Contract Thorn


Contract Thorn

waltz yesterday, nothing heart today

Preface: This is a piece restricted to a 25k word limit, expect a fully fleshed-out version later.

1/ Toxin

The night above the Akasai was the colour of a wilted rose, broken by a rain of white petals.

Ceru dodged a splash of rice wine as she shouldered through the Moonshard Festival crowd, pushing past the doors of Caged Noin. “To another year of long life!” she heard somebody say, “or one night of good drink!”

It was a curse and blessing, a local saying. The Caged Noin was a place reserved for locals, a venue where fate coalesced in gambles of life and coin. There was a small line to the front doors: she took the place of a beastman who was kindly removed with a boot to the back.

The housekeeper gestured for her weapons at the door. She hesitated at first, but surrendered her ceremonial daggers. She could do without them.

“We’ll be keeping if you go bust,” he said, exposing a patchwork smile of gold and jade implants. “House policy.”

Passing mahjong tables and card games smothered by clouds of tobacco, she found a spot at the bar between a Hi-Nezumi in a suit and a Dragon in a tight purple cheongsam, whose ebony horns parted indigo hair. Without looking, the bartender passed the trio of frosted glasses filled with an off-gold spring lager.

“Not drinking tonight,” said Ceru, presenting a disarming smile.

The bartender raised a bushy brow. “On business, eh? You don’t look the sort. Too classy.”

A shrug. “Just stopping by for the night — got a ferry to catch tomorrow. Trying my luck while the festival’s still going on.”

“Suit yourself.” He took the drink and passed it to another patron, who happily downed the glass in a single gulp.

Over the course of a thousand years, Gambling Houses acquired many techniques to fleece the foolish out of their wealth. One such technique was free alcohol. Chronic gamblers couldn’t control themselves around free booze; Ceru couldn’t have begged for a better situation.

Outside the gambling house’s windows, a thousand lanterns flew upwards, only to be consumed by a burst of alchemically-treated flower fire. The lucky ones that made it past the wall of fireworks would break in due time — if the ashes weren’t consumed by the night of fire, they would be lost to the wind and scattered to the lavender sea. But that was fine by her.

Alcohol had a tendency to go in one way and out the other. She could watch the doors at the same time as the fireworks.

There was one thing Ceru never understood, though. Why did big cities always go out of their way to create a spectacle? Surely the coin and resources used in a single night would be better used on sustainable long-term welfare plans; one could construct dozens of temples with the coin wasted during a festival. It was pretty, sure, but merely watching made Ceru’s coin pouch ache.

Perhaps she was just too utilitarian to enjoy the finer things in life.

Her target gave her a lot of time to enjoy the sights and sounds. He was in a private room on the second floor, visible through corner mirrors, two whores hanging on his shoulders. Glimmers of ingot hinted at a greater ploy, one of the many machinations at work in a city like Akasai. But Ceru did her prepwork. All she needed was the drinks to keep coming and the good times to keep rolling.

He left with one whore clinging to his arm, an east-side type. A girl dressed and groomed for the courts, yet meant to service things other than official documents and municipal litanies. They eloped past the crowds, past the games of chance, past all of the coin and wine, finding themselves a semi-private door.

The whore was a complication; another person means a potential witness. But Ceru didn’t have a choice — it was now or never. He could leave the city by tomorrow morning; that’s why she was assigned to this job tonight. Clenching her fists, she crossed the green carpet and slipped into the same door as they did — into the men’s bathhouse.

Ceru entered a dimension of fog. Opiates and water vapour clung to the air in twirls of grey-green smog, causing her to nearly choke. But her lungs were already scarred by tobacco and thin mountain air; she could handle poor air conditions. What bothered her more was the stench of sweat and perfume; it was supposed to be a bathhouse. But didn’t need much to figure out what happened when you combine rich bastards with coin, women, and an excuse.

The two veered to the right, away from the actual baths. Seemed like they wanted a private room to themselves, rather than participate with the masses. Ceru followed their trail, treading through twisting unmarked corridors, only to come face to face with a labyrinth of sliding doors and ghost-blue Foxfire lanterns.

Silhouettes danced against translucent paper walls. Outlines of flesh melded against one another, some pairs in mere conversation, others in carnal action, bodies and mouths locked in intricate exchanges. It was a chamber obfuscated by a spell half-glamour and half-conjuration, meant to guide souls to their preordained rooms. It was meant to keep interlopers like Ceru out.

But that too was fine. It wasn’t the worst complication she faced in her career; the situation was like trying to locate a single card through a constantly shuffling deck. Though the cards would shift, the quantity would not. An improbable, yet possible task.

Ceru knelt against the tatami mats, her body partially obscured by the shade of flickering lanterns. She raised two fingers to her forehead and muttered the command word required to return to her true self.

“Shade: Release.”

The inscribed scripture on her right bicep smouldered green light through her cobalt dress. Her body shifted, now freed from the bondage of arcane transmutation, mutating into a form capable of carrying out this task.

From her shoulders emerged great, leathery wings. From her fingers, black talons and a layer of indigo fur that reached her elbows like a fine pair of gloves. From her back, pushing past the split flap of her dress, a long, segmented scorpion’s tail tipped with a multi-spined stinger. The beast’s ears on top of her head didn’t need to be hidden, but their senses sharpened accordingly.

Ceru closed off her mind and focused on the sounds, unraveling the world through her ears.

An adulterer’s tryst. A reunion between long lost lovers. A chat between old soldiers. A Martial Sect’s scion eloping with a beloved maid. Forbidden relationships rekindled and rediscovered. All had reasons to be in a place like this one, where secrets would disappear with the next morning’s dew. She listened in, systematically eliminating the noise.

There.

Fifth room down, thirty seconds incoming. The sultry, yet stereotypical drunken slurs of a desperate man. Drunken murmurs and a lecherous nature veiled behind a calm and collected smile. Ceru crept to the door, positioning her stinger one foot away from the paper wall.

Had there not been an innocent in the room, she wouldn’t mind getting a bit messy herself. But alas and alack, personal codes get in the way at the most inopportune of times.

She waited. And waited. She suppressed her breath, listening to the isolated sounds and the yammer of her heart. Seconds passed as she constructed the room in her mind.

The man eased the whore by the shoulders onto a feather mattress, enraptured by intoxication and mutual need. They exchanged a kiss and a promise Ceru didn’t care to hear. And then he excused himself: alcohol always came out the same way. He left her for a moment, moving to the restroom; a final stop before the night could truly begin.

Ceru counted to three. Then, reaffirming her calculations with instinct, she fired. A needle sized stinger, propelled by Qi and technique, flew through paper walls and found its mark; she heard the smooth scratch of ivory digging into flesh.

She left after hearing that perfect sound, departing with due haste. She concealed her monstrous traits, reclaimed her daggers from the front, then walked away. The streets welcomed her back into the fold, allowing her to vanish among the ongoing fireworks and celebrations once more.

 

He felt an insect sting at the base of his neck. But the drink softened the blow; he could barely feel it.

There was an annoying humming in the room as he did his business. He craned his neck, isolating a fluttering moth that somehow found its way into his room.

“Get out of here,” he slurred, shooing it away with a flap of his hand. “I’m busy, can’tcha see?”

But the moth refused to budge. It landed on the spout of the nearby sink, preening itself with spinley arms.

Moth must’ve landed on his neck then mucked off, he reasoned. It was another bother, one of many he dealt with in life. But it was no matter. He concentrated his Qi, refined by decades of discipline and reinforcement, then snapped his fingers. A shroud of blue flame descended upon the unsuspecting moth. Within seconds, the moth crumpled to ash.

Life was hard as a banker. Day in and day out, fake smiles and deals. Nights like this one were his only time to get all those pent up feelings out. Plenty of drink and beautiful women — what else could he ask for? Besides a day off or retirement, that is. Those would have to wait. Business never slept in Akasai, and neither would he.

He shook himself dry, pulled up his pants, then stretched his arms above his head. The night took its toll on him; the room swayed, rolling on a gentle ocean-side wave. Strange, he thought. He was sure he didn’t book himself in for a sea-side venue, but then again, all the nights blended together on his usual cocktail of Flaysap and opiates.

The cocktail was taking effect now. Need pervaded his parasympathetic nerves, a sweltering wave of raw desire and heat, pushing him to get back to what he was doing. Her coos and tender ministrations plucked his strings throughout the night; he could hardly resist the urge to ravage her. The waves rose with those lust-addled thoughts, rocking his body, pushing blood into his manhood, boiling his instinct from the inside out. She was calling his name, her voice reverberating through the walls, telling him to hurry up and release all that stress into her.

He washed his hands in the sink, but strangely enough, scrubbing didn’t get rid of black marks on his manicured skin. They were needle holes, uneven and scattered, as though inflicted by a particularly nasty thorn bush. He didn’t recall them being there earlier, so he scrubbed harder. But nothing happened: the holes persisted.

With a grunt of frustration, he inspected his hands. The holes twisted as he held them up, falling off his skin like old scabs. They spread, crawling up the walls like a swarm of ticks. And when he looked at himself in the mirror, he gasped at the bloodshot eyes staring back at him.

That’s when he noticed he could no longer breathe. He clawed at his throat, only to realize the fault was with his lungs — they lost the capability to move. He braced against the counter, forcing a step. Then another. But with each jittery movement, his legs stiffened further, as though they were being transmuted to stone.

—A court healer could fix this. All he needed to do was ask for them to correct his Qi; they were miracle workers that could resolve any ailment up to death. He just needed to reach them, one step at a time.

But he never made it to the door. He made it six steps away then fell, his legs buckling like rotten wood, the synapses of his brain fried, his entire nervous system burnt by potent neurotoxin.

He never felt the moment he hit the ground.

 

The way back was always the hardest part for Ceru. There are many ways a hit could go wrong, and almost all of them ended up with the assailant dead, incarcerated, or worse. That’s why there were two different types of jobs within her association: Code Black and Code White.

Besides their symbolic and cultural meanings, they were designations given to the ones carrying out a hit.

Code White meant you were expected to get away and return home, clean up, and prepare for another job.

Code Black meant you were going to die alongside your target.

The people carrying out the hit would typically be made aware of what kind of job it was. Code Blacks were given to the desperate and downtrodden, willing to do anything to give their families a boost. Sometimes, when internal politics got bad enough, they were given to get rid of individuals with funny ideas. But you could never be sure in this kind of biz.

Ceru had it good, though. She was pretty much irreplaceable when it came to jobs. Twenty years in and she was still white as autumn’s first snow.

She passed through the Dai-Ajisai’s yawning double doors, skipping the line of drunken customers waiting to get more festival money. A sailor yelled at her as she crossed the marble tiles; she ignored him, heading up a set of gold-railed stairs to the private sectors. The black lamellar golems guarding the floor raised their qiang, allowing her to pass.

The Lieutenant was waiting for her in the ritual room, a claustrophobic box with an ocean-side view on the sixth floor. He sat cross-legged on a raised platform, illuminated by shallow moonlight, dressed in deceptively simple white robes. There was a single blue cushion amidst the tatami mats; she kneeled, pressing her forehead against cool straw.

“You may rise,” he declared after a few seconds, in a voice reminiscent of gnarled bark.

She did. They stared at each other for several elongated moments; the Lieutenant’s turquoise eyes shone faintly in the moonlight, pupils horizontally slit like an amphibian’s. Ceru always thought they looked like coin slots: she restrained herself on many occasions, leaving the idea of dropping a coin in as a mere idea and nothing more.

“I don’t know why I bother when it’s you,” the Lieutenant admitted with a heavy sigh, leaning forward and resting on a propped fist. “All this dress up for nothing.”

“Tradition’s tradition,” Ceru offered.

The Lieutenant was a middle-aged man with thin lips, mean eyes, and scowl that could put a crescent moon to shame. She watched his youthful features fade over the decades; wrinkles carved themselves into his cheeks, his vibrant hair paled to a glossy grey, and his once sharp chin devolved into sagging jowls saved only by a square jawbone. But the glare in his eyes never disappeared. That only grew stronger with age.

Another thing that thankfully eroded was his uptight attitude. Ceru supposed he recognized his mortality when he saw himself aging in the mirror one day and realized he was visually forty years ahead of her

“How many times have we done this now?” said the Lieutenant, scratching at his stubble.

“At least one or two, at the very least.”

The Lieutenant glanced out the window at the exploding colours, then shook his head. “Alright. It’s late and I want to catch the tail-end of the festival. So here goes:

“You have done a great honor for the Ajisai Clan, blah blah blah, expect great things from you, great job, great everything, yadda yadda, rest up for tomorrow.” The old man crossed his arms and jittered his right knee. He didn’t even try anymore: he just made guttural grunting noises and attempted to gesticulate the usual ritual speech.

A silence fell between them when he finished. Then, moments later, Ceru burst into laughter.

“That’s one way to mangle things, Old Man.”

“I don’t have time for tradition. You know how much fun I’m missing out on? You can rest while you’re dead, sure, but you certainly can’t have fun.”

“Fair point, fair point,” Ceru said, reigning in her conniptions.

The old man closed one eye, looking at her through his right. He had a tiny smile on his face. “No point in trying anymore, anyway. That was the second last job.”

That was no laughing matter. Ceru tilted her head, raising a palm in question. “What do you mean, second last?”

“It’s the second last. Your next job will be your last. We’ve reached the end of approved contracts.”

The names on the Scripture of Contracts dwindled over the past months. The clan head would personally approve jobs, but lately, there were no new ones. Ceru didn’t care for the politics, she just kept quiet and did what needed to be done.

There were certainly implications, here. But Ceru wasn’t particularly mindful of them. She only knew that there were implications.

“The Excerpt’s in your room, as usual. Look it over when you can.”

“What’s going to happen to us?” she asked, curiously.

“I have no idea,” the Lieutenant said, “nor do I wish to discuss it on the night of a holiday. Maybe we’ll just get regular bank jobs. But for now, get outta here. Scram.”

He was acting his age, now, shooing Ceru off with a flapping hand. All he needed was a cane to thwack her with and his transformation into a bitter old man would be complete.

She relented, throwing up her hands. “Alright, alright. Take care, Old Man.”

His jabs followed her into the hallway. Following that was the long walk through the esoteric innards of the Dai-Ajisai Bank, which was constructed specifically to deter would-be thieves. It was a sprawling trapezoid that took up an entire block of Akasai’s harbour, fit with hundreds of glyph-traps and countless sprawling hallways with many dead ends. To reach her room, she needed to back track the entire way to the lobby and solve four riddles just to access the right path. Then she needed to hike up twenty flights of stairs.

She walked past the golems again on her way out. One of them even striked up a conversation.

“Already done?” said Rarael, twirling her polearm as Ceru walked by. “That was an hour. You might have time to actually go out and enjoy the festival!”

“We’re supposed to be inanimate and intimidating,” hissed the other Golem, whose name Ceru never learned. “Shush.”

Ceru stopped on the steps, peering at the two. She let her stern expression fall, huffing gently. “I’m not a fan of the noise. You know me.”

“Don’t you ever get bored, all cooped up in your room?”

“Hey, I leave when it’s less busy out. And I have plenty of ways of entertaining myself.”

Rareal feigned a look of horror, flinching backwards. “Oh, for the love of the stars! How many of them involve torture? Disembowelment? Casual arson?”

Ceru placed her hands on her hips, staring intently at the golem. She’s had this conversation before, but it was the first time Rareal brought up this topic. “Is my reputation really that bad?”

The other golem smacked the back of Rareal’s head before she could answer. Rubbing the point of impact, she sighed. “Let’s talk later.” She bowed her head, smiling gently. “Well, have a good night, Ceru.”

“You too, Ral.”

“You’re a guard statue. Act the part…!” While the unnamed golem admonished their companion, Ceru chuckled and returned to her room, tracing twenty sets of stairs ascending up an outside spiral.

Tonight was a night bathed in light. But it was a false light; something about the alchemically-induced colours seemed insincere to Ceru, but it’s not like she had any right to complain.

The Moonshard festival saw off the lingering spirits of the dead, guiding them to the heavens with floating lanterns and a sea of fireworks. Ceru was a Contract Enforcer, which was a nice way of saying assassin. A self-fulfilling prophecy, really.

But that didn’t matter to her. Not right now. The hit at the Caged Noin was the last one of the day, and she wanted nothing more than to return to her room. Killing was exhausting work.

When she opened the door to her room, a room of foliage greeted her. Plants ranging from bamboo shoots to vines to bonsai trees bristled in faint draft originating from the open balcony. And on her desk was a black-laminate scroll case containing the so-called ‘last contract.’

Ceru greeted her plants by name. None of them could talk back, being inanimate plants and all, but it made her feel better. Plants were great pets; they weren’t needy like animals, but had more life than pet rocks.

Before checking the last contract, she treated herself to a bath. The sealing created by a Shade mark was messy; she took careful effort to scrub clean her wings and tail and talons, getting rid of all the built-up shadow gunk.

It was tough, hiding away parts of your body. Ceru empathized with women who tortured themselves with corsets, but after trying one on herself, she figured her pain was much greater.

A corset was only tight on the chest. A Shade mark constantly compressed one’s very existence which was, in her humble opinion, many magnitudes more painful.

It was out of principle that she went through her nightly routines before checking tomorrow’s contracts. If she didn’t, lingering emotions would cloud her judgement. A clear mind was important, because she was the only one who was allowed to return a contract.

Though, realistically speaking, ‘return’ was an overstatement. It’s not like they could do anything if she didn’t accept. The jobs she got were the most dangerous, because she was the most dangerous.

She was a Chimera of sorts, a mishmash of various features. A Manticore: a creature of toxin and brutality. It’s hard to define what is and isn’t a monster when all people display some level of monstrous characteristics, but the word monster was reserved specifically for people like her.

She didn’t mind it, though. She came to terms with her existence. Half a century was plenty of time to get the angst out of her system, and part of that angst-cycle was the development of her code.

Ceru only killed objectively bad people. She killed those who harmed others with ill-intent; the serial killers, the villains, those too far gone for redemption. It was a job only she could do. She was happy with the job; it let her sleep soundly and smile freely. The last bastard she cleaned today was a serial fraudster that ran schemes to fleece the mentally vulnerable.

After a while, the people who gave her the contracts figured this out. They stopped trying to trick her and just gave her the worst of the worst; she only needed minimal reconnaissance to verify the claims left on the Excerpts.

Ceru approached the scroll case with a cup of tea in hand, refreshed and content, bathed in the afterglow of fireworks. She picked up the scroll in claw and dumped the contents. A single parchment slip tumbled out: it slid across the table, propelled by a gust of wind. Ceru pinned with a talon and read it.

The target was ‘Ajisai Kyari’, a name scrawled in elegant calligraphy. Time and location: The top floor of the Dai-Ajisai, four days from now.

Unlike the others, this Excerpt wasn’t cleanly cut into a rectangle; the top half had tear marks. But maybe they just ran out of space and this is what the end of a scroll looks like.

Ceru stared at the parchment, frowning heavily. There was an entire code dedicated to mangling the name for all the ranks in the clan. Only the clan head was allowed to have the last name of Ajisai, which only could mean one thing.

“That’s one hell of a final job, Old Man,” she muttered to herself, picking up the parchment and pressing it against the moonlight pouring into her room. She sat at her desk, contemplating the characters between sips of warm herbal tea.

There was no mistake here. The parchment had the official wax seal and everything, verified with binding blood marks. The Ajisai didn’t make mistakes; that was their whole deal. You don’t become the biggest bank in the country by making mistakes.

But still, Ceru stared at the parchment. The last Excerpt said she had to take out the one and only Ajisai Kyari, whose given name was a mystery until now.

It was, indeed, one hell of a job. All she had to do was kill the clan head of the Ajisai family, which, incidentally, Ceru happened to belong to. How hard could it be?

2/ Kyari

The next morning, Ceru barged into the Lieutenant’s eighth-floor office and slammed her palm on the corner of his steelwood desk. The resulting sound was a crack of thunder: she definitely caught his attention, and if it were anybody else barging in, his wrath as well.

“Oi, Old Man,” she said, “you pulling some practical joke on me? Thought you could pull a fast one when I was tired?”

The Lieutenant peered over a stack of misaligned papers with a barely suppressed scowl. An inkpot spilt when Ceru hit the desk, causing a spill on top of the contracts he was signing off on.

He sighed and said, “Do I look like somebody who jokes around?”

The Lieutenant spun the western-style fountain pen in his palm, then pointed at his desk. A jolt of Qi coursed through his arms, concentrated on the sharpened nub of his pen. He flicked the pen upwards: the spilt ink wavered, rose into the air like a black serpent, and placed itself back in the now-corrected inkpot.

“Never too late to start,” said Ceru, who took a seat on a free spot on his desk.

She glanced out the office window at the towering pagodas and castles. Even up here, they were still imposing and imperial — she distractedly looked upwards, wondering if she could see the very top of any of them. To her disappointment, she only received eyefuls of green wood, gold trim, and fragments of a bright pink sky.

“So am I really doing this?” she murmured, looking back to the stern-faced Lieutenant. “Am I actually killing the Boss?”

The Lieutenant leaned back in his seat and heaved a long sigh. “That’s what the contract says, yes. According to the scribes, that’s the last of this batch of contracts.”

“That can’t be right. Why would the clan head arrange for his own death?”

The Clan Head personally oversaw the Scripture of Contracts. Every name, every soul, every hit placed on the parchment was by his hand. He would have the final say before jobs went out to Enforcers.

But the Lieutenant rested his hands on his nape and shook his head. “You’re asking questions I don’t know the answers to, Mori.”

Her childhood nickname. She signed, drumming her fingers on her cheek. “Got any theories, then? Something this huge always gets lips flapping.”

“Nobody knows. Some say he’s looking for a worthy successor — the Enforcer that can pull off the hit will inherit the name. One scribe said he takes the power of those who attempt to kill him to extend his lifespan. Corrupted Qi techniques, or something like that.”

Ceru pursed her lips. “What do you think?”

“Me?” The Lieutenant looked at her, then at his pen. He spun it one more time before placing it on the desk. “Gobbledegook. All of it.”

“…How so?”

“I think it’s just part of some internal shakeup. Testing our loyalty. Seeing if we have the audacity to carry out such an order.” He crossed his arms and looked up at Ceru. “Well, it’s up to you if you want to actually carry it out.”

“That’s half the reason I’m here,” she said, fiddling with the scrap of parchment in her waist pocket. “I don’t know if I should. Is the clan head somebody that needs to be removed?”

Normally, extracting her targets’ sins would be a day’s worth of work at most. But now she was dealing with a ghost; a specter who only existed in rumors and whispered tales. Slightly harder than usual.

“I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that,” said the Lieutenant. He looked out the office window, frowning. “I suppose you could say the clan head has done a lot of good and a lot of bad at the same time. They brought prosperity to this city, but at the same time, people like us exist.”

The assassins. The information networks and manipulation of public courts. Ceru knew all about the ugliness behind the perfect banker facade. She was the ugliness.

“I guess you have to ask yourself just that,” he continued. “If sins can truly be erased through good deeds. It’s in your hands, now.”

The old man was getting all introspective and moody, which was a feature Ceru assumed came with age. Growing close to death tends to do that: you start thinking about possibilities. How things could’ve been different. If the choices you made were correct. If there was a better way in life. A lifetime’s worth of sins crashed down as one approached the threshold and faced their true selves.

This, of course, was a rhetorical idea. Ceru had another few hundred years before she would even get grey hairs, assuming she could trust the fables about Manticores. She had been in many skirmishes and fights to the death, but not once had she reflected mid-combat. That was something reserved for certain types of trashy fiction.

Either way, she wasn’t getting anything else from the old Salenia. She sat there for a few moments, watching the skyline with him, happy to share a mutual silence.

Three days was enough to hunt down a myth, and this was the ultimate test of her skills. Seems like the contractors saved the best for last.

“You’ll know when it’s over, one way or another,” she said, walking towards the door. “See you around, Old Man.”

She looked over her shoulder one more time when she reached the door. The Lieutenant was sitting in a nostalgic position, staring aimlessly out the window. He was searching for something in the architecture, as though expecting the city to tell him a secret. Maybe that’s where they were different: he was a thinker and she was a doer.

If this was truly the end, it might be time to ask what he wanted out of all of this. But that would have to wait until the job was done. She waved farewell, leaving the old man to his private recollections.

 

According to the locals, Akasai was a city of stonework, contracts, and myth. But that wasn’t quite right.

Foreigners often marveled at the clutter of world-famous thousand-year pagodas and temples when first arriving by boat. They came to many conclusions about the immortal city: they thought the contracts kept the city running year after year. That generations of Geomancers and artisans mended the weeping city after every disaster. That the myriad of legendary creatures dwelling in the city kept her safe from outside threats.

But Ceru learned the truth, having spent her life between grunge-riddled streets and the high courts. Frigid nights camped in water-tunnels with thimbles of mulled wine and dazzling nights at the ball had one thing in common: if you care to listen, you could always hear whispers of tall tales, of myths and legends, of urban legends in the making.

At its very core, Akasai was a city of stories. And stories, no matter how lurid and sensationalized, always spun from some fragment of the truth. Getting to the bottom of Ajisai Kyari would be a race against three days worth of foraged fables.

“The head of the Ajisai Clan, hmm?” mused one tailor as she reinforced Ceru’s dress. “Everyone in Akasai has heard of them, yet never seen them.”

“I’ve heard they’re a Dragon,” said a sea-bitten beggar covered in old knife scars. “One of the shapeshifting sorts. They’re everywhere and nowhere at once. A benevolent creature that avenges those who can’t stand up for themselves.” He shrugged, sipping at a tin of mulled wine. “Wishful thinking, I suppose.”

“No, they have to be a demon of some sort,” said an imperial court scribe, whose fingers were stained black by decades of working with ink. She tapped her chin, then adjusted her glasses. “Just between you and me, I’ve seen records attributed to the Devil of the Brines — they have to be the same person. No mortal could ever kill that many people.”

Ceru burned through her lists of connections over those three days, scrounging up as much information as she could. But all she heard was more of the same: claims of mystical shapeshifting, poison, and the name ‘Devil of the Brines.’

“Their deaths were always by poison,” continued the scribe. “Some didn’t even have any visible wounds.” She stopped, pressing her lips into a thin line. “Well, not all of them. Nevermind that. Some cases involved victims who were cut in multiple pieces.”

The tailor handed back Ceru’s dress, careful to not let his talons puncture the smooth silk. “My grandfather passed on tales from his grandfather. Whoever it really is, I’m sure they live much longer than all of us ordinary folk.” He stood up and yawned, stretching his arms above his head. “Seems like a lonely existence if you ask me. I’d rather die than lose my friends over and over again.”

The beggar happily accepted another gourd of wine. “You that interested? Hah.” He grinned, exposing a smile unhindered by chipped teeth. “They say Karma doesn’t come naturally — that it takes much time, maybe entire lives to catch up to an evil soul. That’s why there’s always those who believe Karma needs a little push.”

 

On the evening of the third day, Ceru sat on a tiny bench, patiently waiting for her last appointment of the day. There was never quite enough space for her on the bench; she had to push herself against the wall to stay clear of the overflow of the crowded Shell District. But once every week, she always waited here for a certain someone.

She didn’t mind waiting here. Every second, waves of chaotic noise washed over her and swept away her worries. A hundred conversations passed by: old friends met, workers chatted over ice-cold beer, and strangers mingled regardless of creed or race. She collected scraps of sound and organized them in her mind, always training herself to follow more and more conversations at once. She was up to six, now.

It was a real challenge, though. The biggest distraction was not the complexity of the task, but the pungent spicy, sweet, sour, and savoury scent of a hundred different street foods cooking for the masses. On days like this when the air was stirred by an ocean wind, she could almost taste them.

Fermented fried tofu. Dumplings drenched in soy vinegar. Charcoal-grilled chicken basted in savoury tare; spicy, tongue-tingling crawfish; twelve different kinds of hand-pulled noodles, ranging from mouth-numbing spicy soup to springy, refreshing rice noodles topped with bamboo shoots and spring onions—

Ah, damn. She lost the conversations already. How did she last this long with such a needy body?

“—Hehe… You’re drooling, Ceru-Gumi.”

In her moment of weakness, her guest executed a perfect ambush. They squished themselves onto the small bench, forcing Ceru into the corner made by the wall and the nearby support pillar. She made a sound not unlike a squeak as she was compressed.

There was only one person who gave her weird nicknames and actually had the physical capability to push Ceru around. That person was a pink-haired golem with bright green eyes who was permanently adorned in black lamellar armour. Had she worn her assigned helmet, she would’ve been an intimidating enforcer of the law. But she never did, despite decades of outrage from aesthetic sticklers.

Ceru sighed, hoping the weight of her guest wouldn’t crush her.

“Good to see you, too, Rareal. Now — could you please get off me before you turn me into a crêpe?”

“Maybe, maybe,” said Rareal in a singsong voice. “I’m running low on money again, so, y’know…”

“I wouldn’t have to buy you every week if the strings on your coin purse weren’t so loose.” Ceru tried nudging Rarael, but she didn’t budge. Golems were, after all, actually made of stone.

“They’re loose because Ceru-Gumi is always there to help out!” She finally got off Ceru, skipped two steps, then spun around with a great big smile. “C’mon, we’re both hungry. Let’s hurry-hurry, before the fruit jellies sell out!”

Ceru rolled her eyes and got up, dusting herself off. “Fine,” she said, smiling faintly, “just this once.”

She stopped keeping track of how many times she made that bold claim, but by now, it must have been somewhere in the hundreds.

They walked together from stall to stall without conversation — anything said now would be lost to the tides of noise. Communication was a matter of pointing to a stall, joining the lineup, or moving on if they wanted something else.

The city’s best meals weren’t found in the exorbitantly priced restaurants overlooking the sea, nor were they prepared by chefs renowned for their talent. They were found and eaten on the street, crafted by little old ladies and former adventurers who perfected a singular dish over a hundred thousand iterations. Put together, the stalls in the Shell District became the best restaurant in the entire damn world — and maybe in the next one over.

While you were supposed to finish your food before moving onto the next stall due, they hacked out a strategy over the years to have a cozier experience. A hop here, a skip there, a duck into a back alley allowed the pair to ascend to a private dining area. Since it was the second day of the Moonshard Festival tonight, they picked a scenic spot for their slightly illicit picnic: the eleventh-floor roof of the Ruby Pagoda.

A festival-clad cityscape on their left, lavender ocean on the right, the dawn of a firework-spangled evening above. They drank in the sights, unboxing their feast on platforms constructed from Rarael’s Geomancy. Ceru put in her share of work and reheated anything that had gotten cold with her basic Arts.

“Did we remember the Moonshard Dango?” murmured Rareal, gazing intently at the dozens of dishes on the impromptu table between them.

“Right here,” said Ceru, holding four bamboo twigs in her fingers.

There were three sticky dumplings impaled on each stick; peach for day, teal for the night, and gold for the stars. Acutely coloured, because the Dango were undoubtedly the stars of this cuisine show.

Ceru waited for twenty whole minutes at the Slime-Slime Dango Shop to acquire these. While they were open all year around, only during the Moonshard festival did they dare unleash the Moonshard Specialty Dango; limit four per customer. Each little dumpling was packed with a miracle of fruit-based flavor: it was said that Gods themselves descended from the heavens to acquire these.

Ceru couldn’t verify if any Gods actually showed up for some sweets, but she could definitely verify the divine flavour. She placed them on a special plate, carefully separated so they wouldn’t stick together.

“Should we start off with one Dango, eat all the food, and then eat the other?” Ceru wondered out loud, preparing her chopsticks and plate.

“I say we save one,” said Rarael, eyeing the Dango. “They’re enchanted so they last for a long time. Why else would they give you the cute carrying cases?”

Superfluous decoration was one possible answer. But then again, many things about this situation were superfluous. The biggest offender was Rarael herself: she insisted on gathering energy through food, despite being able to chow down directly on ignium for power. But Ceru learned to accept that a pinch of superfluous flair, just like fat in meat, goes a long way.

They each packed one away then devoured the other. Each bite was a supernova of peach, of divinely grown berries, of carefully cured sweet flowers; if they weren’t sitting down already, they would’ve surely collapsed to their knees.

“Another year’s gone by, hasn’t it?” Rarael murmured, glancing over. “We made it through another one.”

Ceru closed her eyes and laid her head against the rooftop’s cool clay tiles. “That we have.”

“It’s been a busy one. I caught a lot of Oathbreakers this year, too.”

“I mean, that is your job, yes.”

“Then there was the Grener Earthquake… and I guess a lot of Phantasms are popping up around the borders now, too. I swear, these little getaways are the only time I can really relax.”

“You and me both, Rael.” Ceru opened her eyes and turned her head. “How many more years until you get a break?”

‘I’ve been rushing through my service, so… three more years until I’m free?”

Three years. It was an eternity compared to Ceru’s final day, assuming the last job wasn’t some joke or test. She hadn’t found out much about Kyari’s sins, but she figured she could learn them by gazing upon him in person. That was the best conclusion she could reach after three days of preparation.

“You’ll basically have eternity to yourself after that,” chuckled Ceru, turning her attention back to her friend. “Got any plans?”

“Hmm.” Rarael scratched at her armour’s nape, a contemplative look crossing her expression. “…Honestly? No clue. Maybe I can become a professional gourmet and travel the world. I’ll have enough money for it for sure!”

Rarael seemingly decided her life goal, then and there. Ceru sat up and raised an eyebrow. “Ain’t that a goal.”

With a mirthful smile, Rarael turned and asked, “What about you? Do you have any plans?”

Ceru stiffened. If her next job was her last, then she’d be immediately cut free and allowed to do whatever she wants. She didn’t have any real dreams or aspirations. She didn’t even consider the possibility of “what next” most days.

Somebody asked her the same thing, once. They were even doing the same thing back then: trying to find meaning over a shared meal scraped together from the markets.

“Maybe I’ll become a botanist or something,” Ceru murmured, rubbing her wrists. “I’ve always liked plants. Not ones like Alraune, but ordinary plants that don’t talk or think. Those are nice to hang around.”

The reason Ceru never thought about the “what-after” was because it was a liability. There were plenty of Enforcers that never came back from their jobs. They weren’t infallible — people died in this profession. The thought of finality made her queasy: she allowed a few of her targets a last meal. They knew they were bad, terrible people, yet still seemed to enjoy the mercy of a bottle of wine or a bite of fried poultry. A couple burst into tears.

If this was her last meal, then she didn’t want to know. But it was too late: the thought had already begun to spoil her appetite.

“Alright, enough reflection. I’m starving!” declared Rarael, suddenly sitting up. She bounced up and down on the spot, staring intently at Ceru. “We’ve got plenty of time before either of us have free time. So! Same time next week?”

The golem was blissfully unaware of Ceru’s inner world. That was simply who she was: a golem that was hopelessly optimistic and endlessly cheerful. Maybe her makers replaced her core with a bottle of pure sunshine.

It was her attitude that Ceru most admired in Rarael. It was infectious; being around the dorky, clueless golem eased her woes.

The golem was onto something. This was a festival. She may as well enjoy it while she can.

“Same time next week,” Ceru confirmed, offering the best smile she could muster. She held her chopsticks in hand and reached for the noodles. “Let’s eat.”

 

Ceru slept through the third night of the festival and woke up in the wee hours of the fourth morning. It was the day of the final job; all she ever learned would be tested today. For that purpose, she suppressed everything within herself that could not be used as a weapon and pressed forward.

It was an infiltration mission, first things first. Since she failed to collect insufficient intel, she would have to find out who Ajisai Kyari was on site. There was always evidence pointing to one’s way of life in their homes.

This job was just like all the other missions, except this time, Ceru happens to already live where she’s supposed to infiltrate. Saves her some travel time.

Next was her disguise. Ordinarily, she could pass for a Kitsune when her Chimera features were hidden. She was a toned woman with shapely abs, dark blue hair, naturally tanned skin, bestial crimson eyes, and a pair of fox’s ears on top of her head. One problem was that she lacked a fox’s tail, but Kitsune were natural shapeshifters. She could always just say she was hiding her tail. And that she got a really nice tan at the beach. Or just, y’know, hide.

The target was projected to be exceedingly dangerous, stronger than anything Ceru had ever fought before. He was a master of disguise, a shapeshifter, a fellow practitioner of poison, and could tear a man into ribbons with a mere flick of their wrist. If they were actually a True Dragon, it could be a coinflip as to whether Ceru would actually win or not. She was a monster, but not that much of a monster.

Following her brief analysis of the situation, she gathered her daggers and scrolls. She swallowed a tincture of Hawkeye Extract, then followed it up with a Blackheart Elixir. By time the sun rose, Ceru was already gone.

The Dai-Ajisai was an impenetrable fortress, but it was one that she already knew. Her room was located far beyond the front-loaded defences on the ground floor; the only real obstacle she faced was the unknown space leading up to the highest floors.

Ceru arrived at the second-last floor without incident. She closed the stairwell behind her, attached a Sentinel Talisman to the door, and crept forward. There were no windows here: only dim Foxfires lanterns that licked the plaster-white walls with azure haze. The walls and ceilings pressed in like the maw of some indescribably great beast, threatening to crush her in a single bite.

And the further she progressed, the more she realized the lack of initial resistance.

Even with her heightened senses, she couldn’t sense a single being among the offices and shrine rooms. Strangely enough, most were strategically abandoned: they looked as though they were only recently cleared out.

No traps. No enemies. No threats.

There was nothing to stop her from walking forward.

And that scared Ceru more than anything.

Pangs of terror broke past her emotional suppression. Her grip on her daggers were failing; she clenched their worn grips until her knuckles went white to compensate for sweaty palms.

There were only two possibilities as to why there would be nothing guarding a target like Kyari.

The first obvious and preferred answer was that everything was hidden to such an extent that Ceru simply couldn’t perceive them. This could be solved by moving slower, charting a path methodically, and using common sense to predict a clear path.

The second option was that Kyari didn’t need any protection.

If he was a True Dragon, then — taking a realistic interpretation — Ceru was already dead. He could sneeze and level this entire city block. There would be no trace of her, no trace of anything left.

Blind animal fear crept into her mind. The only thing she could do was trick it into moving her legs forward, one step a time.

The air thickened. Ceru forced air in and out of her lungs, fighting against the building pressure. It was like nothing she ever faced before — and if her intuition was correct, she would never live to face anything like it again. But she couldn’t turn back now.

Another Foxfire-drenched stairwell approached. Mysterious black calligraphy coated the walls. Then, after an eternity of climbing an infinite staircase, judged by the hidden Gods of this world, she approached a temple’s gate. Engraved on the ancient wood was the Ajisai Kamon: a swirl of vines entrapping a True Dragon, a symbol that inspired fear and reverence for generations.

This was it. Death, fate, and duty, all rolled into a single door. From here, there was absolutely no turning back. Steeling herself, she pushed open the gate and stepped into the final chamber.

Her foot met the crunch of snow. A gust of frigid wind ruffled her hood.

It was snowing in spring. Ceru entered another world when she passed those doors, a world of starless night and floating lanterns and untouched snowdrifts. Stone pathways crossed the snowy plains, converging at a lone shrine bathed in green candle light.

When she looked up, she didn’t see the red sky over Akasai, but a yawning void that seemed to stretch out into infinity. It contained the merest suggestion of light; somewhere in the distance were the vaguest outline of unfamiliar constellations.

One of those constellations was getting closer.

—Too close.

A pillar of white light smashed into the shrine, engulfing it whole. Light spilled forward like a wave; Ceru blindly leapt forth and cut through the unrefined Qi, channeling her life into a single rush.

The worst targets were the ones who were able to fight back. This was Akasai — everybody knew how to fight. Every day, at least a few city blocks get blown up by random Wuxia duking it out.

But Ceru was an assassin. If the job devolved into an open brawl, she failed to live up to the Enforcer standard.

On her final job, she wagered it all in the opening move.

There was a white serpent coiled around the shrine; a True Dragon bearing its claws. But to Ceru, who had once witnessed the real thing, this was a pale imitation. There was simply no weight behind its sapphire gaze.

—Two Qi signatures; one fake dragon, one in the shrine. One of them was Ajisai Kyari.

The Dragon lurched forward. But even this hollow shell would pose a significant threat: it was still a Dragon. Certainly an interesting opponent to cross blades with. But she didn’t have that kind of time.

Duels were a dance of two souls; a conversation with blades. One could learn much about a person by the way they fight: wit, strength, belief, and resolve were all on full display. However, Ceru liked to skip to the conclusion.

A duel ends when one’s spirit or body is defeated. It only takes a single blow to end it all.

And the fastest way to land a killing blow was to take one yourself.

They met on the path, dagger against claw.

Talons tore through Ceru’s side, rending muscle and flesh. A hooked tip latched onto one of her ribs and snapped it — she staggered forth, faltering into the beast’s underbelly. Her dagger sank to its hilt between two plates of armor, failing to reach any vitals. Another claw came towards her back — this one would shred her spine and tear apart her heart.

The Blackheart elixir dulled all pain. But the Hawkeye let her witness the mutilation of her body in terrifying detail. She felt every broken bone, every torn organ, every speck of blood.

That’s exactly what she needed. She allowed a single spark of pain through, allowing it to ignite her Qi:

heart loses form, form loses meaning

beyond a moment of eternity

souls bound now and nevermore

“—Shade: Reversal.”

The Dragon’s claw broke her spine. She slumped forward, leaving her dagger in the underbelly.

And in that moment, their wounds swapped. Stolen Qi rushed in and reconstructed her body, pulled from a massive gash that opened up on the Dragon’s side. Ceru continued forward with a roll, raking the dragon’s side with her talons, tearing through scale and flesh. And then she was past the main body.

There was a roar of confusion behind her. Of agony. It was cut short by a gesture; Ceru’s dagger flew directly back to her free hand, cutting everything in its path. She didn’t need to look to see the thin hole punched straight through the beast: she felt it crashing into the snow, executed by her assault.

One target left.

Inside the insulated shrine was a ring of green candles and singing wind-chimes. In the center of the ring, a figure clad in white. They were already turned to Ceru, slowly reaching towards their blindfold.

They were within execution range. Ceru could throw a dagger, leap in and slice a jugular, fire a poison stinger, or unleash a devastating Qi technique to end this right now.

But that wouldn’t satisfy her.

Tucking in her wings, Ceru tackled the figure and rolled with them. Then without delay, she straddled them and kept their head pinned to the ground — kept that blindfold on.

It would be so easy now. All she needed to do was press her palm down to pop their head like an overripe tomato or slide a dagger across that pale throat of theirs.

But what the figure said next caused her to pause.

“Are you the one that will kill me? But… you have such a kind hand…”

There was fear in that statement. It wasn’t fear for their own safety; it was fear for Ceru. Genuine, unabashed fear.

That’s not what people usually say when they have a knife to their throat.

“Is your name Ajisai Kyari?” Ceru asked.

“How… did you know my name?”

They were dressed in a priest’s shōzoku, clad from head to toe in sacred white. A hood and blindfold concealed most of their features, but there was a purple tongue between white teeth.

“Were you expecting me?”

They weren’t even resisting Ceru — they just lay there, limp as a doll.

“I was expecting someone… but you didn’t hurt me. Why didn’t you hurt me?”

Something wasn’t right.

Though their features seemed heavily feminine, their voice was raspy and scratchy, much like a boy in the throes of maturing. For the sake of categorization, Ceru decided that they were a male.

“I don’t need to hurt you to kill you,” she said. “I’m not a sadist.”

“So you’re the one,” he murmured, shuddering softly. “Ah… you have a warm voice…”

This wasn’t Ajisai Kyari. It couldn’t be. Ceru could barely sense any Qi from them; the figure sagged, as though drained of all life and were merely waiting for a final death blow. Unless they were a master of deception — which was very much a possibility — they couldn’t have pulled an act this perfect.

But before Ceru could press further, an alarm in her mind triggered. Her attention to the path she came: further beyond, the Sentinel Talisman activated.

Somebody else was coming. And whoever it was approached rapidly: they would be here within a matter of minutes.

There was no time to think. No matter who it was, they would certainly object to Ceru being here.

“Is your name really Kyari?” she asked, lifting her palm from his forehead.

“I-Is that a weird name?” he stammered. Though a blindfold covered his eyes, he seemed to see Ceru without problem.

That settled it. She needed more time to figure out the truth behind this strange boy — and more importantly, something terrible would happen if either of them stayed here. She was a monster before anything, and the only thing a monster could truly trust was their instincts.

“Change of plans, Kiddo.” Ceru helped Kyari up and pulled him towards a random door, breaking into a mad sprint. “You’re coming with me.”

3/ Thorn

Ceru picked the northwest “door” to barrel through. It was a white square of light lodged in the void, but it would do.

The boy, tentatively named Kyari, was about as mobile as a newborn rat. He made all manner of confused sounds as he was dragged off; when Ceru realized he couldn’t keep up, she threw him over her shoulder and took to the skies, careful not to leave footprints in the swathes of snow.

The door shattered on impact, plunging Ceru into a dimension of gut-wrenching nausea. She came out that dimension into a dark, ordinary corridor.

Back in reality. She furled her wings and skidded to a stop, digging into the floor with her talons. The boy was still struggling against her; a squeeze of her wings muffled his protests.

The mark left by the Sentinel Talisman was moving; it was systematically searching the last two floors the same way Ceru did. But the Sentinel Talisman only tracked a single target. Two people could have come and she wouldn’t know. There could be an entire army swarming after her — she needed to get out of here. Fast.

There were no windows. The only exits were the stairwells to the lower floor and a few balconies on the roof. She purposely avoided the roof because of the aerial rotations of the guards; not even she could sneak past the sheer quantity of defenders up there.

She was trapped.

Ceru removed Kyari from her shoulder and looked him over. He was gasping for breath, his uniform disheveled and wrinkled from the escape.

“By the Heavens — where are we — am I dead?” he panted, pawing at Ceru’s arms. His hood fell off in the escape, revealing puffy, chin-length purple hair with darker, longer locks in front. An odd hairstyle for a boy.

Ceru gave him a little shake to straighten him out. “Oi, Kiddo. You happen to know any secret ways outta here?”

“I-I don’t know!” He paused, briefly. “Wait, I’m not a kid—”

Back over the shoulder he went. Ceru turned and inspected the thick castle walls, sighing.

She was a hoarder who saved all sorts of gizmos and gadgets, preferring to use them when the time was right. Even when she needed to, she loathed to use them: the artifacts granted to her typically couldn’t be replaced with ease. Yet sometimes, there was no acceptable excuse.

She withdrew a black and gold pouch charm from her belt. She hated using a trump card like this one so carelessly, but she could take no risks in a job like this. Even if acquiring another meant travelling to the Daoling Peaks and begging the Shadow-Weavers for two days straight.

“This better be worth it,” Ceru muttered. She held the charm to her forehead: the glyphs upon the charm ignited and leapt to her fur, where they engraved themselves in intricate temporary circuits.

“P-Please give me some time to prepare myself!” came a voice from behind. “I-I don’t understand—”

“You have three seconds,” she said, concentrating on the space in front of her. Pathways of preconstructed technique opened up before her: she poured in her Qi to activate the circuit. A bridge that defied reality tore a hole in the wall, a vortex of deep shadow.

“What?”

“Two.”

“Please, I beg you—”

“Zero.”

“You skipped one?!”

Connection established. She lept forth and allowed the tides of darkness to wash her away, transporting both of them far from the Dai-Ajisai bank.

 

When Ceru dared open her eyes again, she was falling through the skies above the Petals District, half a city away from where she was. Opening her wings, she caught a mountain-bound current and rode it to the ground. This was the only place nobody would give her odd looks for touching down with a person in hand: at the same time as she landed, an aerial courier blasted past and nearly bowled her over.

Four minutes of walking up and down heavily vertical streets led to a three-story teahouse with chipped grey paint. The attic’s hatch opened with a key’s suggestion; she proceeded to gently dump Kyari on a nearby sofa and stood over him, waiting for him to recover.

“You touched me,” he muttered, cowering away from Ceru. He repeated the same thing over and over to himself, as though to reaffirm the reality of her actions.

“It’s not like I can untouch you,” she said, furrowing her brows. “What’s wrong, Kiddo? Too much excitement?”

Ceru’s voice seemed to pull the boy back to the present. He stopped muttering and stared up at her through his blindfold, mouth agape in shock. “How… are you not dead?”

She frowned. “Whaddya mean?”

He pointed up at her and gently said, “You touched me. Everybody who has ever touched me died within seconds.”

There was an undeniable sincerity in the boy’s statement. He wasn’t lying; the terror in his voice was evidence.

But Ceru was, as far as she could tell, still alive. Qi circulated through her body, blood pumped through her veins, and life was trapped within her mortal coil. Adrenaline and combat elixirs coursed through her and excited her senses, but nothing else seemed to be off. Her only wound was a small nick on her navel.

Experimentally, she raised a single claw and poked the boy on the wrist. He gave a tiny yelp, recoiling away from the touch.

“Definitely still not dead,” Ceru said, glancing at her claw. There was the thinnest of residues left on the hardened keratin; it shone faintly in the morning light before evaporating in mere seconds.

The boy pulled up his sleeve and frowned. “Who… No, what are you?”

Oh, dear. It was going to be one of those encounters again. She sighed, hanging her claws on her nape. “Take off that blindfold of yours and find out, Kiddo.”

Kyari hesitated. Then, with the care of a botanist tending fragile flowers, he undid the white blindfold.

His eyes were a refined opal; a spiral of purple, green, and red contained within frog-like eyes. But even then, they contained different pupils from the other Salenia: his were sharp rectangles, unnatural boxes contained in flesh.

She recognized them instantly: they were Sigils of some sort, a mutation containing power both great and disastrous. His gaze darted back and forth, refusing to directly gaze upon any part of Ceru’s body.

There wasn’t much else extraordinary about him. He was a Salenia, a humanoid that shared common features with the lesser amphibians of the world. They had frog-like eyes, purple or blue flesh underneath their skin, alarmingly slippery saliva, and very long tongue.

“You can look at me,” she said, softening her tone.

Slowly, he did. He dared glance at her legs, her wings, her claws, and then, he looked at her face. His gaze lingered there: he stared into her eyes, befixed with something between awe and shame.

The gaze seemed familiar, for whatever reason. But Ceru quickly banished the thought: she had never seen anybody remotely like this kid in her life. Instead, she put a claw on her hip, idly swishing her spiked tail in the air. “I mean, you don’t have to look that hard.”

He averted his gaze. “S-Sorry…”

That wasn’t exactly what she meant. “You don’t seem that scared.”

“Should I be?”

The corners of Ceru’s lips stretched taut, revealing pointed fangs. “Oh yeah, you should be. I’m a monster, don’t you know? I just tried to kill you — don’t think I won’t do it again.”

He looked up at her again, confused. “You don’t seem like a monster, Miss. I… I don’t think you’d do that.”

No reaction. This boy really wasn’t scared of her.

Ceru gave up, throwing her hands up in defeat. Her reputation and appearance usually preceded her interactions; intimidation was off the table if he wasn’t scared by anything that happened during their escape.

“Alright. I’m currently working right now, and I need to find out a few things about you. Can you answer a few questions for me?”

“About me?” He nodded, twiddling his thumbs. “Understood…”

“First of all, why did you seem so surprised that I touched you?”

Kyari’s look grew quizzical; the same sort of look one would receive if they asked why the sky was red. “Because I… I’m poisonous. Anybody who stays in the same room as me for more than ten minutes will succumb to me. If they touch my skin, they will drift off to sleep within minutes and never wake up again.” His hands clenched in his lap. “If I even look at anyone, they will die within seconds.”

“Huh,” muttered Ceru.

She did three of those and was pretty much fine. The passersby on the street seemed unharmed, but even then, Ceru took to the alleyways after they landed. She couldn’t be absolutely sure.

“Is that why you were cooped up in a personal snow globe?” snarked Ceru, trying to lift the mood.

He looked away. “That’s where I belong.”

That didn’t work at all. “Erm… Well, basically, I’ve been hired to keep an eye on you. A mysterious benefactor has entrusted me with your safety for the time being. There’s some… assassins after you.”

It was technically the truth, if one overlooked the fact that Ceru was the guard, mysterious benefactor, and the assassin — all at the same time.

Kyari’s eyes drifted to Ceru’s, but he didn’t seem surprised.

It seemed strange, considering the first thing he asked was if she was going to kill him. Like he knew it was coming.

“Have any idea why people would want your head?” she tried.

Kyari’s smile grew bitter. “It is because I’m the Ajisai clan head. We are poison to this world.”

Ceru stared at Kyari, reading his gaze. His ire was directed inwards; she saw a glimpse of the confusing self-contempt he held for himself, but it just didn’t make sense.

Only an hour earlier did Ceru put a knife to this boy’s throat. Did he really forget about that so quickly? If he did, then there must be something real weird going on.

—It seemed like she got herself involved in something quite troublesome.

 

“Just to remind you, I am a very literal monster,” Ceru said, placing a cup of steaming green tea in front of Kyari. She sat across from him, cradling another cup in now-normalized hands. “That wasn’t just me embellishing my appearance. My body is different from the average person’s — I’m a tough one.”

Kyari stared at the cups they were using. They were in a sorry state: the lip was cracked and chipped, barely held together with a thin layer of clear plaster. But Ceru got them for free, so they were the best cups she ever owned.

“Sorry about the cups,” she continued, grimacing. “I don’t use this safe house very often.”

“No, no, it’s fine… it’s just… I’ve never seen anything like it.” He shook his head, forcing himself to blow at the steaming cup.

For a moment, Ceru didn’t know if he was referring to the cup, the tea, or her. Given his earlier depressive streak, she decided to not push it.

“Anyway, I don’t think whatever you’ve got going on with your eyes and skin will affect me much.” She tapped her fingers on the side of her cup, smiling proudly. “I’ve dealt with poison all my life. It’s a tool of the trade — and I just happen to have extreme resistance to it.”

“A trade…” Kyari looked up and tilted his head ever-so-slightly. “You never told me your name, Miss.”

Right. She completely forgot to actually introduce herself. Coughing to cover up her embarrassment, she performed a small bow. “Ajisai-ni Ceru no Haruka. But just call me Ceru, no honorifics — I don’t like formalities.”

“Ceru,” he said, testing her name. He frowned slightly. “That’s not an Akasaian name.”

“It ain’t. A wanderer picked it for me, way back when.” She waved him off, then pointed back a raised hand. “But that’s not important right now. What’s important is you.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you. Talk about yourself. C’mon, this ain’t some school where you’re only allowed to speak when spoken to. Up and at ‘em.”

“I… um…” Kyari figeted with his cup, visibly struggling for words. “You seem to know who I am already…”

“I don’t. What’s why I’m asking you directly.”

If Ceru already knew, she would have already made her decision. This was her chance to pierce the facade and find the truth.

The boy took a deep breath, then bowed his head. “I am Ajisai Kyari, fourteenth head of the Ajisai Clan. I, uh, don’t know what else to say.”

He seemed to have an easier time when he wasn’t forcing himself to look at Ceru in the eye. She noted this and looked away herself; she could always watch his reflection in the strategically placed mirrors and reflective surfaces nearby.

“So you really are the big boss, huh?” She grinned. “Should I start calling you Boss? Uncle? Vaunted Leader?”

“Just… Kyari is fine.” He blushed a little.

“Kyari, then.”

She would have to lead this chat for now. This kid’s conversational skills could use some serious work.

“Alright. How old are you, Kyari?”

“…I don’t know.”

Always a great, excellent, more than acceptable answer. Ceru chewed on the inside of her lip, searching for a different topic.

“Got any hobbies? Favorite foods? Girls you like?”

But to each prompt, Kyari just shook his head and apologized with increasing distress.

Perhaps Ceru herself was socially incompetent and covered it up with a brash, mouthy exterior. She simply blanked on how to deal with a boy like this one: she fervently avoided any of the religious types around town, as they all tended to be weirdos.

“Say, you a priest? You’re dressed like one. What exactly were you doing in that snowglo— that shrine?”

Kyari nodded idly, staring into the still-steaming surface of his tea. “I was communing with Gamashiro, our clan’s patron God. My body carries his… blessing.”

Something to work with. “Were your parents also priests?”

“I’ve heard. Each clan head has carried his blessing; I doubt my parents were exceptions.”

With that admission, Ceru could rule out divine intervention. Gods were powerful, but they weren’t that powerful. They couldn’t just snap their fingers and change reality; the era which they could do that had long passed, a time before the first empires and the Azure Calamity. But you could never be absolutely sure.

Either way, it was a life sacrifice in the machinations of others. A declaration that it was ‘just business.’ The mere thought flared Ceru’s anger, but she kept it suppressed for now.

“I see,” she muttered, sighing. “What do you think of Gamashiro?”

Kyari glanced at Ceru, a glimmer of fleeting blue in his eyes. “He is my God. There is little to say. We owe our existences to him.”

There was no passion in his voice. She frowned, turning to stare out the attic window. Out the tiny keyhole window, clouds drifted overhead and brushed against the distant mountains.

Something else was going on. The entire situation stank of manipulation; this kid was too awkward to be faking his innocence.

She would have to move carefully from now on. Getting to the bottom of this would require precise maneuvering; one wrong move and both of them could die. And she wasn’t going to let a kid die if she could help it.

“Bad people are coming for you,” Ceru said, turning to look directly into Kyari’s opal eyes. “This is probably the safest place around, so I’m making you lay low until things blow over. For your own safety. Agreed?”

The boy struggled to meet Ceru’s gaze. He studied her face again, searching for something she wasn’t quite sure of. Then, looking away with a small smile, he nodded. “Very well, Ceru. I’ll trust you.”

 

The Lieutenant was waiting outside of her room in the Dai-Ajisai. Judging by the minimal crease of his frown, he hadn’t been waiting long.

“Afternoon, Old Man.” Ceru stopped several steps short and greeted him with a smile, just as she always did. “Been a while since you’ve been up here.”

The old Salenia gave her a sidelong glance. He was leaning against the wall, greying hair tucked into a neat ponytail, a tilted palm concealing a pack of Yuanhwa filters.

“The monster’s lair is the only place that’s always peaceful and quiet, ironically enough,” he said. “It’s gotten pretty crazy around here, all of a sudden.”

She chuckled. “Oh yeah. Ran in, did the job, and went for a tea run — legions of guards swarming this way and that here. Nobody saw me.”

It was a lie. On her way back from her safe house, she stopped by several tea shops to establish an alibi. Twenty years of business from her meant the owners were willing to help; Ceru raised the gift bags for the Lieutenant to see. “Wanna stay for a cup?”

 

She prepared a pot of mint tea and delivered it to the balcony table, where the Lieutenant stood vigil. His posture hadn’t changed over the ages: he stood against the rail, back straight, arms folded behind his back. Smoke trailed from his cigarette, dancing faintly in the wind.

It only took a lifetime for him to fit the image of a seasoned tactician.

“No need to act cool, Old Man,” Ceru said, pouring two cups of tea. She passed one over. “Nobody here to impress.”

“Of course there is!” he barked, accepting the tea. “It’s every man’s dream to look ‘cool’ in their old age. And while you’re a cranky old woman on the inside, hot blood still pumps through my veins.” He put a fist to his chest and looked to the skies. “I’m more of a man than I ever was!”

“I take back everything good I ever said about you,” she said with a sigh. “You’ve replaced the stick up your ass with hot air. That’s the opposite of good character development.”

“Hah. Say whatever you want.” The Lieutenant offered the pack of smokes. Ceru raised a hand to decline.

“Drugs don’t work on me, remember? No point in smoking.”

“And these were the expensive, flavourful ones.” The pack disappeared into his sleeve. “Suit yourself.”

They stood in tranquil silence, observing the disjointed world that seemed to exist separately from the balcony.

“How many years has it been since you’ve gone out of your way to visit me?” Ceru asked, sipping her tea.

“Three years and six months. It was for the New Years celebration of ‘39.” He flicked the ashes off his smoke. “Still have that vintage?”

“It’s in the cabinet. With all the others.”

From the harbour market, a thousand merchants bartering became a dull whisper. In the floors beneath them, chaos condensed into a faint rumbling.

The Lieutenant looked over his shoulder, back at Ceru’s quarters. He breathed smoke through flaring nostrils. “This place looks even more like a jungle than before.”

“What can I say? I like the overgrown aesthetic. Always been a nature person.”

He grumbled something underneath his breath about trimming and safety violations, segueing into a defeated shrug. Then, after a long drag on his cigarette, spoke up. “…They didn’t find a body.”

Ceru shrugged. “Ain’t that a kick.”

The reason for his visit wasn’t a surprise. Ceru knew the Lieutenant; he was such a business minded person that the title of Lieutenant overwrote his actual name. After all these years of working together, they inevitably ran out of small talk.

Sooner or later, the topic of the last job was bound to come up. Ceru suppressed the reflex to flinch and, instead, forced herself to yawn. “Yep. Killed ‘em dead.”

The Lieutenant glanced her way. “You really did it.”

“All it took was a few cuts,” she lied. “Ajisai Kyari is dead.”

Several buildings away, unseen construction rang out like gunshots. Pillars for the future placed today.

She plucked the parchment from her pocket and placed it on the railing. The Lieutenant stared at it, then took it. “Well then.”

“I’m a professional.”

“Guess it’s over, then.” He sighed. “Say, did you see anything at the shrine?”

The lie would cost her. “Not a thing. Just a really big fake True Dragon.”

“Really. Nothing at all.” He turned, scrutinizing Ceru.

“Nothing at all, Old Man. I killed everything I saw.”

It might cost her everything. But she still had her own code to satisfy.

A cloud passed overhead, plunging the balcony into shadow. Cold turquoise and blazing crimson challenged one another in mutually piercing stares.

Something rang. Both their gazes snapped to the source: a bracelet on the Lieutenant’s wrist. It kept buzzing, gleaming with a flashing blue light.

Grunting, he held two fingers to his ear and said, “Hello?”

A Leynet call. Technology always had a way of interrupting things.

The Lieutenant winced as he listened. It took him several seconds to lower his fingers after the call ended.

“Looks like they need me downstairs,” he said. “The news is starting to spread.”

“You know where… or how to find me,” said Ceru, turning to the skyline. “Chances are I’ll be around town, now that I have some time off. Plenty of things to catch up on.”

The Lieutenant looked down at his cigarette stub. “I’ll let you know how things go. But I have a feeling your ears on the street will tell you faster than I can.”

“See you around, Old Man.”

With a deep sigh, he flicked his cigarette stub off the balcony and left. Ceru watched the burnt-out filter fall from the railing, turning and tumbling in the seaside winds, tracking it until it disappeared into the ever-shifting crowds below.

4/ Roseblood

“I think we’ve bought ourselves some time,” said Ceru, closing the blinds to the safe house window. “Lots of conflicting rumors inside Ajisai means we’ll be safe for a few days.”

Ducking away from the opening, she took a seat opposite of her resident stowaway. There was little else to do; mismatched furniture and discarded decorations cluttered the teashop attic, leaving about three tatami mats worth of free space.

Kyari followed her gaze belatedly, slowly dragging his attention to the Manticore herself. “What shall we do until then?”

“…What do you mean?”

“How are we going to pass the time?”

“I, uh, haven’t actually thought about that.”

A lurid orange evening glow filled the attic. She leaned into the light, trying to think of what to actually do.

“I usually pass the time by going out into town, training, drinking tea, or just… napping,” she admitted. “Oh, I also like watching plants grow. That’s…”

“I see. That’s really interesting,” said Kyari with painfully forced enthusiasm. He was trying his best to look interested, but Ceru was too good at reading lies for her own good.

It was beginning to dawn on Ceru that she was a terribly boring person. Had she not killed people for a living, she would just be a shriveled old lady in the body of an ageless woman.

“Damn that man,” she muttered, pushing the thought away with a clear of her throat. “I’ll admit, there really isn’t much to do here. I can grab ya a few books or something like that.”

“That would be nice. Though, I’m not in the best mental state for reading at the moment.” He clutched at his chest, grimacing slightly. “Truth be told, I’m feeling slightly… unwell at the moment.”

Ceru cursed underneath her breath, springing to her feet.

In the few hours she had been away, somebody had already poisoned her mark. She could deduce and cure his condition if she moved quickly enough; despite her poor Qi control, she could still perform several healing Arts.

“What’re your conditions? Which parts of your body feel unwell? Can you describe your symptoms?”

She bludgeoned him with questions as she took a seat and analyzed his body. His pulse was stable — heart beat went up a few beats when she was close. That was okay. Non-agitated heart stability was the most important factor in health.

“Wait — no, it’s just—”
Qi untainted. That was also good. She pressed two fingers against his forehead: his temperature was slightly above average, but it wouldn’t qualify as a fever.

Those weren’t indicative of health, though. There were plenty of ways to attack somebody indirectly: the one thing Ceru could never detect were curses. Perhaps his very soul was under attack—

Stomach rumbling noise. Kyari doubled over and clutched at his midsection, his blush deepening two shades.

“Ah,” Ceru mused, slowly backing away. “You’re not dying in the way I thought.”

“…The Akisai Star Shrine was built to facilitate only the deepest meditation,” he mumbled, trembling slightly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

“Hah, don’t apologize.” She cut him off before he could do something ridiculous. “I get it. Qi Trance techniques. Never fun finding out you have to do pesky things like eating, breathing, and using the bathroom again.”

Finding food in Akasai was the simplest thing. Many temples and shrines offered basic, yet free meals. The Shell District was only a twenty minute walk away from here. Even the teahouse downstairs made a pretty decent egg waffle and cream coffee.

But Ceru paused, realizing that all of those plans of attack involved going outside. Kyari couldn’t exactly go outside because of his poison.

“Hang in there for a few,” she said, walking towards the safe house hatch. “I’ll grab something.”

Just then, Ceru remembered something. In one of the usually spare belt pouches was the Moonshard Dango from the other night.

If she gave this away, she wouldn’t be able to eat another for a whole year. It took half-an-hour of lining up and even more in stress to acquire it. And most of all, it was damned downright delicious.

At the same time, Kyari seemed to be hunched over in genuine hunger. Though he was trying to put on a brave face, the throes of gnawing pain were getting to him.

She winced in empathic pain. An intrusive memory pierced her thoughts, overlapping with the scene before her eyes.

—An arid desert city far to the south. A monster curled up in the streets, certainly once ferocious, now with no memory of who she was. The nights of hiding and stealing scraps of bread blended into a smeared painting.

Back then, by pure chance, there was a stranger who found her. A single soul out of millions who, instead of a swift execution, offered a hand of pity—

It was just like then, wasn’t it? That stranger must’ve felt the same thing, staring at the pitiful image of a starving youth.

Empathy had little weight without action. Ceru only performed deeds to survive or gratify her own desires; that’s just the kind of person she was.

Helping others to help herself. How utterly ridiculous it was to live such a shallow life.

But still. Even though she’d be back in ten minutes, the desire to do something right now overwhelmed her rational mind.

I guess I really am selfish, she thought to herself.

“Hey, Kiddo. Here’s something to hold out with.” With a heavy heart, Ceru dug out the gift-wrapped Dango and flicked it to the seat beside Kyari. He flinched away like a skittish rabbit.

“It’s a sweet,” she continued with her back turned. If she watched him eat, he might get too embarrassed, or she would begin to regret her decision — it was better to save them both the dignity. “But before I go, tell me what you think. Just… curious.”

There was the crinkle of waxed paper. A moment’s hesitation. Soft chewing sounds. A sniffle of surprise.

“It’s delicious…” Kyari murmured, before repeating himself louder. “It’s good. Really good. Um. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Ceru said, opening the safe house hatch. “Don’t get into any trouble, alright?” She leered over her shoulder at Kyari, gaze suddenly sharpening. “Or I’ll kick your ass.”

The boy flinched again, cowering with a half-eaten dango. “I won’t. I swear!”

“Good.” With that, she locked the hatch behind her and walked down to the street, mentally listing where to go. It was better to do all her shopping in one go rather than risk detection by heading out every day.

She felt a little bad about teasing the kid, but couldn’t help it. She was a monster after all; it was only natural for her to revel in the torment of others. And it was no good for a boy to become spoiled at his age: some surprises can teach one to always stay on their toes.

 

Ceru came back thirty minutes later with enough supplies to hold out for a week, barring food. They ate a take-out dinner and conversed meaninglessly. That night, she offered the bed to him.

“Are you sure about this?” he asked, curled up in a ball with her blankets. “These blankets… they smell like you.”

Ceru was prepared to offer a completely different answer involving the nature of her species and how she barely needed to sleep, but gawked instead. “Eh? Is that a problem?”

“No, no, it’s quite a nice smell, uh, erm, it’s…” Kyari verbally stumbled over himself for a few stammers more before Ceru interrupted with a light chuckle.

“I’m just teasing you, Kiddo. Get some rest in — I’ll keep watch.” She hopped up a stack of nearby crates and took position near the attic’s window. On top of her monstrous senses, there were enough conveniently placed reflective surfaces to watch the nearby area. “Do me a solid: I take naps during the day, so I’ll need you to watch over me for about two hours. Sounds good?”

“I’ll do my best!” he said. He stared up at Ceru with a hint of determination, nodding passionately.

“You need to actually sleep to do that,” she added.

“Oh. Right.”

He lay down and closed his eyes, sometimes peeking at Ceru, as though checking she were still there. After the fifth peek, he contentedly drifted off to sleep.

Morning came with a sparrow’s song and a peek of a red sun. Kyari woke up about two hours later, about when the city was starting to wake up. She waited until he pulled himself out of bed to hop down from her perch and take his place in bed.

“I’ll be out for around two hours or so,” she said, tucking herself into the sheets warmed by Kyari spending the night. Her wings and tail left her sleeping on her side, but at least it was cozy.

“Are you really okay with sleeping where I slept?” he said, turning to her with a perfect look of surprise. “The poison—”

“I’ve already deciphered your poison. It evaporates quickly, so it won’t make the bed all sticky and gross or anything like that.”

“But that’s where I—”

“I slept in dumpsters before. You are, thankfully, not as gross as a dumpster.”

“But—”

Ceru silenced all further arguing by pointing to a stack of freshly bought books. “Go entertain yourself with those for a while. I’ll be out of it.”

“But… I can’t fight, though.”

“Just poke me if anything happens,” she groaned, closing her eyes. “I can kill in my sleep.”

She felt Kyari standing in front of the bed, still wanting to protest. A few minutes of just laying still forced the boy into guard duty, allowing her to get a few precious hours of rest.

 

They fell into a daily cycle after that. No assailant would dare a broad daylight attack in the Petals, where at least ten Archons stayed. That left about sixteen hours of free time in a day. Ceru dedicated one hour to reconnaissance, one hour to martial practice, and thirty minutes to shopping, leaving them with thirteen-and-a-half hours dedicated to absolutely nothing.

So they talked. They talked about meaningless ongoings and idle topics; things seen in the past weeks, food eaten, books read, eventually looping to the topic of Ceru herself.

“More about me?” she said whilst reading a new martial scripture. It wasn’t anything new-new, but it was always nice to brush up on the fundamentals of kicks. “What in particular? If you let me loose on a tangent, I’d kill ya through yammering alone.”

Kyari noticeably stiffened. He looked away, shaking his head. “Er, I was just… thinking. Just generally about you, yeah.”

He wasn’t good at controlling his eyes. Ceru traced his gaze back to her barbed tail, then nodded.

“You want to know what I am, right? Fair enough — don’t think I answered you properly the last time you asked.”

She stowed away her scripture and stood up, stretching her monstrous features to their full length. When fully extended, her wings scraped the rafters, and the barbs on her tail rattled noisily against wood flooring.

“I’m a Manticore. A monster, really.” Ceru smirked and stepped forward, stretching her claws above her head. “Monsters like us cause a lot of bad things to happen.”

Kyari lowered his gaze, frowning. “It must be painful, having to hide yourself because of your ancestry…”

She shrugged. “Honestly, it’s more of a job thing.”

“E-Eh?”

“Nobody really cares. Strangers sometimes stop me to take a picture.” Ceru scowled at a memory of gathering crowds. “Some people thought I was just wearing a costume. Others thought I was an overseas music idol. At this point, your deeds matter more than your actions. Guess we’re lucky we live in a world like this one — for the most part.”

“Ah… I see.” Kyari tilted his head, visibly thinking. After a few seconds, he bowed. “Thank you for satisfying my curiosity, Ceru.”

“Just a thanks would do,” she muttered, returning to her scripture.

Kyari remained evasive when Ceru slipped in a question or two about him during their talks. She didn’t press further after the first few attempts; seemed like a sensitive topic, and she only bashed heads when needed. That policy went for both the metaphorical and the physical bashing of heads.

That was one of many aimless conversations they shared over the course of three days. Though it was more one-sided rambling whenever Kyari asked a question than a proper conversation.

Still, it was peaceful. It was the first time off Ceru had in a while. She caught up on novels she missed: all the action-y schlock consumed by those with poor literary taste. But even Kyari seemed interested; he read over her shoulder, occasionally looking away when she directed too much attention to him. She sped up her reading pace just for him.

For some reason, she found herself continuing to assist Kyari. She wasn’t entirely sure why she was wasting her time with him at first, but managed to narrow it down to some begrudging obligation after several days. It wasn’t like her to help strangers like this.

On the fourth afternoon, Ceru noted the increasingly disheveled state of Kyari’s shōzoku. While perpetually clean, they lost their sacred, otherworldly look and became more akin to a slightly out of season hanfu found on Sukiza Avenue.

When she pointed this out to him, along with the casual suggestion of a change of clothes, his body tensed. It was the closest thing to fear he had ever shown.

“I can’t,” he stammered, sudden panic distorting his features into a mask. His opal eyes became glassy and frenzied, drained of their colour. “I… I can’t give these up. I need them to live.”

“Whoah. Just a suggestion — I can’t make you do anything.”

Ceru raised her hands in surrender, and kept them there until he calmed down. But even then, Kyari clutched at the edges of his once-sacred shōzoku like they were the only thing keeping him alive.

Another thought came as she slowly reapproached. Looking around, she searched for something in particular he discarded.

The blindfold was folded neatly on the corner of the worn desk, weighed down by one of Ceru’s ceremonial daggers. She picked up the carefully crafted fabric and brought it close for inspection.

It was cold. No, cold wasn’t the right way to describe the fabric; it was something beyond cold, a stifling piece of void woven into pure white fabric. Merely holding it in her palm drained the life through her fingertips.

She looked at the boy and asked, “Is your shōzoku made from the same material?” He nodded in turn.

To suppress one’s Qi was to suppress one’s very life. To wear cloth like this was to reduce one’s existence to a pitiful ember, to willingly throw away the self to nothingness.

And in that moment, Ceru learned the truth.

It was no different from a bird in a cage. If the bird learned the world outside of its cage was dangerous, it would simply never leave. Such was the case with Kyari.

The shrine served as a cage; the robes, a cage within a cage. They were tools to isolate him in a different world, far away from the ordinary.

In time, a bird would become dependent on that cage. Should that cage be thrown into the endless ocean, the bird would surely drown with it. That was the intent: one could control the bird by controlling the cage. Ceru wasn’t one for high level machinations that sprung across generations, but she had a pretty good idea of what somebody could do with a kid like Kyari. The only cage that could possibly keep him contained were the ones implanted within his own mind.

Ceru turned to him with a renewed confidence and grinned a smug, self-satisfactory grin. “You know, Kiddo, those robes ain’t nothing. They’re like a drug: the longer you spend in them, the stronger your resistance will grow.”

A terribly blatant lie. It would take a whole lifetime and then some to outpace the suppressing power of those robes, but cloth was cloth. Ceru could shred it to bits with her bare talons if she wished, meaning any wandering sword saint could do the same.

Yet that lie petrified Kyari. It was though his soul froze and shattered into innumerable pieces; he stared at Ceru, eyes wide like perfectly circular mirrors.

“You’re lying,” he whispered.

She pushed past her guilt and continued speaking. “That’s the reason why you need those to live, right? Sometime in the past, you accidentally killed somebody — that guilt must be eating you alive.”

A simple projection from Ceru’s own past. But as they say, it takes a monster to know a monster.

“You can only lean on a crutch for so long before you learn how to walk again,” Ceru said. “You can learn how to control yourself, but I bet you’ve never had a teacher willing, eh? You’re in luck: you’ve found the only person who can actually teach you.”

His expression sank. She probably read him too clearly: the nerve struck was too close to his heart.

Ceru was the opposite of this kid. While she was nearing the end of her life’s journey, he had yet to take the first step. That first, feeble step was the most terrifying of all: few could do it alone.

She believed herself to be one of those who walked alone. She accepted herself as a monster, and there was nothing a monster could do other than merely exist. There was nothing for her to pass on; she was a creature that would disappear without a meaningful trace.

The only reason she was helping was because somebody did a similar deed for her in the past. If that wasn’t the peak of selfishness, she didn’t know what was.

But against her better judgement, she decided to commit. She was already here, anyway.

“Whaddya say? Up for some Qi training? I can’t promise you much, but it’ll be something.”

Kyari regarded her with a strangely tired look. Then, after a long, drawn-out silence, he bowed. “Please teach me all you can.”

 

In the following days, Ceru divulged what techniques she could to Kyari.

“Qi is the force that makes up and holds together this world,” Ceru explained, meditating in a seat opposite of Kyari. “Concentrate. Visualize it. Sensing it is the first step.” She took his thin hand into one of her claws and lent a thread of aid. “Here’s some of mine — use it to locate your own.”

“I… think I’ve got it,” Kyari whispered, eyes closed. He gripped her claw slightly tighter; the toxins made his hand slightly slippery but he held on. “There’s a lot of wispy things inside me.”

“That’s a unique way to put it.”

Next came Qi Control, which Kyari mastered instantly — Ceru had to double take when she felt the air twinge moments after his initial discovery. Of course, having lived the majority of his life with highly suppressed Qi, it would be obvious when it finally emerged. No surprises there.

From there, she systematically peeled back pieces of clothing. There was a surprising lot to peel back: he wore three different layers of robes and vestments, each with varying levels of enchantment. The outer layers were the weakest; the innermost robe, a thin white robe engraved with various runes and sigils, suppressed the majority of his Qi.

Piece by piece, Kyari slowly gained control of his body. Yet when they reached the innermost layer, Ceru noticed something strange.

Peeking just above the hem of the robes’ overlap was the hint of chest bandages. They weren’t uncommon; most warriors wore them for their protective utility. But males wore them around their stomachs, usually. Ceru avoided mentioning it at the time to not break Kyari’s concentration, but she realized something the moment she glimpsed them.

She wore the same thing too, after all.

 

“—Hey. Are you a boy or a girl?”

Later that same evening, Ceru slipped in the question into one of their meaningless conversations. They were in the middle of a game of Weiqi, which Ceru was losing horrendously. Kyari was surprisingly good at thinking several steps ahead.

“I was supposed to be a boy,” Kyari said mindlessly, placing down another black tile. One move flipped half the board against Ceru. “Father wanted a male heir, so I tried my best to become one for him. There was only so much I could do. I don’t…”

Moments later, Kyari looked at Ceru with open panic and began stuttering, “H-Hey! That’s a dirty trick!”

“Your slip of the tongue, not mine.” She shrugged and placed a white tile. It didn’t do much. “I mean, treating you as a girl would be less awkward for me. Up to you, really.”

Kyari grumbled, but didn’t seem too ambivalent to the idea. Ceru mentally corrected herself and continued, “Hey, if you want, you can get back at me. I’ll answer anything — that’s good payback, right?”

“Hmph!” Kyari looked away with a slightly indignant pout, still visibly perturbed. “That’s not good payback at all.”

“Aaaanything you want,” Ceru said, smirking. “It’s your one only chance to get a one-hundred-percent truthful answer from me.”

That seemed to tempt Kyari. She looked down, then clenched her fists and asked, “I thought you were supposed to be a monster that savagely killed people. Why are you being so nice to me?”

Ceru stopped smirking. She was expecting something slightly less heavy.

There were a lot of wrong answers to a question like that. If she answered reflexively, Kyari might find her answer distasteful and it would complicate their relationship further.

“Well,” she started, “I am a monster that kills people, yes. But I only kill bad people. I still kill people though, so I guess that doesn’t really make it right.”

Ceru huffed after trying to verbalize her thoughts on the spot, taking her time to construct an honest answer.

“…I’m trying to do the right thing, I guess. I’m a person who bumbles from situation to situation, not thinking too deeply about the past or future, continuously affirming that I’m not wrong.” She shrugged. “I don’t like seeing people being used as pawns. Maybe it’s some sort of subconscious reflex, though.”

After listening to Ceru’s ramble, Kyari regarded her with a sad, almost pitiful gaze. “You’re the same as me, aren’t you?”

She didn’t really get what the Salenia was trying to say, so she didn’t. The game was more important than whatever deeper meaning Kyari hid away.

“—By the way, you’re really cute, so it really doesn’t matter to me.”

That statement destroyed Kyari’s suddenly depressive mood. Cheeks blushed deep purple as she made weird embarrassed sounds and bad moves, allowing Ceru to turn the game around with a few moves.

It was the only match Ceru won.

 

On the seventh night, after watching Kyari staring out the window, Ceru dragged her up to the rooftop for a better view of the fireworks. They simply sat and watched the dazzling patterns of artificial light until the night grew quiet.

There was little else to speak of. Ceru refrained from speaking about her job, and Kyari didn’t have enough worldly experience to hold a conversation. All they could do was sit around and watch a city of coin and light pass by.

But that was more than enough. Such a simple comfort had escaped both of them until now; the realization made Ceru self-conscious.

Sooner or later, this would have to end. But that’s alright; it wasn’t a terrible vacation.

“—Are you lonely?”

The question came like a knife to the back. Ceru straightened up, staring at the girl who had unceremoniously asked such a question.

“Eh? Whaddya mean?”

“I asked if you’re a lonely person.”

Ceru thought about it. “I have a few associates, I guess. They’re alright. Ral’s alright, too.” She shrugged. “I’m not that lonely right now, though. You’re not bad, either.”

Kyari looked away and smiled. “…I’m glad.”

“Oi, no sulking or introspection on my watch.” Ceru reached over and pulled her into a playful headlock. “I’m basically retiring soon. I’ll be a little old lady with plenty of time — I can visit you whenever, wherever.”

Kyari struggled against Ceru, shouting all sorts of things, but eventually relented and went limp. “Will you really?”

“Of course.” She noogied the girl on the head and grinned. “We’ll just have to see how this ends.”

 

But over the week, the Ajisai’s search only intensified. On the morning of the eighth day, shortly after dawn, a contingent of barely disguised clan soldiers entered the first floor of the teashop. Ceru saw their reflections through her mirror network and immediately froze.

They were other Enforcers. And judging by the array of Talismans and enchanted weapons on their belts, they weren’t here to chat.

They asked the tea shop owner, who denied any allegations. They spread out after, questioning nearly every passerby on the street, systematically searching for stragglers.

—By now, the Ajisai had eyes on every street corner. There would be nowhere else to go.

The Enforcers asked the fruit-seller across the street. The laundromat-tailors next door. The disciples of Daisachi, who revelled in good drink. There was no person exempt to interrogation.

Ceru drew a dagger, carefully monitoring the situation. There was no telling when things would go wrong. Kyari was still asleep; in a match of numbers, Ceru couldn’t protect her; an assassin wasn’t trained to protect.

After asking everybody in sight, the Enforcers gathered once more in front of the teahouse. They conversed for a short period, discussing their findings.

In the middle of their discussion, the leader looked directly at Ceru, catching her through the reflections of two mirrors. He looked her right in the eye.

Anxiety throbbed like a second heart. She ducked away, clutching her dagger, readying for an attack.

She waited. And waited. Ten seconds turned into sixty. A minute turned into five. Five into twenty. Yet nothing came.

When she dared peek out the window hatch again, the Enforcers were gone. Ceru finally allowed herself a single deep breath, releasing all the tension that had accumulated.

In the bed, Kyari was still sound asleep. She was a heavy sleeper; she wouldn’t notice an assailant until they reached her, cut open her windpipe and jugular, and made her choke on her own blood. There wouldn’t be a single soul to mourn her, except for maybe Ceru herself.

Forcing herself to breath again, she pushed the morbid thoughts away and thought deep on what to do next. It would only be a matter of time until they were found. They couldn’t hide forever, for the Ajisai Clan had infinitely more resources than a single assassin.

An idea came to Ceru, then. She glanced out the window at the distant horizon, re-evaluating her earlier thoughts. Akasai was the capital of a small nation controlled by the five mercantile clans. This was the center of power for the Ajisai Clan; no matter where Ceru and Kyari ran, they couldn’t hide.

Not in this city, at least.

5/ Tear

“We’re leaving Akasai by sundown,” Ceru said.

She delivered her decision over a humble lunch of rice and fluffy rousong. Kyari looked up from her bowl and stared vacantly.

“What do you mean?”

The eerie foreboding sensation refused to leave Ceru since early morning. It came close enough to caress her nape with occasional twinges of electricity. She looked over her shoulder again, making sure the shadows hadn’t animated when she wasn’t paying attention.

“I made a miscalculation,” Ceru admitted. “I thought at first they’d be just happy that you were gone. But no, they’re pulling out all the stops. They’re coming in to confirm the kill.”

The explanation only made Kyari more confused. “Who’s they?”

“The Ajisai Council. I thought you were running the Contract Enforcement division personally, but it seems like that wasn’t the case. The Council has been running the clan just fine without you.”

Ceru tucked away her daggers. “You won’t be safe in this city anymore. But the Ajisai clan’s reach is only so great. I’m sure we’ll figure something out.”

“…I don’t want to be any more of a burden than I already am.” Gently, Kyari placed down her chopsticks and gave Ceru a sad, reluctant smile. “I think you’ve already done more than enough for me.”

“A burden?” Ceru snapped. Kyari recoiled back, a glimmer of surprise in her iridescent eyes. “Who told you that? Who the hell told you that?”

There was no response. Kyari only looked away shamefully, which caused Ceru a sudden pang of guilt. It was the first time she raised her voice.

“Listen. We can wax over logistics and contemplate ourselves in a safe place. It’s not like you can’t just return to Akasai when things have calmed down properly.” Ceru pushed aside her bowl and stood, stretching her body for what was to come. “We’ll be leaving in a few hours.”

She couldn’t wait around anymore. Even if it would ruin her current life, she needed to escape this city.

That was fine, though. She had money saved up. She could start again somewhere else.

Kyari raised her head ever so slightly, turning in Ceru’s direction. “Do you really know what’s best for me?”

“You’ll have to decide that for yourself,” Ceru said, yawning loudly. She was strangely tired. Maybe the Lieutenant was right and she was getting old; Gods forbid her needed sleep increase to three hours a day. “But until you come up with that decision, we’re doing things my way.”

Ceru left Kyari with that affirmation, getting ready for the evening to come. There were many variables to account for, and many more that would inadvertently slip out of Ceru’s control.

But that was fine, too. What’s life without a little trouble to keep you on your toes?

 

There were two ways out of Akasai, and Ceru didn’t like either of them.

The first was by boat. Boats had a lot of problems, as they were slow, very flammable, and about as subtle as a brick through a glass window. But they didn’t have to deal with the Eightfold Barrier surrounding Akasai’s walls. That was enough to put boats back into a viable form of escape, despite all their issues.

The second method that Ceru disliked even more were the newfangled Manarails. She saw them passing by overhead from time to time, daytime comets that took the concept of a train and separated it from the rail. Their artificial light rails often marred the skyline and left a nasty Qi taint, but they worked well — they completely bypassed the barrier. There were only two stations in Akasai, and both of them had them coming in every six hours or so.

But Magitek, just like prayer and used equipment, had the reliability of snake’s oil. But when they worked, they really worked. The upfront ticket costs were well worth it for the convenience.

Ceru returned in the early afternoon to a lounging Kyari and laid out a paper map on the table. “Akasai’s an old city, so the streets are going to be a bit cramped. We’ll make our way to the Harbour district, and from there, we have four different boats to hitch a ride on within the next few hours. Failing that—” She pointed to a mark nine blocks north. “—we can catch a Manarail. The next one comes in three hours. And since the Moonshard festival is going on, it’s going to be pretty easy to blend into the crowds.”

While Ceru made her last preparations on the street, Kyari took some time to commit the map to memory. Before they left, Ceru left a sizable tip to the owner of the teashop.

By late afternoon, they were outfitted in simple grey festival robes and ready to make their escape. Kyari donned her blindfold once more and followed behind, leaving Ceru to blaze one last trail out of Akasai.

“Goodbye for now, City of Blood and Coins,” she said, glancing one last time at the Petals district, “It was definitely fun.”

Kyari perked up at Ceru’s farewell. “Did you say something, Ceru?”

“Just saying goodbye to an old friend.”

Kyari pointed out how there was nobody around them with a confused tone. But the Manticore simply smiled and continued walking.

 

Akasai’s harbour greeted them with a sneer.

It was the maw of the city, a hooked natural inlet that had enough space to contain a whole nation’s fleet, foreign merchant vessels, and the pleasure yachts of overseas nobles with space to spare.

Today, the entire evening sky bore down on Ceru. No matter where they went, they couldn’t escape its ominous purple haze.

They made it to the loading ramp of the first vessel and presented their tickets. But the attendant bowed apologetically, stating, “My deepest apologies, Miss, but our departure has been delayed for a night.”

It was an international voyage company ship with suffocatingly rigid schedules. This shouldn’t be happening.

“This is quite unexpected,” she said, forcing a smile.

“Our captain has found himself involved in some business tonight.” The attendant bowed again. “If you would like, you can board now. To compensate for this uncharacteristic delay, each customer will receive a voucher for goods and services—”

Ceru raised a hand, stopping the poor attendant from spilling further apologies. “It’s fine. That just means we have one more day to enjoy the festival!”

An ill omen. Instinct wouldn’t lie, not in a time like this.

They hurried along the harbour markets, ducking and weaving through the dawning festivities, hoping to lose any potential tails in the crowd. Ceru followed her preplanned paths, striding through the optimal path between each pier ship.

But they received the same answer again, again, and again.

Somehow, by pure chance, each ship was delayed for exactly one night. Exactly the night Ceru needed them to get away.

She could accept one or two being delayed out of pure chance. Things happen. But there was no way all four were delayed at once.

They hunkered down in a nearby alleyway, a claustrophobic tunnel of mossy, worked stone slick with last night’s rain. Overhead, the fireworks began to explode, cutting through the noise of the crowd with coloured thunder and scattered light.

Ceru swore, punching a nearby wall. Fragments of rock fell, gouged out by the force of her strike.

“This is bad,” she said, struggling to retain her composure. “This is really, really bad. We don’t have any ways out of here. Gods, you damned bastards.”

Kyari looked on from a nearby crate, her life’s belongings nestled into a briefcase resting on her lap. Her eyes were concealed by the blindfold, yet there was still a frown. “Ceru… You’re worrying too much.”

“Worrying too much? How could I not worry?” She turned and snapped again at the girl, scowling fiercely. “How can you be so relaxed when an entire goddamn clan is after your head?”

Silence. The blindfolded Salenia wrung her palms and looked away.

“Don’t you get it?” Ceru said, exasperated. “You’ll die if you stay here. There’s no more future right here, right now. Those Ajisai Council bastards will do everything they can to—”

“How can you be so sure?” Kyari shouted back with an uncharacteristic ferocity. “This is a reckless and insane plan. How would things be different in another city? Another country? Just moving won’t change either of us — we’re both monsters!”

Had she not been wearing her blindfold, the girl’s expression would surely have been fiercer than Ceru’s.

Ceru asked the same thing to the stranger that had saved her, once upon a time. Her memory of that time was foggy, but she remembered a fragment of the answer given to her.

“—Because life is precious. You can’t throw yours away like it’s nothing!”

But Kyari only stared back, scowling in turn. “How can you say that? How could you say that when you do nothing but take lives? You’re a walking calamity, just like I am.”

The accusation struck like a pointed dagger. She staggered a step back, recoiling from the words as though they were burning coals.

—How could Ceru say such a thing?

The absurdity of it came down with the weight of a hammer. A murderer for hire preaching about the value of life. Her words had as little worth as her deeds.

A stranger told her to help others, once. It was all the payment the stranger needed; even if they would never see each other again, she was so sure that Ceru would make the right choice.

But she turned to murder. She killed murderers. Scum. Villains. Those who could not be prosecuted by the law. She built up an entire code to make herself feel like she had standards.

Was that really helping others like the stranger wanted? When the chance presented itself, why did Ceru help without thinking?

Was the path she followed her whole life the wrong one?

Did she already know from the start?

—Footsteps. Ceru recovered instantly from her introspection and looked around.

There were figures approaching from both sides, three in each direction, six in total. Ceru wasn’t careful enough: their leads had already found them.

Enforcers slowly crept into sight, dressed from head to toe in black lamellar armour; they weren’t even trying to hide that they were ready to kill.

“We can talk about this when we’re safe,” Ceru concluded quietly. She looked to the gathering Enforcers, raising an upturned palm. “So how’s it going, fellas? You guys also run out of jobs?”

Reflected fireworks glinted off the edges of drawn blades. Rotting sulphur from the explosions tainted the festival air. Kyari was the only one who dared move; she pulled up her legs, trying to make herself as small as possible.

“Are they really paying you enough for this?” Ceru lowered her stance ever so slightly. “We’re all in the same field of work here. Ain’t there supposed to be honor among—”

“Inferno: Release!”

A pillar of purple flame slashed towards her. Ceru ducked and rolled out of the way, feeling the singing flame through her innate elemental resistances. Then she leapt.

“Shade: Release!”

She released her true body mid-kick. While the Enforcer prepared for another flaming slice, Ceru planted a talon right into his armored chest.

Enforcers were not known for their direct combat capabilities: they were assassins by trade. A single kick from a vastly superior combatant would disable him, leaving ample time to deal with the other five. He went soaring into the stone wall, careened through three rooms, and landed in a heap.

At least, that’s what should’ve happened.

The Enforcer only took a single step back. Grunting, he brought the flaming Jian down on Ceru’s leg.

An explosive, lurid pain enveloped her left shin and ruptured her thoughts. Instinct took over: weight carried them both to the ground. Midfall, she screamed out an incantation twinged with agony.
“Shade: Blight Sting Seal!”

Bright green glyphs formed in the air and flung bright green arrows. All of them struck true, passing through armor. An additional glyph formed on Ceru’s fist; as they hit the ground, she followed with a strike to the Flame Enforcer’s head.

Within moments, the rest of the Enforcers topped over, collapsing in the rain-slicked alleyway.

—She was weak. The fact hung over her head as she pushed herself off the downed Enforcer. Only a week had passed and her monstrous strength had been reduced to a fraction of what it once was. That wasn’t naturally possible, but there was no time to dwell on such mysteries — reinforcements would arrive soon.

“Gods be damned, that isn’t good either.” She checked over her wound.

Her tough skin protected her. Her physical strength might be fading, yet there was no cut or broken bones; only a large bludgeoned and burnt spot that would bruise like all hell in the coming days. But the adrenaline pain suppression wouldn’t last — she needed to move while she still could.

Kyari was shivering as Ceru approached. “Y-You killed them… just like that—”

“They’ll be out and miss the festival,” she said, limping slightly. “I have poison control too, you know. I’m not just going to kill my coworkers if I can help it.”

Despite diminished strength, Ceru swept up Kyari and gingerly placed her on a waiting shoulder. Instead of weighting nothing, this time she was a sack of rice. Still manageable.

“Let me go, let me go, let me go…!”

Kyari struggled, but she was feeble. Ceru didn’t feel a thing.

“Ain’t leaving you here, Kiddo. Even if it kills me.”

She took flight. Her wings couldn’t quite sustain flight anymore; after the initial burst to the rooftops, she had to run across the skyline.

The Manarail was her last hope now. If she could make it and hold off, she would be free.

The arrival platform was a floating station that hovered far above the rooftops. There was an Aether field around it, preventing any creatures from flapping anywhere near it. Ceru cursed out the Harpies, Dragons, and other flying species that caused the airspace restriction.

The only way up there was through an elevator in the ground-level station, a small cathedral built by the Paris Association. Ceru descended, using stalls and statues to propel herself forward. The crowd in this part of the city was sparse; she only needed to shoulder a few people out of the way to make it to the front door.

The doors were unlocked. Ceru pushed open reinforced opaque glass doors and stumbled inside.

Inside was an abandoned hub transplanted from the glass-and-steel streets of Talmaii. A single glowing copper circle was the platform that could lift them to the arrival station. Around it, plenty of benches, and perhaps on any other day, the gift shops and international leynet offices would be open for business.

Not today. There were only shuttered storefronts, floating Foxfire lanterns, and glimmers of fireworks through the unusual cathedral’s stained glass windows. Minus the ringing in her ears, it was oddly quiet.

Ceru let a disoriented Kyari down, propping her against a nearby pillar to rest. When activated, the elevator would cast a pillar of light upwards to the station, letting absolutely everybody in the nearby area know that it was in use. Best to lay low until it was time to go.

She collapsed against the pillar, breathing heavily. Her daggers were still at her side; Ceru pulled them out and held onto their worn grips for stability, pressing her wings against the cold metal pillar.

“I guess that little run took a lot more out of me than I expected,” she said, chuckling. “I am getting old, after all.”

She was tired, but she couldn’t tell if it was her body or her mind that was exhausted.

Though there was certainly one thing weighing on her mind.

Kyari was right: she didn’t hold life in high regard. If she did, she wouldn’t be working as an assassin. So if not life, what did she really hold dear? It wasn’t nothing; if she held nothing sacred, then she would be running around tearing things up like an actual monster.

What attracted her to Kyari? The answer was right there, just out of reach; some mental fog kept Ceru from truly reaching it. She sighed in annoyance, looking to the girl in question to hopefully gleam an answer.

Kyari was as stiff as a statue. Her shoulders were trembling, and the exposed part of her face was marred with a strange mixture of emotions; something between anger and grief.

“Hey, Kyari,” Ceru whispered. “Something the matter?”

No response.

—There was something wrong. Ceru didn’t know what, but her flailing instinct cut through that mental haze and jolted her into action. She slowly pushed herself up, staring at the nearby area.

And just as she looked to make sure the shadows wouldn’t animate, they did.

The shadows swirled like black ink, parting like a dark curtain. They revealed a silent audience that was now quickly approaching.

There were five, ten, fifteen — thirty figures that suddenly appeared. Twenty four Enforcers and six men and women Ceru didn’t immediately recognize. They swarmed quickly, forming a bladed perimeter around Ceru and Kyari; eyes gleamed like assorted gemstones through their helms.

Ceru kipped-up to her feet and readied her blades. She was expecting something like this: there was always some last trouble on the way out.

As she gazed upon the crowd, one figure stood out in particular to her; he was making his way to the front.

Turquoise eyes, grey hair, a wrinkled yet sharp gaze. There was only one person it could be.

“You.” Ceru growled. She looked back, looking for the girl this was all centered around—

Only to find that Kyari was already gone.

—She was marching towards the perimeter. Ceru reached out, but she could barely move her legs.

“You’ll die…! Kyari!”

It was a raw cry of unbridled anguish. She had no strength left to hold back her emotions; hot tears welled up in her eyes and raging despair wracked her chest.

Kyari walked towards those raised blades without fear. She didn’t hesitate for a moment.

Ceru was a person who was happy to admit that she didn’t really know what she wanted. She kept telling herself that she found meaning in her job, that she was doing good things. It filled her with some level of satisfaction, but there was always that little gap that never quite filled. But right now, a singular desire presented itself, plain and true.

More than anything, she didn’t want that girl to throw her life away.

She walked. And walked. And walked straight into the blades.

Ceru didn’t quite understand what happened next.

—No, the opposite was true. She understood the moment she saw it. But she didn’t want to.

Kyari walked into those blades — and passed straight through them. All of them were pointed at a different target, after all.

The blindfolded Salenia known as Ajisai Kyari stared back at Ceru — from behind enemy lines.

6/ Bleed

“You did well, Master Kyari,” said The Lieutenant, nodding approvingly. “Now we can bring this face to a close.”

He lit a new cigarette and walked forward, slowly approaching Ceru.

—Her muscles weren’t responding properly. She was forced to tug on the strings of her arms and legs, using the support of the pillar to stand up.

Emotion blazed in her chest. All those casually suppressed emotions came out now, burning like a white bonfire.

Hate. Spite. Vengeance. Mourning. Despair. They merged into a single flame.

“I didn’t think you’d have the guts to do something like this,” she spat.

The Lieutenant breathed out a small dragon of smoke, then dug into his pockets. “I suppose I do owe you an explanation. This should do most of the talking.”

He flicked a piece of parchment to Ceru’s feet. Against her better judgement, she looked down.

It was a perfectly square piece of parchment describing a target to kill.

The target was Ajisai-ni Ceru no Haruka. Time and location: Undefined.

There was a tear on the bottom that perfectly matched with the tear on Kyari’s Excerpt. Both were sickly yellow with age.

Ceru was expected to die in service to the Ajisan Clan. To them, she was a tool to use and discard.

“Even the old clan head knew you were dangerous,” said The Lieutenant. “When there were no more people, there was only one person left to kill. You.”

The cathedral was silent, save for Ceru and The Lieutenant. On the ground, splotches of mottled colour spilled across polished tile.

“When did the old man croak?” she asked, barely restraining herself.

“Four years ago. His final orders were to kill both you and Kyari.”

“Why Kyari?” The question came out as a horse whisper.

“Simple. She had surpassed him.” Another drag on his cigarette. “Her body had become one with poison, something he could only dream of. And her eyes — she evolved a power the old man could never imagine. At twenty-two years of age, she could kill with her gaze alone.”

Kyari was behind the frontline, staring down at her feet through her blindfold. She was unreadable.

“We could never kill you, Ceru. That’s why we had to rely on Gamashiro’s curse: it would’ve struck you down had you first killed her. But I knew you had a soft heart. Master Kyari understood her role from a young age.”

The white bonfire intensified.

“If she didn’t die at that shrine, she would weaken you with her venom. This was her intent: her first and final mission.”

Burning. Reaching towards the heavens. “…Why?”

“Ajisai Cai was a tyrant. For two hundred years, he did as he pleased: he enforced his vision upon this world. He realized too late what he did.” The Lieutenant looked away. “After he died, we realized Gamashiro’s providence would only bring further disaster. Upon Kyari’s death, before he picks a new source, we could untether that damned God from our world. It was not an easy decision to make — but tomorrow belongs to the people of today. You’re too dangerous to let live, Ceru. This is our duty.”

In the following silence, Ceru stared not at The Lieutenant, but at Kyari.

A girl who wasn’t allowed to choose her own fate. Trapped in another’s story.

Ceru would’ve accepted her own death. Happily, even. It would’ve been the judgment to pierce her delusion of being a good person; a final realization that would give her peace.

But she couldn’t accept this. Not when they tampered with a girl with no agency.

Not like this.

Her strength was nearly entirely drained by Kyari’s toxins. A whirlwind of emotion clouded her mind. But in her chest bloomed a bonfire as white as the sun.

“You know I won’t go down without a fight,” she said, tapping into her last reserves of strength. If she would burn out now, so be it.

The answer she had sought had revealed itself.

“That’s why the entire council’s here,” said The Lieutenant, flicking away his cigarette.

Ceru stepped forward, daggers in hand. A dozen Enforcers stepped in turn, weapons raised.

“This is the will of the people.” He raised his hand, blots of ink forming characters on his fingers. “Do you really think you can win?”

A moment passed.

A dagger disappeared from Ceru’s hand. In the front, a bow-wielding Enforcer staggered forth. Some sort of death gurgle escaped from the red gash in his throat.

Nearby, a firework exploded and wept bright green.

An Enforcer lurched at her with a raised qiang. She replied with a sweep of her remaining dagger.

Crimson scattered like the petals of a broken rose.

Resolve was a distant thing, a phenomenon that fought on her behalf. Using the last of her hidden strength, she attained a level of ability beyond anything she could have imagined. Beyond hate, beyond vengeance, beyond self, she moved, dedicating the last of herself to the ancient dance of death.

—She wouldn’t win. In her weakened state, she could only take on ten at most. All her body was doing was delaying its inevitable doom.

But some things only revealed themselves on the border between life and death.

Ceru was never happy with killing people. That’s why she made up a code that made her feel like she was doing something good.

It was all because somebody helped her a long time ago. Somebody cursed her with the gift of kindness; if a heart required a key, then she was forced to carry another’s all this time.

Ceru wanted to pay back that initial kindness in full. Not with death, but an equal and equivalent kindness. To save as she had been saved. It was a stupid, irrational, and insane desire, but her spirit desired it more than anything else.

She thought she had found it in Kyari. A chance to redeem herself. But Kyari never wanted it.

But it was worth it. Ceru’s heart decided: it was the meaning of the life once given to her. As long as she stayed on that path set before her by a kind soul, she wouldn’t mind whatever came. Kindness creates kindness, and it was only expected for a monster to take it to its logical extreme.

—In kindness, perhaps even a monster may find redemption.

Even now, as hypocritical as it was, she embraced the carnage. If the cost of a path in the light was an end in the dark, so be it. She had spent her entire life fighting — she didn’t expect it to end any differently.

The bonfire in her chest propelled forward. She understood what she had to do; she understood what that fuel was meant for.

As she fought to the death, receiving and delivering fatal wounds like they belonged to someone else, she let the words scrape her throat raw.

“—Kyari, don’t give in. You had hope, didn’t you?”

A knife to the gut. A dagger through the eye.

“Being alive isn’t a sin. Don’t be ashamed of yourself.”

A spear to the back. A slice through a throat.

“No matter what others tell you, know this. Your story is your own: you decide how it ends. You, and no one else!”

A final message written by the deaths of seven slain. Twenty-three more to go.

Her lungs were on fire. Her body was shutting down from exertion and wounds. There were just too many, but—

 

“Your words have no meaning.”

The Lieutenant declared such a thing while controlling the battlefield from afar, commanding ink to restrain and bind. Kyari watched the one-sided battle unfold through her blindfold.

He was right. Words were words and nothing more.

So why? Why did the monster’s words hurt so much?

Kyari was a monster, too. Somebody that could kill without trying. Somebody who had taken countless lives by accident.

Had she been a responsible person, she would’ve died quietly in that snowstorm. Hers was not an existence worth living.

So why did she hang on? Why did she hang on? How could she smile while staring down such a fate?

Even now, the monster known as Ceru fought against her destiny, raging in a lost battle.

Had she conserved her strength and not spoke. Had she left Kyari alone, she would’ve been able to win this fight for her life.

But the words cost her. Clipped, short cries that barely reached Kyari caused an opening: the Enforcers took it and impaled her. They stabbed her. They sliced her. Yet still she raged, fighting merely to say another word.

Those words were the manifestation of her will, an intent she was willing to die for.

—She understood them both. The Ajisai Council knew the disaster that would come from Kyari living; they had lived through the sins of her father. Compared to Ceru’s selfish wish to save a single person, their wish was noble.

Kyari had nothing in this world. The only difference between life and death was the fact that she drew breath. That’s the way it was supposed to be — there was simply too much at stake for her to live.

What Ceru offered was nothing but a dream. The promises she spoke of were hollow and empty, bound to disappear with her death.

Many came to Kyari with similar dreams. Each of them were mirages, illusions that disappeared when approached.

There was nothing to gain from offering that dream. Ceru suffered alone, sacrificing everything.

But even as she suffered, she smiled. Even though she was a monster, she lived.

Kyari would’ve never believed Ceru. But time and time again, the monster showed her new things. Ceru didn’t just believe in her: she gave the tools that could support that dream.

That one week together was very much like a dream. But it happened. It was real.

It was possible to control Gamashiro’s curse. It was possible to push forward alone. Somewhere, somehow, it was possible to continue the transient dream of life.

In the darkest depths burned a single ember; the fleeting, feeble hope that dream was not a dream, but a new tomorrow. It was so faint that it was barely there, and left alone, it would soon disappear. Like a firework that would fade moments after blooming, it was so beautiful that it made her want to cry.

Kyari knew what the right thing to do was. All dreams would have to come to an end at some point.

But she couldn’t ignore the words of a soul burning away. Somebody would have to decide the ending to the story — her story.

Perhaps if she clung hard enough to that fading light, she could choose.

So she reached. Against responsibility, against common order, against the greater good, against herself, she reached—

Ajisai Kyari gave in to those primal feelings and tore off her blindfold.

Qi was the force that made up and held together this world. Yet every person evolved specialized circuits to carry that Qi — it was highly concentrated, barely stable, and waiting to be released.

There was still a crowd standing, surrounding a dying monster. Qi circuits burned; Kyari saw them through their armor and clothes, intricate patterns of colours spread across the rainbow. Red, blue, green, purple, white, more she could barely process. Everyone had them.

This world was beautiful and frail.

All dreams must come to an end.

Chaos and order entwined, release—

 

The fight ended in a single blink.

Ceru fell to a knee, unable to support her own weight.

Death came in the form of a glowing spear aimed at her throat.

She used everything. All her techniques, all her skills, all of her burning will. There was nothing left to pull upon.

So she just waited for death to come, unable to even think.

But a firework burst. A flash of colourless light leapt from person to person, spreading like a virus. Her blurred vision saw the Qi in each person glow brighter than the stars.

—A world shattered.

Bodies deconstructed at their seams. A violation of the natural order made manifest. The lives of every attacker were broken apart like glass.

Silence fell. Ceru stared at the opal eyes of Kyari, who was staggering over the bodies. She was shouting something, but Ceru couldn’t quite hear that well anymore.

She blinked and found herself somewhere else. There was a pillar of light and a moving platform.

Good for Kyari, Ceru thought. She had the strength to drag them both to the elevator.

The skyline of Akasai emerged, filtered through an aquamarine light. A thousand lanterns floated upwards to commemorate the dead.

“—eru? Ceru, Ceru, please respond, I did everything I could, please, please, please—”

“—Quit your yapping, Kiddo.’” The response came reflexively. Ceru looked down and saw some of her wounds were healed; she even felt well enough to chat. But everything was still fading, albeit slower.

Kyari wrapped Ceru in a desperate hug. She buried her face in Ceru’s neck, mumbling tearful apologies and prayers.

They finally made it to the elevator. Soon, they would be at the platform.

She tried consoling Kyari, but nothing seemed to work. The girl was just blubbering too much — looks like she finally indulged her feelings and they overwhelmed her.

Breathing hurt, though. Though her wounds were slightly healed, she lost a lot of blood — and the venom was still in her body.

But that was fine.

It was only fitting that the monster who lived by poison would die by poison.

Ceru stood, helping Kyari back to her feet as well. She felt steady enough to walk, but she didn’t have much time left.

“Neat trick back there,” she said, allowing an incoherent Kyari to cling to her. “I guess the rumors were true, after all.”

There were a lot of unexplained mysteries. But the two of them were still alive and about to escape — that was what mattered. Kyari soon pushed away, a hand lingering on Ceru’s.

It was an isolated moment of warmth, surrounded by the glow of dazzling festival lights. There was no place for her to return: she destroyed her life with her own hands. And now, instead of a glorious death in battle, she was going to pitter out like a flame without fuel.

But she was happy. She made better decisions, honestly, but she truly followed her heart for this one.

There were many more things she wanted to say. Many more she wanted to do. But this would have to do; there’s no way she wouldn’t fumble her words now and leave a terrible impression. The mutual understanding was there: no need for anymore. So Ceru squeezed just a bit tighter, imprinting what was left of this moment in her dying synapses.

The final platform came, a railway station uprooted and placed in the sky. A crystal clock indicated that there were a few minutes left until the Manarail’s arrival.

“We made it just in time,” Ceru sighed, steadying herself against a wall.

“—That you did, friend.”

Her breath caught mid-sigh. There was one last person here.

Standing near the edge of the platform was a suit of black lamellar armor. At her side was her signature notched qiang.

An innocent and disarming appearance hid that the warrior could match Ceru in her prime.

The last Enforcer known as Rareal turned and waved.

“Heya, Ceru-Gumi.”

Kyari focused her killing gaze — then gasped. “H-How are you—”

“I’m a Golem, silly. We have artificial cores — Qi Arts just don’t work on us.” She took a step forward, still smiling. “Anyway. How’s it going?”

Ceru held her arm in front of Kyari, pushing the girl back. She held the golem’s gaze, smiling wistfully. “You too, Ral?”

“Yeah. I know you better than anyone.” She peered down, staring at the citadel. “Heard the rumors and everything.” She looked back. “So I made some preparations. You’d be so weak from venom that I could do whatever I wanted with you.”

The last laugh of the Ajisai Council. Ceru’s vision was greying out — she couldn’t hold on for much longer. “Let her live, Ral. I’ve lived a long, fulfilling life. She hasn’t even lived yet — I want her to go.”

Kyari looked up, horrified. “No. I don’t want to leave you — don’t die now, Ceru…!”

Rareal’s smile froze. Then, slowly, it fell. “Jeez. I was planning on doing a spiel and giving you a last surprise, but it seems like that would be tasteless.” She reached inside her chest compartment and tossed a vial at Ceru.

Ceru caught it. It was a dark and stormy fluid filled with specks of golden stardust.

“I heard and saw everything,” Rareal continued. “I knew you’d be dealing with the powderkeg kid, so I pitched in. That damned vial of Panacea cost me, like, five years of eating out.”

Ceru wasted no time. It tasted of burnt metal and sugar, but the effects were immediate — her vision began to clear. Kyari was starting to relax, realizing Rareal meant no harm.

“But how?” Ceru asked. “I thought the contracts were binding.”

“Hmph!” Rareal closed her eyes and puffed out her chest pridefully. “While you were throwing everybody into a panic, I got a personal request. So I changed the wording. I was to catch you at your full strength. And right now, you kinda look awful, so it’s not in play.” But she shrugged. “…Granted, you did just kill the entire Ajisai Council. I’m not sure if that contract is binding anymore.”

“Not bad. Not bad at all.”

Peace washed over them in a warm wave. Rareal laughed haughtily, enjoying her private victory. “See? Don’t say I never do anything for you — that should probably pay off some of my tab.”

Ceru rolled her eyes. “If you want to be pedantic, you still owe me for the other fifteen years we’ve known each other.”

“Well, that’s still a work in progress. I’m a little broke right now, y’see.”

The Manarail was coming in, a quickly approaching blue comet. Ceru extended a hand, gesturing to Rareal. “You could come with us, you know. Make a new life somewhere.”

“No can do.” Rareal holstered her qiang and rested her hands on her nape. “I had three years left here for a reason — got some unfinished business. But I’m a hunter: no matter where you go, I’ll certainly find you.”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

The Manarail arrived: its black doors clicked open, revealing a steep pair of steps to a carpeted interior. Kyari held Ceru’s hand, holding it tightly as they stepped onto the skyborne vessel.

Ceru looked back one last time, taking in the skyline and fireworks and lanterns of Akasai. Her gaze fell on Rareal; they held each other’s gaze, smiling a final smile.

Ceru bowed. “Thank you, Ral.”

The doors were closing. Ral gave a lazy salute and saw them off from Akasai. “You two birds fly, now. Find yourselves somewhere peaceful and kind, somewhere far away from here.”

EX/ Tomorrow

When Ceru woke up again, she had to shield her eyes from cloyingly bright sunlight blasting her face.

She was in some sort of private cabin. There was a small bed with an indigo cover, a foldable table, a row of chairs, and a window that revealed the blindingly bright lavender sea. When she tried to close the curtains, pain slapped her down.

Her body was screaming. She knew this sort of pain well: Qi Healing accelerated the body’s natural healing, putting much strain on the muscles. She wasn’t recovering from this any time soon.

Across from her, Kyari was sleeping soundly against the table. Maybe a little too soundly; she drooled all over the polymer tabletop.

Last night was a blur. Ceru struggled to explain the situation to the nervous attendant, who cut her off during the conversation.

“I get it, I get it. I’ll book you in for a recovery class trip.” He groaned, running a hand through red hair. “At this point, they should just rebrand Manarail as an emergency escape service. Half the people who wander through the doors are injured seriously.”

A strange Lamia with purple scales and round glasses helped treat Ceru’s lingering wounds in exchange for some hair and blood.

“I would’ve done this for free, but if you insist on payment,” she said, taking out an alchemist’s kit.

Her companion, a weird girl with a beret and purple skin, watched smugly during the treatment. “Magister Aya is a creep who likes collecting body parts.”

“H-Hey, it’s part of the job! We’re on the new investigation now, remember?”

“A creeeeeeeep.”

After that, they were left to rest in a private cabin. The ‘recovery-class’ trip meant they could ride with the Manarail until they chose a destination. Given Ceru’s condition, she’d be here for a while.

 

Ceru waited by Kyari’s side until she woke up. When she did, she stirred slowly, stretching and yawning, rubbing at her eyes. It was the mark of a good rest.

“You didn’t have to watch me sleep,” Ceru said, grinning like a demon.

Kyari yelped and jumped — she jumped so hard she hit her head on the nearby wall. “I wasn’t, I was really worried!” she said, rubbing her head.

“I know, I know, am just teasing ya.”

They sat together for a while, just watching the ocean pass by. There was a projected map on the ceiling: it displayed all four continents and twelve major cities in lines of liquid blue.

“What now?” Kyari said, glancing upwards.

Ceru looked up in turn. “I didn’t think this far, either. This’ll stop by each major city in due time — maybe I could take a world tour or something. Would be nice to wander somewhere new.”

“I don’t know what to think,” admitted Kyari. “This all came so suddenly…” She winced. “I killed all those people… I can’t be forgiven.”

“Bah. You shouldn’t worry when in a kill-or-be-killed scenario. So just take as much time as you need to figure stuff out.” She slugged the girl lightly on the shoulder. “And look at you. You’re already being more assertive already! Soon, you won’t need me to lead all of these conversations.”

“Ah… yeah.”

Both of their previous lives were over. But they therwere happier now, freed from the lies they once told themselves.

Kyari looked at her lap, smiling sadly. “Thank you for all you’ve done for me, Ceru. But I understand if you want to go.” She extended her pale white hand, which was trembling ever so slightly. “If you could hold my hand one more time… that would mean the world for me.”

Ceru blinked. She must’ve had a slip of the tongue and said ‘I’ instead of ‘we’. Or something. Kyari was probably very sensitive to these kinds of things.

Instead of answering verbally, she slid back the foldable table with her knee, then swept Kyari up. In a single smooth motion, she put the Salenia in her lap and wrapped her arms around the girl’s chest. “I’m an actual monster,” she said, leaning in close enough to whisper. “Now that you’ve gotten involved with me, do you expect me to let you go?”

Kyari gasped at first, stunned by the move. But, slowly, she melted into the embrace; her hands reached up to Ceru’s arms and held on tight. She leaned back and nuzzled against Ceru’s chest, staring up with messy violet bangs interrupted by bright opal eyes. “I wouldn’t want anything else.”

“Good girl.”

Kyari tilted her head. “I’m an adult, you know…”

“No, you aren’t.” Ceru covered the girl’s eyes with her paws and chuckled. “You’ve got a lot of stuff to catch up on before you can call yourself an adult.”

“Bleh.”

The Salenia was much smaller, but she burned with the same intensity as Ceru. She was so warm that Ceru found it surprising. Maybe she really was that starved for physical affection.

Starting a new life with this girl didn’t seem so bad. There was a long way to go: they would have to get to know each other much more intimately over the coming weeks. But she had a feeling things would work out — they were on a similar wavelength.

For the first time, Ceru genuinely helped another. She fulfilled her promise to the one who saved her; now she needed to see where that new path led.

But for now, she rested on Kyari’s shoulder, hugging her close. Ceru hadn’t noticed it until now, but the girl smelled faintly of fresh peaches. A pleasant, eternally springtime smell.

Gradually, both their gazes drifted upwards to the world map. It was an undefined future for both of them: the mark of a story yet to be written. Ceru never really wrote a story before, but it wouldn’t be a bad time to start experimenting. She had a lot of free time, now, and a new chapter away from all the slaughter would be quaint.

Ceru looked upwards, scanned the city names, and gently asked, “Where do you want to go first?”

 

Author’s Note: This is a slightly barebones story. There was a lot more, but this was a contest entry restricted to 25k words. Maybe I’ll rewrite at another point. Whoops.

There were two additional chapters between 3 and 5, and the climax chapters were drawn out.

Hopefully, you enjoy it as is, Anonymous Reader.

P.S. Expect a NSFW sequel/proper epilogue soon regardless of rewrite-storification status.

I’m going all out, just this once.

You thought I’d only write wholesome stuff? Too bad.

P.S.S. Also, I’m pretty sure you all are tired of hearing me shill my book (Weave Point Null), but please buy my book. I want to feed my gacha addiction.

 

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4 thoughts on “Contract Thorn

  1. I only noticed one or two typos/spelling errors. But to be fair, I was too enrapt in the story to pay attention to them. Fantastic story, I can’t wait for the full version to come sooner than later hopefully.

  2. As a matter of fact i bought your book, because you’re cool dude. Readin’ it right now. Writing is solid, but the plot is giving me flashbacks from various ‘chinese porn cartoons’ a.k.a anime. Not a bad thing, in my opinion. Still waiting for dem glorious monstergirl lewds and\or wholesome romance in later chapters tho)))

    1. You have my thanks! Admittedly, the book isn’t my /best/ work since I’ve been constantly improving. But as long as you enjoy the first thing I get out there, I couldn’t be happier.

      You will have your smut one way or another, my man.

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