Part 1: Arrival
Outside the city of Lookshy lay an ancient manse on an overgrown hill, abandoned and lacking power from its dragonlines when a circle of power activated. Its long dead Solar master had been cunning in hiding it, indeed; most people would not have looked on the ceiling under a fresco of the Unconquered Sun.
So when a figure appeared, upside down and quite unaware of the tricky hiding spot, she fell sixty feet to the debris covered floor. Luckily, she was quite quick to react, and her hands slapped down and stopped her from slamming head first into the piles of rock. With a quick flip, the young girl landed on her feet with preternatural grace, her blue-green eyes taking in the dimly lit ruins.
"This doesn't really look much like a palace of last defense," she muttered to herself. Well, perhaps it had been, a long time ago. But without its master, it was going to be much harder to find a way back to Athena's workshop.
She finally found her way outside, discovering that the ruins were on top of a plateau, though with how overgrown the ruins were, it looked more like a craggy hill. The rolling hills were dotted with farms, and rice patties filled the valleys between the hills as a river snaked through the area.
"Samurai?" She said, spying some sort of fantasy form of the classic Japanese soldiers. Shading her blue-green eyes, she looked off towards an ancient village about an hour away.
With a shrug, she started to trot down the hill in ground eating, loping hops. She appeared to jog along the road, though it was more due to her speed than her actual gait. The village had many huts, but also boasted a large tea house and inn with a stable that included a gryphon pen.
"Alms for the poor?" an old man sitting in the shade under a porch called as rain started to drizzle down from the gray sky. He was sitting next to another beggar that looked too weak to even beg.
"I don't really have much, but I can give you some of my change from my land, of revered one," the girl said as she dug out some coins. "They should at least sell for the novelty."
"Revered one?" he asked in a totally false manner.
"Of course, spirit one. A minor kami, if I am not mistaken." She gave him a smile that displayed her dimples.
"You have discerning eyes. You are correct. I am the Virta, Beggar of the Three Fold Road and Fields of Misa, little god for the lost of life." The minor godling bowed at the waist.
"Sheila, daughter of Athena," the girl replied as she returned his bow.
"You do not have any purviews or domains?" the old looking godling asked.
"I'm not a goddess yet, so cannot really claim such an eminent thing. And 'damned little brat' really doesn't quite have that legendary ring," she replied as she sat down on the porch next to him and his beggar friend. "So tell me of these lands, for I am afraid I am from very far away."
"This village holds allegiance to Lookshy, home of the 7th Legion of the Scavenger Lands," He paused for a moment, seeing a lack of comprehension on her face, "None of this means anything to you, does it?" the godling asked, looking perturbed as he pulled out a long pipe to light it up and start smoking.
"I'm afraid not. And the great lands? The continents?" the demigoddess asked.
"There is the Realm, under the Scarlet Empress, and then the islands of the far west. Otherwise there are the periphery lands; the fire to the south, the wood of the east and the wind of the north. You can walk these lands if you are patient enough, but it would take years. Yet you speak the tongue of the River Folk." Virta pursed his old lips around his stained pipe.
"I am able to learn languages just by hearing one sentence. Your greeting taught me your language, kind Virta."
The godling immediately changed to another tongue. "Is that really true?" he asked in Old Realm.
"If you are asking if I can speak this tongue, then yes I can." She gave him a grin as he started laughing.
Several of the village children were watching the strange group on the the porch of the tea house. This eventually drew out the matron as the rain drizzled on.
"Virta! Welcome Beggar King." She pulled out a small jade ring-coin. "May even your worshippers need refreshment. Who is your friend?"
"Mistress Fumi! This is Sheila, a God-Blooded that is stranded in our lands. She might need to see the services of a sorcerer. Old Regua still hangs his shingle in Lookshy, yes?"
"I think he is mostly retired, Virta. Not everyone is immortal like you. Even the Dragon-Blooded die of old age, and he is almost three hundred," the pretty Asian-featured woman said with a smile. "What a pretty color of hair, just like straw. Is that from your mother?"
"Um... it's actually fairly common where I come from. My mother is actually darker haired." Sheila stood up from her cross-legged seat. She then bowed to Fumi. "Thank you for your kindness. Is there any chores I can help with to earn a meal this day?"
"What can you do?" the matron of Blessings Tea House asked.
"Well, I'm sure I can handle any physical labor you need. I'm not sure how well I could do serving tea," the girl said doubtfully.
"You don't look especially strong," Fumi said doubtfully.
"I'm much stronger than I look," the demigoddess said as she flexed a bicep to show a defined (yet not huge) muscle.
Two hours later, Sheila had chopped all the logs the teahouse had gathered using a very large ax. She took five minutes to maintain the ax's sharpness and set it back in the shed and locked it back up. "Mistress Fumi, I have completed the task."
The petite and dainty woman came gliding out in her kimono-styled outfit. She hid her surprise at the very large piles of stacked wood. "Well then, it is time for tea. And perhaps some bread, cheese and fruits."
The inside of the tea house was laid out in private booths that people sat in low stool at the tables. There was a bar behind which a young man stood greeting customers. Between one step and another, Sheila was suddenly perfectly clean, even if her T-shirt and blue-jeans just did not fit the elegant style of the servers and rough land owners.
"So what sort of work do you do normally?" Fumi asked as she set the bowls on the table that Sheila was sitting at.
"I'm a warrior, though I was going to study at a University after the war ends. I'm actually here to learn from someone my mother met a long time ago... but I think he is actually dead." She shrugged at that. "It was thousands of years ago, but she had hoped I might find some information on fighting Titans."
"Titans?" Fumi asked. "And if you don't mind me asking, young lady, how old are you?"
"Oh, I'm only fifteen. Titans, in my reality, are the primal parents of the gods. My great-great grandparents are Titans," she explained. "They were overthrown by their children, but they recently broke free of their prison and are currently looking to kill them and their children (including myself!) and my mortal world." She popped a grape into her mouth to punctuate her finishing her explanation.
"So Titans are your Creation's version of Primordials? I am afraid you have come here for naught, young God-Blooded. The warriors that defeated the Primordials had grown evil and prideful. They are known as Anathema and hide from the current masters of the Realm, the Dragonblooded." Fumi looked slightly freaked out by the thought that this girl was looking for information on how to fight such powerful creatures. "You look a little small to be a heroine to fight such great foes."
"That is rather frustrating. Then I'll have to find someone to assist me getting back to my, Creation you say? To my Creation so that I can search another way back to my world."
That was when the noise of a large group of horsemen outside was heard. Eight men slammed open the paper doors from the porch. Fumi immediately stood up, bowing at her waist as she approached. "Please, there is no need for violence here. We are peaceful-"
The lead tough, by dint of being taller, more muscular and scarred man of about five foot six inches, loomed over the matron of the tea shop. "No, I'm afraid we are going to have to be rude and violent, madam." He slapped her hard and sent her to the ground. "Anyone here thinks they are a hero and I-"
Sheila appeared in front of him, snapping a forward kick into his chest that sent him flying through his bruisers and back outside. His bandits all followed him out, two at a time, to land in a groaning pile. "That really was rude," the slightly shorter, lithe and lighter-haired girl said as she walked out the door dusting her hands off. "There was no reason to attack Mistress Fumi."
"Well, you just signed your death writ, girl," the leader of the bandits said as he staggered to his feet and pulled out a very rusty sword. "Burn it down."
He suddenly keeled over, his head spraying blood as a crack of a gunshot echoed through the air.
That froze the rest of the bandits as they stared at the young woman that was not matching any of their expectation.
"No, you are not going to harm any to these villagers. You are going to surrender or die. That is your choice," the demigoddess stated coldly to the thugs.
One thug went for a loaded crossbow and was promptly gunned down.
The local officer of the Sumahee province rode his horse hard to the village of Misa of the Plains. He was hastily garbed in his green jade armor; a messenger had come up to his home to tell of bandits within his land. He hoped to catch them before they could disappear, as he had let rumor state he was in Lookshy for a staff meeting.
"Chozei Ushimo, there are horses and men tied up in front of the tea house. It appears there was a wandering hero," his right-hand man called out. His sharp eyes were able make out such details from about a mile down the road.
"Then some good will come of today other than some riding so I'm not so out of shape," the old officer called out in a gruff voice, even though he looked quite young.
They slowed down just a little bit, but kept their hands upon their swords' hilts. A young girl was going through a pile of weapons in the center of town next to the tied up bandits and four dead bodies. "Hello!"
Ushimo hopped off his horse like someone that was a third his age. "And who are you, young girl, to have so slain Agmir the Horrid?"
"I'm Sheila! Do I get to keep any of this as a reward? Or is there a reward? I find myself lacking in funds and stranded here," she called out. "Oh, I think Mistress Fumi and the god of Beggars mentioned that they considered me a God-blooded."
All of the soldiers with him were starting to laugh.
"Does the colored armor mean something in particular?" she asked of the grizzled leader in his vividly bright green jade-metal armor.
"Yes, it symbolizes that I am of the Wood Element of the Dragonblooded," the grizzled man said with a wry grin. "I'm surprised you did not know this, considering your obvious power."
"Stranded in Creation, actually. I'm not from around here." She was whistling happily as she organized the rough swords and daggers.
"You are from the Wyld?" Ushimo asked carefully.
All of his men froze.
"Nope." She had noted their reaction, of course. "I take it the Wyld is bad?"
"Yes, just a bit. And how do you know you are not part of the Wyld then?" The captain of the 8th Calvery Group of Lookshy asked.
"I'm way too organized. Not quite to the level of obsessive-compulsive disorder, scientifically speaking, but I like things in their place."
"You do speak in a strange way. What are your intentions then?"
"To go home. Your Primordial Slayers are all gone and so there is nothing here to learn." She sighed at that. "I understand there is an old mage named Regua in the city of Lookshy?"
"Well, perhaps part of your reward for capturing these bandits will be papers of visitation so that you can seek this Regua of Lookshy." The name sounded familiar to Ushimo, but he could not quite remember.
"That would be quite kind."
"In fact, I insist that you stay the night at my manor. I would like to take supper with you."
The manor was a Japanese-styled castle, fairly small as things went. Just a small fortified main building with steeple-roofs on top of a small hill. Sheila was led by a servant to some quarters and told that there would be a small, formal supper in about an hour.
"Formal. My mother was right," Sheila grumbled as she dragged her traveling wardrobe out of its pocket space and set it down carefully.
The servant blinked in surprise as the wardrobe was opened and different dresses were pulled out. There was, amazingly enough, a kimono of blue and yellows that Athena had included in a style that would almost not be noticed as slightly different. Then they did up her hair.
"So would a sword be considered required?" Sheila asked the servant carefully as her hair was put up with hair-pins.
"If you are a warrior, it would be required," the dark-haired girl replied.
"I figured as much."
So that was how Sheila ended up arriving for the supper with her black longsword Hadecleus carefully inserted in her waist wrap. Ushimo also saw that she had a handle that was very like the sort used for a hand-crossbow or the southern fire wands protruding from the wrap. She bowed politely to him before seating herself in front of the low lying table.
"You clean up very nicely, though I do have to say that hair the color of the sun is quite striking. And your skin is naturally pale and of clear complexion. My home is brightened by your presence," the older Dragon-Blood said as he tilted his head slightly. In fact, he was understating her beauty, as the sunflower actually outshone most of the pretty woman that he knew in Lookshy.
"And I am very honored to be allowed to visit such an illustrious homestead. Your courtesy has been exquisite. I am humbled that you would open your home to a stranger from so far away," Sheila said as she bowed her head to the prerequisite ten degrees as she let herself be guided by her legend.
That was disconcerting to the old Dragon-Blood, as the girl was obviously far from home. "I have ordered that we take supper to the sound of my daughter's lute. She is quite the catch, even if she has not yet Exalted."
Paper walls were slid back as a pretty young girl led in servants. She set herself down upon a cushion and started strumming a stanza, before singing of the beauty of a forest overlooking a sea filled with dragons.
They ate the eight course meal with decour, speaking of the inconsequential.
"Sheila, do you have any plans beyond going to Lookshy?" Ushimo asked.
"Beyond visiting Regua the Mage, not much. Really, I'll probably take a look to see how wars are fought locally. But that is more academic interest as my mother is a goddess of war, and it's something I study also."
Ushimo nodded his rugged features. "Indeed. You do not look very imposing, but you must have powerful charms and magic to subdue those villains."
Sheila blinked in confusion. "Actually, I just shot them. While my mental abilities are much more substantial than my strength, I am not weak."
"Interesting. You do not look older than fourteen or fifteen," the old soldier said as he looked over the girl with a practiced and casual look.
"I'm actually only twelve, but I've been fighting monsters for over a year and my legend has grown greatly." She nodded her head slightly before sipping at the rice wine.
"Do you mind crossing practice swords with myself?" Ushimo asked casually.
"I would be honored to do so. It is obvious that you are a puissant warrior."
They sat casually and finished the after supper drink; Sheila was juggling ideas in her head when Ushimo finally stood up. His craggy mustache was twitching as he stifled a laugh and walked out to a very small porch. A servant appeared with two wooden practice swords that were very similar to bokken.
Sheila drew upon her legend a second time to match his courtesy in the upcoming practice. "Do you have a preference on which practice weapon you would like to use?"
"Either is fine," the old man replied.
They each took one and faced the other twenty feet apart, as several youngsters sat inside the castle to watch them. They were quite surprised as the two stood motionless, facing each other for over ten minutes before both seemed to attack simultaneously.
Ichiga, one of Ushimo's younger daughters, watched in shock. "I could not see who lost the Confrontation." The girl looked barely older than her but was fighting her father to a standstill.
The clack of wood upon wood was a rapid and intemperate beat, with the setting sun behind them. Already the battle had lasted fifteen minutes longer than Ushimo would have thought possible. He had defeated many foes that were not as quick nor as strong as this strange girl from far off.
It was only as the sun was setting that he realized that Sheila was letting him not be defeated. Somehow she had determined that it would shame him to be defeated in his home and in front of his family. So far, they had traded a dizzying array of attacks and counter attacks that would have normally sent his blood boiling in battle.
And yet he had not touched her once, even when he had carefully tried to enhance his attack with several low-key charms.
He pulled back as he tried to stop his eyes from blinking due to the sweat running down his brow. "Perhaps we could continue this at a later time?"
"I would be honored," Sheila replied as she bowed her shoulders slightly.
 The Terrestrial Exalted, natural born 'elemental demigods'.
 A rank within the 'Shogunate' style militaries of Creation. Roughly a master sergeant.
Part 2: Lookshy the Vigilant
The next morning, Sheila found herself riding on a very large horse in the company of Ushimo, his guards and three of his children as they travelled along a dusty road in between farms. It looked like some sort of beet or potato crop was grown in that area.
Up ahead, a massive walled city lay on a large hill next to a massive river. "I can see why you call this a river," she called out to the old soldier, getting a laugh from him.
"This is near where it meets the Inner Sea. Mighty Lookshy has never fallen or been occupied since it was founded centuries ago." He let loose a sigh as he saw the line. "It appears we shall have to wait a little while at the gate. There is a caravan arriving."
The blonde demigoddess shrugged at that, but was more interested in seeing the archaic wagons that were drawn by horses and oxen, with a few odd beasts of legend among them, like a wyvern and a gryphon.
Then there appeared to be a metallic navy-blue golem and a group of thirty soldiers that were drawing up. The fifteen foot tall war-machine was tromping along at a decent pace with sword and spear on its back, but seemed to be limping. They had just set themselves in front of the caravan, but behind the war machine and its escort.
"Chozei Draji! What did you do to your warstrider!" the taizai at the gate called out.
"It started acting up a few miles back after a short battle with brigands. I think that someone did not complete the repairs as ordained by the crafters of the Aviary. May I be cleared to enter into Lookshy to get my warstrider repaired?" the muffled, female voice called out from within it.
"Your commanding officer will want a full report to verify that you did not push Defender of the Ultimate Bullwark too hard," he called out. He stepped out of the way and the warstrider started to lean forward to step in when something snapped, quite loudly.
The deep blue war machine tilted forward, and had started to fall upon the guards of the gate when a blur flashed over and caught the two ton machine by the scruff of its neck.
"Everyone all right here?" Sheila asked as she held up the huge magitech warmachine as easily as a grown man would carry a house cat while flying overhead. "Where would you like me to set this?"
The chuzei blinked and then pointed over to an open area in the courtyard. "Right there should be fine."
Draji was just catching up to what had happened. "My warstrider! It should not have fallen like that."
"Should I put you face down or on your back?" the demigoddess asked.
"On my back, please." The dragonblooded warrior inside was quite upset.
Once the warstrider was laid out, she opened the access hatch and started untying the Orichalcium control cables. Draji started looking around for the warrior that had saved her from seriously injuring the guards at the gate. "Who do I give thanks to for saving me from injuring my comrades?" she called out.
A very young girl of slight build coughed. "Um, that would be me. Do you mind if I look at your warstrider?"
The tall dragonblood was only a few inches taller than Sheila, but much more muscular and older looking. Draji glanced at everyone else in the courtyard and realized they were nodding at the blonde. "My thanks, girl. I am Draji the Tenacious. Of course you can look, though now I have to get a couple of other warstriders help." The other members of her heavy armor fang were going to be making fun of her for decades.
Ushimo shook his head as the girl's enthusiastic demeanor as he quickly talked to the Chuzei. "You are quite lucky, Tomi," he said.
Draji blinked as the girl casually lifted up the damaged leg to start peering into the crevices. From her pocket she had pulled out some sort of magical light and was examining it intently. The strange-haired girl frowned, then looked further inside. "I'm no expert on these devices, but that looks like it was cut through so that it would break if you leaned forward."
"What?" the dark-haired Dragon-Blood warrior yelled out in shock. "Chuzei Tomi, there may be treachery involved here."
The Guardian of the Gate frowned as he thought furiously; he could see how that could work. His treacherous second in command even had a close cousin that worked at the factory cathedral Aviary and would have been in charge of repairing the 'defective' warstrider.
Sheila clicked off her flashlight and stuffed it back in her fanny-pack, turning to watch all of them casually to see how the affair would play out.
"Chozei Draji, you will only hand your warstrider off to the high priest of the Factory Temple. Do everything to get this to him immediately, under my authority," Tomi ordered. "Chozei Ushimo, if I could have you witness this? Fichi, you are relieved of duty for the rest of the week pending a further investigation."
The younger Dragon-Blood scowled at him, but saluted, turned and then left.
Sheila leaned over to Draji, who was sitting on her warstrider's arm. "You might want to have the red-haired man over there also. He is suddenly very nervous."
"Thanks," the warrior said softly. "Remu, you are relieved of duty. Return to your home and do not leave until summoned."
Ushimo shook his head. "You seem to have a way of falling into interesting times, young Sheila."
The blonde-haired demigoddess actually laughed at that, her voice light and clear. "That is part of being of legendary stature, you keep falling into 'fateful' and 'interesting' times. How would you be tested otherwise?" She had a wide grin on her face.
"Perhaps your mother has put in a word to have you watched in the heavens," the old dragon blood noted.
"Possibly. Say, Chozei Draji, you need to get this to your 'Factory Cathedral' right? If you hire me for a decent fee, I'll do it for you right now," the young demigoddess offered while still grinning.
"You can carry a warstrider all the way to the Inner Sanctum?" she asked in shock.
"Certainly. While I'm not a patch on my uncle Hercules who actually carried the sky on his shoulders for a while, I'm pretty strong," She held up her right arm to flex its muscles like a mini-body builder.
"You uncle was strong enough to carry the sky?" Ushimo asked carefully. The old and craggy soldier was thinking furiously. "I think I might have misconstrued something. What gods are above your mother in your hierarchy?"
That got Sheila to raise her eyebrows in confusion. "My grandfather, who is King of the Gods and Mount Olympus. Athena is held in equal revere to all of his sibling and his other children."
The chozei waited for her to delineate more ranks above her grandfather, only to realize she did not seem to believe there was any above them. "That is rather shocking. I was under the impression that she was a minor war goddess of a single land," Ushimo admitted as he mentally upped her standing in her pantheon.
"I would be honored if you helped me carry my warstrider," Draji said slowly. "I would even be willing to invite you into my home afterwards."
With a bit of borrowed rope to tie the warstrider's arms to its body, Sheila hefted the giant warmachine to her far too small looking shoulders. It caused quite a stir as they walked up the wide, defensible streets after getting her the proper paperwork to travel the inner city for the day. It was quite a gaggle of humans and nonhumans that watched the very strange sight of a warstrider being carried up the street.
"And you are truly only a god-blooded, not an actual goddess?" Draji asked about an hour later as she worked to keep pace with young girl.
"Yes, still mortal here. Though I'm very close to my apotheosis. That's why Athena trusted me to travel to this far off reality to try and find a way to fight the Titans," Sheila was explaining.
Two entities were watching the last, inner gate that led to the heart of Lookshy. One was an incredibly tall man, standing about seven feet tall with a long gray beard and skin as dry as paper. By his side stood a more youthful woman in full Legion dragon plate armor, black with moonsilver chase.
"That isn't a sight you generally see," Tien Yu, the matron goddess of Lookshy's legions, said to the old god.
"A new thing in Lookshy? I cannot see if she is a threat, but she... she disturbs the essence of the city. Can you not see how it swirls around her? Only you and I do affect the flows in the land so much," Tu Yu, ancient god of the lost city that Lookshy was built upon, said with a worried, furrowed brow.
"But she seems to see Lookshy as opportunity," the powerful goddess replied. "And we should see her as an opportunity. Let us speak with the little gods of the city and not let this fall through our grasp."
"She was exactly correct. Someone sabotaged this to break if you leaned forward deeply, like many of you would to get through the small gate," the white-haired head of the Factory Cathedral said. "So there won't be any condemnation for over-working your warstrider, Draji."
Defender of the Ultimate Bullwark was on a massive platform as workers burnt incense while they prepared to work at repairing the common warstrider. High arches carried statuary and windows high over their heads. The Dragon-Blooded pilot relaxed slightly at the sight.
Sheila was quietly watching the proceedings, greatly interested in the processes involved, "So these Warstriders are very maintenance intensive, I take it?"
"You are not going to profane our work by saying you could do better, are you?" The foreman of the shift demanded.
"Not at all," Sheila said, "I was just going to suggest that if walking them to and from battle causes such wear and tear, that perhaps a conveyance that is more suited to long travel might be considered. In my lands, our war machines are sometimes carried by airplanes, ships or trucks on roads."
"I know I would be interested in a way to not wear out my warstrider before we got to battle," Draji called out politely. "It's a standard tactic to attack just after the warstriders arrived, when they are weakened. We won several battles against the Realm that way."
"Do not be afraid of new things just because they seem impossible," the head priest chided his foreman. "Come to my office and show me what you mean."
He led them to an office that seemed more suited to royalty than a working man, but it did have a large table with scrolls laid out on it.
"May I have a blank scroll to work on?" Sheila asked.
Draji had followed along like the guest she was. She watched as the young God-Blooded pulled out a short, colorful stick from her backpack and then clicked something on it a few times. In minutes she watched the girl flesh out a large wagon with huge wheels, pulled by an 'engine', a warstrider drawn to scale.
The high priest was watching closely as the design seemed to come alive. "This is quite interesting. What are these wheels made of?"
"In my land they are inflated, vulcanized rubber. Along with the shock absorbers, they should allow you to travel about twice as fast as a horse along most good roads," she gave them a grin as she continued to work. "I don't know what sort of engines you can use, but basically as long as you can spin this drive shaft here, it should go forward and backwards correctly."
"And they can truly travel so quickly?" Draji asked curiously.
"It can. The better the roads, the faster you can make your trucks," she explained.
"Well, we don't have any free resources to make something, but I'll give you some jade bits for the design." The head of the Cathedral was stretching even to give that much.
"If you ever have any questions and I'm still around, I'm willing to be hired for consultation." She gave the old man a bright smile as she internally squashed the desire to prove her design and then rub his face in it.
"Sheila, let us be off to my home. I can introduce you to my husband." Draji gave the girl a soft smile, but wondered at the anger she was sensing from the girl.
Draji the Tenacious was actually fairly well off by Lookshy standards. She had a modest home just outside of the old city. Her husband was an older Dragon-Blood who was in the Lookshy navy and currently at sea, as she learned from a letter on the mantle.
"We shall have to see about getting you a longer term visitor's pass," Draji explained the next morning over breakfast. She had actually prepared it herself.
"I do appreciate this a great deal," the young girl said before taking a bite of her rice using her chopsticks.
"It is no problem, you may have helped save my career. I hope my simple fare is all right, I usually hire a temp worker to clean and get groceries, but I am home early." She gave the pale girl a broad smile. Today she was wearing a simple uniform with her rank markings on her shoulder, silver-braided ropes in a specific pattern.
Later, Sheila had her pass changed so that she was allowed up to the Academy of Sorcery for the week. Lookshy was quite interesting in her eyes; it was like an eclectic mix of medieval or renaissance culture with strange anachronisms of magic.
She actually frowned at the heavy stone blocks in the Academy of Sorcery. "Exactly how... energetic is the magic here?" She had a feeling it was not the subtle magics of fate that some gods weaved.
"Well, I haven't heard that they let loose a demon or elemental in the last two seasons," the chozei explained with black humor. Her almost white hair seemed to glow in the sunlight.
"That probably just jinxed us, didn't it?" Sheila said in an overdone and theatrical manner. She really did half-expect a demon to start laying waste to the facility and was suitably surprised when they managed to enter the entrance and talk to a sturdy looking woman behind the first open desk of six without an outbreak of violence.
"Next!" she called out. "Entrance to the Academy of Sorcery is currently closed for the year, but you are free to fill out paperwork."
"I'm actually here to see about petitioning for an audience with the August Regua. I understand he may be the only person capable of assisting me in returning to my world outside of Creation." Sheila's ichor thrummed as it guided her to fit in appropriately the specific phrases needed to not set off a political landmine.
"Dean Regua is in, but it is usually weeks before he becomes available."
"Perchance could I seek to speak with his personal attendant, so that I may work closely to gain this privileged access to such an august personage?" Sheila said smoothly, applying some of the political acumen she had picked up dealing with some of the more prickly Chinese and Japanese gods.
The stout woman was actually quite surprised, as the girl seemed far too young to be so versed in the Arts of Bureaucracy. "Please wait here and I will see if this is possible."
Twenty minutes later, they were seated outside the Dean's office to speak to his personal secretary. Sheila blinked and looked down towards the doorway to the outer office. "It appears that our jinx has caught up to us, Draji the Tenacious."
Draji looked over, then paled as the sound of something crashing down the hall towards them sounded in heavy thuds. The secretary screamed in panic, trying to hide under her desk. The heavy wooden door shattered as the massive, muscled form of a great red ape landed in the room with a heavy thud. His heavy howl seemed to freeze them for a second as he charged through the next door into the inner office.
Before the splinters from the door landed, the Blood Ape found itself face-planted in the plush carpet.
"I somehow don't think he's here for tea," Sheila noted as she held the massive demon down in a modified full-nelson hold, trying to avoid getting an eye impaled on his shoulder-spikes.
The older looking dragon-blood behind the desk was just coming to his feet and started to chuckle. "Why, yes you might be a bit correct. Are you going to be able to hold it back? They are quite strong." He brushed his robes into perfection as a young Dragon Blood soldier came into the room, a dagger in her hand.
"I'm sure he can wiggle out eventually," Sheila noted. Then she slammed her forehead into the back of its skull four times. "So let's knock him out."
The Blood Ape started to swear and promise dire curses upon her, if a bit woozily after the fourth blow. "I shall drink your blood and pour vitriol upon your soul!" it promised in a foul malfeasance of the ancient corruption of the language known as High Realm.
"I could have done without learning that language. Bleargh," she complained and then head-butted him again.
"Hmm. He was headed right here, wasn't he? So probably an assassination attempt. I don't know why he would bother. I've got one foot in my grave," the old Dragon-Blood complained. And he did look quite old.
"Not too old to help me get home, I hope." The young girl hopped up to her feet as she studied the unconscious demon.
"I probably have a season or two at most, girl. So you had better have a backup plan," Regua said snidely.
"Well, perhaps we could haggle? I might be able to extend your life for a few decades. You would call it a charm, but it is just part of my primal nature of healing."
"If you can do that, I think there are some very old nobles that would be interested," the old mage declared with a chuckle.
"Okay." With that, she waved her hand. "That should slow your aging down a lot. That should give you several decades for only one of your last days of your life."
Draji blinked. "That... was very simple. How powerful are you?" She knew that powerful terrestrial gods could grant a form of immortality, but were quite loathe to do so considering what it cost them personally.
"I'm not really sure, actually. I don't have a good frame of reference to your local gods and demigods." Sheila shrugged at that.
"Well, if I'm still alive here next year, I'll be more than willing to help you. I do hope you visit my shrine though," Regua said. "Now if you don't mind, I have to track down whoever wanted me dead badly enough to summon a demon to murder me."
"Any idea why they want you dead?" Draji asked in a very severe and business manner.
"I found an ancient scroll from before the Shogunate that details a third Celestial Exaltation. Not only did the Solars exist and their horrific mates, the Lunars, but a secretive group known as Sidereals who were the advisors to the Solars. But nothing is said of them, as if they never existed. The Solars were driven to extinction while the Lunars were driven to the edges of the Wyld... but the advisors seemed to have utterly vanished into the abyss of history."
Sheila and Draji both frowned, but it was the alien demigoddess that spoke. "You know, there is a saying that may be appropriate. It deals with the main supernatural evil that is called The Devil in my lands. It was said that he was the King of Lies, but that his greatest lie is that he convinced everyone that he did not even exist."
"And you think... Wait, the lie is that he does not exist... meaning that he really exists but no one believes he does. There are Anathema that still walk Creation that no one remembers?" Regua asked in shock.
"Hmm. Now that would be a trick," Sheila muttered to herself. "So, do you think I would be able to get a job here in Lookshy?"
Draji nodded. "I would be more than happy to sponsor you here, though you will have to be monitored."
"That assumes I have anything that I care to hide," she nodded. "Chozei Regua, until we see you later?"
"Of course. Of course." And if he did live a year, well he would be more than happy to speak with her on what he owed.
He had no idea that Sheila had extended his last days by over a century.
Foladine the Unusual looked over at the young girl that had joined his minor workshop just a month ago, then back over to the ship she had convinced him to make. It lay low in the water and did not even have a sail, using an engine powered by essence itself.
The officer from the Bureau of Procurement looked at the sleek motorboat dubiously. "And this is the vessel that you wish me to travel to Nexus upon? It does not look too comfortable for such a long journey." The vessel was only about forty feet long
"You do give us great compliment in accepting our humble request. Perhaps the journey will be short enough that it will not be a great burden?" Sheila said glibly as her ichor guided her to act appropriately in the situation, displaying proper etiquette towards the fairly high ranking chuzei of the Lookshy Navy.
All of them crossed the short gangplank and to the upper level which looked very much like 'magitech' to their eyes. The youthful girl in a civilian uniform of a pilot stood at a small steering wheel, but without any guild markings.
"As you can see, this is a new innovation. I trust it greatly, as we have already undergone our trials in the last week," the water-aspected dragonblood Foladine was explaining. "Sheila has been able to give me some wonderful insights into some sciences which have aided us in creating this vessel."
Taizei Armid nodded dubiously, but was willing to give them a chance. Especially after the bribe. "So how long do you expect the journey to take?"
"Oh, only two days or so," Sheila said seriously as she advanced the lever of the engine. She spun the boat tightly in the cramped harbor, getting very untrusting glares from the sail ships and sneers from sailors of the massive warships powered by First Age essence engines. She kept it relatively slow until they made it out and onto the river. "Watch carefully, Taizei Armid," she called out to the two century old officer.
Not that he actually looked that old, as he looked quite young as the Dragonblood (or any Exalted in fact) tended to, but he was greatly surprised when he felt the engine accelerate, then it seemed to almost hesitate then accelerated more slowly. The front of the ship seemed to be lifting up as the small ship zoomed past much larger vessels.
"The ship flies?" the officer asked Foladine in consternation.
"It uses what are called hydroplanes when moving at great speed to only touch the water lightly, greatly increasing its allowed speed," the owner of the small shipyard explained.
"Interesting." He grabbed the dashboard as he saw the young girl pilot the ship, avoided obstacles with an easy hand.
Part 3: The Lost Metic
Nexus, Sheila decided, was an odd mix of fantasy and Victorian-era industrial city. If it had been united under a strong government that was not strictly directed to capitalism, it probably could have been a more major power on the great rivers. She was currently wandering through a market district, fending off pickpockets and the local thieve's guild.
She turned and gave a wink to an old man sitting next to a stall who was asking for alms and gave him a wink. "You might want to tell your friends not to ply their trade while I'm within sight," she advised.
"I'm sure I have no idea what you are talking about," the old, dark-skinned man said in an affronted manner.
"It's just some friendly advice." Sheila stopped in front of a larger shop where two guards were watching the crowd closely.
"Markul Levu's caters to a more exclusive clientele than the street vendors. He even has some rare magical weapons and items," the bored guard said.
"I would be interested." Lookshy had shops like this, but there were in a district she was not generally allowed into. That, of course, was not a problem in Nexus with its grim looking buildings and bustling markets. And totally open free-market system.
"Unless you have at least ten silvers, don't even bother entering," the second guard said.
Sheila grinned at them and pulled out a piece of jade from her pouch. "Is that good enough?" It was a part of the funds she had earned with her designs, and then invested into the new 'motor-boat' design that was turning out to be worth quite a bit.
"Quite nicely. Though you should be aware, if you do not have awakened essence, little of Levu's wares are useful." The guards bowed and then opened the door to let her step in to take in the shelves.
"An actual customer. You look a little young to be so enlightened," the dragonblooded woman said from behind the counter. She had blue hair and pale skin and wore scanty robes over her body.
"I believe you would consider me to be a god-blooded. Do you only have exotic items? Or scrolls of lost libraries?" She was looking around curiously.
"Unfortunately, most jade-steel items are snapped up fairly quickly by visiting Dragon-Bloods," Markul Levu said with a shrug.
"Well, what do you have?" Sheila asked as she looked around.
"The Black and White Librams and several scrolls of spells. Wards versus ghosts, spirits, elements and diseases. A jade-steel daiklaive. I also carry some items that the Immaculate order considers to be heretical. An orichalcum wave daiklaive along with a few other Solar Deliberative era items, though nothing of real power," the pale Dragon-Blood noted.
"I understand that certain materials are supposed to be more metaphysically compatible with your element? Like the Dragon-Blood and their terrestrial elements of Earth, Fire, Wind, Water and Wood?" she asked curiously.
"Correct. Jade for the Terrestrial, Orichalcum for the Solar Anathema and Moonsilver for the Lunar. There are rumors of other, strange materials. Like golden Jade, Soul Steel and Star Metal forged from fallen gods," Markul explained happily.
"So Orichalcum, Moonsilver, Star Metal and Gold Jade are Celestial materials?" the young demigoddess asked, purposefully making a mistake on the Jade.
"All Jade is terrestrial, of course, but in essence you are correct." She brought out a red steel daiklaive and set it on the table. "Here, with it being not attuned, this is merely steel. Attune to it and you will have a burning weapon of destruction to wreak havoc upon your enemies." She noted the girl picking up the weapon fairly easily, even without attuning to it.
"Hmm. This is taking quite a bit of time and effort to attune. Which is not surprising, as I'm probably not considered Terrestrial in origin."
"Why don't you attune to it, just to get a feel," the proprietor said with a warm smile. "I will have some tea brought."
Sheila spent the next hour or so attuning (and then letting the attunement lapse) to different items. None of the four Jade items seemed easier to attune, much to Markul's surprise. The Orichalcum and Moonsilver also were shown to resist her efforts to match her ichor to them.
"Aren't you tired yet?" the Dragon-Blood asked after the fifth item.
"It's tiring, but I'm not drained quite yet," the girl replied. In fact, she had used almost one-half of her legend, which was functionin as equivalent to Creation's Essence. It was not quite accurate, nor really wrong, as it was her ichor adapting to work within the framework of that reality.
Markul arched one white eyebrow at that. That put her in a rare level of strength; most Terrestrial gods would not expend so much energy. She was fairly certain that the girl was not an Exalted, as most would have shown their caste mark or anima by that point. "Well, I only have two rarities. A vile item of brass and steel, etched in vitriol and a dagger that I believe might be Star Metal."
"Well, let's take a look at your supposed Star Metal," the young demigoddess said. The dagger felt cool to her touch and did not fight her legend. "Ah, this was it. That could make sense."
"A Celestial God Blood. Which of the Sisters claims you?" Markul asked nervously.
"Sisters? Oh, I'm not from Creation. Several of my family are planetary celestial from my Creation though. Strangely, the Primordial of the world is still named Gaia in both places." Sheila scratched her head as she considered the matter of planetary naming conjunction coincidences. "My mother's celestial body is in between planet and moon, off on its own tangent. Just slightly smaller than a dwarf planet."
Sheila suddenly disappeared from where she was sitting as a blade appeared from nowhere to try and stab through her back.
"Whoa!" the demigoddess called out from a roof beam, which she was holding onto with her feet while upside down. "The Emissary? As far as I know, I have broken no laws of Nexus."
The silver-masked figure looked up at the figure over thirty feet up. "Indeed, you seem to be very versed in avoiding stepping on any of the lesser and greater precepts of Nexus." The blade had disappeared. "I came here to ascertain that you are not one of the Sidereals."
"No, but you probably won't believe me that easily. So you know about them, too? All I've heard is that rumor Chozei Regua of Lookshy had uncovered of a third, Celestial Exalted." Sheila dropped to the ground, flipping to land perfectly on one toe. "But I am no Exalted. I am Sheila, demigoddess of Excellence and Battle, daughter of Pallas Athena the Wise."
"Markul, you will forget that this ever happened. It appears I must speak to your client privately," the faceless and formless cloaked figure stated.
"Of course, Emissary. Are you going to purchase that dagger? It is quite rare, you know," the Dragon-Blood said, fighting the urge to lick her lips nervously. So that was why the enigmatic being had her send a message when someone came looking for that dagger made of Star Metal. It was his trap against the a shadowy group known as the Sidereal?
"I'll buy it, since I want to study how it was made. How much are you asking for?" the demigoddess asked.
The Emissary was an enigma, Sheila decided. He had cryptically warned her off and told her to leave Nexus alone. So she had decided to leave at that point, running all the way back to Lookshy in just a few short hours along the Yanze River's gentle currents. She passed several caravans that day, leaping over their heads rather than going around them.
She put herself in queue to go through the gate, submitting her paperwork to the Scale of soldiers manning the checkpoint. The earth-aspected Dragon Blood frowned when she looked at the paperwork.
"Visitor Sheila, according to the dockmaster's reports, you left for Nexus three days ago. Has anything happened to your ship or the people aboard it?" the crusty looking man asked.
"No, as far as I know, they are perfectly fine and settled in. Unfortunately, I inadvertently upset someone of high rank in Nexus and I felt it prudent to retire to Lookshy today. At least I was able to purchase a dagger," she explained.
"Retire to Looksky... today?" the chuzei asked carefully.
Sheila looked at her wristwatch. "Yes, it was a nice run from Looksky and I still have daylight left to settle in. You might get some reports of me leaping over caravans for the next few weeks."
Winter in Lookshy was rather drab and mild, even as Sheila continued her work (now in her own, private workshop). So she was slightly surprised at the knock on her door one afternoon. Her eyes lit up in warmth at the sight. "Chozei Draji! Well met!"
The white-haired dragonblood had a cute smirk upon her face. "Well met indeed. I was asked to escort Regua the Mage here today."
The ancient dragonblood stepped in behind her, clucking at the tidy mess. "So this is where you have been since we spoke this summer?"
"Please come in. I take it you actually believe me that I have extended your life a bit?"the young demigoddess noted.
"Yes, even the soothsayers have stated I will live many years," Regua said as he narrowed his eyes to look at the device she was building. It was quite different than any magitech item he had ever seen before. "You seem to have kept yourself busy."
"Just a few minor knick-knack's, really. Creating a radio that can tap into a dragonline was an interesting afternoon's chore. Really, I need to find someone that will have information on how to get me back to my reality. Or even one of the 'anathema' that may remember some tidbit of ancient information." Sheila grimaced at that. She would hate to discover that because of her slowness that the Titans had won the war. It was so frustrating earning the resources (monetary and of favors) to purchase that ancient abode. Then to refurbish it so that she could use the portal hidden in the fresco.
"Ah, I heard that the Immaculate Order petitioned the Court and the Empress herself to bar you passage into the Realm, as they feel you break the precepts of the gods interfering with mortals," the old mage said.
"Effete dogs, the lot of them. Just like normal," Draji complained.
"Their loss. I thought that their academies of magic would be able to assist me. I'm not really attuned to learning magic myself, but I suppose I could try to do that. I really think my best bet is to purchase the plot of land I appeared in," she grumbled.
"I heard that they are thinking of inducting you into the engineer's corp as the rank of gochei. Not many metics are ever offered that, even other refugees that join the military. In fact, I have never heard of such a thing." Draji actually seemed a bit impressed.
"Hmm. If I do join the military, I'd probably have to look at seeing if they would let me join a more aggressive unit like the Fourth Force. Taimyo Teresu Zen Wu seems to be quite open to ideas."
Regua smiled at that. "Oh? Have you been learning a bit about Lookshy?"
"I learn about everything I find interesting. As my mother is a goddess of war, I have been extensively trained for war and combat." More on the job as a heroine though, she noted to herself.
"Well, I did find something a bit interesting. I may have found you an Anathema to seek. There have always been rumors of monsters, especially the foul servants of the Unconquered Sun that he turned his back upon in disgust. I have heard rumors from the far north of one of those, a Solar. Filthy barbarians," Regua stated in a cold tone. In fact, his auguries may actually stated where one may come to be.
"Some of those northers are quite hard and not all are uneducated, Master Regua," Draji noted diffidently.
"Well, I'm not planning on running to the coldest part of Creation during winter. It's a big place to look for one random person that probably doesn't want to be found," the young demigoddess said with a small snicker. "Who is actually being my advocate for joining the military?" Sheila was very, very glad that Lookshy and the Seventh Legion was a meritocracy.
"Chuzei Ushimo. Though I'm not sure why he is so interested in you," Draji noted curiously, her white-blue hair glinting in the sunlight through the window of the shop.
"Ah, I killed some bandits in his sector. He was quite a polite host," Sheila noted.
"Well, we shall have to see," the Dragonblooded Warstrider pilot said with a considering smile.
 A unit of 30 soldiers and an officer.
 Low ranking officer (essentially a corporal of the army.)
 Non-citizen, but a resident 'legal' alien.
Part 4: The Soldier
Sheila stood at attention, listening to Chozei Yachu as he bawled out the new recruits under the drab sky. She was a 'provisional' nitei, lowest of the low. Her uniform was of normal quality wool and she had a laughably pathetic spear and breastplate of beaten, polished steel as her equipment.
"You are the newest 'advanced' recruits for the 4th Field Force. Each of you possesses more than merely mortal qualities. When I am done, you will be assets to the 7th Legion. Right now I see two God-Blooded that think they are far better than 'mortals' while I've got three snot-nosed dragonbloods that probably think they are the gods gift to Creation." Yachu looked like a grizzled US Marine crossed with a shogun warrior. "We'll start with you. Imanari. Come and attack me. If you can scratch me, you will have impressed me. If you mark me, I will make you the Cochei of the 28th Fang. And if you kill me, the Taimyo might even make you Chozei on your first day."
Imanari was a red-skinned teen; the son of a fire elemental. With a smirk, he came out, moving as fast as the flickering fire he was aligned with. Yachu seemed like the wind itself, casually deflecting blows from the blade of the spear with the flat of his hand.
"Pathetic. Goa. You are next." The grizzled chozei seemed totally unfazed by the eager green-haired dragonblooded woman that tried to stab him right off the mark.
Two more dragonblood (one water and one earth) both fell to the hero's far superior skill.
"I was hoping for an actual challenge," Yachu said with an obvious sigh. "Sheila. Such a strange name. Maybe you can actually mark me."
Sheila pointed off to the (seeming) side. "Are you sure?"
"This may actually be challenging then. I did not realize that you had powerful senses, Nitei Sheila. Of course, you have not even touched me yet- Yeowch!" the old man said as a lightning bolt blasted between his toes and disrupted his illusion.
The base and simple spear in her hand whirled as if it was made of finest jade. Chozei Yachu pushed his aging body to its limits, fueled by an (alarmingly) dwindling supply of essence as he did everything he would to stay ahead of the young prodigy's wall of attacks.
And between one tick of time and another, he suddenly found the spear up against his neck as he felt the stone wall at his back.
"Now if only I were Imanari, so I could be Cochei of the 28th Fang," the girl complained with a grin.
Yachu blinked then realized she had seen through his test of humility, of knowing her place. A quick wit indeed. "Yes, I think you have shown your skill at arms quite well."
"Spears can be fun I guess, but I nearly broke this one several times," Sheila said while wiggling the spear as she pulled it back.
"So you studied under a master of the spear?" Yachu asked curiously as they walked back to the very impressed new members of the 28th Fang.
"No, this is my first time using one." The poor spear rattled in her hand. "I do have a mystical connection to all forms of melee weapons."
"Ah, so it is not unexpected. You must be close to shedding your physical form." In fact, he actually expected that she was a goddess slumming as a mortal. Well, that was not his problem.
"I am pretty close. It's a pretty big step for me," the girl said excitedly. Though that last step to goddess-hood probably would require something truly epic in nature to push her Legend over the lip.
Just six months later, the 28th Fang of the 8th Scale of the 3rd Talon (also known as the Puyo Expedition Force) of the 4th Field Force of the 7th Legion was marching in the van from where they had debarked from the fleet in Varsi. Technically it was two Talons of the 3rd and 18th Talon, over two hundred and fifty men. Their brilliantly polished silver armor stood out on the dun, browning grass quite brilliantly.
Sheila quirked a smile at the warstrider carriages up ahead that were kicking dust into the air. While they were not her own design from twelve months ago, she could see that they were based heavily upon it. Heavy oxen pulled the multi-ton transports along the dusty trail into the lands far to the south of Lookshy. The two warstriders were lying at rest under the scorching sun, only having to be lifted from their forty-five degree angle of rest. Springs and counter-weights were ready to move it to a vertical position quite easily.
"Gods above, I wish this heat would let up," Gao complained as she dabbed a cloth on her sweltering brow under her dark green hair. "I know how Imanari is dealing with the heat, but how can you cope, Sheila?" She tied the cloth on her brow. They were at the front of their double Fang; the other five members were 'mere mortals' though and spearman of tough repute. She wished she had a set of perfect boots to aid in marching.
"Just sturdy enough that it doesn't really bother me," the young demigoddess said even as she shrugged her shoulders.
Chozei Yachu rode up on his magnificent looking roan. "If you can talk, I am obviously not working you hard enough. Sheila, Goa! I want you to join the eastern flank scouts."
The green-haired Goa was quite unflattering with her comments under her breath, but responded loudly with Sheila, "Yes, great chozei!"
The two young women trotted across the dry grassy plain in between tufts of grass. Sheila let Goa set the pace, but directed them up to a low hill.
"I forgot to fill my waterskin," the Dragonblood complained.
"There's a river over there," Sheila noted as she pointed towards what appeared to be a slightly darker patch of haze in the summer heat of yellowed grass. "Hmm. I wonder. I need a better view of the area." The young demigoddess wondered who had the bright idea to travel into the heat of Ascending Fire. Even here in the first week it was hotter than she had seen in the Scavenger Lands. And this was supposedly nothing compared to the hellish volcanic heat of the South.
"This seems to be the tallest hillock around," Goa said as she looked around, taking a small sip of her water. It really was almost empty.
"I know of a better vantage, but I would have to carry you." At the other girl's nod, Sheila picked up the woman in dark-green armor and shot into the air.
"Raiders!" Goa blurted out as she pointed out the fairly obvious hidden formation. Their camouflage had not taken sapient flyers into consideration.
"It looks like hundreds of them," the young demigoddess noted as she quickly estimated based on density of personnel in a square area.
They had been hidden in a tight crevice that had been disguised with canvas, rocks and sand. It was only from this vantage that they could see the dozens and dozens of inhuman raiders under their bone-white armor.
Sheila twisted slightly and then shot back towards the caravan and their Fang. "Warning, raiders at twelve-hundred feet northward. At least five hundred, possibly many more."
Yachu blinked at the floating girl holding the dragonblood under her arm. "Taizei Chien-Wun, reports of an ambush."
"I heard, Yachu. Form a defensive line. Taizei Maideo Hun, move the Warstriders to the front line. I want a trench between that rock and that tree on the hill," the leader of this sub-strength Talon. "Move it! We have bloody little time."
"They must have taken out the scouts that we sent. I was wondering why they had not reported in," Yachu said with a frown even as he knocked back his straw hat to doff his helmet.
The remaining troops had started to quickly dig a trench in the dry earth under the brown grass, even as their archers started to string their bows. The warstriders were lifted to full vertical as their Chozei pilots crawled into them. By this time, the dark-red skinned raiders had noticed their sudden preparations and were starting to boil out of their hidden bolt-hole. At the front was a great red salamander that was dribbling fire from its mouth, roaring a beastial challenge.
Sheila heard the sound of metal on rock from the back, seeing four of the raider scouts skulking towards the supply carts from hidden fox holes. "Saboteurs!" she shouted even as she threw her spear to skewer two of them. The third rear attacker suddenly skidded backwards as the girl slid to a stop in front of him.
The desert raiders of the far off south hopped back ten feet and then fired his crossbow at the back of the wagons. One of the barrels of water started to leak even as Imanari breathed out a large cone of fire on the final saboteur. His lightweight clothing, designed to hold back the heat of the noon sun from over the Summer Mountains, combusted quite readily. The sickening smell of burning flesh quickly filled the air.
Lialii charged the final raider as he was reloading his crossbow. The male dragonblood sidestepped the simple shot and then stabbed out. The raider had twisted out of the way, only letting a small scratch on his arm rather than a serious wound. The raider's toe then kicked out sand into the wood-aspected's eyes and then leaned in to shove his serrated long blade deep into Lialii's stomach.
"One down," the raider said with a chuckle as he started to pull out the blade.
A small, but very strong hand clamped down like a mountain upon his grip. The sounds of bones snapping like dry twigs, filled his ears as both hands were pulped into bloody ruins. Sheila then kicked him as hard as she was capable of, her foot slamming into his stomach. The last raider flew through the air in a broken pinwheel, dead before he bounced the first of six time. "Lialii, hang on. I have to push this through."
"It's too late. I know that," the young man gasped out. "These sort of sword wounds are... fatal."
First to bolster his life force, Sheila thought even as she broke off the hilt with a crack of brittle metal. Then she very carefully pushed the broken tip out even as Lialii screamed in torment. Behind her Imanari and Gao double-teamed the horribly burned raider, finishing him off quickly and brutally.
The young demigoddess then healed his severe wound with a pulse of power. "There. Don't do any serious fighting, but you should live." Sheila stood back up as the main army of the desert raiders charged out of their caves.
Yachu shouted out, "Archers, fire! Ready spears!"
The fourteen foot tall Whispers of Ultimate Prowess warstrider clomped past the main line as it charged the war-salamander. The giant lizard screamed in agony, nearly bucking its rider off as it took the Warstrider's blow. It spat fire after the one attack, but only clipped the twenty-five foot spear of the warstrider.
The Taizei Chien-Wun narrowed his eyes. "Heavy essence cannon on the right flank." This was a far more serious attack than he had thought if they had such an Artifact to use against him. Lookshy was being severely undercharged for their services, or this was a trap to destroy part of the Legion.
The stubby barrel hummed as it charged up, then spat out a bolt of pure concussive force. Six Legionnaires were sent flying and a small gap was broken in their line.
Lookshy counter-fire shot back from their own light essence cannons in retaliation. A single fang of Lookshy gunzosha armored warriors started to tear up the left flank of the attack. The mercenaries from the South were finding a prepared army was more than they had expected.
"Goa! I'm going to make myself a very large target," Sheila shouted out to her Fang-mates.
"You aren't already?" the female dragonblood asked with a high pitched laugh. Her arrows flew through the air like thorns, growing and entangling as if alive once they hit their target.
Sheila pulled deeply upon her legend and then, with a shout, fired off eight lightning bolts from her hand. Six desert raider leaders died instantly and the essence canon was abruptly unmanned. The final figure had been knocked off his six-legged desert horse.
The cloaked figure stood back up with the grace of a panther, only to see the outnumbered Legionnaires shoring up their defenses. He started to move towards the essence cannon when a lithe figure in Nitei armor appeared out of a blurring rush. Sheila then picked up the multi-ton cannon and set it on her shoulder, then dashed back off before any of the desert raiders could even respond.
"Kill them all!" the leader of the raiders shouted in pure anger. "Puyo is for us, the true Chosen of the Blessed Martyrs! Not for lackeys of the Scavenger Lands!" His cloak had slipped, showing expensive red jade armor in the style of the Realm.
The horde responded, charging downward, heedless of the arrows winnowing their numbers. The Legion set their spears behind half dug trenches, yelling their defiance in the face of overwhelming death.
Sheila grunted as she dropped the cannon in the middle of the Legion's line as she skidded to a halt.
Yachu was laughing. "Well done! You'll get a commendation if we live through this. Let's turn their own weapon upon them." The old hero jumped to the double-handgrip, charging it with his essence. He spun the barrel on its tripod and then let loose a massive concussive force that sent four raiders spinning through the desert.
Ten foot tall mutated warbeasts roared as they tried to fight the two armored warstriders, but found themselves quite lacking as claw and fang broke on brilliant red jade armor. Giant war spears stabbed out, leaving the blue blood of the ape-like warbeasts to bleed out from fatal wounds.
Chien-Wun shaded his eyes with the gauntlet of his off hand, even as he smoothly sliced down a desert raider than had managed to close with him. "Tighten up our lines. 30th Talon, defend our supplies. 28th Fang, report!"
Yucha trotted up even as he bandaged up his right arm, wounded by an unlucky arrow hit. "We are sorely beset, but my new fang is performing far beyond expectations. One casualty, but he should later."
The ground rumbled as the earth behind the raider's line seemed to bulge upwards.
The Taizei of the Talon swore bitterly. "First an essence cannon, then war beasts that can almost match warstriders? Now they send a powerful earth elemental nearly on par with a lesser dragon? Marshal the warstriders to meet the elemental-"
That was when a cry went out as one of the scarlet war machines collapsed and was swarmed over.
"Poison spores. The pilot is as good as dead," Yucha said. "One warstrider is not going to be able to face such an elemental, though he might buy us time to retreat back to the southern rampart."
Goa fired the essence cannon at the humanoid form of earth and stone that now dwarfed the battlefield. All the cannon seemed to do was draw its attention. A massive fist lashed out, sending the front line scattering in their haste to avoid it.
Sheila was studying the figure as she flitted about the mobile, humanoid hill. Another blast from the essence cannon struck the elemental before she had found a likely weak spot. She whooshed up in a flickering blur of movement, then shoved her hand into its mouth even as she called forth her lightning, the birthright of her natural father, Zeus.
The elemental roared in pain as its insides were superheated by the inimical lightning bolt. A second bolt blasted a deeper hole into the being through its open mouth as the elemental realized it was actually in some danger.
Short spears tried to track the figure flitting through the air, but it was too fast. Most of them only hit the elemental, making it look like some strange hedgehog, though they caused no real harm.
"Goa! Shoot its left ankle," Sheila called out as she flitted by.
The young Dragonblood was not thrilled with the order, but assumed the other girl had a plan. She timed the recharged cannon just so, blasting the thick limb even as her team mate flew back and slammed into the very top of the hill. The elemental had a moment to wonder why they were sending it to tip back over onto the ground; That would not hurt it at all.
The sixty desert raiders behind it, hired on as mercenaries, faired far worse as dozens of tons of earth crushed them to paste.
Lightning flashed from Sheila's hand again, striking the elemental. It finally decided it had enough of the lightning, merging with the ground to leave the fight.
The scarlet warstrider landed from a dazzling leap, its twenty foot spear stealing the life of another dozen mercenaries even as it trod over the crushed remains of its foes. Sheila landed at a break in the left part of the Lookshy line, smashing back the desert mercenaries as she took the place of the fallen warstrider.
The near-humans scowled as each of her blows killed or maimed another of their comrades. Her most powerful strikes sent grown men flying thirty feet.
"Anathema! Lookshy must be hiding one of the betrayer-monsters!" a captain yelled out to try and rally his force. For his efforts, he was blasted by another bolt of lightning.
The young demigoddess drew on the essence of battle itself, disconcerting those facing her in melee with the implacable, perfect soldier. Her augmented presence caused one soldier to throw down his spear and long dagger. One deserter became two, then half a dozen; then finally dozens.
Chien-Wun narrowed his black eyes upon the retreating force, easily more than twice his in number. Someone had definitely tried to set a trap to kill him and his army. The canny old dragonblood was already starting to puzzle out what he would have to do when they arrived at Puyo. The cheering from his men as they realized they had dodged death by the narrowest of margins was something that put a smile upon his worried face.
He would have to think of how to investigate this matter later. For now he had an army to shore up, and press onward to his station.
The Lookshy expedition crawled towards the ancient walls of Puyo, southern jewel of the Scavenger lands. Like Nexus, it was built on the razed remains of an older city and had been occupied several times since the First Age. Its main industries were produce and cattle, growing foods and spices that were traded as far west as Nexus and east to Thorns. Its main competitor was Larsi, the trade town on the Grey River to the east. This was mostly due to the fact that Larsi put a tax upon their product to use their port, one that Puyo felt was onerous.
The local lord of Puyo was an old Dragonblood that could trace his lineage back to the Shogunate. His family had forsworn their loyalty to the Shogunate during the Contagion; The Realm had tried to reconquer Puyo (and Larsi) but had finally been driven back centuries ago by the Confederation of Rivers. That had really boiled down to Lookshy routing out the last of the Scarlet Empress' vanguard, driving them back to their holding in Thorn.
Jinga-Un styled himself a daimyo, like the old lords of the Shogunate, but was quite aware that he mustered barely half the soldiers that they had back in that venerated age. Still, he was a power in his own right and was not used to great worries like the battered remains of the Lookshy army he had hired more than six months ago to deal with raiders along the south and eastern borders of the city-state's land.
So he met the leader of the Talon himself as they put themselves into parade rest, Taizei Chien-Wun in front on his groomed stallion. His vizier and sons followed behind Jinga-Un, along with a scribe that was diligently recording the moment for history.
"Lookshy 2nd Puyo Expeditionary Talon arriving," bawled out Chien-Wun's haichi staff officer. The crack and snap of their banners fluttered in the wind for all the Scales and Fangs if they had any honors listed at all.
"Welcome champions of the rivers to humble Puyo," the captain of Jinga-Un's personal guard called out. "You look like you had an eventful march from Varsi."
The grizzled officer in charge nodded. "Taizei Chien-Wun, commanding officer. May I see to my men being barracked, and then we can discuss our interesting meeting?"
Pleasantries were exchanged and select officers were invited to the Daimyo's table for a late lunch out in the gardens. The lord of Puyo was quite surprised to see a lowly nitei attached to Chien-Wun's staff. Even if she had a bright, sun-colored hair like the people of the far north and was as pretty as many courtiers. She seemed to be adept at fitting into the stratified social setting, not making simple mistakes that would ostracize the uncouth from the halls of power of each lord.
"Chien-Wun, you did not tell of your latest companion," the irascible lord of Puyo said to his longtime acquaintance. The way he said the word 'companion' insinuated a wholly personal relationship instead of a normally professional one.
The commanding officer from Lookshy merely raised an eyebrow at him. "You are referring to Nitei Sheila?" At the nod, Chien-Wun continued. "She is merely one of my newest soldiers, though I really will have to put through her promotion as soon as possible. She is very wasted as a mere soldier."
"High praise. I thought you were the one that advocated against unseemly or purchased promotions?" Jinga-Un asked carefully. The old lord was starting to show his age, something that only the most aged of Dragonbloods did.
Chien-Wun started laughing at that. "She was quite useful in throwing back the overwhelming ambush that was sent against us." His chopsticks lashed out to pick up a bit of sticky white rice and dip it in a sour sauce.
Here the commanding officer went over the battle with the mercenaries from the southern reaches of Creation. The personal court of Jinga-Un seemed bemused until they realized he was giving them nothing but a factual report.
The daimyo of Puyo frowned as he stroked his gray-streaked beard. "So that is why your Talon was so battered looking when you arrived. This actually is quite worrying, taizei."
The officer nodded. "I suspect that we may have been called here to this location so that we could be destroyed in totality in a supposedly random occurrence. The fact that we survived is not surprising, but that we came out of it essentially intact with less than five percent casualties is likely not planned for. I suspect that whoever set this up with not be pleased." Chien-Wun brutally squashed his suspicion of the Satrapy of Thorn. Not every foe of Lookshy had the Realm behind them.
Merely most of them.
Jinha-Un nodded slowly as he considered matters. A cautious bit of essence wove through the air towards the young girl, revealing a bit of surprising information. "Nitei Sheila, I am surprised that someone of your power would consider joining as such a lowly soldier."
"Ah, I have no powerful patrons to place me in a position of leadership, so I must earn it the old fashioned way," the young demigoddess replied carefully.
"Which she already has. I have sent a missive to Lookshy with the results of our battle. If the General Staff agrees, this Nitei will soon be granted the commission of Haichei, a full two rank promotion." Chien-Wun seemed quite unconcerned about the matter.
Which would put her at the rank of a US Army sergeant, Sheila thought to herself. On the other hand, not a bad bit of work for her first deployment. "I hope to live up to your expectations, Taizei."
The daimyo of Puyo frowned as he nervously scratched his beard in thought. This girl seemed like someone that should be of high rank within the Yu-Shan.
"If I may ask, exactly how old are you, Haichei Sheila?" He would put his imprint of agreement on her promotion, something he knew the old dog of war Chien-Wun would note in his reports to Lookshy.
"Only sixteen years old, honored daimyo. I have lived here in Lookshy for almost a year since I found myself stranded here in Creation." She dipped her head slightly.
"You are from the Wyld?" one of the daimyo's eldest advisors asked. The old man looked quite papery and dried out, taking a long pull from his fragrant pipe.
"It's more complicated than that, but the easiest way to understand it is an alternate nodal reality. This world I come from has its own heavens, hells and underworlds just like Creation," she explained carefully. Now that she had a better grasp on the metaphysical geography of Creation, she felt much more confident in explaining things.
"Such things are theorized in the most esoteric of thaumaturgical essays from the First Age," the old advisor noted.
Jinga-Un was still stroking his long beard. "Mei-Ke... this is something you have heard from your studies in the arcane arts?"
The now-named Mei-Ke nodded emphatically. "Supposedly pure theory. Of course, we would have to validate the information to prove it. Like traveling to the shadow reality and then back."
"I plan on doing so, once I have become powerful enough. I may have to craft an Artifact to allow it. And that is going to require funds that I do not currently possess," Sheila explained even as she nodded in acknowledgement to the old thaumaturgist.
"Ah? You are planning to learn how to craft magical wonders?" Chien-Wun asked as he quirked the edge of his lips upward in a smile.
"I need to get better at it, yes. It would probably take me years of design work and beggar a small nation in magical materials at this point." She ignored their not-so-hidden surprise with aplomb.
"Have you heard of the Sur-Velka furs that are coming from the north? My understanding is they are of very high quality," Jinga-Un said to the commanding officer of the Lookshy forces as his way of changing the subject.
The next hour was an exercise in polite stamina. After furs, they discussed silks. Then perfumes and spices. Sheila nodded politely as plum wine, sake or beer was passed along the table as entertainers came forward. Formal poetry extolling the virtues (by rote) of the daimyo, the gods and the heavens was methodically melodically chanted. Obviously expensive, but no real heart involved in this mundane meeting with the hired mercenaries.
Sheila had become terribly bored while letting servants bring small servings of rice stuffed pheasant marinated in plum wine as a dessert. The young demigoddess expected no real trouble, but half-expected something to come up. Most likely her commanding officer would discover a clue as to their attacker; so she had been memorizing different people's features with her eidetic memory. Things that most people would not bother to memorize. After all, how many people can even see the blood vessels in someone's eyes to note their retinal pattern?
So seeing an assassin that no one else managed to perceive during his rush to attack was a bit of an outside chance even for her. The blonde demigoddess surged out of her seat to block the poisoned jade dagger to Jinga-Un's throat with her greave, resulting in a shocking loud metallic clang.
Everyone in the gardens froze as they suddenly realized Sheila was not attacking their daimyo, but blocking a deadly assassin. Including the assassin, who was only leaping away on his planned escape purely on training. Chien-Wun surged to his feet, shouting out, "Alive!"
The assassin sneered over his shoulder, even as he took haste to depart faster than almost any being could hope to match. It was a bit obvious as he left a burning trail behind him as as he fled at nearly fifty miles per hour. In fifteen seconds he had already escaped the castle of the daimyo, and was through the first door that slammed behind him with a simple triggered spring-loaded latch. The puddles of water outside would mask his trail for a few crucial seconds.
Said door exploded as Sheila hit it with her shoulder, causing the dragon-blooded assassin to speed up instead of slowing down like he had planned. No non-exalted should have been able to keep up.
Essence burned in his body as a swirling aura of air appeared around the assassin, his body instinctively turned the center of his torso into a small explosion of mist and air that swirled back after Sheila's open-handed slap actually passed through his body.
"Gods in Yu-Shan above, girl!? What are you?" the assassin griped as he dove down a narrow hole in the basement between barrels filled with volatile naphtha. His landing triggered another mechanism that attempted to close the reinforced wooden trap-door now above him.
He was not surprised this time (as he kept running on flaming footprints) that the door just shattered as the blonde haired girl wearing silver armor kept right up with him.
"You are really annoying, you know that," the young demigoddess noted aloud as her next punch passed through his head as it turned to a swirling air-mist.
The small house above exploded as the assassin's Bellow-Pumping Stride ignited the highly flammable oil behind them. He was leading her through the sewer system to a damaged well that went down another thirty feet for water.
This was getting just ridiculous, in the Grass Spider's consideration. He dashed up the stone wall as his swirling air anima flared even higher.
Sheila flickered past him, out of the well and into the middle of plaza about two thousand feet away from the castle; quite near the eastern gate. An old woman fell down, shattering the clay vase that she was about to fill at the well.
"Pardon me, ma'am," Sheila said politely as she gripped the molded stone base of the well, ripping it up as the assassin streaked out. "Got you, bastard."
Denu of the Grass Spiders tried his best to dodge, but he was unable to shape his whole body into misty air, so the uprooted well slammed into him with full force. His anima flared even higher as his essence strove to save his life, but not even Earth Protection Form did more than slightly blunt the attack as he was smashed into unconsciousness.
Screams erupted as the normal mortals realized that some fight or attack had just happened.
"Oh, good. He's still alive," the young demigoddess muttered to herself. She started to dig him out of the rubble with one hand even as she started to divest him of daggers, needles, vials and other bits of nastiness.
"What are you doing?" a querulous voice demanded. The young town guard looked ready to faint, mess his pants or flee at a moments notice.
"Capturing this assassin. He just attempted to kill the daimyo and my commanding officer ordered him taken alive," she replied in an even, soothing tone. From a pouch at her hip she pulled out some kevlar zip-ties to quickly bind him up. With a pat, she turned most of his grievous wounds to just bruises. "Let's get him back to the castle so that he can be interrogated.
Jinga-Un was still stroking his beard despite his self-admonishment. The young girl had easily captured the attacker, the notorious Grass Spider assassin Denu the Dastardly. Now thoroughly trussed up to a heavy wooden chair and only wearing a new loincloth, the daimyo awaited his awakening in the cramped dungeons of his castle. "Such a sordid affair."
Chien-Wun looked over, giving him a faint smile. "This is definitely an exciting one, at least. I had thought this would be a simple and boring garrison duty. Perhaps some bandit hunting on the side. But we appear to up to our necks in it."
"I saw you send orders and a report to Lookshy. How soon do you expect a response?" the daimyo asked curiously.
"That will depend upon what we discover from Denu here," the taizei of the Lookshy forces admitted. He gestured over towards Sheila who was watching the healers closely. "I hope you don't mind that I kept my soldier here?"
"Not even slightly, though I am impressed that she was able capture such a noted assassin. Not only is he a Grass Spider, but he himself has a reputation of never failing to kill his target with his poisoned daggers," Jinga-Un said even as he still continued to stroke his beard. That had been far too close a scare.
Denu the Dastardly, bastard son from the One Hundred Kingdoms swam back to consciousness as his whole body throbbed. He cracked his left eye open just a little bit. Captured and bound in a dungeon. His day was not looking too good.
"He's awake," Sheila announced for everyone as she saw him peeking a glance.
"Administer the poison," Jinga-Un ordered. "Good afternoon, Denu. We are giving you a very small dose of River Dragon venom. Not even enough to do more than make your head swim. But for each lie you speak, another dose will be administered." Using poison on someone that used such vile means either worked exceedingly well, or was ignored entirely.
The assassin tried to fight them forcing the vile brew down his throat, but he was essentially helpless. As a few drops of poison dribbled down his chin, he finally spoke. "You do not expect to betray my guild and my contract, do you?" The air-aspected dragon blood seemed one step shy of insane with his glittering sky-blue eyes under his pale white hair.
"Your ultimate fate is already determined. You will die." Jinga-Un's voice carried a deeper, heavier weight as he let his own essence to his imposing stature. "How you die is still yours to decide. Give me the information I desire and your last years will not be as if pokers of pure pain are inserted into your limbs while you scream yourself hoarse. You can choose the bliss of a painless release from your tormented life or a pain-filled leave giving that will become the heart of an epic saga."
Dredged Murmurs Hunch and Revelations of Associates Hunch burned into the air and earth as he bore down upon the assassin with his essence. Only hints to his conspirators here in Puyo were seen. A shopkeeper and a few assistants in setting up his escape path.
"They hired the Grass Spiders anonymously," Denu said in a dull, angry tone through the pain of his severe bruises of his half-healed wounds.
Truth, the daimyo thought to himself.
"While they did not say, I think he suspects who hired him. I don't think he would trust anyone without trying to verify who was hiring for such a high profile target," Sheila said as her legend increased her supernatural perception, making even lies of omission stand out a bit with her uncanny insight.
Chien-Wun's dark-black eyes widened ever so slightly. "Truly? Then again, your senses are supernatural in clarity." Her old commanding officer had noted that from her first day.
The assassin glared at her. "Speak your name girl, so I may know who undid me so profoundly."
"Sheila, daughter of Pallas Athena and Nitei of Lookshy's 4th Field Force," she replied with alacrity, seemingly uncaring of identifying herself.
"She is correct. Attacking the head of a city-state... this is not something the Grass Spiders do without verifying who is behind it. We do not wish to become embroiled as a scapegoat by the Infernal or Wyld. Such a thing could set the entire Scavenger Lands against us." The prisoner glared at the demigoddess, committing her name and appearance to memory. It was possible that he would be able to slip a message out, even if he could not escape. "We were never told, but we believe that Thorns and their Realm masters are behind this attack."
The city-state of Thorns, lackey and satraps of the ever-present threat of The Realm, was no surprise as a possible instigator. The Scarlet Empress had long coveted the West and its rich resources. Long ago, before the Contagion, the Shogunate had controlled nearly all of Creation from the icy North to the fire-blasted South, across the far Eastern ocean and the West to the elemental pole of Wood. Not only two years before in the Realm Year 754, Thorns had been devastated after their failed attack against Lookshy, Nexus and the Confederacy of the Rivers. Only Three Forks had taken serious losses, having to rebuild their entire light infantry.
"Let us have some names of who you investigated," Jinga-Un ordered in a very cold voice. Puyo had bled as part of the Confederacy of Rivers.
Chien-Wun nodded grimly, as the entire affair had become exceedingly complicated and dangerous.
 Fang, Scale, Talon, Wing are all military groupings within Lookshy and the Realm militaries. Similar to Fire Team, Squad, Company, Platoon in the US Military.
 The Contagion was an attack by the Deathlords and their masters the Neverborn that wiped out most life in Creation hundreds of years ago.