Chapter 28 – Easy Victories

Skyships were meant to be illegal in Gorokiva. The manufacturing, at the very least, was fully prohibited, largely because Shogun Kawajiri did not want the relatively new technology to upend his carefully crafted plans for his homeland’s advancement. 

The ability to travel through the air, to more easily reach all across the country, was a potential threat in the making, or so he expressed to the people. With that thought in mind, one might say Kawajiri should be gratified to learn his fears were proven entirely correct as a skyship flying the pink sails of Saruta landed right in the middle of the otherwise unassailable mountain castle of Fujimi.

He wasn’t, but he should’ve been.

The blue-armored samurai of Fujimi were woefully unprepared for any type of sudden assault. Assumptions were made that any attack would be hindered by sheer cliff faces and easily severed gondola lines, so when the floating ship disgorged around forty red-armored samurai wielding flaming glaives, their readiness was lacking to the point that at least one was literally caught with his pants down.

“Don’t make too much of a mess,” Kozloi called out as she strolled past the unfortunate guard being dragged from the bathroom, “We want to make sure our lord’s future castle looks good, don’t we?”

The leviathan samurai walked casually, flanked by her somewhat bruised bodyguards. Gutter had a new metal plate fixed over the hole that one unicorn put in his shoulder, but her boy kept pace with her easily enough. Demonic constitution, always handy.

There were no bumps in her road to the Shogun. None that weren’t easily cut down by her entourage or crushed flat by her bodyguards. The samurai were dutiful enough to trust on their own–at least as far as she’d trust any shallowfolk–though whether they were loyal to Rokuhara himself or to the power he commanded, she couldn’t say. 

She did understand though: power was intoxicating, and the dragon, for all his faults in being descended from those wretched lizards, was powerful. Powerful enough that she almost wanted him to stay standing at the end of this shallow country. Almost.

“Focus, Gut,” she chided, the demon holding some broken guard aloft by his face.

Gutter rumbled in reply, his stomach growling. She noted the teeth forming around his belly and considered if it would be worth the wait… “Toss it.”

He snarled, but did so, pitching the robed man through a bookcase full of scrolls. Kozloi did have to give the Gororans that; even their scholars were surprisingly tough. Stupid, but tough. 

Their scholars had come at her with magic leaping from their fingers, blasts of lightning and ice that might’ve been effective, if she didn’t have Gutter to absorb it all and Cleaver to split their chests in retaliation. That they were even alive enough to groan on the floor instead of dying on the spot was even more impressive. Perhaps they’d make for sturdy beasts when the time came? Badgers, perhaps?

She chuckled to her own musings as she strolled through the big, fancy hall of statues to the big, fancy door at the end, which she had torn off its big, fancy hinges.

“…That door has guarded these halls for over a thousand years,” the Shogun Shingo Kawajiri complained as he stood in front of the room’s center table. Not sitting at it, which was interesting.

“No wonder they broke so easily then. You’re supposed to replace them,” she teased, the bell at her hilt ringing with each step.

“Bah. Scum like you know nothing of the values of tradition. What kind of invader do you think you are, parading around in the armor of this lord’s people?”

“Ha! Gods below, you really are blind!” She grinned, her smile plain on her face. No need for a helmet, not when she wanted idiots like him to know just how much she was enjoying this. “Half your nation’s turning traitor, oh great Shogun, and they’re killing each other to tear you down~. Or hadn’t you noticed~?”

He sniffed, unimpressed. “You think this lord will believe such lies? He–”

She pulled out and unfurled a scroll in her pocket, showing a declaration stamped by six seals. “Half of your nation is turning traitor. Half of your daimyo want you dead. Two of them are in your province, and they’re killing your family right now.”

She tossed the scroll to him. He didn’t catch it, but it rolled open on the floor, showing the seals.”…That…th-that’s a lie, those aren’t–These are false–”

They were false, funny enough, but only because the daimyo would have to be idiots to put their seals on a declaration like that. No, Kozloi just asked The Listener to make it for her for this exact situation, and she was so glad she did. “Sorry, but really, I’m not. Now why don’t you do what your nation wants of you and die quietly, hm~? This gracious madam has things she needs to get to~”

“…” To his credit, Kawajiri shook off the shock, turning his glare back to her. “…No. No, this lord is still the Shogun of Gorokiva. And you are a true fool if you think the military leader of this great nation is some weakling.”

He gripped the front of his kimono and tore it from his body, baring a surprisingly solid chest and a sword at his waist. He drew the wakizashi and held it in front of him. No tattoos marked his body, meaning he was either a fool, or he had a focus to cast with. And as a blade of crackling lightning formed in front of him, Kozloi decided he really was a fool either way.

“This holy sword, the Kyū Guntō passed through generations of Shogun, stands within this lord’s hands as the last line of defence for Gorokiva!” Kawajiri declared as Kozloi walked past him, “Its tempered blade was forged in the blood of–”

Then his chest opened up as the blade split in half. He dropped face first into the floor as Kozloi stepped up onto the table and walked to its center.

“Hm…yup. Here’s where it’ll work.” She smirked, then started to cut into the wood, the Shogun’s blood still dripping from her saber as she carved the needed runes. Twelve sides in a circle, each side marked with the name of their beast, each calling to their nature. Easy enough.

It was almost funny just how easy it would be to destroy an entire nation.

It was almost funny just how easy it was to take the Imperial Capital.

Sure, it wasn’t fully under their control yet, but as Umeko Nekotani followed Daigo through the halls of the palace, she felt pretty good about their chances.

Yes, she was betraying her nation and Empress, but technically she was just setting things right. Gorokiva needed a strong Shogun, not Kawajiri, and really, the opportunity to cut down Torahiko Hiroto before the tiger could take too much influence away from her justified a lot.

Maybe it was paranoid to assume that the guardians of Rainfall getting more involved in politics would cause problems for her, but she remembered her history, and the fact that the Nekotani were an offshoot of the Torahiko was a point of tension for the cat clan. So, yeah, maybe a bit of treason was fine, so long as it kept her clan in power. Or even elevated them further.

Yeah, nah, she was feeling good about this. She could feel her teeth sharpen in her mouth, her hands flexing around the six katanas held between her fingers, forming pseudo-claws that mimicked the nails sharpening under her gloves. She’d already cut down the Empress’s guards, so, really, she was committed. And was that so bad?

She kicked a fallen guard in the head, sending him spinning across the floor as Rokuhara flattened another with his kanabo, the studded steel club smashing armor and breaking ribs. The decorated guards of the palace laid broken and beaten, unable to stand against the onslaught of a changing nation and the betrayals in their own ranks. 

Sure, there was resistance through the city, but nobody was standing in their way as Daigo and Umeko descended into the depths of the castle, towards the secure room the son of the previous shogun knew was built down below for the sake of imperial protection. The Empress wouldn’t be at the top, not with the castle being invaded, and samurai in their way proved the point, even if they couldn’t do a thing to stop them.

Well, to stop Rokuhara. He was the most eager one here, clearly enjoying every second. She was starting to think he was leaving his foes alive deliberately, just breaking them so they could see how insignificant they were in impeding his march. He hadn’t even drawn the wakizashi at his side, either because he preferred a blunt instrument over sharp steel or because he didn’t consider any of these people worthy of it.

Though it appeared samurai wouldn’t be the only foes trying to stop them, as once they reached the depths of the castle, Umeko found two figures sitting in front of the door that the empress was surely hiding behind. 

“Good timing, we just finished this bottle,” the elven one said, raising the sake cup she had in hand and bringing it to her lips. Her gold skin stood stark against the all-white platemail she was wearing and her purple eyes glittered with amusement.

“Would’ve preferred you be more haggard, but I guess we don’t have a choice,” spoke the minotaur with her, who wore an eyepatch over her right socket and had several bandages wrapped around her head. She also wore white armor, though hers was lined with bronze and had a few extra decorations, not that they really hid how much more weary she appeared. Well, if Umeko was forced to fight here, she at least knew which one to target. 

“The empress sends foreigners to act as her last line of defense?” Rokuhara said, sounding disappointed, “Did we truly break every decent champion on our way here?”

“That’s kinda rude, don’t you think?” the minotaur replied, “Your countrymen are givin’ it their all to fight against you and protect the people you’re harassin’.”

“And if their all was good enough, this dragon would not be standing before you.”

The elf chuckled. “Good line.” She finished off her cup and set it down gently before she stood, standing defiantly against an unstoppable force. “I wouldn’t say this place is bereft of champions. Maybe you did beat all the big fighters on your way here. Maybe they’re all busy dealing with the messes you made. Maybe you just got lucky. One way or another though, you’re in front of us now, and we’re not moving.”

“And why is that? Two foreign paladins have no stake in what happens here,” Rokuhara rumbled, earning a slight glance from Umeko. Foreign paladins made sense, sure, but it complicated things, especially since they were definitely with that angel…

“It’s called common decency,” the minotaur replied.

“That it is.” The elf rubbed at her neck for a moment, then formed a full visor bascinet over her head, conjured with a flick of her hand. “Besides, you hurt a friend. That’s more than enough reason.”

Rokuhara chuckled. “A duel then. One final bout before this dragon wins the day. Very well. This dragon would like to know the names of those he faces.”

“Vivian Popola.”

“Polina Vlahos.”

“Hm. Interesting names. This dragon will try to remember them, once everything is over. Though do you truly intend to take him unarmed?”

“Oh buddy, you haven’t dealt with many paladins, have you?”

“Seems he hasn’t,” the minotaur, Vlahos, noted as she finally stood. And Umeko started to reassess her chances as a great helm formed over the massive woman’s head. “You wanna say it, or should I?”

“LIke I could resist. A paladin is always armed with their Faith, brat.” And in a flick of her hand, Rokuhara suddenly stumbled, smashed straight in the face by a spiked ball on a chain, which Popola reeled right back, one hand on the handle, the other on the chain, spinning it steadily at her side as she chuckled. “Not too fast on the reaction, huh?”

Sure, she might think that, but Rokuhara was pretty fast, bursting forward with a heavy swing that Vlahos caught on a large shield, the sound of steel on bronze ringing through the empty hall as he tried to force his club down, only for the steel ball to curve around and slam straight into his side, loosening his grip enough for Vlahos to deck him in the face. Not enough to really even dent his helmet, but enough to make him actually stumble back, which was…concerning. Especially as she flicked her wrist to form a mace to go with her shield.

“Umeko.” She stiffened at being addressed and glanced over at Rokuhara.


“Are you going to join in?”

“…Do you want me to?”

It was hard to tell with the helmet, but he might’ve been glaring at her. “Should we not honor our foes by fighting them evenly? They stand against us, united, so we should be doing the same. Especially since this dragon may confuse who his foes are in the heat of battle.”

In other words, start pulling her weight or he’d kill her on the spot. Right.

“You got it, honored comrade,” Umeko replied, trying to ignore the idea creeping into her brain that Rokuhara actually thought these two were enough trouble to ask for help. But even if they were, she was a Daimyo herself, a noble trained in the arts of rulership and warfare. 

How hard could it be?

One thing Umeko was soon to learn was that, regardless of the quality, her blades weren’t well suited to fighting heavily armored opponents, especially if they were much larger and physically stronger than her, as evidenced by Vlahaos actually managing to knock Rokuhara back again. Though that didn’t mean she was completely outmatched. With her injuries, Vlahos was sure to let her guard down, and well-armored or not, there were still weak points to expose. 

Move in, aim for the joints, and then pull back before she could counter. Simple perhaps, but for a ruse, Umeko was certain it would work. After all, if Vlahos became focused on defending her body, she’d be slow to react once Umeko struck at her blindside. 

That is, if her assumption that the minotaur’s impaired vision was a new injury was true. It was a reasonable assumption, given the fresh bandages. 

Unsurprisingly though, this was one of many wrong choices Umeko would make in the next few minutes, particularly as she forgot which of the paladins was actively attacking her. With a spiked ball smashing into her katanas, the daimyo soon found herself declawed in one hand as her fingers nearly snapped. A snarl slipped from her lips as the flail flew, putting her on the backfoot as Rokuhara’s club spun from his grip, smacked from his hand by Vlahos’s shield.

He didn’t draw his sword though, instead rearing back and slamming his fist against the shield instead, flames licking up his arm–Umeko jerked her head to the side, the flail missing her head–

Instinct saw her raise her arm just quick enough that the twisting chain didn’t wrap all the way around her throat, but she was still yanked off her feet as Popola pulled–She felt her nose break against her own helmet as the paladin drove the flail’s handle into her face and then she was being flipped, thrown over Popola’s shoulder–

Stars exploded in her vision as she crashed to the ground, the air driven from her lungs. Her vision blurred, tears reflexively coming to her eyes as she tried to make sense of what just happened. Her wrist throbbed, definitely broken, and it struck her that if she hadn’t been quick, the elf would’ve snapped her neck.

It was a sobering thought made worse by seeing that same elf slam her flail into Rokuhara’s back, unsteadying him enough for Vlahos to bash him across the face with her mace. The two rained blows on Rokuhara, dodging or blocking his attempts to lash back at the duo. Popola moved too quickly and Vlahos was close to his equal physically, so she pressed the attack at every distraction and delivered heavy blows that started to dent his armor as the battle dragged on. 

But they couldn’t take him down, because they–They genuinely couldn’t, he was a dragon, and she could still see it in the way his armor started to bulge, in the way his stance stayed steady, in the crackle of building fires all around his body–

And in the way his eyes turned towards her. The only emotion in them was a kind of irritation at seeing her still down on the ground.

So Umeko was up before she even really thought it through, surging forward towards the door hiding the empress and slamming it open with all her strength.

Which left her the instant she realized who the one, single person in the room was. 

“Mm…oh, hello, Lady Nekotani,” Torahiko Hiroto greeted, a cup of jasmine tea in hand as he sat on a rather comfy couch, enjoying a decent book as the daimyo of Mosa stared at him in pure shock, “It’s been some time. I wish we could have met again under better circumstances, but then, you don’t seem particularly inclined to indulge that wish.”


“What? You didn’t think the empress would run away and hide while her city was under attack, did you?”

That’s exactly what she thought. That’s exactly what Daigo told her.

Umeko whirled and caught the instant Rokuhara registered that he was wrong. That the empress wasn’t the type to hide. And his eyes went wide in genuine shock just before the chain wrapped around his neck.

Rokuhara clutched at his throat, which didn’t break as the chain was pulled taut. He didn’t stumble, instead planting his feet into the ground, and he even reared back then surged up, his hands ripping the chain to pieces as it splintered into shards of light. He whirled, snarling with a swing of his blazing fist, and whiffing completely as Popola ducked and rolled past him, springing to her feet right in time for Vlahos to smash her mace full into Rokuhara’s turning head. 

Umeko blinked as he fell, crashing to the ground–He was already up again, it was fine, they hadn’t lost yet!

“Damn it, I liked that flail,” Popola complained, her hand extending to already form a second one out of light, “Ah well. I’ll deal.”

And her swing caught Rokuhara in the shoulder, making him stumble, even though he should’ve taken that hit easily. He was a dragon, he was durable, even if Umeko hadn’t seen him go into his full form, she’d still seen him spar before! How the hell were they doing that much damage–

“Why are you doing this?”

She stilled, then turned her gaze towards Torahiko. He had set his tea cup down. She could feel the blood leaking from her nose. She couldn’t quite breathe through it and she felt…dizzy. But her voice was clear. She was pretty sure of that. “…Honestly? For a few reasons. This lady remembers her family’s history. Do you know yours?”

“I do. The Torahiko have been the guardians of Rainfall Island for centuries.”

“And why is that, eh? Is it an honor? Is it a showing of how pious and noble you are? Or is it because when your clan embraced the tamed demon, they decided they should rule instead of the dragons?” She smirked, even if he couldn’t see it. “Why do you think a cat took a tiger’s place, hm?”

“Is that your way of encouraging me to join you and the other betrayers here?”

Her smirk turned to a scowl. Her ear twitched, but she ignored the fighting behind her. Daigo wasn’t dead yet, so it was fine. “Fuck no. This lady just didn’t like it when you mangy savages decided to play at being civilized. She didn’t like that you decided you could speak for our entire nation to all others at that stupid peace meeting, and she really didn’t like that the empress gave you fucks legitimacy instead of skinning you for a pelt!”

“…” He sighed and stood. “There was never any chance of us finding common ground, was there?”

She would’ve snorted if the sting didn’t make her eyes water. “No, there wasn’t. But this lady can at least cut down one wretched bastard in this fight!” 

Umeko gripped her one remaining blade in her unbroken hand and leaped to drive it into Torahiko’s throat–Then the heel of his palm slammed into her chest and blood sprayed from the mouth of her helmet as she bounced once on the carpet then crashed down completely, struggling to breath with the wind knocked out of her. She managed to lean up, staring at him through bleary eyes, struggling to even sit up. “H-Hhh…h-h…h-h-how…?”

“Did you forget? I’m a guardian of Rainfall Island. A trained martial artist, in other words.” Torahiko nodded to her. “I do wish things turned out differently. My offer of friendship was genuine.”

“G-G-Ghhn…nfuh…” she tried to say, before she fell back, her consciousness finally slipping away.

Torahiko Hiroto sighed again and shook his head, before striding out of the safe room to see Rokuhara breathing a full plume of flame that broke against Lady Vlahos’s shield. “ROKUHARA! ENOUGH OF THIS! Your rebellion is failing! Your ally has fallen! Surrender now, and you may–”

“May spend the rest of my life under a cushy home arrest instead of executed? May survive in dishonor, rather than die defiant? No. Never.” Daigo chuckled, his helmet warping in the building heat burning off his body. “This dragon will not bow to a lesser beast. Never again.”

“Hmph. Then this tiger reminds the dragon that, at the end of the day, he’s still just a beast. No greater than the rest of us.” 

“I AM GREATER! This dragon stands tall, even against the so-called champions of the gods!” His breathing was heavy, the flames licking up around his body starting to melt the steel he wore. One piece tore free, suddenly slamming to the ground, and he stared at it in sudden epiphany. “…Vlahos. You’re the one–Judgement magic, is that it!?”

“Huh. You’re smarter than you look,” Vlahos replied, “Though if you’d prefer, you could think of it as the weight of your sins draggin’ you down.”

He snarled, then laughed. “Of course that’s it. You’re not strong enough to shake me. None of you are! So you have to resort to cheap tricks like adding mystical weight to ruin my balance!”

“Basically, yeah.” She glanced at Torahiko. “Hiro, you joinin’ in?”

“E-Eh? Hiro? Oh, ah, yes, certainly.” He nodded sharply, then settled into a stance as his nails became claws and his teeth sharpened, the lines on his skin becoming more pronounced as his body bulked with muscle. “If you would have me.”

“The more the merrier,” Popola chimed in.

And Daigo laughed. “Fine then. Bring all your might against me. This dragon shall not falter. He is the true king of these lands! And all shall know it!”

Daigo drew his sword, a blazing crimson wakizashi that washed the room with heat in a sudden roar of sound that echoed out through the castle and even the city itself.

“But first, this dragon shall temper his reign just as any conqueror’s blade: through the blood of his foes!”

The wind whistled, impressed, as the tides of battle turned again. Or at least stuttered slightly from the sudden roar that sounded out from the Imperial Palace. Things had already been twisting significantly, so maybe it would matter that the dragon’s troops were galvanized again. 

Or maybe it wouldn’t, because in the time that Rokuhara and Nekotani entered the palace in search of the Empress, things had turned in an unexpected way. Well, unexpected for the attackers, perhaps very expected for the defenders. 

Seeker did have to give the Empress some credit; she had a willingness to sacrifice the pieces on her board in some pretty handy ways. Putting guards she knew could, at best, wear down the dragon as obstacles in his way as a distraction? Cheeky. Very cheeky, and very fun too~.

Seeker had a good view of everything, and that included the empress out on the balcony outside her war room, calling out to the people below, her voice echoing through the city as she called its defenders to arms and declared every attacker a true traitor to their homeland. Her mask was down, curiously, and Seeker did wonder, just a little, why she was covering her mouth at all if it looked completely normal by human standards, but hey, if it let her express the true Voice of a Sovereign, then by all means, let her lips be free!

Fashion wasn’t really Seeker’s department anyhow. Fortune was, and it was so interesting seeing the tide turning, quite literally in some regards, as the capital’s champions rallied.

A giant man with a naginata sweeping samurai off their feet with heavy blows. Colorful ninja ripping enemy shinobi free from their hiding places. Powerful masters of magic evacuating their own fighters then flooding the streets with enough water to douse the spreading flames and bowl over the unsuspecting invaders.

Seeker could even hear the prayers of clerics echoing upward, calling for the power of their god to grace and protect their people. Best to nip that one in the bud. No need for divine intervention here, and the winds smothered those prayers before they could rise too high, even as her attention turned back towards the fighting.

Thunder split the air as lightning crashed against the flames, quite literally as enchanted blades clashed together, and as the Empress’s voice rose, so too did the spirits of the defenders, and so fell the morale of the attackers. Being called a traitor by your own liege would do that to people, so some faltering was to be expected. Some rage too, and a cast fireball broke against the barrier of wind around the Empress, her fan in hand keeping her safe.

Such a cute fit of pique from someone who was taking all the wrong messages from being called out, but then mortal stubbornness was always such an adorable trait~. If a foolish one, since the Empress had a marksman at her side with quite the impressively long longbow and a shocking skill with thunder arrows.

Ah, spite, also such a cute trait~. Speaking of, she really should peek back in on how her not-quite-clients were doing.

The air didn’t give any noticeable change, not to anyone without specialized special eyes, or other such senses, but the Empress’s castle was open enough for the barest breeze down in its depth to twist around, forming a spiral that someone looking could maybe mistake for an eye or an ear, which watched as Daigo Rokuhara surged forward, rending the air with his fiery blade.

Not that it did him much good. For all his strength, Daigo Rokuhara obviously never fought someone to the death before. He had power and skill and plenty of viciousness, but experience was important too, as evidenced by his first swing with his large sword cutting into the wall instead of his opponents. He had a moment to realize his error before the spiked ball smashed his broken helmet straight from his head and both Torahiko and the larger paladin closed the gap to drive their palm and fist into his chest and face.

A nice showing, even if it meant Seeker’s “side” was losing. She paid less mind to that fact though, in favor of studying the Judgement Paladin instead. Vlahos, wasn’t it? An interesting family, perhaps to be kept an eye on, but for the moment, the interest she presented was in the pressure she exuded. The literal pressure.

Judgement magic was a rare thing, not often used, but it tied directly to Weight as a concept, and it was easy to see the force pressing on Rokuhara even as he let loose more of a blaze to create distance. No wonder the belligerent boy was unbalanced; a crushing weight on the shoulders wasn’t too pleasant for anyone, even with immense strength, especially in the middle of combat. Really, it was a testament that he was standing so steadily, even as he suffered a full on beating from the duo, with their third ally–the less interesting light paladin–waiting and watching in case he managed to find his footing enough to strike back.

Whether it was impressive or pitiful, Seeker wasn’t entirely sure. She hadn’t bet on Daigo, she had no investment here, but she still wanted to see if he really was a Dragon and not a noble playing pretend. Call it sentimental, but she enjoyed seeing the arrogant prove their claims true. 

She even considered helping–briefly, and with the intent to collect on a payment after the fact–when she noticed the changing tinge to the air. It was an easy feeling to notice for the demonic demigod, a sense of anticipation mixed with bestial, predatory intent. Her gaze turned towards the northeast, where the Shogun’s capital sat. 

Even at this distance, she could sense the magic forming there, the ritual coming to its fruition. She could feel Therian’s call, like the low sound of a heartbeat drum, building steadily upward. There was no stopping it now. The mortals below couldn’t see it, and she doubted any of them felt it properly, but they’d lost already, to a foe they didn’t realize they were facing.

There was a low chuckle in the air that turned to a cheery giggle and then inaudible laughter that echoed unheard in a city filled with heated blood, the call of battle thrumming in the hearts of warriors damned to become beasts.

The soldiers who followed Daigo Rokuhara weren’t particularly good people. That was by design. The ones who were good, honorable, and lacked anger issues were encouraged to seek employment elsewhere, and the ones who didn’t take the hint had experienced unfortunate accidents that required their retirement. 

At the end of the day, Daigo didn’t want people who were good, just, and honorable. He wanted people bristling with an entitled resentment. The brutes forced to leave law enforcement because of their abusive tendencies, the thugs exiled from dojos because all they wanted from their training was new ways to brutalize others, the type of people who cared very little for things like legal or divine authority because those things got in the way of their own enjoyment.

The type of people who, when offered the opportunity to raid the Shogun’s palace at Fujimi, did so with gusto. Who, when left unsupervised, elected to drag the beaten soldiers and scribes of the castle out to the courtyard, under the shadows of their skyship, to await whatever fate the scarlet samurai chose for them.

“Gorokiva is changing!” announced the samurai leading the event, “The False Shogun has failed his people! He sits on a throne he is unfit for! One he cannot hold! Today, the true Shogun takes his place, granted it by the Empress herself, as it should be!”

The samurai turned on his heel, continuing his pacing in front of the row of kneeling, battered people. More samurai stood around the courtyard, some watching with amusement from a distance while others stood behind the prisoners, ready to cut them down the instant the soldiers and scribes tried anything.

“So that leaves the question of what to do with you people.” The samurai stopped, turned, and continued to pace, his gaze turned to stare into the eyes of each prisoner. His draconic helmet hid the malicious smile on his face. “You, who chose to stand by this false Shogun! Are you not traitors then?!”

Shouts echoed out from the watchers, declaring that the prisoners were indeed guilty, that they deserved worse, that their heads should decorate the walls of the castle.

“But then, our lord is generous. He is grand! And he shall be merciful! But only if you make the right choice here.” He drew his sword and slowly moved it across the line, its point acting as an extension of his focus and a declaration of his intent. “Tell this samurai who the most senior among you is, and the rest may–”

“This official is,” Eto stated. He didn’t flinch as the samurai turned the sword on him, the tip inches from his nose.

“This samurai was talking.” He tilted his head, his slitted eyes narrowing beneath his helmet. “You don’t look nearly old enough, human. Do you understand the penalty for lying?”

“The same penalty that will be paid by listening to you. Death or dishonor. This man would rather choose for himself.”

That earned a derisive snort. “You would prefer death to serving the rightful shogun? You would die serving a traitor?!”

“…This man would have gladly served Lord Rokuhara if he had become Shogun. He would have preferred it. He will not serve a traitor though. Not now. Not ever.”

“You dare–”

“If you want the eldest, you want this official,” another man, a drake instead, called out, drawing eyes towards him. He looked almost bored, despite the drying matting his feathered mustache. “You want an example, yes? Then you have one.”

“Basho, what are you–”

“Is this official lying? He is the eldest, it is a fact.” Basho, the drake who manned the front desk of Fujimi, stared calmly at the seething samurai, ignoring the fearful and frustrated looks of his fellow workers. “Well? This official is waiting.”

The samurai scowled and yanked Basho up by the front of his blue and gold robes. “Fine! If you’re so desperate to die, this samurai will oblige!”

He threw Basho down to the ground and called out to the other scarlet samurai, who forced the official to his knees, his head bowed to expose his neck.

“Let this be an example to you all!” the samurai declared, using his sword as a pointer once more, “Gorokiva is a changing nation! Today, the false Shogun dies and his worthless decrees with him! We are the ones who will bring our nation into a new age! We are the ones who uphold our ancestor’s wills! WE ARE THE TRUE SAMURAI OF GOROKIVA!”

His declaration earned cheers from the other scarlet samurai and scowls from their prisoners. Basho would’ve told him to get on with it already if one of the traitors hadn’t had the forethought to gag him. 

“And now, every last one of you will see. We are the ones who have the true support of the empress, even if she doesn’t know it yet!” The samurai raised his blade as bright red light glinted across the steel, a sadistic grin spreading across his face as the cheers of his comrades reached a higher volume, the prospect of bloody violence earning more adulation than any justification for it. “EVEN THE GODS ARE ON OUR SIDE!”

Then the skyship exploded.

Flaming fragments rained down over the courtyard as the samurai stumbled, then turned to stare as an angel with blazing red wings pitched the captain of the ship straight at–

Basho blinked, watching his would-be executioner get smashed straight through a solid wall by what looked like another man–who happened to be on fire–before he turned to see a blur of motion as that same angel absolutely demolished every samurai in red armor in the courtyard.

“What the fu–!?” came the startled voice of the man holding him down, before Basho noticed a helmeted head landing beside him and suddenly he was able to move much more freely.

“Hey Bashy!” Then his gag was off and he let out a slight sigh of relief as he saw the familiar and perpetually covered face of Kawajiri’s former bodyguard.

“Ah, hello Masami. New friend?”

“Mm, kinda? This gal’s pretty sure you met her before. Oh, and it’s Noriko, no need for cover anymore here.”

He nodded, taking note of the rather impressively sharp katana in her hand, its edge noticeably speckled with blood. “Nice to properly meet you then, Noriko.”

“Good to meet you too! Sorry if we can’t stick around to catch up, we’re trying to rescue the Shogun. He’s not dead yet, right?”

“This official hasn’t seen his body yet, but he doesn’t know for certain.”

There was a flash and the angel was standing beside them. Basho glanced behind them, took note of the battered samurai strewn across the courtyard in rather uncomfortable positions, then focused back on the…oddly familiar angel. “Noriko, I don’t see the Sho–Wait, you killed that one.”

“Eh?” Noriko gave her friend a confused look. “Yeah? They’re traitors to our country.”

“Right, but I thought…I guess you do have the authority to execute traitors…still, I thought we were keeping them alive.”

“Well you can if you want to? This gal’s not about the whole ‘spare thy enemy’ thing, especially when they’re cutting up people she likes.”

“Ohhh,” Basho said, finally realizing where he’d seen the angel before, “You’re that girl with the paladin and the druid, the one with the cute dress.”

The angel blinked, registering his presence. “Oh, the desk guy. Hello. Unbind your coworkers. Noriko, where’s Kawajiri likely to be?”

“Meeting room, definitely.”

Michael nodded sharply, spared a quick nod to the front desk official, then spread their wings and flew straight through the castle’s interior, fully expecting Noriko to follow easily as they phased through any and all obstructions. They couldn’t let anything distract them as they flew towards the grand hall of Fujimi, though they stopped before the meeting room itself, their wings keeping them aloft as they scowled down at the two demons squatting in front of the door.

“You two would be the ones that attacked Kyora then,” they said, glaring at the pair of hooded monsters, “You’re more dangerous than your reputation suggests, Oxhead and Horseface.”

The two demons, who had been slowly, menacingly standing from their crouches, both stumbled, with Horseface outright tripping and face-planting. Which looked pretty painful with the, well, horse face.

“…So those names were wrong then.”

The offensively raised middle finger from Oxhead suggested so.

“Well what do you call yourselves?”

Oxhead slapped a hand against his belly and held up a hooked blade, while Horseface–who managed to find his footing–held up a cleaver.

“…I don’t get it–That’s not even the point, you two don’t matter in the slightest! I’ll just call you Ox and Horse if it’s an issue, now go back to Hell before I send you there myself!”

The two demons regarded each other for a moment, silently communicating, before both of them leapt straight for Michael in a sudden burst, swinging their weapons for the angel. Michael bent back, letting the blades soar past their face as they regarded the duo. While Michael had never fought against these two before, it was clear they worked in sync quite well. Focusing on one would only let the other attack, but there was one advantage Michael had: They didn’t have to focus on keeping someone safe. 

Flames began to lick up their body and a spear of flame appeared in their hands as they turned to face the pair, who were turning to meet their burning gaze. Michael launched the holy flame forward in a sudden throw, and while their spear didn’t completely skewer Ox, it did cause the demon to let out a guttural noise–Gutter, that’s it!

“Ah, now I get it,” Michael said, nodding to themself as they twisted and punched a leaping Horse straight in the face, sending the crimson demon straight through one of the dragon statues decorating the hall, “That would make you Cleaver then, wouldn’t it?” 

The demon replied with a frustrated whinny, pushing up from the smashed jade and glaring at them through the rips in his hood. 

“I’ll take that as a yes.” They leaned to avoid a thrown hook, then caught it as it tried to reel back in. They glanced at Gutter, who looked startled by their strength, and gave the chain an experimental tug, noting how steady the ebony demon was on his feet. And how heavy he was. Not easy to throw around then.

They ducked in the air, earning a frustrated noise from Cleaver as he missed another swing, before the crimson demon planted his hooves against the wall and sprung off it, moving far faster as he swung with the pair of large, serrated blades in his hands. 

Michael spared him a glance, let go of the hook, and dropped to the ground, touching down in time to meet Gutter’s charge with a solid punch to the demon’s chest that sent him skidding back across the floor. They studied the black-hooded demon, noting the lack of reaction to the hit as Cleaver landed and sped in, swinging for their head.

So Michael turned in, backhanded the blade from his hand, and uppercutted him straight in the jaw, breaking teeth and sending the demon skyward.

The hook came again and Michael grabbed it, burning away the demonic steel in a flash of holy flame, before they willed another spear into existence.

Michael and Gutter stared at one another, the angel and the demon locking eyes–red for the angel, black for the demon–as they waited for an unknown signal. One that made itself known as Cleaver crashed back down to the ground.

Michael flew across the hall in less than a second. They drove their spear straight into Gutter’s chest, piercing through the demon’s haphazard armor and deep into his sternum. Just as he wanted, as evidenced by him immediately pulling Michael into a crushing bear hug, their natural flames being absorbed into his blackened flesh.

The demon was a muted being, existing purely for the thrill of violence. A wretched shade twisted by cruel intent and bloody history. And yet, even he felt a sudden hunger as he tasted the angel’s flames, stronger than any desire for mortal flesh. He could feel himself salivate, an intense, greedy want making him pull the angel closer, half of him wanting to rip the hood from his head and bite in, and the other half just wanting to hear the delicious crunch of breaking bone.

Which he did hear, though not quite in the way he wanted, as Michael vanished their spear and drove their hand into the hole they’d made in his chest. Gutter went rigid, all sadistic desire vanishing in a sudden panic as he felt the angel’s hand close around his heart.

“One chance, demon.” The angel’s eyes burned bright, and for the briefest moment, Gutter recalled a bright day where he’d tried to execute a stubborn brat above a boiling pot. The last day of his mortal life. “Repent, and pass on.”

His only reply was a vicious snarl as his chest twisted into a hungry maw that clamped its teeth down on the angel’s arm, biting down sharp and hard to crush their–Then his teeth broke against the angel’s bicep and Gutter felt he’d made a very deep error.

“Tch. I don’t know why I bothered.” Michael shook their head, then flared their wings, pushing flame into the demon’s body as they squeezed down hard on his heart. 

But Gutter wouldn’t die that easily. He would’ve laughed if he could, eagerly drinking down the flames the angel offered, every bit of fire easily consumed by his–Then one of his arms exploded. That earned a startled look, his eyes going wide as he saw the flames bursting out from his body, before the second arm erupted and he felt like he was choking, like the fires bursting out of him were sticking in his windpipe–

Then he legitimately did choke in surprise as the scowling angel lifted him outright, their hand still clenched around his heart and holding him aloft as a second pair of wings erupted from their back. “LET THE FLAMES OF JUDGEMENT BURN YOUR SINS AWAY!”

Bizarrely, the last thought Gutter had wasn’t one of pain or fear. It wasn’t even a memory of his death, nor one of his many gleeful murders. Instead, it was a day when he was young, when he sat with his comrade–his brother, bound by loyalty if not blood–and enjoyed a warm soup together on a cold, dusty night.

The explosion rocked the room, shaking statues and sending dust falling from the ceiling.

Michael let their second set of wings settle back into their body, ignoring the slight sting and the wet feeling of golden blood on their back, and turned to look at Cleaver, who had gotten to his feet and was staring in abject shock.

“Well?” they said, staring down the demon.

It took Cleaver a second to even realize he’d been addressed. A second too long, as a flash of silvered-steel separated his head from his shoulders.

“Were you waiting for this gal to catch up?” Noriko asked as she flicked the blood from her blade. Some still clung to the steel, mixing oddly into it as Cleaver’s body started to dissolve.

Hm, I may need to check that the sword hasn’t absorbed his soul later… Michael shook their head, focusing. “Somewhat. We can talk later, follow me.”

“You were the one standin’ around,” Noriko complained, but Michael was already moving to the doorway and pushing it open.

And inside, the leviathan atop the table smirked as she caught sight of them. “Too late~”

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