Chapter 23 – Demonic Developments

Michael didn’t know what to expect from getting arrested, mainly because they never thought they would ever get arrested.  It was an odd experience, being a lawbreaker, though they preferred to think they were handling their situation better than typical mortal lawbreakers.

At the moment, they were sitting in the local jail, though not behind bars. Instead, they were in a meeting room set up so prisoners–such as themself–could meet with friends, relatives, and/or legal representatives. In Michael’s case, they sat at a table in the somewhat small but well-lit room–better lit than the interrogation chamber they’d visited–with Anaya and Polina sitting across from them. Oh, and Noriko was present too, standing in the far corner, her hair down from its usual topknot and hanging loose over her face, adding an almost dramatic air to her brooding.

Also, for some reason, Polina had her face in her hands. “…Misha, I’ve asked this before. And I shouldn’t be askin’ it so often. But genuinely, what the fuck?”

“…I’m not sure what you’re referring to, specifically.”

“WHY ARE YOU IN CHAINS!?” At her yell, Michael shifted a bit in their seat, causing the chains around them to clink.

“Oh, because I am a flight risk, so I asked to be restrained.” 

“YOU ASKED THEM FOR THIS?!?”

“As I just said, yes.” 

“Why don’t we all calm down and have a nice chat?” Anaya said, the confusion fading from her face as she decided to speak up, “What matters is that everything seems to be okay, and Amitiel is speaking with the guards to help get you released.” 

“She shouldn’t do that.” 

“…Why?” 

“Regardless of my intent I have committed a crime, so I must properly pay for it and not use her position to get released without doing so.” 

“…Why weren’t you like this in Sollamava?” 

“Because I didn’t commit a crime there. Not to mention with the knowledge of many officials being corrupt, if I were to get arrested the chances of me being properly judged weren’t likely,” Michael stated matter of factly. Silence descended upon the room before Noriko broke it and her brooding with her laughter. 

“…I need a drink,” Polina said as she put her face back in her hands. 

“Oh, if you’re going, can you get me some noodles? Noriko and I were at a shop before we met the leviathan. I didn’t get to eat but the broth tasted good.”

“No. No, I’m not gettin’ you noodles, and I ain’t gettin’ a drink either, even if I really need one.”

“This gal could get both,” Noriko offered, though rather than thank her, Polina just shot her a glare.

“Do. Not. In fact, how about you tell us what happened out there?”

“I could tell you,” Michael offered.

“I don’t want a bigger headache.” Rude. “Nori?”

Noriko shrugged, pushing some of her hair out of her eyes. “Misha was bored and hungry so she left the sumo match and this gal tagged along to make sure she didn’t get into trouble–”

“Lies and slander,” Michael stated without much heat.

“–then she immediately got into trouble when we ran into that leviathan Borzla at the noodle place,” she continued without pause, “Misha chased her, this gal followed, havoc was caused, a plague demon was summoned, then this gal heroically saved Misha from being stabbed and dived in after the leviathan! …Before this gal realized that trying to catch a leviathan underwater is like trying to catch a tanuki going through your trash. Still, she gave it a good try, and even managed to tear open the dastardly Borzla’s pouch of evil magic! But then the still very dastardly Borzla switched to her sea serpent form and swam away, since leviathans apparently have those.”

“Lady Kyeon did mention it,” Michael pointed out. And I already knew that anyway.

“Sure sure, but Lady Akaboshi Kyeon also said they were the size of dragons in those forms, and having met Sir Rokuhara in his dragon form, this gal can definitely say they aren’t that big. Maybe the size of a python? Which means either the stories are exaggerated, or Borzla is weaker than expected.”

“Given how Borzla kept running, probably the latter.” 

“We can figure that out later,” Polina said, before looking at Noriko, “What was that about her pouch of evil magic?” 

“If this gal were to guess, it’s how she transported all her cursed items. Also, while she grabbed some items, most of them were left behind, so chances are she won’t be able to set up shop again.” She gave them all a thumbs up. “Which means this gal solved the case, no need for applause.”

Despite her words, Anaya did clap quite politely, and Noriko bowed to the applause. Polina sighed at their antics, before nodding. “Yeah, I’ll give you two that one, it looks like you really did sink the shop. Literally. The daimyo’s troops are tryin’ to fish it out as we speak.”

“Yes, that mission is, for its part, accomplished,” Michael agreed, “But it’s not the end. Borzla could not have set up the curse shop while running her operations in Sollamava, and we’ve already confirmed, somewhat, that there was another person operating it. So we have an accomplice out there, in addition to Borzla’s escape.”

“Right, we figured that out with Ami. So we know someone else is out there, but we don’t know what they’ve been up to or why they left runnin’ the shop to Borzla in the first place.”

Noriko gave an awkward laugh, rubbing her head. “Ah, yeah…sorry, this gal really should’ve got her.”

“You did your best,” Michael reassured.

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…?” They looked around the room in growing confusion as their three companions stared at them. “…What?”

Then Anaya sniffled. “Aw…they grow up so fast!”

“What. What does that-What?!”

Polina gave them a pat on the head and they felt their bafflement grow further. “You’re doin’ real good.”

“Yeesh, this gal’s actually kinda touched…” What in the world is going on right now.

“Right, Misha learnin’ how to be decent aside–” 

“What?! I’m always decent! I’m better than decent!”

Yet Polina ignored them as they stood from the table. “–Amitiel’s probably gonna finish up talkin’ with the sher-Ah…” She glanced at Noriko.

“The machi-bugyō.”

“Right, the…that. Their sheriff, and then we can get outta here.”

“What? No. I haven’t served my sentence,” Michael insisted.

“You haven’t been sentenced, and Ami’s payin’ your bail. And before you get into it, yes, you can pay money to get someone released from prison, and no, it doesn’t count as bribery.”

“…legal bribery is still bribery.”

“Look, if you really wanna get into it, we can ask them to sentence you to community service or somethin’, but you’re not stayin’ in jail while we’ve got at least two leviathans causin’ trouble out here.”

They scowled, but they couldn’t deny the logic. “Fine. But I will wait for an officer to–”

Michael paused as Captain Ebisawa entered the room. “Hello again Miss Centola. This samurai hopes the accommodations are accommodating.” He strolled over to their table and set down another bowl of katsudon. “Here, he thought you might be hungry again.”

“Ah, thank you for the meal.” They removed their arms from the chains–earning a baffled noise from Polina and an amused one from Anaya–before taking the offered chopsticks and bowl. 

“Mish. What?”

“Hm? Ah, this is apparently traditional here during interrogations,” they explained, before digging right into the delicious mix of pork and rice.

“She went through three bowls during our questioning,” Ebisawa added, amusement obvious in his voice, “Normally, suspects try to avoid eating, but she just dug right in and asked for seconds, so it only felt right to oblige.”

“It would have been rude to deny their traditions.”

“…” Polina pinched the bridge of her nose, then looked to Ebisawa. “So are we free to take her now, sir?”

“Oh, she’s been free to go for a while. She already paid for the damages up front and her holiness Amitiel is just having tea with Commissioner Furutani. We’re only keeping her at her own request at this point.”

“…Godsdammit Mish…”

Michael paused mid-chew, swallowed, then gave Polina a confused look. “What?”

Polina was probably going to reply, but their attention was diverted as Vivian walked into the room, headed right for Michael’s table, grabbed them by the back of their new–much more gray–kimono, and tugged them up, much to Michael’s alarm. “Wh-Hey! What are you–”

They most definitely didn’t yelp as Vivian started dragging them out of the room, though they did note how startlingly strong the paladin was, and that they’d unfortunately left their bowl behind. While also taking notice of Noriko visibly trying to hide her laughter as she turned away, Polina pressing a hand over her face, and Anaya murmuring something like “like a cat with her kitten” while not at all bothering to hide her own wide smile.

“…I can walk under my own power,” Michael stated as they were led along by the paladin.

“You can.”

“…That was a suggestion to let me go.”

“Really? You didn’t phrase it like one.”

They frowned, attempting to decipher her tone. “…Are you angry?”

Why that earned an eye roll, they didn’t know either. “I’m impatient, not mad.”

“Patience is a virtue,” they reminded.

“So are temperance, kindness, and humility.”

“…Yes?” Why is she bringing those up?

She didn’t speak further though, instead bringing them to a cell with charms on strings threaded through the bars. And inside the cell, sitting on her knees in a containment circle with a paper charm pressed to her forehead and all six of her wrists cuffed together was a familiar devil. “Ah. We’re visiting Labatu?”

“Yup. I thought you might have better luck getting her to talk. And, well, I was kinda avoiding you earlier, so here’s a peace offering.”

“How is this a peace offering?” they asked, genuinely confused, though Labatu took it the wrong way, judging by her chuckle.

“I see there’s some trouble in paradise. An angel and a paladin, in a feud? Don’t lightlanders normally excommunicate for that sort of thing?”

“Don’t demons usually die for screwing up?” Michael shot back.

“Lessers, maybe. But death to a devil is a very different thing than to a mortal.”

“You certainly seemed scared of it when my foot was on your chest.”

“Well some deaths hurt more than others, and I didn’t feel like being scarred. You’d know plenty about scars, wouldn’t you, crippled cardinal?”

“Isn’t your mother blind?” Vivian asked, making the demon stiffen.

“Don’t you–! …My mother is a god, mortal, so take care not to insult her with your filthy lips.”

“It’s an observation, not an insult. I’m not insulting her by saying she can’t see, just like I hope you’re not insulting Misha by pointing out their hand.”

Michael frowned, semi-consciously flexing the silver digits of said hand, which earned a wary look from Labatu. “…What do you want, paladin? You’ve caught me already.”

“You were summoned by a leviathan named Borzla with a specific artifact, just for you. Why did she have that?”

“No idea.”

Michael bristled at the obvious lie, but Vivian continued before they could interject. “I don’t believe that. And I know there are ways to compel a demon to tell the truth. So I’m making a simple offer. Cooperate with us, and I’ll send you back to Hell instead of sealing you in a box for the Gororans to lock away.”

“No. I’ll tell you freely if you break my bonds. Nothing less.”

“So you do have more to tell then,” Vivian noted. Labatu stiffened, then glared as the paladin tilted her head. “How old are you?”

“…What does that have to do with anything?”

“You seem like a brat, so I’m curious.

“Nh-I am three hundred and twenty seven, you insignificant gnat!” Huh. That’s the same age as Anaya.

“Ahhh, interesting. That makes you over a century my junior, brat. What’s a little girl like you doing playing in the mortal world?”

“Little–!? You–I am not playing, I am–!” She stopped, sinking back with a scowl. “…I will not rise to any more provocations. Die in ignorance like the rest of this worthless nation.”

Vivian’s eyes narrowed. “So there is a bigger plan. What is it?”

“Stop doing that! I’m not telling you a thing, so stop…stop inferring everything!”

“No. Keep being easy to trick.” She glanced at Michael. “Do you want to chime in?”

“…” Michael watched the demon in her circle. They thought about what they knew, the movements of the curse shop, the beings involved…And took a very large gamble. “Which daimyo did your real summoner replace?”

Without her mask, Labatu’s face was remarkably easy to read as pure shock crossed it. Her widened eyes went compound, her guise breaking for an instant before she recoiled. She shook her head rapidly, trying to deny the truth she gave away. 

“N-No! That–You’re wrong–” She made a frustrated noise and tried to lurch forward, only succeeding in pressing against the invisible barrier the circle formed to trap her in. “I’m–I’m telling you, I s-s-swe…s-s-swear…ngh…

“A devil can’t make a false oath,” Vivian noted, her tone calm even as her thoughts clearly raced from that revelation, “Not unless their very being is made of falsehoods. And you don’t strike me as a natural liar, little girl.”

Labatu’s reply was halfway between a snarl and an insectile hiss, her eyes fully compound and glaring straight at Vivian. “I swear I’ll be your death, mortal!”

Michael was through the bars in a second, ignoring the hand that tried to pull them back, their own hand gripping around Labatu’s throat as they shoved her against the other edge of the circle. <RESCIND THAT OATH. NOW.>

Labatu choked, quailing under the force of the angel’s rage…for a second or so, before she managed a cruel smile. “N-N-Never, c-c-cardinal…”

<DO IT. OR I WILL BURN YOU TO YOUR SOUL.>

“…h-h-hehk…th-thought y-y-you c-c-couldn’t feel fear?”

Their eyes burned with holy fury–Then they paused at the hand on their forearm. They met the gaze of living lightning, the holy life born of storms.

<Let her go, Michael.> Amitiel said.

<…She made an oath. A curse of death against Vivian!>

<An angel does not kill the defenseless. A bound prisoner is not for us to judge.>

<She swore! She promised she would kill her!>

But Amitiel shook her head. <Let her go, Michael. I do not wish to ask thrice.>

<…> They dropped the devil and left her to choke and gasp as they left the cell. They looked at Vivian, who seemed unbothered. “…I won’t let her–”

“Let me stop you there,” Vivian interrupted, “Michael–Misha, you’re sweet, but I don’t need protecting.”

“But she–!”

“She’s not the first devil to curse me, and I doubt she’ll be the last. I’ve done some shit back in my heyday, and I’m probably going to do more before my time’s up.” She smiled. “Part of life is pissing people off. I’m not worried.”

“…I don’t worry. I’m angry on your behalf.”

She chuckled. “And I appreciate that. Just don’t go choking prisoner’s on my behalf, alright? A paladin has to have standards, rules she won’t break, okay?”

“…” They looked back to the cell. Amitiel was crouched beside Labatu…apologizing, of all things. They turned away. “…I have rules. One is that I will not tolerate demons threatening mortals.”

“That’s a decent one. But maybe broaden it. Protect the weak from the wicked, help the strong where they can’t handle things. Something like that, maybe.”

They frowned, but nodded. “I’ll take your words under advisement.”

“That’s all I’m asking.” Then her hand was on their head, ruffling their fuzzy hair. “Anaya’s right. You are sweet when you wanna be.”

“…” Michael’s face felt far too warm. “I…that doesn’t matter. We know–Could you stop petting me.”

Vivian stopped and let her hand drop. She still smiled.

“…As I was saying, you heard Labatu.”

“I did, yeah. Do you have any ideas who her ‘real master’ replaced, or was it just a guess?”

“Replaced?” Amitiel repeated, her expression skeptical as she passed through the bars and charms designed to keep in the mortal and demonic, making them woefully ineffective to the angelic. “Didn’t we establish that doing that would be near impossible in our talk with Lady Kyeon?”

“Which means it has most certainly happened,” Michael replied, “Speaking as someone who has experience passing among mortals–” Why that earned a snicker from Vivian, they weren’t sure. “–I do agree it’s far easier to pretend to be someone new for a disguise. So of course a genuine master of deception would be able to do the ‘nigh impossible’, or as Lady Kyeon actually described it, the ‘ludicrously difficult’.”

“So you think Borzla and Labatu’s backer is some type of master of disguise?”

“Or backers. We’re already assuming there’s two leviathans who have run the shop. Why not a third supporting them in the background?”

“Why not, huh?” Vivian repeated, looking thoughtful, “And taking the place of a daimyo would give them more than a little support…” Amitiel’s eyes widened, but she didn’t say anything as Vivian continued. “We don’t know who they would replace, how they’d manage it, or any of the specifics though. And, just to check, but this isn’t the first time you’ve dealt with a leviathan, right Misha?”

“Of course it isn’t. I dealt with Borzla in–”

“No, not like that.” She crossed her arms over her chest, looking to the ceiling, like she was trying to remember something. “…I don’t have much experience myself. The closest is seeing one cresting above the waves when I was out in the Frost Lands. She was maybe the size of a blue whale, with a narrow head surrounded by massive tendrils. Not exactly a small infiltrator, but I do remember those eyes being intelligent…” She shook herself out of her reminiscing. “I just want to know if there’s anything extra I should know.”

Michael shrugged. “It’s not especially relevant, but one hundred and thirty-two years ago, a leviathan infiltrated Zemava, murdered five paladins, and ate their hearts before I put my spear through her chest.”

“…Okay, you need a little more lead in before you drop in heavy stuff like that.”

“Life doesn’t give lead in.” It was an embarrassment. A demonic being slipping into the paladin orders and murdering their members without obstruction. Michael could understand why the former Pontiff Vocula had declared the deaths the consequence of monster attacks, a tragic misfortune that befell the five young and inexperienced neophytes of the orders, but it still sat poorly with them. “It was over a century ago and I charred the corpse before tossing it to the sea, so, as said, it’s not especially relevant.” Throwing her back was a kindness that monster didn’t deserve.

“Right, I get that. No other experiences?”

“No. There were a few demon lords that had leviathans for generals, but I was established in Zemava by that point as the Pontiffs’ guardian. So my knowledge there is lacking.” They glanced at Amitiel. “You’re older than me. Do you know anything more?”

“Hm…nothing especially relevant. I didn’t even live in the mortal realms until I met my beloved, and I was never much for traveling here before then. So I defer to your judgment, cardinal.” She bowed her head, and Michael felt their face warm again.

“…Well, ah…first, we will have to share our information with the rest of the group. Then it’s only natural that we continue to the Empress’s palace. I already have prior business with her, but she should know about the infiltrator. If the leviathan has indeed taken the place of a daimyo, and Labatu’s reaction is evidence of that, that’s something the nation’s ruler has to know.”

“Good point…alright, so it’s decided. We’re going back to Shiomi,” Vivian said, “Hm. Wonder if Hiroto’s still going to be there?”

“Probably! It’ll be nice to see him again, hopefully he’ll be less anxious, though I’m more looking forward to seeing Eiko and Noriko meet up again,” Amitiel chirped, smiling brightly despite the circumstances, “Family reunions are always so sweet.”

Michael paused. “Oh, Noriko has a sister in the capital?” Then they paused again, a thought coming to mind. “Isn’t Eiko the Empress’s name?”

“Indeed it is!”

“Huh. What an odd coincidence.”

“What.” They looked over at Vivian, whose eyes were wide as she stared at Amitiel. “Ami. What??”

“What? You didn’t notice?”

“…” Michael looked between the angel and the paladin. “Am I missing something here?”

“Misha. Noriko is the Empress’s sister,” Vivian explained.

“Oh, so that’s it–…”

“WH–”


“–AT?!?”

Cithdrun paused as the windows beneath her rattled, birds flew away, and some of the frogs on her roof decided they’d chance hopping into the water below.

“Hm.” She turned back to her typewriter and added another note to their gathered evidence of angelic interference.

The suited devil was, at the moment, perched atop the roof of one of Sui’s many domiciles. She squatted low, her knees up to properly balance her typewriter as she filled out her report. At this point, she felt she had enough information to make a decision.

Cithdrun casually tore her report free from her typewriter then crushed the device down into a compact cube, easier for transportation, and slipped it into her jacket. She brushed a frog from her lap, then stood, adjusted her tie–black, to contrast with her orange undershirt–and picked the toad resting atop her helmet off and placed it on the bridge of the roof. She gave it a pat, ignoring its irritated peep, and dug in her jacket again…Then tried the other side.

Then she began patting at her pants pockets, before pausing and pulling her obsidian slate from her back pocket. “Always forget that. Now, let’s see…”

She began tapping at the mirror’s surface, idly reciting the incantation to call upon her boss–“Beep boop boop beep boop, boop boop.”–before waiting for the connection between the mortal realms and the abyss to form. And waited. And waited…

“Mortal Acquisitions, ILC, how may I serve you today?” Ah, finally.

“Hey Lepo, can you put me through–”

“To whom am I speaking today?” came the far too peppy reply.

“Lep, it’s me. Put me-”

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have that name in our records. ‘Me’, was it? Is that Acedian?”

Cithdrun wore a helmet. Lepomatia, the devil on the other side of the mirror–whose image was carved in infernal runes upon its surface–also wore a helmet. Even still, it was very obvious that the former was glaring at the smug latter. “It’s Cithdrun, now c’mon-”

“I don’t believe we have an employee under that designation either.”

She sighed, the sound echoing in her helm. “It’s Tangerine. Now may I speak with management, Grape?

There was a brief flicker of annoyance at her own codename/nickname. “Fine. Patching you through to upper management.” Her image turned towards something off-slate. “MADAM SEEKER! STOP TAKING A NAP AND DO YOUR DAMN JOB!”

“Nyegh-Wha?” There was some grumbling and muttering, then Lepo was abruptly shoved off-surface with a squawk of surprise as the image stuttered and shifted into an immense eye, the slate unable to fully project the sheer presence of upper management. “Tangi! Well hello there, cutie~! You doing a good job up there~?”

Cithdrun did not sigh. That would be rude. “High profits unto you, your eminence–

“Yeah yeah, traditional greetings, it’s fine! We’re all friends here, right Leppy~?”

“Please remove your foot from my face, Madam Seeker.”

“Nope~! I told you, you get one for that good business with the Pontiff, and you already used it, so guess who gets to be my footrest today?”

“Gesi?”

“Oh please, Peachy would get off on it, that’s not a punishment. Ah, now, Tangi, cutie, you needed to speak with me, otherwise you wouldn’t be calling, so how about we skip things right along and you tell me what’s what~?”

“Apprentice Labatu was captured,” Cithdrun reported, choosing to start with the most pertinent information first.

“Aw for fuck’s–Seriously? Who by?”

“She’s being held by the local guard precinct in Sui, Gorokiva. She was captured by the individual claiming to be Paladin Misha Centola, who I have been instructed by my current summoner to kill.”

“Oh, that’s convenient. Not the imprisonment, that’s going to be a hassle, but we could add in a vengeance killing here…unless you have a reason she shouldn’t die~?”

“No. My issue is that she’s likely an angel, not an elf, and thus not a paladin.”

“Oh ho, the old designation loophole, hm…I presume you have evidence?”

“I have observations.” They pressed their report to the surface of the slate and let it burn, consumed and sent for her superior to peruse.

“Hm hm hm…Ooo~ Holy aura is certainly damning, or blessing in this case~” Madam Seeker giggled at her own joke, dutifully echoed by Cithdrun and Lepo. “So, an angel’s posing as a paladin? How strange. Those holy birds were already putting on their whole tour thing, why a disguise~?”

“Probably because it’s a cardinal.”

She didn’t expect her slate to crack. “…Oh ho ho~! Really now~? Well hell hell, isn’t that such a funny thing~? You said ‘Misha Centola’? No, of course you did, of course it’s that dumb stupid moronic fucker, who else could it be~? Fine fine fine, turn tail then, you don’t need to fulfill the order, we’ll count it as a misstep on the summoner’s part.”

“Understood. I’ll report back to my summoner and explain the mistake.”

“Actually.” Cithdrun paused, tilting her head as her superior’s thoughtful tone echoed through the slate. “Our current contract with the Unified Deep Lands is quite the…extensive and lucrative one. So, for the sake of customer satisfaction, report directly back to your summoner, offer her my sincere regards, and throw in an expanded package at a discount.”

Cithdrun couldn’t help her flinch at that…revolting word. “…F-Forgive my impertinence, but are you sure?”

“I’m in a good mood, so I’ll let it slide, sure, and yes, I am. One percent off.”

She shuddered. “Ah…h-how g-gen…I-I’ll convey your wishes, Madam.”

“Good~! Be a good girl and be quick about it~! Customer satisfaction is second only to punctuality, pride, and profits!”

She saluted. “Yes madam!”

The slate’s surface returned to its natural, if now cracked, black sheen, allowing Cithdrun to slip it back into her pocket. Her front pocket this time, so she wouldn’t forget.

She stretched her arms over her head, preparing to travel straight back to her summoner, before she noticed a mortal staring at her. A little fishfolk child, staring curiously at the odd demon on the roof. She tilted her head, noting him mumble something about “shinobi”, then gave him a small salute before vanishing in a somewhat more deliberately smoky exit than she’d normally do, allowing more frogs to fill the gap where she’d disappeared.

No reason not to show off to a potential future client, after all. So long as he actually survived the upcoming upheaval, of course.


Nari scratched at his neck as he continued along his collections route for the day. He’d already hit up Daro’s sushi place–never much of a problem there, the old man always paid up on time and always gave discount lunches–so next on the list was Futoshi’s barbershop, then Eizo the banker’s. Futoshi wasn’t a problem, even if he was kinda eerie–rumors had it he used to be some Black Shell hitman or something–but Eizo was always a stingy bastard. Banks were supposed to have money, so he had no idea why the guy was so stiff with it.

He sighed, then glanced out. Daro’s place was towards the edge of town, nearby the springs and on a bit of a hill, so he did have a decent view out there. Not near the bathing springs, unfortunately, but it did give a decent view of the plains out there in the afternoon sun.

While not a beautiful sight, a part of him did feel some pride at it, knowing his boss’s land stretched far beyond the edge of town. Land that no one would mess with. 

It took him a second to notice the dust cloud out in the distance. Nari squinted, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. That was weird. He hadn’t seen a dust storm in…Wait…

He leaned, staring harder at the faint shapes he could see. There were a lot of them, in some kind of line? And some kind of sound was echoing out, like rumbling thunder–

He flinched at the sudden thunk beside him. He stared, confused, at the arrow sticking out of the ground. Faint, blue flames licked up around its buried head, and some impulse made him turn his gaze skyward, just in time to see the mass of blazing arrows raining down on his home.

Flames burst up all around Kyora as the daily bustle turned to screaming panic. Shouts and cries erupted all across town as people found their homes and businesses set ablaze. Most guards tried to restore order, shouting louder than the panic, trying to corral civilians into safer places, but some abandoned their duty and pride in favor of self-preservation, tearing away from the town and fleeing to the plains, which only drove the terrified tourists into a further frenzy as a stampede for safety began.

But there was no safety if they took the wrong direction, as one deserter found as a charging horseman in full azure armor drove a glaive through his chest.

More sapphire samurai rode atop scaled steeds wreathed in flame into the burning town, the pounding of hoofbeats almost drowning out the crackle of flames as they smashed into pockets of resistance, breaking hastily formed formations and crushing the unlucky under hoof. Some laughed, pitching bottles into the flames and watching as buildings blew apart.

It was not a one-sided slaughter though. One strong voice, the voice of the town’s Lady, rose above the cacophony and rallied resistance. The raiders who turned towards the dragon’s bar, intent on claiming the chief prize of their mission, found makeshift stakes and steel clubs breaking their charge, and if there was one thing the Shugosha of Kyora knew how to do, it was be brutal when the situation called for it, as the samurai who fell did not get back up.

More voices rose up, more calls to retreat to the shelter of their boss’s den beneath the bar. Any non-combatant was brought down there, past the growing wall of the town’s guardians, who were quickly rearming with Lady Yojin’s own stock. Spears wreathed in elemental power were passed out alongside enhanced crossbows, and a call went out that any damage was acceptable, so long as the people were kept safe. So came the fierce pushback of a people unwilling to be the victims of cowardly outsiders who thought they could burn their home.

So it was only natural that things take a turn for the worse before it could get better. The leader of the invasion, the samurai atop her own blazing steed, had kept a few cards for herself. No reason to give that idiot Borzla everything.

She drew three, and the defenses shattered under the bellowing rampage of a Brimstone Mammoth wreathed in flames. Curved tusks glinted like sharpened steel as its trunk shot forward like a snake, aiming to grab at Shiho. A cut from her guard managed to ward it off, though the massive beast bellowed its rage again, rearing up to crush the defenders under its blackened mass.

So it came as quite a surprise to the beast to be lifted fully off its feet and dragged across the burning town before the jaws around its throat crushed down, splitting the gargantuan head from its body in a spray of stone and liquid flame.

A cheer and a fond sigh went up from the defenders and their lady as their draconic boss turned, his marked scales gleaming in the sun as he turned his rage-filled eyes on the invaders who dared hurt his people.

“Ah, there you are.” Kozloi smirked beneath her steel mask as she hopped from her steed, striding forward as a pair of monsters formed to flank her. They were similar in size, but nowhere near identical; both hulking figures, but where one was broad, fat, and heavy with muscle, the other was leaner, narrower, more tightly coiled and corded. Spikes and nails driven through metal plates dug into their bodies, forming a sort of armor for both monsters, the only cover they had aside from loincloths, and both wore leather hoods over their clearly inhuman heads, though where Gutter’s black hood was pierced through by his oxen horns, Cleaver’s red hood clung tight and undamaged to his equine muzzle. “The great lord of Kyora, here to grace us with his presence at last!”

The immediate answer from the great lord of Kyora was a beam of pure lightning fired from his roaring maw. A wave of electric force that was stopped in its tracks as Gutter stepped in front, the blast bursting and dispersing across the bulky monster’s body.

“What a greeting! You truly know how to greet guests, oh dishonored lord. This samurai would ask that you stay your teeth, at least long enough to talk.”

“You want to talk?! You burn my town, you kill my people, and you want to TALK?!” he roared, shaking what windows hadn’t fully broken yet.

“Certainly! Dialogue should be exchanged in these sorts of situations, no? A bit of banter between the noble samurai come to slay the vile dragon and rescue the wayward princess.”

If Katsuro could kill with his glare alone, the samurai’s corpse would’ve been stripped to the bone. “You’re here for Shiho.”

“Indeed! This samurai, known as Yumin by many in this nation, is here on behalf of the shogun to do what must be done,” Kozloi lied, “Too long has this den of sin been allowed to linger, clinging to this noble nation like a leech. And a leech must be burned off.”

But Katsuro’s mind was not on the false claims of a false samurai. “Yumin. You’re Daigo’s sunlander!”

“…Perhaps this samurai said too much. Or, perhaps not enough.” She let her hand rest on her blade. “He did tell me to give you a good death.”

“He did, huh? Salty fuck never could stand me. This guy’ll pay him back though, ONCE I CRUSH YOUR FUCKING SKULL!”

Even the broadest demon couldn’t stop a dragon at full charge, but Gutter made a good try of it, skidding with the momentum, his hands on Katsuro’s open jaws while Cleaver leapt high, twisting in the air and plunging down with a pair of large, curved, serrated blades chained to his arms. A beat of his wings sent Katsuro back and the plunge missed, but the lean monster rushed in while his bulky partner crashed his fists together in a declaration of violence.

The purpose of their partnership became obvious quickly. Gutter took hits without flinching, a brutal wall of demonic muscle that dispersed or absorbed any electricity Katsuro let loose while Cleaver was pure speed, darting in past claws and teeth to slice across the dragon’s scales–shallow cuts, but cuts that bled, the pulse of the monster’s scarlet blades doing something to draw more blood. 

In other words, it was a pain in the ass, and Katsuro couldn’t help the rage that was building through him as this fucking filth tried to wear him down. Even when he tried to hit harder to take Gutter out of the fight, Cleaver would leap in to lessen his blow, cutting at his arm, kicking at his elbows–and the lean bastard was even worse, moving too quick for him to follow, not with all the smoke and fire and the idea in his head that they were here for his wife and he had to keep her and the rest of his people safe, and then there was that smug fucking asshole still standing in the streets of his city and smirking at him through that shitty samurai helmet.

Glints of blue caught his notice, though they were hard to spot through all the sapphire flames. More samurai, drawing bows. He didn’t believe for a second they were Shogun troops, not with Daigo’s lackey in the mix, so he didn’t have any reason not to turn and try to blast those wretched fucks instead!

“Careful, Katsu~” came the lackey’s voice, “You’re forgetting who you need to protect.”

They weren’t aiming at him.

He was in front of the bar in seconds, in front of the line his people had made, and as the first arrows broke against his scales–and some stabbed through, though he refused to show any pain–he roared out all of his righteous rage as glass shattered, dust blew outward, and every fire invading his domain went out, knowing better.

The same couldn’t be said for the monsters and mortals invading his home though. There were calls among them, shouts that he was just one, they were many, and they could kill him.

So he chose to show them how wrong they were, and shifted. To go from a dragon to a humanoid form was, in most opinions, a vast downgrade. They failed to realize that a dragon was a dragon in all shapes, and Gutter soon learned that as a fist buried itself deep enough into the monster’s gut to make him bend, eyes bulging as rarely felt pain surged through his girth. Then a second fist smashed into his bovine nose and the beast tasted his own blood in the seconds before he went tumbling across the dirt.

Cleaver stared, a long forgotten emotion creeping into his heart, before he realized the dragon was in front of him and there was a fist hooking hard enough into his face to break teeth.

“Hoo. Scary,” Kozloi muttered, her head tilted as she idly flicked the hilt of her blade, the only sign of her building anticipation. She looked to the dragon’s adoring public, the cheering vassals, and the wife who showed no hint of fear for her husband, only confidence of his victory.

“YOU GOT THIS, KATSU!” Shiho cheered, beaming brightly as the sun still shone, far in the sky and starting to creep below the horizon. Still bright enough to see through the remaining smoke, and still bright enough to see as a demon in a suit stepped forward in the middle of the crowd and drove her fist deep into the blacksmith’s solar plexus.

“There we go. This should make up for the angelic issue,” Cithdrun mused as Shiho bent double, unable to even choke. The defenders around her had half a second to realize their lady’s sudden injury before the demon was leaping away with Shiho over her shoulder, jumping up onto the bar and over rooftops as the first scream finally rose.

Katsuro went rigid, a bad thing in a fight, and turned, his eyes going wide with a sudden, genuine fear. “Shiho–”

And in a glint of steel, Kozloi’s blade was out, and Katsuro had only a second to realize she was close enough to cut.

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