaos spread by the Fae. Divine works of art torn asunder through the same divine tools that the Fae themselves originated. They could not be reasoned with, they were unstoppable, and they had nothing but scorn for Order. They became the first beings of creation to invent on their own, and that invention was wickedness. Evil. Having never encountered a situation where one's creation overstepped its bounds and interfered with another the gods knew not how to handle such events as they unfolded. They were powerless to even try intervening directly. This lasted until finally one of the gods rose to challenge the complacent Gaia and her Fair children, The great Lord Aura himself. The original creator of order, time, and the heavenly magic used to build all creation itself. From above the heavens the light of life came to nurture all that grows, the tides follow the cycle of the moon by his design to evenly distribute the oceans, and through his design the hierarchy of all natural life was evenly spread around the world. It was this hierarchy the Fae spurned with reckless abandon. Gaia's inability to control the Fae had deeply disturbed his works. His order. So in his first intervention since finishing the blank canvas that was initial creation he split nature's energies into two halves. One of growth and one of death. Flowers would no longer bloom in the snow and trees would no longer lay bare in the great light of summer. All life was affected by this great shift, most importantly including the Fae. By doing this he indirectly fractured them. Faced with internal division they turned on each other without mercy. In the conflict between these beings the worst corruptions of creation were allowed to continue unchecked. The Fae wove powerful spells to combat the other side and this terrible devastation was defended against by even more powerful spells that then required even more powerful attacks to break. The other gods were outraged that He had only made the problem worse. But Aura told them to wait and watch. Patience would be the deliverer of salvation. So they did nothing and waited for the seemingly never ending spiral of greater destruction to run to its natural conclusion. In the field of cataclysmic war they wiped themselves from the face of creation completely. When the world finally stopped trembling under the might of godless calamity calm was achieved at last. Away from the dark corners left scared after being inhabited by the Fae life rose with new strength like never before. Innumerable kinds of fish, fowl, and beasts finally crawled out from the shadows of destruction and grew to fill creation as the god's had intended. Gaia wept for her children. They had been in a pain of wickedness that consumed them for so long only to end with total annihilation. She wished to try again. She wished to give her beautiful children another chance at life, but she could not act so freely without thinking as she had before. No gods could. Aura's righteous word was law. For his success in solving the problem of Fae the other gods conceded to his wisdom in all matters involving the world. She persisted until finally he showed her his compassion. He agreed that if there was balance she could raise her children from the ashes as her final attempt at such complex life. All they had to do was live in harmony with the rest of creation. With great joy a new kind of Fair folk was brought to earth by her hand. Children of the woods formed in Gaia's excessively graceful style they were like rare flowers that walked the land once again. These Elves were fragile as they were beautiful like the Fae before them, and still as wickedly cunning to survive like wolves. In this new world order plants grew from Aura's sun, animals grew off eating the plants and other animals, and the Elves lived in the forests off the animals. This harmony was not to last unfortunately. Eventually the Elves found their roots in direct divine creation and with it the unrestricted magic of the gods to disrupt natural Order. Once again Gaia's children outgrew the balance. For the third time Aura intervened when his patience with the Elves came to an end. He decreed it impossible for such complex life to be in balance with creation if brought about off the scales that all other life operated on. So by his own design evolved a natural final solution to this ancient conundrum. A top of the natural order of survival hardened by successful generations of life. Mankind. The children of the earth both hardy and numerous, able to weather any storm and slay any beast through grit, determination, and skill. A shepherd to finally manage the wilds born from within them. Under his guidance they too grew and shaped the world, but by their own two hands. Ambitions were tempered by the limitations of flesh and hard work as life had always been envisioned. This formed the required element to bring balance back. The natural and unnatural peaks of creation's hierarchy standing at odds with one another. Expansion of one checked by the other. Until the conflicts that arose between them grew too much. These skirmishes became wars over centuries and as the years ground on Man's superiority prevailed in hard earned success after success. As losses mounted the Elves in desperation turned to their wicked roots once again. Unleashing the utter unholy devastation of Fae war spells upon the world once again these Old Ones tried to turn the tide of how the order of nature was progressing, but the Lord's will would not be challenged. The gods demanded an end to the problem, their will would not be stopped. For the fourth and final time Aura directly intervened to protect natural order and its shepherds. From his divine knowledge he directly granted mankind the channeling stones to wield a fraction of his magic to a controlled extent. Human tenacity empowered by the tool of divine intervention itself allowed Humanity to once again push back, and they kept pushing. Fighting for justice under Aura man punished the Old Ones for their mistreatment of creation in righteous fire. With holy armies marching in his name cleansing the world The Elves as a people were burned into dust cast to the wind. Their remnants left scattered to be ordered and purged as Man saw fit when even Gaia abandoned them to maintain the balance of creation once and for all as she had vowed. Never again did divine life rise. Mankind stands as the protectors of Aura's domain and all that is good. Masters of the elements by his divine design. While conflicts among men rise of Man's free will the destruction is never on a scale that could harm all creation as had plagued the world before. Man's compassionate hearts would not allow them to bring The Lord's domain to such ruin. Burned acres would regrow from the nutrients in ash. Cities of stone and timber were reclaimable by nature to crumble back to the dirt when no longer in use. Iron and steel would bloom rust and be whisked away with the wind when abandoned. And finally no single being possessed with seizing power would be able to touch the gods full power again, In death their bodies would feed new life. Thus the world turns onward under Aura and the gods. Or so goes the holy scripture known as the Acts of Aura she had to know by heart like every good little child of Man. The children of Aura. It was supposed to be an absolute truth of the world. How life itself came to be. The foundation of a Church that would bring humanity to salvation from evil wherever and whenever it should arise. But something was... off, about the whole thing when she studied the world of luxury around her. The circular walled in Old District with its red tile roofs was the last remnants of the original city of Kinzan, and the location of the palace. As generations had come and gone the rest of the city beyond white stone walls protecting it had been expanded and re-expanded numerous times. Each generation of construction adding more and more districts until today where it was a city of a million souls. The kingdom beyond now an Empire. Through it all though the magnificent heart remained intact century after century to the present day. It was the East's historical center of human achievement claiming roots as far back as Human civilization has stood. It was those achievements she questioned. The first of them all was within the halls of the palace; the floors are heated by a great engineering marvel. Water from deep hot springs rising up from the depths is captured in a pipe network that runs beneath all the floors, and those of the grand mansions of the district as a whole, to always keep it the same pleasant temperature year round. In the palace's center the water then lets out into an opulent bathhouse of white marble and complicated gold decorations before running into the drains. Collectively the networks were a massive construction touted as a triumph of Man over nature. Yet the building patterns claimed to be an offshoot of old plains style are nowhere to be found anywhere else in the major cities, the Empire, or beyond. Timeliness claiming record of Human civilization also frequently have a number of holes where detailed information that could explain this discrepancy are nowhere to be found. The world as it had been presented to her was cast into doubt. Even the steamy air of the baths itself pushed her suspicions as they held an acrid acidic tinge from sulpher seemingly ominous of past ills from many millennia more than mankind has lived. Admittedly the last one might simply be an invention of her mind that persists in certain situations instead of the cozy comfort steam normally brings. By accepting the possibility that man hadn't created the city her mind logically led to the next question, Then who could have built Kinzan? It was one she could not find a ready answer to. One she quickly learned she was never supposed to even be asking, yet sought out with renewed efforts when all but one of the voices of authority in her life attempted to stamp the inquiry from her mind. Her father once told her that there was more to the world than she could see with her own two eyes. Told her to always seek out the truth. When she asked why he laughed and told her that she was getting the idea. She never got the opportunity to ask him about misgivings with her history lessons. He was assassinated when she was five. Firebombing of the royal carriage by individuals who were then horrifically tortured, executed, and displayed for all to see until the birds were done picking their bones as punishment for treason to the throne. After that life only got more complicated when her sometimes unstable mother went headlong into violent madness. Ragyo lashed out toward anyone and everyone when presented with failure to any degree, lusted over her like a beast, and would spend long hours into the night delving deep into tome after tome of arcane arts. She had no idea how this could be resolved, or what her own mother was doing half the time, but even as a child she knew that something would have to be done to preserve the kingdom and she was likely going to have to be the one to do it. Things only grew more troubling after receiving the results of her own private investigation into the events of that unfortunate day her father died. All signs pointed to the distinct possibility her own mother was the only person who could have orchestrated that murder. Along with many many other deaths in the Empire. She was forced to grow up fast out of necessity. Someone sane had to get a hold of the situation on the ground and keep the Empire running. Bring border regions left to languish for too long in lawlessness back to proper order. Have the power to work against the Court's interests when absolutely necessary. She had to become strong as steel or she would have snapped under the pressure long ago. Particularly when drips of moisture were landing on her forehead while standing in the baths she went to great lengths to ignore Ragyo's hungry eyes upon her nude form. In those moments where she was left bare before the beast lurking in the steam, and plotting to do gods knows what to her someday, she focused on putting her mind to work. She needed to know why the women was obsessed with magic. Why the obsession with any material that could relate to it. Where did that material come from? What was she trying to get out of that material. What forces were working where and to what ends? How could all the deaths beyond typical political backstabbing tie into the situation? Would it lead to more deaths? Did they tie into the situation at all? Why her father would have been so detrimental to the schemes that someone would have him killed. When alone she would try to let herself relax from the mountains of stress for at least the length of a bath. But even then while in the Empire's seat of power she would end up staring at the dazzling patterns of gold and crystal in the ceiling above and think. She studied how the clear crystal lengths created an unbroken chain filled with light. Wondered how and why it slowly pulsed like it was breathing at all hours of the day. Like the gold accents were more than just decoration. . . . She woke up with an excessive amount of dull discomfort all over. The most annoying being a slow steady splash of cold drops on her forehead every few seconds. Raising a sore arm up she wiped her face and rolled over to get out of the water's path. Forcing eyes open she found herself on some old wood smooth from wear. Beyond her shadow the space was dimly lit from above. Going through a checklist the first order of business was getting her hands in front of her face to inspect them for damage. Dirty but otherwise intact she looked around to judge what shape her knights sprawled out across the floor were in. Forcing herself up to a sitting position among the group she let her vision stop spinning before calling out to them in a dry voice. “Status report.” Three voices eventually responded in varying groans while she used her canteen's water to flush the dryness down her throat. Uzu managed to add a “Kill me now,” before his head dropped back down to the floor with a solid thump that was bound to make him feel worse. Her next check was to find her weapon, hand going to her belt the familiar feel of Bakuzan's hilt eased her nerves some. Fully awake she could hear drops of water finding their way through the wood around and a muffled rain in the near distance. Unknown location. Questionable health state. Priority, find Ryuko. They were in a compact wooden room and their Fae life saver was nowhere to be seen among them. Shifting to get up something twinkling on the walls caught her eye. Staring hard at the dark surfaces she found gold patterns were running from floor to ceiling embedded in the wood inlaid in ways that looked Elven in origin. Following lines up she found the light was coming from multiple clear crystal pipes that ran along the upper walls that glowed with a flowing power of unknown origin. Craning her neck to look straight up the ceiling itself was filled with even more of the odd familiar work, and a striking round centerpiece that raised ever more questions about everything around them. “Houka... Houka have you seen this?” He rolled out of his fetal position and straightened his glasses to look upward himself at the call. Eyes immediately drawn to the gold and crystals in the cracked ceiling beams that lit up occasionally with slow pulsing light waves like water ripples. Not receiving any kind of intelligible response from him after his jaw fell open with raspy astonishment Satsuki left him with a pressing need to find the missing member of the squad. Straps and buckles for pack released she got to her feet unburdened and stretched out those sore muscles. Any and all of her possible wounds checked in the process she was satisfied to find her skin intact under now slightly roughed up uniform. Issue deemed low priority enough she pushed deeper investigation aside for later, ordered her troops to get up, and tested the floor planks. Judged solid enough she made her way toward a door out to a hallway in similar state of mild disrepair. Deep in a wooden structure she was going to start a systematic sweep of the place to find a way out until her foot slid across a small puddle of splattered black liquid. Kneeling down to study it the heavy smell of iron clued her in to it's identity as blood, the probable source of the liquid sending her into a sprint down the hallway. No, NO!! Following a spotty trail of dark ichor into a stairwell she went up a flight of damaged steps before climbing out a hatch open to the outside world where a light afternoon rain was well underway, and a view that took her breath away halted her in her tracks. Walking over to a side railing the scene was impossible. At some point in its life the at least fifty meter long broken ship she was standing on had suffered an ill fate leaving its dark cracked remains in a rocky grave surrounded by forested hills as far as the eye could see. Mountains could be seen in the near distance. Far above the sun's rays were bleeding through murky clouds to cast down on to the sea of greenery. Forcing herself to ignore the obvious question of how there was a more pressing issue to resolve. Scanning the deck from where she stood for more of the trail there was no sign of any masts, nor any other means of propulsion at all. Along the length of the thing beneath the wear of the elements were beautiful wood working flourishes of a pleasure ship though, and simple sections of far lesser quality telling of rushed repair jobs. Eventually she just went to a last set of stairs leading further up to a raised deck at the very back of the ship where she hurried once again. Ryuko was on the floor leaning against the railing and looking toward the sky while sitting in a pool of black tinged maroon lit by a sunbeam. The last traces of magic lights around her skin and upraised left hand whisked away with the wind before it fell into her lap. Her voice was strained and back to being gruff. Her right hand limp at her side covered in black flaking char and her own blood. But, she was still alive. The mission could still be salvaged. “What are you doing out here!?” “Dying. Recharging the hard way... and it's not working. Stupid flesh just can't take the strain, blood won't hold enough power to do anything on the scale I need... Fuck... Are you assholes finally awake? I get having your insides moved through space can be a little rough the first few times, but it was just a simple point to point direct spatial shift of all things... Human tenacity my- ow, ass.” Verifying her fears Ryuko's state brought the knot of worry from the town square back to the forefront alongside far more frustration than she would normally allow in her mind. She slowly sat down on the wet deck facing her. Once grand cloak was now nothing more than a tattered leather mass failing to stop the rain from rolling down her cheeks and bangs. Once flawless skin now pale from blood loss and littered with heavy deep purple and orange bruising from the neck down. Right hand in particular under the black flakes being taken by the wind bore a deep dark scar that looked like it had been split to the elbow, burned back together, and was still bleeding profusely in spots. The cloth that once adorned that wrist now nothing more than ruined rags completely soaked and siting discarded on the deck. Frowning mouth dribbling more of what was evidently Elven blood onto her chest every time she spoke tinging the off-white rags there into dark red tones. No, no, no... damn it Harime... She has hours, maybe. All this time searching for her... All for bloody nothing? Have we been doomed to fail? It was a small relief when Ryuko looked down with tired eyes to study her in return. At least her face had been spared the damage that afflicted the rest of her form. Elven teeth bared when she grimaced and grabbed her bleeding wrist. “Anything- fuck... Life threatening I miss?” “Miss? What do you mean? You don't mean you- On me or-... You healed us?” “Oh no, I mean in the fucking clouds! Yes you, idiot.” “You did that while in your current condition?” Ryuko turned her head to the side and answered in a low tone. “Most of you were cut up all over and two were bleeding to death. The fuck was I supposed to do, sit and watch?” Even after everything she's been through, including because of us, she would still see us well? But her own heavy injuries remain? “Self proclaimed as someone who won't help others, but you still help us after getting burned rather heavily?” “I-...I want what I'm owed! Can't... Can't get it if your dead...” It was possibly the least convincing argument she had ever heard in her life. She had been surrounded by the best liars in the world for most of her life, but still. Even while filled with heart sinking dread of immanent failure she almost chuckled at the lightly sputtered admission, force from her lungs came out of her nose with mirth. So much for the Fae being the literal embodiment of selfish evil. “I suppose a sincere thanks for the medical attention is in order either way. Though if I may you look-” “I'm not dead yet. Getting there, but not yet... ow, shit.” . . “Could both of you get up? Monkey you were told not to drink so stop bitching, and dog stop obsessing over nothing in your notebook like usual.” Nonon was the first of the three to her feet. Having survived the battle relatively unscathed she figured it was up to her to drag them out into proper lighting to patch them up before Dog could use his staff to actually fix them. Dropping her pack onto Houka's protesting gut while he continued to stare up and scribble away with a pencil she dug out a roll of bandages and knelt down to get Uzu on his back. “Come on muscle brain where does it- hurt?” “Everywhere.” Picking through the holes in his clothes she frowned. The white cloth was obviously stained in multiple places through multiple layers from beneath from the dozens of piercing wounds he took in that cluster fuck, but no matter how vigorously she searched there wasn't a scratch on him. Turning around she kicked her own bag off Houka's chest where he had left it to continue drawing the ceiling in a book she plucked from his fingers and tossed aside carelessly. “Hey!” “I'm being serious roll over for a minute you were hit three times in the back of your arm I saw it happen.” “But the ceiling is-” “Now Dog!” Forced onto his stomach he retrieved the notebook while his right arm was wrenched up behind his back. Once again the sleeve bore the holes and dried blood, but again not a trace of injury on his skin. Releasing it and letting him get back to his frantic drawing she looked around in disbelief. Spotting arrows in a pile by the wall a slight black char flaked off from the heads on her hands when she picked them up, but they were otherwise completely usable. Which should have been impossible if they came from Houka. They were designed to break off inside the wound after striking their target so they couldn't be reused. “How in the fuck? Dog, whatever it is you're doing stop and tell me what is going on. Uzu is only hungover, you're completely normal- fine, and I'm losing my mind here.” Tossing one into his lap he was going to throw it back but stopped to think. He had been injured in retrospect. Finally putting his book away for later he sat up to study the arrow. “Definitely Imperial standard issue. Oak shaft, iron head unbroken? Burned? Not burned the fletching is intact yet creosote on the surface? No. This is... Burnt blood? The others?” “All the same in a pile of the junk. Did you do anything while we were blacked out?” “No... I was wounded, now I'm not? Muscle soreness? I was up after Lady Satsuki and I would assume you two the same. Did she do something?” “Satsuki didn't get that far in magic tutoring, too busy with everything else, she wouldn't know any advanced white magic. Especially not to the extent I'm seeing. It's like nothing even happened.” “High class casting beyond even master level results... Elven class? Ryuko!” “Doubt it, she looked like a fucking wreck last night.” “Nothing else would explain the situation, unless it's an effect of the teleportation? Would still be her doing.” “Where did she go by the way?” “Probably what Lady Satsuki went looking for. Considering what she survived initially and a current lack of corpse I wouldn't worry. Our master swordsman could be a different story however.” Managing to sit up Uzu dragged himself over to a wall to lean against it before emptying his canteen into his throat. Mentally going down a checklist from head down while trying to wake up he cracked his neck when he realized he was intact. “Are you telling me she has a way to fix you good as new without even waking you up and she's hotter than a summer tent in the southern regions? Damn, can we have like ten of her? I'll take six... Or give her six if you know what I-” “Monkey are you for real right now!? You don't even have five you pig.” “Oh come on! You're honestly trying to tell me you wouldn't try a piece of that? Houka back me up here. Even in elf standards she's pretty damn top tier, right?” “Uzu I would strongly suggest you stop whatever fantasy your thinking of letting out of your pants.” “Really guys!? Dude have you never been with an elf? Actually have you ever done it with anyone? Wait no, there was that bar in-” “Uzu first off she's beyond Elf, second she is far far too valuable to quite literally fuck around with, and third I would duck.” “Huh?” He howled when Nonon cracked him over the head with her bow after finding it in a corner. Rubbing the fresh bruise on his head exacerbating his hangover he barely caught Satsuki's pack when she threw it into his lap. “What was that for!?” “Being a perpetually horny sack of dicks. Get up and stop trying to nut up everything that moves for once you garbage.” “It's not my fault chicks dig war stories, I kick ass, and I dig chicks. Everybody wins! Or is this you saying something?” “The fuck are you insinuating?” “That somebody is getting a ditch itch for the witch. Look I get it! If you want a shot at her I got no problem dueling for the right to first crack-” “Monkey!!” “What? It's fair.” “Listen you-... You didn't see what she was doing out in those fields. She's not another home grown bitch from the sticks, behind that pretty face she's a rampaging monster. The explosion going off was just a finisher to the gory lit-up hell going on out there that killed at least a company or two.” “So she threw some lightning around? Big deal-” “She was carving up the hordes of battle hardened Legionnaires like fruit salad! You know, the same assholes that gave you trouble when you were just fighting them a dozen at a time. I'm telling you this for your own good for once because I don't think you'll just get a slap on the face for hitting on her. Don't even think about getting in that crazy skirt Uzu.” “...Shit using names? Don't tell me you actually care.” “Listen idiot I fucking warned you. If she stabs you in the dick you're on your own. If she can find it that is.” “It's the motion of the ocean not the size of the swell.” “Just get the fuck up or I'm hitting you again. That goes for you as well Dog. What are you even doing?” “We experienced teleportation Nonon, teleportation! Do you have any idea just how fundamentally changing this is to the study of magic!? Instant or near instant travel across distance! This is- I don't have words to describe how important this could be! This thing above us is in line with many possible Elven constructions. If it is a device created for the purpose of this magic then it must be studied with the utmost scrutiny! Imagine it, able to move between Honnouji and the capital in hours, minutes, or seconds even! The ability to spread ideas and information so fast it- This would change everything!” “Oh for- Monkey.” “Way ahead of you.” “What are you two doing- no, stop! You can't take me yet!!” . . Sighing Satsuki got back to business. Instead of dwelling on the thought of hoisting Harime's head on a pike she set about checking her pockets for anything useful. So long as Ryuko could survive the trip and read the material the mission would be a success. Too many innocents had already died for this whole trip to be in vain. Finding nothing to provide medical service with she took to tearing off strips of her outermost tunic and held out her left hand expectantly. “I'm sorry. Again I never intended for a war to break out in the process. Never wanted to drag you into the politics of my life-” “Well, you did.” “If I could have Nui out of my hair I would jump at the opportunity. I'm sorry. All I can promise is a report to her master of her most recent and most blatant transgression and a wistful hope of someday bringing the woman to justice.” “The bitch is dying the next time I see her... Are you just gonna sit there or are you gonna fucking do something?” “I will do anything I can, give me your hand.” “...I can't.” “Why not?” “I. Can't.” With another sinking realization she looked down and saw faint twitches in Ryuko's fingers and shoulder. The arm was too damaged to function. Grimly she reached into the mess and got to work bandaging what was left of Ryuko's right arm together from knuckles to elbow. “Have you healed your own ails at all?” “...There are three ways to do it. First is gone because my armor is now ruined completely after taking the force that would have killed me otherwise... Second won't work because the damage is too extensive... The third takes actively doing and that's something you're never supposed to fuck with on yourself unless in stable condition, or on the verge of death, because any fuck up is a hundred times worse to fix than straight injury... It takes concentration to not screw it up normally. Trying to distinguish what goes where, what is in the vessels, surrounding tissues, lymphatic system, and so on while distracted is... Sayzaswoohigos... Unwise.” “Can this be healed?” “I... Elven flesh, I don't know. If nothing has been outright destroyed completely then maybe.” “Houka could give it a try. He knows some restoration arts and I'm sure he could do some good for you-” “Fuck no. Not that. Anything but a blind surgeon. I-... W-We did n-not accept the aid of the field medics, they were clumsy and brutish in their mending... I would never entrust even a low-born to work out any of that. Let alone a primiti- Gah!” . . . She was being dragged toward stone structures under the protection of a great clear blue dome of energy. A sword hilt was jutting out of the side of her stomach between ribs and pelvis. Her muscles were dead from exhaustion necessitating the two silent armored forms that carried her off a boat and forward across the stone dock by an arm each. The procession was halted by a pair of low-born strapped with bags who pulled out some medical supplies and told them to set her down. They dropped her. Rolling to her side the pain from within the wound was preventing her from relighting her own red shield but at least the audible sizzle of automatic repair to her insides was slowly working to heal it. The two medics attempted to bandage her as she was but she punched one of them when he tried to touch her. “Shit! What are you doing we're trying to help you!” “I told you they were fucked in the head. Listen lady your own strange healing process thing is drawing your own damn blood to fix the hole as far as we know. Your body cannibalizing itself isn't solving the problem! We need to get you on intravenous and an operating table NOW!” They stopped trying to work when a pair of white armored hands pulled them off her and shoved them away roughly. Staring at each others visor no words were said. None were needed. The woman still visibly healing her own bruises nodded her head once before planting her heel on the hip facing up and bent down to grab the sword hilt. Without warning or preparation she just tore the blade free of the wound in a shower of blood that made the medics cringe. Casually discarding the blade without a care of the writhing body below she took a knee then punched a white gauntlet straight down into the gore with a squelch. From the hole she pulled out a crystal arrowhead pumping out a nauseating power disruptor pulse in between blood soaked fingers. Crushing the thing into sparking dust with shaking disgust she used her other hand to cover the wound. In seconds a blue light fired up from within healing the damage like it was never there. The smell of burning flesh was too much for the medics and one of them turned away from the scene to retch. Testing her mobility from the ground she clasped arms with the white gauntlet. The woman had always been reliable. Pulled to her feat she left the disturbed medics behind to catch up to the other members of the squad heading back to the station. Nervous troops sent to collect them like normal were ignored. It had been two weeks since they had been deployed into the combat field and had been fighting nonstop since. Normally a relief team would have come to extract them within days at most. Taken them back to the station to refuel. Reaching the doors to the main facility guards stood in their way, she punched one aside while the woman in white to her left knocked out the other. Fighting a war with no idea what was going on was annoying. Being stolen from their eternal rest was annoying. Being treated as a weapons platform instead of people was annoying. Being left to suffer and fight for weeks was unacceptable. For the first time since the reawakening they were angry. Steadily marching in formation through the stone halls in full activation low-born civilian staff and troops alike panicked and ran for cover before them in fear. Approaching a large set of doors armed guards tried to threaten them with spears. Spears. Completely ignoring the ineffectual weaponry they barged right in and interrupted a meeting of everyone they figured was the leadership of this war. Zeroing in on the one individual they recognized the most who oversaw their deployment orders they shoved everyone trying to stop them aside. Two pinned the woman nearly frightened to death to a wall to hold her there so a black and red helm could stare her in the face. They very rarely ever spoke to their handlers, but today the action was deemed warranted. “We will fight your war against the primitives Low-Born. We will be the tip of your spear for that is what we know how to be, and we will do what we inevitably came to do best. We will fight for you, but we will not SUFFER for you. If you think us as mere deployable automatons to toss into indefensible positions and wait to see who or what steps out victorious AGAIN, we will end you children without a second thought! And before you think you can get away with this remember why YOU needed US YOU PATHETIC CURS!” Letting her armor return to its normal state of fabric and fine metal mesh layers she spit on the woman's shoes before turning on her heel to leave with a swish of her sleeves. Group following suit plates and exposed skin melted in smoke to become the swaths of luxurious material that made up their colorful dresses and hooded robes while heading for the collector. Heels still angrily striking stone in a rhythmic clacking wholly unique to their own warriors. The Huuminsah were actively developing ways to fight them. Wound them. They needed to recharge eventually with such a heavy shift in the conflict coming, low-born outrage be damned. . . . She hunched forward grabbing her head with her free hand. Spike of pain ripping through her skull and rolling down her spine as the static roared into more than she could process. For just a moment it was as if she felt the full weight of the madness trying to dump into her mind while conscious. It was excruciating. “Are you sure you're well enough to not be in the latter category? Field medics?” The question went ignored while Satsuki continued working and tearing off strips of white. So long as Ryuko was breathing she was at least sure the woman was still alive. Eventually finished she let the rain wash her hands clean of blood. Wiping bangs plastered to her forehead out of the way she tried to get Ryuko up out of the mess. Arms slapped away the stubborn woman attempted to do it herself without help. After three failed attempts to pull herself up by the slippery smooth wood railing she stopped pushing those helping hands away and let herself get hauled up to her feet where Satsuki ducked under her left arm to shoulder her indignant mass. “I know Elves-... er, Fair folk in general? Are supposed to be light on their feet, but to be this light can't be normal. Or is that too broad a generalization? Are there significant physical differences between-” “Shut up. Yes it's normal to be a fragile little shit. I'm enough to be healthy, and plenty strong enough to kick your ass without breaking anything. Let go.” “You can't even stand let alone walk. I feel like I'm just stating the obvious but I must inform you that no, in your present condition you cannot. You are critically injured, anemic, and probably dehydrated on top of everything. You need serious medical attention!” Slipping herself out of the hold Ryuko unsteadily dodged an attempt to grab her and caught the railing with her good hand to keep herself upright. Her right arm still limply dangling. “Fuck off, I've been through worse- FUUU!” Releasing the wood to grab her head again another spike of rusty nails rolled through her spine that sent her into a wild coughing fit hacking up blood. Catching her before she could fall either onto the deck or worse overboard into the rocks Satsuki managed to overpower her with a hold from behind and kept her from thrashing until the fit passed. “Ryuko what is wrong!?” “It's back and it hurts... Get off... Get off me!” “Not when you are a danger to yourself! Ryuko?” Her head fell forward as her legs gave out. Dragging her away from the edge Satsuki laid her down to start slapping her cheek. “Ryuko? Ryuko!?” Kneeling down she bent over to try and listen for a heartbeat, breathing, anything. She sighed in relief when Ryuko coughed herself back into alertness. “Now you're passing out.” “No fucking shit.” “Save the sarcasm we need to get you to a doctor and we need to do it now. Where are we?” “North. Far north... Lynnval.” “Lynnvay? What?” “The boat. Lynnval. She's an old girl that got pressed into service as a... uh... fuck what would the word be... Cargo hauler troop transport thing, something like that, during the war that ended the Second Era. The... avionics are fucked, her spine was smashed into pieces on the crash landing that killed the crew, the lowest deck is completely destroyed, but the old power assembly core still works. Keeps the lights on and the uh transference array working so long as the... Fuel tanks still have some left to give.” “...Elven magic?” “Machines. They built it, but they didn't design the shit. No. They just copied us. Took everything they thought was useful and used it after we were gone... They were animals among animals. Feeble... mortal. They didn't figure out being civilized until after we were long gone... And even then when they forcefully pulled us back from the mirror they had the nerve to call US weird.” “...We?” Ryuko snapped her mouth shut. Looking straight up she studied the clouds again with a frown. Annoyed at the rain. Annoyed that her armor that could fix this mess had been destroyed by her own fuck up. Annoyed at the persistent questions probing her from this confusing human. “This hasn't been the first time you've spoken about the topic in such a way. Ancient relic? War stories? You never did elaborate where your appearance comes from. If not blood then where does it come from? What is an Elven Nymph? From the way you make events sound, it's as if you were there.” “Can we not?” “You almost accidentally killed yourself. I need to know what is going on.” “Look... We, Fae, we're not- We exist beyond the flesh and live partly within the weave of life itself okay? The hair the eyes it's all a manifestation of flesh taken form for a soul. If that's true. Just ignore the... they pass on their own.” Staring down at Ryuko's face she carefully reviewed every one of their short discussions, pieced together the odd remarks, the few fits of incoherence, and tried to make sense of it. The only possible explanation making her doubt her own sanity. There was a way for Ryuko to know a dead language so well, how to cast the old war magics so easily, and how she would be so capable of fighting an army while so young. She would have to have been around when there were teachers. But that's... impossible. That would mean she's over... No. Focus. “The clouds are bad, heavy storm is coming soon and we need to get into cover. Where are the other idiots?” “I- I ordered them up. They should be with us soon. Forget the weather though, you-” “Want to get out of the rain before it becomes a storm.” “But-” “Damn it not now! Later... It fucking hurts.” Gripping her head again Satsuki didn't push her. There were details in play she was obviously not privy to and she was hopefully learning fast enough to adapt. She asked if a suspicion was correct though. “Fae soul and Elven blood are close enough to let the amalgamation that was you live, but the disconnect is hurting you. You've said you shouldn't be here would this be why?” “...The low born called Inheritors insane for a reason.” “Would there be a cure? A way to lessen the effect at least.” “Are we really having this discussion?” “Couldn't hurt-” “It fucking does.” “It could help?” “...I don't know. No Inheritors ever lived to old age, the norm was dying young... I've made it this long and well, look where that's got me.” That was the last thing she wanted to hear. More bad news and reasons to worry. It left her with no idea what to even say. Staring at each other for a minute Ryuko just closed her eyes and grabbed at her chest when it felt tight again. The wait for the others was short at least. A pair of figures dragging a third came up to the surface to join them. Nonon releasing one of Houka's arms rushed up after spotting them and slid across wet wood to take up a position opposite Satsuki over the bloody wreck of a woman on the deck. “Satsuki- Holy shit, is she dead?” She protected her face with an arm when Ryuko spit blood at her for saying that. “Fucking ewww, why the do you bleed black!?” “Keep in mind she's not a normal patient Nonon, as you can see though she's still hanging onto life by a thread. Sitrep?” “We have our kit, everyone's sore as hell, Dog's losing his mind trying to go back down to draw the walls or something like a loon, and we're somehow missing multiple wounds.” “Good enough. You can thank her for the medical situation.” “Shit.” “Is there a problem?” “Yeah, dog was right.” “Nonon.” “I kid! A little. Speaking of care what am I looking at?” “Nothing beyond a wrap trying to stem the flow from her arm.” “Okay. Wake up Queen of the woods, how bad are things?” “Fucking... peachy.” “Looks like it, losing blood inside and out. Alright new bandages, ointment, painkillers- Wait, Elf, I have no idea if anything will actually work... DOG GET YOUR ASS UP HERE!” Swinging pack off her back she tore into multiple pockets and passed various things to Satsuki so they could replace the makeshift bandaging with proper ones while Uzu shoved Houka up the stairs enough for him to realize there was a situation that required his attention. Rushing over he knelt down next to Nonon to assess the damage, she yelled at Uzu when he tried to join the circle. “Oh no pervert stay the fuck over there!” “Ma'am she's being ridiculous.” “Find a way off the ship, Nonon concentrate.” “Dog anything toxic to her?” “In the aid kit?” “Yeah.” “You're asking me?” “DOG!” “I don't know I've never studied pure Elf biology! It's not like that was an option back in the college!” “No risks. Nonon nothing internal we can deal with a skin rash if it happens, Houka try to close this hand up before it splits in two.” Pulling staff from his back Ryuko looked at it and went ballistic trying to scramble away. “NO NO NO NOOOO!” “Ryuko hold still and let us help you! Nonon!” “On it!” “TAKE THAT SHIT AWAY-AHH!!!” With two women pinning her down Houka was able to place the stone over her arm. Calling forth the necessary spell to start knitting the wound together her yells became an ear piercing shrill shriek loud enough to echo out into the woods around. She passed out from the pain as flocks of frightened birds took to the sky by the hundreds. . . . She woke up feeling like death rolled over. Smelling sweet smoke and hearing the crackle of a small fire among a jumble of low voices she fought the lead weight of her limbs and sat up from where she lay on her back. Trying to crack her stiff joints she found her right arm non-responsive and strapped into a sling around her neck. In the fog of being half awake she got a satisfying crack from her neck. Rubbing an ear she must of rolled on in her sleep she started trying to get out of the lumpy bed when she was assaulted by questions. “Awake? How do you feel? Is your arm better? How are your bruises tending, I chose not to touch them as the strain could be enormous and I don't know your constitution, I was worried when you passed out from the hand procedure. Are your ears sensitive? Does your hair always hold a candle's glow?” Startled by the male voice bombarding her from just inches away she flew back into a wall, opened her eyes, and let loose a wild shot from her outstretched palm. “FUCK!” “Get down!” Satsuki tackled Inumuta off his chair when Ryuko yelled. The red shot of energy shattered the wooden seat into a cloud of debris, some landing into a fire pit in the middle of the room, the rest sailing clean across the dark log cabin into the far wall that cracked outward from the impact. When the dust from ceiling beams finally settled Nonon was the first to poke her head out from cover under a table against a wall. “Okay I know four-eyes is annoying, but you don't have to bring the roof down!” Getting up out of their suddenly employed hiding places Uzu went to inspect the wall. He was unable to pull the wooden chunks out of it in amazement while Satsuki got off the floor and quietly ordered Houka to get up and never do that again. “But-” “Houka Inumuta I need you alive, that's an order.” “Y-Yes ma'am.” Righting the surviving chair of two she set it down next to the wooden bed-frame layered in various tarps and spare cloths, sighed, and gave Ryuko a visual once over waiting for the woman to calm down. “What... What the fuck Kiryuin.” “I will apologize on his behalf for his poor bedside manners. Are you feeling any better?” “Where...” “There was a wood ramp off the Lynnval that took us on a path up to an overgrown campsite overlooking the area. The place has been abandoned for some time by the looks of it, but we were able to set up in the largest solid structure without much issue.” “The research camp.” “I take it you know where we are. The storm rolled in heavy and it's already dark out so we planned to stay the night. Again I ask if you feel better. Any problems?” Rubbing her forehead she crossed her legs under herself and tried to wrap herself in the remains of her cloak. “I feel like shit.” “Feel... likely expletive. Poorly? Unfortunate, but anything else might have been too much to hope for.” Looking up from her lap Ryuko stared at her in disbelief. “How did I get here?” Concentrating hard Satsuki's eyebrows furrowed as she put a fist under her chin. Her lips soundlessly moving until she pieced together a response. “I carried you on my back while you were unconscious.” Either she had taken a blow to the head or Kiryuin was actually following her. Satsuki explained herself in her silence. “I told you I was interested in the material Ryuko. If Sylvan is your default language, and that's highly likely given who you might be, I will make the effort and learn as needed.” Taking stock of herself Ryuko pulled out her water skin to take a drink. That damn tightness was back after firing off the blast. She had burned power she realistically could not afford to waste so carelessly right now. She needed it to heal. The blood reserve was exhausted, her own blood must be nearly empty, and it would take hours of concentration to draw from the air. The fact she woke up at all at least meant she was beyond the reach of death, for now. “That... That's needed not- not needed.” “Sivdinhos Rahnuuhosyoe Gossivvalzasshegos, The offer stands.” “...We'll see Eyebrows.” “As you wish. My questions?” “Think the hemorrhaging stopped. The damage has been done though.” “Any idea how long it will be until you're back to one-hundred percent? Two, three weeks?” “...Weeks? Weeks Kiryuin!? This shit? Months. Minimum. When fall rolls in it could be sped up but until then-” “We don't have months. We need to get back to the Empire and soon.” “Tough shit Kiryuin, I'm fucked. As a whole you're all also fucked. I don't know how fast your ass heals but this bullshit isn't a paper-cut. I want the shit I was promised too, but facts are facts. If we started right now no one would survive the trip over the mountains. And even if we did that road leads right back to Ironwood, which is probably a smoldering pile of ash full of angry priests right now.” “Then we find another way. We have to. Where are we?” “I couldn't tell you the name of it now... It'll be different though for sure, so useless. You wanted to know where I came from? We're a few hours out from a town. Largest port city for a long ways along the northern coast in both directions.” “A port might do.” Somewhere up above the roof thunder rolled signaling the continuation of the storm outside. The cabin's solid wood door and shuttered windows rattled lightly in the wind, but stood firm enough that they could collectively expect the protection from the elements to hold at least until morning. Giving Ryuko some space Satsuki and her knights picked out clear spots around the cabin, unpacked bedrolls, and settled around the fireplace to determine how long their supplies could last. “Could you stretch them Uzu?” “I'm sorry Lady Satsuki, but we never got the chance to refill on grub in town. With what's left we can have a watery stew dinner tonight and that's it. Unless someone volunteers to slog it through the thunderstorm all night to whatever place she mentioned is nearby that's what we got.” Sitting under her hood Ryuko studied them as they went about whatever tasks they did. Pink and blue bickered while attempting to mend clothing items previously hung up to dry. Satsuki sat perfectly still staring into the fire while she boiled water in her metal tin. And evidently green was a cook, tending a metal pot taken out and suspended over the fire on a makeshift frame it was filled with a number of things from their bags that filled the space with a meaty aroma. Before she knew it she slowly got up off the bed groaned through leg stretches and warily moved over to the fire. Taking an open space between Satsuki and Nonon the group all looked up at her before going back to their tasks. She couldn't help but be mesmerized by a long ladle lazily swirling around the bubbling pot. Bit her lip when the wood would come up from below the surface with flecks of spice, pepper, and salt crystals still dissolving clinging to it. Things she could only bitterly dream of missing for so long. She didn't even register the sound of the cook announcing that dinner was served. She watched as one by one metal bowls were pulled out and filled full with the food. Until the last was scraped out and it was all gone. She was devastated. On the verge of tears her head bent forward. She should have known better than to grow attached to the prospect. She wasn't one of them. She only realized her name was being called when her shoulder was poked. Looking up Satsuki was holding two tins and frowning at her. “Take it already.” Looking down at the thing with a spoon handle sticking out she still didn't fully register what was going on until Satsuki shoved it into her grasp and left it there to turn her attentions to digging into her own bowl. While everyone else started eating she just looked down at it. She wanted it, needed it, but she couldn't just take it. Could she? No. Putting it aside she reached into an intact section of cloak and to everyone's surprise pulled out a sizable cloth sack from nowhere. Undoing the knot on top with difficulty, having only one hand working was a pain in the ass, she retrieved a loaf of bread still soft and warm as the minute it had been put there she bit and held in her mouth. With great hesitation she shoved the rest of the bag to Satsuki. While it was investigated she ate both. Sir Oinken wouldn't get a conversation today, her throat already hurt from all the talking. Given the bag from nowhere Satsuki set her bowl down and pulled out the contents so the group could see it. “Bread? Fresh bread? Where did you get this? When did you get this?” “Sivrahwoozas.” “Town? Ironwood I would guess. A nice surprise. Thank you.” Once again unresponsive they let her be so long as she would eat and shared the rest of the loaves among themselves. . . . The following morning came after the rain clouds left, leaving the dirt clearing full of weed patches outside the cabin a wet mess they gathered upon. Milling about after packing their bags again Houka had pulled out a map trying to get an idea of where they were in the world from the apparent local, but she had other idea's. “Could you just point it out on the map-” “You've already done enough damage trying to be helpful, fuck off!” “B-But you were bleeding to death! I fixed it!” “You fucking think this is fixed!? This is a mess!! This is possibly crippled for life you fucking dipshit! You don't know how to fix humans, why the fuck did you think you could set this!?” “I went through a whole year of elemental white magic with the college-” “Yeah, and you learned how to speed up cellular processes while applying a fucking burner into the wound to mechanically seal it. You destroyed my Median nerve! I can't fix what isn't there anymore! You've made me a cripple you- you- blind PRIMITIVE!!” Seething in rage her eyes were aglow as she stared him down. Her yells once again sending flocks of birds scattering away toward the distance. He was confused when she didn't continue into a tirade of swears as she had done previously in accordance with his notes on her personality. As a whole they were confused by the odd choice of insult. Ryuko put her hand over her eyes when she realized the atrocious meaning was likely lost on them all. “I um, my glasses are so I can see better. I'm not close to blind, in a pinch I can function without-” “Not with your eyes idiot. You don't... You lack the sense to feel that which gives you life. Your heart is blind to the weave yet you attempt to bend life into shapes you cannot see.” “The what? Wait, you know how magic works in a body!?” “The weave of life... Are you telling me you don't?” “Naturally? No one does. No one I've heard of anyway. The knowledge was either lost to time or never learned by man.” “...You're lying. I know for a fact the Huuminsah knew. They fucking knew to target us to take that out! DON'T TELL ME YOU DON'T KNOW AFTER FUCKING WITH ME!!!” Worked up to the point of potentially harming someone Satsuki decided that this wasn't getting them anywhere and intervened. Relieving Houka of the map she sent him to help the others try and find a road in the vicinity. “If you let yourself get so worked up your wounds will reopen and we're going to be back to square one. Calm down. We need to get moving, do you know where we are and how we get from here to that port? If we need to move by ship than that's the plan unless a better one presents itself.” “Yeah, I know. Been here a couple times with... I've been here. Port's an... Issue though.” “People know you here?” “Oh they know alright. Depending on how things have gone they might know you too.” “How?” “Know anything about Imperial traders?” “...An official trade mission?” “Every three weeks through summer. Main boats leave in the Fall, come back in spring.” “Then we have a way out.” “Eh?” “The Trading companies are all authorized by the crown. On top of that Nonon's family own one and have their hands in a few of the others. We're not sunk yet. Is there somewhere close to the town we could set up camp?” “Why?” “There should be a main office near to the docks that acts as the company local headquarters and storehouse. We should be safe if we can reach it, but that trip will take careful planning if the locals are otherwise going to be hostile. Uzu and Houka should be able to move about in relative obscurity, comparatively, and act as a go between to plan the move. At the very least they could go in and acquire supplies until we can organize better with a direct view of the situation on the ground. Is there such a place to set up?” Turning her eyes up to the east she thought it over. There was such a place, and its physical features were something that could only help her right now, but it was going to be rough personally. She wasn't entirely sure she was ready to face that. Staring down at her feet sinking slightly into the mud she gathered herself. She had to be strong. She now knew that someone was at least partially responsible for the hell that was unleashed on her life, someone she could exact some kind of revenge from. Channeling emotions into resolve she looked Satsuki in the eye. And immediately looked away when the tightness in her chest came back forcing her to grab the stained binding around her torso. “There's a lake in a clearing just west of the city hidden in the rolling forest hills. Bad land for farms so they never bothered spreading in that direction. The cabin should still be there. If not then the place itself should be secluded enough.” “Sounds like it will do... Aside you keep doing that. Injuries?” “I'll... be fine. It's just strain from casting. Nothing more.” “In your chest?” “...Do you people really not know anything about how casting works?” “Houka spoke the truth. It is not knowledge that can be found, and believe me when I say plenty of people have been trying for a long time.” “Figures... Cast too much, heart takes the strain of channeling magic through it, alright? Everything this week was a shit ton more than mine is used to handling. I'll live.” “Heart? The whole secret to casting is using the heart?” “...Yes and no.” “Complicated?” “All comes down to your lineage. You need the right kind of heart and body systems to use it for casting. Elven heart. Fae heart. Same biological construction more or less.” “And that's where you feel magic?” “Basically. The stuff is everywhere, in everything in varying concentrations. Just a matter of feeling out the flow and redirecting it to do things you want it to do.” “And this is why you don't trust a stone user to heal you? They weave what they cannot feel? Surgeon with no eyes, would be blind... Typically the only ones who need stones will be Humans, and none can feel the flow of magic as it is. Correct?” “Somebody learns fast.” “I told you I was interested in such. Will you need assistance moving? A few hours walk could strain some things.” “I'm fine.” On her call the knights came out of the brush and gathered. Told the plan they fell in line behind Ryuko after she brought them to a deer run. The roads are not likely to have people on them, but better safe than sorry. . . . By midday they came to a hill some distance still out, but had a view of the city they were headed to. Seeing their guide's bruised legs starting to shake from effort Satsuki called for a temporary stop. The shade made it a good spot to wait out the worst of the sun. Taking a seat next to Ryuko leaning against the base of a large tree she looked out at the city and the harbor beyond. It was more built up than she expected. Enough black roofed buildings were around to house at least a couple thousand people and strips of golden crops reached towards them up in wooded hills. To the right in more hills faint wisps of smoke could be seen, even further the black remains of a large fortification stuck out into the sky like a burned corpse the forest was trying to reclaim. The green treetops themselves seemed to stretch forever to the left, but not encroach upon the vast field of blue going north to the horizon. The northern ocean. Focusing on the harbor full of sailing masts she was just able to make out a tiny gold flag in the wind as promised. Now all they had to do was get aboard and sail home. Simple on paper at least. “Does the place have a name?” “...Munze. City of silver on Golem bay. The big rock wall over there if you were wondering.” “So the hills are full of mines? Explains the smoke.” “Far as I know yeah. Lot of jewelry made and sold away.” “And boat loads of bullion for the Imperial treasury among others I would guess. That local headquarters will be well armed and heavily fortified. Should make it stand out enough. Idea's where it could be around the docks?” “No. It's been a while and things have moved... What happened to the church spires?” “Where?” “Right. Three stone towers. There used to be a forth of the same size and a larger bell tower.” “A church getting knocked down without a larger replacement somewhere? Unusual. Could be reconstruction in progress. Or something rather drastic happened here.” “I'd say it was pretty fucking drastic.” “The castle ruin is telling that something major happened. Care to elaborate?” “No.” “Information helps.” “...I was a dumbass, shit went tits up fast including the setting of a lot of fires, and your blonde friend took advantage of the situation and killed my dad. Everyone else too probably.” Reaching into her cloak she produced the silver knife and turned it to catch the light. “You have my condolences to the departed. In no sense of the word possible is she a friend though.” “What was her name again?” “Nui Harime. High Inquisitor, Imperial assassin, professional boot licker. Former orphan of questionable origin my mother befriended. I believe you said she stole that from you?” “My dad by trade was an enchanter. Pretty much the only magic he was good at. He could just barely feel the weave, but he was only a half-blood human so even that was kinda... Anyway he wanted to make sure I learned everything I could from the start. Including his trade.” Flipping the dagger in her grasp she punched it through a flat boulder poking out of the dirt between them without using any real force and let go. Blue shimmer on it's blade darkening leaving it to sit there embedded solidly in the stone. “He had a lab at home, let me in there every so often to practice. This thing has a new handle but this was one of the prototypes of his life's work rediscovering. Rending. Cuts through anything and takes hours to properly weave. He could make it in minutes... She must have stolen it in the... chaos... Stabbed him through the gut and left him to die... Where I found him.” Ryuko's face fell, eyes lost somewhere in a long stare into nothing beyond the distance. Reaching over Satsuki grabbed the knife and pulled it free to study it herself. Remembering the countless number of times it was put to her throat with childish sounding threats full of disdain at perceived slights against Ragyo as a parent that were never carried through. Never saw it as magical though. Willing it to function the blue shimmer along its cutting edge activated as stated and was markedly familiar. “Rending you said?” “Yeah. Old Fae blades used it.” “...Now what are those like?” “You're carrying one.” Turning with an inquisitive eye Ryuko pointed at her belt. “Bakuzan? This is plains style.” “Whatever you call it. Light, curved, slashing sword made to deliver cuts on flesh and deliver enchantment to cut through everything else. Thought it was odd when I put it back in the sheath while you were knocked out.” “It was granted to me by the court mages as a gesture from the throne in recognition of the service of my order of knights and the army at my personal call have done. I was informed it was unique and took every blacksmith and enchanter immediately available to the royal armory to produce just the one sword.” “Hate to break it to ya, but the enchantment is a flawed copy. Whoever did the work didn't know what they were doing, they just took the energy pattern and plastered it onto a different hunk of steel. If you run the two blades edge to edge the charge of the actual magic edge made to part matter will be the same making them repel each other like magnets.” Curious she drew her sword where she sat and propped it on her knee flat back down. Willing both to work they indeed shared the same blue glow, and when she carefully tried to put them together they forced themselves apart. Trying to run knife over the length of the sword produced a small shower of magic sparks like flint striking steel. “Flawed or not it has served me unfailingly. What about your own blade? It was rather odd from what I recall.” Ryuko produced the half scissor from her chest and stared at it in her palm. “That?” “More old magic. Mechanical transformation enchantment. Allows change in size but keeps its mass.” “Not Rending?” “No, it has both. And a second transform to make a third layer on the thing.” Demonstrating the functionality she flicked the blade first into sword size, then while standing up into its full extended length with another flick which she turned and pointed down at the throat of an unwanted observer who had been creeping up from behind. Blue haired man sputtering an apology while trying to stay away from the angry red glowing cutting edge of the curved great-sword she moved about without effort. “Please don't! You have to forgive me for eavesdropping, this is utterly fascinating material. Multiple enchantments on a single item? Whomever taught you must have been a grand master of the art!” “Yeah, and this was my final test before he said I knew everything he could teach me himself. And now I know he was killed just for his stupid work. By your people.” To his relief she put the sword away along with the knife back into her cloak. Rest declared over they were back on the move. Satsuki still had a last question for her after noting where each blade went. “Why do you keep it loose in some cloth instead of within whatever secure storage method you have at your disposal?” “If the cloak gets shredded anything in it is lost for good. Advanced bag of holding style stuff.” “I see. Item of sentimental value kept close to the heart for safekeeping?” “...Shut up.” . . . Several hours later along winding single file paths through the forest around the city's farthest farm field outskirts they reached the clearing. Declared a safe enough action Ryuko took them off the deer runs and onto a dirt path that was painfully familiar. The trees might have been slightly taller, but everything about the place felt the same. Her heart was pounding from her nervousness. The place so far looked like it had escaped the mobs. Which meant there was a possibility, however small, that just maybe so someone else also survived that night. It was a relentless hope swelling in her chest she just couldn't smash down. And then she heard something that might have been her mind playing tricks on her. Saw a fraction of a puff of smoke that might have been her eyes succumbing to a new form of her madness. They walked until they came around a last bend and spotted an open grass field. Before the treeline to the right was a large lake, nestled into the base of a hill on the left stood a lone two-story cabin with a front porch overlooking the clearing. And Ryuko's heart nearly stopped with a gasp. By the front of the building they could see a woman with long black hair tied up in a braid taking laundry down from a pair of clotheslines where it had dried through the noon sun. The smoke came out the top of a stone chimney belonging to a kitchen already in full swing. With some trepidation Ryuko told them to wait by a fence marking the property line and started stumbling up the path to the house with uncharacteristically lead feet. Woman noticing the hooded figure approaching got a better hold on her basket. “Halt! Who are you? Why are you here?” Stopping halfway up the path the woman finally took a good look at her. She dropped the basket. “I-Impossible... I saw the fires from the market. Y-You can't be- If it's-... If it's really- t-take off hood now!” Ryuko complied with the rough order. Grasping her hood with her working hand she pulled it back and let her ears spring up. She was crying as the woman covered her mouth with both hands. “N-Nanna Kinue?” “It's you... It's really you... It is you... Ryu! RYU!” Kinue ran down the path as fast as her legs would carry her, laundry entirely forgotten, to snatch Ryuko up in an embrace lifting her from the ground. She buried her chin in the ruined material on Ryuko's shoulder with tears rolling down her face. Ryuko broke down shortly after to cry on her shoulder as well. Nanna had survived. “I had no idea, no one did! Everyone thought you had died in the fire. Oh Lady Matoi I'm sorry I had given up hope years ago. Gods you were six! SIX! How did you survive the revolution!?” Oh gods, what happened to you?” “I-I'm... alive Nanna. I got out before the place fully went up in smoke thanks to dad. Saw the mobs and decided to skip out into the woods where I was sure to be alone. Safe. The first few months were... Rough. But I managed thanks to some of what Uncle Mohawk taught me.” “You should have come here! I was worried sick!!” “Then they would have found me eventually and burned your house down too. Would have killed you and Mohawk as conspirators.” “Oh Ryu... But does that mean other people... Did anyone else-... D-Did he?” The question was beyond hope. Not asked out loud, nor answered as such. Ryuko standing on her own feet again simply looked down and shook her head. Digging into her cloak she produced her stuffed pig and held him out to her. Taken by a shaking hand Kinue looked at it while another round of tears started up. Still holding the toy she wrapped Ryuko into another hug. “Well, at least you and the good knight survived milady. I'm sure Lord Isshin would have been happy with that.” Finally looking around she noticed the other individuals in various disheveled states standing a ways away at the fence. Her eyes lingered on their tarnished gold buckles and emblems. She knew what Imperial seals looked like. “Ryuko. Who are they?” “S-Some very persistent idiots... C-Can we... s-stay here for a bit?” Stepping back she finally looked Ryuko up and down. Wiping her tears away with a smile and nod. “You've certainly grown up into a fine young woman milady. For you, there's always space and I'm sure we can find enough spots to fit people here and there.” “...Nanna?” “Yes?” Ryuko stumbled forward to hug the woman again. Her legs failing her Kinue was forced to grab her and pull her in tight. Neither wanting to let go lest the whole meeting be just a cruel dream waiting to end on a bitter awakening. “I-... I-... I can't f-feel my h-hand Nanna... It hurts... It all hurts.” Grabbing the back of Ryuko's head she gently rocked from side to side while holding her. Shushing her crying like she had done so long ago. “It's okay Ryu... Everything will be okay... As the sun rises, the clouds depart... A new day roles on, a new cycle starts... As the flowers grow, soon we will know, how it will go... The good times are coming, and soon they will show.” Standing apart as observers Satsuki couldn't help but smile at the scene. She didn't know how this family of a sort came to be, but at least something positive had come from all they had been through so far. When Houka tried to step forward she stopped him with her arm. She made sure it was clear no one would interrupt. Proper family was something to cherish. It was a long time before anyone moved. . . . . A great many miles south east of them in contrast, a great many people were moving in small groups. Converging on a single point under cover of darkness in the utmost secrecy with plenty of supplies and munitions. What these individuals as a whole were about to undertake was technically high-treason. But The Order demanded it, so it would come to be. Standing high on a stone parapet one morning a pair of steely eyes would look through a pair of binoculars toward the coastline, his mouth pursed in a grim line at what was gathered there. A pair of individuals behind him already in their full equipment like many other soldiers responding to a call to arms. The first in the fort's history. Realizing the full gravity of the situation developing his voice was low, but even still it shook their chests with its power. His determination. “So, it has come to this... Have all non-combat personnel evacuate to the northern bank of the river and use the evacuation as cover to start planting charges under all but the northernmost dock. If they've come for a war, then by Aura we'll give them a war. Lieutenant, I need my hammer.”
Sorry for the long delay, things were busy. As a small spoiler I can give the name of this technical "arc".
Welcome to act two: The Kingdom of Aphaea
Satsuki has suspicions, Sanageyama in another plane of reality was a sou-chef, and Ryuko was allowed a little bit of happiness. The price was steep, she better enjoy it while it lasts.
Upcoming eventually maybe someday subject to change: Existential suffering, bloody bloody conflict, and tea.
As always thank you for reading.
I swear I'm trying to finish R and B. It's happening eventually.