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Yakumo's dream had become considerably more complicated over the past week. Once it had simply been : "March to Center, say the right things that will move everyone's hearts and peace will be".
Now she was dreaming of empires with complex infrastructures, health care and a fair justice system. Had she found other humans before her imprisonment she would not have been able to bring peace, she may even have been forced to be their weapon. Maybe such a thing had already happened in one of the past timelines, an abhorrent realization that nevertheless gave her comfort. As unpleasant as her current situation was, she now was somewhere where she could make a difference.
"Should I be suspicious of your good mood?" croaked a familiar voice. Yakumo looked up at Unga.
"Do you find a reason to be?" Yakumo said with a smile. The crone shrugged and walked over to the table.
"What'cha doing?" she asked, leaning over the papers on which Yakumo had been drawing — few reptilians possessed actual written language, but they knew their way around drawings well.
"Ensuring that everyone gets the food they need. I never had an idea how much different stomachs there would be. Some can only eat vegetables, others only rotting meat, and it all needs to be equally distributed too."
"Stronger ones should get more food. They're gonna be more useful," Unga said.
"That will only mean the weaker will die sooner and —"
"Shut it! Should I make Ryuma attentive of this and have him give orders on this matter, hm?"
Yakumo pressed her lips together and glared back, but offered no more protest. As long as she was in charge, she could still ensure some fairness. With Ryuma that chance was blown.
"Good girl," Unga said, then looked around the room. "Now, ... you there."
The appointed servant, Easchu, stepped into the room.
"Once she is done, escort her to the throne room. Lord Ryuma has ordered a formal dinner."
The crocodile nodded with a bow and stepped to the wall, waiting.
When Unga was gone, Yakumo breathed out a sigh of relief and shoved the papers aside. The ice table before her still shimmered with scrying magic.
"What's wrong, lady Yakumo?"
"Nothing, I was just watching an old ..." The crocodile simulated a smirk as well as he could, tapping his head once.
"Old mail? Or new?"
He was onto her, heavens knew how.
"I ... I have an alliance with the rebels. They should have contacted me already. All we receive is one good report after another, but no word from them.
The crocodile nodded, seemingly unsurprised at her revelation. "I figured you would have something else cooking in secret. If you had been using the scrying power to find humans, the time you keep that magic active would have to be longer."
"How did you know? Neither Ryuma nor Unga realized I can use the silver serpents this way."
"Ryuma controls weather and water, but not life. I noticed the serpent you placed into that table breathing. I'm not the only one ... be glad so few servants enjoy chatting with their lord when he is tired. But ... you can talk to him. Maybe you should tell him that something is keeping the information from coming in?"
He had a point. She could always tell him she had been searching for Center and noticed it because of that.
Yakumo indeed found Ryuma at dinner, though he arrived late and ruffled, and simple continued scribbling in a holographic program before even looking at his food. Yakumo and the kittens had already gone through one course by the time he was done.
It was best to have him at ease when speaking to him, so she waited till he had eaten some before breaking the subject.
There he sat at the other end of the table, suddenly trying his very best to uphold his aristocratic air. That's what this all was about, formal dinners, ice castles : still trying to play the emperor. In a way, he was his own puppet.
"Ryuma, I—" she said loudly to reach the other end of the table.
"Lord Ryuma," he barked back.
"Kits, come," Yakumo said. She lifted Rei and Sen on the table and handed them her plate. Sanju carried the smaller plates of her and her brothers, while Yakumo herself dragged her chair along.
"What are you doing? I didn't give you permission to do that!"
"We can't have a proper conversation with this long table between us. I'm sitting next to you."
"I don't want those furballs anywhere near my food, they'll get hair in it!"
"They've been bathed this morning, there should be no problem," Yakumo said as she arranged her chair at the right corner of Ryuma's.
"No?" He lifted a yellow strand from his food. "Look what just blew onto my food."
"That's your own, Ryuma. None of the kittens have long curly hair." Yakumo barely refrained from adding something about his current bathing habits. Not that he reeked yet, but in contrast to before it was apparent he'd been neglecting himself.
Ryuma glared at the treacherous hair, then tossed it away and transferred that glare to Yakumo.
"What do you want?"
"I want to talk. I think there is a barrier that prevents us from getting any message from the riverlands outside of the reports of Mashuranbo's actions."
"So what? There's nothing but his success to tell us about, we're winning!"
Yakumo played with a leaf on her plate, considering whether she really wanted to lie about her actions. Maybe it was necessary to make him listen now, but if he found out in the future ... she needed his trust, a lie could destroy that so easily. Besides, telling him she'd been searching for Center might be interpreted as an escape attempt ... no.
"It is a select passage, so you won't notice. I was looking at ... I was working on our food distribution and sources when I noticed it. For example, we don't have fish, which some of our recruits need to survive. This could be solved by —"
She'd never said that the food division was how she had found out, only that that was the time she had come to the conclusion. If Ryuma's lack of thinking things through properly was anything to be relied on, he wouldn't notice that.
"Nonsense, I would know about it if there was an astral barrier."
Off course, there was also his pride to prevent him from any sort of logical conclusion.
"Ryuma, will you just for one moment consider you might be wrong?"
"No, but I'm willing to turn brat into a title," Yakumo said.
If looks could kill, nobody would be using that phrase as a metaphor and the world would look very differently. For one thing, it would be full of people who killed people whom they really would not want dead. Yakumo understood this all too well, so Ryuma's efforts to intimidate her were fruitless.
"Why is the table shaking?" Sanju said.
"It is?" Yakumo looked at the kittens, all of which had stopped eating and were with their tiny paws on the table.
"I think so too! It feels just like when we're in the water golems, whenever we smash into the walls! But I think it's much farther away," Rei and Sen both said.
Ryuma lightly rested his fingers on the table and felt.
"We're under attack!" Ryuma stood up at once, left his anger at the table and was out of the room before Yakumo could even react.
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With utmost silence, Lucifen landed on the icy ridge. The mutants in the canyon were snarling and howling at the invaders, but a spell kept them from climbing up. The same spell would have triggered an alarm when anyone entered or left the canyon, but Ryuma's minister had given her the words to bypass it.
About twenty elite soldiers landed at her side. The only general she had taken along was Rabe; Karas and Gabriel led armies, their absence would have been noticed too quickly. Though she prevented the riverlands from sending particular messages to the castle, she would rather have the riverland resistance would only knew she had the Himalaya when it was too late for them.
Rabe had a station at Mechano City and it was not uncommon for him to not be seen for several days on end. His elite soldiers were specialized in quick, painless cardings. Silent cardings. Noise was reserved for the diversion army outside, which was firing at the castle from the sky.
Ryuma's storms could generate electromagnetic pulses of a variety most harmful to her technology oriented troops. As such, her diversion troops were hopelessly underpowered and would easily be defeated once Ryuma summoned an ice storm.
Lucifen had not told them they were just a diversion and had given them a complex plan to execute, so they would not retreat to hastily. They had to honestly believe they would achieve something, lest the ruse was cracked too soon. No matter how loyal her soldiers were, they would always be one or two not loyal enough once they learned they were on a kamikaze mission.
Rabe looked back, to the far end of the canyon. A glimpse of the sacrifice army was visible there. His face was as expressionless as a raven would be, but she knew him well enough to guess what he thought.
She placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered, "It is necessary."
"I know, my queen," he said as he turned to her. "Let us hope our informant was truthful, so it can end without being a wasted necessity."
Rabe always said something like this whenever she had to make a sacrifice. In my timelines, she had answered it would not be in vain with certainty. After so many worlds of failure, she kept her hope silent.
They entered through what appeared an ordinary cave.
Lucifen had been in this castle once. In practice, she had gone through the same event a few times, but a close eye had always been on her and she had been unable to thoroughly explore. Like his son, the Ryuzen had a knack for scrying and would know if she had done anything he did not like. Most of her information came from Ryuma's treacherous minister.
The arenas and dungeons were below ground but the primary castle was up a lone cliff that had only a few passages leading up, which would be guarded and enchanted. While in any ordinary situation that location would be a weak spot to the bird army, the weather made it a bigger problem than conquering the subterrenean part of the castle.
A maze of small passages led them through the dungeon, which lay between the canyon and the underground arenas. This location was to make it more convenient for discarded prisoners to be throw to the wildlings down there. At the time Ryuma's father had ruled, the prisons had always been full with humans and traitors, but now they were nearly empty, much to her surprise.
It made sneaking up to the arenas easier, but she worried what this meant. Ryuma couldn't have simply grown a conscience, so where were his toys? The dimetrodon hadn't said anything about empty prisons, so something had to have changed recently.
They reached the arenas without much trouble and here Lucifen saw another worrisome thing. In the dusk, she could see strange frozen constructs lay around, like ice sculptures of robots. The scent of reptile was in the air thickly, though none were heard or seen. The halls lay before them in a state clearly used, with damaged ice and a bit of blood.
"Ryuma has been training an army, it seems," Rabe said as the ground walked past the edge of one of the pits.
"I can tell that much. That would explain the lack of prisoners, he hasn't had time anymore to play. What I'm more curious about is these things," she said as she walked to the nearest ice sculpture. It seemed entirely harmless, but still, it was too random.
She knelt down and wiped some of the surface shivers of ice away and tried peering through the sculpture. Nothing but ice and some rocks ... wait, ... round rocks with a glimmer of magic emanating from them. Her heartbeat increased when she realized this had to be a weapon. The butterfly effect had the uncanny ability to ruin all her plans. These were a lot of butterflies.
"My queen, we have company," Rabe whispered. Her head snapped up and she looked where Rabe pointed.
At the far end of the pit three kittens emerged from a passage.
"Sanju, you can't do that!"
"But we're the best, we gotta help them!"
Those three cousins of Kutal.
Rabe and his group visibly relaxed, but Lucifen tensed up more.
Their uncle had lived in North America, they went on a journey to find him and landed in the middle of the Asian rainforest despite having no transport, rations or method of travel and yet they happened to be right at the same spot where Yakumo's group emerged from hyperspace. That coincidence was beyond contrivance, it was impossible. As humans had liked to say, it was like getting the middle finger from destiny.
Behind her, Rabe gave the signal for the kittens to be captured before they could raise the alarm.
A masochistic sense of curiosity overwhelmed Lucifen. What would go wrong now?
Her soldier was quick, but not quick enough. The moment the kittens saw him, they darted to the nearest ice sculptures. Right into them.
The soldier stopped in shock and she heard Rabe take in air. Even she herself was amazed at the sight.
Three aquatic armors of ice and drifting liquid rose up, drawing in the water around them to grow larger. They were like robots, but with a mobility far beyond them. Within seconds, the kittens were replaced by a triple tidal wave enforced with razorsharp ice.
The soldier nearest to them was grabbed by a water tentacle and instantly frozen. He shattered apart and a card drifted to the ground.
"Retreat!" Lucifen called.
Barely had the birdfolk reentered the passages or the waterrbots collided with the wall. It took them only seconds to flow into the passage, adapting their form as easily as water did. Within a glance over her shoulder, Lucifen saw the kittens inside, in a bubble of air surrounded by the magical stones; their conductors she guessed.
No choice but to run.
"We won't let you hurt Yakumo!" the female kitten screeched. Through the water, the tiny voice merged distorted and hollow. Within the span of that sentence, she lost three more soldiers.
The passages were not wide enough to fly and did not slow down their attackers, so the birds fled into the next arena. The moment they could fly, they took to the air. A few seconds to think were all they got, because the kittens drew together more water and grew into the air as an upward waterfall. The heads and arms of the aquatic bots had merged together, but halfway to the ceiling they separated again and reached for the scattering birds.
Lucifen barely managed to pull Rabe out of the way.
"Go the the balcony," she ordered him. "Continue upward and reach a mirror chamber!"
"But queen, I —"
"You are not strong enough to deal with this, but you can take over this castle's magic!" she said.
A grasping hand tentacled their way and they shot to another part of the massive hall. From there, she pushed Rabe in the direction of the balcony and hoped his memory was as good as hers when it came to the map.
One of the kittens saw him and tried to give chase, catching him by the leg. Lucifen acted at once. In the rush of her descent, she transformed into her battle mode and unleashed her sonic wave straight at the kitten.
It worked long enough for Rabe to get away, but did not do the damage it should have done on such weak Enterrans.
"What are you doing, kids? Bothering with the ordinary soldiers and not the queen?" she called.
Even if they were cats with all their sharp senses and equipped with amazing magic, they were still children and fell for it blindly. All three of them turned to her. Who remained of the soldiers didn't need an order to follow Rabe.
The kittens surrounded her and Lucifen was struck by the ridiculousness of the situation. A mighty bird like her being threatened by these tiny cats. Then again, that was what technology made possible and she had some admiration for that.
If she wanted to, she could easily blow up the entire castle, but that would just destroy the magical core that Ryuma had here to control the weather, not to mention it would ruin her cover. So she kept it with a low key energy attack, delivering one in each direction.
The waterarmors, at that point mostly ice, were throw back and liquefied. The energy absorbed into the water and simply conducted right into the ground, where the water had melted. The moment it was led off, it froze again.
Dammit. It looked like she was going to have to play mouse.
Lucifen dove into the passages again and ran. At every corner, she stopped to release a sonic wave at her stupid pursuers. This way she bought herself time out of the kitten's disorientation.
Through the passages, she found a small storage chamber and dove into it, then kept perfectly quiet.
Surrounded by water like that, the cats would be unable to smell and hear as well as they could normally. Ryuma did not seem to have made an adaption for that; if he had done so, her sonic attack would not have been hampered by the water.
She took out the cards of the three generals she had already killed and considered her options. Kraken's aquatic powers would come in very handy right now, but there was one mayor drawback. If one absorbed female Enterrans they retain consciousness and would have their face stick out of the absorber's chest or stomach, an obvious weakness. Lucifen suspected that the humans that had designed the encards had some serious sexism problems, because so far she had found no other rhyme or reason to this gender specific feature.
She didn't look forward to dealing with Kraken's mind, but it was her best choice. For good measure, she absorbed Chimeras too. He had been ruler of a the mythic beasts and controlled phantom energy, an element she could use for influencing lifeforce, in other words, a way to knock out a creature with low energy cost. More importantly right now, it also allowed her a little control over what she became.
A long, barbed tail emerged below her wings. Her legs morphed into a tail with sharp fins and two horns grew on her head. Scales covered her legs and her armor morphed into something that covered more than just her torso. For the first time since she had entered the mountains, she felt warm again.
Kraken's awareness dripped into hers as the sea queen's face emerged from her stomach and merged with the armor. She was deeply annoyed and resentful and wondered how to hinder Lucifen, but most overpowering though was the humiliation. Chimeras was blissfully unaware.
"~ For what it's worth, I've been there too," Lucifen offered quietly, then fought off the emotions and concentrated.
She recalled the map and dove into the nearest open space, an intersection of several passages. Harnessing all her energy for the deciding moment, she called out, "Where are you, little fools? Afraid already?"
For extra measure, she slammed her tail against the nearest solid piece of ice and shattered it. If those water senses worked anything like she thought, they'd come.
The available energy of these two generals was at best enough to give herself maybe two, three seconds of frozen time. It would seep all her power, large energy attacks were out of the question, so she would need them to be within range.
They arrived at almost the same time. From three sides, they dove onto her as a mass of frozen spikes. Almost idly, Lucifen wondered whether they understood what it was like to kill.
Then she froze time.
With her hands and tail, she aimed tiny energy beams of Chimeras' making at the kittens. In this state energy could only travel by her will, not distracted by any moving particles. The kittens were hit easily.
Time continued and the waterarmors fell apart. The unconscious kittens dropped to the ground and Lucifen staggered on her feet.
To Kraken's amusement, Lucifen had to lean against the wall to fight off a wave of pain in her limbs and head. She started to realize Kraken had messed with her water control and her body felt dried out. She forced the sea queen's power to replenish her, which took a brief but intense mental struggle.
Time freezing was a great power, but exhausting because it needed energy not just for the time magic, but also light magic, mass magic, air magic and a multitude of other things that kept her from being killed by her own powers and orient herself. It took her a moment to fully recharge, and even then she was at low power.
Once she could stand straight again, she walked to the nearest kitten and picked it up. The male with green vest, called either Rei or Sen; she had never bothered learning their names. Casually, she snapped his neck and caught the emerging card between two fingers, crumbling it her hand.
She was about to pick up the next kitten when a sound reached her ears.
A crocodile Enterran emerged from one of the passages, grinning widely, or perhaps he was just out of air. It was hard to tell with that sort.
"I'm so sorry, bird queen, but my leader would find these little ones very interesting."
Out of his mouth shot a frog tongue, drawing in the two remaining kittens. With them in still between his teeth, he turned tail and raced off.
Lucifen was about to pursue, but was hit with another wave of dizziness. Once it passed, she could no longer hear where the crocodile had gone. In this maze, she stood no chance to find him anymore.
She felt Kraken's face on her stomach snickering.
"Shut up!" Lucifen snapped.
Forcing herself to recompose, she set off to join Rabe and hoped nobody in this castle knew how to heal up those damn cats.
· · · · · · ·
"Sanju, Rei, Sen, where are you?"
Ryuma and his dragons had gone out to deal with the army and he had dragged along any Enterran who could marginally fight regardless of whether they could fly — they just had to make do with dragonriding that they'd never been trained for. Yakumo had gathered all others together and was arranged evacuation, just in case. She was nearly done and had already sent some on their way, only to find the three kittens missing.
She had considered letting Saki and Sakura search, but since they were mute they would not be able to call their names. Most guards she did not trust to not eat them. So, she went herself, despite Unga's protests.
She ran through the castle and ordered the serpents of her dress to taste the air. Soon, they directed her down a specific road. It became apparent quickly she was led to the room Ryuma most frequently used to scry and consult his ministers.
Why would the kittens have gone there? She had expected them to go the the arenas, despite having been forbidden to fight; Ryuma didn't trust them yet due to their loyalty to her. The road to the arenas was locked though, so perhaps they had gone to that room to try and open it?
As she approached she hears noise, but it wasn't any feline bickering. She found the enemy instead.
A group of humanoid crows was in the mirror chamber, hacking into the magic of the castle. All had their hands on a mirror and around the room, cards were scattered and the mirrors showed the magic symbols that held together the entire castle and its impossibilities.
Yakumo didn't hesitate to step into the room and eject her silver serpents, charging them with the power of her gem. Forcefully she pulled all the Enterrans away from the walls and piled them at the center of the room.
The apparent leader was a little too quick and managed to cut off the snakes aimed at him. She withdraw it and stared him down.
"Yakumo Shindo. I can't say it is an honor to meet you, but it might be interesting," he said. "My name is Rabe."
Yakumo quickly carded two of the attacking soldiers, but returned focus to the leader. She had twelve snakes out and seriously considered carding him too. If the magic of the castle fell, it would be the end of all they had here. He seemed to read this intent, for his next words were,
"If I am gone, Karas will be the supervisor of Mechano City. From what my queen told me, he has been so in the first timeline. He is a skilled general but a cruel governor. Are you certain you want to kill me?"
Yakumo drew back her serpents a little, frowning at the unusually calm bird. From her downloaded knowledge, she had a vague idea he was one of Lucifen's generals or ministers — the bird definitions were blurred greatly — and that he was known as one of the kindest. He apparently had won over Mechano City with peaceful negotiations. Even if it weren't for her compassion, the welfare of the robots was crucial : they'd be their strongest allies against Lucifen.
"If what I've learned of you is true, it might have been nice meeting you in another time and place," she said.
"So you've gone over the information you obtained."
"Off course. Now, is there a way I can make you stop hacking our magic without carding you?"
He did not low his hand from the mirror.
"Do you really want Lucifen to lose? Who is supposed to rule then? Ryuma? Some other of the uncivilized Enterrans that crowd this planet?"
"That's for later."
"Why not for now? Did you never realize that most Enterrans are slow of mind? They live in a medieval state and have no advanced for three hundred years, leeching on left overs of the human world instead. Mashuranbo bred a world where strength alone rules. What else would he do, as the god of destruction? My queen tries to undo all this. Her nation will be strong and strive to advance by breeding intelligence."
"You honestly believe that?"
"You honestly believe not? You learned nothing from the information of our wired?"
"It tells me that your queen is skilled at propaganda, no more. I agree with neither Mashuranbo's savagery nor Lucifen's closed hierarchy. I'll admit I would prefer your queen's world though, if only for the right to not be murdered. But that world won't include me and my people, would it?"
"Is that all that matters to you?"
"No, it just means I still see hope for a different future altogether."
"Humans would have a chance, should they still exist. My lady no longer is the one she was once."
"I don't get that impression from your digital world. I know what humans are portrayed as in your culture, it's not much different from the rest of the world. Us, the humans, the devils."
Rabe sighed. "Excuse us for giving our people freedom of speech. Please understand, most of our nation does not know humans were very alike to them, more so than the average Enterran. Like your friends before they met you, they know no better than to believe the rumors of humans being evil. Do you hold them responsible for what they can't know?"
"Lucifen does not try very hard to change it, even if she knows the truth."
"There is no point for it. Humans are gone, let the nation focus their hatred on the humans. Strange as it is, it makes them more tolerant of the other Enterrans, because they share that hatred."
Yakumo frowned. "Hatred isn't truly unifying, it —"
"Yes, it is."
"For how long?"
He opened his beak to respond, hesitated for a long time. Words never came, because the door opened at that point.
"Yakumo, there's in—" Unga froze when she saw the crows. Right then, one of the soldiers burst forward and grabbed the old magician, twisting her arm behind her back.
Yakumo instinctively surged her snakes forward, but due to this didn't notice quick enough what that other sound was.
Two shots were fired, energy charges. One was caught by the magic of the dress, programmed to defend Yakumo but not anyone else.
Rabe lowered his gun and Unga slumped forward, eyes wide and empty.
Along with her, the magical balance of the castle started to wither.
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