1121 VTE, Moriji
“Kiko, pass me the rice, would you?”
Somehow lifting the enormous bowl, the priestess-in-training passed it to Mea. Mea's usual icy glare softened while she shoveled another two cups of rice onto her plate. Cahya had lost count of the number of servings she’d gone through some time ago.
If there’s one thing he’d learned during his stay at the Ossex Shrine, it’s that priestesses will eat a pantry dry before you finish washing your hands. The clergymen and women stationed here were sitting on floor cushions arranged around a low, sturdy table. It needed to be, to support the sheer mass of foodstuffs piled onto it. Beside the huge bowl of rice, the second of this supper, Cahya also enjoyed the sight and smells of a large grilled octopus, a plate covered in shrimps fried with intimidating amounts of garlic and onion, and a salad of peas and wide-leaved greens drizzled with a fruity vinaigrette. On the far side of the table, six salmons baked with a honeyed glaze had been turned into piles of fish bones, and a ray that had a wingspan greater than Cahya’s was swimming in deadsloth butter and being torn into by the hungry ecclesiastics.
Cahya, on the other hand, was stuffed and had been for a few minutes, having eaten his fill with some sardines and a handful of cashews. He still preferred the magic nuts of home, but salted and roasted, these cashews were much better than nothing where his nut needs were concerned.
What did concern him were his other nut needs. Cahya had executed many successful nut exchanges with a variety of Deadbeat women since arriving on the island. Even one with a stunning priestess in the metropolis in the south of the island, so he knew religious hangups weren’t an obstacle. But here, in this isolated shrine filled with grace and youthfulness, two weeks had gone by with no such adventures.
Looking around the table, Cahya thought he should have had his pick. The middle-aged man next to him, Markus, was not on the list. Neither were the two trainees, Kiko and Rick, though the girl and boy were good company. Even if she was already almost his height, Kiko was too young for Cahya’s tastes, and turning his gaze this way would draw the ire of the other priestesses.
Of which there were five. One from this count was the elderly Priestess Karla, who looked near as old as the ancient building itself. Not up Cahya’s alley, which left the Shrine’s four queens of beauty. Sitting far to his right were the inseparable twins, Cassia and Cassina. Sure, they were nice enough, and he spent a lot of time with them training. His nominal purpose here was to share the combat knowledge of the two cultures, but Cahya had limited fighting experience, so most of his sessions with the twins were a unidirectional transfer of knowledge. In the two weeks, Cahya had learned more about combat stances, drills, takedowns and weak points than he could absorb, and they kept piling it on despite his body feeling like he’d fallen from a tree a dozen times every day. Even with all this physical activity, he hardly felt a physical attraction developing from either of the girls. Their sticking together as they did surely played a part; deadbeats seemed to reserve romance to private, one-on-one realms.
This left the leaders of the shrine. Two seats to his left was Mea. Her hair and eyes were a strikingly bright pink, apparently because of her excessive chuubanite accumulation. She’d been off training in the Underworld till she arrived at the start of the week. She was a cool beauty, and one of her legs was near as thick as Cahya’s torso to boot, but her attitude towards him had been frightful, a mix of indifference and bullying. The only time she’d smiled at him was when Rick had asked for a party trick of her after supper, and she’d crushed a coconut in her calloused hand, staring into Cahya’s eyes all the while. She laughed her ass off at his expression at that.
Her being a member of this Shrine of the Purging Flame organization just made her bad news all around. She seemed to spend all her free time either training or arguing with the leader of the local shrine over logistics, anyway.
Oh, and what a leader she was. Where Mea was beautiful, Aria was pretty. And more importantly, she was all smiles and kindness. Her word was law here, but her charisma was so strong her tone never needed to be anything but gentleness, unless Mea was involved. The big bitch was the only one who dared question Aria’s decisions.
“Cahya, did you try the fried clams? Karla really nailed them today.”
And her voice, ah, her melodious tones just massaged his ears. Cahya had enjoyed the most beautiful of singing back home, but Aria’s acappella the evening before the last had left a lasting impression.
“Cahya?” Aria repeated, suppressing a slight smile at the Risuner’s daydreaming. “Oh, yes, yeah they were great! Delicious!” Ah, here she was beaming again, sitting right next to him. She made the pains of training all feel worth it.
“Treerrat! You were playing with the crossbows again today, right? Did Aria manage to make you hit something? Can you cock the crossbow on your own?” Like clockwork, Mea interrupted the moment with her acid. Thankfully, Aria came to his defense. “I’ll have you know he’s been hitting targets for a few days now. And he can cock it just fine, if he puts his back into it.” His legs as well, but Cahya was thankful for the omission. “And I’m very grateful for Aria’s help with this part of my training!”. Mea offered a “Mhm” and a smirk, and stuffed her face with one more crawfish before picking up her dishes and taking her leave.
“Oh, Kiko, Rick, check on the Firebird cages before going to your quarters!” Cahya really enjoyed seeing Aria interact with the kids, it really brought out her motherly qualities. Weeks-deep into his stay here, making Aria a mother sounded better every day… Cahya had to up his charm, make some progress.
She gave him an opportunity later this evening. An invitation to drink some wine with her, alone! And the activity was his forte, idle small talk and recounting tales of his land. “What did you do back home? Did you live with your family? What’s this about a yearly donation to Risu?”
And recount he did. He regaled her with all his best anecdotes and made sure his explanation of the yearly ritual was dripping with eroticism. Aria’s white skin showed the faintest of blushes at this story, filling Cahya’s heart with pride, filling other things, too.
“Ah, w-what about your boats? They’re pretty impressive!” Understandably, Aria opted to change the subject. “Ah, our mighty pinisi! Yes, we’re very proud of them. They let us cut through the seas and finally reach out to the rest of the world.” Aria questioned further: “Did the Kronies show you how to build them? You did not have such vessels until recently, right?”
Cahya paused for a second. This was a sensitive topic, and the tipsy Aria had wandered right into it. Better to deftly move on to something else. “Ah, yes they’ve been so helpful! But Deadbeat ships are even more impressive.”
This wasn’t the first time he’d had to maneuver around this forbidden bit of information. Reza had been extremely specific on the importance of hiding /meat/’s relationship with the Risuners; the two nations shared a bitter, seething hatred for one another. Thankfully, Cahya had moved past this obstacle once more, and could return his focus to seduction…
“Hmm, but that is a bit strange, no? Kronies sail the seas on ships of steel and advanced frigates, but your pinisi use a completely different construction style, and the rigging is unalike as well. Did the Kronies help you develop designs more suited to your needs?” Now, he felt a drop of sweat forming behind his ear in the chilly night. He was starting to think Aria held her liquor better than he thought. “Erm, yes they must have, I really wasn’t involved with this process at all, I live farther inland you see, never saw those boats until I embarked on this trip haha”.
Aria’s pink eyes remained kind as ever, but hardened somehow. “You know, you don’t have to lie to me, Cahya. All Risuners are our esteemed guests here, you have nothing to worry about, I'm just curious.” This definitely wasn’t going how Cahya had hoped. “Ah, uh, well I’ll I can help you any way I can, ask away.”
“Then, tell me the truth Cahya, that’s all I want.” A strong, gentle hand rested on his now. But the squirrel man stood strong. “Ah, well I already told you all I know there haha, the Kronies taught us everything we know where boats are concerned.” He had good people skills, but he knew his facade was a feeble one.
Then, a figure stepped out of a shadowy corner of the room. How long had she been there? Her damn eyes glowed, Cahya couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed her.
“This shit’s going nowhere! He’s obviously been briefed on this, Aria.” Mea barked out the words, but Aria responded only with an angry glare.
“Look, fluff-ball, we know yall have been in contact with those inhuman /meat/heads, those junk and lateen sails are tell tale. I’ve sunk some of those ships my damn self, crashed them on these very shores. Your pinisi’s wood joining techniques might as well be a /meat/ signature.”
Gone was the arousal and excitement of the earlier evening, Cahya was practically in a flight or flight state now. “I, I really don’t know what you mean…”
“Aria’s no liar, we won’t touch a hair on your lustrous tail, we just want to know this-” Mea punctuated each point from there on by knocking the table with her knuckles; “Does /meat/ have any military installations on your shores? Are they planning any raids? Where to?”
Cahya was a diplomat, he hadn’t signed up for interrogations. He only looked pleadingly to Aria and mumbled “I really don’t know…”
A silence hung heavy in the air, for the ten longest seconds of Cahya’s life. Finally, Aria broke it. “An interrogation where the interrogator does all the talking is a poor one, don’t you think, Mea? Is that how they do things at the Shrine of the Purging Flame?” This drew a smirk out of Mea. “Ah, we’re used to having more ways to convince our guests to speak, I have to admit.”
Aria sighed deeply and put her hand on Cahya’s shoulder. “Well, Cahya here is neither a schizo nor a heretic, so talking to him is all we’ve got. Mea, leave, we’ll speak later.” The priestess seemed a bit cowed by Aria’s disappointment, but her good nights to the pair were still dripping with irreverence.
“I’m sorry about this Cahya, I already regret letting Mea talk me into it… I hope you understand, we’re only trying to protect ourselves. Your people have suffered at the hands of those raiders too, have they not?” He can only nod at that. “I’m sorry I can’t help you…” This seems safe enough to say. A smile finally returns to Aria’s mouth. “It’s fine Cahya, a promise to one’s comrades is a powerful thing, not to be broken lightly. Please do not think less of us for this.”
Cahya was strong in some ways. His faith in Risu was strong, his loyalty to his friends, steadfast. However, he had a weakness, a weakness which lined up perfectly with a pretty girl asking for forgiveness.
With the relation mended, Aria stood and stretched, before giving this proposal to Cahya. “Let me make it up to you Cahya. I’m headed to a small town to the South tomorrow, we’re receiving a large shipment of iron and I want to sign off on the merchandise. Come with me, enjoy a fast ship and some new scenery, what do you think? It’ll be fun… And the twins can’t beat their training into you if you’re not here.” It amazed Cahya that she could look so innocently mischievous minutes after trying to draw military intel from him. “Sounds like a great time Aria, I’d love to!”
She blessed him with one more smile before heading to her quarters.
A whole day, alone with Aria. Cahya had a superb feeling about this.
The furry person looked positively adorable, dipping his hands into the rushing waters to watch the waves slither around them. This was probably as fast as he’d ever flown over the sea. Their pinisi were splendid ships, but the trimaran carrying them did not concern itself with robustness, cargo, or defense; Deadbeats built those personal transports for pure speed, barely stroking the surface of the ocean as its oversized sails pulled it southwards.
They were only four on the vessel, with the two owners, Cahya and herself. Much of the time, the trimaran was pulled off the surface and only one of its side-hulls planed over the waters, light as it was. With these favorable winds, they’d be reaching the port of Caliam within an hour.
“Sir Risuner, take your hands out of the water, would ya? You’re causing drag.” His grin as he apologized for the sailing sin told Aria she’d done well to invite Cahya. She felt a little bad to have put him through this unpleasantness in the previous night, but she had no regrets. Any piece of information he might have provided could save lives, it was worth the try. Still, she couldn’t imagine the Risuner ever getting along with Mea now. Rudeness was her modus operandi to begin with, but Cahya had opted to rush to the jetty when Mea came to wish Aria a pleasant trip this morning, he was properly terrified.
Well, hopefully a relaxing day on the shore could snap him out of it. It wouldn’t do to have the Risuner diplomat return to his compatriots with tales of a cruel ogress.
“How long have you been running this route, Neji?” Aria had lost count of the number of trips she’d taken along the coast of the island with Neji, but she found him remarkably easy to talk to, always with an anecdote up his sleeve, or a story about the nearest coastal village. “Ohh lemme see, coming up on fifteen years now, have I got that right Lilith?” The small, dark-haired woman chuckled and gently corrected: “Seventeen, honey. Numbering as many as our son’s monsoons.” Neji always found great pleasure in his wife’s alliterations and wordplay; Aria firmly believed this was the keystone of the long-lasting marriage. “And how do your old sea wolf bones feel about this trip?” The sailor minutely adjusted the rudder, inhaled the briny air and offered his opinion. “We’re headed into some fog. Here’s hoping your trader from the Land o’ Phoenixes came into port some time ago, it’s tricky to pull into that creek with low visibility. I’ll drop yall off on the beach, it’s an easier approach.”
Satisfied with the answer, Aria simply nodded and got settled on her pack in the middle of the boat. As it turns out, anointed priestesses acted as excellent ballast for smaller ships. She wanted to enjoy the turquoise waves while she could.
Soon, they entered a thick, soundless fog, and the water turned grey.
The pilot beached the trimaran at their destination around midday, but the fog was still thick enough that Aria couldn’t have pointed out the sun.
“Smooth trip, Neji, Lillith, as usual. Will you two be tagging along? I’ll treat you to Chisa’s seafood donabe.” Aria made the offer with genuine warmth. She knew how tricky navigating the shoreline with such limited visibility was, but Neji sailed with more ease than he walked. He’d at least managed better than her steel trader. On their approach, they had seen the Kaiserreich carrack slowly, carefully being pushed this way and that into the village’s natural harbor by two tugboats. The poor devils had trouble rowing hard enough to get the fully loaded ship moving.
While the couple tried to weasel their way out of the gift (unsuccessfully), Cahya glanced every which way, taking in the new locale. A few colorful fishing boats were roped up higher on the shore, above the high-tide line. Some villagers approached to the trimaran to help pull it up and Cahya began chatting with them excitedly.
“He’s got his diplomat thing down pat, now.” Aria thought, chuckling. She lifted her bag and a long shaft wrapped in oilcloth, and headed inland.
“Hey, normally it would take six more! I’m working my guys extra hard because this damn fog messed with our schedule.” Leon was dabbing his sweaty forehead with an artful handkerchief in the colors of his Kaiserrin, orange and a pretty turquoise. Aria opted not to needle him too much, he had enough on his plate. “As long as it gets done, I guess. The gold is in the harbor’s warehouse, both the Black Fleet’s and the Shrine’s parts.”
Sarcastically, Leon answered, “Happy to hear I’m going to be paid for the tons of guns I’ve lugged all the way here.”
Aria could only shake her head and smile. Leon was a grumpy sort, but reliable, and not as greedy as people of his profession often were. While the longshoremen were hauling the crates off the carrack, Aria and the trader chatted for a while, enjoying the afternoon sun, till they got to the topic of the route’s safety. “Oh, no, haven’t had any troubles lately, the Kaiserreich-/morig/ corridor is mighty well patrolled. We had a corvette escorting us all the way to the harbor’s entrance. Bastards laughed us off when we asked how the hell our ship was supposed to squeeze itself in there, hah!” A sigh of relief was the natural reaction of any Deadbeat to news of calm seas. There’d been an uptick of schizo activity in the previous year, but so far, things had been calmer this Spring, with the Black Fleet reporting only a few isolated incidents.
Cahya had been taking it all in with his usual air of wonderment, but he piped up at this. “Deadbeats escort traders?” He furrowed his brow cutely, as if he was trying to remember something. “They do, some ships at least. It’s up to Fleet HQ, but ships carrying cargo or individuals of importance to the Island’s interests might have a militia vessel tagging along. Reza and your squirrel friends probably had a nice black frigate following them to the border of the /morig/ waters. Which makes it all the more surprising they bothered to keep an eye on this crummy fool.” Aria punctuated the sentence with a gentle shove at the /kfp/ trader and a smile.
“Hey, there’s a lot of damn guns in there, enough to arm a small army, and they’ve all got chunks of that good home-made chuubanite in there! You wouldn’t want those falling in the wrong hands.” Leon had a point here. Well-equipped schizos were definitely best prevented. Aria had quite a few battles under her belt, and chuubanite armaments could be a decisive power multiplier.
“Cap’n! Job’s done.” Leon turned around towards his first mate. The man was tall and built like a stone casket. “Fantastic! Chet, find the harbormaster, wherever he might be, and have him load our payment. And tell the boys much of that is going into their shore leave pay! That’ll put some pep in their step.”
For the first time today, Leon seemed to relax somewhat. Then, Cahya seemed to notice something in the fog. “Hey, looks like a couple ships are coming in. Is it more traders?” Aria squinted to get a better look, and Leon pulled out his telescope. Leon’s voice as he spoke lacked any levity. “No, these aren’t traders, nor are they from the Black Fleet. I see three small galleys, a caravel beat to shit, and a sort of galleon. The galleys and caravel look like Niji designs, but I’m unfamiliar with the galleon.” Aria began to understand Leon’s seriousness. “Quite a motley crew, and they’re all coming here uninvited. Any flags?” The captain took his eye off the piece, slid it into a small pouch, and spat, disgusted. “They’re flying the Kaiserrin’s standard, those filths. It’s two years out of date.” Aria nodded once, sharply. “It’s all but confirmed, then. Leon, this isn’t your fight, I’d ask you to push off the harbor and head South. With some luck, you can find the corvette that accompanied you here anchored at a resupply center, and point them our way.” He looked at her with a look of cold indignation. “Did you mishear me, Aria? They’re flying Kiara’s flag. Our flag. This means they took it. Me and meine Jungs aren’t sailing off without those flags in our hands, where they belong.” Aria knew this look. It brook no argument. “Very well. How many men? Your equipment?” During this exchange, Leon seemed to change somehow. His back was straighter, and his eyes, harder. “Thirty men, veterans of our Schizo Wars all. Enough guns for everybody, obviously, but we didn’t bring gunpowder and bullet reserves. We’ll have enough for a brief engagement at most.”
Aria’s mind was whirring at maximum speed. The village was small, and sorely under-equipped. She had questioned the mayor about their lack of preparations, but he’d scoffed at her concerns, saying the village hadn’t seen an attack in twenty years. “Peaceful times make for feeble Deadbeats”, she thought.
“Alright, Leon, unload whatever cannons and ammunitions you have aboard the ship, and spread the word. Tell the harbormaster to distribute guns to the villagers who can use them, and then lock the warehouse dead tight. We can’t have them get in there. I’ll go find Neji and Lillith and tell them to alert the corvette, also, we-”
“A-Aria!” The priestess finally remembered the Risuner was there, and turned to him after he cut her off. “Aria, what the hell is going on?” For the first time, Cahya saw Aria’s smile, and all he felt was a cold dread. She put a hand on his shoulder, and gently ordered: “Cahya, run as fast as you can to the tallest tower of the village, this one, and tell everyone what’s going on while you’re headed there. Have two firebirds sent, one to my Ossex Shrine, and one to the Black Fleet HQ. Let the message say that a schizo party is preparing to raid our location.”
Aria was briskly walking back to the inn. Behind her, Cahya was almost jogging to keep up with her long strides. “Once you’re up that tower, you stay there until I come to get you. Other foreigners, elders, children and other non-combatants will join you there. The villagers will release the smoke once the raiders enter the village, so you mustn’t come down the tower once the fighting starts, got it?”
Aria’s instructions went on and on, and Cahya’s head was spinning. This was a side of the priestess he was seeing for the first time. He wasn’t sure he quite liked it.
“And don’t get in the way, alright? If you can get your hands on a crossbow, you should be able to take down at least one of those fuckers, your shooting’s decent enough.”
“Y-yes! Understood!” Cahya was sure. He didn’t like it.
“Good. I know you’re scared Cahya, it’s to be expected. Accept your fear, but don’t let it rule you. If we make it out of this alive, I’ll do something nice for you!” Out of the left field, a cute wink. It seems like the usual Aria was still there. She was just taking a step back. “Now, chop chop! Get to that tower.”
Back in the Risuner forests, Cahya had enjoyed the reputation of a pretty damn good runner. All his favorite activities required significant stamina, after all. He probably couldn’t have run faster to the tower even with the geese of hell nipping at his heels. The whole way till he reached the building, he just kept screaming “Schizo raid! Schizo raid!” at the top of his lungs. He didn’t have the time to study their reactions closely, but the villagers did not panic at all. They’d all kneel to the nearest children to give them instructions, and once they saw the youths rushing after Cahya, they’d check the Death Mask at their waist and rush inside.
Even if the town hadn’t seen such an event in decades, the citizens were likely drilled for similar attacks. Finally, he arrived at the tower. The building was larger than any other here, it probably fulfilled a variety of municipal roles besides housing the messenger birds. It was built with wide, dark red stones carried from a mine close inland, at least that was what the mayor had told them on their brief tour of the town.
He pulled the heavy teak doors open and just yelled at whoever would hear him “Schizo raid-” while trying not to halt his speech by gasping for air “Tell Ossex Shrine! And the Black Fleet!”.
There was a pause while Cahya’s message sunk into the minds of the dozens of Deadbeats gathered here. The silence was only disturbed by his heavy breathing. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, though it felt like more. Then, one woman rushed upstairs, and all were put into motion.
Children started filing into the building while one particularly gaunt lady approached Cahya. “You speak truly, squirrel-man?” The Risuner nodded repeatedly while talking. “Yes, yes! Aria sent me here, you have to send the birds.” The woman straightened at those words. “Aria? Very well, then. We must prepare. Ciullia will have written the messages by now, you’ve done well. Go upstairs and do not come back down. You’ll have to protect the children. Can you shoot? “ Aria’s words echoed in Cahya’s mind, and though he felt a shiver at the thought, he had to say he could.
Without another word, the Deadbeat walked over to a large cupboard the adults were swarming around, pushed her way into the fray, and pulled out two compact items. “This little crossbow doesn’t have a lot of range, but the height of the tower will help extend it somewhat. This quiver has only twenty bolts, make ‘em count.” With the gear handed to Cahya, she grabbed a mean-looking kanabo from the same drawer and rushed out of the building, without another word.
With his mission done, the tension flowed out of Cahya for a second, until the reality of the situation sunk in, and he felt like screaming. He considered dropping the crossbow, rushing out of the building, and running inland. If there was one thing he would be amazing at, it would be going unnoticed in the forest. Even if the schizos overtook the village, burnt it to the ground, slaughtered every single man, woman and children, even if Aria fought herself to the bone and died, arms in hand… He could get out there, take a road and make his way to another village. No one would question his escape, he could say he had no other choice.
The moment passed.
Cahya looked at the kids rushing past him towards the stairs, some were being dragged along by older siblings, crying, asking for their parents.
His knees felt weak, and his eyes stung, but Cahya fastened the quiver to his belt, and followed them upwards.
The stage was set, the traps were laid. The sky was a mosaic of pinks, oranges, yellows, and fiery reds as the sun crawled towards the horizon. It was so vibrant and beautiful, Aria wondered if she’d ever actually seen a sunset before. Everything was always so sharp and real, in the calms before the storms.
The rosy hues made her think of Mea. By now, they had received the letter. She’ll have whipped the entire shrine into an express expedition to the village, as well as alerted the local Navy garrison. It would be more by-the-book for the priesthood to join the frigate that would leave port to smash the schizo incursion. But Aria knew that girl like a favorite song. She would have loaded up Markus and the twins on the Shrine’s sleek black trimaran and shot southwards instead of coming with the slower frigate. Mea always hated to miss out on any of the action.
Alas, she’d be absent for at least the opening act. Aria smiled under her mask and checked her armor one more time. Her plated mittens protected her hands completely, though they limited her dexterity a smidge. Her naginata was razor-sharp and thirsted for schizo blood. The sun cleared the fog some time ago, so she could see the ships on their approach towards the beach. As expected, the three galleys were coming in to land where Aria and Cahya arrived earlier. The tide was now high enough that the oared boats came to a stop next to Neji’s small ship. The galleon and caravel seemed to follow the cliff-side to the North to enter the harbor. Based on her conversation with Leon, this would be a challenging endeavour, without tugboats.
The best skirmishers in the village surrounded Aria, all crouching in the trees, observing the schizos as they disembarked apprehensively. Her index rested on the trigger of her heavy crossbow. The weapon had a narrow profile, but a huge draw-weight and all this energy was one small push away from being concentrated into the heavy metal bolt. One shorter individual approached a table set incongruously in the middle of the beach. He grabbed the letter and ran back to the galley to talk to a taller, armored man.
Its contents were simple; turn back and open regular diplomatic channels, or forfeit your life. This was the moment of truth. Aria would have preferred to exploit the effect of surprise as much as possible. Alas, this war band was unknown, not a part of any schizo group in their records. Shooting to start would not do, even if the odds of peaceful intentions were slim.
And there it was. As soon as understanding reached the eyes of the leader, he screamed orders to whoever would hear them and the schizos rushed. Not to return to their ships, but to unload their equipment and weaponry. This was what Aria was waiting for.
The bolt flew straight over the beach and lodged itself into the temple of a man busy lacing up his chest plate, and the sickening crunch was heard throughout the beach. In the following second, the bushes erupted in gunfire and some bullets found their mark. Before the bodies hit the warm sand, the priestess jumped up and yelled her last orders to the skirmishers. “Fall back, fall back! Make ‘em bleed for every inch, but don’t get bogged down! We stand at the village!” She then ran to her next shooting position, cocked the crossbow, and observed. As expected, the schizos were now charging. All together, the galleys must have carried at least two hundred lives, likely more, while Aria’s group numbered a few dozen skirmishers. Exposed on the landing and outnumbering the Deadbeats, they had no reason to wait.
Aria took another shot, cocked again, and fell back once more. This was going to be a long day.
They’d learned more about the enemy during the skirmishing phase of the engagement. Their enemies were unusually varied in appearance. Most schizo groups came together from a single location and began raiding, but it seemed like this larger force had been assembled from a variety of countries. Many of them were rather short and had unfamiliar flat eyelids, but Aria hadn’t taken the time to inspect them in any detail.
Speaking of, the smoke had turned the village into a chaotic urban battlefield. Tradition and need thoroughly drilled this style of warfare into Deadbeats, though this village was quite out of practice.
Aria, however, was not out of practice. Her mask regulated the chuubanite-infused smoke, and her senses were as acute as they ever were. The schizos were more or less affected by the psychoactive effects. Some were shambling in confusion as she spilled their black guts on the floor, others were aware enough to notice her stalking them and put up some resistance. Their close-quarter combat ability was not especially impressive. They were no Luknights or /meat/heads, but they were good shots, and their rage in battle was notable. She had felt two bullets dent her chest plate, and one graze her arm armor, but she’d received no major injuries yet.
Sneaking through the streets, though, the defense of the village did not seem so effortless. There were multiple dead schizos for each fallen deadbeat, but they severely outnumbered the militia. Meanwhile, the galleon was still being maneuvered into the harbor, hopefully under fire from the cannons lifted out of the /kfp/ carrack. Who knew how many more fighters were in the larger ship? At least the bells were still sounding their eerie notes, meaning the battle continued.
Hearing stomping steps around the corner, the priestess slid behind a door. She felt the mental pressure of a source of anti aura. Her faith was an ideal bulwark against such attacks, but the many shamans of the schizo band must have wreaked havoc on the morale of the defenders. She glanced at them and saw two smaller warriors following a tall man shrouded in a great feather coat of cyan and violet, the source of his powers. The trio was armed with bloodied bayonetted carbines.
Aria coiled in the shadow of the now open door and sprung into action. Having heard her, the shaman’s left-hand man turned around in time to receive the bolt in his face instead of the nape of his neck. The now blood-splattered shaman didn’t miss a beat and stepped behind the other soldier while grasping a glinting pendant hanging from his neck. To shoot Aria, the surviving schizo moved the carbine to his shoulder. Aria’s polearm snapped viper-like to push the bayonet aside, swinging the line of fire to her right. Another thrust and retraction opened a four-inch smile in the man’s throat while her dropped crossbow hit the dirt.
The gun clunked to the ground after a bash with the flat of her blade knocked it out of the gurgling, dying schizo’s hands. The shaman hadn’t even raised his carbine, but he’d taken another step back, and his pendant and coat were now glowing purple. Aria tried to charge before he could pull off his magick, but before her blade reached him, the world went dark, as if she’d closed her eyes.
“Shit.” In an instant of distraction, she lost track of the shaman’s position. She swung a wide arc, but he was farther than she expected; no hit. A loud click to her left, and she jumped to the side. The noise of the explosion filled her world, and she felt the ball glancing off of her mask, rattling her skull. Her ears were ringing, useless, but she knew where he was, now. She lunged and felt her blade slide on his chest plate while his bayonet did the same on her thigh’s. She kept her momentum and crashed into the shaman, and the pair tumbled to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.
Aria closed her hand; it was his collarbone. Blind, deaf, her nose filled with the smell of blood and death, she finally saw everything. A vision of the shaman’s body appeared in her mind; the fight was over.
He was striking at her ribs with his elbow, uselessly, while his right hand still holding the gun tried to bayonet her. She rotated the bigger man around like a doll and her thighs wrapped themselves around the arm; her feet smashed into his chest, knocking the air out of his lungs. While he flailed his legs on the ground, her hands grasped his right fist. His fingers broke in her iron grip, releasing the weapon, and with her hold secured, she flexed her legs and pulled on the arm. The first thing she heard as the ringing faded was a wet, loud pop as she dislocated the shoulder. She pulled farther and twisted. Delightfully, the second thing she heard were wails of pain while she tore his tendons.
The weakened shaman was still trying to get a foothold to push himself off the ground, but the priestess far outweighed him. She repositioned herself into a rear face lock. She cranked, and his neck cracked… Again, and again, and again. By the time she was done, his head flopped to his side, his movements reduced to gurgles and twitches.
A veteran of /meat/ battles, she felt around for her naginata in the dark, and severed the shaman’s head, to be sure.
Aria always hated magic.
Her vision returned a few minutes later, as she hid in an empty house and the three raiders bled out in the dirt. Night had fallen, but she still heard muskets firing, the bells chiming, and she could smell a fire on the winds. The chuubanite smoke has faded away as well. Without this home-front advantage, better for the Deadbeats to regroup near the plaza, as planned.
“What a fucking mess… I hope Cahya’s doing alright…” The sheltered Risuner was probably having the worst night of his life.
"Ah, crap... My mask's chipped."
Fuck, he’d missed this.
Leon hadn’t been so alive in a decade. Sure, over his years as a trader he’d gotten into some trouble. The cannons on his carrack weren’t for show. Nor was his top-of-the-line rifle. It had blown apart the skull of many a loudmouthed pirate on approach to board. But this, fighting in the trenches, in the streets, losing count of how many schizos you had felled for Goddess and country, that’s what it was all about. Granted, these weren’t his Goddess or his country. but over years of trading and visits here, Leon and his crew had grown quite attached to the quaint fishing village.
And he had to get to the bottom of those old /kfp/ flags. This gnawed at him.
“Chet, how much more do we have?” Leon’s first mate had just walked up to him. He joined him in leaning on a street corner, well under cover before answering. “‘Round twenty percent, captain. ‘S good we carried gunpowder, we all woulda been proper boned without it.” Leon simply nodded. They would have been “proper boned” without it, but he wasn’t sure they weren’t “proper boned” even with it. Those schizos were unusually numerous, though their equipment and ability were of varying quality.
His lads alongside a few squads of Deadbeats had started out holding the harbor. The carrack’s cannons, now land-side, had the perfect positioning to batter any vessel that tried to make its way into the narrow, tricky passage. They’d routed the caravel out of the port; a few successful hits with chain shot must have had it worried about being left dead in the water. The galleon was another matter. The enormous ship kept on taking direct hits to the hull, but it just kept on truckin’, lumbering its way to the quay. Soon, it was close enough for its crew to shoot back at the cannoneers, and they had to fall back to another position.
At least their barrage was not in vain. The galleon was taking on water heavily. The schizos had to come spilling out of it like the rats they were while the harbor defenders retreated to the village.
“Captain, comin’ up on our rear!” He looked back in the village's direction and saw a priestess striding toward them. “Aria! You live! How’s the beachfront?” She smirked. There was blood all over her. “I was more worried about you, Leon. We pushed them back. Losses on both sides, but heavier on theirs, they’re likely back to their galleys, licking their wounds. The rest of the village is quiet. What’s around this corner?”
The veteran frowned angrily. “One of these scheisse… Somehow they got their hands on a Feuerschwert. One of their shamans is waving it about, he fried Ainz and the woodworker’s apprentice, Cael.” Aria slid near the edge and saw the fuming husks. Turquoise flames still licked the charred flesh. “Mori welcomes their brave souls. This street is the only way into the harbor, it’s surrounded by cliffs on the other sides.”
“Exactly, Aria. As long as this shaman shit holds this street, they can run amok in the harbor. And they’ll cut their way into the warehouse eventually…” Aria was now inspecting the houses along the length of the road. “And get their hands on all those guns. What’s that big shield he’s carrying?” Leon had another glance at the shaman. He was standing at the end of the road, his body completely obfuscated by a massive tower shield. “As mentioned, he’s got some old fucking gear. He can spray his Feuerschwert from behind that shield without exposing himself. But if I could get a line of sight to his compressed tank, my gun can punch through it, I’m using a beefy caliber.”
Aria got this look that told Leon she had a bad idea. She turned to the tired, battered Deadbeats. “I need a volunteer to bait this asshole down the street.” Two old men nodded to her. “Mori keep you both. Here’s the plan…”
“Crazy bitch”, smiled Leon.
Caius and Oda were among the villagers old enough to remember the last raid on the village. It had been less overwhelming, but it left a powerful impression. This impression was the lesson most Deadbeats learn, eventually; one should welcome a good Death, not as an evil to be feared, but as an old friend, come to comfort you. Each had lost a parent this day, to let them live another day. The brave priestess’ scheme to re-take the harbor was at the worse, an opportunity to do the same for a new generation. The rest of the squad slowly opened fire at the end of the street. This was only cover fire. At this distance, the guns had limited accuracy. But it kept the schizos from poking their head out.
This was the pair’s cue to rush in. Caius sprinted to the nearest doorway alcove on the left side of the street, while Oda did the same on the right. This was the tactic that had gotten Ainz and Cael killed. Run from alcove to alcove while the backup covered them. Farther down the street, the open market offered cover from the schizos. Take a shot at the shaman’s back from there.
The shaman advanced to incinerate the Deadbeats before they could get this position. He shot a spray of the pale blue flames onto the street, illuminating the surroundings in their eerie light. The two deadbeats shot out of their cover, headed for the next alcoves. Another spray of flames, now aimed at Caius, but the distance was still enough for it to land wide. The emaciated deadbeats hurdled the fires burning in the middle of the road and made it to the next wall. Oda made a sign to his friend to wait for a few seconds, to make sure their shooters were ready. A moment hung in the warm night air. Then, they dashed. Bullets flew through the air towards the schizos. A few plinked on the shaman’s impenetrable shield. Caius was only a dozen meters from the shaman, who raised his Feuerschwert, ready to fire.
Before he could, Aria fell from the sky, swinging her naginata overhead.
The shaman reacted quickly. He put his weapon in the polearm's way while keeping his shield in position. It stopped the blade, but the impact bent the well-built weapon. Aria landed near and lined up a follow-up strike. But the shaman was faster and shot a splash of thick napalm out of his sputtering, damaged weapon. Most of it hit Aria’s large, flowing sleeve. Her opponent took a step back to put some distance between the fighters, still holding his shield towards Leon’s end of the street.
Aria had an instant of panic, but she stepped on her left sleeve, jerked her shoulder up and ripped the fiery fabric off. In the same motion, she hooked the piece of cloth on her blade and threw it at the shaman. The cotton soaked with napalm flew at the schizo ever so slowly… But his arm was slower. He tried to catch it with his shield, but the sleeve hit him full in the face. Aria dug her heels in and put her weapon’s spiked butt forward. Screaming, the shaman pulled the garment from his now burning face and raised both his Feuerschwert and shield toward Aria.
She lunged, driving the thrust forward and up from her hip. It hit the shield dead center. The momentum pushed him off his feet and threw him backward. His weapon spewed fire upwards as he fell. Droplets of burning fluid rained on them. The schizo is still wailing in agony as his face burns. Aria’s chest plate deflects a musket bullet from the schizos under cover. She leaps into an alcove and rolls in the dirt to smother the nascent flames.
Finally, the sound she was waiting for. A heavy caliber punching through a tank, and compressed fluid escaping from within. A fraction of a second later, a blue-green deflagration shook her guts and warmed her back, reaching for the stars from the shaman’s burning remains.
“Got you your shot, chickenshit.” Aria breathed heavily, while Leon, his crew and the Deadbeats charged down the street towards the routed schizos, including Oda and Caius.
This was the worst day in Cahya’s life.
And despite that, he still felt lucky. He was up here, instead of down there. It had been a few hours since he’d gotten settled on the third floor of the town center, and the sun had dipped below the horizon. The square in front of the thick door was clear, and looking from above, the smoke limited visibility far less than it did when you were standing at ground level. Cahya had a perfect overview of the entire village and especially of all the approaches towards the building. Around him were two ancient ladies and Neji’s wife, all armed with muskets. Each of them was assigned to one side of the tower, keeping watch, while the less able elders and children gathered in the center of the room.
When she’d reached the second floor, Cahya had asked Lillith: “Why didn’t you leave with Neji?” He thought she’d take the opportunity to get away from the doomed village. “My husband can sail that ship alone, and much faster without me weighing it down.” She answered, beaming with pride. “And I can’t leave you alone with all those depressing deadbeats, right? Us continentals have to stick together.” This drew some laughs from the bony old folk around and made Cahya forget his fear for a moment.
He’d learned much and more about the woman over the course of the raid. When schizos approached the building, she was deadly with her gun. When screams of pain and fear from the ongoing battle reached the ears of their charges, she was a gentle and comforting presence.
“Have, have you ever done something like this before, Lillith?” She seemed so cool under the pressure of the situation, Cahya couldn’t understand. “Boy, you don’t live on /morig/ as long as I have without getting into some trouble.”
“But… Why did you come here?” This seemed like a relevant question. /wah/ was far more peaceful than /morig/, especially in modern days. She laughed at that. Her black hair streaked with white shone in the light of the burning houses. “I came for love, the love of my husband. People come to /morig/ out of love, love of Mori, or of someone else. If you come here without love, you must truly be mad.” Her chin pointed at the beached galleys, still visible under the moonlight.
Well, Cahya felt he had done plenty of loving during his stay on the island. And he definitely felt less mad than most Deadbeats he had met so far. He returned his attention to the streets.
A lone schizo laid in a small pool of blood under Cahya’s window. He was on his back, his glassy eyes aimed at the stars, though the Risuner felt he was looking at him, accusing. The old woman guarding the South window had congratulated him on his shot once she had rushed to his side, only to find the schizo already writhing in pain down in the smoke. The bolt had punched through his leather jerkin, into his lung. His death was slow, and loud. He had expired hours ago, but Cahya still heard his calls for mercy.
The fighting also seemed to be dying down, and the smoke had cleared somewhat, except near the harbor. Large blue-green fires licked the constructions in that part of the town, and he heard gunshots coming from there. And also… Was that…
“Aria!?” She was climbing on a roof near one of the larger fires and crawling on top of it, toward the harbor. Deadbeat kids huddling behind him heard and approached the windowsill. A few clouds of turquoise erupted from the street, and the priestess suddenly stood up and leaped from the roof, her naginata raised high.
From here, Cahya couldn’t see any of the action down in the street, and all the watchers waited, full of tension. The gunfire echoing through the town intensified for a few seconds, and then a huge, colorful deflagration rose from the street. They heard the blast a second or so after.
A dark knot twisted Cahya’s stomach. His breathing grew shallow and rapid while he saw the burning wreck left of Aria in his mind’s eye. His eyes were watering when he felt a hand grasp his shoulder, firmly, but kindly.
Lillith turned the Risuner around and hugged him. “Shhh, easy Cahya, easy.” An older Deadbeat spoke as well. “These priestesses die hard as hell, squirrel-man. If someone’s survived that, it’ll be our Aria.” Lillith nodded. “Go check on her, and let her know the fighting’s calmed around here. The smoke has cleared and you’re the fastest one here.”
Cahya exhaled deeply, wiped his eyes, and cleared his mind to accept his new mission.
The schizo Cahya had shot was the first human corpse he had ever seen, but it wasn’t the only one for long. The streets were littered with them, mostly the schizos’. Cahya realized many of them seemed to be Kronies, which was extremely strange. /inf/ was on the other side of /risu/, the voyage to get to /morig/ from there would have been an incredibly long and grueling one. Not only that, but Cahya thought most Kronie schizos ended up in the infamous Schizograd, not out here on the other side of the world.
Cahya reached the street where he saw Aria jump at last. He could still hear gunfire further in, near the harbor. Emerald flames still raged in the center of the road where the explosion originated. Especially around a now completely carbonized, unrecognizable corpse. Cahya felt his heart sink as he approached. He wanted to look closer, but the heat of the inferno didn’t let him. Images of Aria’s laughing, smiling face flashed in his mind. His knees went weak as he stared at the glowing skull.
“Risuner? Risuner!” Cahya kept staring, unresponsive, but a large /kfp/ sailor carrying a box of gunpowder underarm clapped him on the shoulder, undeterred. “Risuner, you were at the tower, right? What’s happening over there?” Chet grabbed him and turned him around, breaking him out of his shock. “You have to report to Aria, we haven’t had word from that part of town in a while!”
Emotional whiplash. “A-Aria? Then this is…” Cahya waved in hand in the direction of the burning skeleton. “This? That’s a fucking shaman, Aria fucked him up good, and then the Captain blew him the fuck up hah!” The first mate’s laughing boomed in the burning street while his words sunk into Cahya. “Come on, I’ll take you to her, she’s in a townhouse overlooking the plaza with Leon.”
Aria was a bit disconcerted by Cahya inexplicably embracing her and crying into her chest, but she let him vent his feelings without interrupting. Once he got it all out, he reported the situation at the town center. “All quiet over there? Good. I’m not surprised, their actual target is here.” She gestured toward the warehouse.
After the defeat of the shaman equipped with the Feuerschwert, the remaining schizos had retreated to the still sinking galleon and the abandoned /kfp/ carrack. Leon was fuming. “Die Kakerlaken, they’re in my ship, scuttling about!” A middle-aged deadbeat warrior was more pensive. “The question is, why aren’t they all on the carrack? Surely they realize this galleon is not seaworthy, it’s half sunk already. It’ll never leave this harbor.”
Aria spoke up. “There’s something in that galleon they can’t abandon, not so easily. They’ll want to gain enough of a foothold to unload it, and then, if they want to run, it can go on Leon’s carrack and they’ll make their escape. But if it’s what I think it is, I don’t think they plan to run.”
Everyone looked at her questioningly, but a few of the older deadbeats only grew grimmer. “I wasn’t sure while I was near the shamans, but there’s no doubt about it now. Even from here, I can feel its aura. You all can as well. This band’s leader is a troll, a mighty one.”
The color drained from Leon’s face. “We’re near out of gunpowder, and they have the cannons! What the hell can we do against such a thing!” Aria shook her head. “We have to waste time. We need backup.” The room grew quiet.
Aria clenched her fists and thought of the Priestess of the Purging Flame. “Where are you, Mea? I need you...”
The black trimaran slides onto the beach, smooth as silk. The Goddess Faithful priest and priestesses disembark North of the schizo galleys.
“Can you feel the troll, Cassia?” The younger twin had a gift for reading schizo auras. The maddening pressure straining against her will could tell her how developed their schizo powers were, how far and in which direction they were, and even their country of origin or their emotional state if they were close enough. All priestesses went through basic schizolocation, but most could only tell a shaman or troll was present within a certain distance. She'd undergone significant supplemental training to develop her talent.
Cassia answers: “He’s not near the landing, must be up in the village. There’s only dying grunts and some injured shamans here.” Mea nods and gives her orders. “Must be their infirmary. Markus, firebombs on the galleys, to keep 'em busy, and we run past them. Their leader is our target, Aria won’t have anything to deal with him.”
Mea is ice-cool on the surface, but worry grips her heart. It has been many hours since the start of the raid, and she knows that no matter what, Aria will stay at the front.
Four shadows enter the forest path, running over corpses and avoiding familiar traps, while flames and screams rise from the schizos’ temporary camp.
The village is hurt, but not devastated. The felled schizos far outnumber the deceased deadbeats. Their filthy remains were hastily piled in the middle of the streets and set on fire, to prevent rot from settling in while the defense was still ongoing. The dead villagers had been pulled out of the streets until they could be disposed of properly. Still, she can see far too many of her countrymen and women littering the streets, under the moonlight… Heroes, all.
“Markus, go up the tower, at the village center, and cover us. You can overwatch the whole village from there.” The older priest grips the long rifle in his hands. Among the first Moriji-built rifle prototypes, the breechloader firearm lets Markus deal Death at from distances unheard of for smoothbore weapons. The rifling had been engraved by hand by a masterful metalworker, there weren’t many of these weapons on the island. “Aye aye, Mea. I’ll cover you, yall be careful down there, hear?” Cassina laughs off his concern. “Go on old man, let the girls have their fun.”
The marksman runs off toward his sniper’s nest. The three priestesses head towards sounds of battle, originating from a plaza nearby. Cassia speaks up: “I can feel the troll now, Mea. He’s with a few shamans, they’re not tired, must've been on the backlines.” As they pass the burning corpse piles and the smoldering houses, they see living deadbeats, lying prone or in fetal positions on the ground. Eyes darting erratically, uncontrollable shivering, incoherent mumbling or ranting, typical symptoms of schizoshock. The troll iss close enough now for Mea to feel him. The maddening effects shut down less strong-willed Deadbeats; even the strong were impaired.
They walk onto the street connecting the harbor to the village. Deadbeats and foreign sailors lay on the ground, smashed into the pavement or broken like puppets a child might have gotten bored with. This was the path of destruction of the troll lord. It's crawling with schizos, charging from the harbor to support their leader.
It matters not. Mea feels her blood run cold at the sight of the subhumans rejoicing at their leader’s dominance and lowers her Death Mask. Her Mori’s Blessed chuubanite floods her nostrils, and her world sharpens. The filth is moving sluggishly; they're begging her to send them to the Goddess. The first one never notices her. Her hulking naginata crushes through his skull more than cuts. Brain matter splatters as she completes her swing and lunges towards another heretic. He gets to see her and raise his sword to meet her blade. But Mea has too much inertia in her thrust. His sword is flung aside, and the point drives into his mouth, teeth shattering and blood spilling out. The crimson stains the Ghostling’s thick armor and weapon. Her naginata has a cruel diamond-tipped beak jutting out of the back, designed to pierce through deadbeat skulls, or helmets. The weapon’s butt is also tipped with a Mont Mori diamond, cut into a murderous point.
The twins follow Mea as she enters her battle frenzy, firing crossbow bolts at the schizos willing to pursue them. She instinctively beelines toward the nexus of schizo energy, and soon reaches the blood-soaked plaza. Four schizoid musket men turn on them when they enter the open space. Cassia and Cassina move to put the Ghostling between them and the firearms, and gunshots ring in the night. The bullets splatter on Mea's armor and leave dents on the thick plates, each a star in a constellation of violence. The twins rush down the gunmen before they can reload. Their bayonets don't give them a chance against the priestesses' nodachis.
Mea doesn't even react to the impacts, she's focused on the sight ahead. The troll is standing in the remains of a destroyed fountain, dancing with Aria.
It stands over three and a half times as tall as Mea, maybe more, taller than any Moriji sloth. Matted fur covers its body, and it holds a rusty steel I-beam in its muscled arms. A schizo troll, the most terrifying specimen either of the twins have ever seen. It wears a giant admiral’s tricorn on his head, sown from miscellaneous fabrics, and a giant fur-lined coat embroidered with a strange circular symbol completes its insane attire. At this distance, the aura is powerful enough to discomfort even the priestesses.
Beyond the troll and Aria, some defenders cower behind cover. Some are engaging schizos, while most are shaking on the floor. They are helpless before the psychic damage dealt by the entity.
Two shamans run a deadbeat through with their blades. The pale man falls to the ground and the pair puts themselves between Mea and their lord. Half-empty bottles of milky liquid dangle from their belts and dozens of small watches hang from chains around their necks. They face down the Ghostling with sabers and a glint in their eyes.
She does not slow down her charge. A wide horizontal swing from her polearm forces the shamans out of her path. Before they can assault her from behind, the twins fall upon them.
Aria looks rough. Blood stains, some old, some new, cover her robes. She's nearing the end of her stamina, her movements are slow and unsteady. The troll brandishes the heavy steel beam, mixing zoning swings and crushing overhead strikes. After one particularly over-committed miss, Aria desperately thrusts her naginata into his lower leg. Mea calls out to her, and is horrified to see the other priestess fail to retract her weapon; it’s stuck in its shinbone.
The monster exploits her hesitation and the chunk of steel strikes her side dead-on, throwing her like a ragdoll. A wordless scream explodes out of Mea as she finally closes the distance. The troll doesn’t miss a beat and follows up his attack with a wide arc toward the other priestess. She positions the polearm in front and above herself, and deflects the beam upwards. The impact shakes her bones and throws her back. She rolls back onto her feet and prepares for his next move.
The giant’s arm is raised, ready to slam his weapon down, when a bullet hits his arm, with the explosion sounding shortly after. “Took you long enough, old fucker!” This breaks the troll’s focus and Mea leaps between his legs. Her legs compress under her, push, and she thrusts the butt of her weapon into the back of his left knee. She drives her entire weight into the pole and the diamond penetrates ligaments and flesh. It strikes the huge patella from behind and shatters it into pieces. The bloody gem shines out of the other side of the knee joint for an instant.
After pulling her weapon back, she sees the Risuner trying to pull an unmoving Aria to the edge of the plaza. This moment of distraction is all the troll needs. He lazily backhands her with his massive palm as he groans in pain. Its voice is so deep, that she hears it in her gut more than in her ears.
Mea is pushed off her feet, but she keeps a hold of her weapon and rolls out of the fall into a low stance. The beast is now on its knees, and it brings down his weapon once more. She sidesteps the blow and the beam crashes into the cobblestone. Mea swings her blade overhead, cleaving off his pinky finger at the knuckle. It flies off like a bloody, furry caterpillar.
The troll’s roar shakes both her heart and faith. But steadfast she remains, as the troll grabs the rusty steel with his other hand and attacks clumsily .
The Ghostling has taken steps back, avoiding the beam and forcing the troll to crawl on his bleeding knee. Behind him, the twins have won their duels with the shamans and advance on the monster. Both poke at his hamstrings. Primal screams reverberate in the plaza while he turns to face them, but as he raises the steel to destroy them, another bullet cuts through the air and hits his thumb. His grip slips and the weapon slides out of his hand.
Mea chooses this moment to run onto the troll’s back and jump, her naginata raised high. The beak comes down and is driven into the back of his skull by her full weight.
The spike is deep in his head, and she wrenches the weapon back and fro to shred his brain into mush. Inhuman sounds of pain explode into the village while the troll flails in his death throes. He instinctively reaches toward the source of his injuries and the massive hands close around Mea. The pressure is immense, she feels the air rush out of her lungs, and her armor and ribs strain under the force. Her vision goes red as her blood is forced into her head. She tastes iron in her mouth…
Until the hands go limp. Liters of troll blood are flowing on Mea from the finger's stump, but she feels her mind clear up. The aura is no more. He’s dead.
The few schizos remaining rout, while some of the cowering Deadbeats snap out of their shock.
But Mea hasn’t relaxed yet. After disentangling herself from the giant’s bloody digits, she takes off her Death Mask, looks around and dashes toward a brick wall on the edge of the plaza. “Aria! Aria! Can you hear me?!” She takes the smaller priestess into her arms, fearful and teary-eyed.
A hand pats her lower back, and a melodious voice whimpers: “Ea-easy… I’m bruised to shit, it hurts…”
“Aria! Oh, thank Mori, I was so scared! We should have gotten here faster, I-I, he nearly killed you, I-”
Somehow, Aria finds the strength to put a finger on Mea’s bloody lips. “Shush. You got here in time, and completed the mission. Now shut up, my head hurts terribly. Also, I think that dislocated my shoulder… Would you?” Mea nods frenetically while wiping her tears. Cahya was standing next to them, and almost couldn’t believe his eyes. Those emotional displays from Mea were almost as implausible as her martial feats from moments prior. “Of course Aria, of course. Relax, it’ll take just a moment.” Mea wraps Aria in her arms from behind, and pulls on the injured arm with a quick and practiced motion. The sound of Aria’s shoulder joint relocating into its socket is louder and wetter than any skeleton-related sound has any right to be.
“Let’s get you checked out, you might have some internal bleeding! Cassia, gather anyone alive and have them care for the wounded and establish a defensive perimeter at the harbor entrance. Cassina, go get Markus and do the same near the path to the beach!” Mea stands, with the fellow priestess cradled in careful arms, and enters the nearest house. The twins sprint off in different directions.
Cahya sits there, in a daze.
The KFP trader groggily stumbles toward the Risuner. "Verdammt! That was some crazy scheisse! I was so out of it, I almost missed all that. They went in there, right?" The trader points towards the house, and Cahya nods, silent. Images of the past day refuse to leave his mind's eye.
A bone-thin woman and another deadbeat are carrying an injured individual to the house. Cahya recognizes her by the long kanabo on her back, she's still wearing her skull mask. She notices the squirrel-man while passing him. "Looks like you made it. Good." They don't slow down and enter the house as well.
"Yeah, I guess I did." But Cahya doesn't feel any joy, only irresistible tiredness. Before he knows it, the small man is sleeping.
Her hands rubbed the cool ointment onto the clean burns before reapplying the bandage. Mea spoke softly. “That probably won’t leave a scar, and if it does, your gauntlet left a pretty cool pattern.” Aria looked at the fellow priestess while she tended to her wound, her eyes still wet. “Well, if you think it looks cool, I hope it sticks around. I’ve always been jealous of all your battle scars.” Mea tsked with an admonishing slap. “Don’t make me regret my words, your smooth skin is a charm point. There, that should keep your arm together for a while.” Just as she tied the knot, a knock at the door. The heavily armored, blood-stained warrior stood up from Aria’s side, wiped the feelings out of her eyes and pronounced. “Enter!”
A torrent of people filed into the room. The KFP captain was in the crowd of Deadbeats. An older woman bowed deeply, and spoke. “Blessed One, your arrival was well-timed, our resistance was on its last legs. The troll’s aura did a number on our active fighters.” Mea had her Ghostling’s aloof expression once more. “Sitrep on the village?” A few individuals gave reports. Most of the schizos had routed back to the harbor and hopped on barques stored on the galleon; a handful had been captured during their escape. Speaking of, the vast ship was quite submerged, and the bilge was completely flooded. The only thing that prevented it from going under was the chains mooring it to the harbor. On the other side, two of the galleys were still afire. From the tower, the Black Fleet corvette had been sighted, about forty minutes out. Estimates of friendly losses and casualties were also provided, including from among the Kaiserreich sailors.
“Position what skirmishers we can uphill of the galleys. Don’t engage until the corvette comes in. It’ll smash their boats to bits and send a landing party. Then, we can crush the survivors in a pincer attack with minimal casualties. Stick the prisoners in a dark hole somewhere, break a brittle rib or two to keep them calm.” Six Deadbeats nodded and ran out to carry out Mea’s instructions. Mea glanced at Aria and nodded to Leon. “Aria told me of your involvement, Leon. You and your crew showed courage and selflessness today. The Goddess Faithful and the Black Fleet will see you rewarded for your bravery.” Leon stepped forward, holding his splinted left arm. “Let me take my Kaiserrin’s flags back from the barbarians, Mea. That’s all I want.” Mea chuckled. “The galleys’ might be a bit toasted, but our Frigate should have intercepted that caravel by now. We’ll make sure anything with orange gets back to you. As for the galleon, let’s go investigate that right away. Aria, can you walk?” She could, with an arm around Mea’s shoulder.
The deck was listing some twenty degrees, but it wasn’t moving too much for the Deadbeats. Their steps were steady on the wooden planks. The sun was peeking over the horizon, and Aria, bereft of adrenaline, felt exhausted. But they had to do this. If anything contained hints as to the ‘Why’ of this strange attack, this would be it. The deck featured an enormous locked hatch, retrofitted onto the ship to allow the troll to enter the hold. There was another smaller hatch as well, also a latter addition, but it seemed to only open from the inside. They’d decapitated the troll, but they hadn’t searched his body; someone had gone back to see if he had keys, but in the meantime the priestesses headed towards the gigantic aft castle.
Inside, most rooms were dirt and disorder. Grime and dust shrouded the captain’s quarters; no one had been here in years. It was richly decorated, with an unmoving grandfather clock illuminated in silver and bright steel standing on the starboard wall, and a beautifully woven tapestry on the port side, hanging over a moldy, royal blue bed. A white snake swallowing its own tail decorated both the linens and the tapestry. The captain’s log, found in a desk’s drawer, was most informative. Aria squinted at it under the dawn light. The entries were written in the Kronies’ unfamiliar script, but years and coordinates were present for each stopover. Aria plotted the trajectory out.
“First entry is in 1099 VTE, twenty-five years ago. Points to Schizograd. The second is near the South of the Clocks’ main island, 1100 VTE. After that, it’s hard sailing southwards to hit the Nijicontinent in the same year. Every other entry after is slowly moving south along the East coast, the logs seem to get shorter and shorter… Last entry points to an island on the southernmost part of the Niji lands, 1112 VTE.”
Mea massaged her scalp for a moment. “Praise Mori… This symbol, same as the one on the troll’s coat. Think this used to be his room?” Aria stared at the dates. “Trollification? It’s never been observed… And twelve years of leading a fleet as a troll unable to hold a sextant? It boggles the mind…”
A deadbeat barged into the room. “Blessed Ones, we’ve got the key to the hold!” The damn thing was custom made and sized for the troll’s hands; must have weighed twenty pounds. The priestesses looked at one another. Aria spoke for both. “Let’s get down there.”
Leon was walking with them, Mea supporting the hobbling Aria. “The man-sized trap door at the front leads to the crew’s quarters and the cargo hold, but there’s about half of the hold that’s walled off. Sloppy after-market modifications, like the troll’s entrance.”
The trader strained under Aria’s hand and weight while Mea unlocked the hatch and stood back, katana at the ready while four Deadbeats lifted the trapdoor. In the light of the rising sun, the hatch was a square of pure blackness.
The group descended, armed with sword and lanterns. A cocktail of putridity washed over them. Rotting meat was the first to hit them, followed by… a slightly different rotting meat smell, slightly sweeter and more cloying. Underneath, shit and piss permeated the air.
Aria gasped. Near the entrance to their right, emaciated figures were hanging from manacles nailed to the wall. Their ribs almost poked out of their torsos. They were all naked, and of unfamiliar and varying ethnicity. As the Deadbeats approached them, they slowly looked up, and expressions of terror found their faces. Aria knelt next to one of them. “Can any of you speak Holoimperial?” Aria’s diction was natural, almost accentless, but the prisoners did not react. “Start freeing the prisoners and provide them with medical assistance. And start lighting those lamps.”
As the orange glow flooded the hold, it slowly revealed the depravity of the space. Most of the individuals of unknown origin had been kept in a state of near fatal starvation for a long period. Under each of them were piles of small, hard, dry excrement. One corner of the hold was slightly cleaner; younger women were imprisoned there. They were better fed but seemed just as scared of the Deadbeats, and covered in welts and minor cuts. One of them was attached to the wall, but dead. Freshly eviscerated, her guts covered the floorboards below her. The wound was fresh, she was probably killed right before the start of the raid.
An older woman also hung there. She looked to be in her fifties. She had Kronie features, but her breasts dangled limply almost to her belly button, like deflated sausage casings. A droplet of milk shimmered on the shrivelled nipple. The priestesses walked towards them. “Godless bastards… My lady, can you hear me?” Aria could understand some Kronie speech; she hoped to communicate, but this prisoner stayed passive, even after being released. The other women broke down sobbing and wordlessly knelt and grasped the rescue party’s legs. While villagers led the captives up to the deck, the others advanced deeper. “Schizo madness strips you of all humanity. I knew it, but this drives the point.” Leon was as somber as Aria had ever seen him.
Mea pulled a large curtain back, sword pointed, revealing the other half of the room. The rotten smell, or rather, smells, were even stronger here. As soon as the drapes were pulled, a voice rose. “Hilf uns! Hilf uns!” On the left of the room were a dozen of chained Kaiserreich citizens, sailors all. Beatings, amputations and sepsis had left their mark on some of them, and a few were dead, smashed into human pulp. But the living ones seemed in better overall health than any of the other captives, displaying fewer signs of long-term starvation. They, too, were naked, lying bound on the Kaiserrin’s standards. Droppings and piss sullied the flags.
Leon ran towards them. “Mein Kiara! Was ist geschehen?” He asked them what had happened while releasing them from their shackles and they began babbling their native tongue.
In the meantime, the priestesses looked at the rest of the area and inspected the troll’s den. An enormous pile of blue pillows and a mound of gears of all sizes and shapes covered a part of the room. Around the pile, half eaten corpses and bones were rotting in place, the biological fluids nibbling away at the wooden planks underfoot. And further to the right… Mea and Aria had no idea what they were looking at.
More… Beings were shackled to the walls. Mea had seen some strange peoples, tailed Atlanteans, those furry Risuners, even a lioness from /shishilamy/ once. But these… She’d never met this sort.
Wilted white flowers sprouted from the humanoids’ heads. Their hands and feet were beastly somehow, and their faces had some porcine features… “What are these, Mea?” Mea stared ahead while answering. “I was hoping you’d tell me. All I know is, we should keep an eye on that big one over there.” One of the things was almost twice the height of the others. Grey skinned and armed with multiple sets of tusks, it looked nearly as monstrous as the troll killed by Mea.
The men among them were hulking and fur-covered, while what looked like the women were rarely taller than a teenager. They seemed wary of the Deadbeats, huddling together as much as the chains allowed while trying not to step on the decaying bodies of their fellow… Whatever they were.
Closest to the troll’s bed was chained the best treated of those creatures. The tiny girl (?) had even stranger legs and arms, and its oversized… Head flower? Was a deep red instead of white. Most of those prisoners slumbered in their hungry agony, but some seemed to slowly come to their senses because of the commotion of freeing the other victims. The red… Aria decided to call them Flowerheads for now. Other name candidates seemed hurtful. The red Flowerhead was fully awake and staring intensely at the priestesses and Deadbeats. She alternated between wide-eyed hopefulness and narrowing in suspicion.
The odd rotten meat smell was the strongest here. Now able to directly compare the two, Mea’s nose could distinguish them. Both were similarly revolting, but actual rotting flesh had a slightly more pronounced sickening sweetness. The sweetness of the odor that wafted from the Flowerheads was comparatively subdued, ironically. It was an excellent replica, not genuine putridity. A decapitated Flowerhead male nearby squirmed with maggots and added a third note to the noxious melody, the sting of fermenting fruit and a hint of rotten egg.
The two priestesses approached them slowly, careful not to spook them. The red one seemed to be the most responsive, so they headed toward her, while some villagers walked in the white Flowerhead’s direction.
The scarlet rose was almost as big as its body, if a smidge wilted. It quivered in the dank hold, weakly lit by the lamps. Once more, Aria knelt next to the poor thing. Looking at her from up close, this Flowerhead was extremely pretty, her features delicate and her naked body free of scars and welts. She hugged her shoulders and recoiled when Aria lowered herself heavily; her left leg was still sore. The priestess was about a foot taller than her, and if Flowerheads had tissue density similar to humans, Aria must have been at least four times the creature’s weight.
Lowering her voice to avoid intimidating her further, Aria asks in Holoimperial: “Can you understand me?” The Flowerhead frowns, trying to decipher Aria’s words, but her face shows no recognition.
Aria slowly holds up the key to the manacles and points toward the girl’s wrists. She seems to understand Aria’s meaning perfectly, but is still hesitant. The priestess gently grasps the girl’s thin wrist and tries the first key on the ring. Each group had a set of shackles with a different lock.
The third key had failed to free the girl when the priestesses heard a chain rattle behind them.
It was the big one. The mass of muscle bellowed, full of grief and violence, and lunged towards Aria. A Deadbeat standing was between the beast and the priestess; the mutant Flowerhead knocked him out of the way. Its cannonball-like shoulder struck him instead of the murderous tusks. Lucky.
Metal chain links fill the hold with high-pitched clinking when the beast reaches the end of its range and its momentum is halted. Deep rings of bloody scar tissue mark its wrists where it has struggled against its restraints again and again, for years. Screams of primal fury, near loud enough to hurt Aria’s ears. The monster’s eyes are drilling into Aria as it pulls and struggles. Helpless to reach Aria, the monster turns to the dazed Deadbeat floor and picks it up. A muscled hand grabs his skull.
It slams the Deadbeat into the floorboards. The wood cracks and blood spreads from the head.
The red Flowerhead is sobbing and screaming unknown sounds at the beast.
Mea got moving as soon as it grabbed the fallen man. She had an instant to regret not keeping her helmet on, but now she’s charging, both hands holding the katana. Before she gets there, Aria’s voice rings out: “Non-lethal!” A mental grumble later, Mea changes her grip on the sword. It lifted its shackled arms above its head, to bring those fist-shaped anvils onto the Deadbeat, when Mea swung the blunt back of the blade onto its left floating rib. She felt the satisfying crack through the metal in her hands, and it brought its hands to the injury instead of the limp body.
This was enough time for Mea to roll over the Deadbeat and grab him under her arm. A step put them both outside of the rampaging, roaring giant’s range. It was struggling toward Aria again. Mea speaks, her voice ice-cold, eyes and sword trained on her opponent. “Aria, we have to deal with this thing.” The other priestess said something in the chaos, and finally, a key clicks satisfactorily and the shackles fall from the crying red Flowerhead’s hands. She sprints toward the monster and throws her arms around its thigh. The priestesses have an instant of panic. The image of the tiny girl being crushed to a pulp flashes in their mind.
The tusked being fell to its knees, and slowly, slowly brought its humongous arms around the tiny girl. Such tenderness was quite the whiplash, when it was madly enraged only seconds prior. Strange low-pitched noises were coming from it now; it was choking back full-body sobs, streams of tears raining on the arms protectively wrapped around the red rose.
They remained embraced for some time, and the ship fell back into a damp quietude.
The red one broke the hug and took a hold of the giant’s small finger in her hand, and approached the other white-flowered beings. They exchanged some whispers and grumbles; most of them were still unconscious, even with all this ruckus. The Deadbeats had released a few of them from their shackles, but even freed, they couldn’t muster the strength to move.
Then, the red Flowerhead walked back to the priestesses and pointed to a dark corner of the ceiling, pulling on Aria's sleeve and with desperation in her eyes. She still held onto the now meek tusked one. He followed her, mindless. The two Deadbeat girls looked up and, squinting, saw what she wanted them to see. A big lever was on the wall, high above the reach of even the oversized Flowerhead.
Aria shook her head. “I’ve got a better vertical, but not with this sore leg. Wanna give it a try Mea?” The Ghostling did not answer, she just lined herself up with the lever on the wall, sprinted towards it and jumped, assisting her upward momentum with steps on the wall. Her clawed sabatons tore chunks of wood out of the paneling, but she didn’t reach high enough and fell back down. The floor creaked in pain when her mass landed. Aria mused, “Maybe we can go get a length of rope…” Mea interjected: “Nah, no need, help me just take off my pauldrons and chest plate.”
Now lightened from her upper body armor, Mea made another attempt at running up to the lever. As wood shavings rained down under, her right arm got a hold of the troll-adapted lever, and it shifted down noisily. Unseen gears moved while Mea’s weight pulled the shaft down, and sunlight suddenly flooded the hold.
‘So that’s what that other hatch was for’, thought Aria. A rectangle of blinding sky opened above. The underside of the trapdoor had a strange reflective dome, which reflected the light of the dawn into the moist space.
The tortured Flowerheads had an immediate reaction. They all moved towards the brightest area of the hold and some pink returned to their grimy, dirty skins. They were all hugging each other and sobbing, rubbing their scarred wrists, gulping the sunlight hungrily. The red one turned to the priestesses and said something in her strange tongue. Aria shook her head, but attempted a bit of universal communication. She put her hand on her chest, and said: “Aria” before looking to Mea, who followed her lead and did the same. “Mea.”
Understanding glinted in the small red Flowerhead. She gently put her hand on her chest, and pronounced slowly and clearly. “Dia of Tosemi!”
Captain Sarko stretched out his arms, and breathed deeply, in an attempt to exhale some of his mental fatigue away. Their arrival to the village had been enjoyable, comparatively; they’d started the day out by taking into custody a hospital’s worth of injured schizos. The beach shone like gold in the morning sun, only stained by the rotten blood of the heretics.
Once the poor devils were all chained up or mercifully executed, for the ones too injured to be of use, the captain and his soldiers had joined up with the village’s defenders. Quite the remarkable welcoming party. There were the villagers themselves, battle-hardened after the village’s first raid in decades. Then, it seemed the KFP sailors his ship had escorted to the harbor had stuck around and participated in the defense. Finally, completing the motley crew was a shrine’s worth of Goddess Faithful warriors. Ah, Sarko hated inter-organization operations...
Well, they’d sent him on a pleasant cruise along the coast to fish out some routed schizos rowing for their life, which was fun enough. But this is where the fun ended, and the bureaucracy began.
The amount of paperwork generated by a large-scale raid truly cannot be understated. Lists of the deceased, funeral arrangements, witness reports of Mori-damned everything, requests for emergency aid to the rest of the island, awards to the notable fighters, investigations into the possible causes of the raid... And as a bonus, it seems like a boatload of rescued prisoners came with this one, so they had to contact families, retrace countries of origin, provide medical aid where needed- IT NEVER FUCKING ENDED. It really felt like Sarko had dropped his anchor just in time to miss all the fun and get all this crap dumped on him and his men by those smug priestesses- who were trained to complete all those tasks, if a Black Fleet representative was absent.
Oh, Death take him. He needed a drink. The Captain drained the last of his cup of wine and gestured to the guard at the door to have the next interviewee come in. This one was manacled, had the look of one of the Kaiserrin’s subjects, and looked positively terrified. He was accompanied by this KFP trader he’d escorted, Leon, and this tall, cold bitch of a Holy Ghost, Mea. She’d left a strong impression on the village; she did turn the brain of that troll into sausage meat, no mean feat. But Sarko much preferred to collaborate with Aria, who was sadly still recovering from injuries received in the drawn-out raid defense. She was just a lot nicer.
The older priest next to him stood and welcomed them in: “Mea, Leon, you’ll be joining us?” Leon was filled with a cold fury. He looked like he’d aged five years since Sarko had finished his escort mission, but the trader’s eyes and demeanor were that of a man ten years his junior.
“Markus, that’s right. This man’s fate will be decided here.” That KFP wasn’t messing around, nor was Mea. She was aloof as always, but there was an odd hunger in her gaze toward the interviewee.
The captain cleared his throat and began: “Well, Mister... Stauffen, the information you gave us in your second interview has been correlated by your fellow prisoners. You were kept in custody, separate from the other sailors of your crew, and collaborated with the heretics. Among other things, you gave them precise intelligence on the activities of Leon’s ship, including scheduling, and on the state of the village’s military supplies. In fact, had the fog not delayed Leon’s timeline by multiple hours, the defenders would have been far worse off, since it would lacked both their manpower and the gunpowder they generously shared with the village.”
The captain looked briefly to Mea, who gave him the smallest of nods. “The only incongruity left is the reward you were offered by your captors. You told us in your account that they gave you the life of your countrymen in exchange for the information-” The sweating KFP cut him off there: “That’s right! Without me, we would all have been dead, they really were going to kill us, you have to believe me! I only did what I did to-” Leon’s fist struck his jaw mid-sentence and threw him off the chair.
“Mister Stauffen, please sit. Ahem, the other KFP prisoners were united in saying that the information was provided for the promise of freeing you from captivity after the raid. Moreover, the continued killings of these prisoners suggest their treatment was not particularly improved by your collaboration.” The captain paused for effect, and looked up from the report, into the man’s eyes.
Tears wet his cheeks as he spoke. “W-will you kill me?” Markus answered this, his kind, grandpa-like voice incongruous in this situation. “Your full cooperation will ensure the best outcome for you. You have already lied to us once.” Finally, the prisoner gulped before admitting it. “I-it’s true... The others tell it true... I was so scared, and those monsters, th-they would have killed us all eventually, I know it... I-I thought if I could get back, maybe I could g-get help, or something? And when this troll looks into your eyes, y-you just start losing it, you know?” He looked into the eyes of the Deadbeats, and found no understanding.
“Thank you for your confession. Holy Ghost Mea will now pass judgment.” Mea stood, her arms crossed, and her voice as cold as usual. “Thanks, Sarko. In recognition of the crime committed against your own people, you will be put in the custody of your fellow KFP, and repatriated to the Kaiserreich to be judged by your laws.” A glimmer of hope appeared in his eyes. It wasn’t death... Stauffen was never the strongest, or the smartest, but somehow he always found a way to make it out alive. He had a way out of this.
“Regarding the treason committed against the people of my Mori’s island, you will pay the Bounty of Bones. Half of your bones will remain on the island, as penance for your crimes. Gentlemen, please hold him on the table.”
He did not understand what he was told. “H-half? Half of my bones?” Markus, Leon and Sarko took hold of his limbs, and remained steadfast against his thrashing while forcing him to lay on it. Mea drew her wakizashi.
She stabbed the blade through his right wrist joint, deep into the table, separating his radius and ulna from the hand, and tore the latter off with her monstrous strength, skin, flesh and tendons ripping wetly.
The blade came down once, twice, thrice more times, for his other hand and his feet.
Ceremonially, Mea recited: “One hundred and six: Your Bounty of Bones is paid. Go forth, and repent for your sins.” Her voice came through, crystal-clear over Stauffen’ screams of agony.
The ritual punishment complete, the Captain spoke again. “Thank you, Holy Ghost. Medical aid will now be provided to you, Stauffen.” The poor devil was not in a state to process anything he was saying, covered in blood and tears as he was. Leon looked at the shaking wretch approvingly before turning to Mea and thanking her.
A few minutes later, the room was clean once more, and ready to receive the next interviewee. Leon had left with the KFP traitor, to give the news to his rescued countrymen, and Markus had swapped places with Aria, who had insisted to be present for this next meeting. For some reason, there was also that squirrel-man there.
Aria inquired, her voice soft and gentle as always “Has the anthropologist arrived yet?” The Captain nodded yes. “That’s right, she got here half an hour back or so, just went to drop her baggage to the inn, she should be with us shortly.”
This put a smile on Aria’s face, which was nice. Less nice was the challenge ahead. Schizos, traitors, traumatized prisoners, Sarko had no trouble talking to those.
Plant people? That was fucking new.
Running. Running. Running. The streets were dark, and acrid smoke billowed at every corner. They were after him, he had to run.
He looked back to look at them. They were blood and death and screams.
Cahya jumped into a hole but he found himself on his back. The blade on the wooden shaft went up and came down and killed them, and killed them, and killed them, rivers of blood spurting out of their necks, the street was full of blood, it was all red around him.
He looked at his feet and the dead man looked into his eyes and tried to talk and the blood engulfed him and engulfed Cahya and he looked up and the bloody hunk of steel crashed through his skull and-
Cahya jumped up, barely stifling a scream. His bedding was soaked with... It was soaked with sweat, only sweat. No blood, which relieved him, irrationally.
A mean shiver ran up his spine in the moist warmth of his room. This was his second night since the raid, the first had been a black, tranquil pit of recovery, but it seemed like his mind was now ready to process these events. But Cahya didn’t want to, just thinking about those images twisted a knot into his gut... Better to get busy instead.
The village seemed to be doing well as far as rebuilding went. All the houses were on the fireproof side, with the heavy use of stone and tile, so the damage there was minimal, and with all the bodies and blood cleaned out of the streets, it was easy to forget what had happened here not so long ago. The smell lingered still, however. After breaking his fast in the inn to cheers of “Squirrelator!”, Cahya headed towards the house where Aria was convalescing. She seemed to be already alright, but Mea had insisted no work be assigned to her until she considered her arm was sufficiently recovered.
The woman just yelled “Come on in!” after Cahya knocked. The Deadbeat woman was cooking some simmered meal over coal, and a wide smile exposed her brilliant white teeth when she saw Cahya. “Ah! Our Risuner Defender, good to see you. Had a good night? Come to see the Priestess?” He nodded while glancing into the pot. “Ah, it was alright. Yeah, Aria wanted me to come today.” Two black prawns were simmering in the pot, their shells shiny and metallic, and a smell of miso and green onion rose from the stove, while a few heartnuts were toasting near the coals. Cahya had just eaten, but he still found himself salivating.
“Hey don’t touch, it’s not done yet! Stick around and you can eat with Aria when it’s ready. She’s in her room, with Mea.” She accompanied her chiding with a slap on his hand and a wink. Cahya didn’t really feel in the mood for that, but he did feel a stirring he hadn’t since that night. The lady was lovely, a classical Deadbeat beauty, with silky white hair encircling her face, long smooth legs and a gap between her toned thighs...
“Ah, got it, thanks Louisa, I’ll go see them.”
The Deadbeats sure got back to normal quick. Cahya suddenly had an image of Louisa running through the streets, her skull-like Death Mask on her head and a long katana in her hands, already bloodied. This cooled his blood quick.
He knocked on the door, waited for a second and entered the room once he heard Aria say “Come in!” He’d made the mistake of barging into the room yesterday, which had confirmed some suspicions he’d had regarding the two priestesses’ relationship. This time, Mea was just sitting on the bed, inspecting Aria’s arm. The bruise had now started to fade away. Cahya still remembered the moment where the troll’s steel beam had struck Aria. Such an impact... It would have turned Cahya into a fleshbag of pulverized bones.
“Hey Cahya, good morning! You look tired, are you well?” Damn, this perceptive woman. Cahya scratched the back of his head with an embarrassed smile. Mea caressed Aria’s hurt shoulder one more time, before standing up from the bed. “Well, your joint seems to be doing well. I’ll be heading to that interview with the KFP traitor, it’ll probably go how we expect. Cahya! I didn’t get to tell you yesterday, but you did well back then, I was surprised to see you still standing, so close to a troll. Heard you even took down one of the fuckers.” The Holy Ghost approached him and put her hand on his shoulder. This gave him a jolt, he couldn’t help it. Just seeing Mea’s vulpine mask on her hip made him think of her rushing through the street filled with schizos, swinging that huge naginata around, spreading death...
“In another life, you might have made a good priest.” This was the first time Mea smiled at him without any malice. Cahya forced a grin onto his face and thanked her, then she left.
Cahya took a seat on a chair next to the bed. “Cahya, you’re still a bit shaken up, right? Here, we spend our whole lives preparing for something like this, but you were just thrown into it. I’m sorry you got embroiled into the raid. I wish I’d left you at the shrine...”
Cahya shook his head. “No, there was no way you could have known... Plus, I am here to learn about your culture. I learned a lot in the last two days.” The Risuner punctuated the sentence with an uncertain smile. He had trouble believing the authoritative, harsh woman who had organized the village’s defense was the very one in front of him. In a way, she wasn’t. “That you did, Cahya...”
Aria looked at the book on her lap. She’d been reading it before Mea checked up on her. ‘Nijisanji: A Tour of the Continent’s Peoples’. An interesting tome, to be sure, but with awfully little on rose-crowned plant people. There were vague mentions of dangerous, beastly peoples in the badlands, but not enough to draw any links. She’d have to go to the Ossex Library, or perhaps even one of the Naval Academy’s, see if they had anything on the topic... Or perhaps this anthropologist would know something.
“Cahya, you’ve seen these strange people, with the boar noses and the flowers, right?” Cahya had indeed seen them. They were all staying together in a large tent erected near the village. Thankfully, it seemed like they could eat normal food, and they seemed to really thrive now that they could get as much sun as they desired. They were... Very suspicious of the Deadbeats. There had been a moment tension, right after their liberation. After soaking up the sunlight through the deck for a bit, the Flowerheads had mustered enough strength to leave the half-sunk ship, still all huddled together...
Aria had gestured for them to follow the priestesses into the village, and they seemed to comply, for the most part. The troll’s corpse was still lying where it had fallen, too heavy to be moved easily. Most captives had to be carried one at a time, or were too out of it to have much of a reaction. Some fell to their knees praying upon seeing it, or approached it to kick or pummel it with their weakened fists.
The Flowerheads however, were moved as a group, and once they had gotten some daylight, were a bit more energetic. Upon turning the corner into the plaza, the Flowerheads in the group's front were shocked into stillness. The enormous body laid face-down on the plaza, the back of its head a horror of thick skull fragments, decaying brain matter and blood drying under the sun. Some Flowerheads soon took notice of the injury and started approaching the carcass, still in disbelief.
The small girl with the big red flower advanced towards it ahead of the others; she wasn’t as afraid as the others, but her knees still trembled while she stood next to it. The towering, tusked man stood next to her. It was immobile, but breathing heavily. The two priestesses looked at one another nervously.
Then, the red one suddenly let out a tearful scream. Her voice was cracking and straining, she visibly hadn’t produced such a loud sound in months, years. It was strange to hear it from such a cute person, but it was full of grief, victory, freedom, vengeance. Hearing this scream felt good.
Mea could hardly imagine the rancor these people had accumulated. She bathed in the feeling, respected it. But then, all hell broke loose. The red one kicked the troll’s cheek, with little effect, and kicked it again. But the huge grey thing next to her took it as a signal and started bringing its fists down in anger onto the dead flesh, soon joined by the other white-flowered boar things. A few seconds later, even the smaller, girlier white Flowerheads were wailing at the remains of their oppressor. This fake rotting smell suddenly flooded the plaza.
Again, Mea looked at Aria, a bit awkwardly. She was all for releasing a bit of pent-up tension, but they couldn’t let the goods be damaged, so to speak. A troll body, especially of this size, was a rare specimen. The Academies would want it for autopsy, it would probably be shipped to Ossex for this purpose later in the day.
The Goddess Faithful representatives were mentally deliberating the proper course of action, when the tusked one plunged his ivory into the meat and ripped out a bloody chunk, before grabbing it with its mouth in one smooth motion. Alarmingly, they all followed suit, tearing off tufts of fur from its skin and biting into the muscle, hard from rigor mortis. This wouldn’t do. Mea took a step and yelled at them to stop, with no reaction from the Flowerheads.
Aria wasn’t sure what to do about this, but she still felt a facepalm coming when Mea strode forward and jumped above the head of a feeding Flowerhead, landing heavily on the troll’s upper back. She slammed the flat of her naginata’s blade on her chest plate, and the thick metal resounded through the plaza, drawing the strange people’s attention.
The priestess pointed her weapon towards the troll’s head and drew her hand across her throat, before putting her hand on her chest. Universal gestures to say ‘I did this, I killed it, it’s mine’, or at least that was her intention. This gave pause to the Flowerheads, but the hulking grey Flowerhead moved to feed once more. Mea aimed her weapon towards the beast.
Aria knew those eyes. Mea was ready for violence, as was that huge thing. She had to intervene.
“Hey, hey!” She raised her hands in what she hoped looked like an appeasing gesture, and looked pleadingly to the red one. “Dia? Dia of Tosemi?” This seemed to snap the girl from her hungry trance and she stood back from the corpse. With some regret showing on her face said something to the other Flowerheads and pulled on the tusked-one’s wrist, making them stand back, finally. It really seemed like she had some form of authority over the other ones. The villagers looked on at the scene, visibly disturbed by the Flowerhead’s bloody mouths.
Mea, unfazed by the interaction, stepped off the corpse and sighed at the bite marks that had been added to the corpse. Dia approached her and asked her something in her tongue, before pointing her hooved hand to Mea’s weapon and then the crater of gore on the back of the troll’s head. The priestess got her meaning, and nodded slowly. She put her index on the diamond spike on the back of her weapon, and once more pointed at the troll. The other Flowerheads seemed a bit surprised by what followed. Dia took Mea’s large, gauntleted hand in both of hers and said something in her melodic tongue. The Holy Ghost bowed and said, as aloof as always: “You’re welcome.”
‘Mea and her laconism...’, thought Aria.
Thankfully, this resolution seemed to neutralize any apparent tension that might have arisen. At the very least, the Flowerheads agreed to get settled in the temporary refuge put together for them and the other rescued captives. “Yeah, I’ve seen them, from afar. They didn’t seem too cheery, so I didn’t want to bother them.” Aria seemed satisfied with Cahya’s answer.
“Good. I’m going to try to speak to some of the Flowerheads later today. I noticed that the scent coming from their flowers seem to have some... Some kind of meaning. You Risuners have a good sense of smell, right? I’d like you to sit in the interview with me, and just let me know if you notice any slight changes with your nose. Could you do that?” The request came out of the left field, but Cahya accepted with no hesitation. This felt like the least he could do.
Cahya looked at the Deadbeat captain's fancy watch once more. They were about forty minutes deep into this meeting.
The Flowerheads' refugee tent was now quite crowded. All twenty-four of them were huddled on one side of it. On the other, Moriji's diplomatic dream-team. Captain Sarko, who seemed to be interested in anything for the first time since he arrived in the village. Feirah, the pointy-eared anthropologist, she'd rushed here on her bike from two towns over once she'd learned of the odd visitors. The two heroes of the village, Goddess Faithful priestesses Aria and Mea, though the latter was standing taciturnly in a corner, keeping an eye on the Tusked One. And finally, little old Cahya, feeling definitely out of his depth, sniffing away at the air desperately.
So far, a gentle sugary aroma was all he'd been able to detect. If Flowerhead had an odor for relaxed apprehension, this must have been it, based on the creatures' expressions.
Most of what they'd done so far was establish formalities. Things had started out quite slowly. The first stratagem was to have Feirah throw the damn book at them. The girl was a true polyglot, she seemed to know every tongue spoken south of her homeland of /bakatare/. Cahya was intensely curious as to how the elvish girl had found her way to Moriji from there. Based on her paler skin and thinning limbs, she'd probably been on the island for five to ten years, enough to complete her degree and some. He'd have to ask her about it after...
She started with Aria's suggestions based on the Schizo fleet's probable trajectory: a smattering of NijiImperial tongues, Pomurese, Dragoon, Ethyrian family languages, strange tongues from the NijiID and NijiKR lands, Feeshlandese, Elirian. The Flowerhead's reactions ranged from utter unknowing to frowns of effort at trying to remember why a sound rang a bell. Once in a while, they erupted in chatter at a certain word, repeating it to each other. This occurred when the woman of science asked them "How long were you with the schizos?" in Dragoon. One of the big white-flowers repeated the Dragoon word for schizo while striking his palm with his fist. This topic made a faint odor of spoiled fruit mingle with the sweetness, and after Cahya told that to Aria, she had Freiah move on to the next language.
After a bit over a dozen different tongues, they had established the Flowerheads probably were from the lands under the purview of Ninisani, with words from Selenium and Pomerania being most often recognized.
Aria turned to the captain. "That's in the neighborhood of the last location recorded in that captain's log."
Sarko was nodding thoughtfully when Feirah piped up. "On the coast South of Ethyria? It's a frigid tundra, no one lives there... To my knowledge. If they are native from this region, this is a huge discovery!" Her eyes glimmered at this opportunity, either from the excitement of furthering her domain, or from the incredible paper she might write based on this.
However, the priestess remained somber. "Hmm. Let's try the next thing." She cleared her throat, and took a few seconds to wrap her head around the strange syllables and odd sounds required by the Kronie tongue. "Hello. This is yes Clock sounds. Do you know it?" The words sounded off even as they came out of her mouth. She was quite out of practice, Aria had learned Kronie back at the Holy Academy; and even got to practice it a good amount when a group of clock soldiers collaborated with her then shrine in a trans-imperial operation in the Moriji Sea. Unstable, and awfully forward in their hopeless advances, but they were decent soldiers and good conversation partners. But this had been years ago.
Still, it seems her idea bore fruit. The eyes of most of the Flowerheads lit up at her sentence, and half a dozen of them started shouting at once.
"Yes!" "I speak Clock" "I do!", the tent got quite noisy all of a sudden. Aria sighed at this helpful development. Mea clanged her thick gauntlet on her breastplate, quieting the crowd.
Captain Sarko broke the silence, in Moriji at first. "Good thinking Aria. As you said, the prisoners will have picked some stuff up over their years in captivity." He continued, now in impeccable Kronie speech, only slightly accented. "Could one of you speak for the others?"
The few members who'd spoken looked at each other, and after some mutters, the one called Dia of Tosemi spoke out, her words laborious, slow, but clear. "I speak best. I will speak."
Aria looked at the girl once more. Beige and plain, the shift she was wearing was meant for children, but fit her well. In the few days since their liberation, her flower had grown even bigger and brighter in color, the petals looking like they'd soaked up the sun. They looked full and healthy, nothing like the wilting, frail things they were back in the hold. Like all the other captives, the Flowerheads were found dirty and naked. The first time Aria had seen some of them smile was after they were led to a stream nearby, where they could clean themselves, and again after they were offerred simple clothing with which to cover themselves, for which they were thankful. The village had nothing that could fit the Tusked One, so Dia had helped use a bedsheet as a rudimentary loincloth.
"Dia, tell. Who is your people?" There was a beat while Dia processed Aria's question.
"Aria, we are Rosebuta." This last word sounded strange in the Kronie sentence. Feirah was scribbling in her notebook furiously.
"Rosebuta..." Aria let the word linger in her mouth, making sure she got the pronunciation right, which seemed to warrant Dia's approval.
Aria thanked her, but was a bit apprehensive about her next question. "Dia, who was troll chief?" Cahya noticed a hint of rot begin emanating from the group right away and let Aria know while Dia assembled her sentence.
"He was schizo and monster. He hated and killed." Her strange hooved hands were shaking, balled up into clawed fists.
But Aria pressed on. "Do you know name?"
The small Rosebuta looked into an empty patch of the tent's ceiling, defiant. "Wiltock Turner." Voice dripping with poison, she spat the two words out.
"And he was schizo lord?" Aria couldn't help but lean forward after asking this.
"No, he was lord's brother. Wiltock brother was schizo lord." Some Rosebutas behind Dia began muttering something to her, and she followed up with a question of her own. "His name is Karltick Turner. Is he dead?"
Aria raised an eyebrow to Sarko and Mea. "What does he look like? Was he captain of big ship?" Now, Dia had to properly discuss with her compatriots, this seemed to require the pooling of some information.
"He was very cruel too. He is Kronie man with nice clothes. He has metal left arm and many guns always. He was captain of small fast ship, but Wiltock always did everything he asked. Karltick also... H-he did the rituals." It seems this information brought up some bad memories; a full-body shiver shook her small shoulders, and she grasped the Tusked One's claw in her hand.
"Rituals?" The troll-related rituals were a very unknown domain of schizology, Aria was stunned.
Captain Sarko barked a question to one of his aides. "No Captain, the Ossex patrol did not encounter the fleeing caravel. Its current whereabouts are unknown." was the aide's response. The officer took off his hat, frustrated.
"I've seen no metal prosthetic-wearing schizo since my arrival, not amongst the bodies, nor among the prisoners. Have you? Would be hard to miss." Aria's shoulders slumped a bit at the idea the brain of the operation was still on the loose.
"Send a bird to HQ, put everyone on the lookout for that ship. We've got a good ID on it, and it's limping around. It'll sink or we'll find it." Mea spoke to the captain with confidence, before turning to the Rosebutas.
"No, Karltick not dead. Will soon be. He runs." The porcine people seemed unsettled by this revelation. But Mea did not wait for them to quiet, and continued in her heavily accented Kronie. "You said he made ritual. How make ritual?"
The small red Rosebuta grasped her bare upper arm. Her lower lip trembled as barely audible words escaped it. "The rituals all need magic thing, and torture."
The tall Ghost shook her head. "Chuubanite and mental anguish, the ingredients of all schizo recipes, yes." She continued in Kronie: "We know. Increase details? What do ritual do?" Mea's tone was even, calm. But implacable. A sour note had joined the scents permeating the tent's air. Dia's petals shook slightly.
"Th-they're to make schizo stronger... They... Take from us, take magic, and then they hurt us..." A pause. The girl looked to Mea, pleading. The bright pink gems of her eyes showed no emotion. She waited for Dia to continue. "They open holes in us, and take blood, or take flower leaves. Sometime, they take too much, and comrade is dead, and then they eat the comrade. After they eat, they do things so we hurt." Dia's eyes shimmered with the light of the sky filtering into the tent from a piece of bound tarp. Cicadas were buzzing brightly outside, it was a warm and pleasant day. Aria couldn't help but think of this while Dia recounted these memories.
"Karltick would take us, and say Rosemi had left, and then he would take a metal stick and bring it on arms and legs until they are broken. Or he took a knife and cut off a little skin and flesh. He cut very small and thin so he cut many many times, many, many times, for hours..." There were strange hairless blemishes on the skin of the Rosebutas, especially noticeable on their arms and chests. Mea now recognized this as scar tissue. The Tusked One's body was almost completely covered in such scars. Tears were tracing wet trails around Dia's small snout.
"Wiltock, and the others th-they... After eating, they take Rosy..." Dia opened her hand and pointed it towards herself and the other feminine Rosebutas. "They would take us a-and they, ah, they..." Her hooves were digging painfully into her arms, her eyes staring a hole into the ground. She kept stuttering, but the words wouldn't come out.
Finally, one of the male Rosebuta put his hand on her shoulder, and spoke in her stead. "They defiled them. First was Sophia, early after we get captured. We kill her. But she made no seed. Many of us turn Babirusa after. Then, when they defile again, we do nothing. Wiltock did it many time before he was troll. Then, once he was troll, he only want Dia." The atmosphere had changed. Dia's face was frozen, a mask of suppressed fear. The sour smell of bile was now obvious to all present. Cahya thought it came from the Tusked One.
Aria clenched her fist, and relaxed it. She was annoyed at how nonplussed this left her. In her line of work, she met many rape victims, her horror was blunted by a sense of familiarity.
"You got that, Aria? After he became a troll. These people witnessed a trollification." Aria nodded at Mea's words. She didn't like pushing the Rosebutas this much, but this was critical information. Trollification was still a complete mystery. "Yeah, Mea. We'll have to keep this in mind. Let's move on from this line of questioning for now."
Sarko had been jotting down both the exact words of the conversation as well as a translated transcript the whole time. "Holy Ones, we should try to figure out what to do with them." The two priestesses showed their approval, and Sarko adressed the Rosebutas. "Thank you for your cooperation so far. Friends, you are very, very far from home. You are in a land where we prize freedom most of all. Your fate is in your hands. If you want to return home, we will strive to make that happen, as we do with all captives rescued from schizos. If you'd like to remain here, we can help you find a place on Moriji. No need to make a decision now, you can think this over. Do you have any questions?"
The Rosebutas turned to each other once more, and they began talking, calmly at first, and then with more agitation. There seemed to be some division among them. Cutting through the hubbub, a low growl came from the Tusked One, a single word. Dia seemed to vehemently support his opinion, and soon, some of the bigger Rosebutas were also nodding in agreement.
The conversations went on for some time afterwards, while the Deadbeats and Cahya conversed about their findings and theorized, the Rosebutas discussed their futures. There were more heated words, some supplications, but eventually, Dia addressed their hosts thus: "We have chosen." The Rosebutas split into three groups. One of the men, a wilted and slouching one, surrounded by three other males and a Rosy, spoke up. "I would see home again, before I die."
A white-flowered Rosy holding her arms was next, speaking for a second group. These Rosebutas were smaller and seemed less weathered than the others, Aria would have guessed they were a bit younger. It counted four males and five Rosies. "I don't want to go on ship. I stay here. I don't think they want me at home..." One detail from one of the men's explanation earlier intrigued Aria. 'They raped Sophia, and then the Rosebuta killed her? Is this what is done to raped women in their land?' There would be better times to broach the subject later on, but if this was accurate, she could see why some of the Rosies would be hesitant to return home.
Sarko bowed slightly "You are welcome to live in Moriji, the Goddess Faithful can assist in your smooth integration into our people." The last group was the largest, made of Dia, the Tusked One, six males and two more determined-looking Rosies. Dia had replaced her mask of fear with one of resolve over the course of their discussion.
"We do not want a home, not Tosemi nor here. We cannot rest yet. First, we need justice."
A rare sight; Mea showed a genuine smile. "You want help us catch bastard?" The Tusked One made a slow nod. "We must. Unchained, Rosebuta friends are strong warrior. And I know Karltick the most." Dia's words now lacked all the frailty they'd had earlier.
Mea chuckled. "A pig after my own heart..." She clasped her hands together and bowed towards the Rosebutas. "I will lead search. You will help me." The group bowed as well, even the Tusked One, once Dia pulled on his wrist.
The Black Fleet Captain seemed satisfied with this, and looked over his notes another time, and spoke to his fellows. "Well, I think this covers everything on my agenda. Do we have any other concerns?" No one said anything for a few seconds. Cahya was looking forward to the end of this ordeal, his brain felt fatigue from focusing so strongly on his nose. Feirah broke the silence: "D-do you think I could inspect one of them without the clothes? I'd like to complete my anatomical sketch..."
Aria sighed hard enough to empty her lungs. "Looks like we're done here."