Electrickery

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This story is the second installment of my original setting, Darkness Prevails.
I suggest reading the first one, Eyes in the Dark, first, as there are spoilers here for that story.

#Darkness Prevails

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Ugh. The hell was that racket outside?

Damian pulled open the shutters of his second-story bedroom window and peered down through the cloudy glass. Some kind of carnival looked to be moving in, making Damian begin to regret his choice of renting a home right on the edge of the largest town square. Seemed like a good idea at the time. The most popular businesses were nearby. Or, well, Damian’s favorites, anyway.

Artie’s pub, best place for a guy to go to forget about work. Jessamina’s inn, too, if he had the money to spend on better ale, or flirt with Mary Malone. The main reason, though, for Damian to live this close to the square, was the town’s main eyesore, a sprawling monstrosity of a factory, where he worked building and repairing steam engines. The whole damn town’s economy revolved around that smoke-belching, goddess-forsaken mess.

At least the constant winds coming down off the plateau nearby kept the smoke from languishing in town. Damian didn’t envy anyone living south of here, though. A loud voice boomed from somewhere in the square. Damian searched for the source.

A bald, heavyset man wheeled some strange, large half-cylindrical contraption through the town square, parking it near the edge of his stall.

“Gather round, ladies and gents!” he spoke with a booming, jovial voice. Perspiration dotted his shiny brow and a big, bushy mustache curved with his earsplitting grin. “And behold! The wonder of mankind’s greatest invention!”

Damian closed the shutters on his second-story room. The hell was wrong with people these days? Every week it seemed like some flimflam artist rolled into town to peddle off some crock or another. Ignoring the noise outside, Damian stood before his mirror, finishing his shave. He ran a hand through his sleek, jet-black hair. One side grew a little longer than the other, which Damian flipped over one eye for effect. He told his buddies that it gave him a mysterious look. Problem was, he couldn’t grow a beard worth a damn. He was only, what, twenty-three years old? He had a sturdy, squared face with a somewhat rugged jaw, but his beard grew in charcoal grey, so he had to keep it shaved. Seriously? So much for posing for romance novel portraits.

Throwing on his sleeveless tunic, he tried flexing in front of the mirror. Not bad, not bad, well defined biceps and nice, broad deltoids. The perks of working hard in a factory all day making steam engines. Bit of a farmer’s tan, though, with skin pockmarked here and there by bits of metal and hot grease nailing him in random places. He flashed a roguish grin at the mirror.

“Hey, ladies,” he said in his best smoldering voice. “Urkk…” he coughed. Gods above. Everyone else made it look easy. Or sound easy, as the case may be. His voice just didn’t sound deep enough naturally. Oh well. Practice makes perfect. Brushing his hair out of his olive-green eyes, he knelt to tie on his boots.

BANG.

The hell?

BANG. BANG.

“DAMIAN!”

Ugh. What now?

Finished with his boots, he bounded downstairs and opened the door. “Garth. It’s early. I got at least half an hour.”

“No, buddy, come check this out, this guy’s the real deal!”

Damian’s friend, Garth, with his narrow face and steely dark-brown eyes, could spot deception anywhere. And his tousled, slightly wavy, sandy-blonde hair lent him the look of an easygoing young man that belied his true nature: Hardworking, no-nonsense, down-to-business. It was rare to find him actually excited about anything. Garth thrust a finger in the direction of the carnival.

“Ugh, all right, fine,” sighed Damian, locking the door behind him. “They got any food?”

“Most of the stalls are still setting up,” Garth replied. “But I think I can smell something over the morning special.”

A tic in Damian’s eye twitched. The “morning special,” a lovely, rancid smoke that gushed from the factory at the start of every day. The Halfmoore breeze swept the worst of it out of the industrial town of Loren, but its nauseating tinge pervaded everyday life, nonetheless.

Damian trailed Garth, still working the kinks out of his back and arms. Gods, he felt old. Garth pointed towards a group of stalls setting up. Most of them hadn’t even erected their signs yet, but one in particular twirled savory slabs of meat over a sweltering stove. Damian headed over and allowed the scent of cooked meat banish the rancid morning special. Little early for something like this, but what the hell. He fished into his pockets for some coins and bought a piping-hot leg of lamb.

“What the hell?” Garth gawped at Damian as he approached. “Isn’t it a bit early for something like that?” Hmm. Since when could Garth read minds?

“Yeah, so what?” Damian mumbled, his mouth full of meat. He gnawed hungrily at the meat right off the bone. “So, where’s this real deal?”

“This way,” Garth said, sighing as he glanced at the huge hunk of meat in Damian’s hand. He led his friend towards a milling crowd that had gathered around a wide section of the carnival, near the games. As the gamesmasters were busy setting up, most of the carnival-goers hung by the large stall that contained Garth’s “real deal.”

Damian hopped in place to glance at the doohickey being set up against the stall. A large, half-cylindrical device sat humming near the stall, connected with wires into a series of glass bulbs strung all around a sign that read, “Majestico’s Electrickery.”

Before Damian could comment, the flimflam man stepped out onto the stage beneath the sign and boomed, “It’s ready, folks! Feast your eyes on the future!” He waved, gesturing up at the sign and pulled on a large lever mounted into the wall.

All of the sudden, the bulbs bloomed into bright, white lights, shining like little fairies.

“What the hell?” muttered Damian.

“See?” Garth said excitedly. “This guy claims to have invented a new source of power! Might make steam engines obsolete!”

Goddess, Damian sure hoped not. They’d both be out of a job. He reluctantly followed Garth into the crowd, edging closer to the stage. As he approached, he caught some of the excited voices asking questions.

“What IS it?”

“How did you build it!?”

“Is it magic?”

“Is it… dangerous?”

The jovial man guffawed, his big, meaty hands on his overstuffed belly. “One at a time, folks, one at a time! Firstly, it’s called… Eeee-leck-trickery!”

Damian groaned. “Garth. You can’t seriously be buying into this?”

“Look, Damian,” Garth pointed at the device. “No steam. How’s he powering it?”

“This here thing,” boomed the flimflam, “It’s called a gen-ee-rate-orr! All kinda doodads inside it, can’t reveal my secrets ya know! They make the sparks and pump out the electrickery! I can then use that to make some ‘o these fancy light shows!”

The lights flickered, dimming somewhat. The man kicked the generator and all of the lights came back on brightly. “Heh… heh…” he chuckled, slightly embarrassed. “It’s all a work ‘n progress, ya see. Ain’t perfected the thing yet.”

“Ain’t perfected, he says,” Damian scoffed. “Yeah. Watch me expose this fool for what he is. Hold my beer.” He handed Garth the leg of lamb.

“Damian?” Garth whispered as his friend disappeared into the crowd. “Damian!”

Damian snuck through the crowd with a wide, cocky grin. This was going to be fun. He loved trickery himself, and his favorite pranks involved pranking other pranksters. Carefully slipping out to the side, he made his way behind the stall, approaching the “generator” thing from the back. Sneaking up to the generator, he leaned close to listen. Heard some kind of humming or vibrations inside. Hmm.

So many people were nearby, but only a small boy noticed him getting near. He tugged on his mother’s skirt, pointing at Damian. Damian reached for the generator, and…

“Aggghhhh!” he cried as the metal carried a powerful jolt into his arm that suffused through his body.

“Hah!” the jovial man laughed. “Watch yourself, there, boy! She bites!”

Damian cringed, waiting for his body to seize up with pain. Strangely enough, none came. An odd, jarring pleasure brought on spasms and tics throughout his upper arms, chest, and moved down his waist to settle around his hips and between his legs.

The sound of laughter snapped Damian out of his daze. The crowd pointed and laughed at him. Damnit all! This prankster was smarter than he looked. Taking off, Damian ran the hell out of there, whizzing past Garth as he did his best to outrun his embarrassment.

“Damian! What happened?” Garth called after him. Damian did not answer, nor did he check to see if his friend followed. He fumbled with the lock on his door, his fingers twitching erratically, unwilling to behave as they should. Finally, he managed to pry open his door and collapse on the steps. His first floor consisted only of this small landing, a coat closet next to him, and the stairs he now reclined upon.

“What the hell is this?” Damian groaned, holding up his shaking hand. His hand trembled, but felt energized and full of strength. He closed his fist, listening to the sound of his skin tightening. He snapped his arm down, pounding the step next to him. The wood shook violently, releasing a cloud of dust all around him. Damian coughed, waving his airway clear as he blinked stars from his eyes.

Knock, knock.

The door sort of swung open on its own; Damian had forgotten to close it properly.

Garth.

“Damian, are you alright?” his friend asked, his brow knotted in concern. “That looked like a nasty hit.”

“I’m good, I think,” Damian told him, reaching up to take the leg of lamb Garth held onto for him. He took a big bite from it. “Let me just stash this and I’ll be ready.”

Damian jogged up the steps, popped open his preserving bin, and… He took another bite. And another. Why the hell was he so hungry? Ugh. Daylight’s burning. He tossed the meat inside, shut the bin, and headed downstairs.

“If you make me late, I’m kicking your ass,” Garth grumbled as they headed out into the morning light.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Smoke from the tall stacks of the factory had already begun to blot out the sun as Halfmoore Ridge’s winds carried it southeast. As walks went, the trek to the factory ranked right down there alongside dysentery-riddled marches to the physician and retching stumbles in the dark from the pub back home.

The trip used to make Damian nauseous. Every time. Grimy streets, dusky air, and the oppressive shadows mixed various breakfasts with acidic bile in his throat. He’d mostly gotten used to it by this time, but he briefly worried the odd nature of his “breakfast” this morning would give him a righteous heartburn.

Oddly enough, his stomach settled for devouring the meat, completely ignoring the repugnant smoke as Garth led him through the wide-open gate into the factory. Fortunately, they weren’t too late. A foreman shouted at them, but the load roaring of the machinery drowned him out enough that Damian and Garth pretended not to hear him. It almost didn’t work. He approached them, but a loud clang sounded somewhere nearby as a heavy pipe hit the concrete floor, nearly cracking the grey surface.

The foreman forgot about Damian and Garth and ran over to the mess. Damian glanced at his friend; they both let out sighs of relief and got to work. Right away, Damian noticed something had changed.

A panel sat half-open in front of him, covering the inner workings of the engine he’d been tuning. He remembered this from yesterday, how he’d gotten to it near the end of the day’s work, couldn’t get it open, and just left it there for next time. Somehow, today, he pulled the thing open easily. Not only that, a strange pleasure rushed through his body from the exertion.

Glancing at Garth, Damian noticed his friend struggling with a similar panel. He headed over to him and pulled it open.

“Uh, thanks buddy,” Garth said, cocking his head with a puzzled expression playing out over his face. Damian felt his friend staring as he headed back to his own work. Eager to brush it off, he dove into his duties, and stuck his head inside the belly of the beast in front of him. Tracing his gloved fingers across the pipes and supports, he found the problem almost immediately. A burst pipe. Yanking that out, he replaced it with a fresh one and stuck his head inside to look for more problems.

Time passed as Damian fluidly passed from one engine to the next. Every hour or so, he paused to wonder what was going on. Building and repairing steam engines was backbreaking, tedious work, and often times, fraught with danger. That pipe that hit the floor earlier? That thing had to weigh over a hundred pounds, and could reduce a leg or arm into mush upon collision. Normally, Damian barely plodded through days like this.

Today, however, he felt supercharged. Energized. Motivated. Pleasure hummed through his body at each expenditure of energy. Huh. Maybe that flimflam guy really was on to something. This warranted further investigation.

After beer.

Yeah. After lots of beer.

Damian secreted some tools away that he’d need to open up the generator thing later, smuggling them into the deep pockets of his cargo pants. As they headed out, the foreman’s gaze met his. Oh crap. Please, no inspection. Just look the other way.

“Damian,” the foreman stopped him, his eyes sweeping over at a list in his hands. “Those six engines you repaired seem to be back up and running. Good work.”

“Uh, thanks, sir.” Damian gulped.

“Garth. Engine eight and twelve are up and running, but what happened with sixteen?”

“That… should be working,” Garth muttered.

“Yeah, you fire that engine up, and you’ll be lucky it hasn’t shat out its innards faster than a drunkard after twelve pints.”

Garth blushed.

“Damian, maybe you can straighten this guy out tomorrow?”

Ugh, man, this was awkward. “Sure thing, sir, happy to help.”

“Happy huh?” the foreman glared. “Right… Well, get a move-on, then.”

Damian and Garth took their pay and got the hell out of there. “What the hell was that all about?” Garth demanded as they stepped out into the (sort of) fresh air.

“Uh, which part?” Damian asked lamely.

“SIX ENGINES?” bellowed Garth, throwing his hands up in the air in exasperation. “How in the bloody seven hells did you tune SIX ENGINES!?”

Damian nearly leapt back at Garth’s outburst. “I dunno,” Damian mused. “Must’ve been that leg of lamb? Been pretty energized all day.”

“If a leg of lamb for breakfast will get that kind of work out of a guy,” sighed Garth, “I’m eating one every day.”

“Do you really care about impressing that asshole every day?” Damian chuckled.

“Good point.”

They both laughed.

“You made enough for us to both go to Jessamina’s,” Garth suggested with a wink.

Ah. Jessamina’s. While Jessamina herself wasn’t bad on the eyes at all, Mary Malone and her friends were all servers there. Mary, the luscious brunette, with her raven locks, soft green eyes, and busty curves pressed against him, occasionally with one of her friends wrapped around her, teasing her as she tempted him.

Damian checked his pants. Huh. That was strange. He’d felt kind of tingly all day, but no response from his mental imagery of Mary. That salacious girl enjoyed Damian’s fantasies almost as much as he himself did. And yet, nothing. He shrugged.

“Need to pick up some more food,” Damian sighed, more for the reason behind the lie than the lie itself. “Need the money.”

“Oh well,” groaned Garth. “Artie’s it is.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Oh gods. Artie’s.

A wash of smoke, cheap alcohol, and piss assaulted Damian’s nostrils as he stepped into the pub with his buddy. Raucous laughter rang out as someone passed out at a table, knocking drinks and trays over. Damian and Garth wove through the throng towards the bar.

“Hey Artie,” sighed Damian. “Pint of your finest for my myself and my friend.”

Artie, the pudgy, bald bartender who’s face appeared to be made of moustache, dropped a pair of tankards on the bar with a thunk, filled to the brims with frothy ale. He scooped up the coins Damian laid out, grunting as he shuffled over to the next person.

“Six engines,” grumbled Garth as he started chugging.

“Will you lay off?” Damian jabbed him with his foot and began to imbibe the foul, fiery liquid. Ugh. Damian really didn’t care to know what orifice of hell this stuff fermented in, but after it finished searing its way down his throat, the sharpness of vision began to dull and his intolerance of the racket around him faded. Maybe times weren’t so bad after all. His leg bumped into the bar and something heavy jabbed his thigh.

Oh, right. The tools. He was going to pick apart that generator tonight, under cover of darkness. Couldn’t let himself get too drunk. He bought himself and Garth another round. Then another round just for Garth, hoping his buddy wouldn’t notice Damian sort of savoring his second pint. Good gods, this stuff tasted terrible. Savoring it really, really wasn’t a good idea, but he had to make this work. Plus, Garth didn’t seem to mind having his drinks paid for, so there was that.

Finally, the two of them decided to call it a night. Heading out into the darkness, Damian and Garth said their farewells and went separate ways. Damian headed home, but edged towards the shuttered carnival at the last second. Time to get to the bottom of this.

Sneaking through the empty, darkened carnival like a specter, Damian slipped into the alley between stalls and approached the generator from under cover of darkness. As he drew near, the faint sounds of humming and rattling reached his ears. And something else.

Moaning?

Wait a second, here. That wasn’t coming from the generator. Damian crept back out of the alley and checked the next one over. Peeking around the corner, he sighed heavily.

Mary Malone, writhing against the wall, one thigh firmly in the hand of a guy Damian didn’t know. Her silk dress, black as night, parted at her hip and lay slung against her other leg as the unidentified man thrust into her, bouncing her up against the wall. Mary panted, her eyes on the man’s cheek as she trailed her tongue up and down the line of his jaw.

Well, wasn’t the first time Damian had observed Mary having sex. She even admitted to inviting people to watch her occasionally. Usually, the mere mention of it was enough to goad Damian’s lust, resulting in him pinning her against one piece of furniture or another, much like the man with her was doing now.

However…

He glanced down. The typical Damian would have a proper tent constructed by now. Tonight, though? Nothing. He peered at Mary, studying her face. She hadn’t noticed him. Her lustful green eyes remained firmly fixed upon her tryst for the night.

Gods above. That woman.

Damian shook his head. Why did this suddenly bother him? Not like it came as a surprise. Hell. She’d invited two of her girlfriends to take part, before. At the same time. Her reputation preceded her. Nobody cared. All of the pubgoers loved her.

For some reason, Damian just wasn’t interested tonight. He left the two of them to their devices and returned to the dark alley with the generator. Carefully, he reached out to touch the metal exterior.

Zap.

“Hnnn…” grunted Damian. The shock traveled lasciviously up his arm into his chest, where it spread out like feminine fingers through his entire body. His manhood twitched, swelling. Strength flared into his arms and legs. Unnatural strength.

Sudden realization overtook Damian’s rational mind.

It hadn’t been the leg of lamb that empowered him at work.

It had been this thing. This hunk of metal. Good gods! Maybe this Majestico guy was truly on to something? Need drove Damian. Need for answers. His hands reached into his pockets, fishing out the “borrowed” tools. Carefully wrapping his hands in strips of leather to insulate them, he unscrewed a large panel in the side of the generator. Prying it open as quietly as he could, Damian uncovered another, larger panel. This one, oddly enough, opened like a door. It even had a keyhole, a tiny slot Damian noticed in the upper left corner. Thankfully, whoever closed it last forgot to lock it.

A strange scent wafted out from the internal workings of the generator as Damian opened the second panel. No, not one scent. A mixture of them, like the morning special. His nose wrinkled at the memory, but this particular mixture of scents nudged away the unpleasantness. The sharp, sterile twist of ozone blended with… what was it? Floral. Like a perfume, except… what was it?

Damian paused, leaning against the generator as his curious mind perused memories to try and place it. A flower? No. Wait, yes. What kind of flower? Dammit, Damian. Think! Couldn’t… yes! Now he remembered!

Cherry blossoms.

A merchant selling wares from Zipangu had been selling the little flowers, along with a host of other wares. He remembered seeing Jill, the local seamstress, there. She’d bought armloads of fabrics and outfits. Must be nice, having money. All Damian could afford was a handful of the little flowers, which he’d given to Mary Malone’s friend, Kino, who claimed to be from Zipangu. Garth didn’t believe that about her, but it didn’t stop her from making sweet love to Damian that night.

Damian chuckled at the memory.

“nnn…”

What? Damian stiffened. That sounded like… He gasped. Was there someone inside here? He poked his head inside. And nearly fainted.

There was.

It was a girl. The most beautiful creature he’d ever laid eyes on. A mass of azure blue hair covered almost every inch of her body, curled up into a fetal position as she trembled. The machinery hummed around her, crackling with energy.

Gods…

A sudden rush of emotion nearly overcame Damian’s senses. This Majestico guy had enslaved someone. Damian considered himself a pretty easygoing guy. He could put up with a lot, and had to, on a regular basis. Some things he disliked enough to try and change, whether by passive-aggressiveness or an outright confrontation. If he effected change, great. If not, he groused about the situation, but moved on. Nobody really cared about some random factory worker’s opinion, right? So, most things, Damian let slide.

Not this.

Damian supposed his relationships with women could be considered exploitative. He justified it by reasoning that the women he surrounded himself with enjoyed using him just as much as he did them. He never really thought himself a jealous man, or a particularly compassionate one.

However, the mere act of witnessing someone, so utterly and completely helpless, being exploited at the barest, most barbaric levels, awakened something within Damian he did not realize he possessed. As he observed the girl sitting there, curled into a tight ball, at the mercy of so many clips and clamps, Damian discovered righteous anger. A flaring heat burned in his chest, spreading up into his face. Redness pulsed at the edges of his vision. Good gods, he’d been angry before, but this… nothing like this. As the burning fury spread throughout Damian’s very soul, ideas began forming in his mind, of things he wanted to do, each one more violent than the last.

Majestico… how dare he. What right did he have to enslave this girl? Gods damnit, this wasn’t just about payback anymore. And it also wasn’t about him, he realized. His anger notwithstanding, a girl needed help. Damian had to get her out of there.

Carefully he reached for her.

Zap.

“Agh!” grunted Damian, banging his head on the lip of the entrance panel as he pulled out. Stars pirouetted before his eyes as energy danced within his body. Damian squeezed his eyes closed and willed himself to remain conscious. This was serious. Deadly serious. He knew something was up—the kind of energy he’d enjoyed earlier today could not have been natural. The bouncing and popping stars faded, but the energy remained within his body, interacting with his anger. Changing it. Metamorphizing it into something else. Lust? That was certainly odd. His pants stretched tightly, painfully, against his stiffened manhood.

The hell? Damian shifted his clothes to give himself some breathing room down there. The slightest touch elicited a tightening clench all through his groin and erection. Definitely not natural. Shaking his head, Damian pushed the strange pleasure to the back of his mind so he could concentrate. Come up with a solution…

An unused tarp lay folded nearby. Damian picked it up. Made of the same material as the large one covering the generator itself, it might shield him from the sparks. Damian tested it, and found his theory correct. He unfolded it and wound it inside the opening. Wrapping his hand up in leather strips once more, Damian poked the girl’s shoulder.

“Psst!” he hissed at her.

“Mn…” she moaned softly, barely audible.

Oh, gods, Damian was going to regret this.

Carefully, oh-so-carefully, Damian reached around the girl and tugged her towards the tarp. While the girl herself did not resist, something held her back. Damian cursed. Profusely.

There was no longer any doubt. She was a prisoner.

Shackled to the insides of the generator. Numerous clamps, electrodes, sensors, and other tiny devices Damian couldn’t make out bit into her skin and covered the top of her head. He sighed, bitterly. This was going to take a while. Laying his tools out onto the tarp, he twisted as best he could, for he could only fit half of his body into the generator. Bent over at the hip, he stood up on his toes to angle himself in just a few inches more.

Holy hell, she was such a mess. Damian started with the smaller clamps, the ones biting into her flesh. As he brushed her crackling hair out of the way, he exposed pale, creamy skin that would otherwise have been breathtakingly beautiful. Screw it. She was still breathtaking. And Damian was going to free her.

The work went slowly, but the girl seemed to relax a little as each device and wire fell away from her. As Damian unhooked the metal half-sphere from the top of her head, a pair of large, fuzzy ears popped out.

Woah!

Damian sucked in a breath, forcing himself to remain still. He really didn’t need to bang his head on the unforgiving metal again. He’d figured the girl to be some kind of non-human creature from the color of her hair, but now he knew. Confirmed. Verified. His hands paused as he reached for her. Was he sure about this? She was a monster. He’d heard stories about monsters.

Gods damnit, what was the matter with him? Whatever she was, she was trapped in here. Quickly removing the last of her restraints, he carefully plucked her out of the depression she sat within and laid her to rest on her side upon the tarp.

“Mnn…” she moaned softly, but failed to respond otherwise. A strange buzzing noise crept to Damian’s ears from somewhere beneath her. He traced a wire leading under her, between her legs.

The hell is this? Clutching the wire, he pulled. Whatever the wire linked to produced a soft, squishy sound as something emerged from the girl. Finally, it popped free, covered in glistening fluid.

Wait a second. Damian knew what that fluid was. He dropped the bumpy, cylindrical device, and its buzzing died off as it fell into the little depression where the girl had been.

“Oh man,” groaned Damian. “Please tell me you’re not naked under all that hair.”

The girl said nothing.

“Gods, what was that guy doing to you?” Damian muttered, carefully wrapping the girl up into the tarp. He’d never seen anyone curl themselves into such a tight ball. She shivered under the stiff material of the tarp. Ugh, she had to be freezing. The autumn nights got rather chilly in Loren.

Once satisfied she was completely covered, Damian slid the tarp-covered girl out of the generator and laid her down on the ground. Quick as he could, he closed up the machine. The fact that the humming sounds had ceased did not escape him. Carefully, he unwrapped his finger and poked it.

Nothing. No sparks. The electrickery it produced must have had something to do with the girl inside of it. Damian quickly closed the interior panel and screwed the outer panel back on. He then knelt and gently picked up the tarp ball next to him. The tarp vibrated gently as the girl inside shivered against the cold.

Ugh. Had to get her warm somehow. A thought suddenly crossed his mind.

What was he going to do with her? He couldn’t just…

Pff. Screw that. She needed help. He snuck into the night with her and made it halfway out of the darkened carnival before a woman’s voice reached him.

“Damian…”

Oh, damn. Damian knew that sultry alto anywhere. He turned his head to look back over his shoulder.

Mary Malone stood about fifteen feet away, her plush, smiling lip held temptingly between her teeth as she twirled a finger wantonly around a lock of her raven-black, wavy hair. Her silk gown hung precariously from her curves, a strap dangling off her shoulder.

Gods. This woman just didn’t quit. Normally he loved that about her. She could go all night! But tonight, nothing could have been more of a nuisance.

“What are you doing out so late, tonight, hmm?” she crooned, slowly approaching.

Damian sighed. “I’d ask you the same thing, but I already know.”

Mary paused, cocking her head. Barely blushing, she smiled wryly. “Oh, you saw us? Did you enjoy the show?”

“Who was it this time?”

Mary pursed her lips. “Mmm. Brett. So spontaneous.” She giggled. “Kinda like you…”

“Ugh,” groaned Damian. “The foreman’s son? I hate that guy.”

“Brett or his father?” Mary asked, seemingly genuine with her curiosity.

“His father,” said Damian, “But I hate him too, by extension.”

“What can I do to make it up to you?” asked Mary, batting her eyelashes. At least, Damian thought she did. The darkness forced him to use his imagination, and with a woman like Mary, that was not a good idea. Especially since the shivering in his arms had begun to intensify.

Damian paused to think. He needed a good line to drive Mary off without making her suspicious. Oh. This would be good. “You can go home and wash off the spunk,” he growled. “I can smell him all over you from here.”

Mary sighed. “Or, you could wash it off of me…”

“I’m not touching you with that asshole’s taint on you,” groaned Damian. “Go home, Mary.”

Damian turned and left her there. Pretty sure she hurled a curse at his back, but whatever. He had bigger problems to deal with. Problem was, rejecting Mary was simply a turn-on for her. This was going to come back to bite him in the ass sometime this week.

“Ghh…” shivered the girl in his arms.

Damian increased his pace. “Almost there,” he soothed. Using a contortion of his hand, shoulder, and teeth, Damian managed to get his front door unlocked. He kicked the door closed behind him, locking it with his shoulder, and carried the girl upstairs.

Ugh, now Damian wished he had a fireplace. He set the girl down on his bed and went to the stove to light it. While he waited for the kettle to brew, he approached the bedside and gently unwrapped the girl.

Oh, gods, Damian could feel his heart breaking. The poor thing shivered and shuddered against the unforgiving tarp. Damian took off his jacket and spread it down over her, but her shivering only intensified. Carefully, he gathered her up in his arms and tucked her in under the covers, kicking the tarp aside. The kettle whistled; Damian dashed over to it to remove it from the heat and get some tea steeping. Checking on the girl again, he sighed, noting her shivers stubbornly clinging to her. He nudged his jacket aside and rested a hand on her bare shoulder. Chilly. Her ears lay flat against her head to conserve heat.

It almost felt wrong to do so, but Damian laid a hand upon the top of her head, nudging his thumb over one of her ears. The ear twitched, feeling soft, furry, and cold. His hand moved over top of it, covering it against her head as he willed his body heat to seep into it. It seemed to help; the furry ear beneath his hand twitched and warmed, so he covered her other ear with his other hand. Gently, he massaged the top of her head.

“Mmm…” the girl cooed softly.

Eh? She liked that? Damian intensified his massage, and the girl’s shivering began to taper down. Her sharp, shallow breathing slowed to something more relaxed, and her ears warmed up nicely. Damian slowly sat up to go check on the tea.

Or, he tried, anyway. A hand shot up from beneath the covers and snatched his wrist, tugging him back down to the bed and guiding his palm upon her head. Damian chuckled and rubbed her head, marveling at the tuft of dark azure fur growing out of the back of her hand.

“Feeling better?” Damian asked her. “I made you some hot tea. Did you…”

Damian’s voice fell away. Her face tilted up and her eyes opened partway. Her eyes… oh, sweet goddess, her eyes… Deep, glowing, lustful green with arresting slits for pupils. Mary Malone, eat your heart out.

“Thank… you…” she said softly. Soft, sweet, honeyed soprano. Voice of an angel.

“Do you want some tea?” Damian asked gently, trying to tug away. Girl was a lot stronger than she looked. He could not pry his hand from her grip. Well, maybe he could, if he yanked hard enough. Maybe.

“Please… stay…” girl pleaded, her voice small and shaken. “So cold…”

“I’m not going anywhere, but I made you some tea to warm you up,” Damian suggested to her as he tried to ease away again.

“Nnn…” she shivered, shaking her head. She flipped open the side of the covers closest to him. “Stay… please stay…”

Nothing for it. She wasn’t letting go. Damian slid under the covers beside her, still clothed. Right away, the girl uncurled from her fetal position and insinuated herself around him, her shivering intensifying once again. She rested her head on his shoulder, smiling slightly, and giggled once as her ears tickled his face.

“Thank you…” she repeated. The girl sighed, pressing her body into his side. One leg slung over his thigh and rested between his legs. Her arms wound under and above him. Something flapped around behind her under the covers. Damian did not have the courage to check and see what it was.

Oh, gods she felt wonderful. A gentle energy from her body kept drifting into his skin from any part of her directly contacting it. Her soft breathing caressed his neck. And her scent… ahh… cherry blossoms. Damian’s arm wound around her on its own, quickly becoming lost within her voluminous hair. She sighed again, relaxing into him. Her breathing slowed as she fell asleep.

Damian did his best not to grunt. Her presence felt so sinfully good, his manhood raged within his pants. He wagered he’d never been this hard, even when Mary and her two friends coiled around him with three tongues and three pairs of hands. Damian closed his eyes. Maybe this was all some kind of dream. But how in the hell was he going to be able to sleep with this blue-haired angel wrapped around him?

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Quite easily, apparently.

Damian dreamt of spring. And not of spring in Loren, with its ugly, foul-smelling factory and barely managed sewage. He dreamt of a land full of cherry trees in full bloom. The cute, pink and magenta flowers spread everywhere, all throughout the trees, laying out their petals upon the ground. The scent enveloped him, embracing him with gentle warmth.

Peace. Such peace and contentment. A strange, foreign concept to Damian, who recalled little more than the acrid tang of smog and the heady aroma of cheap perfume from the women who offered themselves so readily to him. Such a pitiful, meaningless way of life. Damian paused to reflect on that feeling. He’d never considered himself deserving of a stable relationship. The most he cared about a woman was how to entice her with pleasure so that she would seek him out again. It wasn’t as if he disliked Mary and her friends. He enjoyed their company. But did he truly care?

Damian polled his feelings and found he did not. A wash of guilt overshadowed his contentment. He’d been using them, his suspicions from earlier confirmed. It didn’t matter that they enjoyed it. It still felt wrong. Damian swore to himself not to do that to the girl beside him.

Wait a second.

There was a girl beside him.

A girl he did not know.

Damian’s eyes flew open. Where was she? Uh… question was, where wasn’t she? Gods! She was everywhere! Sometime during the night, she’d transitioned to being on top of him. Her hair veiled his face, one ear flicking against his bangs. Her warm, smooth cheek rested against his face, and her breath tickled his neck. Her breasts, which felt quite large, pillowed against his chest. Her arms rested upon his, spread lengthwise across his, and her fingers interlaced with his. Damian’s legs rested between hers, cocooned between them. Part of the covers exposed their legs, and a large, fluffy tail waved lazily back and forth in the air.

Damian inhaled. All was cherry blossoms. Her warmth, her presence, all of her rested upon him with blissful abandon. He felt something very warm and moist against his rock-hard erection. It had soaked through the entire front of his pants during the night, and, based on the way her body rested down upon it, there was no possible way she hadn’t noticed. Unless she simply incorporated the sensation into her dreams, as he himself had.

This was not going to be easy.

Damian glanced up through the window. The sun still hung low in the sky. They had time. Damian shuddered. The hell was he thinking? They had time? He had time. Time to figure out what to do with this girl. There was no they. There never could be. The town of Loren wasn’t exactly in anti-monster territory, but the Order did claim control over the region. He’d never be allowed to keep her. Best bet would be to help her escape town somehow.

First thing to do would be to get up. How, though? She’d insinuated every inch of her body on and around him. He considered himself lucky that tail hadn’t wound around his waist. He started by de-interlacing his fingers from hers, cupping her hands gently to guide her arms to her sides. He then unwound his legs from hers, closing her thighs together.

Uh oh. Bad idea.

Her thighs closed in around Damian’s solid erection. A gentle stream of energy caressed him, dancing up and down the shaft. Damian couldn’t help it, he groaned.

The girl stirred, smiling as her eyes fluttered open. Her hands slid up to the sides of Damian’s head so she could prop herself up.

“Mmm,” she cooed gently as she smiled drowsily down at Damian. Her hair tumbled forward, curtaining them off from the rest of the world.

Sweet goddess. An angel she might have been, but not one from heaven. Lustful green eyes gazed down at him, half-closed, slanted, and glowing slightly. The glow intensified as she stared, a rosy blush spreading across her cheeks. Bashfully, she nibbled on her plush, glossy lower lip. Gods, Damian loved when girls did that. His manhood twitched between her legs, and she giggled, arching her back a little to nudge up against it.

“Uh, good morning,” Damian said hoarsely.

“Mmm, ahhh,” cooed the girl as she arched her back, stretching languidly against him. Good gods, how far back could she bend? Her back arched like a bow, thrusting her breasts out in front of him. Large, plump globes that could spill out of his hands, capped with innocent, pink nipples. Beneath her breasts, the girl’s waist curved beautifully, flaring out to healthy hips and luscious thighs. Little electric-blue sigils marked her skin in various places, including above each breast.

Wait.

Sparks. Generator. Girl inside generator.

Damian, you blockhead!

THIS GIRL had been powering it! She was the electrickery!

The girl sensed Damian’s body stiffening; she uncurled, propping herself up with her elbows as her face hovered inches from his, a concerned expression playing out over her lovely features.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, her sweet voice soft and gentle.

Damian grasped her bare arms. She bit her lip and blushed. Damian released her immediately. The sudden loss in contact made her slip and fall forward.

Oh gods… oh gods…

Her lips were pressed against his. Her eyes fluttered closed.

Not good!

“Mmm…” she moaned softly, her arms coming in and looping around Damian’s neck. “Mmmmnnn…”

Damian’s heart pounded inside his chest. Her body squirmed upon his as she angled herself for a deeper kiss. Her fingers wound their way into his hair, her nails massaging his scalp. It felt so sinfully good. Damian’s will began to melt with her. Her soft, velvet tongue slowly streaked across his lips. They parted. Her tongue drifted inside.

Damian’s mushy mind turned pink, utterly mesmerized with the haze of cherry blossoms and the smooth, creamy skin of the girl wriggling around atop him. Her tongue crept further and further inside. Gods! How long was it? So soft… so moist… So silky, velvety, good. Damian’s hands came up behind her and grasped the back of her neck, pulling her close. His other hand slipped down her back, testing the texture of her skin.

Smooth, tight, creamy, soft. Yet, power rippled beneath her skin. Energy. Muscles. Lust. Muscles in her back and hips functioned to move her tail around, muscles that no human possessed. Damian found himself fascinated by her body, so much that he forgot why he should care to fight her off. Her questing tongue sampled every inch of his mouth, only stopping when they began to exchange breaths.

“You taste so good,” giggled the girl as her tongue trailed her wickedly soft lips. “Did I thank you yet for saving me?”

“Uh, several times,” Damian murmured, still hazy from the mesmerizing kiss.

The girl embraced him tightly, nuzzling into his neck briefly before tilting her head up to look out the window. “I never thought I would see the sun again…”

This time, Damian took hold of her shoulders and held her up at arm’s length. “Why were you locked up in there? Who are you?”

The girl sat up, nearly impaling herself upon Damian’s erection. It slipped out in front of her, standing up painfully within his pants. She slowly grinded her hips upon it, but it must have been an involuntary action, as she focused the rest of her attention on his face.

Whatever, voluntary or not, she was driving him crazy. Damian didn’t know how much longer he was going to be able to hold back. He didn’t dare grasp her thighs and bring her attention elsewhere, though.

It didn’t help she was so breathtakingly beautiful. Her hair cascaded all around her, but she exposed herself even more thoroughly by tugging the mass of it behind her and dropping it behind her shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” she moaned sadly. “I don’t remember much of what happened. It was like a dream. I’m fairly certain I did it to myself, though.”

“What do you mean?” Damian asked, desperate to keep her attention elsewhere. Her hips were still gently grinding, though. He himself focused on her face, and not her swaying breasts. Hardest thing he’d ever done.

“I’m a bit of a troublemaker,” she explained, twirling with a strand of her long, straight hair, as Mary often enjoyed doing. “I sort-of remember…” she squeezed her eyes shut. “Nnn…” she moaned as she concentrated, then gave up, sighing as she gazed back down at Damian. “I’m sorry… I can’t remember…”

“What’s your name?” Damian asked.

“Audra,” she told him. “I do remember that.” Audra giggled, leaning forward, one hand supporting herself as her breasts dangled. “Damian,” she purred, smiling.

“You… how do you know mine?” he stammered. She was grinding the length of her sex up and down the tip of his erection, and smiling like a mischievous cat. It was definitely intentional now.

“I heard you talking to Mary,” Audra said with a smug smile as she slowly slid down Damian’s body, plucking open his shirt.

“Audra…” gulped Damian. “What… what are you doing?”

“I’m… I’m not sure myself,” she admitted. “I’m so hungry, though. And you smell delicious.”

Gods! Seed was welling up inside him. If she touched him the wrong way…

“This looks painful,” Audra noted as she carefully pried open his pants. She had Damian exposed to the room before he could protest. “Oh…” she murmured with curiosity. Her fingers delicately coiled around the length.

Pure, electric lust arced into Damian’s cock.

“Ghhh… Audra…!” hissed Damian. He stiffened and exploded onto her face.

“Ack!” squealed Audra as milky warmth fell upon her face. The first couple of jets streaked upon her rosy-cheeked face. The rest frothed and dribbled over her hand, which she instinctively cupped to receive it. Her tongue flicked out to capture some that leaked down her sullied face.

Audra’s eyes shot wide-open. She sucked in a breath. “Mmmm!” she moaned loudly, lapping up more from her face. She cradled her full hand, holding it up to her lips as she gazed down in awe. “So… so this is…?” she asked tentatively before she dipped the tip of her tongue into it. “Mmmmmm!”

What the actual hell? Damian couldn’t help but stare at her. Audra lapped up his seed like it was ambrosia from the gods, her eyes shining and dewy with desire. Mary and her friends often licked at it, and even swallowed it, but it was all for show to them, for his benefit. Audra, on the other hand, devoured it like she needed it. She bent over, grasping his cock, and squeezed out the remains onto her hand, which she licked up. Tilting her head back, her neck arched as she sighed with lustful contentment.

Damian took that opportunity to slip out from under her and back away. He refastened his pants in a hurry. Audra glanced back at him with a pained look of utter loneliness that nearly broke his heart.

“What’s wrong?” she asked mournfully. “Did I hurt you?”

The world spun around Damian briefly. She was concerned for him? After what she’d just done? “Uh…” he murmured. “Why… why did you just… eat that?”

No sense. This made no sense. Damian recalled the schooling drilled into him as a child. Monsters were evil. They took the form of beautiful women in order to ensnare men into trusting them, and then feasted upon their flesh. Well, Audra had feasted on his flesh, but not like the books told him she would.

Audra tilted her lovely head at him, hopelessly confused by his question.

“You’re a monster, right?” Damian asked. Felt terrible right after, too, but he had to know.

“I suppose?” Audra replied. Sure enough, a pained expression darkened her eyes. “Not really? I’m called a Raiju, though. I’m a kind of yokai.”

“Yokai…” murmured Damian. “Oh. Right. Zipangu. You’re a Zipangunese monster.”

Audra’s sorrowful expression at his mention of that word, “monster,” brought on a fresh wave of guilt. “Am… am I?” she asked quietly. “Am I evil?”

How the hell was Damian supposed to answer that?

He gazed in her direction. His heart flipped in his chest. Good holy goddess, she was stunning. He’d partaken in her perfect upper body prior, but now the rest of her was free for inspection. Slender, luscious thighs that blended into fuzzy, azure and electric blue fur, with twin tufts of navy-colored fur extending from between her toes. Her feet ended in paws, smaller than human feet, but longer, granting her extra height if she stood up upon the pads of her paws.

She wasn’t just beautiful. Audra was a work of art. A masterpiece.

“What is evil?” Damian asked her in a brief flash of brilliance.

Audra’s mournful expression shifted to one of confusion. She thought about it. “Something that hurts people?” she answered.

“The Order would have us believe ‘evil’ is anything against their laws,” Damian explained. “And monsters of any kind are, by their existence, against the law. So…”

“So, I am evil,” Audra said before Damian could finish. Her ears drooped, and her tail slipped down between her legs.

“What if they’re wrong?” Damian asked her.

Audra glanced up at him. “What do you think evil is?”

Damian paused to consider her question. “I think… Evil is any action or desire that intentionally causes pain, suffering, and misery.” His eyes swept over Audra, taking in her beauty. “Nothing about you fits that description, Audra.”

Audra perked back up. “I’m not, then?” she asked, her voice catching in her throat.

“I think if you were, you wouldn’t care,” Damian said. “The fact that you’re worried about it, tells me you’re not.”

“That’s… a relief…” sighed Audra, her tail swishing around. “I was afraid that… that…” she blinked, exhaling sharply. “Ufff…” she groaned, falling over onto her side.

“Audra?” Damian called, rushing to her side.

“So… so weak…” Audra gasped, panting. “I… I think that machine was… feeding me something… Something I need.”

“Do you remember what it is?” urged Damian.

“I don’t,” admitted Audra sorrowfully.

“I’ll make you some food,” he offered. “What kind of food do you like?”

“I… I like…” Audra paused. Her eyes swept up to meet Damian’s. “Meat?”

Damian flashed her a grin. “I’ve got just the thing,” he told her, departing briefly and returning with his leg of lamb.

Audra gasped, reaching weakly for it. She briefly displayed an impressive set of alarmingly sharp teeth before tearing into the meat. “Mmmm!” she cooed hungrily.

Damian just stared at the girl as she devoured the meat. “How long has it been since anyone’s given you actual food?”

Audra produced a sound vaguely reminiscent of, “I don’t know,” without pausing.

Knock, knock.

“Damn!” hissed Damian.

Audra gasped, leaping off of the bed, carrying the leg of lamb with her. She squeezed herself into a dark corner, her ears flattening against her head and her tail slipping around her. Damian grabbed the bedsheet and tossed it over her before jogging downstairs and opening the door.

Garth.

“Hey, so you know the flimflam from yesterday?” he asked. “Majestico?”

“Yeah?” Damian answered drowsily.

“He’s all flummoxed today,” Garth told him. “His gen… generator thing, didn’t start up. Everyone laughed at him. You should have been there!”

“After yesterday’s debacle, I can’t be seen in public like that for a while,” sighed Damian.

Garth chuckled. “Well, are you going to be seen at work today?”

“Yeah,” Damian nodded. “Just need a few.”

“Don’t be late,” warned Garth. “And don’t you dare fix six engines again. I can’t keep up with that!”

Garth left, waving. Damian closed the door and snuck back upstairs. “Audra?” he called. “He’s gone.”

Audra didn’t move from under the sheet. Damian plucked it up, but she wasn’t there.

“Audra?” he called again. “Audra! Where are you?”

She didn’t answer.

Where could she be? Damian checked the bedroom, small bathroom, and kitchen. There wasn’t that much room in the spartan living area. But she was just… gone.

Beginning to wonder if he’d imagined her, Damian felt a pair of slender arms curl around his chest. Dainty hands with fuzzy wrists slipped in under his shirt. A pair of plump breasts pressed into his back. Energy danced from those wicked fingers straight into Damian’s chest and stomach.

Relief and lust battled for dominance in his pants. Damian turned around, rubbing her head affectionately. Audra squealed with delight, giggling and smiling warmly.

“There you are,” Damian said softly, patting her head.

“Yees~!” she cooed, smiling as she handed him what was left of the leg of lamb. A bone. Just the bone. And even that was covered in sharp teeth marks. “Did you have fun looking for me?” she asked coyly as her tongue danced over her greasy lips. She hiccupped slightly, grinning.

Good gods, she was adorable.

“I wasn’t aware we were playing a game.”

“Uh huh!” Audra winked and twirled away from him. As she spun to a stop, her eyes fell upon Damian’s groin.

Damian twitched. He knew he was probably still rock hard. It was a wonder Garth hadn’t seen it. “Audra,” he spoke to distract her. “Are you feeling better?”

She nodded, flashing a bright smile with her dazzling, sharp teeth. “I still feel kind of woozy,” Audra admitted. “But that meat was so yummy.”

“You still hungry?”

“Uh huh,” affirmed Audra, her gaze remaining in its lewd location.

“I can get you another leg of lamb…” Damian offered, anxiety rising. Audra was slowly approaching him.

Audra shook her head. “I… I think I know what I want. What I need.” She licked her lips. “I won’t hurt you,” she offered, gazing up at him, her cheeks flushing. “I promise. I’ll be good…”

“You’re still weak,” Damian reminded her. The backs of his legs bumped up against the bed. He tried to shuffle around it, but Audra cut him off, her gaze deepening, becoming something else. Something… predatory.

“I’ll be good… be good… so good…” Audra said softly, her voice deepening to a moan.

“Audra, are you sure…” Damian sputtered, falling backwards upon the bed. Audra climbed up upon him, sitting astride him. “What… are you doing?”

“I don’t… I’m not really sure…” Audra said breathlessly, leaning down to kiss Damian’s chest. Her tongue streaked across hard pectorals, curling around a stiff nipple. “You… have something I need… It’s making my heart race… I need it… I need you…”

“Audra!” Damian gasped as his nipple slipped between her teeth. Her very sharp teeth.

“I won’t hurt you… please…” implored Audra as her hands explored his body. “Do… do you know what I need?”

Damian gulped. He had a pretty good idea, after what he’d done in her hands earlier.

“It comes out of here,” Audra suggested, her fingers working underneath the hem of Damian’s pants to curl around his erection. “Right?”

He nodded. “If you want that…” he said tensely, “I know how to give it to you.”

Audra brightened. She nodded enthusiastically. “Please!”

Damian prayed to the Chief God not to be struck down for what he was about to do. He guided Audra off the bed and stood up. “Kneel down,” he instructed. As she lowered to her knees, she gazed up at him to watch him slip off his pants. His erection popped free at her eye level.

“I do this, right?” Audra asked, curling her fingers around it. A single shock traveled into Damian’s rod from each one of her five fingers, coaxing out a clear droplet from the tip. Audra flicked it off with her index finger and licked it off. “Mm. Yum!” she squealed. “More?”

“Open your mouth,” Damian suggested. “And just… use your mouth. Don’t bite.”

Audra nodded, carefully tipping the head of him forward. Her lovely lips parted and enveloped the swollen head. Slowly, cautiously, Audra leaned forward, taking in more and more, until there was nothing left for her hand to hold. Damian felt himself pressing into the back of her throat.

“Yeah…” he grunted in approval. “Like… like that… Now… you can either bob up and down on it, or I can do this.” Damian dug his hands into her hair, massaging her ears as he began to thrust into her mouth.

“Mmmmmfff…” moaned Audra, her eyes gazing up at him in pure delight. Her long tongue circled around the length of him, adding more stimulation and squeezing out the clear appetizers. With every thrust, Damian soaked up more and more of her sparks and energy.

“Audra… going to… come soon… get ready!”

Audra nodded, sucking and licking hungrily. Her nails dug into his thighs. The slight pain and shocks sent Damian over the edge. He grasped her head firmly, pulling her down onto him as he exploded into her throat.

Audra sucked in a breath, tilting her head against him to open her throat. Damian gasped as he came, and he came, and he came. Gods, he was coming like that time Mary teased him for three days straight! He wasn’t sure when it stopped, but he found himself laid out on his bed, bent at the knees, with Audra sitting between them. Droplets had fallen all upon her breasts, a perfect pearl necklace. She scooped up the droplets and licked them up off her fingertips, gazing lustfully at Damian the entire time.

“Mmmnnn…” Audra moaned, stretching and arching languidly as she had before. Her gaze came back upon him as she straightened. “More?” she asked hopefully.

“Uhhh…” droned Damian. He felt utterly spent, but still aroused. His erection hadn’t wilted. Audra eyed it, licking her lips. “Audra, I have to go to work,” he said weakly.

“Can I go with you?” she implored.

“No,” Damian shook his head, carefully slipping out from under her. “There’s laws…” he tried to explain. “This isn’t exactly an anti-monster state, but everyone treats them with suspicion around here. You’re going to have people looking for you. People that I’m sure are a lot less friendly than they act.

“Why don’t I just stay here, with you?” Audra suggested.

“Because you… uh…”  ugh, she was so cute. “You stand out. Everyone would know right away that you aren’t one of us. The government would take you away from men and send you back to Zipangu.”

“Noooo…” cried Audra, covering her face with her hands. Her ears drooped. Her tail flopped upon the bed, twitching.

“Though, that’s a best-case scenario,” sighed Damian. “I was actually thinking about helping you escape town.”

Audra peeked at him through her fingers. “Escape?”

“There’s a harbor a couple of days’ travel from here,” he told her. “Less if we go on horseback. You can catch a ship in the harbor and go back to Zipangu.”

“I… I want to stay with you…” she cried, sobbing quietly into her hands.

“But, why?”

“Um. You saved me.”

Damian gazed at her. She hung on his every word. Her ears flicked rhythmically, which suggested she could hear his pounding heart. It was a terrible idea, letting her stay. Giving her false hope. But she’d become attached. Much faster than a human girl ever would, but Audra wasn’t human. Not remotely.

“You care, don’t you?” Audra asked, throwing salt on the wound. “I know you do. If you didn’t, I umm… I would know. I think.” She bit her lip. “Pleaaaaase~ let me stay with you? I promise I’ll be good!” She sidled back over to him and gazed at him imploringly.

“Goodness isn’t the problem, Audra,” Damian said gently, rubbing her head. “The problem is, you look so different from everyone else. People would be afraid of you. And those men would find you very easily.”

“But I’m good at hiding…” she said softly.

“They caught you before.”

“You… don’t want me to be with you?” Audra asked innocently.

Here we go, buddy. This’ll do it. Make her not want to stay. Piss her off. You can do it.

Her eyes focused on him. Intently. Dewy with tears. And desire. Her slit pupils expanded in anticipation. Sparks crackled in her hair. She stroked his arm gently, sending energy into his body. His manhood throbbed.

Damian sighed in defeat. Nope. Couldn’t do it. She was just too cute. And too freaking hot. Whatever goddess made this chick had been working overtime.

“If, if you stay with me,” Damian said…

“Yaaas!” Audra squealed, throwing her arms around him. Her breasts pressed against his chest and her energy sizzled into him. “I promise to be good…” she vowed softly, but, at the same time, she gently grinded her hips against his straining erection.

Damian’s vision went hazy. Her little pops, zaps, coos, and moans dissolved his already-mushy brain into soda pop. They ended up lying together in bed again. Damian kicked off his pants and tossed his shirt aside. Audra licked her lips, leaning in.

“No, wait,” Damian said, shaking his head. “I’ve got to know something first.”

“Mmm?” Audra tilted her head.

“This stuff actually feeds you?”

“Yaas!” giggled Audra.

“Then… what about when you come?”

The girl blinked, brow furrowing. “When I what?”

“Sweet goddess,” sighed Damian. “They must have hit you on the head hard.

Audra checked her head for bumps. So freaking cute!

“I wanted to know, because I want…” Damian really wasn’t sure how to phrase this.

“You want me?” Audra asked hopefully.

“Yes.”

“All right,” she nodded. “What do you want me to do?”

“Here, come lie up here,” Damian offered, patting the pillow he’d been lying on.

Audra nodded, shuffling up to him and curled beside him. She flipped her tail out from under her, which whapped against the side of the bed excitedly. “All right, I’m here, now what?”

“Just relax, but tell me if I any of this hurts you. Or if I can make it feel any better.”

Audra gulped, her eyes flicking between Damian’s, and his erection, which hovered over her as he leaned over top of her. He scooted her forwards a little and spread her legs, settling in between her thighs. Reaching up, he cupped her waist, digging his fingers into her soft skin. She bit her lip and nodded, her fingers curling around his wrists to guide him up to her breasts

Seven… hells…

Audra’s breasts melted sinfully into his grasp. Firm and plump, they flattened and molded around his fingers as he squeezed. Her nipples pebbled beneath his palms, hardening as he worked concentric circles over the sensitive flesh of her breasts, moving inward, making his way towards the hardening nubs. When he reached them, he pinched gently, twisting.

“Ahh!” squealed Audra.

“Does it hurt?” he asked tenderly.

“No… just… surprising, is all,” she said. “Please… more…”

Leaning down onto her, Damian took one of her nipples into his mouth.

“Nnn… mmm…”

Using her moans to guide him, Damian worked her breast with his lips and tongue, and his fingers to attend the other. The nipple in his mouth swelled up. He pressed his tongue down onto it, trapping it with his teeth carefully, and used suction to draw it further inside his mouth.

Gods, she tasted divine. Her perspiration mixed with her natural cherry blossom scent to create a heady mixture of pure, sweet lust. His cock strained, demanding attention. He refused it. For now. Audra came first. His tongue pressed down flatly against her nipple and began to abrade against it, moving with back and forth motions first, then circles.

“Ahhhnnn…” Audra cried softly. “Damian… what are you doing to me…”

“Teaching you about how we make love,” he murmured against her hot flesh as he switched to her other breast. His hands came upon the sensitive nipple he’d licked a moment ago, not letting her rest for a moment. He then repeated his seduction of her other breast, taking his tongue in the concentric circles, so that the entirety of her plump globe glistened with his efforts.

“It’s so good…” gasped Audra. “I feel like I’m melting… I can’t move…”

“Where do you want me to touch you now, Audra?”

“My… my… nnn… my legs…”

Damian gazed up at her between her breasts and slid down her body. He knew what she really needed, but would wait for her to ask for it. So, instead, he gripped her thigh, kneading the powerful muscles he found within. Gods… he never knew the insides of a thigh could be this smooth! With one hand, he gripped her thigh, and with the other, he bent her knee and cradled her fuzzy foot. Taking it in his hand, he worked his fingers into the pads he found underneath. Plump, smooth cushions; they felt full of gel. Warm. Silky soft.

“Nnnnmmm…”

“Are you enjoying this?” Damian asked her.

“Gods, yes,” gasped Audra.

“I haven’t forgotten your other leg,” he mentioned, transitioning over to it, and leaving her first leg a limp, contented mess.

“Ghh… mmmm…” moaned Audra. “I… I want… I need…”

“Where next?” prompted Damian.

“You… you already know, right?”

“I do. But I wouldn’t dare touch you there unless you asked me to.”

Audra managed to prop herself up on her elbows. “I want… you here…” she pointed a few inches beneath her navel. Damian lowered down and kissed her there, gently nipping at her skin. Her belly was perfectly flat, so he needed to draw the skin with suction from his mouth to do so.

“No… I mean…” stammered Audra. “I need you… under there.”

Damian kneaded his fingers into the spot, smiling up at her.

“Nnn…” grunted the girl. “Stop teasing me and give me what I need! Please!”

Damian chuckled at her. “Then, tell me what to do.”

“But you already know!” she whined.

“You honestly do not know what you want?” Damian asked her. She shook her head, flicking damp hair out of her eyes. “Then, this may come as a great shock to you. You’re going to have to trust me.”

“I trust you,” Audra told him firmly. “You saved me. You care about me. I know you won’t hurt me.”

“Are you ready?” he asked, clutching her thighs.

Audra nodded. “Please, give me what I need.”

She panted loudly, gulping as Damian’s hands drifted up her thighs. She squirmed, and her tail slipped under her and emerged out the other side of her. It slapped against the mattress loudly.

Thuppa-thuppa-thuppa.

Heh. Just like her heart, Damian wagered. Grasping her hips firmly, he pulled her closer. “Brace yourself,” he warned, streaking a thumb up the length of her small slit.

“Ahhhhnnn!” gasped Audra. “You’re going to touch me there!?

“Not just touch,” Damian told her. He angled his erection towards it.

“Oh, my goddess…”

Damian nudged her opening with the head of his cock. He’d swollen so much that he worried he wouldn’t fit. Carefully, he spread her opening apart with his fingers, breathlessly gazing inside briefly. Soft, innocent pink. Like her nipples, except drenched with her nectar. He slipped one finger inside to test.

“Nnnnnn!!”

Drenched. Throughout. “This might hurt a little going in,” Damian warned her.

“It’s what I need, though?” Audra asked fearfully.

“Uh, I’m not entirely sure,” he admitted. “But based on your body’s reactions, I would have to say, yes. If you don’t enjoy it, we won’t do it again.” But, gods above, he sure hoped she enjoyed this.

“All right,” she nodded. “Go ahead.”

Damian grasped himself tightly and nudged the head of his cock inside her. Audra’s mouth fell open and her eyes knotted together as she focused on the action. Slowly, carefully, Damian tugged on her hips to draw her closer. At the same time, he nudged his hips towards her. His cock spread her open, inflating her hot, wet depths, and received her sexual caress in return. Energy danced around his manhood, streaking into it at every bump, crease, and crevice.

Audra gasped, panting, the tip of her tongue lolling out of the corner of her mouth. She stared up at Damian with utter, rapturous ecstasy, mixed with shock and breathless suspense. Damian returned her shocked expression with one of his own.

Sweet… goddess…!

Damian was no virgin. He’d taken his fair share of women, and then some. But, nothing, nothing compared to this. Audra’s sex embraced him in new and different ways human women were incapable of. Her inner muscles clamped down on him, adding friction, but, at the same time, drawing him in with a kind of suction, as if she were preparing to devour him. Maybe she was. Damian no longer cared. He was hers, and the realization only made him desire her all the more. On top of it all was the energy. Her sparks. They entered him from every contact and caress he offered her, as well as the ones inside her that she offered him.

“Da…mian…” gasped Audra as he drew near to hilting himself inside her. “I’m… I feel… I feel it! I’m…!” she cried, her body stiffening, then shuddering. She fell limp, the muscles in her body taking over with wave after wave of orgasmic convulsions.

Sweet goddess, she came already? Her sex clenched around him, squeezing rhythmically alongside the dance she performed upon the mattress. He felt himself ready to release, but her body had other plans. Her sex squeezed him. Tightly. Stuffing his release back into his body. She wanted more. Much more.

Finally, Audra gasped, coming to her senses. “What… that was… was that what…”

“No, Audra, that comes next,” he said with a strained smile. “Prepare yourself.”

“Huh?!” she cried. “There’s more!? There can’t be… ahhhhnnn!!”

Damian started thrusting. Audra gripped the sheets, following his movements with her eyes as best she could. Her legs curled around Damian’s waist. Energy danced all up, over, and around her skin. Her tail thupped wildly against the bed.

“Mmmmnnn!! Yess!! That’s it!!” screamed Audra. “What I need!! Yaaasss!!”

Seed welled up inside Damian, and not even the gates of Hell would deny him conquest this time. Not yet, though. Not yet! She needed to come again! Damian thrusted her rapidly, forcing her body to bounce and shake. She held on to the sheets for dear life.

“Sweet… sweet… Ohhhh!! Ahhhnnn!!” cried Audra, unable to form coherent words. “Hnn… mmmnnn YESS!! YAAASSS!!” she screamed, tossing her head back into the pillows, which muffled her screams. Her body arched, thrusting her breasts upwards. Damian held her hip firmly with one hand, and grasped one of her breasts with the other. Seed swelled inside him. He held it back as long as he could.

Audra’s orgasm took hold, releasing a torrent of energy in all directions. As it washed over Damian, it wrestled control from him, and the dam burst. His cock lodged inside her and exploded, spraying hot seed in thick, powerful bursts. Damian let go of her breast and gripped her thigh. Such strength within this girl! He could barely hold on to her as she thrashed against him.

Damian lost track of how long it took to empty himself within her. He briefly worried about impregnating her, but he found himself trapped inside her. Powerful legs encircled his waist, and the suction deep within her milked him for every drop.

At last, he finished. Damian collapsed beside her, inadvertently squashing her tail. Audra giggled, tugging her tail out from under her as she propped herself up on her side to gaze at him.

“I feel so much better,” she sighed. “You were right. I needed that.” She closed her eyes, smiling dreamily. Then, she gasped. “Oh! I think I just remembered something!” Audra squealed, her tail flapping about excitedly. “Yes! I did! Now I remember why I needed you to take me.”

“Why?” Damian was genuinely curious.

“You have energy,” she explained. “Powerful energy that only men have. And yours is… mmm… so sweet. So much more than I could ever dream to have. But here you are!”  She giggled, brushing her nose against his, and sighed, resting her forehead against Damian’s.

“Energy?” he asked, still confused. He gently tucked a lock of her hair out of her eyes. She smiled, squirming contentedly at this small gesture.

“Spirit energy,” Audra explained. “That’s what we feed on. And that’s probably why people are scared of us. They’re afraid it’ll kill them if we take it. It doesn’t. Right? Are you hurt?”

“I feel incredible,” Damian admitted. “Energized.”

Audra grinned. “So, do you want to?”

“Want to what?” he was almost afraid of the answer.

“Take me again!” giggled Audra, hopping up on all fours and turning around. Elbows down, hips up. Her invitation sent Damian’s lust to new heights. Sweet gods, her ass was beautiful. As he moved in behind her, her bushy tail brushed his chest, zapping him with her lustful energy. Damian growled, his cock throbbing. He inched towards her, spreading her legs, and nudging her tail out of the way. Holding his throbbing manhood steady, he slowly pushed into her from behind.

“Yeesss… yaaaassss… nnnnn…” moaned Audra. “It’s good… so good… mmmmnnn…”

Damian’s mind swirled in a fizzy soup. Her voice. Her little sexy voice, and that cute accent of hers. She was driving him crazy!

“Nnnnn!! Aaaaa! Ooooo…” Audra bucked in his grip. She quivered in orgasm as he slowly pushed inside her, releasing shocks everywhere. The smell of ozone filled the room, mixed heavily with her sweet scent of cherry blossoms.

“Ghh…” grunted Damian. “Great goddess you’re tight…” he groaned, pushing in as hard as he could. He knew she could take him from just a little while ago, but she’d tightened up as firm as a virgin. He looked over at her face, huddled between her forearms, to check her expression and ensure he wasn’t hurting her.

Audra’s tongue lolled out, much longer than he expected it to be. Her face flushed scarlet, and her expression was one of pure, lewd rapture.

Well, alrighty then.

Wasn’t hurting her.

Damian pushed in further.

“Ahh!” yelped Audra. “I… I c… can’t… Yesss!!” she cried, her body shuddering from yet another orgasm. Sparks and jolts went everywhere. Every time one of them hit Damian, he swore his cock swelled a bit thicker, and grew a little longer. This was never going to work!

Focus…

Focus…

He cupped her thigh in one hand and her hip in the other, and pushed in as hard as he could.

“Ohhhhh! Mmmmmm! Ahhhhnnn…” shuddered Audra. Another orgasm shook her when Damian finally managed to bury himself all the way inside. “Y-yess!” stammered Audra, gasping for breath. “The more… you give me… the more I…”

She barely finished her sentence before she came again.

Damian held her in awe. How many times had she climaxed? He’d lost count. A powerful blast hit him in the chest from her tail. It sent him over the edge without any warning.

“Audraaaaaaaa…” groaned Damian, bursting inside her!

“OHH!! YESS YESS!” screamed Audra as she felt ropes of sexy goodness coating her insides. Her energy sparkled out of control, sizzling everything around her, especially Damian. Each spark sent another pulse into her, even after he’d finished. Each pulse coaxed another spark out of her. The endless cycle of climaxes continued for…

Damian lost all track of time. Wasn’t there something he was supposed to be doing? Eh. Screw it. Yes… Screw. Screw… and screw some more.

He flipped Audra over onto her back, twisting inside her as he remained joined with her. Audra’s leg easily rose up alongside her face to assist him. Damn, this girl was flexible. Pinning her down onto the bed, he began thrusting. Audra gasped and arched her head back. Her staticky hair fanned all around her, dancing around on the tarp like live wires. Her breasts bounced with every thrust.

“I can’t… I can’t…” gasped Audra, climaxing again. And again. And again. “You’re so wonderful!” she cried as he exploded inside her again. Electricity flew, blasting him with thousands of volts of sexual pleasure. He poured so much seed inside her, her tummy softened with it.

“Unnnghhh…” Damian wheezed, collapsing beside her, barely able to stay conscious. It was an odd kind of tired. He couldn’t describe it. He wasn’t sleepy. But he felt like… a fruit after having been squeezed.

Audra squirmed, writhing in the aftershocks of her last orgasm, her hand in-between the two of them to tease herself against their connection. She gasped, smiling slightly as she came back to her senses.

“Mmm…” she cooed happily. “You’re so good…”

“Audra…” Damian moaned weakly.

In response, she curled her arms around him, pulling herself against him and kissed him.

Ahh. Sweet, sweet cherry blossoms. Damian inhaled deeply of her sweetness. It felt invigorating. His everlasting erection slipped between Audra’s thighs, throbbing, ready for more. She giggled, squirming happily on it.

“Audra, what am I going to do with you?”

“Umm…” she thought about it for a minute. “Take me again?”

“You can’t possibly want more!?

But the way her eyes misted over dreamily answered that question.

Damian groaned, looking out the window.

Wait.

The sun was…

Oh crap!

He forgot all about work!

“Dammit!” he cursed suddenly, jumping out of bed with more vigor than he thought possible. “That foreman is going to kill me!”

Audra propped herself up and glanced over her shoulders, stroking her tummy. “What’s the matter? Did I do something wrong?”

Ugh. In some ways, she was like a little girl. With the body of a woman—his age?—and the estrus of a wild animal in heat. How was he ever going to be able to part with her? Damian gazed down at her. She offered a fetching smile, looking up at him in adoration.

Nope. Couldn’t do it. He was totally keeping her. To hell with the consequences. “Audra,” he said finally. “Stand up. I need to measure you.”

“Measure me?” she asked, a puzzled expression in her gorgeous eyes as she tilted her head quizzically. Her ear flicked, sending a pop of static into the air.

Fishing in his toolbox, Damian found some measuring tape. He’d done this before for Mary Malone. He slung the tape around her body and settled it around the widest part of her hips.

“Yeah, we need to get you some clothes, so I need to know your measurements,” he told her. Jotting down her hip measurement, he slid up to her waist, whistling at how slim she was. Her tummy was a little squishy. She giggled as he poked it. Good grief. How much did he fire off inside her? Could she get pregnant?

No, no, dummy. Don’t think about that.

“Audra, lift up your arms.”

She did as asked, her eyes following Damian’s hands as he slipped the tape around the fullest part of her bust. “Mmm…” she cooed softly as the tape covered her nipples.

Damian whistled at her measurements. “Wow, Audra. I don’t know if they even make clothes in these measurements. You have a body to die for.”

“Is that bad?” she asked, a little concerned.

“Not for you, for me maybe,” he admitted. “If I ask for clothes in these measurements, the shopkeeps are going to want to meet you. I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do with your ears, hair, and tail. The instant someone spots any of that, they’re going to know you’re not human.”

“Oh…” she thought about that.

Damian’s gaze swept up and down her body appraisingly. Totally not lustfully, this time. He swore. “Well, I may not be able to find anything for you, but in the meantime, I wonder…”

Damian picked up a pair of pants off the floor, flipping it around to examine it from every angle. The hell? These had been dirty before. He glanced at Audra, who simply tilted her head and smiled at him. He tossed her the pants.

“Here, try these on,” he suggested.

Audra thrust one furry foot through the pant leg, and then another, and hopped around the room trying to pull them up. It was the most adorable and sexy thing he’d ever seen. Her breasts bounced freely as she hopped, wiggling her hips. Her feet popped out of the lower hems, but she wasn’t able to fully pull up the pants. Were her hips too wide? His were rather lean, he had to admit, but she was smaller than him. What was…oh.

He glanced behind her. Her tail was in the way. Sigh. Tail. There was no way she would ever be able to wear pants. What was he thinking? Stupid.

“Alright, nevermind,” he sighed. “Take those off. Try putting this on.” Damian tossed her a linen shirt.

“I’m stuck.” Audra wiggled her hips.

“No, you’re not, you just want me to touch you again.”

“Aww…” she pouted, pulling off the pants. Grabbing the shirt, she yanked it onto her upper half. Her face pressed out into the linen as her mass of hair pushed into the opposite side. With some squirming, she pulled it down over her breasts and settled into it. Reaching behind her, she gathered up her hair and tried pulling it out. Problem was, she was so heavily charged from all that sex, it was getting stuck everywhere.

“Ohhh…” grumbled Audra. “Now I really am stuck!”

“Look, do me a favor,” Damian asked. “Try out some of these and see if you can make yourself decent somehow. Hide your tail, your furry legs, hands, hair, and ears. I don’t know if that’s possible, but… try. I’ll get you some clothes with the money I make today. Assuming the foreman doesn’t fire me for being so late.”

“I can’t come with you?” she batted her eyelashes at him.

“No, Audra, you’d be caught and put back in that generator thing.”

Audra shuddered and nodded sadly.

“If anyone comes looking for you, hide. Alright?”

“Alright.”

Damian threw on his shirt, some boots, and made to head out the door. He paused at the hallway. Audra was watching him leave, a pained expression on her face. Damian could feel… something. A magnetic pull, of sorts, drawing him to her, making it difficult to leave. He shuddered.

It had nothing to do with her electricity.

He stepped out the door. Hardest thing he’d done in months.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Yep. He caught all seven hells.

But he made up for it by overperforming again. On his way out, he apologized to the foreman again, promising that whenever this happened, he could expect extra work as a result, even if he had to stay late. Wasn’t sure how well that went over, but he didn’t get fired, and got paid instead.

Avoiding Garth the entirety of the work shift stung Damian with a twist of guilt, but he had yet to come up with a way to explain Audra to him. As he considered what he was going to say, Damian swung by a dress shop on the way to the pub. The shopkeep, a young woman, named Jill, with mousy brown hair but a cute figure, smiled at him. “Good day!” she chirped. “Can I help you?”

“Uhh,” Damian glanced around, embarrassed. So many dresses. Skirts. Blouses. Even pants. He had no idea what to do. Same problem when he’d tried to shop for Mary. He handed Jill his little piece of parchment with Audra’s measurements on it. “I’d like to get something for a lady with these measurements. You have anything?”

“Oh… oh my! Is she foreign?” she asked.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I don’t know anyone local, who’s built like this. She’d be the envy of the town!” Jill giggled.

Oh, brother.

“I’ll see what I can find. Hold on there!”

The girl darted off into the back. After about five minutes, she came back with a frown.

“I’m so sorry, I just don’t have anything in those sizes,” she moaned sadly. But then she perked up. “I have an idea though. If you see something you think she might like, I can alter it to fit her!”

“Alright, give me a minute,” Damian said.

“Take all the time you need.”

She went back to the counter at the front. Damian began to paw through the clothing on the racks. Oh, this was hopeless. It would be nearly impossible to find Audra anything unless she was here to pick it herself. He sighed and went back to the shopkeep.

“Do you… have anything in the style of someone from Zipangu?” he asked on a whim. “Maybe with cherry blossom designs?”

The girl gasped and nodded. “I think I have a cute kimono! This way!” She led him over to a corner he hadn’t seen, with some exotic-looking outfits. Gently tugging, she pulled down a gorgeous black and pink kimono. “I don’t know why I didn’t think about this before. You’re so smart! This will fit just about any girl. See? It’s adjustable.”

“How much?”

Jill bit her lip. “It’s a bit on the expensive side. I’m so sorry. Items from Zipangu are not easy to get ahold of.”

Damn.

Damian reached for the garment, and, as the girl handed it to him, she received a shock from touching his hand.

“Ow!” she yelped.

“Sorry…” muttered Damian, still depressed about the price. He didn’t notice the girl starting to blush as she watched him examine the kimono. Damian sighed. It would be perfect, but it would completely wipe out his day’s wages and then some. And he was all out of food.

“It’s a shame,” he sighed at last. “She’d love this, I’m sure. She’s traveled a long way, and all of her things were stolen during the transit. She hasn’t got anything to wear and looks rather silly in my clothes.”

Damian handed the garment back to Jill. She nibbled her lip, similar to how Audra and Mary often did. “Well… I suppose I could give you a discount. Most of the townsfolk haven’t got an eye for Zipangu fashion like you. I haven’t been able to sell these.”

“How much of a discount? I have… well, this,” he handed her his day’s wages. Another shock traveled through the metal coins into her hand. She shivered, but didn’t cry out again. Her blush deepened, instead.

“Um, I think… this much will suffice, if that is agreeable?” she dropped about a quarter of what he’d made back into his hand, receiving another shock. She kept about three quarters of it for the kimono. Damian couldn’t believe his luck. He smiled warmly at the woman and nodded.

“Yes, thank you so much. She’ll be overjoyed,” he said warmly. “Do you have a box for this?”

“Oh, of course!” nodded Jill, carefully gathering the kimono into her arms and folding it. She “accidentally” grazed his arm and received another shock, giggling coyly as she stepped into the back.

Damian stared at his hand. Had he received Audra’s powers? Or just some of her residual charge? It sure was having an effect on the shopkeep. He wondered what else he could get with it. She’d need a head covering, but the kimono covered so much that he wouldn’t need to worry about anything else. It would even hide her tail.

Jill came out with a box and a slip of parchment as a receipt of sale. “There you are! Thank you so much~!” she smiled brightly at him, blushing happily. Damian took the box from her. “And if you ever um… once your friend goes back to Zipangu…”

“Uh?” Damian raised an eyebrow.

“Nothing!” yelped the girl. “Please, don’t let me keep you!”

So strange. Those shocks really had an effect on her. He smiled at her and said, “Thank you again for your kindness. I’ll be sure and come back.”

“Please bring your friend! I’d love to meet her!”

Damian left before the situation got even more awkward. He started to make for the pub, but realized he was holding a flowery dress box under his arm, so he decided to make his way home instead.

Garth ambushed him on the way. Jumped out of the shadows like a ninja. “Damian!” he grunted, bumping into him, more than a little intoxicated. “Where were you? Did you even come to work? Uh… is that a dress?”

“It’s a kimono,” Damian said tersely.

“The hell you bought a kimono for? You seeing Mary Malone again?”

“No.”

“Her little friend, Kino? It’s for Kino, isn’t it…” Garth sighed. “You know she’s not really from Zipangu, right?”

“Yeah, you told me, but I’m not seeing her, either.”

“Then…”

Damian turned to his friend. “Garth. Can you keep a secret?”

“Uhh… what kind of secret?”

“Big. Really big.”

“Probably not.”

Damian sighed. “Then, go home, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’m kidding.”

“I’m not,” Damian warned him.

Garth scratched his stubble and nodded. “All right. Fine. But this better be damned good.”

Damian led his friend to the house and opened the door. “Hang on a second,” he said.

“You have the girl staying with you?” Garth raised an eyebrow dubiously.

“Yeah, just, hang on a second, Garth. Let me make sure she’s decent.”

Damian slipped inside and jogged up the stairs to find…

Holy hell!

Looking around, Damian took in the scene. His house was spotless. The bed was made so well he could have balanced a coin on its surface. All of the various dirt, grime, dust, and general crud from being a single oaf had been cleaned, the dishes done, remainder of the food sorted. Everything. Even the walls had been scrubbed and furniture dusted.

“…Audra?”

Audra peeked out from behind one of the shelves. She smiled shyly.

Damian didn’t know whether to fall on his knees and worship her, or burst out laughing. She was wearing the silliest ensemble he’d ever seen. She’d managed to stuff herself into one of his shirts, her breasts pushing out the front tightly. The bulge behind her where she’d stuffed her tail stretched the shirt to nearly bursting. A pair of pajama bottoms were tied around her head to hide her ears, and rags tied around her wrists to hide her fur. She couldn’t fit into pants, so she’d tied a couple shirts around her waist to make a scraggly skirt, and somehow tied socks together and forced them onto her legs, but they bulged out with the sheer volume of foot fur.

Damian just couldn’t believe it. She’d done everything he’d asked her to do, and then some. More than then some. “Audra…” he said softly.

“Did… did I do good?” she asked just as softly, scratching her head where her ears were covered.

“You cleaned the house…”

“Oh, I thought you’d like it…” she poked the floor with her toe, her gaze downcast.

“It’s incredible…” he told her truthfully. She brightened and smiled, approaching.

“What’s in the box?”

“I’ve brought a couple surprises,” Damian explained. “First of all, go ahead and take off all that. I found something much prettier for you to wear.”

He set the box down on the bed and opened it up, unfolding the kimono for her to see.

Audra’s sudden intake of air and her wide-eyed expression of sheer joy made it all worthwhile. She let out a squeal of excitement, quickly stripped naked, and untied the kimono sash, slipping into the garment with the grace of a dancer. Damian moved to help her, but she retied the sash with expert ease. She really was from Zipangu. She knew exactly what to do. Carefully adjusting the robe, she settled into it and looked up at him.

Great goddess. Damian couldn’t take his eyes off her. Her enviable figure filled in the robe in a stunning display of elegance and sensuality. The tops of her shoulders were visible, as she’d needed to open the kimono in front a bit to accommodate her ample bosom, the top of which was proudly on display. The edge of a lightning bolt design peeked out against the curve of each breast. The kimono fell to her ankles, making it appear she was wearing fuzzy slippers. The long sleeves also covered her fuzzy wrists, but left her hands free. She fiddled with the fur around her neck, and Damian realized it hadn’t been growing on her neck, but could be tugged around her neck from behind her head. She could pull it back to expose her neck if she wished, and she did so, exposing a smooth, sensual neck he couldn’t wait to kiss.

The only remaining indication she wasn’t human was her vivid azure hair and fuzzy ears. Couldn’t be helped.

“Oh Audra… you look exquisite,” he told her in awe.

Knock, knock.

“Right, the other surprise. I’ve brought someone to meet you.”

Audra nibbled on her lower lip. “Garth?”

“Yes, Garth. You heard me talking outside?” he asked her. Audra nodded. “He’s promised to keep you a secret, so don’t worry.” Damian patted her head gently, which certainly seemed to calm her down, and headed back downstairs to let Garth in.

“About time. I’ve been getting strange looks,” he said, stepping in. “So, where is she?”

“Upstairs.” Damian led him up the stairs slowly.

“Been cleaning up, I see,” Garth said appreciatively. “I’m sure she’s grateful for that.”

Damian didn’t tell him she’d done all the work. One step at a time. “Garth, this is Audra.”

Garth slid to a stop at the sight of the Raiju. “Woah…” he breathed after almost a full minute. “She’s… not human…”

“Well spotted,” groaned Damian. “Were you raised in a cave?”

“Oh, sorry,” he cleared his throat. “Name’s Garth. Pleased to meet you.” He held out his hand.

Audra smiled and stepped forward to shake his hand, but Damian got in between them. “Uh…”

“Now who’s raised in a cave?” Garth grunted. “You could at least let her shake my hand.”

“That’s actually, probably, not a good idea.”

Audra tilted her head quizzically, then realized why. She giggled. “He’s right.”

“Whatever for?” Garth asked, bewildered. “Are you venomous by nature, or some such?”

Audra shook her head with a shy smile. “I’m a Raiju.”

“A what?” sputtered Garth.

“Uh, Garth, the flimflam guy, with the generator,” Damian prompted. “I think I figured out what he was using to power it.”

“Yeah?”

Damian approached Audra and stood beside her. He reached up and rested his hand on the top of her head, rubbing her affectionately. She smiled, sighed, and let out a few sparks.

“What the!?” gasped Garth. “She is the gener…ator?”

“Yep. She’s the one generating his electrickery, buddy. He had her chained inside it. Chained, shackled, and all kinds of equipment was hooked up to her.”

Audra smirked and touched the tips of her two forefingers together. A *pop* of electricity startled Garth.

Garth’s jaw went slack. “What… the hell… did Artie put in my drink…”

“It’s not the drink, buddy,” Damian explained. “Wait. Buddy?”

Garth said nothing. He just fell over and passed out.

Audra giggled, covering her mouth with her hand in a failed attempt to stifle the sound. Damian glared at her as her giggles escalated to uncontrolled cackling.

“What?” she chuckled. “I didn’t do it!”

Damian groaned, bending over to grab his friend’s prone form. “Whatever, just help me get him up onto the futon.”

“All right!” chirped Audra.

Problem is, she grabbed his waist, not any part of Garth.

“Au…dra…” shuddered Damian as a spiral of energy uncoiled into him from her embrace. His manhood surged, nearly bursting from his pants.

Audra gasped. Stepping back, she covered her mouth with both hands this time. “Sorry! I’m sorry!”

“You’d better take that kimono off…” Damian said as quietly as he could.

“Why?” Audra asked innocently. She gasped, her mouth opening to a wide “O” of surprise, gently covered with her slender fingers. Damian stood, pulling his pants apart, freeing a massive erection. Audra bumped up against the bed, quickly untying her sash, and pulled her kimono apart.

At the sight of Audra’s nudity, Damian rushed her like a wild beast, grabbing her head and holding her at waist level. She sat at the foot of the bed as he stood over her. He tilted her head back, and she opened her mouth expectantly. His other hand went for his erection, grasping it tightly.

“Ghhh…” grunted Damian held back as long as he could. A blast of seed flew from his enraged cock, and most of it went into her mouth. She swallowed, but in went another blast. And another, and another, coming faster and with more volume with each release. Damian shuddered, his whole body crackling with Audra’s power, stoking him, fueling him. He closed his eyes, scarcely able to maintain consciousness.

Audra coughed and sputtered. “Mmmmnnn!” she moaned happily, her ears flapping playfully against Damian’s arm, sparking him over and over.

Goddess above! Was his climax ever going to end!? Damian gasped for breath, still releasing upon Audra’s face. He hated to think what she’d look like afterwards. Poor girl. At least she seemed to be enjoying it. Mary Malone would have slit his throat by this time.

Finally. Finally. He finished.

“Ugh…” he groaned weakly, letting go of Audra’s head. She giggled, smacking her lips. Figuring he’d have to look at her sooner or later, he chanced a peek.

Oh Goddess…

It was all over the lower half of her face. Her cheeks, mouth, nose, chin, all of it. White, milky ripples and thick teardrops of it. Several globs even sullied the tips of her jagged bangs. She leaned back, licking her lips, gathering it up into her mouth, which also contained numerous white entrails sullying the inside of her little mouth and pink tongue. Some of it stained her neck and dripped down onto her breasts, curling into the tight valley between them, or getting trapped in her neck muff.

The sultry way her eyes drooped and her slovenly expression as she plucked seed out from between her breasts and suckled her finger brought on some aftershocks, surprising her with a couple more jets of it into her forehead. She giggled and yelped with glee as it dripped between her eyes and down her nose.

“Ugh, Audra, I’m sorry,” Damian said lamely. His manhood drooped slightly, dripping out a couple more droplets onto her thighs.

“For what?” she asked, flashing a dazzling smile as she continued to lick herself clean. Her dexterous tongue flicked all around her face, gathering up gobs of it at a time. “That was delicious! Do you have more?”

Goddess… would you ever be…

Remember who you’re talking to, stupid.

The girl seemed to live on sex. Well, she was a monster, after all. Damian cursed himself for not paying more attention during school. He thought only Succubi were this rapacious. But, could even a Succubus cause a man to do this with just a touch of her wily finger?

“Squeeze out the rest?” Audra asked, leaning forward, tilting her face up, and opening her mouth.

Damian sighed and complied, running his thumb up the underside to coax out any leftovers. She smiled as the droplets fell onto her tongue.

“Thanks!” she squealed happily, having licked up most of the rest of it. She dried herself off with a rag and slipped back into her kimono. “So, what are we going to do about him?”

Damian couldn’t take it. Just couldn’t. Audra stood there, full of spunk and energy. Her hair literally crackled with it. Too much. Just… too… much…

He shuddered, his eyes rolling back into his head as he fell upon the bed and passed out.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian dreamt strange, sticky dreams. Mud. Thunderstorms. Primordial beasts oozing out of slime to pull him down under the mud. His strength built up and fell away, sharply. Then it rose back up, and fell away again. In the back of his mind, Damian began to realize his state of being.

He was asleep.

Or worse.

Audra must be feeding on him. Milking him like a cow.

Gods above.

What was he going to do with that girl?

A particularly loud thunderclap nearly jolted him awake.

BANG!

A few more of those and he might break free of Audra! But… the sinful pleasure of it felt too wonderful to abandon. Damian struggled to stay asleep, but the ooze beasts retreated from the noise.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

No!

The dream shattered. Damian gasped awake. Bolting up, he looked around. He laid naked upon his bed, the covers slightly ruffled, but otherwise unused. Audra hadn’t bothered to tuck him in. But, where was she? His manhood stood perfectly erect, without pain. It glistened with her saliva. She’d been with him only moments ago.

BANG! BANG!

“OPEN UP IN THERE!”

Oh, hell!

“Garth!” hissed Damian. He glanced around in the darkness, struggling to get into his pants.

Garth snored on a couch nearby, completely dead to the world.

As for Audra, she’d disappeared entirely.

Damian flinched as the door downstairs shuddered with heavy impacts. Were they breaking it down? He stumbled downstairs and flung it open to find two town deputies, another man in a uniform he didn’t recognize, and… the flimflam man.

Bugger, bugger! Keep it cool. Ugh. Not easy with a stiffy crammed into his pants.

“Damian Medlowe?”

“Ugh,” groaned Damian. “Do you know what time it is?” he snapped, glancing up at moon hovering overhead.

“Are you Damian Medlowe?”

“Yes, damnit, what the hell do you want at this hour?” Damian hissed.

“We’re here for your protection, Mr. Medlowe,” said one of the deputies flatly. “A dangerous monster is on the loose.”

“Ehh?” grunted Damian, running a hand through his sloppy hair and peering at the man sleepily.

The deputy thrust a parchment at him. On it, Damian’s eyes made out a crudely rendered portrait of Audra. Barely recognizable, the image was of a feral beast on all fours, ready to pounce, her savage expression brimming with murderous intent. Bulging muscles, a wiry tail, and jagged spines recalled Damian’s familiar preconceptions of monsters. But she looked nothing like Audra. The colors matched, more or less, but other than that…

“The hell is this supposed to be?” Damian mumbled.

“That there’s a ray-juh!” bellowed the flimflam man. “Don’t let ‘er pretty looks deceive you! She’s fee-roh-shee-uss!”

Only in bed, thought Damian. He nearly laughed.

“Something funny, Mr. Medlowe?” asked the other deputy sharply.

Damian laughed. “You seriously think this is real?” he held up the parchment.

“She’s real alright!” cried the flimflam man. “She’ll have yer guts fer garters!”

“For the love of the Gods,” cursed Damian.

“So, have you seen anything like this before, Mr. Medlowe?”

Damian chuckled as he took one more look at the image. “I think if I had, she’d have already had… my guts for garters, as your friend over there put it. Now if you don’t mind, I have a real job to do in the morning. Unlike certain company present.”

Damian stared pointedly at the flimflam man.

“I’m tellin ya!” protested the flimflam man, “This be the feller who was messin with my gen-ee-ray-tor! He knows somethin’!”

“That true, Mr. Medlowe?”

Damian sighed roughly. “I touched the damn thing. Nearly killed me. Almost missed a whole day of work thanks to that. The hell does it have to do with a crazed monster on the loose?”

The deputies both glanced back at the flimflam man, who blushed and fidgeted on the spot. The man at the back, in the strange uniform, kept his gaze fixed on Damian.

“Are we done here?” muttered Damian, leaning on his doorframe.

“Yes, Mr. Medlowe. That’ll be all,” said one of the deputies, despite the flushed and agitated state of the flimflam man. “Be on the lookout for that monster. If you see it, don’t try to engage it yourself. Report its location to us.”

“Don’t worry, not going near the thing,” grunted Damian. “Good night.”

He closed the door on them. Ugh. The deputies and the flimflam man only mildly concerned him. What worried him was the other guy. Sharp, intelligent, snappy clothes. An Order Operative. He’d heard about them. If you chanced to see one, you were in so deep, either the monsters were gonna get you, or Order would.

One or the other.

No escape.

Seven hells. Everyone was right pissed about Audra. Why, though? Besides her “electrickery,” she seemed pretty harmless. Kind and caring, rather. If anything, she was the victim. He trudged upstairs and cast his gaze around the room. Garth snored loudly in the corner. This guy. He could have slept through an invasion.

Damian’s foggy mind still wrestled with the implications of all this. “Audra?” he called out. “They’re gone.” He glanced around. Seeming to coalesce out of nowhere, Audra stepped into view, her dazzling green eyes shining in the darkness. Her slit pupils expanded to nearly perfect black circles, granting her exceptional night vision.

Audra said nothing, she simply stepped into him and curled her arm around his as she nestled against him, resting her head upon his shoulder. Her warmth spread into him through her kimono, yet she clung tightly, trembling slightly. Damian rested his hand on her soft head, ruffling her hair.

No sparks.

Damian wasn’t sure what to say. None of this made any sense. None of it! Gods be damned. Why, in the seven hells, did a mixup with a piece of machinery warrant the presence of an Order Operative? Something else was wrong. Something far bigger than Audra. Bigger than the town, even.

Glancing down at the girl next to him, Damian struggled to grasp what could possibly have brought this on. Her gaze remained downcast. He felt nothing from her except normal body heat, warmer than a human’s, but no sparks. He led her to the bed and sat her down next to him.

“Audra,” Damian said softly.

“You were right…” she replied unsteadily, her voice choking off in fear. “They’re going to take you away from me…”

“No, Audra,” Damian told her, less softly. “I won’t let them. If you want to stay with me, then you’ll stay with me. The Order be damned.”

Audra gazed up at him, unshed tears glittering like gemstones against the pale green glow of her irises. Damian stroked the back of her head, somewhat concerned with the lack of energy within. She leaned up and kissed him briefly

“Audra,” he said softly, stroking her cheek free from tears as they rolled down her face. He held her close. Within kissing distance, losing himself in her glowing eyes. “Audra, I want you to tell me something.”

The girl nodded, their noses gently brushing as she did so.

“What were you really doing in that generator?”

She swallowed uneasily, averting her gaze, yet remaining close. “I barely remember now…” she said, tears welling inside her glistening eyes.

Damian’s heart broke. Gone was the innocent playfulness. Gone was the incessant flirting and ceaseless sexual appetite. Years bled into her eyes. Decades. His closeness with her stunned him to his very soul. To witness this change, from a playful girl to a ravaged veteran of countless battles, it brought a kind of weariness to Damian’s bones. His body craved to relieve her of this burden, but he found he could not.

All he could do was gather the girl into his lap and hold her. She clung to him for dear life, her tender body shaking with silent sobs. She parted her soft lips to say something, but could not form the words.

Damian held her tightly, bracing her against wounds that scarred her to the deepest, most intimate levels of her consciousness. Struggling with his own feelings as he was, he found himself at a loss at what to do. No words came. Damn. Damn it all! He was not prepared for this!

There. For a moment, it sounded like Audra said something.

“…dart…”

“Audra?” Damian kneaded her shoulder gently. She quivered against him.

“Dart… town…” she managed to say. She shrunk into a small ball in Damian’s lap, quivering like a mouse. Her mass of hair, fur, and tail wrapped in around itself, flattening all around her.

“Dart town?” repeated Damian. He wished he hadn’t. Audra cried softly and trembled violently in his lap. “Why does that frighten you?” he asked softly.

Audra didn’t answer. Or couldn’t. Her trembles escalated into convulsions as a full-on seizure took hold of her body. She uncoiled, unable to keep her composure as her body snapped and twitched uncontrollably.

“Audra!” cried Damian, spreading her out on the bed.

“Aggh! Ghh… khhh…” Audra grunted, unable to form words as her body convulsed.

“Garth!” shouted Damian. “Garth! Dammit! WAKE UP!” He threw a shoe at his friend, smacking him right across the face.

“Goddess from Hell!” grunted Garth as he fell out of the couch. “What? Where?” he looked around, disoriented.

“Garth! Help me!” cried Damian.

“What?” Garth stood up uneasily, nursing his forehead in his hand. He snapped to attention at the sight of Audra convulsing on the bed. Foamy spittle formed at the corner of her lips as Damian struggled to hold her. “Good gods!” he gasped, kneeling by the bed and grasping one of the girl’s legs and one of her arms. Damian held the other side.

“Kkhhhh… ghhhrrrkkk…” coughed Audra.

“What the hell happened!?” cried Garth.

“She’s having some kind of flashback, I think!” Damian shouted. “She’s terrified! What do I do!?”

“I don’t have any medical training!” his friend shouted back. “Hold her steady! She’s going to have to ride it out!”

“Hold her still, I have an idea,” Damian said suddenly.

“She’s so damned strong!” Garth grunted, hoisting his weight upon her smaller frame. “Whatever you’re gonna do, do it quick! She’s going to hurt herself, or one of us!”

Damian leaned down to Audra’s foamed lips and kissed her.

“The hell?” Garth cried. “What’s that going to do?”

But much to both of their surprise, Audra calmed down slightly.

“It’s not enough!” moaned Damian. “I can’t snap her out of it!”

“Try again?” Garth suggested, holding the girl as best he could, but her flailing intensified again.

Damian knew what he had to do.

But he wasn’t sure he could do it. He had to try, though.

“Garth, let go of her,” he told his friend sternly.

“She’ll fall!”

“DO IT!”

Garth leapt back. Damian planted his hand on Audra’s chest, upon her bare skin, just above the curves of her breasts. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on his affection for her. The passion they shared.

Yes.

He wanted her.

He needed her.

The lust welled up inside of him.

The power surged within him.

With a cry, Damian sent a massive jolt of energy into Audra’s chest.

“Ohhhhh!!” gasped the girl. Her eyes flew open, and she gasped, coughing. Her spasms died down to nervous trembling.

“Audra!” cried Damian, falling upon the bed and gathering her up into his arms.

“Good gods…” breathed Garth. “How did you do that?”

“Oh Audra,” moaned Damian, sobbing freely into her hair, completely oblivious to Garth’s surprise. “I thought I was going to lose you!”

“F-for a moment, you… you did…” Audra shuddered, clutching onto his shoulder and trembling. She pulled back a little to meet his gaze. “How? How did you bring me back?”

“I’m not sure,” admitted Damian. “I noticed it yesterday. I can shock people, just like you.”

Audra’s eyes blinked rapidly as a bewildered expression chased away her fear. “Wha…? You shouldn’t be able to do that…”

“I shocked you, Audra,” Damian told her, wiping the foam and spittle from her mouth with part of the bed sheets. “Hit you as hard as I could.”

The girl in his arms averted her gaze to think. “But that shouldn’t be possible. I’m not really sure how my shocks work, only that they get stronger when I feel good…” She smiled weakly. “But those men figured out that part of me, and how to use it.”

Damian stiffened at that revelation.

Audra shook her head at him. “But, they could never form the energy themselves! No matter what they did to me! You shouldn’t be able to do that!”

“I think I know what’s going on,” Garth spoke up.

Damian and Audra glanced at him.

Garth swallowed uneasily. “I’ve read reports from Order officials. They say, sometimes, a monster doesn’t devour a man. Instead, she runs off with him and uses her power to turn him into something like her. A weapon she can use against us.”

“No, that’s not true…” Audra protested faintly.

“That way, she can send the man back, under her command, and cause untold damage without any risk to herself,” Garth explained. “At least, that’s what I read.”

“I can’t…” moaned Audra, trembling against Damian, “I wouldn’t!”

“Maybe not consciously,” Garth mumbled.

“Garth, stop it!” snapped Damian. “Look at her! Would you!? Just look at her! She’s terrified! She said something to me while you were asleep that scared her so much, her body almost tore itself apart!”

“I’ll admit, that sure didn’t look like an act,” Garth said softly. “Ah, hell with it. Never trusted those Order arses anyway.” He ran his hands through his hair nervously. “What was it she said?”

“Audra?” Damian gently squeezed her. Her gaze met his. “Will you be all right?”

The girl nodded slowly.

“Dart town,” Damian said the words slowly. Audra trembled. He squeezed her tightly, willing his self-assurance into her.

“Dart town?” Garth scratched his head. “Dart town… Hmm. Never heard of it. Is it… dangerous?”

Audra nodded vigorously.

Damian looked up. “Maybe it’s where that Order Operative came from.” He glanced down at Audra and briefly described the man to her. “Have you ever seen anyone like that before?”

Audra nodded, frightened tears welling up in her eyes again. “Took… us…” she moaned softly. “Kept us… Darkness Prevails…”

Damian paled at her words. His blood turned to ice, draining out of his face.

“Seven hells,” Garth beat him to it.

“Audra, please tell me, and don’t be scared,” Damian asked gently, rubbing the back of her head as he cradled her like a babe. “How did you end up in that generator?”

“Took… me…” sobbed Audra, “From… Dart town…”

“Damian…” Garth said darkly, “I think I know what she means.”

“I think I do, as well,” cursed Damian. “Audra, were there other monsters there?”

“Yes…”

“How many?”

Audra trembled. “I… I don’t…”

“Just a few?”

She shook her head. “Many… Sometimes more… sometimes less… always coming… always leaving…”

Damian and Garth looked at each other and both came to the same conclusion at once.

“Slavers.”

Redness burned into Garth’s face. “Seven unholy hells!” he spat. “How could the Church of the Chief God condone this!?”

“Maybe they do, maybe they don’t,” Damian said gently, cradling Audra. Oddly enough, hot anger failed to boil within him. Sheer terror suppressed it. If the Order was condoning slavery of monsters, they were no better than the monsters themselves. Perhaps worse. But it didn’t make sense, dammit! He’d seen a Hero before. Flanked by a shrouded Valkyrie, exuding bright, dazzling power, so much that he’d not seen her face. Damian could not reconcile either of them stooping to this level of barbarism.

“Damian,” Garth said abruptly. “This has to stop. It has to stop.

“I agree,” Damian replied with a slight nod as Audra lay helplessly in his arms. “But what can we do?”

Garth began pacing as he worked out a plan. “Let’s think about this. Logically. Does she remember where this Dart town is?”

Audra shuddered, nearly crying out.

Damian shook his head sternly. “No, and we’re not going to try and force her to remember.”

“It’s the only lead we’ve got,” his friend told him.

“Not necessarily,” Damian said with a smile. A devious smile. “They’re afraid of her.”

“Of Audra?” Garth prompted. “What makes you think that?”

“They showed up about an hour ago,” Damian explained. “Two deputies, the flimflam guy, and the Operative. Showed me a parchment with Audra’s picture on it. Sort of. They depicted her as a savage beast. Asked me if I’d seen her.”

“Wait, back up, an Operative?” Garth asked tensely.

“Yeah.” Damian nodded. “I’d recognize the type anywhere. Crisp, standing at attention, focused, intelligent eyes. Sharp and perceptive, even at this hour. Couldn’t place the uniform, but that was definitely an Operative.”

“They’re on to us…” Garth murmured.

“The flimflam man is,” Damian nodded. “That Order guy, I don’t know. He didn’t look convinced. But he does know more than any of them are letting on.”

“I don’t know, Damian,” muttered Garth. “I’m not so sure it’s fear of Audra herself, but, more along the lines of, what she knows.”

“About that town?”

“Perhaps, but, more to the point,” Garth explained, “She knows about the flimflam man. More than likely, that guy bought her as a slave to use in his equipment.”

“Of course!” Damian exclaimed. “I’m such an idiot. You’re right! The look of terror on his face when I answered the deputies…”

“What did you tell them?” Garth asked, his gaze intently focused on him.

“A question, actually,” said Damian, “I asked them what being zapped by a generator had to do with a missing monster.”

Garth stroked his chin pensively. “And that’s when everyone turned on him?”

“The deputies, not the Operative,” Damian pointed out.

“We don’t need to worry about the local government, then,” mused Garth. “But that Operative…”

Damian nodded nervously. “He’s going to be a problem.”

“Any ideas?” Garth asked.

“The flimflam guy,” noted Damian. “He’s the key. The weak link. We’ll pay him a visit, get him to tell us everything. Got a feeling, after a few zaps, he’ll be plenty talkative.” He smiled down at Audra. She bit her lip anxiously.

“What about the Operative?” Garth asked. “Those guys are the Order’s elite inquisitors. He may anticipate this.”

“What choice do we have?” Damian asked, exasperated.

“The flimflam guy isn’t going anywhere until he finds Audra,” Garth suggested, “We wait for a day or two. Go to work. Get drunk after. Pretend nothing else is wrong. Then, once suspicion has died down, we make our move.”

“Audra?” Damian asked her gently, “Do you think you can wait a couple of days?”

“As long as I can stay with you,” she said softly.

“We’re going to be at work, out and about most of the day,” Damian told her. “We have to pretend nothing is going on.”

“Will she be all right on her own?” Garth asked.

“Probably,” Damian said with a nod. “She’s very good at hiding.”

Audra smiled faintly.

“Better than that Operative?”

Her smile melted.

All eyes fell upon Audra. Damian spoke first. “Audra, I leave it up to you. What do you want to do?”

“I want to stay with you,” she stressed.

“I know you do, sweetling,” Damian said softly as he sat her up and embraced her. “But what do you want to do for the next two days while you can’t be with me?”

“Hide.”

“Can you hide from an Operative? Did they not catch you before?”

Audra trembled. “I… I wasn’t trying so hard before… Before I knew what they…” her voice cracked, and hot tears burned into Damian’s shoulder. “I won’t leave you! I won’t!” she sobbed.

“I suppose that settles that,” Garth sighed. “I’ve never seen anyone get so attached. This would be a hundred times easier if the both of you weren’t totally smitten.”

“I can’t explain it,” Damian admitted. “Maybe parts of those Order stories are true. Whatever the case, I feel as she does. I can’t let her go.”

“Gods,” grunted Garth. “Of all the girls to fall for, you pick the fugitive.”

“Look on the bright side,” Damian offered as he laid Audra down on the bed next to him. “Now, you can date Mary Malone.”

Garth scoffed, heading downstairs for the door. He paused at the top, glancing back. “Never did like brunettes.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian blinked as the first rays of the sun fell upon his face. Audra lay beside him, having slipped halfway out of her kimono during the night. Her bare arm draped across his chest, and her head rested upon his shoulder. The curve of her breast nestled into his side, and her smooth thigh snuggled in between his legs. Her furry lower leg warmed his legs, and her fuzzy toes tickled his feet.

Sighing contentedly, Damian wished he could just live in this moment forever. Her gentle presence calmed his anxious heart, steadying him like an anchor in a ferocious storm. The arm she rested upon curled around so he could gently massage the back of her neck. She smiled and cuddled in more deeply. The skin of her thigh brushed his balls, and Damian realized he was rock hard and pointing at the ceiling.

For the first time since they met, Audra hadn’t noticed his erection. Yet.

Damian took a moment to marvel at the past few days. He’d gone from being addicted to alcohol and shallow women, to having the most beautiful and sweet girl to ever cross his path fall into his lap, rather literally. He realized with sobering comprehension that to receive a gift as precious as Audra demanded much from him in return. He knew he didn’t deserve her. But, by the gods, he would do whatever required of him to keep her. The short span of time he’d known her, he’d come to need her desperately.

Briefly, Damian feared the stories to be true. Had she enchanted him with her sparks? Was he under some kind of hypnosis? Some witchery that robbed him of his senses and his reasoning? As he beheld the angelic creature beside him, he weighed the possibility it could be true.

Oh, to hell with it.

Damian didn’t care.

If she’d bewitched him, so be it. Too late to worry about that now. He was hers, and he knew it. There was nothing he could do. If she asked him, with that sweet, cooing voice of hers, he’d jump off a building, just to experience the joy of her nursing him back to health. But was she his? Did she feel remotely the same way about him as he did for her?

Terror flooded through Damian’s soul, gripping his heart in an icy vice. Before he did anything else, plans or no, he had to be sure. He gently stroked Audra’s hip, feeling a familiar crackle against her skin.

“Mmm…” Audra cooed gently, embracing him a little more tightly. His hand dipped up into the slim curve of her waist, skirting her bare skin and resting upon the swell of her breast. Gently he cupped her, gathering the soft, firm, plump globe into his hand. Her energy sizzled, causing locks of hair on her bed-head to shift around and rise up.

“Audra…” murmured Damian.

Audra sighed, her arm shifting. Her fuzzy wrist bumped against his rock-hard erection, and she instinctively curled her fingers around it, grasping gently. Her hand began a slow pumping motion, sending little sparks inside with each repetition.

Damian felt her heart beating against his arm, just as his heart beat into her hand. “Audra…” he called gently, his voice tightening.

Audra’s beautiful, lustrous eyes opened slightly as she smiled. “Hiii~” she cooed softly, nuzzling her nose into his shoulder with a smile. She began to shift slightly, slipping out of the rest of her kimono to lie naked down on top of him. Her soft breasts pillowed her chest against his, her hair tumbling around them both, zapping Damian with micro-sparks continuously. She smiled down, sleepy lust in her heavy-lidded eyes as she touched her lips to his.

“Audra…” Damian spoke against her lips. “Do you remember… last night?”

She nodded, brushing her lips up and down his mouth and chin. The silky insides of her lips brushed against his stubble, leaving sparks in their wake. “I do…” she said softly, licking the edges of his lips with the tip of her tongue. “I’ll never forget it… my own power… being sent back into me… saving my life…” she said softly, a tear dropping onto his cheek.

“Still not… sure how I managed that…” Damian admitted, his need for her beginning to take hold as she gently ground her smooth tummy against his erection. Up and down, up and down, she slowly insinuated her body into him.

“I realized in my dreams,” Audra said huskily, nestling her cheek against his. Her soft skin against his rough stubble drove him mad with want. He grasped her hips, curling his hands into her firm bottom, but he did not try to stop her gentle grinding. He just held her as she slowly teased him. Her lustrous, azure tail swayed back and forth, languidly brushing against his hands while she tempted the rest of him with her skin.

“I realized,” continued Audra slowly, “There is only one way, you could have done that for me.” She trailed her tongue across Damian’s sturdy jaw, into the gentle cleft of his chin, and then up into his lips. “My power became yours… because I love you…” she said gently as she kissed him, touching the tip of her tongue to his.

Damian’s heart surged with warmth, pounding against his chest, as if trying to escape and enter her body. She smiled as she felt it. He gasped, reaching up and grasping her upper arms, holding her up, slightly. She did not resist, and gazed down at him with drowsy hunger.

“You love… me?” Damian asked, dumbfounded, hope pulsing within him. The face of unrestrained beauty and love gazed down upon him. Her smile banished his fear. Her eyes, gleaming and narrow with desire, lit a fire within him.

“Are you surprised?” Audra asked gently. “Do you not believe me?”

Damian shook his head, still holding her up. “I… I struggled with…” he sighed. “I’m sorry, Audra. I’m not very good at this. I don’t…”

She silenced him with a finger to his lips. “Just answer one question?” she suggested, remaining aloft in his grip. “Do you love me?”

“I… confess I don’t even know what love truly is,” Damian admitted. But, at the sight of Audra’s crestfallen expression, he squeezed her tightly, lowering her back down to him. “But this much I do know,” he told her as their noses touched. “I need you. Every time you told me you feared those men were going to take you away from me, my heart ached.”

“It scares you too?” she asked timidly.

“You have no idea,” he told her.

“I think I do…” she replied anxiously, cupping his face. “When you freed me from that machine… no. Before that. When your finger touched my body…” she giggled, blushing. “I could feel it. You were what I needed. What I still need. You.” She lowered an inch to kiss him. Her warm breath burned into his chest. Audra smiled, offering another, smaller kiss. “But when you freed me, I was sure. My heart knew. My mind… well…”

“It’s been struggling to keep up?” Damian asked.

Audra nodded, fitfully giggling. “Yes! Exactly! So, you do love me?”

“More than anything,” Damian agreed.

Audra burst into tears of joy, embracing him tightly. “Then, I agree!”

“You… you agree to… to what?” Damian asked between her frantic kisses.

Audra paused to glance down at him, slightly puzzled. “To be your wife, of course.”

If it were possible to go pale and blush at the same time, Damian was sure he’d managed it, just then.

“W-wife?” he gulped.

Audra giggled. “Yes!”

“You want to get married? Now?

“Yes!!”

Damian thought about that, though Audra’s beaming face made that exceptionally difficult. “But, how? We’d get caught! We can’t hold a ceremony now!”

Audra’s giggles turned to peals of laughter. “No! No, my savior! That comes later. For now… We simply… make each other our own.”

“How does that work?”

“We must first agree,” said Audra solemnly.

“To?” he blushed with ignorance. Audra giggled gently at him and kissed him.

“Propose to me.”

There, his face did it again. Paled and blushed at the same time. Damian was not sure he was going to be able to remain conscious for this. Not a fainter by any stretch, though, he never had considered marriage before. He’d been something of a playboy for so long. Carefully, he sat up, sliding Audra into his lap as he took her hands in his.

Gazing down at his beautiful love, he asked the words, surprised at his own voice. “Audra, my sweetling, I feel as if my life amounted to nothing, no… less than nothing, for years. Get up. Go to work. Get paid. Spend the money to get drunk to forget work. Spend the rest for food and lodging to survive to the next day. And repeat. How pointless a life could that be?”

Audra gazed deeply at Damian, her attention capturing every word.

“I knew something was wrong the moment Garth told me about the generator. Your power changed my life from the moment I first felt it, even before I knew you were there. From that moment, you became everything to me. Nothing else that I have matters except for you, and I am nothing without you. Save me, Audra. Save me from the prison I built for myself…”

Damian wept tears of… he wasn’t even sure what it was. He bared his soul for her, placing it in her tender hands.

“I knew I should have gone first…” sobbed Audra.

They both chuckled briefly.

“Damian, my savior,” she spoke unsteadily, but purposefully. “I lived my life in a dream. I never cared about where I was, or where I wanted to be. I just lived in my moment. In my little bubble of bliss. I lived like that until someone… someone took me…” Her lip quivered, and tears fell from her face, burning against her bare thighs.

“After that,” she continued, forcing the words through a choked throat, “I saw nothing except for the metal around me. I felt nothing but what my masters wanted me to feel. I did nothing except what my masters wanted me to do. But my life hadn’t changed. Not really. My bubble just… got smaller. The feelings they forced upon me still felt… pleasurable. But… I forgot joy. I forgot laughter. I forgot… life.”

Damian’s teeth sank into his lower lip, hoping against hope that the pain would prevent him from bawling like a baby.

“I still don’t know if I can face it,” Audra admitted, mimicking his action and biting her lower lip. “But, with you by my side, I feel… Yes. I feel I can do anything. Will you be there for me? Always? Save me from the bubble I made for myself?”

Damian sat there, speechless before her. Was his heart even beating anymore? He felt completely numb. Only her warm hands in his stirred anything in his mind. He clasped them tightly and gave her his answer.

“I will.”

Audra’s breath caught in her throat. “As will I,” she managed to say.

Their hands closed around each other.

“What… what now?” Damian asked softly.

“Now… husband,” Audra said, keeping a level gaze, “I make you mine. And you make me yours.”

Damian gulped nervously. “This is going to hurt like hell, isn’t it?”

Audra balked at the implication. “No!” she cried, shaking her head vigorously. When she met his gaze again, a gentle smile spread across her face. “There is nothing I can do, now, that could ever hurt you…”

“Oh, uhh…” Damian stammered as Audra slid out of his lap and eased him into a reclining position against the wall. “What do you want me to do?”

“Just relax, and accept my love,” said Audra. “Are you ready?”

Damian glanced down at his raging hard-on. It angled diagonally up and out, and was pointed right at her. He rested his hands against the pillow he sat upon. “I’m ready,” he told her.

Audra smiled, nodded, and closed her eyes, balling her right hand into a fist. Surges of power crackled through her hair, snapping and sizzling across her skin. Hundreds of sparks and arcs of power licked and flensed her skin, making her shudder as she focused the power into her hand. She leaned towards Damian, opening her hand as she drew nearer. Power zapped between her fingers, trailing up and down.

Her hand connected with his chest, fingers spread open right against his heart.

“AUDRA!!” screamed Damian. His world, his very life, rested in the palm of her hand. With one metaphorical motion, she crushed his world, obliterating it. For a split second, Damian wondered if he’d just died. Maybe the stories were true. She’d just devoured him.

But, no.

In Damian’s metaphorical mind, for he no longer felt anything else in reality, Audra’s hand slowly opened. Her fingers curled around Damian’s soul, gently reshaping him into the man her loving eyes perceived. Such intense, immutable pleasure overwhelmed every fiber of Damian’s being. Mind, body, and soul rested in her care as she caressed all of him from the inside out. As her work slowly moved towards completion, Damian became dimly aware that he was releasing all over her. He barely felt it. Her loving ministrations overshadowed everything. All he craved was her touch.

She was setting him free, just like she promised.

Damian’s heart swelled with unconditional love for her, his wife. She finished at last, removing her hand. Damian opened his eyes to find her smiling at him. And… oh.

Oh, my goddess…

She was covered, from the top of her head to the bottom of her knees, with his seed. Ripples and white entrails sullied every inch of her, except for the hand that had rested on his chest. She sighed contentedly, wiping gobs of it from her heavy-lidded eyes.

Damian glanced down at himself.

Holy hell!

No pudgy merchant by any stretch, Damian’s body had been forged in the grueling factories building steam engines. But now, with Audra’s loving touch, he gazed upon perfection. Thin, wiry hair stretched across cast-iron pectorals, tapering down a wide V shape into his abdominals, to cross over a perfect, ripped eight-pack. He half expected his pubic hair to have been burned away, but it remained, reduced somewhat, but crackling with energy. Damian inspected his arms to find bulging biceps, sinewy forearms, and tough, sturdy hands. Not too different than before, but a fresh, elegant grace had been afforded his fingers and hands that he lacked before. Audra’s power gifted him with newfound flexibility and agility. He flexed his fingers, balling them into a fist, his skin rippling with the force of his muscles. A slight crackle of power traveled through his arm.

“Audra…” he breathed in awe. “What did you do to me?”

She smiled warmly at him, her face blushing beautifully. “I just wanted you to look like how I see you…” she said softly as her fingertips brushed a lightning motif engraved upon his left pectoral. “I’ve made you mine…”

Her soft voice and gentle touch sent a jolt of white-hot lust through Damian’s new body. His manhood surged upwards again, having grown several inches and thickened as well. He cast her a predatory smile.

“My turn…”

Audra giggled at his ferocity, indicating her sullied body. “Oh, you already have, my savior…”

“Not nearly enough!” growled Damian as he tackled her to the bed, pinning her helplessly onto her back as he held her arms above her head. “I’ve worked up quite an appetite, and I mean to have you for breakfast.”

“Yes!” cried Audra. “My savior…” she moaned suggestively, “You rescued me from my life, and now you come to feast upon your spoils… I cannot resist…” She gasped as his massive erection pressed against her soft, taut stomach. Slowly, Damian dragged his length up her torso, sending shocks into her sticky skin, causing her to arch her back against him. Audra smiled and licked her lips as his erection slid between her breasts. She struggled to free her hands, fighting him gently with a smile.

Gods! Her cute, teasing little voice stoked his lust as she surrendered to his hunger. Damian craved to make her his. But he would draw this out, tease and tantalize this squirmy little minx until she writhed, screaming with wild abandon.

Damian held her tightly, her previous strength over him paling in comparison to the power he held over her now. Heh. She’d made him a little too strong, he thought. She might come to regret that. He slowly tortured her with his manhood, dragging it down her body achingly slowly, until, finally, the head of him skirted her moist center and slipped between her legs.

“Nnnn…” cooed Audra. She bit her lip, trembling with anticipation. “Yasss!” she yelped as Damian bumped the tip of his erection against her sex, zapping her with a spark directly into her most sensitive spot. Her entrance gushed a little, creaming him with some of her honey and carrying sparks of lust along with it.

Unable to hold out any longer, Damian shifted his hips and began to penetrate her.

Audra sucked in a breath. “Ohhhhhh~!” she gasped, trembling and shaking as Damian invaded her body inch by inch. She was so damn tight, it took a concentrated effort to keep moving! Her hips shifted as her body arched slightly, moving her insides around to conform to the new addition.

Damian couldn’t speak. Not for lack of trying. As he penetrated his wife, he opened his mouth to describe to her how she felt for him. He found he could not, so he kissed her instead. The hot, wet sweetness of her mouth mirrored the feeling between her legs. As his length continued inside her, her hot, wet walls expanded just barely enough to permit him entry. Sizzling power caressed his manhood with every motion.

So much… so much of her to discover! Damian’s tongue slipped past her lips to explore the sweet mysteries of her mouth. The tip of her tongue curled up under his, beckoning him deeper within. He traced the length of her tongue, remembering it was narrower but longer than a human girl’s. She responded by curling and coiling her tongue around his, adding resistance and providing a simile for the sensations she afforded his sex. She tasted sweet, like nectar, but mixed with the heady musk of his own seed that she’d been licking up. Her face still glistened with his release, the scent of it and her cherry blossoms blending together into a potent cocktail that spurred him on all the more.

At last, Damian settled down on top of his wife, the hair around the base of his erection connecting with her perfectly smooth sex. As each one settled upon her, it carried a small charge that released into her sensitive skin. Ah. That was why she preferred him this way. Audra bucked beneath him, her breaths coming heavily from her nose. Damian smiled against her lips, enjoying the embrace of her tongue. He brushed her nose with the tip of his, and was rewarded by a giggle from his wife.

“Audra,” he said huskily, at last perfecting the smoldering voice he’d worked on for years as he broke the lascivious kiss. “I’m going to make you mine, now.”

“What do you want me to do?” she asked, mirroring his words from before.

Damian smiled hungrily at her. “Just relax, and accept my love,” he said, uttering her words. “Are you ready?”

Audra nodded slowly, her face flushed scarlet, her breathing ragged. “Yes…”

Damian released her hands and drew her into a bone, crushing embrace. With little warning, he began thrusting into her smaller body with long, rough strokes.

“DAMIAN!” screamed Audra.

Yes… this was familiar.

This time, it was Damian who held the life in his hands. Both of his hands. With careful firmness, he crushed her life into his folded hands, breaking her down into something purely soulful and elemental. Tenderly, he reshaped her back into the vision of loveliness he’d come to adore. He took her pain, her suffering, her guilt, and her misery and drew it unto himself, shouldering her burden as he purified her soul. Dimly he could feel her lips on his as he breathed new life into her and devoured her returning screams.

Audra’s life pulsed in his hands, freed from its bonds, bursting its bubble. She was his, now, wholly and completely. He took a moment to admire his handiwork, and found that, after shouldering her pain, she really did not look that much different than before. Of course, he smiled. She was already perfect. Why change it?

Her life pulse beat stronger and faster, shuddering in his grip. A ruthless, continuous orgasm shook her very soul. Yes. It was time. Damian willed himself to release her, and release into her.

“MMMNNNNNN!!” moaned Audra, unable to scream properly with her lips captured by her husband’s. Damian exploded inside her, filling her loving, sexual embrace with his hot, powerful adoration. Audra shook, trembling, her power filling the room. Unlike her previous seizure, her body released in coordinated waves, contracting and releasing each muscle in perfect sequence to grant her the most sublime ecstasy possible. Damian held her tightly as she rode it out.

When she finally broke his kiss, her head fell back, and her lips parted, gasping. “My goddess!” she cried. “What did you do…” she trailed off, giggling as she tilted her head back up to meet his gaze with upturned eyes.

“There’s an echo in here, sweetling,” murmured Damian lovingly. “A beautiful echo…”

“Did…” Audra nibbled her lip. “Did that feel as wonderful for you as it did for me?”

“If I could describe how it felt, I would tell you,” her husband admitted. “But I can’t.”

“Nor can I,” giggled Audra. “I wish I could stay like this forever,” she sighed, glancing down at their connection. Her insides trembled with power as they worked to consume the energy he’d given her.

Knock, knock.

“Damn!” hissed Damian. Audra sighed in his arms. “I have to get that.”

Audra nodded ruefully as her husband slipped out of her embrace and then her body. Maybe next time he could just carry her to the door so she could stay with him. Wait… “Damian!” she cried, spinning over onto her tummy on the bed to reach out for him.

Damian paused, glancing back. “What is it, sweetling?”

Audra blushed as he called her that. “Um…” she pointed at his waist.

Damian glanced down. He was still naked with a massive hard-on waving back and forth out in the open. Audra giggled at him the moment he noticed. Blasted thing still glistened from being inside her. Damian grumbled, trying to get into his pants. They felt… odd. Different, like he was trying to put on someone else’s clothes. It was no use. His manhood pitched a stiff tent in the leather. He sighed and tied a towel around it, stumbling downstairs to open the door.

Garth.

“Seven hells!” his friend blurted out as his eyes nearly popped out of his skull.

“What?” Damian glanced behind him. Nothing was there…wait. Garth was eying him.

“What did she do to you?”

Why was everyone asking that all of the sudden?

Garth shoved his way inside.

“Hey!” grunted Damian. He raised his hand up to the side of his face to amplify his voice before remembering Audra had excellent hearing. “Audra! Get dressed!”

Audra stepped around the corner at the top of the stairs, already immaculate in her cherry blossom kimono. The hell? How had she cleaned herself up that fast? Showoff. “Ufff,” Damian grunted as Garth tugged him up the stairs. Before, their strength was about equal from working in the factory. Now, he felt he could overpower Garth easily. But he allowed his friend to push him in front of his mirror.

“Good gods!” cried Damian. He stood about an inch or two taller, easily breaking six feet, and packed with ripped muscle. While he still appeared human, his chiseled body could crumble the minds of women everywhere. He chuckled to himself. Always thought he’d need this kind of body to get the girl of his dreams. Never thought the girl of his dreams would find him first and gift him this kind of body. He wondered if his beard would still grow in grey.

Audra approached and gently insinuated herself around his arm, resting her head against his shoulder. She had to stand up on the balls of her feet to nestle against his neck, now. “Isn’t he magnificent?” she cooed. Suddenly, Damian stopped caring what the hell his beard would look like.

Garth whistled. “Yeah. Uh… ahem,” he cleared his throat awkwardly. “This is going to cause some new problems.”

“How?” asked Damian. “Look at me, Garth! I could probably pound that Operative into mush with…” he trailed off. Huh. That was odd. For some reason, he no longer wanted to do so, purely out of spite. Audra really had changed him.

“Don’t underestimate him,” warned Garth. “Order operatives are trained to deal with… uh, this sort of thing.” He indicated Damian in a sweeping gesture. “And the fact that you look so different, now, is going to give away everything.”

Audra gasped, covering her mouth in horror. “Oh no… I… I shouldn’t have pressed…”

“Pressed what?” prompted Garth.

“We made it official just now,” Damian told him. “Made our pledges. We’re married.”

Garth’s eyes lowered to his hand to instinctively check for a ring. “Not sure it works that way, buddy.”

“For her people, it does,” countered Damian. “She is mine, and I am hers.”

Garth groaned. “Sentimental fool. All right, let me think. I had some ideas about her, but now I don’t know what to do about you.”

“What about Audra?” prompted Damian.

“Uhh,” Garth paused in his pacing. “Oh. She said she was a rayjuh right?”

“Raiju,” Audra said with a smile, gently correcting his slurred pronunciation.

“Right…” murmured Garth. “I did some research in the library. You’re in the books. Well, not you, personally. Your species. Take a look.”

Garth handed her a piece of parchment he’d torn out of the book. Another feral depiction of a Raiju with slightly different colorations seemed to growl up at her from the page. Damian poked the image, but not at the girl. He indicated her unique kimono.

“Look at that,” remarked Damian. “That kimono.”

“It’s short,” said Audra. “I like it!”

Garth craned his neck over to peer down at it. “Yeah. They called it a… uh… something I can’t pronounce, but basically a special kimono only Raiju wear.” He indicated some accents on the edges of the fabric. “The information stated they use these to control their power and blend in with humans so they can cause trouble without being noticed.”

“Garth,” scolded Damian, “Audra’s the victim here, not us.”

“I know that,” his friend glared back. “But with all the lies in the air right now, it got me thinking. Maybe Raiju wear them to help them control their power?”

“Hmm, worth looking into,” said Damian, glancing down at Audra, who nodded. “But where are we going to get one for her?”

“Flimflam guy,” said Garth. “I’m betting he’s got one in case of emergencies.”

“Let’s ask him.”

“We’re going to wait a couple of days, remember?” Garth reminded him. “It’s almost time for work. You ready to go?”

Audra nodded up at him, kneeling to pick up his shirt. Damian took it from her and tried to put it on, but as he rolled his shoulders into it, the seams in back ripped wide open.

“Uh oh.”

“Did you have to turn him into Kaiden Stone?” Garth sighed at Audra.

Audra winced but cast him a puzzled glance. “Who?”

Garth and Damian exchanged nervous glances. They both shrugged at her, blushing. Audra giggled at them. “Oh!” she laughed. “I think I get it…”

The two friends exchanged glances again. Heh. She had no idea. Garth spoke first. “I’ll run back to my house and see if I have anything. Wait here.”

“Be quick, buddy, we’re almost out of time.”

Garth ran out.

Audra smiled, gazing hungrily up at her husband. “Mmm,” she cooed, running her hands into the ripped seams. “I made you a bit too big and strong, yass?”

Damian chuckled and ruffled her hair. “Maybe a bit. I’m sure it’ll come in handy, later.”

“What about now…” she moaned hungrily as she pressed her soft nose into his chest, inhaling his scent and flicking her tongue out for a lick.

“Audra…” Damian groaned, massaging her head and rubbing her fluffy ears. His manhood swelled inside his tight pants. “I’m afraid we don’t have time… he’ll be back any…”

Too late. Garth stared at them from the top of the stairs, holding a dark jacket in his hands. Audra noticed her husband stiffening and glanced over at Garth, peeking at him with one eye.

“You two…” muttered Garth.

“Enjoying the show?” grumbled Damian.

Garth snapped out of it and handed Damian the clothes. “Yes, well, I guess I might pay Mary a visit tonight…”

“Didn’t you just say you didn’t like brunettes?” prodded Damian.

Garth shrugged. “Any port in the storm.”

Damian groaned. “Asshole.”

“You don’t like Mary?” Audra asked as Damian pulled off his torn shirt and put on the linen undershirt Garth handed him. He recognized it, part of a pirate costume his friend had worn one year at a festival. It hung loosely off Garth, but fit Damian rather snugly, the wide laces showing off a good deal of his brawny chest. He thrust his arms into the sleeves of the jacket. It fit. Barely. The hem stopped before reaching his waistband, showing off a slice of midriff that Audra gazed hungrily upon.

“It’ll do,” Garth noted, ignoring Audra and appraising Damian with his eyes. “You’re going to draw some glances, but it should be passable. Just don’t let anyone see that thing on your chest.”

Damian shrugged and ran his fingers through his hair. Huh. The shock charges worked to straighten his hair better than any oil. He could get used to this… He glanced down at his wife, who eyed him lustfully.

“Come on, lover boy,” groaned Garth, tugging Damian away from Audra. “We’ve got work to do.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian caught glances. Good gods, did he ever.

“Knock it off, you blockhead…” grunted Garth.

“Huh?” Damian asked, flashing a dazzling smile at a girl walking down the street. She blushed and fanned herself as she watched him go by.

“You’re acting like Kaiden Stone, now,” Garth hissed, jabbing his friend in the arm.

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Damian protested. “I feel like I could punch a hole through a brick wall.”

“Try not to act like it.” Garth cursed. “You’re going to work. Boring ass work. It’s just another boring ass day. You got nothin’ to look forward to. Nothin’ at all.”

Damian slumped as he remembered his old life.

“That’s more like it.”

“You sure know how to kill the mood,” grumbled Damian.

“What are friends for?” his buddy chuckled.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Miraculously, they arrived to work on time. At Garth’s suggestion, Damian slacked off, even though he felt full to brimming with energy and strength. He felt terribly guilty for doing so, but the show must go on. The foreman glared at him as they collected their earnings. Damian made for the pub, while Garth hung back.

All part of the plan. Garth would check in on the flimflam man and then meet Damian at the pub. They would get drunk, and then he would go back home and make sloppy, drunken love to Audra. Ah. A shame this would only go on for another day or two.

“Damian!” hissed Garth, heading him off before he could step inside Artie’s. “Change of plans! Home! Now! Make like you don’t have enough money to drink and go home!”

Damian made a show of checking his pockets at the entrance of the pub, groaning, and trudging off. Garth had disappeared somewhere, leaving Damian to wander home alone. He slipped inside and headed upstairs.

“Au…” he started to say, but his voice tapered off. Something didn’t feel right. Everything appeared to be in place. Sort of. Damian never considered himself a “neat” person. But he usually remembered where he left something, even if he’d left it in a messy pile. After Audra cleaned everything up, she put the objects back, mostly in the places where Damian had left them. Almost as if she knew that’s what he preferred.

Damian smiled briefly. She was perfect for him. Absolutely perfect. However… objects were out of place today. He strolled through the room. Several items had been moved, shifted, turned, or otherwise displaced, and then carefully replaced. His blood ran cold…

The home had been searched.

“Audra?” whispered Damian.

Nothing. The stale air pointedly lacked the sweet scent of cherry blossoms that always preceded her.

“Audra!” called Damian a little louder. “Audra!”

Knock, knock.

Scratching his head, Damian jogged down the stairs and opened the door.

Garth.

“We’ve got a problem,” they both said at the same time.

“You first,” Damian said as he ushered his friend inside.

Garth headed upstairs. “I knew something was wrong, which is why I sent you home early. The flimflam guy,” he said as Damian followed. “He’s packing up his stall.”

“What!?” exclaimed Damian. “Dammit!”

“We have to move on this tonight,” Garth told him. “Otherwise, we lose our one lead towards where this Dart town could be.”

“Gods above,” cursed Damian, muttering dark words under his breath as he paced, running a frantic hand through his hair.

“Where’s Audra?” Garth glanced around.

“That’s my bad news,” Damian told him. “She’s missing. And if the flimflam guy is packing up…”

“He caught her again…”

“Gods damned… I never should have left her!” cried Damian. “Screw the wait. Let’s go, right now!”

“In broad daylight?” Garth gaped at him. “If that Operative sees what you’ve become, the Order will…”

“I don’t care!” cursed Damian. “Let them come! They can’t take her from me!”

“They can, and they have.” Garth stood in front of Damian, blocking his way. “Sure, you’re Kaiden Stone now, good for you. You’re just one guy. You can’t take on the Order by yourself!”

Damian collapsed into a chair, shaking with anxiety. “I just bound myself to her, Garth…” he nearly sobbed. “I can’t live without her! And she can’t… if they take her away… she’ll die!”

“She’s a tough girl,” Garth assured him. “She’s been through worse, I can almost guarantee it.”

“No, buddy, you don’t understand,” pleaded Damian. “Something changed in us. Inside of us. She literally molded me into her ideal mate, and made my life dependent upon her. And I did the same to her. We can’t be without each other for very long with the link so new. Maybe… maybe years in the future, I could leave her for a few weeks. I don’t know… All I know is, if I can’t find her soon, we’re both going to die.”

“Are you absolutely sure about that?” his friend replied.

“Sure as hell feels like it,” Damian said tensely.

“Can you hold out until nightfall?” Garth asked gently.

“I think so…”

“Meet me outside the pub after dark,” Garth said. “Remember. Slouch.”

“Won’t be a problem, now,” Damian muttered darkly.

Garth left.

“Audra…” moaned Damian, holding his head in his hands.

No answer.

Damian was alone.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Time had flown by the last few days. Audra had that effect on a man. Without her, time slowed to a crawl. The sun hung stubbornly in place as Damian’s mind struggled with various hypothetical scenarios, each one more horrible than the last.

Somehow, he drifted asleep. In his dreams, Damian cried out into a dark thunderstorm. His voice echoed through the valley, booming with thunder. Yet, no light flickered in the ominous clouds. Rain poured into the bleak valley, drenching it in sadness and despair. Damian’s voice thundered, shaking the pines. But without Audra, there was no energy. No passion.

Nothing, except unwanted noise.

“AUDRAAAAAA!” bellowed Damian. Booming thunder shook the tallest mountaintop. Yet, no sign of Audra came. Damian cried out in agony, waking in his chair with a start.

“Ugh,” he groaned, wiping sweat from his brow. He half-expected his body to have reverted to its previous state. He tested his strength and found most of it to remain, the tension keeping him alert as the sky darkened. He trembled, an ache having formed deep within him.

Audra…

He craved her touch. Her sweet, little voice. The way she teased him with her words and with her body. The shocks she gave him. So unexpected. So powerfully arousing. He glanced up at the sky. Twilight. Screw it. He couldn’t wait any longer. Damian departed his home and strode into the night.

As he thought, Audra’s loss weighed heavily on him like a crushing burden upon his soul. He slumped forward, lurching into the town like a drunkard. As he drew near the pub, Garth sauntered out of it. He noticed Damian and headed over to him, throwing his arm around him jovially.

“Missed you at the bar, buddy!” he bellowed, then whispered, “You look like hell.”

“Skip the preamble and let’s just find Audra,” mumbled Damian. He trudged out, not bothering to check if his friend followed. Garth intercepted him in the street and nudged him towards an empty alleyway.

“Be smart about this, Damian,” warned Garth. “We’ll take the long way around, make sure no one follows us.”

Begrudgingly, Damian agreed, and followed Garth like a vengeful revenant through the dark alleys. They proceeded agonizingly slowly, carefully avoiding onlookers and drunk workers heading home.

“This is it,” Garth said, leaning against a wall. Damian glanced up, noticing the lettering against the doorframe.

 

Jessamina’s

 

Garth rattled the door. Locked. “Ugh.”

Damian stepped forward and pushed on it. The wooden support cracked, and the door opened. “May as well put this strength to good use,” he muttered.

His friend eyed him warily. “I’ll… go first,” he said slowly. “Cook owes me a favor. Try… not to break anything else.” He slipped inside before Damian had a chance to answer.

Damian muttered curses under his breath. All this power Audra gave him, the strength and… he flexed his fingers, feeling them pop with little zaps of current. All of this. For what? He’d already lost her! They’d been married less than twelve hours! He growled with frustration, weighing the consequences of punching into the wooden beam next to him as hard as he could.

Just before Damian made up his mind to screw the consequence, Garth pulled him into Jessamina’s inn. He wore a white cook’s apron and fluffy hat, and dusty, white flour peppered his face and clothes.

“The hell…?” Damian started to ask. Garth tossed a pair in his face.

“Put those on. There’s people in the commons. Possibly the Operative.” Garth checked around the corner to make sure no one was watching. “Hurry.”

Grumbling, Damian complied, and as he finished, Garth flung pinches of flour at him. “Good enough,” he surmised. “Let’s go. He’s on the third floor.”

The two of them made their way into the commons, drawing only a couple stares on their way upstairs. One of them was Jessamina herself, a cute, chubby woman about Audra’s height, with bouncy, golden brown hair. Damian and Garth headed upstairs before she could ask them what they were doing or, who they were, for that matter.

“This is…” Garth started to say as they paused at a room.

Damian shouldered the door, bursting it open as quietly as he could. The flimflam man sat on his bed, dressed only in a linen shirt.

“What the…!?” the man sputtered as Damian set upon him.

“Where…” Damian grunted as he grabbed the man’s shirt, “Is,” he hefted the man up, “AUDRA?” and slammed him against the wall.

Garth quietly closed the door. The flimflam man sputtered, his feet dangling three or four inches off the ground. Impressive, as he had to have weighed at least three hundred pounds.

“Y-you!” sputtered the man. “I knew it!” he hissed. “I knew you were hiding that little weasel!”

“What have you done with my wife!?” growled Damian as quietly as he could.

The flimflam man coughed up a laugh. “Wah ha! You went and married the thing? Whatever f—”

His voice cut off sharply as Damian sent a bone-cracking punch into the wooden wall next to his head. Splinters flew, and dust settled on the man’s shoulder. His eyes widened to saucers as he gulped nervously.

“Let’s try that again,” Damian said softly, dangerously softly. “Give me another smartass answer, and I’ll pop your head like a cantaloupe.”

“Damian…” Garth muttered nervously.

“Uhh, uhhmm…” sputtered the man. “I-I-I don’t… I don’t know! I swear! Please!”

Damian wound up to throw the punch.

“Did you know,” Garth said suddenly. “When mamono marry, they share their power with their mate?”

Damian didn’t know where this was headed, but he paused and waited him out.

“All of her electrickery is in him, now,” Garth told the man. “Would you like to know what that feels like?”

Ah. Good idea, buddy. Damian flexed his fingers, letting the flimflam man see for himself the crackles and sparks.

“Gahh!” cried the man. “All right! All right! I do know something! Just… p-put me down!”

Damian relaxed his grip and set the man down. “Talk.” He crossed his arms over his chest.

“That… that Order fellow,” said the man nervously. “His name’s Eamon Heath. Dangerous man. Showed up outa’ no-where late yesterday. Said he’d take care of everything if I just left town. By… your expression… it looks like he has.”

“And what are you getting out of it?” Garth asked him.

“Uhh…”

Damian flexed his fingers. Pop. Zap.

“N-No! Anything but that!” stammered the man. “He p-paid me back what I spent on that weasel. I’ll give it to you! Just… d-don’t hurt me!” He reached down for his pockets, forgetting his pants were on the floor. Bending over to grab them, he turned, treating Damian and Garth to a perfect view of the man’s fat, filthy ass.

“Ugh…” groaned Garth, blanching.

“Here!” the man stood and thrust a pouch at Damian. Filled with jangling coins, the pouch weighed quite a bit. “Are you happy now!? You’ve ruined me! I spent my entire savings on that little weasel!”

“You better hope I find her,” growled Damian menacingly. “One more question. Where did you acquire her?”

“From some fellow on the road who had no idea what he had,” the man explained.

“Where…” growled Damian.

“U-uhh… some ways north ‘o here!” he stammered, glancing over his shoulder. “Hey! What’re you doin?” he protested at Garth, who rummaged through the man’s drawers.

“Ah hah!” Garth said triumphantly as he pulled out a black and blue kimono with crystalline electrodes.

“Nooo!” cried the man. “That’s the last bit ‘o her I got! I have to sell something! Please!” he waved his hands around uselessly. “Urrk!” he coughed all of the sudden.

Zap.

Damian had enough. A strong jolt to his side did the trick. The man spun around, trembling, and fell face-first onto his bed, passing out instantly. Worth it.

“Damian,” hissed Garth. “What did you do that for? We need him to tell us where Eamon Heath is!”

Oh. Damn.

Garth approached the bed to shake the man awake.

“No!” urged Damian. “Don’t touch him.”

“Eh?” Garth asked, glancing back. “What… the devil is that smell?” he glanced down. A soggy spot was forming under the man, dripping down the side of the bed. “Oh… gods!” gagged Garth.

Damian glanced at his hand. Huh. Interesting. And then… the realization of what he’d just done hit him. Ugggghhh. Gods indeed. He took the kimono from Garth, holding it lightly in his hands. Drawing it up to his face, he inhaled deeply.

Cherry blossoms.

Damian’s heart wept. Audra’s scent lingered within the fabric. A precious reminder. Laying it out on a table, he carefully folded it and stuck it under his apron. The light scent wafted up to his nose under his clothes, encouraging him.

“Now what?” Garth asked him.

Damian sighed, shaking his head. “I have no idea. I’ve got no way to track her!”

The door burst open. Jessamina pointed accusingly at him.

“What the HELL is going on up here!?” she shrieked. Gasping at the state of the flimflam man, she drew a breath to scream.

Someone else beat her to it.

Everyone stiffened.

It came from outside.

Forgetting about the man, all three of them bounded downstairs and joined a small mill of people outside. A crowd formed a semicircle around a body lying in the street. A woman. Sizzling as if burned. Someone knelt to her side to try and turn her over, and received a nasty jolt. He hissed in pain, carefully nudging her onto her back with the tip of his shoe.

Oh gods…

It was Mary Malone. Her body twisted in agony, and no life in her stricken eyes.

Garth glanced at Damian in horror.

Damian shook his head. “Wasn’t Audra,” he hissed quietly. “She would never…”

“AUUUUGHHH!!”

Damian and Garth stiffened again. Oh no. Another body? The crowd ran towards the sound. There, in an adjacent alley, lay Mary’s friend, Kino, a short girl with straight, brown hair, charred with sizzling power.

Someone sounded the town bell. The square filled with deputies and militia. At the front, stood Eamon Heath, waving for quiet. He handed a piece of parchment to the chief of the militia, who bellowed forth into the crowd.

“PEOPLE OF LOREN!” he cried. “A vile beast is loose in the town! Lord Eamon Heath has come to track it down! Have any of you seen it?” he held up the parchment.

The crude depiction of a Raiju.

The crowd shook their heads collectively, murmuring amongst themselves. The Operative said nothing, scanning the crowd with his eyes. His gaze locked on Damian and he pointed right at him.

Uh oh.

“DAMIAN MEDLOWE!” bellowed the chief. “Step forward!”

Damn! He had no choice. He stepped forward and two deputies grabbed him by the arms, hauling him up to the chief and the Operative. Eamon Heath took one look at him, reached into the apron, and pulled out the kimono.

“He’s the one,” he said calmly.

“Damian Medlowe, you’re under arrest for aiding and abetting in the murder of Mary Malone and Kino Hirano.”

No, no, no, this wasn’t happening! Wake up, damnit! Wake up!

“No!” cried Damian. “They were my friends!”

“Perhaps they were,” growled the chief. “Before that monster poisoned your mind. You’ve been in collusion with her for some time, now.”

“She wouldn’t do this!!”

“So, you admit to having sheltered her! In your own home!!”

The crowd gasped. Someone hurled an insult.

This was getting out of hand. Very quickly.

“Let me go!” struggled Damian. “I can explain!”

“Oh, you shall,” said the chief ominously. “Take him away!”

Damnit!

One of the deputies locked a shackle on his wrist. Made of metal. Perfect. He flexed his fist and released, sending a massive jolt into the man’s arm that sent him crumpling to the ground, trembling. A wet spot formed between his legs. Damian turned to the other deputy and spun his wrist, sending the other end of the shackle at him. The man caught it, and then received a jolt through it. He too fell to the ground, trembling.

Damian growled as the crowd cried in terror, backing away from him. The chief drew his sword, as did the other members of the militia. Idiots. Metal weapons. They were no threat.

The Operative.

He was the true threat. Damian wound up a jolt and rushed the man.

The Operative sighed, twirling a small crystalline device at him. He spoke only one word, “Sap.”

All at once, Damian’s strength left him. He stumbled forward, landing face first in the dirt, skidding up to the man’s polished boots. Try as he might, Damian couldn’t move. His body felt heavier than after a dozen pints of Artie’s swill.

“Take him away!” grunted the chief.

Something heavy struck the back of Damian’s head.

Blackness enveloped him.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian stood at the base of a mountain, overlooking a desert. A storm raged in the distance. Flashes of heat lightning. Audra? Could he make it? Oppressive heat baked his skin, cruelly robbing him of moisture as sand stung his nose and mouth. Pulling his shirt up and over his nose, he breathed through the cloth and began to trudge forward. He would reach Audra or die trying.

A rumbling sound gave him pause. Damian glanced back at the mountain. Boulders bounded down the cliffside. Rockslide! He faced them as they rolled, dodging from side to side, narrowly avoiding being crushed. Pebbles peppered his face as each one thundered past. A rather large one came bounding at him. Damian leapt out of the way, landing hard on his side. Another, smaller boulder chased its shadow. Smaller, but still deadly. It came right for his head. Nothing he could do.

“Aggh!” grunted Damian as a large rock struck his forehead. He jolted awake. Where? Oh. Nightmare. Except, another rock hit him on the top of his head. The hell? The bed creaked. Small, metal frame. Metal bars all around him.

Damn. He sat in a small jail cell. His ankle struggled with a shackle attached to the floor, but the long chain afforded him at least some room for movement. Another rock struck his shoulder. It came from the window. Damian climbed up onto the bed and grasped the bars, looking out.

Garth.

“About Gods damned time!” his friend hissed. “You’ve been out for hours!”

Hours? “What happened to me…?” Damian asked as loudly as he could. Ugh, he could barely stand. His hands trembled against the bars, shaking weakly.

“The Operative!” hissed Garth. “He used some kind of hocus-pocus on you, knocked you down! Then the chief clubbed you!”

Damned cowards. “Where…? Did you find Audra?”

Garth groaned, slapping his palm against his forehead. “Idiot! Worry about the girl later! They’re taking you away in the morning!”

“Where?”

“They wouldn’t tell me! Look, is there anything in there you can use to get out?”

Damian glanced back inside his room, his head spinning wearily. “No…” he said, turning back to Garth. “And that magic… it’s still… ugh, I can barely move.”

“All right,” sighed Garth. “Just… rest. I’ll try to think of something. Be back in an hour!”

Garth left.

Damian collapsed on his bed, sitting up against the stone wall. Lightly, he banged his head against the stone, wincing. “Gods… why…” he groaned. “Tease me with a slice of heaven… then… take her and my life away from me… The hell did I do to deserve this!?”

Damian slumped onto his side, unable to do anything but weep like a babe. It wasn’t just Audra. Mary Malone… and Kino… were dead. Sure, Mary was a bitch, and deserved a lashing or two, but not… not this. And Kino? Sweet. Sexy. Flirty Kino. Never. She never… Gods damnit! How could this happen!? WHY!?

Damian sobbed. But his subconscious refused to give in. Theories popped in and out of his conscious mind. Why? Why was the wrong question. How? That was a better question. Yes. Damian’s sobbing tapered off. How had Mary and Kino died? Audra’s magic didn’t hurt. It… did other things to the human body. Hell, Damian had tried to hurt the flimflam man with it. It merely had a similar effect on him as it had on Damian.

He never believed Audra to be behind the murders to begin with, but, all of the sudden, realization struck him in the gut.

She didn’t do it.

She couldn’t have done it. It was impossible.

How? Damnit, think! Who else had the mag—oh. Ohh…

The Operative.

Hot anger burned into Damian’s face. He lacked the strength to sit back up, but he could certainly simmer well enough. That monster. That beast! He’d killed two helpless girls to get to Damian!

Mmph.

Eh? What was that? Something tickled his ankle.

There it was again! Felt like…

A shock.

A shock!

Frantically, Damian grasped the chain holding his shackle to the floor and sent the last of his energy through it. He hoped it was enough. A powerful jolt returned in response.

“Agh!” he gasped as pure pleasure seared through his body. His manhood twitched, but remained limp inside his linen pants. Holding on for dear life, he received several more. Each one injected new strength into his body, as well as fresh hope. Audra was alive! They hadn’t killed her!

“Audra!” he hissed, gripping the chain. “I love you!”

Several more shocks infused his body. He returned two small ones to her, the only way he knew how to say, “Thank you.” She replied by sending him more energy. Damian stood, dragging the chain with him as he approached the cell door. A standard iron latch lock held it closed. Holding his hand over it, he felt the sparks in his hand draw the latch up with magnetism. The door creaked open. That sure was a neat trick. He left the door ajar and crept back to the place in the floor that held the chain. Audra kept sending him energy, but he had no way to speak with her. Frustration choked his voice.

He had to chance it. Damian took hold of the chain and pulled, giving it an almighty tug. Audra’s infusion of strength gave him what he needed to rip the links apart, but just barely. The instant he severed his connection with her, his strength left him, and he fell to the ground in a shower of metal. Weakly reaching over with his foot, he connected with the floor plate, and felt Audra’s touch again. Fresh strength filled him. He held there for a minute, recharging his stamina. Gathering up the half of the chain still attached to his leg, Damian sent one last spark down into the plate to try and tell Audra he was leaving, and snuck out.

Guards.

Guards sat at a table in the next room, playing cards. Damn. No way to sneak past them. And, to make matters worse, Damian’s strength was fading fast. He stepped back into the shadows and paused to think. Audra… where could she have been? Metal conducted her power. So, she had to have some kind of metal linked directly to her touch. He didn’t think the floor plate was connected to anything on this level.

The basement.

Of course! And it was close by. He could sneak down there without being seen, as a pile of kegs stood between that door and the men. Damian crept carefully towards it.

One of the men stood up.

Damn!

Damian froze. The man approached. He knelt next to the kegs. A tap squeaked, and the sound of liquid pouring reached Damian’s ears. He dared not even breathe. The man filled his tankard and headed back over to the table. Ugh. That was too close. Damian eased open the door and snuck down into the basement.

He scarcely made it to the basement level before a bundle of dusty cloth, fur, and cherry blossoms tackled him.

“Damian!!” cried Audra, devouring his mouth with her lips. They tumbled away from the stairs, rolling around in the dirt, the ankle chain wrapping around her legs.

“Audra!” gasped Damian, embracing her with every ounce of strength he had in his weary bones. Her mouth was everywhere. His face. His neck. His chest, as she ripped his shirt open. Crackles of power sizzled hungrily from her fingertips as she caressed every inch of him that she could reach. “How… how did you…?” he tried to say.

Audra paused and glanced up at the moist ceiling. “I… didn’t think that would really work,” she admitted, her face flushed scarlet and her eyes glowing with desire as she smiled back down at him.

“But, you…”

Audra cupped his face in her hands. She shook her head. “No. I can’t… I need you! I felt like I was going to die without you!” she cried softly, pulling open her kimono and insinuating herself into him.

Damian wholeheartedly agreed. Sex now. Explanations later. He eased her up a little, so he could pull his torn shirt off, and then relieved her of her kimono. She lunged at him, thrusting her tongue deeply inside. Very deeply. Good gods! How long was it? He could feel it in his throat! The entire thing arched and pulsed in his mouth, crackling with power. Her hands skirted down his back.

Suddenly, she stopped, hissing in pain. Pulling away from their kiss, she nursed her trembling hand.

“Audra?” Damian begged the question at the hurt in her eyes.

“What…” she gasped, “Was that?

Damian opened his mouth to speak, but his wife climbed up off of him and gently guided him to sit up. She traced something around his lower back, hissing softly as she did so. Damian twisted his body as best he could to find the cause.

Gods!

An ugly black sigil had been etched into his lower back, right over his left kidney. He poked it, gasping as a great deal of Audra’s power left his body. Unable to remain sitting up, he fell backwards. Thankfully, Audra’s soft hands caught him, infusing him with more power.

“Ugh, that damn Operative,” groaned Damian, gazing up at his wife. She smiled sadly down at him between her breasts. Damian reached up for her, and she leaned down, touching her lips to his with her sexy little upside-down kiss. Ahh. Cherry blossoms. Her skin smelled so sweet. Her soft breasts rested against his head, and the fluffy muff around her neck tickled his nose. He gently cupped one breast, squeezing. Her skin sizzled with energy as he excited her. Slowly, she eased him down flat on the floor with her crumpled kimono to pillow his head against the rough ground. She crawled down his body, upside down, trailing her way down with her tongue.

“Shh,” she sighed, skimming her hands across his abdominal muscles and catching the hem of his pants. “Let me love you…”

Damian couldn’t have resisted her if he wanted to. He was simply too weak. She tugged his pants, lacking the patience to fully remove them, and settled for leaving them down on his thighs. His erection rose before her. She lightly curled her delicate fingers around it.

“Au…dra…” shuddered Damian. Her light, gentle touches carried dozens of little shocks, stirring up the seed within him. Gods, he needed this. Her lips descended, feathering the tip of him with liquid silk. Her lithe tongue slipped between her lips and coiled around the head of him, slowly moving down as her lips enveloped it.

Damian forced his eyes to open. She was taking him upside-down, lowering her torso and resting her breasts against his stomach. He reached to grasp them when a droplet of her honey fell from between her legs onto his face. The pure pleasure she injected into him with her mouth momentarily escaped him as he glanced up. His precious wife’s most treasured fruit hovered directly above him, framed by two luscious thighs straddling his head. He reached up for them, grasping the firm skin, and tugging her down.

Audra shifted her position without much resistance, all her concentration focused on his manhood. Slowly, she managed to tilt her head and grant him entry to her throat as she lowered completely upon him. Hot breath puffed from her nose onto his balls, sending tingling pleasure through them. She held this position for several seconds, torturing him with her breathing.

But Damian was about to turn the tables on her.

Finally, after slowly tugging on her thighs, Damian managed to bring her down low enough. Opening his mouth, he unsheathed his tongue and skimmed the length of her moist slit.

Audra sucked in a breath. She tried to speak, but had her mouth rather full at the moment. All she could manage was, “Mmmmmnnn…” She released some honey for her husband.

Damian gasped at the taste. Gods… above… So sweet… with a touch of pure power. Her sexual energy. This was the source. The basest level of her elemental soul. More… yes. More… He drove his tongue inside. Her sweetness and energy enveloped his tongue, her walls constricting around it. Her body shook, shuddering against the sensation as she moaned softly. Her voice vibrated her mouth around his manhood, affording him even deeper pleasure as she began bobbing her head slowly upon him. The sensation of her doing so upside-down added a new level of intrigue.

The harder and tighter Damian got, the more he craved the taste of Audra’s honey. To his delight, the more he craved, the more she gave. It trickled and oozed all over his mouth, dripping across his cheeks and onto his neck. Yes… YES. Bathe me in it. Cover me in it, like I have done for you.

In response, Audra’s body trembled, and a burst of it fell upon him. Her body trembled. Did she come? Had she found orgasm that easily? No. He wasn’t going to be that easy on her. No way in hell. He needed her far too badly. His whole body screamed for more. He barely noticed seed swirling inside him, getting ready to release into her mouth.

More!

Damian licked her and thrusted her with his tongue relentlessly. His wife shook against his hunger, forcing him to hold her thigh steady with one arm entwined around it, while he stimulated her clitoris with his free hand. Yes… so much… she oozed so much… His stomach growled, demanding more. Her sex clenched around his tongue, trembling, building tension. She was close… So close…

Seed swirled up inside Damian’s manhood, traveling up the base. His erection seized up. Yes… this was it… Open wide, sweetling.

With a grunt, Damian burst inside his wife’s throat. She stilled her bobbing, swallowing as quickly as she could, slowly curling down upon him and opening her throat. The river of seed forced her throat open, traveling straight inside her with no effort required on her part.

The moment this happened, Audra came.

Her body went limp, twitching. Her heart beat so strongly, Damian briefly worried it might burst from her chest! He clamped his lips down upon her sex, enveloping it completely. The gush of honey nearly took him by surprise, but lapped and swallowed everything she gave him. It kept coming, and coming… just like he kept pumping more and more into her mouth. Opening his throat, Damian did as she did. Her honey opened his throat and made its way inside him without any further effort. He relaxed into her care, drinking and giving. His mind numbed, awash in the love of his wife.

Damian lost all track of time. How long had he laid there, releasing and feeding? He opened his eyes to find Audra smiling down upon him, resting on his chest, inhaling his breaths. “Audra…” he said softly.

She kissed him, just a touch. “I missed you…”

Smiling at her, Damian reached up to stroke her cheek. “Now you’re my savior.”

Surprisingly, Audra’s smile faded. “I… I’m sorry…”

Damian cupped her other cheek with his left hand, stroking her face gently with his thumb. “Why, sweetling?”

“Because…” tears welled up in her eyes. “I couldn’t stop him… I couldn’t stop that man… he… he…” she sobbed, collapsing onto Damian’s chest.

“He’s the one who killed those girls, wasn’t he?” Damian asked her gently as he stroked her head.

Audra nodded against his chest. “I couldn’t do anything!” she sobbed. “I didn’t know how to stop him… and I couldn’t reach you!”

Damian held his wife’s shaking body, caressing her bare back with one hand and her head with his other. “Did you have to flee the house?”

Audra nodded, sniffling. “I wasn’t about to let them catch me. They said something about putting a ward on the house to… um…”

“They wanted to know if you came back,” Damian finished for her. She glanced up at him and nodded.

“Yes. I couldn’t go back, so I followed them while looking for you. I couldn’t find you anywhere!” she cried, clutching his shoulders tightly. “But then… it… it got worse… I felt crackles of power. Not mine. I watched… as… as…”

She couldn’t finish. Damian shifted her a bit, so he could kiss her. That seemed to calm her down, and then some. She gently grinded her naked body against him, stirring his manhood against her thigh. For once, though, she ignored it.

“His power is different,” Audra remarked sadly. “It hurts. It kills. Like the fire from the sky. Not like mine. He killed two girls…”

“I know, sweetling,” Damian said, kissing her cheek.

“Why?” she asked tearfully.

“Because of me,” Damian replied bitterly. “I used to spend time with those girls. It’s… his way of setting me up for a crime I didn’t commit. And neither did you. Audra…” he cupped her face, forcing her to meet his gaze. “You are not responsible for what happened to them. Only he is.”

Audra couldn’t reply. She sniffled.

“We need to get out of here, sweetling.”

She nodded. “Yes…” she sighed, rising slowly and helping Damian up. Damian gathered her kimono on the way up and turned her around, easing it back onto her. Dirt clung to it on all sides. She retied the obi as Damian pulled up his pants and put on the shirt. Ripped down the middle, it left his chest bare, but still hung on.

“Let’s get this awful thing off of you,” Audra suggested, grabbing on to the shackle around Damian’s foot. She yanked on the chain, hard. Nearly pulled Damian’s feet out from under him. “Hmm…” Audra hummed as she pondered the situation.

“Audra, I can—”

“No, please let me?” she offered. She sent a focused stream of her energy into the shackle. The metal began to heat, filling the room with a biting scent.

“Audra… that burns!” grunted Damian.

“Almost!” hissed Audra as she pulled. Her tail twitched with the effort. Gasping, she shook her head, gazing up at him sadly. “I… I can’t…”

Damian got an idea. He knelt down, jiggled the shackle, and used some energy to shift the lock around. Carefully, he pulled it open and dropped it on the ground, rubbing his sore ankle.

“How…?” Audra tilted her head, poking the fallen shackle with her finger.

“You loosened it up for me,” said Damian with a wink. Audra peered dubiously at him. He shrugged. “How did you get in here, anyway?”

Audra beckoned to a corner of the room. Damian spied a hole in the wall, big enough for a person. “I wasn’t about to let a little dirt stop me from getting to you,” she said with firm determination. “Follow me,” she called back as she slipped inside. That explained the dirt on her garment…

Damian marveled at it. She’d dug this with her bare hands? Sure, recent rains had softened the soil, but Gods above… Well, she was a weasel, after all. Sneaky little thing. He grinned. He found several side tunnels she’d dug while trying to find an opening in the foundation. His wife’s dedication to him simply amazed him.

Scrambling out of the hole, Damian found himself outside the small prison. He turned to Audra and tried dusting her off, but her frantic pace had rubbed dirt and ripped holes in the once-beautiful kimono. Couldn’t be helped.

“We have to get out of town,” Damian told Audra.

She nodded. “Yes, but where would we go?”

Damian tucked her chin up gently. “Audra… do you know where Dart town is?”

His wife stiffened. “You said… you wouldn’t…”

“I’m sorry, Audra,” he said softly. “You know I would never hurt you. But you have to realize. These people aren’t going to stop. We know too much already. I won’t press you on this, but if you have any idea where that vile place is…”

Audra shook her head, shivering in the chilly night air. Damian gathered her up in his arms and held her. “Then we’ll just leave, head to Varna, perhaps. Maybe someone there knows something.”

“What do you plan to do?” Audra’s muffled voice asked from inside his shirt.

“Find them. Stop them.” Determination braced Damian’s voice. “This ends. Now.”

Audra gazed up at him, her husband, her eyes shining in awe. Standing up on the balls of her feet, she gently brushed his lips with a kiss. “If it were possible for me to love you even more…”

Damian buried his hands in Audra’s soft hair, inhaling deeply of her sweet scent. Oh, how he wished he could hold her in his arms forever. But they had to move. Taking her hand in his, he led her away into the alleys. Audra tugged on his sleeve.

“Where are we going?” she asked softly.

“I need to get some new clothes,” Damian told her. “And you need something new, also. I’m afraid you wrecked that kimono while digging that tunnel.”

Audra inspected herself, sighing. “It was so beautiful…”

“I wish we could get that Raiju kimono back,” murmured Damian. “Damned Operative took it from me.”

If Audra meant to ask about it, Damian didn’t know. She remained silent as he led her to the back of a shop. Carefully, he waved his hand over the lock, sending sparks into it. The door unlocked and opened.

Audra gasped softly. “Ohh… how did you do that?”

“Learned a little while ago that these sparks attract metal objects,” Damian explained as they slipped inside. “I can use them to unlock doors and other things with metal locks.”

“So that’s how you got that shackle off,” Audra remarked with a glare. “You better teach me that trick.”

Damian grinned, patting her head. “Maybe later.”

Audra gasped as they stepped inside the darkened store. “Ohh wow!” she squealed. “So many mmmmmph—”

Damian clapped a hand over her mouth. “Shhh… The proprietress lives here and might hear you. I don’t want her getting mixed up in this…”

“Too late,” growled a woman’s voice, somehow managing to sound menacing despite her youthfulness. The shopkeep stood at the top of the stairs, a lantern in one hand, and a shawl around her shoulders in the other. “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing in here?”

“Calm down, Jill, it’s Damian,” he sighed. “I need your help.”

Jill did indeed calm down, but only slightly. She descended the stairs from her second-floor residence and strode right up to him, holding the lantern high. “Damian?” she prompted. “What are you doing in here?” She glanced at Audra and took a step back. “And who is that? And why are you so filthy?”

Damian sighed. “One question at a time… Jill, this is Audra,” he told her, gently rubbing the back of Audra’s head. Her fluffy ears flicked nervously, and she held her tail still by clasping her hands behind her back.

“This is her?” Jill motioned to the girl. “This is the person you… ohhh…” she gasped softly. “She’s so pretty!”

Audra gulped. “You’re… you’re not afraid of me?”

“Afraid?” Jill smiled. “How could anyone so pretty be dangerous?”

Audra blushed. Damian chuckled at both of them. “You’d be surprised.”

His wife gaped at him, promptly socking him in the arm.

“Ow…”

“We don’t get many mamono customers here,” Jill remarked. “Though, I have a feeling you two were about to rob me.”

Damian winced, rubbing the back of his head as he blushed. “Uh… Yeah. Sorry about that. We’re in a bit of trouble, here.”

“I figured as much,” shrugged Jill, her eyes appraising their appearance. “I saw what happened earlier. I don’t believe for a second you were behind those murders. Either of you.”

Audra bit her lower lip, tears welling up. “Thank you…”

“So, what do you need?” asked Jill.

“Fresh set of clothes for myself and Audra,” said Damian. “And I’m sorry, but I have nothing to pay you with.”

“I noticed,” Jill remarked, pointing out his prison clothes.

“We have to flee town,” he told her. “You know where my house is? Once we’re gone and everything dies down, you can go in and take whatever you want.”

“That’s very generous,” replied Jill, but she shook her head. “However. I expect you to come back. And bring more folks from Zipangu.” She smiled at Audra. “I still have your measurements, Audra. I think I have one more kimono, but please take care of this one.”

Jill led Audra to the Zipangu corner and removed a gorgeous, full-length kimono from one of the racks. Audra gasped as the woman handed it to her. “Ohh… a black lotus kimono. I… I can’t just take this…”

“If you promise to come back and bring me more customers, then yes, I want you to have it.” Jill smiled at her. “Oh… you have a tail… it’s so cute!”

Audra produced an embarrassed, “Yipe!” as Jill reached for her tail.

“It’s… it’s so soft…” the girl sighed, stroking Audra’s tail. “I hope you don’t mind…”

“Umm…” gulped Audra as her face began to flush. “No… that’s all right…”

“I always wanted to adopt an animal with a big, bushy tail like this,” Jill sighed as she stroked it. “I thought it would be wiry and scratchy, but this is soft. So soft… like rabbit or mink.”

Damian observed them at a distance. He took a breath to warn Jill off, but found the sight of the two of them mesmerizing. He remained silent.

“Um, Jill,” Audra said softly as she began untying her obi. “Could you help me into this?” she asked, handing the girl the new kimono.

“I-I suppose?” Jill nodded. Audra pulled apart the cherry blossom kimono and let it melt from her body to the floor. She gently nudged aside with her furry foot and held out her arms for Jill. “Oh Audra,” she sighed, her eyes sweeping up and down the Raiju’s body. “I almost wondered if Damian had exaggerated, but he hadn’t. You’re perfect…

Audra blushed at the praise, her skin tingling as Jill’s slim fingers slid the cool, smooth garment onto her body. With the ease and grace of an expert, Jill guided the kimono into place, pausing before wrapping it around Audra. She glanced behind the girl.

“There’s no opening for your tail,” Jill remarked. “Would you like me to adjust it for you?”

“No, that’s all right,” Audra shook her head. “I need to hide it for now.” She smiled warmly at Jill as the girl slid around in front to settle everything in place. Damian noticed her eyes lingering on Audra’s bare skin, and suppressed a chuckle.

“It’s a shame you can’t stay,” Jill sighed, slipping the obi around Audra’s slim waist. “I would love to parade you around town with this.” She smiled as she stood up to eye level with her. “You’re so… beautiful…” she breathed softly, her fingertips brushing Audra’s cheeks.

“Jill…” murmured Audra, her hand rising up to meet the girl’s.

“Oww!” gasped Jill as she received a rather powerful shock from Audra’s face. “Ohh…” she stammered, falling back against one of the racks. “Mmmm…” Jill blushed scarlet, sinking down onto her haunches and passing out.

“Oops…” moaned Audra.

“Audra!” gasped Damian, springing to action. “What happened?”

“I zapped her…” Audra sighed ruefully. Jill laid on her side, a silly smile on her face, her cheeks blushed scarlet. One hand rested between her legs. “Will she be all right?”

“Ugh,” groaned Damian. “I don’t know.” He knelt down to inspect the girl. Sure enough, a damp spot had formed where her hand rested. “It looks like you made her climax.”

“Is… is that bad?” Audra nibbled her lip.

“Possibly,” Damian sighed, gathering the girl up into his arms. “I’ll take her back up to her room,” he said, but Audra followed him anyway. Jill lived in a modest apartment, much the same as Damian’s, but it contained much more… flowers? Roses, lilies, daisies, and others he couldn’t identify sat in vases scattered all through the rooms, lending the home a sweet scent. Reminded him of Audra. He laid Jill down on her bed and tucked her in. Turning to leave, he nearly toppled into his wife, who stood directly behind him.

“She looks so content,” sighed Audra, reaching for her.

“No, no, Audra,” Damian grasped her wrist. “I think you’ve done enough.”

“Ack!”  Audra cried, realizing what she was doing. “Please tell me she’ll be fine…”

“I don’t know,” Damian admitted. “From the first shock I got from you, I was never the same. But, you’re married now. Hopefully it won’t have the same effect. Hopefully.”

Audra nodded. “I’m sorry…”

Damian led her back downstairs. “Don’t worry about it. You didn’t hurt her.”

“I know, it’s just…” Audra sighed. “What are you doing?” she asked as Damian began trying on clothes.

“Can’t wait for her to wake up,” Damian said, selecting a leather shirt and matching black pants. He was in the middle of pulling on a pair of boots when he felt Audra’s hand on his shoulder. She nuzzled against him gently, her lips brushing his neck. The contact injected sizzling lust into his body. He swallowed, attempting to suppress it. As much as he wished to embrace her in that gorgeous kimono, they didn’t have time to…

“I’m scared, Damian,” Audra murmured. “I’m scared they’re going to take me away from you…”

Damian finished putting on the boots and turned, gathering up Audra into his lap. He guided her head against his shoulder, gently rubbing behind her ears. “They’ll certainly try,” he warned her. No sense sugarcoating this. They were in for a serious trial. “I’ll do everything in my power to keep us together,” he promised her. “But if they do manage to separate us, focus on your love for me. It’ll keep you strong.”

“But that awful mark on your back…” moaned Audra, nuzzling his neck. “If they take me away from you… you’ll… you’ll…” she trembled, crying softly.

“If they do that, they’ll have to contend with a very angry Raiju,” Damian murmured. Audra pushed up from him and smiled, her eyes narrowing with determination. “Just, control yourself around that Operative. He’s ready for you. The rest of them aren’t.”

Audra nodded.

“Let’s go,” Damian said, helping her up. They left through the back door. Damian magicked it locked again and they retreated into the dark alleyways. Unfortunately, they didn’t get far before Audra’s ears twitched nervously. “What is it?” her husband asked her, his eyes filled with concern.

“I hear a struggle,” Audra told him. Her ears flicked forward, sideways, and back, trying to find the source of the sound.

“I don’t hear it,” Damian said, but Audra hushed him. Her ears flicked left.

“That way,” she said, pointing down one of the side passages. She paused to listen. Then, she gasped. “It’s Garth!”

Damian sucked in a breath. His wife took his hand and they took off down the alley. Skidding around a corner, and running full tilt down another alley, they stumbled upon two guards having set upon Garth, pinning him to the wall.

“I’m telling you!” he grumbled, pressed against the wall. “I had nothing to do with it! I have no idea how he escaped!”

“Where is the monster!?” hissed one of the men, punching Garth in the side.

“I don’t know!”

Audra tapped Damian’s arm gently. “Let me handle this,” she offered, kissing him briefly. In that moment, Damian felt power trickling across his wife’s skin. She stepped into the open, and Garth noticed her immediately.

“Uhh…” grunted Garth. “You guys might wanna turn around…”

“As if we’d fall for that,” spat the other. “You’re going to tell us, or you’re going to tell Heath. It just depends how much pain you’d like to suffer first.”

Audra approached, her fists uncurling into clawed fingers as power crackled in her hands.

“I’m… ufff!” choked Garth as one of the men punched him. “I’m telling you! She’s behind you!”

“Think Heath would be pissed if we just killed him?” asked the first.

“Oh, he’ll talk before it comes to that,” said the other. “Just don’t kill him until he talks.”

Audra paused, having finished gathering power. “You really should have listened to him,” she said cooly.

The two guards glanced at each other and then back at her. They gasped, drawing their swords. Audra thrust her hands forward, unleashing arcs of power into the blades. The swords greedily captured her energy, sending it into the men, who trembled and convulsed as raw Raiju power rendered their bodies helpless. They collapsed to the ground, their faces twisted with enrapt ecstasy.

“Mmmmm…” Audra moaned sensually, licking her fingers, which still crackled with her charge.

“Garth,” Damian said, resting a hand on Audra’s shoulder to steady her. “What are you doing?”

Garth sucked in a breath, his face paled by Audra’s display of power. “Uh… I was… uh… trying to rescue you.”

Audra giggled at him. She sure wasn’t helping.

“Garth, we’re leaving town,” Damian told him. “Let’s go.”

“Best idea I’ve heard all week,” his friend muttered, eyeing Audra warily as he stepped over the pair of bodies beside him.

Damian took Audra’s hand, a little concerned at the ferocious glint in her eye, but she smiled at him and snuggled into his arm. She winked at Garth, who paled a little more. Damian noticed and groaned wearily at them. “Come on,” he urged, leading them out of town. They kept to the shadows, following back alleys, even though it led them behind the factory and the dirtiest part of town. Damian’s eyes watered at the biting stench, but Audra did not seem to mind. She kept her eyes forward, focusing on their task.

Other than the factory itself, the rest of Loren had fallen into a state of disrepair. Whoever was in charge of managing the town seemed to care only for the profits gained from equipment Loren sold. Most of the time, Damian bemoaned the state of the town, but not tonight. It would not be difficult for them to find a suitable hole in the town wall to climb through.

Sure enough, Audra spotted one and led them through. The edge of Varna Plateau sloped upwards in front of them. The three of them began ascending the steep hill, using brush and trees for cover.

They almost scaled it to the top, when Audra suddenly stiffened, gasping as she let go of Damian to reach for her throat. She choked, gasping for breath.

“Audra!” hissed Damian, turning to her.

For an instant, Damian and Audra gazed at each other in panic. That instant seemed to last forever. Damian reached for her as she teetered backwards. Audra flailed in shock. One hand cradled her throat, and her other reached for him. Their fingertips touched.

And then, Audra fell.

Tumbling down the hillside, Audra slid and rolled until she skidded to a halt amidst a group of soldiers. The Operative stood in the middle.

“AUDRAAAAA!!” screamed Damian.

Garth grabbed his arm and pulled him aside as a blast of magic sizzled through the air, right where he’d been a second ago. “No, Damian!” he cried. “They’ll catch you too!”

Damian wrestled his way out of Garth’s grip and clung to a large tree, peering down as the soldiers bound Audra and carried her off. None of them attempted to scale the hill. They took Audra to a caravan that was making its way out of town. He stood there for what felt like hours, his heart aching as the caravan pulled up the path and out of sight.

“Audra…” Damian trembled, the bark of the tree crumbling around his fingers.

“We’ll find her, buddy,” Garth patted his shoulder. “We’ll find her. They’ll have to go through Varna if they’re heading that way. We can cut across country easily enough. Should be able to head them off.”

“You don’t understand…” Damian groaned. “It’s worse, now. They did something to me. I’ve got this thing on my back that saps my power. I’m fine with Audra beside me, but without her…”

“Conserve your strength, then,” suggested Garth. “Don’t do anything superhuman. We’ll head to Varna and…” Garth trailed off. Damian was already slumping to the ground.

“Can’t… I can’t… I’m so… so dizzy…” Damian coughed.

“Damn,” cursed Garth. “All right, just stay there. I’m going to round up a couple horses.”

“Jill…”

“Huh?”

“Find… Jill…”

Damian passed out.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Wind howled around Damian. Dusty wind. Ugh. This damned desert again. He looked around. Mountain was gone. He stood upon a shifting sand dune in the middle of nowhere. His feet slowly sunk into the loose granules. As before, a storm raged in the distance, rapidly receding from him. The sun rose slowly behind him, bringing with it baking heat that seared into his backside.

Damian stumbled forward, tumbling down the side of the dune in the general direction of the storm. When he reached the bottom, he found he could no longer see even the barest hint of a cloud. No matter. Digging his feet into the base of the next dune, he began to slowly ascend. Half of each step sank, absorbed by the fickle nature of the dune. About a third of the way up, Damian felt the sun on his back. Pushing it to the back of his mind, he continued, sweat pouring from him as the sun seared into him relentlessly.

At last, he reached the top. Thousands more stretched out in front of him, swaying and rippling in the morning heat. They taunted him. Teased him, as the storm continued to drift away from him. As Damian debated on what to do, the ground shook beneath him. The dune smoothed out, taking him with it. He tumbled into the shifting sands, his heavier form sinking quickly into oblivion.

Gasping, Damian woke to find himself strapped to the back of a horse. He coughed and sputtered, struggling against a tangle of leather straps. “Jill!” he heard Garth shout. “He’s awake!”

The shaking slowed as Jill and Garth rode off the path towards the thicket. The two of them dismounted and untied Damian, who slid roughly to his feet.

“Urkk…” Damian coughed, retching onto the ground next to the horse.

“This was the spell you were talking about?” Jill asked, patting Damian on the shoulder. Damian glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She looked… different, somehow. She always smiled at customers with an air of cheerfulness and innocence. Now, though, a hint of mischief crept into her gaze.

“It’s much worse, now,” Garth admitted. “Something happened to him at the prison.”

“Op…” grunted Damian. “Operative…” he tried to say, lifting up his shirt.

Jill gasped as she inspected the marque. “Garth,” she hissed, “Look at this!”

Garth cursed the moment he laid eyes on it. “Seven hells! What are we going to do about this?”

“Just… don’t touch it…” Damian groaned, wiping bile off his mouth as he stood up unsteadily. “Where are we?”

“About an hour from Varna,” said Garth. “Though we’ll arrive sooner if you can ride properly.”

“You can ride with me, if so,” Jill offered. She stepped up to him with a strip of jerky. “Here. You might feel better if you eat something.”

“Don’t even want to think about food right now,” groaned Damian.

“Please try it?” Jill urged him, the glint in her light brown eyes achingly familiar. Damian reluctantly took the meat and chewed it. Surprisingly, his stomach settled and began growling, attacking the meat. He asked her for another piece. “Sure!” she smiled brightly, handing it to him.

“Good,” Garth sighed with relief. “Get your strength up a bit and let’s head off.”

Damian nodded and finished it off quickly. “Let’s go,” he said, mounting Jill’s horse and then helping her up onto it. She sat in front of him, as he did not yet trust himself to steer straight. The ride went rather uneventfully and achingly slowly, even after their pace increased. Jill did not say much, but her presence felt oddly comforting.

Besides the aching loss of Audra’s presence, Damian appreciated the chance to get to know Jill. She’d caught his eye in the past, but never truly interested him before. He preferred the salacious type, and Mary Malone provided that in endless excess. Every man in town wanted Mary, and every minute Damian spent with her swelled his ego all the more. Even better when her friends joined in, and sometimes at the same time.

It wasn’t as if he disliked Jill. He just felt that women like her were too fragile. But the Jill in front of him now surprised him. She’d tied her shoulder-length, brown hair into a tight braid wound against the back of her head. Dressed for a journey, she wore a tight, tawny leather jacket that hugged her figure, with a pair of black, leather pants, also rather form-fitting, but sturdy and good for riding. Hmm. Interesting. She was far more attractive dressed like this than the loose dresses she wore around the store. At least, to him anyway.

Sitting this close to her, Damian realized her face wasn’t chubby like he initially thought, but heart-shaped. Cute, slightly puffy cheeks. That glimmer sparkled in her light-brown eyes. Damian swore it hadn’t been there before.

“Jill, where did you get these horses?” he asked.

“Um…” Jill hesitated. “We kind of stole them.”

“You stole them?”

“Garth said that Operative took Audra!” Jill protested, glancing back at him. She nearly slipped off, and would have, had Damian not gripped her waist firmly. The contact brought a slight blush to her cheeks.

“He did,” Damian said through clenched teeth. “He shot her in the back… Took her right out of my hands…”

“That’s…” squirmed Jill, “That’s awful… Mmmph… Damian…”

“What?”

“You’re… you’re squeezing me too tightly…”

“Sorry,” Damian replied, letting go of her waist.

“No, no, it’s all right,” Jill said a little too quickly. “You can hold me, just don’t crush me. I’m delicate!”

Ugh. Maybe she was fragile after all. She giggled softly as his hands went back on her waist, making him regret doing so.

“Jill…” he started to say.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she waved him off. “I know you’re into Audra. It’s fine. I won’t interfere.”

“I’m not just into her,” Damian told her. “She’s my wife.”

Jill gasped, glancing back at him, forcing him to grip her waist a little tighter to steady her. “Your wife? Goodness. That was sudden.”

Damian shrugged with a chuckle. “It often is with mamono. Or yokai, as the case may be.”

“Huh,” chirped Jill. “I wondered why you looked different. What I said still stands, though. I won’t try and get between you.” She turned again, softening her voice. “Your friend, though… Is he seeing anyone?”

“Garth?” murmured Damian. “No, I don’t believe so, though I’m not sure you’re his type.”

“Oh,” Jill sighed, turning back around.

Damian leaned into her and whispered into her ear, “That was before we knew you were a horse thief, though…”

Jill giggled, a warm, comforting sound. “I simply can’t believe I’m doing this,” she admitted. “I scarcely know you, or your wife. What’s gotten into me?”

“You have my gratitude,” Damian told her, squeezing her waist gently. “Without your help, and Garth’s, I would probably never see her again.”

“We’ll find her,” Jill promised, glancing back at him with a smile. “Oh look!” she called so Garth could hear. “I can see Varna!”

Damian gazed over Jill’s brown hair to catch rays of the early morning sunrise over the town of Varna. Quite larger than Loren, Varna specialized in agriculture, having been built upon a fertile plateau with rich soil and frequent rains. Loren often produced steam powered engines Varna needed to run their tillers, harvesters, and other businesses. The two towns enjoyed brisk trade relations as a result.

While no massive factories or smokestacks loomed along Varna’s skyline, farms and wide-open fields dotted the landscape, with homes, greeneries, mills, textile manufacturers, and dozens of other businesses swelling its population. The fresh air, sweetened by crops nearing harvesttime was a more than welcome change from Loren’s morning special.

Garth rode up beside them. “Hopefully they passed through here during the night. Maybe somebody saw something.”

“They had to have,” said Jill. “There are no crossings until after intersecting the plateau, which is right in the middle of town. Unless they took a route not normally part of the road.”

“You’ve been here before?” Damian asked Jill.

“Yes, many times,” she nodded. “I drop off some of my outfits here for friends to sell. We can visit them and collect the money they made. It should help us when gathering information.”

“Now you see why I asked you to find her?” Damian said to Garth as he patted Jill on the shoulder.

Garth muttered something Damian couldn’t make out. Odd. Was that jealousy in his eyes? Damian nudged Jill and they made their way into town.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Jill!” cried the umpteenth shopkeep they’d been to this morning. Jill urged Damian to be patient, but every minute that passed by without Audra added yet another nail to the coffin of his soul. It was almost noon, and while Jill managed to accrue a tidy sum from her clothing sales, they’d yet to find anyone able, or willing, to speak about the caravan.

Every time they started to make some headway, the person speaking to them clammed up, shoved the money back in their faces, and bade them a terse farewell. Gods above. These people lived in constant fear of whatever was going on. Damian gritted his teeth. He would get to the bottom of this, or die trying.

Jill sighed. “Thanks anyways, Annette. I’ll be back in a few weeks to trade!”

The dark-haired girl waved goodbye and turned back to her wares. Jill jogged up to Damian. “Eight gold pieces, and twice as many silvers!” she whispered to him excitedly, jingling the coins in front of him. “That brings us up to over thirty gold. Someone’s bound to talk soon…”

“What makes you so sure?” Damian asked dejectedly.

Jill winked, a coy glint in her eyes. “Everyone has a price. Everyone. The trick is to find it. Sometimes, it’s not money.”

Once again, Jill surprised him. The sweet and innocent seamstress, she was not. Jill’s dark, mercantile streak showed itself when least expected, tempting men and women out of their comfort zones, and the contents of their wallets into her hands. No wonder her shop was so successful. She led him out with a confident smile and they headed to an inn where they’d agreed to meet Garth for lunch. Damian glanced up at the lanyard swinging above the wide door.

 

Sheep’s Clothing Inn

 

Above the looping lettering, a wolf’s head loomed. Clever. They stepped inside and were swallowed instantly into an atmosphere of warmth, lively conversation, and… ale. If only Damian’s hollow soul felt like drinking. It smelled heavenly. Jill waved to someone. Several men watched her go by, glancing nervously away at the sight of Damian. Hmm. They assumed the two of them were “together.” Well, whatever. If it kept Jill safe, he didn’t mind. She strutted up to the bar and beckoned to Damian.

“A pint for myself and my friend,” Jill requested. She laid out some money on the bar. Damian made to protest, but Jill gripped his wrist with surprising strength. She shook her head, whispering, “Drink. Everyone is watching us. Blend in.”

Yet again, she surprised him. When the tankards hit the bar, he and Jill toasted each other and tipped their mugs. Warm, frothy ale touched Damian’s lips. Hmm. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea. The golden liquid burning its way down his throat beat anything served in Loren. He took another swig. Yes. He could do this. For Audra.

One by one, pairs of eyes turned away from him and the girl sitting beside him. They were just another fresh couple, starting the second half of the day right. Nothing to see here. Something new stumbled into the commons. Conversations died down somewhat as eyes fell upon him.

Garth.

Looked like someone decided to rough him up a bit.

“I’ve got this,” Jill announced, setting down her mug and approaching the man. Garth reached out to her, but she coiled back and slapped him. Hard. “Where’s my money!?” she cried.

The din of conversation turned to laughter briefly before everyone shrugged it off and continued doing whatever they were doing. Jill grabbed Garth roughly by the sleeve and took him over to a corner booth. Damian took the hint, snatched her mug, and joined them.

“The hell was that for?” Garth mumbled, nursing his jaw. Damian sat down beside Jill, opposite Garth.

“Appearances,” Jill told him, brushing it aside. “What happened to you?”

“I still don’t understand it,” admitted Garth. “I was in a shop run by this guy named Alex.”

“Alex,” said Jill. “Annette’s husband. He did this to you?”

“No.” Garth shook his head. “Three clods in his shop apparently took offense at my glancing at their map.”

“Why?” asked Jill.

“They were pointing at something,” Garth explained. “Some kinda trade route between the Kaybern Sea and this place called D’Artagnan.”

“D’Artagnan?” Damian repeated a little too loudly. His blood chilled. His heart stopped beating for several seconds.

Dart Town.

“Um…” Jill said softly. “Did it just get quiet in here?”

The din of conversation fell away. Mugs stopped clinking. Stools scraped softly against the wooden floorboards.

Damian glanced over his shoulder.

Oh, Hell.

Every single person in the commons had stopped talking and stood up, slowly approaching the booth. Knives, shivs, and other, cruder edged weapons slowly made their way into trembling fists. Fear, anger, and reproach mixed together into a heady elixir that could soon turn deadly.

“Stay down,” Damian muttered softly and stood to meet the men. “All right, gentlemen,” he said to the men, his eyes simmering. “What in the Seven Hells is going on in this fruited plain of darkness?”

“Afraid ye said the magic woid, mister…”

They edged closer. The position of the bar and the corner stall funneled them into a kind of “Y” formation. No less dangerous, though.

“Look, I don’t want any trouble,” Damian muttered with his hands at chest level, palms out. “They took my wife…”

“Not gonna be yer wife fer much longah,” said the drunk in front of the line. “Till death do ye part…”

“Why are you protecting them?” hissed Damian. “Slavers!”

“Now, now, none ‘o that,” said another man. “We keep mum’s the werd round here, and they leave us alone. We’d like ta keep it dat way.”

“They won’t know,” Damian told them gently. “No one here told us anything. We just got lucky. I don’t want to hurt you guys.”

Suppressed laughter.

“I think we gat ye a bit out-num-beered, here, sonny.”

“Turn around,” said someone who sounded relatively sober. “Face the wall. We’ll make it quick.”

“There’s just one problem, guys,” Damian pointed out. “You’re all carrying metal weapons.” He flexed his fingers.

“Damian, don’t!” hissed Garth.

“No choice, buddy, they’ve got us pinned.”

“What’s he going to do?” Jill asked, trembling.

“Get under the table,” Garth told her, slinking underneath it with her.

Confusion spread over the expressions of the men, drunk or otherwise. They glanced at their weapons, then back to Damian. Slowly, they moved in.

Damian felt power welling up inside him as he focused on Audra. His hooded eyes blocked all distractions as he forced the memory of binding himself to her to the forefront of his mind. Energy crackled beneath the skin of his arms.

“Last chance, fellas,” he warned them.

“Git ‘em!”

Drunkard in front lunged. Point out, straight towards Damian’s gut.

“AUUUDRAAAA!!” screamed Damian as he thrust his palm out to meet the blade. Metal sunk into his flesh, instantly completing the circuit.

Energy seared into the man. So much power arced through him that it jumped to the next, entering him through his metal dagger. As the two of them trembled, the power seared into the next man, beginning to fork between them and spread through their formation. The room filled with the scent of ozone, seared ale, and… yeah. That too. No mistaking that smell.

Pain throbbed in Damian’s hand. A good pain. Finally. He felt something. He watched in awe as the men shuddered, the power of his love for Audra overpowering each and every one of them. No man carrying a weapon was spared. Audra’s love touched each one of them. Even the bartender, carrying a metal tankard, received a taste. Dozens of men stood trembling, connected by strands of power.

At last, the power subsided.

Every single man fell to the ground.

“Au…dra…” gasped Damian. The ground rose up to meet him. Soft hands attempted to catch him, but his head connected with the wood floor and he knew no more.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Back in the desert once more.

Damian was really getting tired of this place. At least the storm appeared to have stopped moving. It got stuck somewhere against a mountain in the distance. A loud roaring captured Damian’s attention. He turned to glimpse, in horror, a massive, serpentine dragon flying towards him. He turned and ran towards the storm.

Towards Audra.

Desperation and new sense of purpose gave speed to his steps. His feet barely touched the ground. Damian’s steps flew along the dunes. Closer… closer… He was going to make it!

The dragon roared, lashing out with its tail, slamming it against the dunes. A wave of sand enveloped Damian, sending him tumbling into darkness. Countless hot granules stung his face as wave after wave of them lashed his face.

“Wake up!” they cried.

Huh? Since when could sand talk? And since when did sand sound like a girl?

The thundering of hooves and a slender hand connecting with his face startled Damian awake. He lay spread across the back of a galloping horse with Jill sitting directly behind him. His face rested on her supple thigh. Would’ve been rather nice, if she’d stop slapping him. The hell was wrong with her? What was he, drooling on her leg or something?

“Urgh…” groaned Damian.

“Finally!” cried Jill. “I thought we’d lost you!”

“What’s going on?!” he asked, loudly as he could.

“Half the town is after us, that’s what!” shrieked Jill, “As well as Loren’s militia!”

“Damn!” cursed Damian. “Let me up.”

Jill tried. She winced with the strength required, but failed to lift him. “I kind of have my hands full!” she protested.

“I… I can’t…” groaned Damian. The world spun around him. He rested his head on Jill’s leg. Ah. She smelled nice. Better than this desert, anyway.

Oh hell. Not again.

Damian poked his head up out of the sand. Where’d that dragon get to? He strained to listen for the sounds of roaring. Nothing. Just whirling winds and stinging sand. Struggling to his feet, he looked around. With no idea where he was, Damian scaled the nearest dune to look around. There. A dozen more dunes or so, and he’d be at the base of the mountain. The storm was close enough to block out the sun. Damian glanced back…

At that damned dragon! It spotted him and roared, taking flight.

“Damnit!” hissed Damian as he took off. “This is why you never, ever look back!” He grunted as a tail swipe knocked him off his feet. Hey, at least he was falling in the right direction. Towards the storm. Towards Audra. He fell into a valley between two dunes, but the shifting sands swallowed him up.

Falling… tumbling…

Gods damned… this hurt. Sand shouldn’t be so bumpy. Right?

Wait. This wasn’t sand. These were damned trees! Damian snapped awake as he slid to a halt. Nearly passed out again as something heavy landed on his chest.

“Ufff!” wheezed Jill, crumpling onto Damian.

“Urrgh!” Garth cursed, crashing into a tree as he slid to a stop.

“Where…” Damian tried to say from between Jill’s thighs.

She slid off of him and knelt beside him. “Shh… I think we lost them!” she whispered as she went to check on Garth. Damian struggled, but his leaded limbs refused to move. At least he could still feel them. He inhaled a leafy, earthy scent. Ugh. Gods. They must have fallen off the plateau. Was a wonder they were still alive.

“Where are the horses?” Damian asked in a whisper.

Jill slid over to him. “They saw the edge before I did,” she sighed. “Threw us off. I thought we were going to die for sure, but the underbrush on the slope is a lot softer than it looks.”

“Soft?” hissed Damian. “You call this soft? I think I broke every single…”

“Shut up!” snapped Garth. “Listen!”

“No, take those over there,” said someone in the distance. “Bolt it up tight. Don’t let her escape.”

“Will do, boss,” said another. “We’re runnin’ out of cages. Don’t help that we gotta use different types for each one of these bitches.”

Damian struggled, but for all of his passion, he could not move a muscle. It took every ounce of will just to breathe. “What… what’s… going…”

Jill shushed him. “Looks like we found D’Artagnan…”

A mixture of fear and anger gripped Damian’s heart. He strained to listen, but the voices moved out of range. Garth slipped over beside him and helped him up. “Ugh, buddy, lay off the sweets for a while, would you?” he grunted, straining with Damian’s hefty weight.

Finally, Garth turned Damian around, so he could see. The infamous Dart Town lay sprawled out some distance through the thick underbrush. Set against a mountain, a dusty mining town spread out haphazardly, one building having been constructed after another as the need arose. Business appeared to have boomed at some time, many, many years ago, which could explain the careless propagation of so many buildings. Damian couldn’t see much else, so he motioned for Garth to lead them closer.

“That’s close enough,” said a woman crisply.

Well, damn.

Jill gasped loudly as she turned. Garth nearly dropped Damian.

“Turn, turn, you brute!” grunted Damian. “I can’t see!”

“She… she…” stammered Garth. “She looks like Audra!”

Damian gasped. But before he could demand his friend turn him around, the girl knocked him out of Garth’s grip and pinned Garth to a tree.

Flowing, azure hair, tapering off to electric blue. Fluffy ears. Bushy azure and electric tail. Pale, fair skin. Dark violet kimono with crystalline electrodes. “Audra!?” gasped Damian.

“What have you bastards done with her!?” growled the girl, lowly enough not to be heard by the guards in town. She turned and glared at Damian with sapphire eyes narrowed in fury.

Sapphire? Not Audra. Very close, though.

“Audra… she’s…” Damian started to say, but the girl hissed, raising a crackling hand towards Garth’s face.

“My wife…” Damian wheezed.

Stunned bewilderment replaced the girl’s anger. She dropped Garth and approached Damian, kneeling before him. “Wife?” she asked softly, placing her hand on Damian’s forehead.

Damian inhaled, expecting to smell cherry blossoms. He was wrong, but not disappointed. A subtly different scent entered his nostrils. He couldn’t identify it. Still, it brought a slight smile to his lips.

The girl recoiled as if burned. “I… I…”

Another girl dropped beside Damian and grabbed Jill. Her rigid, muscular body contained a beautiful woman clad in stripes, fur, and claws of a tiger. Striped warpaint etched her face, framed by flowing, golden brown hair. A strong paw held Jill tightly.

“Ackk!” yelped Jill before a four-inch claw pressed against her lips.

“Shush, little stripling,” the woman’s low, sultry voice purred. She turned to the Raiju. “Raina. Does he speak the truth?”

“He… he does…” Raina nodded, gasping. “There’s no mistaking that power. Though, he’s nearly expended it. He is close to death.”

“Nnnn…” grunted Jill, struggling against the Jinko.

“Who are you people?” Garth blurted out.

“I…” stammered the Raiju. “This… this is Jinx. I’m Raina.”

“And Audra…”

“Is my sister,” nodded Raina. “We escaped with Jinx’s help, but got separated in the confusion. They recaptured my sister and… and…” she trailed off as tears welled up in her sapphire eyes.

Damian’s heart ached to see those tears. They mirrored Audra’s, glittering blue instead of green. Close to death, the Jinko said? Great. Gods damned Operative. Well, close, but not dead yet!

“Mmm,” cooed Jinx. “Look, Raina. Look at the fight in his eyes,” she purred.

Raina brightened at the sight of it. “Yes! Yaaasss!” she cooed. Gods. She sounded just like Audra. “I can work with that!” she giggled, kneeling next to Damian and slipping her hand under his shirt. “All right, listen. I can’t perfectly mimic my sister’s power, so this might feel… a little strange.”

“Wh—?” Damian tried to say.

GODDESS!!

Pure power blasted into his chest from Raina’s hand. He nearly blew a load straight into his pants. Raina’s power suffused through him, making his bones ache with its unfamiliar nature, but the rest of him accepted it as a substitute for Audra’s energy. He sat up, gasping.

“Gahhh!” he cried before Raina could slap her hand over his mouth.

“Shhh!” she hissed. Her ears twitched, searching for voices or movement. Jinx’s powerful body curled, preparing for an arboreal leap. They waited. A minute went by. Damian glanced at Jinx. Sweat beaded on her mostly naked body, covered barely by small undergarments. She barely breathed. Her eyes darted around, unblinking. Her ears laid back, and her tail twitched. Raina shook her head. “Clear.”

Jinx relaxed slightly. “We need to move.”

“Yes,” Raina agreed, helping Damian up. But then, she tumbled into his arms. “Oooo…” she moaned weakly.

Holding her like this, it felt far too familiar. Damian tried to ease her into her own two paws, but she slumped against him. “What’s the matter?” he asked her.

“Used… bit… too much…” she mumbled, her words slurring together. She smacked her lips, trying to wet them with a dry mouth. “Need… a recharge…”

Uh oh. Damian had a nasty feeling he knew what she meant. She glanced up at him, hunger in her eyes. But she sighed and slumped back into his arms.

“Can’t…” Raina moaned. “Not… with Audra’s…” she groaned, collapsing.

“We don’t have time for this,” Jinx warned.

“I could carry her,” Damian offered. “But I’d use up all the strength she gave me.”

“I’ll do it,” Garth suggested. He slid one arm under her shoulders and another beneath her knees. He lifted her easily and cradled her against his chest. “No problem. Let’s go.”

Jinx nodded, releasing Jill. “Follow me.”

Jill gasped, rubbing fur off her lips as she blushed with embarrassment. Damian followed Jinx first, then Garth, and Jill trailed behind. The tiger lady led them deeper into the lush underbrush, towards a small cave hidden from sight with vines and felled trees.

The moment they stepped inside, a wild variety of scents assaulted Damian’s nose. Cooking meat. Smoke. Sweat. Perfumes? No. The scents of varieties of women. Oh… oh wow…

The cave opened up wide, far larger than its entrance suggested. Tents lined the walls, with a common area in front, the size of a proper cavern. A gentle trickle of water filtered in from somewhere, mingling with soft conversation and the gentle clatter of metal objects.

In the center of the cavern, monsters had built some kind of contraption that collected the smoke from their large bonfire and filtered it out through various vents in the cavern ceiling. A small girl with spiky lime-green hair crawled up and down the tubes, tweaking them and making adjustments. A dozen ramshackle tools dangled off of her “clothing,” that consisted of little more than a cutoff top made of strips of silk and ripped shorts, held together with several leather straps and buckles. She glanced down at Jinx and her companions, a wicked grin on her young-looking face. Garth and Jill gulped at the sight of her.

Jinx glanced up at her, sighing. “That’s Lina. Ignore her.”

Lina growled, crossing her arms as she clung to the piping with her legs, straddling them like a lover. “Hey! Rude! Without me, you’d all suffocate!”

Jinx winced at the girl’s high-pitched voice. “Yes, yes, we know,” she grumbled, leading everyone past the fires. At the sound of this exchange, several girls poked their heads out of tents. Damian glimpsed many different kinds of girls, from several species he barely recognized. Judging by the slanted eyes and exotic hairstyles, many of them came from the same region as Audra. Zipangu.

A very young foxy girl skipped up to Damian and tugged on his pant leg. He glanced down at her. Goddess, she was adorable. Two huge, fuzzy ears stuck up out of the top of her head, dwarfed only by big puffs of golden blonde hair tied into pigtails. Twin fluffy tails waved around at her backside, golden blonde like her hair, and capped with snowy-white fur at the tips. Bright, aqua eyes peered up at him as little bells under her ears jangled softly.

“Hey mister,” she called.

“Hello, there,” Damian offered, smiling at her. Her tiny cheeks flushed crimson as she plucked at her little dress. Damian recognized the style; he saw one in Jill’s exotic section. Wasn’t a kimono. It fit her a little too tightly for that. Whatever it was, it was beautiful. Crimson silk with gold floral embroidery. “That’s a pretty dress,” he remarked.

The girl’s cheeks flushed brighter. “Thanks! It’s a cheongsam!” she giggled, twirling around. “Weeeell… this one is actually called a qipao, but…”

“Not now, Rani,” Jinx scolded her. The little fox girl pouted, somehow presenting an even more adorable appearance. They continued on to Jinx’s tent, slipping inside.

“I’m seeing a lot of Zipangunese here,” Jill remarked as the tent flap closed behind her.

Jinx insinuated herself sensually upon a couch in the back. It appeared to have been constructed from bones of large animals and covered with her own fur. “Astute,” she noted, nodding at Jill. “While Rani is from Mist, you’re correct. They’re bringing in more and more. We aren’t certain how. Some of us come by boat, carried across the ocean, through the Kaybern Sea, and then ferried up here to D’Artagnan. Most of us don’t remember the journey, which is something odd to have forgotten.”

“I wonder if magic might be involved,” Garth suggested as he laid Raina down on a chair next to him. She slumbered quietly.

“Possibly,” nodded Jinx. “However, it would take a massive burst of power, coordinated between two points, to transfer just one person all the way from Zipangu, not to mention an entire group.”

“What else could it be?” Garth asked. “Let’s face it, your kinds aren’t easy to smuggle in this region.”

Jinx sighed. “We believe something else is going on. Something unfamiliar to public knowledge. Something that occurs in the shadows, beyond the reach of even the keenest of night eyes.”

“Did you happen to see a caravan enter D’Artagnan?” Damian asked, urgency choking his voice.

“We did,” Jinx affirmed. “I assume, from your tone of voice, Audra is with them?”

“She is,” nodded Damian.

“I hate to break it to you, boy,” sighed Jinx. “And to Raina, Maou bless her, but Audra is the least of our problems.”

“What do you mean?” Damian asked tensely, his fingers balling into a fist.

“I have a harpy spying on them,” Jinx told him. “Couple of months ago, she advised me the Order sent someone to investigate allegations of a slave trade in D’Artagnan. However. The description Kira gave me of the Operative wasn’t the same man as my other sources first claimed.”

“What do you mean?” Jill prompted.

“I mean to say,” Jinx fixed her gaze on the girl. “Someone intercepted the Operative and… eliminated him. He then proceeded to take his place.”

What!?” Jill, Damian, and Garth all asked at once.

Jinx held up her paw to ward off their questions. “Whoever this man is, he is not Eamon Heath. He may look like him, dress like him, and speak like him, but he does not follow the same directives.”

“You’re certain?” Garth pressed her.

“I am. All of us used to be slaves,” Jinx told him, holding up her left paw as evidence. A nasty, ringed scar marred her fur around her wrist where a shackle had once been. “We were here to work. They selected the strongest and fastest of us from our homelands, bringing us here through their shadowy means. But when this imposter arrived…” she trailed off for a moment. “Things… changed.”

“In what way?” Damian prompted.

“The slavers,” remarked Jinx stiffly. Her tail twitched anxiously as she shifted out of her sensual position and into a more pensive one. “They stopped selling us off. Audra was their last sale.”

“What are they doing now?” Jill asked softly.

“Hurting us…”

Jill gasped, her hands flying to her open mouth. “W-what??”

“They seem intent on causing… suffering. Pain. Misery. Like they are trying to break us.” Jinx shuddered, her body trembling. Her paws balled into fists. “They did so in the past,” she remarked. “But only to prevent us from resisting our new masters as we were sold off. Now, though… They no longer care for profit. One by one, the imposter sent men away and received replacements as cold and heartless as him. With each replacement, more pain. It became systematic. Ordered. Calculated.”

“And Audra’s in the middle of that!” cried Damian. “I have to get her out of there!”

“Believe me,” Jinx said softly, looking up at him. “I empathize. But if that man has returned, we have to wait.”

“Wait for what!?” demanded Damian.

“For him to leave,” Jinx said simply. “He wields a kind of magic none of us have ever seen before. Even Lina, who’s studied many different forms in ancient ruins.”

“You mean this?” Damian turned, pulling up his shirt to show Jinx the marque.

Jinx hissed at the sight of it, her eyes narrowing and her pupils tightening into slits. “Yes. Those marques are of an evil not seen before. They wound human, mamono, and yokai alike. None are safe from its influence. Lina has her hands full removing them from those who escape.”

“She can get rid of it?” Damian asked hopefully.

Jinx sighed. “Maybe. But I’ve never seen one on a man before. Only mamono, yokai, and human girls.”

“How does she remove it from a human girl?” Jill asked timidly.

Jinx flashed her a fangy grin. “She monsterizes her first.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Damian snapped, wiping that smile right off of Jinx’s face. “Your ‘plan,’ is basically to wait until that imposter leaves, and then what? Storm the town?”

“Not exactly,” Jinx said, her tone dripping with ire. “The goal is to free one particular mamono.”

“Not Audra?”

“No. Her name is Krysta.”

Damian sighed. “Who is Krysta?”

Jinx’s grin returned. “Krysta is a Manticore. She is the strongest of us, and the slavers made a terrible mistake bringing her here. If I can set her lose, she could overpower those silly humans in seconds.”

Damian paused. Ugh. She had a point. A good point.

“But…” Jill protested gently. Huh. Damian was really starting to like that girl. “Didn’t you say the magic they used on Damian affects everyone? Does it not affect Krysta, too?”

Jinx blushed briefly. “Well, we would need to bring her back here and get those marques removed,” she added sullenly.

“So, it’s not as simple as just setting her free,” Jill pointed out. “How big is a Manticore?”

“About Jinx’s height, I reckon,” Garth noted. “But Manticores have wings and a very large tail. It would probably take at least two people to carry her.”

“If you could just reunite me with Audra… I could…” Damian growled.

“You could what?” snapped Jinx. “Fry everyone with magical lightning?”

Jill and Garth exchanged glances. “Yeah,” they both said.

Jinx stood up, her tail lashing back and forth as she approached Damian with a scowl. “You have Raiju powers? A man?” She let lose a peal of laughter. “Prove it.”

“To generate that kind of power would waste the energy Raina expended herself to give me,” Damian told her. “I can give you a taste, but you’d have to let me touch you.”

Jinx growled. “Fine.”

Damian flexed his fingers and closed the distance between them. Carefully, he touched her right between her breasts and gave her a shock. Not much, but enough that she’d really feel something.

“Ohh!” gasped Jinx, stumbling backwards. She fell back onto her couch, her head lolling to the side, her face flushed crimson. Her legs spread, and one paw stroked the inside of her thigh.

Jill giggled at her.

Damian blinked stars out of his vision. Ugh. “I… I may have used too much to…” he stumbled. Garth caught him.

“Easy there, buddy.”

“I…” stammered Jinx, sweat beading on her skin. “All right. I’m convinced…” she moaned softly, rubbing her thigh as she purred loudly. “There’s… there’s just one problem.” She shuddered, trying to snap herself out of her lustful daze. She did manage to refocus back on Damian, but her scarlet blush remained. “We’ve noticed the men inscribing themselves with different marques. Not like the one on you, but something different. It blocks the power we normally have over men.”

Damian’s eyes widened at this revelation. “What?? Is that even possible?”

“I’m afraid so,” Jinx sighed. “They have at least one succubus in town, and she’s helpless against it.”

“Hmm,” pondered Garth. “That complicates things. What about Krysta’s spines? Manticore venom might punch through it.”

“That’s why I wanted to free her,” Jinx replied.

“We might not need to free her for her to help us,” Garth suggested.

Jinx perked up, her ears standing up and her tail twitching. “What do you mean?”

“One of us sneaks into wherever it is they’re holding her, and borrows some of her venom. We can collect it on rags or…”

Jinx shook her head. “That wouldn’t be necessary. They can detach from her body.”

“Oh,” brightened Garth. “Even better. Does that hurt her, though?”

“It’s rather sweet how you’re worried about her,” smiled Jinx. “No, it doesn’t.”

“Good,” Garth nodded, apparently ignoring Jinx’s innuendo. “Tonight, one of us sneaks over to her, borrows some spines, and distributes them to the Resistance. We can then sneak in and take out as many guards as we can, only assaulting once we’re discovered.”

“Hmm.” Jinx thought about that for a moment. “That might work.”

“We should also formulate a backup plan,” said Garth. Damian marveled at him. His friend was on fire all of the sudden. “I recommend…” he glanced back at Damian. “We find Audra. Damian’s power packs a wallop, but he can’t use it without her.”

Jinx sighed. “If she is within reach. I want to rescue her as badly as you do, but if you are noticed trying to smuggle her out, we lose our element of surprise.”

“Then, we don’t smuggle her out,” Damian said suddenly. “I reunite with her wherever she is, and we wait there together for the rest of you to unleash Hell.”

“And then you reinforce us from inside,” Jinx added, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “Yes. Yes. This might work. One thing I have noticed with these imposters is, they do not like surprises. They prefer to be in control at all times.”

The tent flap opened slightly, and Lina walked in, yawning as she stretched. “Fixed the pipes. Do me a favor, and don’t break ‘em again?” She glanced at Raina. “Oh, great. What did you do to her?”

“She over-extended herself giving me some power,” Damian told the short girl. He wondered how old she really was. Seemed too sharp to be a kid, and her hourglass figure belied her short stature.

“Who are you anyway? Kaiden Stone?”

Garth guffawed.

Jill giggled.

Damian gaped at the Gremlin. “You… how do you know about that?”

“Because I’m subscribed to every single one of your silly…” she glanced at Jinx, who was giving her the stink eye. “…What?” Lina asked, batting her eyelashes at the Jinko.

“Give Raina a pick-me-up, will you?” Jinx commanded with a groan.

“Why?” Lina asked with a tilt of her pretty head. “You’ve got a perfectly good, unmarried man here.” She poked Garth. “Use him?”

“Uh…” stammered Garth.

“Lina,” groaned Jinx. “We don’t have time for that.”

“Sure, ya do,” protested Lina. “We got a few hours until nightfall.” She glanced up at Garth. “So, do ya wanna?”

“Want to… what?”

“Ravish Raina to within an inch of her furry mind?” Lina asked, breathlessly theatric as she splayed her hand out over her petite bosom.

Jill gasped, giggling madly. Garth choked, taking a step back. Lina just stared up at him, waiting for him to answer. Jinx cleared her throat. “Lina…”

“Well?” Lina poked Garth again.

“I’m not… exactly opposed to the idea…” Garth replied, squirming uncomfortably. “I think she might… uh… want to consider it first… and she’s unconscious…”

“Aww, you’re so cute!” giggled Lina. “You want to make sure she consents? Pfff.” She waved him off with both hands in a sweeping gesture. “She likes you! She’ll love it.”

“How can you possibly know that?” Garth asked, dumbfounded.

“I’m a genius?” Lina giggled, then sighed, deflating a little. “I can smell you all over her, dummy.”

“That’s because,” Jinx growled, “He carried her in here. Dummy.”

“Aww!” cooed Lina, undeterred. “How romantic! It’s like they’re already married.” She giggled, pirouetting around. “Princess-carrying his sparky wife across their threshold…”

My threshold,” growled Jinx.

Damian’s face burned brightly from holding in his laughter. This was killing him. Lina raised an eyebrow at him, and he couldn’t help it anymore. “HAHAHA!” roared Damian. “Oh. Sorry, Garth. But seriously, it would help us all out.”

“I just…” stammered his friend, “I feel kind of odd about it, is all. She’s your wife’s sister…”

“Woah!” the Gremlin gasped. “Audra’s hubby is Kaiden Stone?” She peered at him lustfully. “But that’s perfect!” whined Lina. “Look, just kiss Raina. Just kiss her once! If she doesn’t like it, fine. I’ll give her a boost. But those stims are not easy to make!”

“How will we know if she likes it?” Garth prompted. “She’s asleep.”

Lina giggled. “She won’t stay that way!”

“Goddess help me,” Garth mumbled, kneeling in front of Raina.

Jill observed in abject fascination as Garth carefully cradled Raina’s head, tilting her face back. Damian glanced at Jill, watching her begin to blush. Her gaze turned hungry. Garth leaned down and gently brushed his lips against Raina’s, opening his mouth to capture hers. Jill nibbled on her lower lip, her blush intensifying.

Seconds later, Raina moaned. She threw her arms around Garth’s neck and deepened the kiss. “Mmmmmnnn…” she moaned sensually.

“That answers that!” giggled Lina.

Raina gasped, letting go and pulling back, fanning herself. “Wahh!” she cried. “What was that??

“I apologize,” Garth said ruefully. “They suggested you needed…”

“Yass!” cried Raina. She licked her lips of his taste as she sat up. “Sweet Maou, you’re delicious. She glanced at Damian. “Where’d you find him!?”

“We’ve been friends since childhood,” Damian replied, rubbing the back of his head, embarrassed.

Raina crossed her arms in a huff. “What!?” she squealed. “Why have you been keeping him from me?”

“Uhh…”

Jill broke into a fit of giggles.

Raina hopped out of her chair, wobbling unsteadily. “Ooo…” she stumbled. Garth caught her.

“Easy there,” he carefully held her shoulders.

Raina grinned brightly up at him. “Thanks! I’ve already lost count of how many times you’ve caught me. Hang on there a second?” She approached Jill. “All right, giggler. You think you’re so tough, huh?”

“Ummm…” Jill sputtered. Raina peered deeply at her.

“Aha! I knew I sensed something odd about you!” she giggled. “My sister’s energy is dancing inside youu~! Yaasss… second sister comin’ up!”

“W-what?” yelped Jill.

Lina skipped over to Jill and poked her leg, dancing around, poking again, and again. “Yup. Transformation’s already begun. All it’ll take, at this point, is a LEX, and you’ll become a Raiju.” She giggled madly. “Such a fun species! Some days I wish I were one myself, but… oh well. I can simulate it! For those dreary days, of course.”

“Really?” Raina asked. “How?”

“Well!” Lina grinned. “Since you asked…”

“Wait!” cried Jill. “I’m… I’m going to end up looking like that!?” she stabbed at Raina with her finger.

“Is… is there a problem with the way I look?” Raina asked mournfully.

“Are you kidding?” gaped Jill. “I wish I looked like that… you’re so beautiful!”

Raina beamed at her.

“But, what’s a lex?”

Lina winked at her. “Lewd Experience.”

Raina winked as well. “You could join us…” she waved at Garth. The poor man blushed uncontrollably.

Jill bit her lip, blushing as well.

“Wahaha!” giggled Lina. “You three are killing me!! Go, go! Give it to her goooood. The lewder her first time, the more powerful a Raiju she’ll become. It’s all up to you!”

Garth glanced helplessly at Damian, who shrugged. “Have fun, buddy.”

Raina grabbed Jill’s hand and led her to Garth, taking his hand in her other, and escorted them both out.

“I… I’d better observe…” Lina said, stroking her thigh. “Just… just to make sure everything goes smoothly.”

“Wait, Lina,” Jinx called.

Lina’s small shoulders slumped. “Whaaaat?” she whined.

“Damian has a marque.”

Lina’s eyes widened. “Seriously? Why didn’t you say something?” She hopped over to him. “Lemme see.”

Damian knelt beside her and lifted up his shirt. Lina hissed in anger, poking all around it with her little fingers, being careful not to touch it. “Maou help me, I can’t stand those bastards…”

“Anything you can do?” Damian asked hopefully.

Lina sighed. “Well, yes and no,” she said uncertainly. “I can get it off, but it’ll kill you.”

“Not an ideal solution…”

“But if your wife were here…”

“Then I’d survive?”

Lina nodded. “She can keep you charged while I sever the marque bond. Otherwise, it’ll drain all your spirit energy, and then all your yokai energy, and then, you’d die.”

“I guess you’ll have to come with me,” sighed Damian.

“Huh?” Lina blinked at him in confusion.

“I’m sneaking into town tonight to find her,” he told her.

“No,” said Jinx suddenly. “We need Lina to process Krysta’s spines.”

“Uhm,” Lina interjected. “Why wasn’t I included in the planning process?”

“Because I know you can do it,” Jinx said curtly. “Now. Can Audra sever the marque herself?”

Lina sighed at Jinx, shifting her weight back and forth as she thought about that. “Maaaybe. I can tune the extractor to work on Raiju sparks.”

“How long?”

“Bout an hour.”

“Do it.”

“Alrighty!” Lina giggled. “Never tried this before!”

“Uh,” Damian stopped her. “Isn’t that bad?”

Lina shook her head vigorously. “Nope! Anything different is good. Trust me. I can show you how it works. C’mon.”

She tugged on Damian’s arm. Jinx followed them outside, and were treated to quite a spectacle. A crowd had formed around Raina’s tent, the sounds of erotic pleasure echoing through the cavern.

“Ohhh, Garth~!” squealed Raina. “You beast! That’s my… my… nnnn…”

“Mmmnnn…” moaned Jill. “Touch me there if she doesn’t want it…”

“Oh wow,” giggled Lina. “They’re not holding back!”

“Lina,” sighed Jinx. “Install the noise canceler on their tent.”

“What?” gaped Lina. “Whyyyy?”

“Because you have no idea how distracting that is,” Jinx mumbled, trying to hide her blushing cheeks. She managed this quite well, due to the size of her paws. Lina sighed, dashed over to Jinx’s tent, yanking out some contraption and trotting over to Raina’s.

“ALL RIGHT show’s over, girls!” Lina cried, setting up her device. “You can thank Jinx!”

Everyone turned to glare at the Jinko as the sounds of passion died down.

Jinx glared right back at them, her paws on her hips. “Back to work!” she demanded.

“You’ve got your hands full, with this bunch,” Damian remarked as a cute harpy girl fluttered up to them. She narrowed her icy blue eyes in determination as she pulled back to slow down…

And didn’t make it.

She crashed in front of Damian, a mess of navy blue feathers and red-gold hair. “Ouuu…” she moaned. “I hate this cave…”

“Are you alright?” Damian asked, extending a hand to help her up. She wore a very tiny crop-top that never would have covered her had she not been almost totally flat-chested. An itty-bitty pair of shorts sat low on her tiny hips.

“Kira is a Harpy is what Kira is!” she gushed, blushing at Damian.

“Kira…” sighed Jinx. “What do you have to report?”

“Sorry,” giggled Kira. “I can’t resist saying that to new people for some reason! Um… I found that Raiju girl.”

Damian gasped. “Audra!?”

“Yes~!” chirped Kira. “You know her?”

“She’s my wife.”

Kira squealed, hopping on one talon excitedly. “Audra’s married~! Audra’s maaaarried~!”

Damian grasped her firmly by the shoulders to steady her. “Calm down. Where is she?”

“Ooof. Wow!” giggled Kira. “You’re so strong! Um. She’s in the back part of town, near the old diamond mine.”

“Any guards?” prompted Damian.

“One outside, and one inside,” Kira said.

“Doesn’t sound so bad,” he remarked.

Kira shook her head of red-gold hair. “Noo! It’s bad. It’s soo bad. There’s so many guards between you and your wife…” she sighed sadly, her wings drooping.

“Could you fly me over them?”

“Oh! Maybe~!” she giggled. “But you’re… you’re so big! Might be too heavy for me… If only we had a Griffon!”

“Try it for a second?”

Jinx rested her paw on his shoulder, shaking her head. “Inside the cave? That would invite disaster.”

“I think I can do it,” Kira said hopefully, “But you might have to kiss me a couple times to give me extra strength!”

“He’s married, Kira,” Jinx reminded her.

“I know! I’m not dumb!” Kira crossed her wings across her chest defiantly. “I just… oh well. It was worth a shot.”

“Continue to observe until nightfall,” Jinx ordered. “Once night falls, come back to us and get ready to fly Damian out there. We’ll be counting on you two to reunite with Audra.”

“All right!” Kira nodded and ran out.

“Is she normally like that?” Damian scratched his head.

Jinx nodded. “Most Harpies generally are. She’s very reliable, despite her childish attitude. Just stay away from her when spring rolls around. I’ll be inside my tent if you need anything.”

Jinx left him. Damian sighed. That Jinko maintained a professional distance, but she still intimidated him. He figured he’d relax by the fire for a while, until Lina finished altering her device. The little fox girl from earlier snuck up on him as he sat down.

“Hii~!” she chirped up at him, appearing as if out of nowhere. She blushed slightly as she gazed up at him.

“Hello, Rani,” Damian knelt to her level.

Rani’s blush intensified; she giggled, causing the little bells on the side of her head to ring. “You remembered my name!”

“I did,” he said with a smile. “Do you remember mine?”

“You didn’t tell me, but…” she approached and nestled against him, softly stroking his back with her small hands. “Mmm. Yes. You are… Damian, of Loren. Savior. Voice of the Storm.”

Damian sucked in a breath, his blood chilling. She’d summed up his entire life, including his dreams, in less than a dozen words. “How… how could you possibly know that?”

Rani stepped back, giggling. “Se~cret!” she laughed softly, but her expression changed as she gazed at him. “You’re hurt…” she said gently, frowning in concern. Her hand reached for his hand, wrapped in a torn rag. She also traced his broad shoulder, slipping down his back, to the spot where the marque marred his skin. She hissed in pain.

“Careful, little one,” Damian murmured gently, grasping her wrist.

“Suffering…” Rani said darkly. “It is what inspires. It is what languishes. It is of everything. Yet it is of nothing.”

The chilled blood in Damian’s veins turned to ice. What was she saying? It felt like something he’d always known. Or at least, always known since receiving the marque.

“Yet, love conquers all,” Rani said warmly, a mischievous smile spreading over her face. “Oh, I know! Would you like a blessing?”

“What kind of blessing?”

“It’s simple!” she cooed. “You let me sample your love, and I make it stronger!”

“Aren’t you a little young for that?” chuckled Damian.

Rani balked, stuffing her little fists down on her tiny hips. “I’m a big girl!” she huffed. “You want my blessing or not?”

“All right, what do I need to do?”

“Gimme a kiss!” giggled Rani.

“Uh…”

Rani burst out laughing at him. “Here!” she tapped her cheek.

She leaned towards him. Oh man. This really felt like a bad idea. But she’d probably never forgive him if he refused. Gently, Damian held her by her small shoulder and guided her close, giving her a quick peck on the cheek. A small spark came with it.

“Oooo!” Rani danced excitedly. “Your love is poooowerful~~!” She hopped around, rubbing her cheek. “All right! Get ready, Savior!” she cried, rubbing her palms together and thrusting her arms out at him. Her two tails spun around as an eerie blue flame danced around her.

Damian didn’t like this look of this. He sat up on the balls of his feet, bracing himself on the ground.

“Foxfire!” Rani cried.

A blast of unusual yokai energy flew into Damian, knocking him back on his haunches. A strange tingling suffused through his body, numbing the dull ache that came from his loss of Audra. The marque on his side began to itch like a sunburn did after a few days.

“Whew,” he gasped. “Rani, what was that?” Damian sputtered, gazing at his hand. The rag fell from his palm. The wound from that dull shiv had disappeared.

“Se~cret!” she giggled. “But it’ll make your love stronger!” Rani promised, miming a punch with her tiny fist. “Go get them! Free us!”

“Rani,” said Lina, who snuck up on her from behind.

“Yip!” Rani squealed, running off.

“I see you’ve met our resident princess,” sighed Lina. “And she’s already knocked you on your arse.” She giggled fitfully.

“Uhh…” chuckled Damian as he stood up, forgetting how short Lina was. She was barely taller than Rani. He knelt back down to her level. “Wait, princess?”

Lina nodded, holding a wicked-looking dagger encrusted with gems and swirling designs that glowed in the gloom of the cave. “Her mother is Lady Kutharei. She presides over a demon realm deep within Mist. Rani told us about how she and her mother were visiting Zipangu when someone snatched her away. I guess the slavers wanted to try and breed a Kyubi-no-kitsune for themselves.”

“A what?”

“Nine-tailed-fox. You noticed she has two?”

Damian nodded.

“As they mature and absorb spirit energy from men, they get more, until they have nine,” explained Lina. “At which point, their power blossoms out into nearly limitless proportions. In its natural state, it can produce a host of Kitsune-bi or create demon realms. These slavers were apparently fascinated with that possibility.”

Damian scratched his head. “How do you know all that? And don’t just say you’re a genius.”

Lina smirked. “But I am.” She shrugged. “Eh. Rani told us herself. She was the only one they didn’t torture. I’m sure you’ve noticed she’s rather well dressed, compared to the rest of us? They treated her nicely. Pampered her, even. She’s always so cheerful, you wonder if she understands what’s really going on. And then she spouts something cryptic at you to scare the crap out of you.”

“Yeah… I know…” Damian shuddered.

“Don’t worry about it,” Lina waved it off. “She’s a Youko. Classic Youko.”

“Are they always that insightful?”

“Yep,” nodded Lina. “They say her mother is so powerful, she can predict the future.”

“Is that… true?”

The Gremlin tilted her head inquiringly. “That’s what they say,” Lina replied. “But she couldn’t predict her own daughter being abducted, so who can know?” She shrugged. “Eh. I don’t buy into that mystical stuff. Don’t need it. I have science. Here, take this. And these.” She handed him an assortment of knives and throwing stars. “Some of these have little wires you can use to zap people,” she explained.

Lina then handed Damian the extractor blade. A smooth edge, encased in a housing covered in blue and yellow veins of energy. “So much power…” he remarked, “It’s… Feels like I’m holding a bolt of lightning…”

“The potential for one, anyway,” remarked Lina. “I retuned it for Raiju power. Have Audra charge that sucker up, and then cut the marque off you. Carefully.”

“How carefully?”

Lina shrugged. “Depends how big you want your sexy scar to be!” she giggled.

Damian gulped, shooing that mental image right out of his mind. “Lina,” He remarked casually, trying to take his mind off it, “Why does Jinx treat you so poorly?”

“Huh?” Lina cocked her head, stroking one of her fuzzy ears. “Oh. Eh, it’s nothing serious. She’s a lil bit of a racist, I think.” She giggled. “Or is it specist?” She giggled again.

Now he was honestly curious. “What do you mean?”

“Uhh… she doesn’t respect anyone who can’t beat her in a physical fight,” explained Lina. “Especially if said person challenges her authority…” She added, shyly averting her gaze.

Damian raised an eyebrow. “You?”

“Um, kinda?” Lina admitted. “I didn’t agree with a few of her decisions, so we, uh… we went at it. All right, I admit it! She kicked my ass.”

“And now she doesn’t respect you?”

“I lost what little respect she had for me when she knocked me out…” sighed Lina. “I couldn’t help it! I didn’t have enough stuff to fight back with. Next time, though…” she grinned.

“Anyways, I’m off. You wouldn’t believe how much work is involved in repurposing Manticore venom. Those blockheads better get back here with it soon…” Lina mumbled as she stalked off.

Damian shuffled over to the fire to relax. He wasn’t quite ready to dismiss Rani’s words, thinking them over instead. Even if her mother hadn’t been able to predict the loss of her daughter, Rani herself had peered deep into his life and made some startling observations. Voice of the Storm? Damian pondered that one. What could that mean? Was Audra the storm? Metaphorically? Could Rani have spoken about the dream? Damian sure hadn’t mastered that storm. It kept eluding him.

The sand crunched under his feet as he shifted about, thinking about Rani’s words. Wait a minute. Sand? Where had that come… from… oh no.

A flash startled Damian. The storm. The storm! It howled above him. Lightning ravaged the ground nearby, blinding him with its brilliance. He felt its power, yet heard nothing. Silent lighting?

“AUDRA!” bellowed Damian. His voice boomed like thunder. It was thunder. Audra’s thunder. The lightning struck again, in the same place, somewhere at the base of the mountain. “AUDRAAAA!” screamed Damian. His thunderous voice cast aside the brush and foliage. Forest creatures fled from him. He pressed forward, amazed at how familiar this… wait.

It was the actual forest they’d fallen into off the plateau! The very same. The town. So close by! Of course! Audra was trying to signal Damian where she was being held. Gods, he loved her. A roar shook him out of his momentary daze. He refused to glance back, this time. He knew what it was. That damned dragon! He pressed forward, instead, surmising that the dragon could hear him just as well as Audra could.

Another flash of lightning. He couldn’t see exactly where it struck, but it appeared to match up with Kira’s intel. The dragon roared. Damian ducked, just as its jaws snapped at him, missing him by inches. Ugh. Wake up, Damian. The dragon swung around for another pass, opening its mouth to spew fire. Except it wasn’t normal fire. A kind of sickly green fire, that popped and hissed like acid.

Wake up, Damian!

“DAMIAN!”

Damian shuddered awake just before the acid doused him. “Gahh!” he cried. Rubbed his eyes. He looked up. A pair of wide, ice blue Harpy eyes stared down at him, no more than three inches away. “GAHH!”

“KYAHH!” Kira yelped at the same time, falling backwards on her rear. “Ouuu…” She stood up, dusting her shorts off. “Why you have to scare me like that!?”

“Sorry, Kira,” sighed Damian, rubbing his eyes again. “Nightmare.”

“Anyone I know?” she prompted, gazing back down at him. Very closely.

Damian nudged the wide-eyed girl away as he stood up. His back popped and cracked as he stretched. If it were possible, Kira’s eyes grew even wider at the sound. “Ugh. No. Big ass dragon trying to eat me.”

“Eat you?” Kira tapped her chin with her feathered talon. “That doesn’t sound very nice. Why would she want to do that?”

“This isn’t a nice dragon, Kira. Not like you.”

Kira shook her head. “Kira isn’t a dragon… Kira is a Harpy is what Kira is!” She realized what she just said and clapped a wing over her mouth. “Oop…”

Damian groaned. “Where the hell do you get all that energy…”

The girl tilted her head, giving him a quizzical look. “I really don’t know… But it’s yours if you want it!”

“Eh?”

“It’s nightfall! I’m ready to fly you to Audra now!”

That got Damian’s attention. “About damn time. Where’s Garth?”

Kira burst into a fit of giggles. “Um… He’s…” more giggles. “He’s resting! But wait till you see what he did to Jill!”

The pull of curiosity overcame Damian and he turned to check Raina’s tent. Raina had just stepped out, shifting her Raiju kimono into place as she languidly stretched. Ugh. Goddess, Damian missed Audra. Raina yawned loudly, sneezing as she finished. She blushed, glancing around to check if anyone saw her.

Someone else slid out of the tent, dressed in a ruddy-brown shawl wrapped around her shoulders. It only covered the top half of her chest, so a healthy portion of her large breasts peeked out underneath. A wide expanse of her slim, lightly-tanned waist was visible between the shawl and her low-slung pants. As she stretched, a full head of wavy, golden brown hair tumbled out behind her, practically glittering in the soft light. Light blue highlights streaked through it, and electric blue frosting iced the tips.

“…Jill?” gasped Damian.

Her fluffy ears perked up, flicking in his direction. Their eyes met. Bright, honey brown eyes, glowing in the dark, with slit pupils. She waved, smiling brightly, shaking her hips seductively as a fluffy tail swung back and forth behind her. The lustrous fur of her tail mirrored her hair; wavy, golden brown, frosted tips, and blue highlights. Her leather pants rose very low on her hips to accommodate the tail. She’d discarded her shoes, preferring to feel the ground with her new fuzzy feet.

In a flash, Jill zapped up to Damian. A literal flash. She traveled to him at the speed of light, suddenly in his face, kneeling forward seductively. Kira spun around, nearly knocked off her talons. Jill’s plush, glossy lips parted, and she nipped at Damian’s nose, backing off slightly with a tiny kiss to the same spot.

“Hi…” Jill cooed, her voice low and seductive. “What do you think?”

Damian had no idea what to say. “I’m sorry,” he sighed.

Jill cocked her head, her fuzzy ears flicking back and forth. “Sorry?” she giggled. “Whatever for? This is the best thing to ever happen to me!” She stood up, grasping her enlarged breasts, lifting the shawl briefly. “Look! Even Audra would be jealous now…”

Damian averted his eyes. “I never meant to involve you, Jill. I’ve… turned your life upside down.”

Jill settled her shawl back down and sat next to him, wincing as her tail bent the wrong way. She scooted over to sit sideways on her hip, instead, which, of course, had to be a sensual pose.

“Damian,” she said gently. “I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I disliked my old life.” Her tail flapped upon her thigh. She stroked it fondly. “I enjoyed buying, trading, selling, and even sewing my own creations. But, outside Loren and Varna, nobody even knew my name. Now I have a chance to change all that.”

“With Garth?” Damian asked her.

Jill shrugged, but a sly smile spread across her face. “Maybe. That depends on him. And Raina.”

“Oh, he chose Raina?”

Jill’s eyes clouded in confusion.

“To be his wife, I mean,” Damian clarified.

“Oh,” replied Jill. “I don’t know. Still a little early to tell. We may end up sharing him.”

“I wasn’t aware that was an option.”

Kira spoke up. “Yup! Happens sometimes! Especially between two new sisters!”

“Oh!” gasped Jill. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to ignore you,” she blushed, smiling up at Kira. “You’re so cute! What’s your name?”

“Kira is a H—oomph…” Damian’s hand clapped over her mouth.

“Damian!” pouted Jill. “That was rude!”

“Trust me,” groaned Damian. “If I hear her say that one more time, I’m going to tickle her until she passes out.”

Kira’s eyes widened, and she gulped, nodding.

“Ahem,” Damian released her. “Jill, this is Kira.”

“Ohh, the Harpy spy?”

“Yap!” chirped Kira. “You look great! Ready to zappy zap the mean men with your sextricity?”

“My… my what?” Jill asked, bursting into laughter. Raina stepped up behind her and rubbed her head.

“What’s goin’ on?” prompted Raina.

Jill glanced up at her. “You got one of those kimonos for me?”

Raina shook her head sadly. “I just have one left, and I’m giving it to Damian.”

Jill appraised Damian with her eyes. “I don’t think it’d fit.”

Kira giggled.

“It’s not for him,” sighed Raina. “It’s for Audra.” She untied her small obi and produced a folded Raiju kimono. With a smile, she handed it to Damian. “Don’t lose this. It’s our last one.”

“I won’t,” Damian vowed. “Kira, ready to go?”

“Yap!” the Harpy bounced from one talon to the other excitedly.

“We’re all behind you,” Jill told him. “Go get her. Bring her back safe.”

“I’m not just going to bring Audra back,” Damian swore. “This damned slaving ends tonight.”

More than a few other monster girls heard him say that and turned to him with hope in their eyes. Damian wondered how many of them had left sisters, husbands, and even children behind. Poor Rani’s mother must be fraught with worry. Damian turned to see Jinx the Jinko nodding solemnly from outside her tent.

Damian nodded to Kira and followed her out into the night.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Unnnn…” grunted Kira, perspiration shining on her slim body as she strained to remain airborne. “Sweet Maou! You weigh almost as much as a Wurm!”

“That’s insulting!” Damian shouted up at her. “And keep your voice down! They’ll hear you!”

“Nnnn…” Kira strained under the weight. “Don’t worry! The… the crosswind’s so loud, I can barely hear myself, much less you!”

“What?” Damian cried.

Kira giggled and nearly slipped out of the air current. “Ack!”

“Ugh, please tell me I didn’t get a defective Harpy!”

“Now I’m insulted!” yelled Kira.

“Just get us down there!” Damian pointed to a blind spot in the guard’s watch. Kira guided them surprisingly gently down, setting Damian on his feet before falling down on all fours, gasping softly for air.

“Oh, come on, I’m not that heavy.” Damian crossed his arms over his broad chest.

“Let’s just…” panted Kira, “Hope Audra’s always on top… or we’re going to have… a Raiju pancake…”

“Kira…” Damian growled.

“Nn?” she looked up at him.

“Stop trying to be funny.”

She stuck her tongue out at him. Reaching into her pockets, Kira pulled out a dangerous-looking spike. She handed it to Damian. “Here. It’s one of Krysta’s old spines. Should still have some juice in it. You remember the signal, right?”

Damian took the spine and gestured twice to Kira. “This for all-clear, and this for ‘trouble.’”

Kira nodded. “Right. You’ve got four hours til midnight. Any later than that and we have to abort.”

“Got it,” affirmed Damian. “Go. Watch for my signal. This may take a while.”

The Harpy grinned brightly. “Go get her, stud.”

Damian’s body flushed. Lust and hunger suffused through every muscle. He turned his sights on a large, wooden building near the entrance to the mine. Carefully, he snuck up to the mine entrance and waited in the darkness for the guard down below to turn the other way. When he did, Damian crept down behind the building, sneaking around behind the man. Quickly, reaching up to cover the man’s mouth, Damian jammed the spine into his neck, squeezing its base to inject him. The man trembled violently in Damian’s arms, creaming his pants before passing out. He was counting on that Harpy to do her part and fly in a replacement for the guard, who would don his clothing and act as a decoy.

Using the guard’s keys, he unlocked the door and stepped inside. No one else on this floor. They must be holding Audra upstairs. Carefully, he stripped the man of his uniform and laid the clothes outside for Kira’s decoy, and made his way upstairs, brandishing the spine. Hopefully there was enough venom left for one more.

Creeping up the stairs, wincing at every creak in the old wood, Damian reached the second floor of the dilapidated storage building. The unmistakable scent of cherry blossoms filtered into his nose. She was here. Damian did not let that distract him, for one more obstacle remained.

“I know you’re there,” the man said into the darkness. “Show yourself.”

“Terrific,” grumbled Damian.

Stepping into the light, both men faced off with each other. Damian searched him for a metal weapon. Sword, dagger, anything. Instead, the man drew a whip. Ugh. “Oh, you were expecting something upon which to conduct your devilry? Not likely. What do you take us for, beast?”

“Look, I’m tired, hungry, and pissed,” Damian spat. “I don’t suppose you want to just walk away and save me a lot of trouble?”

“I don’t know how you found us so quickly, but if you want the bitch, you’ll have to get through me.” He cracked the whip for effect.

“You did not just call her that…” growled Damian. His grip on the Manticore spine tightened.

“You have feelings for that creature?” sneered the man. “Pathetic.” He lashed out and somehow snatched the spine right out of Damian’s hand with the whip, sending it into the wall, where it stuck fast. “I certainly hope you brought more than that.”

Damian drew a pair of wicked knives and rushed the man. The guard twirled out of reach, cracking his whip around Damian’s legs, and pulling them out from under him. He fell on his back with a grunt, his head snapping back into the floorboards. Gods damned… his strength was useless against this jackass.

“I expected more trouble out of an incubus,” drawled the man. “You fight like a farmer. Pitiful.”

One last idea. Damian threw a small bladed star at the man’s neck. He missed, but it still sunk into his left pectoral muscle.

“Ah, that’s more like it,” grunted the man, grasping the star tightly. “Wha…?” he traced a small wire attached to the star.

“Got you.”

The man’s eyes widened. Too late. Damian sent a charge up the wire and into the star. It arced into the man’s body, sending him to the floor in a quivering heap. Rising unsteadily, Damian stumbled towards the door. Spots blinked in front of his eyes. He slowly opened the large, wooden door and hobbled into the room.

There, tied to a chair and barely covered with sackcloth with a blindfold over her eyes and a gag around her mouth, was Audra.

“Audra…!” gasped Damian.

The girl remained motionless, unresponsive. Damian stumbled towards her. Have to… hurry… strength fading… no! She was here! Right here! Damian reached and pulled the blindfold off of her tearstained eyes. The gag came next. Then… Then…

Damian fell to the floor.

“Au…dra…” he groaned. White spots swelled in his vision. He had seconds. He leaned forward, plucking the hem of the sackcloth to expose her leg. Gently, he kissed her furry ankle.

Zap.

A charge snapped into him from her foot. Yes! New strength ignited his blood. He rose to his knees, pulling at the ropes binding her hands. Damian managed to loosen the knots just enough for her to slip free, and then fell back onto the floor. Audra slid off of the chair and landed on top of him.

Their noses touched.

What Damian saw in the hazy mist of her eyes crushed his heart in an icy grip of despair. Audra’s forehead rested upon his, but her eyes stared straight ahead. Caked-on blood and spittle encrusted her lips. She laid limply in his arms.

“Audra? Sweetling?” Damian said softly.

Audra did not reply. There was no life in her eyes.

Damian carefully turned, rolling over and resting the girl on her back upon the floor. Responsive or not, just being near her restored a little of his strength. Just enough to do this for her. Carefully, he grasped the hem of the sackcloth clothing her body and ripped it open, straight down the middle.

“Oh…” moaned Damian as bitter tears welled up in his eyes. “Oh my goddess… Sweetling… what did they do to you?”

Ugly bruises and cuts marred the girl’s body from the base of her head to the fuzz on her feet. Even her little nipples were red and swollen. Some of the cuts ran deep, as if someone inserted objects into her body and left them there for hours.

Gods…

Audra… his sweetling. What kind of evil could do such a thing to her?

It became painfully obvious to Damian that she’d had another seizure as the men that did this to her apparently sought to break her mind. Gods damn it, this was his wife! He wasn’t about to let them succeed.

Unsure if she could hear him, Damian leaned down upon her, speaking directly into her fuzzy ears.  “Audra, my love, my sweetling, if you can hear me, remember me. Remember us. Do you remember what happened when I first found you?” He smiled, despite the empty sorrow gripping his heart.

“You were curled up into a ball, covered in wires and metal objects,” he reminded her gently. “I tried to call for you, but you didn’t hear me. So, I poked you in the shoulder.” He poked her bare, bruised shoulder, very gently, and received a small spark. Damian grinned. Was it working?

“Just like that,” he chuckled, a tear falling upon her forehead. “And do you remember what happened right after that?”

Audra’s ear twitched, flicking as if stimulated. Damian lovingly caressed her ear, humming softly into it, feeding her his voice. “Yes, sweetling,” he murmured deeply. “You changed me. Changed my heart. I stopped caring about revenge. I freed you, as you freed me.” He hummed into her ear a wordless refrain of hunger. “I crave you, my love. Please, come back to me…”

Audra’s breathing quickened slightly. Damian gazed down upon her. She was blushing!

“Audra!” gasped Damian. “You can hear me! Come back! Please come back! I need your love…”

Audra blinked, gasping as she coughed. Damian’s trembling hands cradled her head. “Damian!” she cried hoarsely. “I knew! I knew you would…” she moaned, reaching up for him weakly.

“Of course, I would,” replied Damian, relief and love washing his fears away as he took her hand in his.

 “Dam…ian…” coughed Audra. “I’m… s…sorry…”

Damian’s heart ached to witness his wife in such pain, not only physical, but emotional as well. She blamed herself? Why? Gods above! He couldn’t even touch her without hurting her. Where could he… what was he supposed to do?

“Audra… shh…” he soothed. “Tell me where it doesn’t hurt.”

Audra gazed up at him and twirled a bruised finger around a lock of her hair. Of course. Damian gathered up some of her hair and began stroking it. He brought it up to his face, sniffing. Past the stain of oil, beyond the coppery scent of blood, were cherry blossoms. No matter what those brutes did to her, they couldn’t take the sweet scent from her. Damian kissed her hair, petting and stroking it fondly.

“I would travel the ends of this world for you, sweetling,” murmured Damian as he stroked her hair. Audra smiled weakly and touched her ear. Damian reached down and scratched behind it, giving her pleasure in any way that he could. Such a small gesture, yet her eyes hooded and her lips curled into a lazy smile. Ah. Even bruised and battered, she was beautiful to him.

Audra pointed to the very tip of her nose.

That gave Damian an idea. He leaned forward and nipped at her nose, and then applied a kiss, just like Jill had done earlier. His wife’s breathing quickened slightly. She pointed weakly at her lips. They looked bruised and split, and Damian couldn’t imagine they didn’t hurt. Her lips parted and her tongue slipped out, the tip of it straining to reach him.

Damian lowered to his wife’s lips and opened his mouth to let her tongue enter. He didn’t need to touch her. Her Raiju tongue extended much longer than a human girl’s. It slipped into his mouth slowly and contacted the tip of his tongue. A jolt seared into his body from the contact, spiraling down between his legs. His manhood swelled, hardening against the leather, aching painfully. Damian ignored it for the moment, his lips closing around his wife’s tongue. His breathing quickened as he constricted her tongue with his lips, offering it a dancing partner with his own. Together, their tongues slid and curled around each other in his mouth as Audra passed her charge into him with every beat of her weakened heart.

Damian’s breath caught in his throat. A soft touch caressed the bulge in his pants. Audra withdrew her tongue, her hooded gaze meeting his with hunger. Desperate hunger.

“Audra…?”

Audra moaned softly. “Take… me…” She spread her legs slowly, straining against the pain.

Damian’s eyes swept over her body. “But… you’re hurt…”

“Please…” she moaned as tears streaked down the sides of her face. “Need… you…”

Damian stood up and pulled off his pants. His manhood swelled to full strength instantly. As he knelt down to his wife, he stroked the hair beside her head softly. “I’ll… try to be gentle, sweetling.”

Audra shook her head, hissing with the pain it caused. “No… Take… Ravish… Me…”

Gods above… Damian wasn’t sure he could do this. He traced his fingers down her body, carefully avoiding wounds, burns, cuts, and bruises as he went, slipping between her thighs and made his way to her sex. Carefully, for she was bruised there as well, he spread her open. To his shock, and relief, his eyes fell upon moist, innocent pink. Thank the gods. No one had raped her. From her external injuries, it appeared they may have tried, but something stopped them.

No matter. He would cleanse her of this pain the only way that he knew how.

He kissed her. The hot, lustful center of her.

Audra hissed, gasping. “Y…yess…” she sighed, a hand resting on his head. “M-more…”

Damian smiled, carefully inserting his tongue, sampling the sweet cherry blossom nectar within her. Her body trembled, the inner walls of her tunnel gently squeezing his tongue as it probed them. He dipped lower, brushing her clitoris with his nose, heartened by her intensifying grip upon his head. Her fingers burrowed into his hair, massaging his scalp. Gods… it felt wonderful.

At last. The touch of his wife’s love. The taste of her honey. Life stirred in him once more. Tears of relief trickled down his face as he suckled her, his licking and tongue thrusting turning fiercer as her breathing and pulse came more quickly and with greater fervor. A second hand joined her left as her fingers explored Damian’s scalp and hair. Nectar flowed freely within her, milked from her sex by Damian’s lustful tongue.

Audra gasped, panting, flushing. The pain forgotten, her thighs tightened around her husband. “Don’t… don’t stop…” she pleaded. “I need you… I need you so much… please… please, please…!”

Audra’s body trembled around Damian. He basked in her presence. Her sweetness. Her lust overwhelmed him. Pushing through the pain, her desire eclipsed it, swallowing him up in her shadow as her love built up inside, ready to gush out for him.

“Please…!” moaned Audra. “Take me…! Master me… make me yours… again…”

Her soft words drove Damian’s hunger to a fervor pitch. He thrust his tongue inside, pistoning it deeply, over and over, as his teeth gently bit down into her soft flesh. She gasped, her back arching as her hips pressed against him. Damian gripped her thighs tightly to steady her. Whatever pain that action could have caused only seemed to heighten her pleasure. Her body bucked against him, orgasm cresting.

“Damian!” Audra gasped, sitting up suddenly, catching his upturned eyes. Her hands frantically grasped his face as his lustful gaze sent her over the edge. “Ohhhhh!!” she fell back against the floor, thrashing, grasping at anything she could find. Sparks flew. Gushes of nectar poured into Damian’s mouth. He captured her sex with his lips, allowing the force of it to open his throat and travel inside. He longed to savor her taste, but his hunger dwarfed that luxury, at least for the time being.

“Damian…” panted Audra, her chest swelling and falling with deep breaths. Her husband rose up over her, gazing down upon her, his manhood hovering ominously.

“Sweetling,” smiled her husband. “You’re looking a little better.” Yes. Indeed, she did. Color returned to her face. Her climax corked the oozing wounds all over her body, hardening them to scabs.

“Savior,” moaned Audra, biting her swollen lip as tears dripped out of the corners of her eyes. “You came back for me…” she repeated. Why did she find this so hard to believe?

“Of course, I did,” Damian gasped, gathering his love into his arms. The scraps of her clothing tumbled from her body as he cradled her like a babe in his arms. “My very being cried out for you. Even my dreams suffered for your absence. I was lost without you… Lost in the desert…”

“The desert?” Audra asked softly. “I dreamt of a desert… I heard your voice in the air…”

Damian sucked in a breath. “I saw your lightning in a storm, far away in the distant sky!”

“And with every flash of my power, your voice answered me,” sobbed Audra. “Even apart, you were with me… My savior… you kept me alive…”

“Oh, Audra,” Damian cried, holding her as gently as he could; the need to embrace her tightly was nearly overwhelming. “I need you… desperately.”

Audra smiled weakly, wiping tears with her furry wrist. “I’m yours. Have me.”

“I don’t wish to hurt you,” he reminded her.

“You can’t,” she reminded him, reassuring him with her smile. “Your love is a salve for my wounds. Please, spare me none of your passion.”

Damian nodded, lying her down upon the shredded cloth. He gripped his aching manhood as her thighs rose to rest upon his hips. She nodded as he leaned down upon her, guiding himself to her entrance. Lowering himself, Damian slowly guided himself into her, spreading her moist walls apart as his love entered her body.

Audra’s lips parted as her neck arched and her head rolled back. Damian held her by her hip as he grasped the back of her head, cradling her against the hard floor. His lustful hunger roared, barely controlled as he sank slowly inside her. His wife trembled in his arms, her wounds slowly knitting. Soft, warm skin tones forced the ugly purple and black bruises to retreat.

At last, Damian hilted himself within Audra, her walls closing in around him to fit him like a glove. Sweet honey coated his manhood in readiness. He throbbed joyously within her. Oh, gods, how he wished he could stay like this with her forever. Her power thrummed against him, conducting through their connection and forcing him to swell up inside her.

Gently, Damian eased his wife up to him, supporting her body so that he could lean down and kiss her. She sucked in a breath, her arms curling around his neck as she tilted her head to deepen the kiss. When their tongues reached for each other, Damian began slowly thrusting. Audra’s eyes firmly closed, forcing her other senses to partake of her husband’s love. Damian hungrily obliged, treating each of her other senses with something to feast upon.

Groaning appreciatively, Damian mixed the sound of his deep voice with the soft, wet sounds of sex beneath them. He hummed gently, comforting Audra with his voice, so that she may never endure the loss of him again. He was her thunder, the booming Voice of her Storm.

Breaking the kiss briefly, Damian guided his wife’s face against his neck, so that she might inhale the scent of him. Her savior, having traversed the desert of loneliness to find her storm. The powerful scent of his musk spread into her, warming her body, enticing her with his lust and love for her.

Increasing the pace and intensity of his thrusting, Damian tilted Audra’s face back up to his and kissed her, nudging his tongue between her lips. Breathing into her mouth, caressing her tongue, he allowed her to taste him, to delight in the heady flavor of his hunger and desire. She moaned appreciatively, drinking everything he provided her.

Seed pooled within him. Damian would release for her soon, but first, he wished to know the extent of her injuries. Touch her… The last of her senses she chose to bare naked for him. Locking her hips in place with his legs alone, Damian began to explore his wife’s body with his hands. With each touch, each caress, he willed love and healing into her wounds.

“Mnnnn…” moaned Audra. “Damian…” she cried softly. It was working! Her pain forgotten, Audra rode the waves of pleasure her husband set her upon. She trembled and shuddered, her moist walls clenching down upon him, making it difficult for him to thrust into her. His pace tapered to an aching slowness.

“Audra,” he murmured in her ear. One last sense remained to tantalize. “Open your eyes, sweetling.”

Audra complied, as best she could. The curtains slowly rose on her shining, emerald eyes and set upon Damian’s smoldering olive greens. Her breath caught in her throat as her husband devoured her with his eyes. Damian smiled, feeling her heart beating furiously within her chest as their gazes locked.

“Watch me, sweetling,” demanded Damian softly. “Watch me as I take you all the way, with me.”

Audra nodded, brushing sweat out of her eyes as she panted softly. Her gentle breath brought hot sweetness along with it, which Damian captured with a kiss. Her eyes hooded, but remained open as commanded. She sucked in a breath.

“Da…mian!” she gasped, breaking the kiss. “I… I’m… I’m going to…”

“Yes, sweetling, I know,” Damian replied huskily, holding her head steady. “Come. Come now.”

“Nnnnnmmmm…” Audra bit her lip, focusing her dewy gaze on him as her eyes slid out of focus. Damian plunged into her gaze, devouring her lust as he exploded inside her, holding her tightly as her body shook with each pulse of his release. At last… At last, he could hold his wife as tightly as he wished without hurting her. She gasped with the effort of a woman in labor as her body absorbed his energy.

Damian rode the crest of heaven with his wife, carried high above the sorrow and emptiness with her in his arms. A faint blue glow encircled him. Damian barely noticed, but at the back of his mind, he wondered if Rani was somehow helping him heal Audra.

At last, as she rode into the valley of her afterglow, she went limp, humming softly in contentment. Damian set her down gently upon the sackcloth and examined her. “Incredible,” he murmured, tracing his hand over her skin. Most of the wounds had healed, and even the deepest ones faded to dark bruises. One more climax would probably finish her off. Audra moaned softly as her husband’s hands explored her body.

She yelped as he flipped her over. Her tail shot up into the air, tickling his face. Damian caught it in his hands and gripped it tightly, inhaling the blend of scents she produced. The sickly-sweet smell of blood had mostly been replaced by crackling ozone and sweet, sweet cherry blossoms. He also detected a trace of her honey somewhere. Oh. Yes. She was dripping on the sackcloth as he gripped her tail, her body twitching in anticipation. That would do it. Grasping her hip, Damian pulled her close to him.

“Nnnn…” sighed Audra. “Not even going to let me rest…”

“Not for a moment,” he told her as he gripped her waist with one hand and his throbbing erection with the other. He leaned over her, keeping her head down against the floor and her hips up against his thighs. She hissed in pleasure as the head of his erection flensed her dripping sex.

“Ohhh…” she gasped, biting her lip. “My savior has come to devour me…” Audra moaned softly. “I can’t resist… There is nothing I can do… Ahhhhnnnn…” her voice trembled. Damian paused with one stroke, midway across her slit, and shifted his hips. The fleshy walls of her entrance parted, and he began to enter.

“No escape…” Damian growled hungrily. “Mine… All mine.”

“Yasss…” hissed Audra, her voice dripping sensuality. “Yours. Yours to take. Feast upon me… Ravish me…”

Damian grunted with the effort needed to penetrate his wife. Having climaxed at least twice, she was nearly frictionless inside, but the strength of her sexual muscles refused to go easy on him. Rising to the challenge, rather literally, he gripped her hips with both hands and forced his way inside. About halfway in, Audra yelped at an orgasmic aftershock, and relaxed.

“Ghhh…” gasped Damian as he suddenly hilted himself inside her. Her walls closed in around him, gripping him tightly. “Audra…” he groaned. “You’ve never been this tight!”

“I hunger…” growled Audra. “I am yours, but you are mine as well,” she moaned, glancing back at him as she began to rise up, arching her back. The purely sexual nature of her movement forced a throb out of Damian’s manhood, but he found himself stuck inside her. “Maybe I will take you this time…”

Oh, no you don’t. Damian released her hips and caught her wrists in his hands. Pulling her back roughly, he forced her to arch her back and remain in an upright position. She gasped, relaxing slightly. Before she could recover, Damian began thrusting roughly.

“Ahh! Ohhh! Mmmnnn!” cried Audra. “You’re sooo strong! I can’t…” she struggled, but he held her tightly. “Can’t get free! You beast! Ahhhnn!”

Your beast,” Damian reminded her. “You were the one… who made me… this way…” he grunted between thrusts as their flesh slapped lewdly against each other. “Be careful… what you wish for!”

“Ohhhh, my goddess!!” cried Audra. “This is… I feel like… I’m flying…”

Damian gazed down at his wife. She did sort of appear to have taken flight as her body bounced in an aerodynamic pose. Her entire body shone with sweat, filling the room with her sweet scent. Energy crackled all around her, swelling up Damian’s erection and forcing him to slow down as he began to stretch his wife open to her limits.

“Flying…” gasped Audra. “Flying away…”

“You come back down here, with me,” grunted Damian. He transitioned both wrists to one hand and reached into her full head of hair, gripping tightly. Her head snapped back; her flexible body affording him greater maneuverability with her than a human girl. She arched nearly all the way back, gazing back at him with upturned eyes. Her breathing came in gasps.

“Take… take…” she gasped. “AHHHNNN…”

“Quiet, sweetling,” grunted Damian, “What will the neighbors think?”

Audra giggled between moans. “You better… gag me, then!”

Damian released her hair, his manhood nudging her womb, now, with every slow thrust. As Audra’s body straightened out a little, he slid his hand over her mouth. He tried to hold it closed, but her lips parted, and that wicked tongue of hers entwined around his fingers, drawing two of them inside.

Her lustful action brought him to a head. Damian pulled her arms back, crushing her down on his swollen manhood. Seed rushed into the tip.

“Mmmmm! Mmmnnn!!” moaned Audra against his hand. Unable to speak, she bit down on his fingers, sending a firecracker jolt through his body.

Damian gasped, for he was already prepared to burst inside. Instead, he exploded, his entire body shaking in waves as he gushed inside her. The pleasure threatened to overwhelm him.

“NNNNMMMMPH!” Audra’s stifled scream reached his ears. Her tongue lost control, and saliva oozed out all over his hand as his wife came apart in his arms. Her insides opened up, greedily consuming every drop he expelled within her. Goddess! He’d never seen her so ravenous. She regained some of her senses halfway through it and began to lick his hand as her heart strained to keep up with the pleasure.

Sweet goddess, the pleasure was overwhelming! At the back of his besotted mind, Damian glimpsed the faint blue light again. He wondered if Audra noticed. The way her eyes misted and slid out of focus… probably not. Her body trembled with such energy, Damian could barely hold her. Yet, he clung to her as tightly as life itself. She needed him. Her savior. His love. His energy. His release. She would receive all, and not be denied a single drop.

At last, when they could remain upright no longer, Damian and Audra collapsed. Damian held his wife gently in a spooning position, caressing her skin gently. Her tail softly brushed up and down his hip and waist. “Audra,” he murmured, “You’ve healed…”

“Mmm,” she sighed contentedly. “You found me just in time. I don’t know what they had planned for me, but I nearly gave in. If I hadn’t heard your voice in the desert…” she trailed, off, trembling.

“I will never leave you, sweetling,” Damian promised her. “Never. Even if some act of a god tears the world in half, leaving you on one side, and me on the other, my love will carry me to you.”

“I love you,” Audra said softly.

“I adore you, my sweetling,” Damian told her, squeezing her gently. “I treasure you. I love you.”

“Showoff,” she giggled.

“What?”

“I thought you weren’t good with words?”

Damian grunted. “I’m not.”

“I enjoyed them…”

“I’m glad, sweetling,” he kissed her neck, and the fuzzy muff that had slid back onto it. “But I could never articulate what I truly feel for you.”

Audra sighed happily. “Never stop trying.”

“Never,” Damian promised.

Audra’s ears flicked. She sat up. “Heard something…” she hissed softly. She stood, moaning quietly as Damian’s manhood withdrew from her, before crouching predatorially against the wall.

Ugh. That damned guard was waking up already. He stood, yanking the star out of his body, and approached Damian. He’d forgotten to tie the bastard up!

“Fool,” grunted the guard. “I’ll admit, that was a proper surprise, but you…” he paused as Audra tapped him on the shoulder from behind. “Eh?” he turned.

Audra grinned wickedly at him. “Surprise.”

Zap.

“Ggggghhhhh!” shuddered the guard as a powerful jolt seared into him. He fell to the ground, twitching, dosing his pants once again. Audra giggled heartily at him.

Damian watched in awe. His wife stood, stark naked, over the man’s body. Had she always been that beautiful? She glanced up, noticed where his eyes were, and blushed. “Hey,” she squealed.

“Come here, you.”

Audra grinned again, leaping into his arms. “Take me again?”

Damian sighed. “I’m not certain we have time. We have work to do, sweetling.”

His wife pouted. “Aww.”

“Don’t worry,” he smiled at her. “I have two surprises for you.”

“Besides this?” Audra grinned, poking a rod of erect flesh between her thighs.

Audra’s touch sent a jolt straight into his cock. “Gh… Yes…” grunted Damian. He bent over to his discarded clothes and fetched the knife Lina gave him.

“What… is that?” Audra asked tentatively.

“A member of the resistance made this for you,” Damian explained as he handed it to her. “You can use it to get this marque off my back.”

“Ohh!” Audra squealed happily. In a flash, she had him on his stomach, lying flat, and straddled his thighs. “I can’t wait to get this ugly thing off you… What do I do?”

“Uff…” grunted Damian at the speed of her tackle. “You… you just scrape it off. Carefully. That blade can actually hurt me if you aren’t careful.”

Audra gulped. “Um… I really wish you hadn’t said that…” Her hand trembled.

“I trust you, sweetling,” Damian said softly. “I know you won’t hurt me.”

She smiled faintly and lowered down carefully, her emerald eyes focused sharply upon the marque. Carefully, Audra tugged her hair out of the way as she leaned close. She lowered the blade to the offending marque, and as she rested the edge on her husband’s skin, it drew power from her hand into the grip, and then into the blade.

“Is… is that…” she started to say.

“Supposed to happen?” grunted Damian as his flesh began to sizzle. “Yes…”

Audra bit her lip firmly, nodding as she carefully scraped. The knife, sharp enough to cut diamonds, cut evenly through her husband’s flesh, taking off a thin layer, and taking the marque with it. Lovingly, she attended it, scraping off a perfect circle around the marque. As she peeled the skin off, the marque shriveled up and crumpled, disappearing in a puff of smoke. A bright pink, shiny spot remained where she’d cut Damian. Setting the knife down, Audra leaned down and licked the wound.

Damian stiffened. “Au—dra?”

“Does it hurt?” she asked softly.

“Actually… no, it’s dulling the pain…” He closed his eyes as Audra set upon the wound with her silky tongue. Her saliva imparted an analgesic effect, coating the wound and salving it from the bitter air. He nearly drifted off to sleep as he relaxed into his wife’s loving care.

“Damian…” she nudged him.

“Mmhh?” Damian shuddered. “Oh. All done?” he sat up, checking himself. “Oh… Thank you, Audra,” he said with a smile. His wound glistened with her saliva, which clung to him without dripping. His flesh tingled slightly with a contented sensation, like a muscle after having been massaged. Audra smiled lovingly at him. “I have one more surprise for you,” Damian said, plucking the Raiju kimono from his pile of clothes.

Audra gasped. “You found one!!” she squealed happily as she quickly put it on. The crystalline electrodes immediately began to glow upon contacting her skin. The garment settled into place around her, but opened up in front between her legs, exposing her. Damian reached forward and fastened that part in place. There. Perfect. Just needed to get her a skirt, or at least a thong or something.

Audra giggled, spinning around, her tail twirling around freely. “Oh, it feels so wonderful!” she cheered, hopping into Damian’s arms. He gasped; she nearly impaled herself upon his erection. Realizing this, Audra deepened her gaze, her body shifting down slowly.

Damian caught her just as the head of him nudged her entrance. “Audra…” he said roughly. “If… we start again… we’ll go all night… The others are counting on us.”

Audra bit her lip and climbed down, patting his shoulder. “Next time.” A hungry glint in her eyes remained. Damian returned her hungry gaze with an appraising one.

“You’re looking so much better,” Damian said with a smile and slight sigh of relief. Audra returned his smile with one of her own but said nothing. “What I mean is, you seem…” he trailed off, unsure how to phrase it.

“More myself?” Audra finished for him, tilting her head inquisitively. Damian nodded. “Hmm,” she pondered that for a moment. “Now that you mention it, I feel different, too. My memories are coming back. It must be working…”

“What’s working?”

“Remember when we said our vows to each other?” Audra asked with a smile.

Damian grinned. “How could I forget?”

“I asked you to rescue me from the bubble I’d made of my life,” Audra reminded him. “I think you just did.”

“Just like that?”

Audra shrugged. “I don’t know yet. But memories are coming back.”

“Really?” gasped Damian. He embraced her tightly. “That’s wonderful!”

Audra smiled, nuzzling against him. “I feel ready, now. So, what’s the plan?”

Damian approached a creaky window and opened it slightly, looking around for Kira. “There’s a Harpy outside waiting for my signal. There she is…” Damian passed her the all-clear signal and closed the window as she took wing. “Now, we wait. There is a Jinko leading a small resistance force nearby. They plan to assault the town using Manticore venom to weaken the guards. It’ll take them some time to recover, and when they do, we strike from the inside.”

A wide, predatory smile spread across Audra’s face. “Yaaassss…” she hissed. “Mmm. Finally. Some payback.” She held out her hands above her head, powerful energy crackling between them.

“Yes,” agreed Damian, the urge to fight welling up inside him. “And this time, we face them together.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“ALARM!” cried a spotter in town. Well, that didn’t take long. A loud bell clanged, signaling an assault. Guards poured out of buildings, finding dozens of their compatriots lying on the ground, twitching, with stupid looks on their faces. Damian peeked out of a window to watch. The men rallied around a group of fallen guards when a canister of something metal fell into their midst. It exploded in a shower of shrapnel and gas. A dozen of them fell to the ground with stupid looks on their faces, before the others scattered. They began to assume defensive formations, taking cover behind buildings and ruined wagons.

A terrifying roar filled the air. Mamono poured into the town, clashing with the men. Kira swooped in, carrying Jinx, dropping her right into the thick of battle. The Jinko sprang into action, leaping from perch to perch, savaging men with her brutal claws. Damian watched, fascinated. Her claws did not draw blood, but the men collapsed regardless, gurgling as they trembled upon the ground. Damian noticed Lina hanging back, throwing more canisters at the men. She blew up a pair of Nekomata by accident, clapping her hands over her mouth in shock.

The two catgirls had been playfully swiping at men, but the moment they recovered from coughing and breathing the gas, they roared with adorable ferocity, and joined the Jinko in savaging as many men as they could. Lina gasped at their antics and began scribbling notes down in a little pad she was carrying.

Kira continued swooping in, dropping in more powerful monster girls to join the fray. The men began to retreat deeper into town… towards Damian’s position. He glanced back inside. “It’s time, sweetling.”

Audra grinned hungrily. “At last,” she said. They burst from their hiding place, sending a hail of lightning which dropped half a dozen men at once as energy chained between their bodies.

“AMBUSH!” cried one of them as he went down. Audra gave him a second dose for good measure. She and Damian stuck together, darting between enemy lines, zapping men senseless.

“Make for the upper level!” cried Jinx. “Release the slaves!”

Audra and Damian glanced up. Against the hill, archers began to pepper the resistance with arrows. “TAKE COVER!” shouted Damian. His voice boomed like thunder.

But then, Audra did something completely unexpected.

Leaping into the air, she spun around, focusing power, and hurled it upwards. Several archers tumbled from their position. She landed beside Damian, gasping. “Did you see that!?” she cried.

Damian gaped at her. “How…?”

His wife shook her head. “I have no idea…” she said softly.

Lina observed carefully, taking notes. Damian glanced her way, but she just shook her head at him. But then, the gremlin’s eyes widened, and she gestured frantically at something near Damian. “LOOK OUT!” she cried.

A rush of bright magic nearly swept him off his feet. Damian grabbed Audra around the waist and dove for cover, turning his body so that she would land on top of him. She gasped, lifting her head off his chest to look around. “It’s him!” she hissed.

Damian scrambled to his feet, helping Audra up. “The Operative,” he growled.

The Operative strode forward, tilting his hood back and affixed a strange device over his left eye that curled back against his head. Not a tall man, he appeared an inch or so shorter than Damian before his transformation. The man stood at attention, standing crisply in his immaculate uniform. The gold inlays set against navy blue pulsed with power. His jet-black hair was set back and gelled, similar to Damian’s appearance, and his dark brown eyes nearly matched, practically jet-black themselves. Cold. Emotionless.

“Impressive,” he said calmly as Damian and Audra rose to face him.

“YOU!” cried Damian, his booming voice shaking the dilapidated buildings and forcing many of the girls nearby to cover their ears. “What do you want with Audra!?”

“Audra.” The man paused, as if tasting her name. “The Silent Storm.”

Damian’s blood chilled. “What…?” He glanced at Audra, who paled at the man’s words.

“And to think,” added the Operative, “A frivolous peddler attempted to use you as a battery.”

Lina gasped. “So that’s what happened to my generator…”

Damian’s head spun. Silent Storm. Audra!? Rani’s words resurfaced in his mind. She called him, “Voice of the Storm.” And she’d just done something a moment ago that no Raiju should have been capable of.

“What the Hell are you talking about?” demanded Damian.

“And, judging from your vocal projection, you must be the Voice of the Storm,” the Operative noted. “Impressive. A pity you have yet to discover your true potential.”

“We’ll see about that,” Damian growled. “Audra. Together.”

“Together,” Audra nodded. They held out their hands and cried out as one, unleashing a massive blast of lightning at the Operative. The amplified power of Damian’s voice added an element of sonic force to the strike, linking with Audra’s in a twin spiral to sear towards the Operative. Jinx and the other girls cowered against it as it left a burning, jagged trail in the dust. The blast struck the Operative, who knelt to brace against it, holding a strange device in his right hand. His clothing seared with the power of their combined force, but he remained otherwise unaffected.

“Hmm. So soon. Unexpected, but not impossible,” noted the Operative as he stood. “Given time, you could challenge even the gods.”

Jinx stood, gasping at Audra. Even Lina’s jaw rested firmly on the ground. Metaphorically, of course.

“I have no desire to challenge the gods,” Damian told the man, holding his wife’s hand firmly in his.

“Nor do I,” agreed Audra. “But we have come to bring an end to your enslavement of the Mamono.”

“They are free to go,” the Operative waived off the issue with a gloved hand. “Makes no difference to us. We have what we sought.” He twirled his finger around in a small spiral.

Audra gasped as a circle of pale blue light appeared around her, separating her from Damian. “Damian!” she gasped.

“NO!” bellowed Damian, standing in between the Operative and his wife. “You WILL NOT TAKE HER FROM ME!”

The very mountain shook with the power of his voice. The Operative braced an arm against it, grunting in irritation. “Fume all you wish, Storm Lord. She is not yours to claim.” He held up his runic focus.

Damian set his mouth in a determined snarl. “That’s where you’re wrong, bastard. She is my wife, and no one touches her. No one!”

The Operative sighed. “Sap.”

“Nooooo!” cried Audra.

Damian’s body shook with the force of the spell. Ugh. Gods! Not again! He reached for Audra in a last-ditch futile effort.

And succeeded.

What?

The barrier around Audra fizzled out. The crowd watching gasped collectively. An eerie blue flame swirled around Damian. The swirling flames spun in front him, catching the arcane magic and absorbing it. A strange, eerie laughter echoed softly through the town.

The Operative said nothing, but Damian could tell his composure had begun to crack. Damian turned from his wife to stare at the man with fury in his eyes. His hands reached out to stroke the eerie flames, and they danced wildly around him, as if pleasured by his touch.

“You tried to take my wife from me,” Damian said, his soft tone amplified by the strange power he wielded.

“And you possess the ancient Kitsune blessing,” remarked the Operative. “It seems we are at an impasse.”

“Leave this place,” Damian commanded. “Your power has met its match.”

The Operative stood his ground. Audra approached and linked hands with Damian. Emboldened, the other monster girls slowly surrounded the Operative. Some of the tougher ones, like Jinx, and her friend Krysta, circled. Krysta limped slightly, three marques etched on her skin, but her rage overpowered any discomfort they may have caused.

“Very well,” sighed the Operative. “You only delay the inevitable. I should caution you, Storm Lord. Kitsune magic is fickle and tempestuous, beguiling men for millennia.”

“My love for Audra is not.” Damian squeezed Audra’s hand.

“Love,” said the Operative, beginning to glow a bright green, “Is the ficklest magic of all.”

Before Damian could reply, a burst of green light slammed into the ground, creating a strange circle. The power caught up the Operative and he disappeared into a pillar of green energy. Damian sighed in relief. The foxfire magic disappeared, rushing back into him as the stench of acrid smoke stung his nose. Krysta gasped and fell to her knees. Audra took off, rushing over to her.

“All right,” called Jinx. “Secure the town! Free the rest of the slaves!”

Lina approached Damian as everyone else rushed to action. She peered up at him. “You,” she poked. “I have a lot of questions for you.”

Damian peered down at her, unsure of what to say.

“You’ve been holding out on me,” she pressed.

Damian shook his head, sighing. “You probably know more than I do,” he admitted.

“Hey!” called Audra. “We need your help over here!”

Unsure if she was beckoning him or Lina, they both approached. Jinx held her friend in her lap, trying to hold her still.

“Will you quit… fawning on me?” Krysta growled, panting. She struggled just to breathe, the marques on her body having stolen most of her strength. Damian’s heart ached to see her struggle. She was gorgeous, in a terrifying sort of way. Spiky, auburn hair faded to smoky white around her neck, and raven-black, powerful paws gripped the ground. Ruddy leather wings laid limply on the ground, and Jinx carefully held a powerful tail against Krysta’s chest. All but one of the spines had been removed. The girl glared with crimson eyes, frustrated with her weakness.

“She’s in stage two,” remarked Lina.

“How long?” Jinx asked with a trembling voice.

“An hour, maybe less,” said Lina, sadly.

Damian didn’t dare ask what that meant. “What can we do?” he prompted.

“There’s very little we can do,” Lina sighed. “These aren’t mere sapping marques. These two,” she pointed at one on Krysta’s thigh and another on her waist, “Are some kind of absorption marques. They’re actually transmitting her energy somewhere.”

“I bet it’s where that Operative went,” Damian said bitterly.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Lina shook her head. “I tried to track him. I have no idea. And that’s…”

“Unlikely,” Damian finished. “You wouldn’t let him slip away that easily. You’re the smartest person I’ve ever seen.”

Lina blushed slightly, but she shook her head. “You’re right, it’s unlikely. He eluded every one of my scopes, and this power is fading into nowhere. Granted, I kind of threw this thing together with spare parts, but I should be able to detect something. It doesn’t make sense.”

“What if you use the blade to cut off her marques?”

Lina shook her head again. “That really only works if there’s just one. The way these things were designed, cutting off one will strengthen the others. If I try to rip them off her, they’ll kill her for sure.”

“Damnit,” hissed Damian. “There’s got to be something!

“Everyone get back…” Audra said suddenly. Her emerald eyes focused on the Manticore.

Jinx’s gaze met Audra’s; a gasp escaped her lips. She gently shifted her friend down to the ground. “Back up, everyone. I think I know what she has in mind.”

“Damian,” Audra beckoned as she took several steps back. She reached for him. “Kiss me.”

Damian gathered her up in a gentle embrace, tilted her face up, and kissed her deeply. Power jumped between them, building up in intensity with each jump. When Audra broke the kiss, her eyes shone as brightly as the moon. Damian took his place at her side, clasping her hand tightly. Audra raised her left hand, and Damian his right.

Audra and Damian cried out at the same time, “KRYSTA!”

As before, a burst of immense power shot forth from Audra’s left hand, joining with an equally powerful blast from Damian’s right. The two bolts intertwined, mixing with the force of Damian’s thunderous voice, and slammed into Krysta’s body.

“AAAGGHHHHHH!!” screamed Krysta as her body burst into flames. The flames lasted for only an instant, lifting her up into the air and twisting her into an incomprehensible contortion. She fell to the ground, landing on all fours, gasping as drool dripped from her lips, and honey oozed from between her legs. Her clothes, a mere memory, fluttered away from her body. Her fur appeared a little singed, but otherwise, the marques sizzled, having dulled and faded.

“Check her…” panted Audra.

Lina was the first to approach. “Oh… oh my…”

Krysta grinned wickedly, glancing at Audra and Damian. “Hells. YES!” She cackled. “Let’s do that again!”

“Easy there, girl,” Lina chided. “I think I can get rid of these marques, now.” She glanced at Audra and Damian. “You’ve got to tell me how you two do that!”

“Yass, and tell me too,” said Raina from somewhere.

Audra gasped and looked around frantically. Raina pounced her from behind, spinning her around for a bone-cracking hug. Even their tails wrapped around each other’s bodies. “Raina!!” cried Audra.

“Audra!” sniffled Raina. “I never thought I would see you again!”

Jill observed the reunion of the two sisters from afar, dabbing tears from her eyes. Raina beckoned to her, so she joined in, hugging them both.

“Jill?” gasped Audra. “You’re…”

“Your sister, now,” Jill smiled through tearstained eyes. “I can’t thank you enough for this gift!” she giggled happily, kissing Audra on her cheek.

“Blue looks good on you,” giggled Audra, stroking one of Jill’s highlights.

“Thanks!” cheered Jill. “So, what did we miss?”

“A LOT!” cried Kira as she landed nearby.

“Audra, Damian,” Jinx called from one of the larger buildings. Krysta hobbled next to her, her arm wrapped around the Jinko’s shoulders. Lina glanced at Audra and stepped inside. “We need to talk,” Jinx said as she followed the Gremlin.

“Boy, that sounds ominous,” Kira gulped. Then she yelped. “Ack! I forgot, she wanted to see me too. Don’t be late!”

The Harpy dashed into the building.

“We’d better go,” Audra sighed.

“Oh, no.” Raina shook her head. “I’m not letting you out of my sight.”

Damian sighed wearily. All of them ended up joining him inside. The Manticore laid upon a table or bench of some kind with Jinx presiding. The Jinko waved him over as she stepped aside. Kira remained with Krysta and Lina, who poked and prodded at the prone girl.

“First off,” Jinx hit the ground running. “Thank you. We’ve been struggling against the Operative and his goons for weeks. Together, we managed to liberate dozens of mamono and yokai, and the effort to return them to their homes begins shortly.” She nodded gratefully at an uncertain Damian.

“That… being said,” Jinx countered, “You have some explaining to do.”

“I’m not sure what you want me to tell you,” Damian admitted, rubbing the back of his head.

Jinx sighed. “You can start with explaining how you and Audra wield that kind of power. The kind of power that could split a mountain.” When Damian didn’t reply, she continued. “I’ve seen quite a few spectacles in my time. I’ve seen an undine flood an entire valley to protect an Alraune colony from locusts. I observed a family of Lava Golems divert an erupting volcano into the sea. I’ve even witnessed a Ryu work together with a Sylph to block the path of a hurricane, thereby saving an entire village of humans.”

Jinx paused for effect, to let her words sink in.

“But never in my entire life, have I seen a Raiju with Audra’s level of mastery. Even Thunderbirds would balk at her display.”

“I’m not certain I understand it, myself,” Audra admitted.

“Did she have any marques etched upon her skin when you found her?” Jinx asked Damian.

“No,” Damian replied first. “Come to think of it, she didn’t. That’s strange. Audra, I thought he hit you before. The Operative. Remember? You fell from the hilltop.”

Audra shuddered at the memory. “I’ll never forget that. When they took me into the wagon, I was covered in dirt and mud. They stripped me but did little else. I’m sorry, Jill. Your best kimono…”

Jill smiled and shook her head. “I’ll get more.”

“What about later,” Jinx asked, “Why did they not brand you when you arrived in D’Artagnan?”

“They tried,” shuddered Audra. “The marques wouldn’t stick. So, they beat me and cut me instead.”

What!?” gasped Jinx.

“I’m sure they were just inexperienced,” Audra said, blushing. “The Operative almost got me…”

“You know, come to think of it,” Raina spoke up, “It took them several tries to get a sapping marque on me.”

Jinx glanced at her warily. “We’re missing a piece of the puzzle, here. The Operative. He’s the key. Why does he want you?” she asked Audra.

Audra sighed sadly, her ears and tail drooping as her gaze fell to the floor. “I wish I knew.”

“Rani,” Damian said suddenly. “Ask her! She seems to know more than she’s letting on.” Damian kept the fact that he was rather certain Rani’s magic had helped him heal Audra to himself. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe, he reasoned, these girls had seen enough surprises for one night.

Jinx sighed, shaking her head. “That’s going to be a problem.” She glanced at Kira, who watched Lina intently. “I had Kira fetch her for that very reason. She can’t find her anywhere.”

“What!?” Damian shuddered. “She could be in danger!”

“Something tells me, no,” Jinx disagreed. “Even the Operative treated her with care. She’s a Youko, daughter of a very powerful Kitsune Matriarch. A Youko, by her very nature, is a talented trickster. I have a feeling she’ll turn up.”

Hmm. Maybe that explained the healing magic?

“What should we do in the meantime?” asked Damian.

“That Operative may have conceded the town,” growled Jinx, “But he will return with reinforcements. Our next step should be to take the port of harbor connecting D’Artagnan to the Kaybern Sea.”

“You want to cut off the shipping routes they’re using to bring in more slaves,” Damian noted.

The Jinko nodded. “That’s the next step.”

“There’s one problem with it,” he murmured, scratching the stubble on his cheek. “How many girls from Zipangu remember actually arriving by boat?”

“I certainly don’t,” Raina said. Audra nodded her agreement. “The voyage through Kaybern towards the open sea is rather treacherous. A lot of ships go down passing through the inlet.”

“But how are they getting you here?” asked Jill.

“They have a wizard capable of translocation,” said Damian with a shake of his head. “Audra and I threw everything we had at him and barely scratched him. With that kind of power, could he be transporting girls directly from Zipangu?”

“An unsettling thought,” Jinx murmured. “If that be the case, he could easily set up another staging point anywhere else in the world. All of this would have been for nothing.”

“Not so sure about that,” Damian told her. “He didn’t seem to care about the town, or the slaves, or even his own men. He only showed up after Audra and I revealed ourselves.”

Jinx focused her gaze upon him. “Are you saying, you think the entire slavery ring could be a front?”

“Not precisely,” Damian said, shaking his head. “It may have started out as a moneymaking scheme. Later on, a rogue wizard found out about it and it turned into something more sinister.”

“Regardless of what we think may be, all we can do is act upon what we know,” said Jinx. “Once the girls have rested up, we march on Reuben Harbor.”

“And if the Operative has moved on?” Damian asked.

“We’ll climb that tree when we find it,” Jinx told him.

Sounds of a scuffle drew the attention of Jinx’s ears, which twitched and laid back to focus on it. All three of the Raiju girls did likewise. Someone shouted.

“OW!” cried Krysta. “Get that thing offa me! And quit your fawnin’ for the last time! I’m not dying anymore!” The Manticore leaped off the table, brushing off her wings and glaring at Lina with irritation.

“Hey, come on!” whined Lina, hands on her tiny hips. “I’ve never, ever seen anyone healed by lightning before! I must scan you! For science!”

“Pah!” scoffed Krysta. “Scan them if you must.” She thrust a claw in Audra’s direction. “But not before I have some fun!”

Uh oh.

Krysta bounded up to him and thrust her chest proudly in Damian’s face, a wicked, toothy grin on her face. Still naked, by the way. And those voluptuous breasts were nearly the size of her head. “So, big boy…” she winked, her tail brushing up his leg. “Did you blow all your load, or was that just for starters?”

Audra cleared her throat softly, poking the Manticore in the arm. Zap.

“Oooh!” Krysta cried, tossing her head back and moaning. She slowly turned her head, her smile deepening into something sultrier. “I take that as a no…”

“That’s Audra’s husband,” Raina reminded her. “Keep your tail to yourself.”

“Mmm,” giggled Krysta. “Or what?”

“Or we’ll chain you up,” warned Jill, “And shock you until you scream.”

“New girl, huh?” Krysta brushed her with a wing. “Huh. Kinda hot. All right. So, what are you waiting for?”

Jinx facepawed. “Seriously, Krysta?”

“Yeah,” said Krysta huskily as her other wing slid around Jill. “You have no idea how horny I am right now. I got dibs on new girl here.”

“Too late for that!” giggled Jill.

“Huh?” Krysta grunted, moving in on her for a sniff. “Oh. Ohh. I smell a man on you. An unmarried man…”

“Dibs,” said Raina.

“So, I get new girl in the meantime,” grinned Krysta.

“She’s got dibs too.”

“Whaa?” whined Krysta. “You can’t both have him!”

Jinx groaned loudly, her facepaw becoming a double. “For crying out loud, Krysta. Just stick one of Lina’s vibrators on your tail and take five.”

Krysta crossed her paws over her chest. Well, under. Her powerful arms propped up her breasts, which she kept proudly on display. “I only did that for survival. I’m free now. Free and…” she winked at the Raiju girls. “Frisky.”

Jill giggled, blushing.

“Are you saying my vibrators suck?” Lina growled at Krysta as she made her way over. “Do you know how long it took me to modify yours for that tail? You better give that back if you don’t want it anymore.”

“Oh, I’ll be using it in addition to what I had in mind…” she grinned down at the gremlin.

“No, you won’t, because I’m gonna sell it,” countered Lina. “Do you have any idea how big the market is for unmarried Manticores!? I’ll never want for parts again!”

Audra nudged Damian. He took the hint and he, along with all three Raiju, snuck out while Krysta and Lina argued. Poor Jinx. With her face buried deep in her paws, she didn’t notice.

“That was close…” sighed Raina. “That girl is a fiend. We would have been at it all day had she caught us.”

“Some thank-you, huh?” said Audra.

“Uh,” Raina coughed. “That is her way of thanking you…”

Audra said nothing. Jill poked her. “So, what’s the real plan?”

“Take Raina and go get Garth,” Damian instructed. “You two really want him for your husband?”

A tear swelled in Raina’s eye as she nodded. She dabbed it with the fur on her wrist. “He… When I held him in my arms… I felt a crushing loneliness. It was suffocating him!”

“I felt it too,” nodded Jill sadly. “He’s always been chasing your shadow, Damian, and stuck with the left-overs.”

“Wha?” balked Damian.

“Mary Malone and her friends,” Jill pointed out. “They’d take just about anyone, but once he had them, none of the other girls in town would even look at him. And he didn’t feel he had your charms to talk them around.”

“But he was your best friend,” Raina continued for her. “He didn’t want to say anything. I don’t know him as well as Jill, but he felt at peace wrapped up between the two of us.”

“I think any guy would,” chuckled Damian. He stroked his stubble pensively. “But, in all seriousness, he really felt that way? Dude’s gotten me out of more scrapes than I can count. I’d be poor and homeless without him. Yea, I’m good with girls. But that’s all I’m good at…”

Audra shook her head, an appalled expression on her face. “No!” she cried. “You risked your life for me! For all of us! Sure, maybe you put on a mask to tease other women, but under all that, you carry a selfless heart.”

Damian blushed scarlet, but all three girls nodded at him. “R-really?” he stammered.

“Yes!” cried Jill. “Even when you were robbing me,” she pouted. “Even then! You weren’t doing it for personal gain. You were trying to stop the slavers!”

“He robbed you?” Raina asked, flabbergasted.

“Yup!”

“Ugh, whatever,” groaned Damian, trying to cover his blushing face with his hand. “Just, go get him, will ya?”

“All right,” nodded Jill. “C’mon, sis,” she tugged Raina’s sleeve.

They ran off. Damian breathed a sigh of relief. Audra giggled. “I hope he can handle them!” she laughed.

“Is polyamory acceptable in your culture?” her husband asked.

Audra thought about it. “It’s rare, but not unheard of, especially when a newly made mamono, or yokai in our case, and her ‘sister’ both fancy the same man.” She giggled. “I’m just glad they don’t both want you!”

“One of you is enough, thanks,” Damian said huskily, drawing Audra into an embrace. They kissed, and Damian received a happy, lustful moan from her as a reward.

Someone giggled.

Audra’s ears flicked; she gasped, turning towards the sound, holding Damian close. Damian shielded her and peered in the direction she faced. “What? Did you hear something?” he asked in alarm.

“It came from over there,” she said softly, pointing towards the outskirts of town.

Holding Audra close, he headed in that direction. “Great,” he mumbled. “I was hoping to use the time the girls were away to come up with some kind of plan…”

Audra stiffened. “There it is again,” she whispered. “In the trees.”

Damian’s hand balled into a fist. Power crackled around his knuckles. “Are you ready?” he squeezed Audra’s shoulders.

“Yes,” she said softly as they entered the forest.

More giggles.

“That time, I heard it…” Damian said, relaxing somewhat. “But I know that voice. Rani?”

“Zap, zap!” giggled the girl. Damian and Audra turned to find Rani behind them, grinning coyly, miming a one-two punch with her tiny fists. “Zap, zap!” she cheered.

“Who?” gasped Audra. The little fox girl smiled up at her.

“Audra, this is Princess Rani,” Damian started to say.

Rani gagged theatrically. “Eww! Don’t call me that!”

“But Lina said…”

“Pff!” scoffed Rani. “If you call me that, you better bow down!” she giggled.

“Uhh…”

“Yea, that’s what I thought,” said Rani. She trotted up to Audra and poked her leg. “Mm. Fuzzy. Crackly. My, you’re a tall one.”

“But I’m the same height as my sister,” Audra said as she knelt, smiling a little bashfully, to Rani’s eye level. She tucked a lock of her hair out of her face and met Rani’s gaze.

“Well, so is she,” shrugged Rani. “So, you’re the wifey, huh?” She tilted her head inquisitively, her ears flicking. “Prove it!”

“Um, how?”

“Gimme a kiss!”

Audra glanced helplessly up at Damian, who tapped his cheek with a smile. Audra shrugged, resting her hand on Rani’s small shoulder just as her husband had done earlier. She drew the little girl close, and Rani tilted her head to receive a kiss on her other cheek.

Damian heard the soft smooch and tiny zap.

“Ooooh!” cheered Rani as she danced and pirouetted around. “That’s it! That’s it! That’s the… the… umph…” she stumbled, tumbling to the ground. “Ooo… feel… so strange…”

“Rani?” Audra called in alarm. She approached the little girl.

“Erg…” Rani twitched. “Oh… ohh… AHH!” she cried, a small pop filled the air, and she rolled around on the ground, her tails flapping every which way. Coughing, brushing leaves out of her hair, she sat up. “Ack. Ugh. Grass everywhere.” She sneezed, standing up unsteadily.

“Rani, are you all right?” Damian asked her.

“Yes~!” chirped Rani. “Your love is so powerful! I have to bless your wifey now!”

Audra gasped. “The Kitsune blessing!? It’s already saved our lives once!”

“I know! I saw everything!” giggled Rani. “I saw you… you… what are you staring at?” she asked, gazing up at Damian. He pointed at something behind her. “Huh? Wha…” Rani glanced back. “Are you teasing me!?” she grumbled, balling her hands into fists as she glared at him.

Audra gasped. “Oh! I see what you mean! Look!” She pointed at something behind Rani.

“There’s nothing there!” whined the fox girl. Her sharp eyes followed the pointing fingers. To her. She glanced back a little more closely. “Wait a second…” she murmured, gathering her tails into her hands. “One… two…” her voice cracked. “ACKK!” Rani screamed.

The little girl ran around in panicked circles.

“Oh my gosh!” cried Audra. “I’m sorry!”

“Sorry!?” cried Rani, dashing up to her. “I HAVE THREE TAILS!” she cheered, bouncing up and down. “You gave me a third tail! You know what that means!?”

Audra shrugged helplessly.

“SIX MORE TO GO!” cheered Rani.

“Wait, that’s a good thing?”

Damian chuckled. “You’re from Zipangu,” he reminded her. “I thought I needed to ask you about the culture.”

Audra crossed her arms defensively, “Hey,” she pouted. “I know about Raiju. A little. Maybe. And some of the things other yokai do. I don’t know everything!”

“I gotta bless you now!” cried Rani.

“I mean, I learned a little, while in this town,” Audra countered, “But they kept me away from most other—”

“Audra look out!”

“FOXFIRE!”

“Yaahhhh!” yelped Audra as a blast of blue Kitsune magic flew into her. Even on her knees, the power knocked her off balance and onto her rump. “Owww… Rani!” she whined. “Wait… was that?”

“Uh huh!” giggled Rani. “Now they’ll never be able to mark you again~!” She bounced up and down, but Audra recovered quickly and scooped her up into a firm hug. “Ack!” she yelped. Her three tails whapped against Audra’s arms.

“Thank you! Oh, thank you, Rani!” Audra said softly, tears streaking her eyes.

“Can’t… breathe…” gasped the fox girl.

Damian tapped Audra’s shoulder and she nodded, releasing Rani.

“Gahh!” moaned Rani. “You almost killed me! I take it back. …If I could.”

“I’m sorry,” Audra giggled ruefully.

Rani shrugged. “Eh. Killing me with kindness. Probably not the worst way to go!”

“Rani,” Damian murmured. “Why did you leave the compound? Jinx was worried about you. We have a lot of questions that only you can answer.”

“But she’s boring,” Rani complained, yawning.

“Rani, she freed the slaves of Dart town,” Audra said firmly.

“D’Artagnan,” corrected Damian.

“Nahh, that was mostly you two.” Rani shook her head.

“All we did was scare off the Operative,” Damian told her. “And we couldn’t have done that without Jinx and the other girls. Or you.”

Rani poked at the dirt with her shoe, clasping her hands behind her back to fiddle with her tails. “Weeeell, when you put it that way…”

“Rani…” Damian said firmly. “Why did they want Audra so badly?”

Rani approached Audra and rested her hand on her shoulder. “Audra of Kawajiri. Sweetling. Silent Storm.”

Audra gasped; her face drained of all color. “H-how?”

Damian knelt beside his wife and coiled an arm around her shoulder, patting the fox girl’s hand. “She had that effect on me, too.”

“But how did she…?”

Rani slipped away, dancing gleefully. “Se~cret!”

“She won’t tell,” Damian advised his wife, “But I have a feeling this is why the Operative wanted her.”

“Ehh,” shrugged Rani, coming to a stop and trotting back up to him. “Didn’t really care about me.”

“That’s why he didn’t try to make you into one of the slaves?”

Rani shrugged. “Didn’t care about them at all.”

“Then…” Damian scratched his head. “He only wanted Audra? Why go to all this trouble…”

“All he wants is the Arc Helix,” Rani stated matter-of-factly.

“The… the what?” stammered Damian.

Rani grinned, miming her one-two punch. “Zap, zap!”

Damian’s blood ran cold. He and Audra exchanged a worried glance. “The… power we hit him with?”

“Yap! Zap, zap!”

Damian reached out and steadied the fox girl. “Rani. Tell us about the Arc Helix.”

Rani tilted her head, pursing her lips. “Mmm? You really don’t know?”

No one knows, Rani.”

“Lots of people know!” protested Rani. “Mom knows. Operative person knows. His friends know. Even the puppets know.”

“Jinx doesn’t,” countered Damian, a little concerned to hear her call the men “puppets.” “Nor did any of her friends or even Lina.”

“Lina’s not as smart as she looks,” said Rani, sticking out her tongue.

Damian ignored her. “What is the Arc Helix?”

Fox girl shrugged. “I don’t really know. You’ll have to ask Mom.”

“Please,” Audra implored her. “Tell us what you do know?”

“Promise to love me?” Rani asked, batting her eyelashes at the Raiju.

“We did give you another tail,” Audra reminded her.

Rani blushed. “Oh… yes… all right!” she bounced. “I don’t know much, but I do know it’s really rare! Only very special Raiju have it. And they can only use it when they’ve got a good hubby!”

Audra blushed.

“Yap!” giggled Rani. “Your hubby’s the best!”

Damian blushed. “They… Well, Jinx told me your mother can see into the future.”

“Huh?” Rani blinked. “Oh. Kind of. She can see things. Not very well. She saw Arc Helix! Saw it with a Raiju and her hubby, but not which Raiju. So, we went to Zipangu to look for her. Mom wouldn’t tell anyone what she saw… so I tried to… um… help.”

Rani blushed and averted her eyes as she trailed off.

Damian held her shoulder firmly. “Rani. What did you do?”

The little fox girl bit her lip nervously. “I was just trying to help!”

“What. Did. You. Do?”

“I told some people what she saw…” Rani admitted. “I was bored! It was taking so long! I told them what she saw and asked them if they had seen it.”

Damian sighed… “And the Operative?”

“Um… I kind of told him, too,” she admitted, tears welling up in her eyes.

“So, the Operative coming here…” Audra gasped.

“It’s my fault!” cried Rani, and she ran off.

“Audra!” hissed Damian. “Catch her!”

His wife took off after the little fox girl. Both of them disappeared into the lush thicket within seconds. He wasn’t sure whether weasels were more cunning than foxes, but Audra at least had an age advantage. Poor Rani. She blamed herself for everything, using her cute antics as cover behind which to hide.

Sure enough, within a minute or two, Audra returned, carrying a sobbing and squirming Rani. “Mmph,” grunted Audra. “Rani, stop struggling! And give up with the illusions! They don’t work on me now that you’ve blessed me.”

“I take it back!” wailed Rani.

“You can’t,” struggled Audra, setting the girl down in front of Damian. “Don’t run.”

So, instead, Rani curled into a ball and cried.

Ugh. Damian had no clue what to do. He was good with women, sure. Grown women. This was a little girl. Her tears terrified him. Didn’t help, her mother could turn him into a flea if she wanted. Probably.

“Look, Rani,” Damian began nervously. “Nobody blames you.”

“Because they don’t know…” she whimpered.

“Those men are evil,” he told her. “They thought you were easily manipulated, so they used your cheerful nature against you. They used you, Rani. Doesn’t that make you mad?”

“Then, why were they so nice to me…”

Crap. Damian feared she might ask that.

Audra came to his rescue. “For several possible reasons,” she suggested. “Maybe they thought they could get more from you if they treated you nicely. You said you told them what your mother saw?”

Rani nodded.

“Maybe they were hoping you’d tell them more.”

“But I didn’t know any more,” Rani said.

“They didn’t know that,” Audra replied. “You’re a Youko. Your kind has a reputation for being tricky and clever. And that leads me to another possibility. Maybe they were afraid of you.”

“Afraid?” Rani asked softly, peeking at her with one eye.

Audra smiled at her. “Your mother is very powerful, right?”

The girl nodded. “People worship her…”

“Worship her?” Audra echoed. “Oh, my. There, you see? You’re a tiny goddess. They were probably very scared of you.”

Rani shook her head, but maintained eye contact. “No, I’m not…”

“I beg to differ,” Damian countered. “Your blessing terrified that Operative. It makes his magic useless. He was definitely scared of it. You said you saw everything. I even heard you giggle.”

Rani smiled sheepishly at him. “That wasn’t me.”

Damian paled slightly. “It… it wasn’t? Then, who was it?”

“The magic,” Rani said simply.

“The magic can laugh?”

“Kinda…” nodded the girl. “An ancestor likes you and your wifey. Or else it wouldn’t stick.”

“That’s incredible, Rani,” Audra said in awe. “I’m almost afraid of you.”

Rani smiled, wiping tears out of her eyes. “Rharr…” she growled, curling her little fingers into claw shapes.

“Eep!” squealed Audra theatrically, and fell backwards on her rump. On purpose this time.

“Tell you what,” Damian offered as he chuckled at his wife. “We’ll keep what you did a secret.”

“Se~cret?” prompted Rani. “Even from Mom?”

“Yes,” nodded Damian. “On one condition.”

Rani presented a distrustful look, crossing her small arms over her chest. “What condition?” she asked, raising a dubious eyebrow.

“Hide all you want,” said Damian, “But whenever Audra or I call for you, you have to come to us. And you have to do what we tell you.”

“That’s two conditions,” pouted Rani.

“One and a half.”

“I don’t wanna,” the girl replied, shaking her head.

“What would your mother say if she found out about this?” Audra asked her.

Rani gasped. “You wouldn’t!” she sputtered. “I’ll… I’ll come when you call. But you’re not my parents!”

Audra and Damian exchanged glances. “For the moment, we’re your guardians,” Damian announced. “And you have to do what we tell you. Until we get you back to your mother, and come when we call. Deal?”

Rani glanced back and forth between Damian and Audra, but they both stared firmly back at her. She shuddered, curling into a ball again. “Fine…” she murmured.

“I didn’t quite hear that,” Damian said. “I don’t have big, fluffy ears.”

“I agree to your terms…” she moaned, looking up at him. “Please, don’t tell Mom…”

“Your secret is safe with us,” Damian nodded, grinning at her.

He didn’t expect her to bounce around for joy, but, to be honest, she seemed even more depressed. There had to be… wait.

“Rani,” said Damian. “Would… you like to help us defeat the Operative?”

Rani gasped and locked eyes on him. “Wha…?”

“Damian…” Audra shook her head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Her Kitsune blessing is the only thing keeping us safe, right now,” Damian told her. “And that Arc Helix he’s after, maybe we can use it against him.”

“She’s just a child,” protested Audra. “She could get hurt.”

“I’m a big girl!” cried Rani.

“Rani, would your mother approve of this?” Damian asked her.

“Umm…” Rani gulped. “I doubt it… Can you keep that a secret, too?”

“On another condition.”

“What now?” whined the girl.

“Teach us how to make the Arc Helix stronger.”

The girl sighed. “Fine, agreed. But it’s so easy…”

“It is?” prompted Audra. “How, then?”

“You need to make yourselves stronger,” explained Rani. “Make your love stronger. Kind of like how you gave me a third tail.”

Audra frowned. “I have only one.”

“And one’s all you get!” giggled Rani. “Your power doesn’t come in tails. It comes in sparks!” She mimed a punch. “Zap. See? But when you get more power, you get a bigger zap.” She mimed a faster punch. “Zap! Get it?”

“How do we get more power?” pressed Audra.

Rani giggled. “Mom wouldn’t tell me. Said she’d tell me when I was older, but I remember her spelling it out when talking to someone else. I was really young and couldn’t talk yet, but I remembered!”

“And?” Audra prompted.

Rani held up air quotes. “Ess. Eee. Ecks!”

Audra blushed scarlet.

Rani burst out laughing at her. “Haha! See!? Easy! And since I’m coming with you, I’ll finally get to try it!”

Damian and Audra gaped at each other, and, at the same time, cried resolutely, “No!”

Rani flinched, laying her ears back. “Aww…”

Audra glared at her. “There will be plenty of time for that, when you’re older. Now, Damian.” She turned to her husband. “Have you come up with a plan?”

Damian sighed. “I haven’t had time. This one has been a handful.” He ruffled Rani’s hair. The little girl giggled mischievously. “We can’t stay with Jinx and the others, though.”

“Aww,” moaned Rani sadly. “Why not?”

“Because,” explained Damian, “If what you say is true, and they’re after the Arc Helix, they’ll be coming for us. Just us. If we split up, maybe they’ll leave her and the other girls alone.”

“But, you couldn’t take him by yourselves,” Rani reminded him. “You needed my blessing and the other girls.”

“She’s right,” sighed Audra. “Plus, I don’t think Raina would forgive me if I abandoned her right after reuniting with her.”

“And Jill would change her mind about charging me for that kimono we stole,” Damian mused. “Great. Now I’m back to square one with no plan.”

“Just stay with Jinxie!” suggested Rani.

“That… isn’t really a plan.”

“I have a suggestion,” offered Audra. “We go with Jinx and retake the harbor. Then we take the slavers’ ship and sail to Zipangu, and try to find Rani’s mother.”

“Your sister mentioned the voyage was treacherous,” Damian reminded her.

“How else are we going to get her back there?” sighed Audra.

“You have a point,” Damian agreed with a groan.

They made their way back to D’Artagnan, but the moment they set foot back inside the town, something large and heavy tackled Damian to the ground.

“Gotcha!” cheered Krysta, straddling him. “That was pretty clever, big boy,” she purred, leaning down to pillow her voluptuous breasts, still naked, against his chest.

“Krysta, Krysta!” giggled Rani. “You’re all better!”

Krysta raised a fuzzy eyebrow at the fox girl. “Not quite…”

“Good enough!” the girl cheered. “Play with me!”

“Not now, Rani! I’m… hungry… what is that?” she swiped at a ball of blue Kitsune magic flitting around in front of her.

“Come and get meee~!” teased Rani, magicking the little ball out of the Manticore’s reach.

“Grr…” growled Krysta. “Gimme that!” she lunged at it. Rani laughed and took off, the little ball of fire swirling around her. Krysta kicked up a cloud of dust chasing after her.

“Whew,” coughed Damian. “Well done, Rani…” he groaned, standing up, and chanced a glance at his wife, who was trying so very hard not to giggle. “I noticed you weren’t trying to stop her…”

Audra shrugged. “I don’t get it myself. Made me kind of hot to watch, though.”

Damian boggled at her. “You get off on watching another woman rape your husband?”

Audra shrugged again. “I guess we’ll never know. She didn’t get the chance.” One hand rested on her hip as she glared back. “I didn’t see you trying to fight her off.”

The fact that another hand had slipped between her thighs took the sting out of her eyes somewhat. Damian rose to his feet, sauntered up to her, and gathered her into his arms, tugging her close so that her breasts pillowed against him. He gazed down at her bosom with a sloppy smile. “What can I say, sweetling? I have a weakness for perfect breasts.” He rubbed her head affectionately.

“Mmm,” sighed Audra. “I’ll have to remember that.”

Jinx called from nearby. “I see you found Rani,” she noted, smiling slyly as Krysta chased the clever little fox all over town. “She seems to be taking all this rather well, thanks to you.”

“Come again?” Damian asked, his arm slipping around Audra’s shoulders. Her scent wafted up into his nose. Ahh. He never tired of it.

“That playful nature of hers,” explained Jinx, “It caused all manner of problems. Frustrated with being separated from her mother, she terrorized anyone within her reach. Until you showed up, that is. Since then, she’s been smiling again. And not maliciously. She looks up to you.”

Damian’s face flushed as heat spread into his cheeks. “Ehh? Wha?”

Audra giggled beside him. “Tell her.”

“Well, uh…” stammered Damian. “We did sort of just agree to be her guardians.”

Jinx’s eyes widened. “Did you? That’s… She would not entrust that honor upon just anyone. Who are you?” She asked this not just of Damian, but Audra as well.

Damian shrugged. “I’m just a scrap mechanic from Loren.”

“Nuh uh,” protested Audra. “You’re my savior. Voice of my Storm.” She snuggled against him. Her crackling energy seeped into him, stirring up deep-rooted hunger.

“The Operative called you, ‘Silent Storm,’” Jinx recalled. “What does that mean?”

“Mmm,” sighed Audra. “I’m not sure. I’ve always been a little shy, but never silent.”

“It has something to do with the dreams we share,” noted Damian, “When we’re apart, I can sense her as a fierce storm against a mountain. But her lightning makes no sound. My voice is her thunder.” He smiled, resting his hand on Audra’s head, rubbing gently and scratching behind her fluffy ears. She gazed up at him with upturned eyes. Hungry upturned eyes.

“Damain,” Jinx said softly. “Are you altogether well?”

“I… what?”

The Jinko pointed between his legs, blushing slightly.

Damian glanced down to find himself with a raging hard-on. “Uhh…” he gasped, nearly collapsing. Audra held him tightly, her eyes flashing with concern.

Jinx sighed. “I know that look,” she admitted. “Krysta stuck you with her spines.”

“What??” gasped Audra.

“I’m surprised you fought it off this long,” the Jinko confessed. “Impressive. But you’re going to need to spend some time with your wife to work it out of your system.”

“Best news I’ve…” grunted Damian. “Urgh… Audra…”

“I’ve got you,” she soothed, holding him upright with surprising strength in her smaller, slender frame.

“I suppose I’ll have to hold off the assault for a little while,” sighed Jinx. “We’re not going without you two.” She pointed her claw at one of the nearby houses. “That’s where they were holding me. Should be sturdy enough for the both of you…”

Audra smiled at her, guiding her stumbling husband to the little house. “Damian?” she asked softly as she nudged the door open and half-carried her husband inside. A small house, barely one room, with a cot in the center. A fine layer of dust coated everything.

“Audra… I… I can’t…” he grunted. “I need you…”

Audra laid him out on a moth-eaten mattress that creaked under his weight, releasing a cloud of dust. Gently, her slender fingers plucked open his clothes. “I’m here,” her soft, little voice soothed. She gasped as she removed Damian’s pants. “This… this looks so painful…” she said gently as she curled her fingers around his massive erection.

Damian gasped, splotches of purple and red burning the edges of his vision. Audra’s hungry eyes drew a sharp contrast with their lustful green as her sparks travelled into his flesh. His body shook, the Manticore venom interacting with Audra’s energy, bringing him to the edge instantly.

Audra gasped as she felt her husband’s manhood seizing up. She had only a second to shed her clothes and tip the head of it towards her face before he exploded upon her. “Ahh!” she yelped as it sprayed onto her face! “Yasss! MMM!” she cried, the heady scent of sex and Manticore husk tinting the flavor of what she received. Damian grunted, emptying himself harder than ever before, showering his precious wife with hot, thick, sticky love. How had she stripped so quickly? His subconscious begged the question.

Whatever. Who the hell cared? Numbly, Damian sat up. Sweet… Goddess…

Audra stood before him, naked and nearly covered evenly with ripples of milky white. She’d already begun hungrily licking it off of her skin, but only her lips, cheeks, and eyes glistened with saliva, not seed. The mess travelled all the way down her front, oozing into a sensual V shape as it dripped between her legs. She smiled lazily at him, slipping her fingers into herself to mix it with her honey. Sparks danced around her sensual body.

Damian gazed at her. Not sure for how long. Somehow, she ended up pinned against the wall and impaled on his engorged erection. Stars danced in her eyes as her hands cradled his face. She gasped at the intensity of his lust, but offered no resistance. She embraced him, squirming against him, offering slight friction with her soaked breasts against his hard chest as she allowed her mouth to be captured in a ravenous kiss.

Goddess, he needed her! Her luscious thighs curled around his waist, and he cupped his hand around one, traveling up to her bottom and squeezing. Her body bounced slightly as he thrusted into her as fast and as hard as he could, but he held her steady by crushing her against the wall. She gasped, breaking the kiss for air, so Damian attacked her throat instead. It was a wonder she could still breathe, but her cries assured him she needed this just as much as he did.

“Yes! YES!” gasped Audra. She sent a jolt into his shoulders, giggling fitfully as they travelled down his body and straight into his manhood. “Ahhn! Yass! Oooo!” she laughed. “Nnnnn! Yes! Kiss me… kiss me… everywhere!” Audra squealed.

Her voice… her little shocks… everything about her drove him wild! Damian’s lips and tongue streaked up and down her silky-soft throat, working in and around her furry muff, up and around her jaw, across her cheeks, and paused at her mouth. He’d gathered up some of his release from earlier, and, as he opened his mouth for her, he let her sample what he’d gathered. She moaned hungrily and dispatched her tongue into his mouth to take what he offered. Hot, moist velvet invaded his mouth, and he forced his tongue to surrender to it, just as her body surrendered to his lust.

Audra’s body quivered, shaking briefly as a firecracker orgasm overtook her. Finally. Damian thrust upward, the force of his action lifting her feet up off of the ground. With a growl, he burst inside her.

“Ohhh! Ohhh Damian, yasss!” Audra gasped, arching her neck as her head rolled back against the wall. Her body captured as much as it could, but they could both hear it leaking and slapping onto the floor.

Damian gasped as strength briefly left him, and he collapsed onto the floor, catching Audra as she landed on top of him. She smiled down upon him, her mass of hair curtaining them off from the world. All he could see was her. Only Audra. She was his sun, his Silent Storm. His everything. Nothing else mattered except for her. His hands rose to cup her face. Goddess, did she always have this much hair!?

“Audra… I love you…” was all he was able to say as he drew his wife down for a soft kiss.

“Damian, my savior, my voice,” she said softly, brushing his lips with hers, and her tongue. “Are you giving out on me, already?” She giggled as his erection twitched between her thighs. “Ah. I thought not!”

“Audra…” he groaned.

“Just a moment, savior,” she said with a wink as she turned around, her tail swinging around and resting on his face.

Damian sniffed the sweet, cherry blossom scent nestled deep in her fur as his hands burrowed into the fuzzy depths. Her tail twitched with pleasure, crackling with energy, so much that it made his balls ache. Lifting her tail, he sought her moist center, which dripped with a mixture of milk and honey upon his navel. What was she doing?

Sitting up slightly, he found his wife on all fours, bottom up, shoulders down, as she… licked up his release from the floor. He’d left a sizeable puddle of it, and she craved it. Every drop.

“Audra…” he asked, “Why are you licking that up when I can give it to you, fresh?”

“Mmnn?” Audra moaned gently as she glanced back, her lips stained milky white. Damian slid out from under her, sat up, and grasped her tail firmly, tugging her hips up to him.

“Goddess, every damned inch of you is beautiful,” he groaned, wrapping her tail around his arm as he pulled her towards him. His manhood rose up and he set her down onto it, sinking into her greedy depths.

Audra shuddered. “Y-ya-aasss…” she trembled, shaking her hips slowly, side to side, as she opened herself up to him. “Freeeesh…” she moaned. “Give it to me… hot and fresh… mmmnn…”

Damian worked his way inside her, twitching every time she let loose a spark from her tail, her skin, or her sex. Especially the ones curling around inside her. Each time one of them licked his shaft, he swelled up a little bigger. Not good, because that damned Manticore already made it difficult to pierce her. He held his wife’s hip in one hand, and her tail in the other. Carefully, now. She might be enjoying every second, but Damian would be damned if he caused her any pain.

Straightening up, Damian shifted his hand from her hip to her upper back, guiding her upper body lower as he sought for an angle. Soft sounds of licking made their way to his ears. Was she still lapping up the mess he’d left behind? Ugh. The room was filthy. He didn’t want her getting sick. He’d just have to make her forget about that stale stuff.

There. He finally got her into the perfect position. Her cervix shifted, and he hilted himself with one final thrust. She gasped beneath him, trembling as she rested her palms against the floor beside her head. Carefully, slowly, Damian withdrew and thrust back in. Yes. Perfect… oh Goddess, she was perfect. He repeated the action. And again.

“Ohh Damian… I can’t move…” she moaned. Audra struggled slightly, but Damian held her locked in place. “Mmmnn. The predator becomes the prey… whatever shall I do?”

Damian’s mind swam with the overwhelming pleasure of his wife beneath him. Her voice enticed him just as much as her sex. “Surrender,” he growled at her. “You’re mine.”

“Ahhn!” she yelped as his thrusting came faster. “I… I can’t… I have no choice… I’m yours…” Audra conceded. Her slender body rocked with the force of her husband’s lust. She concentrated on breathing, her soft gasps filling the room as her sweet scent covered Damian.

Goddess! Damian tried counting the blessings his wife afforded him. Her love. Her sexy, clever voice. Her sweet scent. Her soft fur and silky hair. Her smooth skin. Her… Damian couldn’t. He gave up. There was just too much for his soggy, venom-shocked mind to keep track of. His wife became too aroused to speak, relying only on gasps, cries, and moans as she gave herself to him.

Damian’s hand slid up her back, finding the base of her head. He curled his fingers into her hair and tilted her head back slightly. Grunting, he thrusted her forcefully, willing his seed to surge within him.

“Ahhhnnn!!” screamed Audra. “Ghhh… mnnn…” she gasped, her body coming apart in his arms. Her orgasm released silent lightning in all directions, embracing Damian with electric sex.

With a roar, Damian exploded inside her, hilting himself as firmly as possible. Damned if he would allow a single drop to escape her, this time. He wasn’t about to watch his wife licking up scraps from the ground. She would receive every bit of his fresh, hot love.

More… Yes… more inside her. He came, and he came, and he came. It was working… the venom-induced haze began to dissipate, allowing him to view his wife’s ecstasy more clearly. Audra’s lower lip rested firmly between her sharp teeth, her eyes tearing up with the force of overwhelming passion. When Damian released her hair, she smiled, glancing back at him as her tongue trailed across her lips.

Damian reclined back, remaining joined with her. He let go of her tail as he rested upon his back, and carried her with him so that she laid across his chest. Her tail shifted, tucking itself out from between them to lie against his thigh.

“Mmm. Savior,” Audra sighed, stroking his arm as they gazed at the dilapidated ceiling together. “How are you feeling?”

“Like thanking Krysta,” he chuckled.

“I’ll give you something more to thank her for,” she offered, withdrawing from him. She kept one hand over her sex to hold it closed as she slowly turned over to pillow her breasts upon his chest. With her other hand, she stroked Damian’s face and pressed a hot kiss upon his lips. “Are you tired, yet?” she asked, licking his lips.

“I’ve never felt more alive, sweetling,” Damian confided, twirling a lock of her hair in his fingers.

“I was hoping you’d say that,” winked Audra as she slid down his body. “This time. Fresh.”

“Au-dra…?” gasped Damian. She parted her lips and began taking him into her mouth. His sack rested in one of her hands, and the base of his erection throbbed in the firm grip of her other. Her upturned eyes locked onto his as she began curling her tongue around his shaft. Her head gently bobbed up and down.

“Mmmm…” his wife moaned hungrily, squeezing his balls to eke out more of what she craved. He throbbed in her moist, silky hot mouth as she alternated between her soft tongue, and her dangerously sharp teeth to pleasure him.

“Audra!” Damian cried as razor-sharp teeth grazed his sensitive shaft. The gentle laceration brought only surprise, not pain. And shocks. Many shocks, concentrated into pricks and points along the bumps and throbbing blood vessels of his erection. His head fell upon the floorboards with a crack. Stars danced before his eyes, from both the impact, and from the acute aphasia brought on by his wife’s utter dominance of his lustful center.

His body jerked. A pre-orgasmic shift nearly wrestled consciousness from Damian’s mind. He strained to sit up so that he could glimpse Audra’s lustful gaze again. He knew it would bring him to give her what she sought. He found he could not. Her power wholly dominated him, forcing him to remain limp and helpless in her loving care. So, instead, he closed his eyes to imagine her.

He dreamt of the desert. Except this time, he stood at the center of the storm. Lightning danced around him, a silent torrent of dust, debris and crackling energy whirled around his body. Every second, Damian felt his wife surrounding him, her breath on his face, her lips on his chin. Her gaze upon his eyes. The dragon that plagued him watched from afar, but did not dare to draw near.

That’s right, you bastard. Watch. Watch me give myself to my wife. Watch me give my voice to the Storm.

“AUDRAAAA!!” bellowed Damian.

His voice brought the desert to its knees. The dunes scattered. Sandy seas parted before the might of the Storm’s Voice. Throwing his arms open, Damian released himself into its glorious power. The dragon fled, dipping out towards the horizon.

Damian’s eyes opened to a similar scenario. Arcs of lightning seared into every corner of the room, but the vast majority of them crept into him. Into his body. At last, he found the strength to sit up.

“AUDRAAAA!!” he cried, shaking the room with the force of his voice. His wife’s eyes locked upon his. He burst inside her mouth, forcing her throat to open. She smiled against the onslaught, stroking her sex with one hand and cupping his balls with the other. As his love gushed into her throat, her eyes slid out of focus, her hand trembling between her legs. The sparks around her body intensified, surging with such force that it briefly lifted the two of them off the floor.

When Damian finally stopped, he gasped, his heart pounding as Audra stalked her way up his body and rested upon him. “Mmm.” Audra sighed contentedly, licking her lips. Their hearts danced against each other’s chests.

“Audra…” gasped Damian. She kissed him, cutting off his words.

“I love you…” she breathed against his lips.

Nothing else needed to be said. His arms came up around her and he held her gently. She sighed, nuzzling into his neck, her fluffy ears tickling his cheeks. He would have given anything to remain with her, even in this filthy hovel, forever. Just like this.

Wait…

Filthy hovel? Damian glanced around. Dilapidated wooden beams made up most of the walls, ceiling, and floor, but something had swept away all the dust, dirt, and grime. Looking down at his wife in his arms, Damian marveled at her. The soft, crackling energy surrounding her body licked off the dirt and sweat from his skin, leaving him clean and fresh, covered only in her sweet scent. Yet another blessing she afforded him. New appreciation surged within him, and he stroked her bare shoulder gently.

“Mmm,” sighed Audra quietly, rolling her shoulder into his touch. Her warmth spread through Damian’s body, and, together with the afterglow they shared, carried them both off into gentle slumber.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian stood against the mountain, clad in armor of obsidian and inset with triangular gemstones that crackled with the power of the Storm. His Storm. She stood beside him, draped in a breathtaking Zipangunese silk gown of blacks, pinks, and icy blues. Her hair, mingling with her fur, fanned out around her, styled into mysterious, jagged locks. Her eyes shone the color of lust, which she upturned to his face with a concerned frown. She indicated something in the distance.

Damian followed the Silent Storm’s finger as it rose skyward. There, hovering amidst the clouds, a cluster of floating islands loomed ominously. The dragon, that fell beast, circled up to them, retreating to its sanctum.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” Damian asked Audra. “That’s the source. The port of call. The stronghold from whence that evil has come.”

Audra nodded, wrapping her arms around his armored figure. Her warmth passed through the obsidian, carrying with it a loving energy that invigorated him. Gently, he rested a gauntleted hand on her head, tucking her close to his shoulder, and planted a kiss against her bangs.

“Evil cannot overcome this storm,” murmured Damian. “Together, we will find them, and bring them to justice.”

Audra said nothing, but her grip around him tightened in response. As their loving resolve intensified, a soft, blue glow emanated from the two of them, swirling around in front and assuming the shape of a beautiful girl, her nude figure ringed with blue flames. She smiled coyly, covering her body with numerous, ghostly tails, which left behind more flames that wrapped around her, forming the luxurious garb of the traditional Mistborne Kitsune.

“Greetings, Silent Storm. And you, Voice of the Storm,” the girl spoke with an echoing, wispy voice. Damian recognized the voice as the one from before, who laughed as she cast aside the Operative’s magic. “You, who watch after Rani,” she said softly, “You honor her with your uncompromising love. The ancestors smile down upon you. In recognition of this honor, we offer you this promise. In all things, in all ways, love each other. Never forsake each other. As long as you continue to honor us in this way, you shall never walk this path alone. Our blessing shall shield you both against the corrosive apathy of evil.”

“You humble us with your offer,” said Damian softly. “We accept. Our love will burn eternally, fueled by the passion we share with each other.”

“Then, go,” the Kitsune spirit spread open her arms. “And may the blessing of the Kitsune remain with you, always.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian gasped, his eyes flying open. “Audra?” he asked the woman in his arms.

“Nn?” moaned Audra softly as her eyes opened. She glanced up at him. “I just… Dreamt of…”

“Rani’s Kitsune blessing, given form?” prompted Damian.

Audra nodded, rising up, her tousled hair cascading onto his chest. “When Rani blessed me, I didn’t… I had no idea.”

Knock, knock.

“Just a moment!” gasped Damian. He gently grasped his wife by her shoulders and helped her rise. She smiled, blushing as her eyes swept down over their nudity. Damian kissed her briefly. Kneeling to fetch his clothes, he dressed himself quickly. Plucking up Audra’s kimono, he carefully eased her into it, fastening it into place so that it settled evenly on her body. He took special care fastening the small obi around her waist so that the skimpy, bottom half of the garment shielded her from lustful eyes. Damian mentally reminded him to get her a skirt, or at least some underwear. He bristled at the thought of anyone else casting her a lustful eye.

Knock, knock. Damian groaned and opened the door.

Garth.

“If you tell me it’s time for work,” grunted Damian, “I’m going to…”

“It is time for work,” Garth told him. Giggles. Two giggly Raiju girls snuck out from behind him. Raina curled herself around his right arm, and Jill around his left.

“Had fun, sis?” giggled Raina, calling out to Audra.

“Was it good for you?” Jill asked, grinning wickedly.

Damian boggled at them. “That was your doing?” he demanded.

The Raiju girls giggled loudly, winking at each other. “No, that was Krysta’s,” chirped Jill. “But we maaaaaay have suggested it…”

“Garth,” groaned Damian. “Are you sure you can control these two?”

His buddy shrugged, a cocky smile on his face that hadn’t been there before. “I think they just have me along for the ride.” He shrugged and squeezed the two girls. They cooed and crackled with energy. “In all seriousness, though,” he warned Damian, “Jinx is getting antsy.”

“Tell her we’re ready,” Damian said. Audra joined him at the door.

“We’ll tell her,” she offered. One of her eyebrows arched at Raina, who stared openly at her.

“Goddess!” squealed Raina. “Audra, you’re practically sparkling. You can thank Jill.”

Audra smiled, approached, drew Jill into a heated embrace, and smooched the girl on the lips. “Ohh Jill, thank you… It was wonderful.”

Jill blushed, nodding. “A-anytime!” she said softly. But her blush fled as Audra stared daggers into her soul.

“Do something like that again, and I will shock you so hard, you’ll melt into a puddle.”

“Eep!” gulped Jill.

“Come, husband,” Audra beckoned, strutting off, head held high.

“Buddy,” whistled Garth. “Your wife is terrifying.

“Don’t I know it,” Damian grinned. “Don’t think you’re safe, either. They’ve got you outnumbered.”

Damian chuckled, leaving his friend at the mercy of two, hungry Raiju as he searched for Jinx. He found her speaking with Audra on the east end of town. Audra beckoned to him.

“Damian,” said Jinx as he drew near. “I apologize for Krysta’s behavior. We had a nice, long chat about what happened. She won’t trouble you again.”

Sometimes, Jinx frightened him. He dared not imagine what else that “talk” entailed. “It wasn’t all bad,” he murmured, rubbing the back of his head. Audra shrugged with a sly smile.

Jinx cleared her throat. “As I was telling Audra, we’re ready to go. I sent Kira on ahead to Reuben Harbor to scout the layout, but the plan, for the moment, is to take half of our forces straight in, with a backup force held in reserve to assault from the north or south.”

“We should get going, then,” Damian said.

Jinx blushed. “Just… As soon as I locate Rani.” She covered her face with one, large paw and groaned.

Audra flashed Damian a grin. He nodded at her. “Rani!” she called loudly.

The little fox girl appeared out of nowhere behind some bushes and darted over to her. Audra ruffled her hair and tickled her ears. When Jinx peeked at her from between a fuzzy paw, Rani stuck out her tongue.

“How…?” Jinx asked.

“We came to an agreement,” Audra explained. “Can’t say precisely how, though.”

“Se~cret!” sang Rani.

“As long as you stay near Audra and Damian,” sighed Jinx, “I suppose that’ll have to do.” She drew in a deep breath. “Krysta!”

The Manticore strode out from behind a shed, scratching her tail. New spines gleamed in the fading sunlight. She flashed a wicked grin at Damian. At least she was wearing clothes, this time. Sort of. A ripped shirt stretched tightly across her bust, with holes in strategic places to tempt the male mind. It cut off just under her breasts, displaying her firm, toned abs. She’d tied a loose sash around her hips, likely wearing nothing else beneath. Audra stepped in front of Damian, blocking the Manticore’s approach with her body.

Whew. Instead of the Manticore’s voluptuous, muscular body, Audra’s lovely hair filled his vision. And her cherry blossom scent filled his nostrils. Much better.

Krysta shrugged at Audra and glanced Jinx’s way. “Are we there yet?” she asked impatiently.

“Yes,” Jinx replied. “Get these girls moving. I want you leading the main assault.”

“And what are you gonna do?” Krysta pressed, leaning in to peer at the Jinko.

“I’m leading the reserve force,” Jinx told her, nudging the Manticore out of her face. “We’ll approach from the north or south, depending on Kira’s intel.”

“Skulking in the shadows, huh?” Krysta asked with a grin.

“I do see in the dark rather well,” Jinx pointed out.

“Whatever,” shrugged Krysta. “Don’t expect any left-overs. You didn’t let me eat him.” She winked at Damian, her tail snaking around Audra and going for his legs.

Audra brushed her tail and sent a powerful jolt into it.

“Hnnnn…” trembled Krysta. “Mmmhhh… Oh, you’re a devilish one…”

“You want us to fry you again?” threatened Audra.

“Hell yeah!”

“Krysta!!” bellowed Jinx. “Get to work!”

Krysta thrust a middle claw in Jinx’s face. “No leftovers. None.” She turned and made her way towards the town’s outskirts. “FORM UP ON ME!” she cried. “MOVE OUT!”

Dozens of anxious and angry-looking monster girls emerged from dilapidated buildings, courtyards, and the thicket to follow Krysta. Together, they stalked their way down the road heading east. Damian scratched his head, casting Jinx a worried glance.

“Jinx, how many of these women have ever been in a battle?” he asked.

“Besides the one here?”

Damian nodded.

“Just Krysta. Oh, and Ophelia.”

“Who’s Ophelia?” Audra asked.

Jinx pointed at a large, scale-clad girl slithering beside Krysta. “The Wurm. Though…” Jinx tapped her chin with a claw. “I wouldn’t even have called that a battle. She just thrashed her tail wildly, admittedly rather effective, though.”

Damian groaned, his face in his hand. “Jinx, this is serious. They’re going up against trained soldiers,” he protested into his hand. “Some of them are going to be seriously hurt, if not killed.”

“If you have another suggestion, I’m listening,” Jinx said with a glare.

Audra perked up momentarily. “Why don’t we sneak into the town like before? Except this time, we start the diversion. Get them to focus on us. That way, when Krysta’s group arrives…” She trailed off when Jinx shook her head.

“An honorable strategy,” the Jinko commended. “However. You two are our greatest assets. We’re going to need that power of yours to stop the Operative, if he shows himself.”

Someone whistled before Audra could reply. Kira landed roughly nearby and ran up to Jinx, a terrified look in her eyes. “JINX!” she cried. “We gotta problem!”

“What is it?” Jinx asked, her eyes narrowed with concern.

“Look!” Kira pointed a feathered talon eastward. A dark cloud loomed on the horizon.

“A storm?” Jinx murmured. “That might work to our advantage. Many of us actually fight better in—”

“No!” interrupted Kira. “That storm isn’t natural! They’ve got sorcerers in the square, standing in this weird circle, waving their arms around symbols on the ground!”

“That’s not good…” Rani spoke up.

“Why would they do that?” Damian asked, scratching his head. “Even if they knew we were coming, which we have to assume they do, wouldn’t a storm make it more difficult for them to retreat by ship?”

“Not necessarily,” Jinx said nervously. “Kira. Tell them about the metal ship.”

“Oh!” chirped Kira. “Now, I remember! There’s a strong-looking ship there, made out of metal! It might be able to withstand the storm! I doubt any of the other boats could.”

“They’re trying to cut off anyone from pursuing them?” Audra asked. “We have to stop them!”

“Agreed,” nodded Jinx. “We can’t wait any longer.” She drew a breath. “Reserve forces!” she bellowed. “Form up!”

Several of the smaller monster girls made their way to Jinx. Jill, Raina, and Lina arrived as well. Garth lagged behind, carrying a large assortment of tools and equipment, probably belonging to Lina.

“We can cut some ground by approaching from the south,” Kira suggested.

Jinx nodded in agreement. “We’d best move quickly. That storm will make it difficult to see when it fully forms.” She pointed the way forward. “Move out!”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Ugh. Damian really disliked thorns. And poison ivy. And roots. And tree branches snapping in his face. He’d decided to help Garth carry some of Lina’s stuff, as his buddy would never have made it at the pace Jinx desired otherwise. Problem was, it kept his hands full, and he couldn’t brush leafy obstacles out of his way. Jinx shredded a good majority of them with her claws, but many of them snapped back angrily at him after she passed by.

Briefly, Damian wondered if Arc Helix could blaze a trail all the way to town. He was about to suggest it to Audra when the rain started. Ugh. Now heavy, soggy branches slapped him in the face. Gods damned…

A clap of thunder shook him out of it.

“Watch yourselves,” Lina warned. “There’s nothing natural about this storm. I can’t predict what it’ll do.” She hopped up and snatched something out of one of the boxes Damian carried.

“We’re drawing near Reuben Harbor,” Jinx announced from the head of the line. “The storm should muffle our approach.”

As the Jinko led Damian and the rest of the group towards the south part of town, the sounds of battle erupted through the storm. Guards and Order personnel dispatched to the source, leaving the south entrance relatively unguarded. The pair of Nekomata girls Damian remembered from earlier snuck inside and took care of the stragglers. Waving their paws, they signaled Jinx to approach.

Reuben Harbor, a shipping and export hub, spread out approximately the size of Damian’s hometown of Loren. Large warehouses lined the shipping lanes, some of them mounted on stilts so they could stretch out into the water and dock directly with ships. Further inland, the town proper spread out, featuring a wide town square and a beautiful fountain in its center. It was here the mages wove their spell, and the fighting would be fiercest.

Carefully, Jinx led her team to trickle into the town. Jill and Raina climbed up the buildings and hopped across rooftops. Many of the more agile girls followed suit. Audra stayed beside Damian, holding Rani’s hand. They neared the town square, observing the defensive lines. Archers stood behind cover, their backs to Jinx’s group. Cries of alarm rang out as Jinx began dispatching them, but rolling thunder muffled their screams as they were quickly overrun.

“Good gods!” cried Garth. “What is that?” He indicated a massive runic circle around the fountain in the middle of the town square. Hooded figures each stood on a runic sigil at strategic places along the circle. Ominous chants rose from their midst.

Krysta’s group broke through the front lines and made for the sorcerers. Before she could bridge the distance, a massive bolt of lightning struck, enveloping her, and knocking everyone nearby off their feet. Blinking the stars out of their eyes, her friends glanced back at her location.

The Manticore was gone.

“KRYSTA!!” screamed Jinx.

Emboldened, the guards and Order soldiers closed in upon the rest of Krysta’s battalion. They faced a very angry Wurm, who’s coils knocked aside half a dozen men with one twist. “Give back Krysta!” she cried as she punched out at shields with the strength of a dozen men.

Another bolt of lightning slammed into Ophelia, knocking back Order and Monster alike.

“Ophelia!” gasped Jinx. “We… we have to fall back!”

Audra glared at the sorcerers. “No. We can end this.” She glanced down at Rani, who nodded. “Stay here, Rani.”

Rani said nothing, but anger seethed in her young eyes.

Scampering up the side of a building, Audra held out her hand, beckoning to Damian. Climbing a degree less elegantly than his wife, Damian nonetheless scaled the building and stood beside her, taking her hand in his. The storm raged around them, threatening another kill. Holding out their hands, the couple built power.

Audra’s energy crackled around her. Damian squeezed her hand, amplifying it. Together, they reached out towards the center of the circle and cried out as one. Arc Helix formed around them and seared towards the runic circle. It struck the fountain, completely obliterating it, and seeding the water with Audra’s energy. Damian’s sonic force, the other half of Arc Helix, created a shockwave that knocked the sorcerers senseless. The two forces combined left a crater in the center of town, upon which the circle crumbled and dissipated.

Damian and Audra glanced down at Jinx. Rani stood beside her, miming a one-two punch. A crackle of unnatural energy formed around Jinx and Rani. Audra gasped. “Damian!!”

“NO!” shouted Damian, thrusting out with his palm. A blast of sonic power sent Jinx and Rani flying, just as a huge bolt of lightning struck the spot upon which they’d been standing. “GET TO COVER!” bellowed Damian. The force of his voice carried to every part of the town. He clutched his wife tightly. “Sweetling, we must silence this storm.”

“Together,” she said, kissing him briefly.

“Together!” he cried as they sent Arc Helix into the sky. The force of their power seeded the clouds, much as it had done the fountain’s water. The skies split open, rending the clouds into a dizzying torrent. The rain trickled off after a moment as the sounds of rolling thunder faded away. Lightning flashed within the blackened clouds, yet it made no sound.

At the sight of such awesome power, the Order personnel surrendered, laying down their arms. Damian and Audra hopped down as the monster girls began rounding the men up into the town hall. “Rani?” called Damian. The fox girl approached slowly.

“Jinx is hurt…” she said softly.

“How badly? Is she bleeding?” Damian asked urgently.

Rani shook her head. “No, not bleeding. Hurt here.” She pointed at the center of her chest.

“Take us to her,” Damian said.

Rani nodded and led Damian and Audra to just outside the south gate to find Jinx curled against the wall, hugging her knees to her chest. She rested her forehead on the top of her knees as her shoulders shook with dry sobs. Lina stood beside her, grunting angrily at a device in her hands.

“Doesn’t… make… sense!” hissed Lina, rattling her device in her hands.

“Jinx,” said Audra softly.

Jinx did not look up. She shook her head. “Please… process the surrender in my stead…” she said between sobs.

“Jinx, we knew this might happen,” Damian reminded her, kneeling next to her.

Jinx peered at him through a tearstained paw. “Not like this… Not… like this…” she sniffed. “There’s… not even a body to bury… for either of…”

“Gods DAMNIT!” screeched Lina in an uncharacteristic outburst. “Useless piece of…”

“Lina,” Audra prompted. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to…” Lina shook her device. “I can’t find them. Doesn’t make any sense! If they were dead, they should have released all their mamono energy. But I can’t detect it!”

“Give it a rest, Lina!” cried Jinx. “They’re dead! Whatever that man did to them, completely obliterated them!”

“But that’s not possible,” protested Lina. “There’d have to be something.

A Nekomata appeared from around the corner and approached. “Jinx?” she asked gently.

Lina answered for her. “What is it, Rika?”

“We established a command center next to the town hall,” Rika explained. “The Order commander wishes to speak with the lady in charge.”

“I can’t,” Jinx told her. “They just… killed my best friend. If… if I speak with him, I’m like to rip his throat out.”

“Um…” Rika glanced around helplessly. “What… should I…”

“We’ll do it,” Audra announced.

Rika’s eyes widened at her, her slit pupils dilating. “Oh… All right. Come with me.”

“Rani,” Damian said quietly to the little fox girl. “Stay here and comfort Jinx?”

Rani nodded, approached the Jinko, and wrapped her arms and tails around her. It was heartbreakingly adorable. Swallowing a round of tears himself, Damian rose and joined his wife. Together, they followed Rika, who seemed more than a little nervous being around them.

“Rika,” Damian said suddenly.

“Yipe!” the Nekomata jumped slightly, her hackles raised. She glanced back at him.

“Relax,” soothed Damian. “We’re not going to zap you. Unless you ask nicely.”

“Um… Uh huh…” she nodded, gulping.

Damian sighed, burying his hand in Audra’s hair to feel her warmth and energy. He had a feeling he was going to need it. They approached the command center, a haphazard construction the Order themselves had used during the battle. Rika turned to them.

“All right, wait here, I will go fetch him,” she said, darting off. She returned shortly with a sturdy, tall man garbed in the robed armor of the Order. Silvery grey shot through his dark hair and beard, and a resigned look marred his otherwise-professional composure.

“Damian, Audra,” Rika announced, “I present Commander Harrington of the Order of the Chief God, 5th Naval Division. Commander, I present Audra, Silent Storm. And, beside her, Damian, Voice of the Storm.”

A hint of distaste flashed in the man’s eyes at being forced to address Audra in this manner, but he brushed it off quickly. “Lady Audra,” he spoke brusquely. “I commend you on your victory, and thank you for the gracious treatment of my men.”

“I want you to know, Commander,” Audra replied, “That while I appreciate your civility in this matter, I find myself appalled at the State-sanctioned trafficking and slavery we’ve come to terms with. I realize the Order considers our kind enemies. Even evil. However…” Audra trailed off, her thoughts interrupted by the commander’s gesture.

“It was of that matter, I wished to speak,” Harrington noted. “I wish to make it clear, for the record, the Holy Order does not condone slavery in any way, shape, or form. These men are acting outside of the confines of our laws.”

“They’re flying your standards,” Damian reminded him.

“That may be, but we do not recognize these men,” Commander Harrington said.

“For what it’s worth,” Rika noted, “His people separated themselves from several of the others. The sorcerers included.”

Harrington cleared his throat. “The Order dispatched an Operative, by the name of Eamon Heath, to D’Artagnan to investigate claims of a smuggling ring trafficking monsters from Zipangu. However, he was intercepted somewhere between Halfmoore Ridge and the town of Varna. We have not heard from him since, but scouts report he has reached Varna and moved east. The Order conscripted my men and I to begin an official investigation into the matter.”

“Hmm,” Audra averted her gaze while she thought about that.

“We have a spotter that corroborates your story so far,” Damian told Harrington. “We believe Eamon Heath is dead, and someone else has taken his place. Not only that, he has assumed ownership of the smuggling ring, and his influence stretches as far as Zipangu.”

“Did this man identify himself?” Harrington asked.

“No, he did not,” Damian replied. “Why did you not disband the smugglers in D’Artagnan?”

“I left men in the town to do just that,” Harrington replied. “The smugglers reported their chief of operations to be located here, in Reuben Harbor. I left a detachment in D’Artagnan and proceeded east. When we arrived, what we found beggared belief. A ship, its hull configuration unknown to the Order, was moored at the docks. When I demanded an explanation for what was taking place, the men insisted a demonstration would be required. Under strict supervision of course. Less than an hour after they began, your people attacked.”

“The only men we encountered in D’Artagnan were slavers,” Damian told the man.

Harrington paled slightly. “That’s… I assure you, I left an entire detachment there.”

“So, we’re to believe you actually came here to stop them?” Damian pressed. Problem was, what he was saying corroborated what Jinx told him earlier about men being “sent away” and replaced. He wondered if that’s what happened to Harrington’s detachment.

“I’ll state again, for the record,” Harrington said firmly, “The Order of the Chief God does not condone slavery.”

“But, you have no qualms about killing us,” Damian pointed out.

“This is war, Lord Damian,” Harrington told him. “Make no mistake. We fight for the preservation of our way of life. However. To condone slavery would be to reject the core teachings of our God. Our very lives would, from that day forward, be meaningless.”

“Let me get this straight,” pressed Damian, “You claim the Operative is not of the Order, and the smugglers are not of the Order. Who are they, then?”

“We believe the smugglers to be just so,” said Harrington, “A band of traffickers operating amidst the black market, and disguising themselves as our people. They do not concern me.”

“And the Operative?”

“The Order theorizes he hails from an extremist terrorist organization known as Tenebrae Vincunt. ‘Darkness Prevails.’”

Damian sucked in a breath, glancing at Audra. She returned him a dark look and nodded. Damian refocused back on the Commander.

“What is his ultimate objective?” he pressed.

“I had hoped to determine that with a thorough interrogation of his men, but they all seem to be under some kind of enchantment,” Harrington said pensively.

“Do you know what kind of vile magic he employs?” Audra asked, a sour expression on her face.

“I do not,” admitted Harrington. “Its like has never been seen before in the Order.”

Damian didn’t believe that for a second, but Audra spoke first. “Neither have any of us witnessed it before these past few months.”

Lina strode into the command center, peering up at Commander Harrington with a wary look in her eyes. “Got some new findings. Let me know when you’re done with… this guy.”

“Wait, Lina,” Audra said. “Commander, do you have anything else to say?”

“A proposition, if you will,” he replied. “It seems we share a common foe in this Tenebrae imposter. I suggest we set aside our differences, for the time being, and focus our efforts in capturing him.”

“Just one question,” Damian said. “The lightning that killed two of our girls.”

“None of my men are capable of such destruction,” the commander assured him before he could ask the question.

Damian gazed at the man, studying his expression for tells. The man did not avert his eyes, nor shift uncomfortably. Damian sighed. Seemed as if he spoke the truth. “Audra?” he asked gently. “Anything else?”

“Not at this time,” she said. “Rika, please escort our guest back to the town hall. Ensure you divide the members of Tenebrae Vincunt from their ranks and place them under heavy guard. Commander Harrington, I trust I can count on you to assist us in pointing them out?”

“You shall have my complete cooperation, Lady Audra,” nodded Harrington.

Audra nodded to Rika, who escorted him out. She heaved a sigh of relief. “I… I can’t believe I just did that…”

“You did wonderful, sweetling,” murmured Damian, tipping her chin up so that he could kiss her. Audra leaned into the kiss, inhaling deeply, drinking in his assurance.

Audra broke the kiss with a soft smooch, smiling. “Mmm. Thank you. I needed that.”

“If you two are finished…” Lina poked Audra’s fuzzy leg.

“Oh, sorry Lina,” Audra apologized, kneeling to face her. A warm blush had spread across her cheeks from the kiss. Goddess, Damian never tired of looking at her. She was so beautiful. He knelt beside her to face Lina.

“Tell us what you found?” he asked the small girl.

One of Lina’s oversized, fuzzy ears twitched. “Right. So, I scanned the area with every one of my devices. I found no trace of either Krysta or Ophelia. That lends itself towards two theories. One, they’ve been erased from time itself. Unlikely. We wouldn’t remember them if so. Secondly… They were taken somewhere else.”

“Taken?” Audra asked. “You mean…”

Lina flashed her trademark grin. “They’re not dead!”

“You’re sure?” Damian pressed. “Absolutely sure?”

“I mean I could be wrong,” Lina sighed. “But I would stake my reputation on this. I’d have some traces of their bodies or mamono energy if they’d died. Energy doesn’t just disappear. It has to be expended or diluted somehow. Or sent somewhere else. Emphasis on the, ‘sent somewhere else.’”

“Where, though?” Audra prompted.

“That’s the problem,” Lina sighed, scratching her ear. “I have no idea.”

“That makes twice in as many days,” noted Damian.

“I know, right?” Lina grumbled at him. “I HATE not knowing something. So, you can bet, I’m not gonna give up! I do know, those bolts that got them, didn’t come from the storm.”

“Wait, what?” gasped Audra. “They didn’t?”

“Nope,” Lina shook her head. “If they had, I might have been able to trace them. These bolts came from somewhere… else. I have a bad feeling about this. I’m worried they may have been sent to a spirit realm.”

“What’s a spirit realm?” Damian asked, his face coloring slightly.

“Another dimension,” Lina explained. “Here. But… not. The same place, but not actually part of this world. Here. Look at it this way.” She held up two pieces of parchment, drawing a circle on each. She scribbled Audra’s name, her own name, and Damian’s name upon it. She then wrote Krysta and Ophelia on another spot on the circle.

“See? We’re all here.” Lina pointed to the circle. “But a spirit realm is like this,” she explained, covering the circle with their names on it with the other, blank circle. “The spirit realm overlaps ours, like this. To get Krysta and Ophelia there, all you need to do is…”

She jammed a fountain pen through both pieces of parchment where Krysta’s name was. “Zap,” Lina said for effect. She punched another hole for Ophelia. “Zap. Now they’re on this circle.” She wrote their names on the other circle next to the holes.

“Oh, I see,” Audra said with a nod. “How do we get them back, though?”

“I’m getting some weird readings from the places they disappeared,” Lina told her. “I maaaaay be able to figure out a little more about the spirit realm, if that’s indeed where they went. As for how to get there… We can’t. Not without one of them telling us how.”

“Do you think you could get one of them to talk?” Audra asked hopefully.

Lina grinned again. “I thought you’d never ask. I wonder if these good folks have a torture chamber somewhere…”

“Lina!” gasped Audra. “You wouldn’t!”

“Pfff,” scoffed the small girl. “I was just kidding.” She giggled, heading off to the town hall. “What do I need old, rusty torture implements when I have my own toys?” She cackled and headed inside.

“Uh…” Damian murmured. “I’m not sure I can bear to watch this.”

“Agreed.” Audra nodded. “Let’s find Jinx. I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear what we just learned.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“I know, Lina told me,” Jinx said with a sigh. Damian inspected her appearance. She looked awful; drawn out, exhausted, emotionally spent. He knew he’d feel similarly had Audra not been by his side. How the hell had he lived without her so many years?

“To be honest,” Jinx said softly, “I’m not sure which is worse. The thought of them being dead, or hopelessly out of reach.”

“Out of reach they may be for the moment,” said Audra, “But the situation is far from hopeless.”

“The Order commander knew about Eamon Heath,” said Damian. “He offered to combine his forces with ours to track down the Operative.”

“What?” Jinx asked with a shaken voice.

“They want to help catch this guy,” Damian repeated. “Apparently, he’s caused them a whole mess of problems as well.”

“What do you think, Jinx?” Audra asked softly. “Should we accept their help?”

“I’m not certain you should trust my judgement on the matter,” Jinx admitted. “I had Krysta back for all of a few hours, and now, I’m not sure I’ll ever see her again.”

“She wouldn’t want you to give up,” said Audra with a smile. She rested a soft hand on Jinx’s shoulder. “And neither do I.”

Jinx groaned, bracing herself against the emotional pain. “I applaud your bravery. You and Krysta would have become good friends.” She sighed bitterly. “This evil will be the death of us all.”

“Hey now,” Damian halted her thought. “I mean for us to live. All of us.”

“As do I,” affirmed Audra. “So, what is your decision?”

“This could be our chance to show the world we aren’t evil,” Jinx pondered aloud.

“I agree,” said Damian.

“Let’s go, then,” Jinx nodded. “Where is Rani?”

“Rani!” called Audra.

“Zap, zap!” cried the fox girl from somewhere in the bushes nearby. Jinx cringed at the memory. “Ohh…” moaned Rani. “Sorry…” She crept out of her hiding spot, sulking. “Please don’t cry, Jinxie…”

Jinx said nothing, walking past Rani wordlessly. Rani clutched one of her tails ruefully. Damian approached her and ruffled her hair. “Learn this lesson early, Rani. Think about what you say, before you say it. Otherwise, you risk hurting others. Or yourself.”

“You sound like Mom,” grumbled Rani.

Audra ruffled her, next. “She sounds very wise,” she said with a smile. “I can’t wait to meet her.”

“Rani…” Damian prompted. “I’m curious why you never speak of your father.”

Rani froze, her ears and tails drooping. “Dad… He… he went to the sky…”

Damian turned and knelt in front of the girl. “What?” he asked, his blood running cold. Damn. Right after asking her to watch what she said, he stuck his foot firmly into his mouth. “What happened?” he prompted gently, resting his hands on her small shoulders.

“Mom talks about him sometimes,” Rani said with a sniffle. “Said he fought in the Great Demon Wars. Back when the monsters were mean.”

“Rani, that happened over a thousand years ago…”

The girl nodded. “She said he gave me to her long ago, and to hold on to me until the time was right for me to see the world. Or something like that.”

Damian glanced at Audra, who shrugged. Could Youko really do that? “Rani, that’s incredible,” Damian told her in awe. “The stories of Youko being practically gods are true…”

“Uh huh!” chirped Rani. “And when I get my ninth tail, I’m gonna go looking for him!”

“Rani…” Audra said softly, kneeling to her, beside Damian. “Even gods can’t bring people back from the afterlife.”

“Afterlife?” Rani tilted her head quizzically. “He’s not dead! He went to the sky! He just… got lost…”

Damian and Audra exchanged glances. Unsure of what her mother meant, yet, it was highly unlikely a human, even an incubus, could live that long. “Let’s work on getting you back to your mother, then,” Damian offered.

“All right!” nodded Rani. “Maybe you can give me another tail on the way? Or two?” She flashed a grin, a disturbingly wanton one at that, before sauntering off towards the town hall.

Damian groaned. “Ugh. Her mother’s got a handful, there.”

Audra giggled. “She’s growing up to be quite the heartbreaker, isn’t she?”

“I do wish she’d get a little older before entertaining thoughts like those.” Damian shrugged. “Let’s go find Jinx.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

After asking around, Damian located Rika, who pointed him in the right direction. He found Jinx with a very frustrated Lina, who stood in front of one of the sorcerers, surrounded by several strange devices.

“Can I switch off the pain safeties now?” whined Lina to Jinx.

“Just so you know,” Jinx growled to the man, “I’m very tempted to let her.”

“Do your worst,” spat the robed mage. Damian noticed several smaller devices on his hands and face. “I welcome your pathetic efforts.”

“Good evening,” said Audra softly as she and Damian entered the room. The mage looked up at her to find her flashing him a fangy grin. “Do you know who I am?”

“Audra of Kawajiri, the Silent Storm.” The man spoke with no hesitation, though Damian detected a flicker of fear in his eyes.

“You know so much about me…” Audra said sensually, kneeling to his level, leaning forward to give him a tantalizing view. “Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself?”

“Give it up, whore,” hissed the man. “I’m not intere—”

A blast of sonic power from Damian’s voice cut him off, scattering Lina’s equipment as he careened into the far wall. Damian was on him in a flash, pinning him in place, leaving his feet dangling off the floor.

“Watch your mouth,” growled Damian, his arm against the man’s throat. “That’s my wife you’re speaking to.

“You’re married to that thi—” the mage tried to say, but stopped as Damian pressed against his windpipe.

“Damian,” Audra said gently. “That’s not necessary. Though, I appreciate the sentiment.”

Damian glanced back to find her smiling at him, so he released the man, who promptly laughed as his voice returned. “Hah… normally, it’s the man who owns the dog, but this time, you’re the bitch and she’s the master! The irony…”

Damian wound up to punch the asshole.

“No, Damian, there’s no need,” Audra’s words caught him just in time. “Lina, is he marked?”

“Hmm?” Lina’s eyes narrowed in confusion until Audra mimed a circle on her arm. “Oh! Yes. He’s got several. Why?”

“Because Damian and I are about to burn them off.”

“Oh?” Lina asked. “Ohhhh…” she finally realized, her eyes widening. “Uh, Jinx. We better clear out,” she suggested, gathering up her equipment and plucking electrodes off of the mage before darting out.

Jinx left with a smirk. The mage glanced between Audra and Damian, yawning. “So, what’s the bitch and his master got in store for me?” goaded the mage.

Audra shrugged. “Arc Helix.”

“Yeah, sure,” chuckled the mage. “You wouldn’t dare. We know all about your kind, and how incapable you are of actually hurting humans. Give it up. You don’t frighten me, and you never will.”

“Ready?” Audra asked Damian, interlacing her fingers with his.

“Ready,” affirmed Damian.

The mage looked unconvinced. “We’re going to stand here a very, very long ti—AAAGGHHHH!!”

Arc Helix seared into the man, vaporizing his clothes and reducing his marques to a dusty crisp. The force of its power blew apart the building Audra and Damian stood in, sending beams, glass shards, and roof tiles in every direction. Monster girls screamed, diving and sprinting away from the spectacle as fast as they could.

After the dust settled, Audra and Damian stood covered in sawdust, coughing as splinters and bits of tile rained down upon them. “Wow!” cried Rani, somehow unaffected by the blast as she snuck around from the corner of another building. “I didn’t think you’d blow up the entire thing!”

Audra giggled, snuggling into her husband’s arms as they both crackled with energy. “Did we use too much?” she asked Damian as she tilted her head to the side, standing up on the balls of her paws to kiss him. One slender arm curled around his neck to cup the back of his head and deepen the kiss as her tongue slipped into his mouth.

“Ess eee ecks?” chirped Rani.

Damian sucked in a breath; Audra gasped. They both cast sheepish glances at Rani, who blushed scarlet and giggled madly. The mage next to them groaned, capturing the attention of all three of them.

“Wh… where…?” he groaned. Rani approached him and peered down at a milky-white puddle he was lying in.

“What’s this stuff?” she asked, poking her finger at it. “Smells funny.”

She popped her finger into her mouth before Audra or Damian could stop her.

“Mmm!” cooed Rani. “Tastes good though!”

“RANI!” cried Audra. The little fox girl jumped three feet up in the air.

“Eep!?” she squealed. Her ears flattened against the back of her head and her tails swished horizontally as her panicked eyes searched for someplace to run.

“Not until you’re older!” Audra scolded.

Rani gasped… “That’s ess eee ecks?”

Audra fixed her with a terrifying glare. “Not. Until. You’re. Older.”

“But…” pouted Rani.

“Scoot!” Audra shooed her away.

The fox girl whined and darted off. Audra groaned, bracing her forehead against her fuzzy wrist. Damian patted her on the shoulder. “If she keeps growing up this fast, she’ll be married by the time we get her back to Lady Kutharei,” he chuckled.

“Don’t give her any ideas,” Audra said with a glare.

“Uhhnnn…” groaned the mage, glancing up at her. He gasped, cringing. “N-no!”

Audra exchanged glances with her husband. “Well, that was fast.”

“The runes didn’t just block our influence,” Damian noticed. “They altered his personality?” He stroked his stubble pensively. “I’ll be right back.”

“No, please!” cried the mage. “Don’t leave me with her!”

Audra smiled coyly.

Damian affixed her with a pointed stare. “Be good.”

She giggled.

Oh, boy. He stepped away just as Audra knelt to him and poked him with a fingernail. He could trust her to behave herself, right? Right…? Ugh. Better hurry. Damian entered the town hall and immediately found every eye upon him.

“What?” he prompted.

“Wow, look at you…” giggled Lina. “Last time I looked like that, I woke up in a puddle of my own drool.”

“Ugh, Lina,” groaned Damian. “Too much information. Look, I need a fresh pair of clothes for that mage.”

“Right,” nodded Lina, trotting back towards the other captives, who shifted uncomfortably in their seats. “HEY!” she screeched; several of them nearly leaped out of their seats. “I need some clothes! An overcoat. Something!”

“Uh…” murmured one of the men. “Doubt we have anything that small…”

“Huh?” Lina scratched behind one of her large, fuzzy ears. “Oh! No, dummy! Man’s clothes!”

Someone tossed a large overcoat at her. It landed over top of the girl, completely covering her. She grumbled, fumbling with it, and managed to fold it rather neatly within seconds.

“Gee, thanks,” she mused. “How kind of you. Next time, I’ll just take what I want, how’s THAT sound?”

The men cringed. Lina stalked back over to Damian with a hungry grin on her face. She handed him the garment.

“Thanks… I think.”

“I wish Jinx would let me play with them,” pouted Lina. “I haven’t seen so many unmarried men in months…” She turned pleading eyes upon Jinx, who merely returned her a cold stare. “See?” moaned Lina. “I’m gonna starve, here… Maybe we could… demeaning as it may be, ask for some volunteers? Surely someone wants some of this?” Lina cupped her small breasts, covered barely with strips of silk as she flicked her fuzzy ears.

“These are Order soldiers,” sighed Jinx. “None of them would lie with any of us willingly.”

“How can you be so calm!?” whined Lina. “Willing huh? I’ve got an app for that…” She held out a tiny device with a sharp needle on the end.

“No.”

“But… it’ll make them want me! It’s not rape if they say yes!”

“No.”

Damian chuckled and left the two of them to hash things out. Heading outside, he found the ruined building empty. Searching the area, his gaze fell upon the other Nekomata. Not Rika. Her friend? Sister? They looked awfully alike.

“Nika,” she said, answering his unspoken question. Nika pointed a claw towards another building. He nodded and headed in that direction.

Damian opened the door and the scent of sex, cherry blossoms, and ozone assaulted his nose. “Audra?”

“In here!” his wife crooned from around the corner. Damian found her sitting across from the mage, whom she’d tied to a futon, spread eagled. She sat in a chair opposite him, leaning forward as she used him for target practice. A sizeable pool of semen stained the rug in between them.

“Audra…” groaned Damian. “I told you to behave yourself.”

“Mmm, but you took soooo long~!” she whined, her lower lip firmly between her lower teeth and one upper fang. One hand twirled energy between her fingers. The other hand… Of course. Firmly between her legs. “Yass… not quite as good as with you, but… oh!” she yelped as a mini-orgasm sent her body into a tremble, and a shock arced from her hand into the mage. Damian barely dodged the jet of release he made.

“Audra, that’s enough…” Goddess. Her face was flushed scarlet and her eyes misted with lust. His manhood swelled just to look at her.

“Just one more?” she begged as she sank a third finger inside. “Nnn…”

“Control yourself, and you can have this,” Damian pointed at the bulge in his pants.

Audra’s eyes centered between his legs. She swallowed hard and nodded. “F-fine…”

Damian nodded at her, resting his hand on the top of her head to rub her gently. She sighed, her eyes lidded heavily as she ran the tip of her tongue across her lips. Tearing his eyes off of his lustful wife and turning to the mage, Damian carefully avoided the sticky mess in front of him and pulled a blindfold off of his eyes.

“Ghhh!” grunted the mage, his lean body shuddering at the fresh contact. His eyes rested firmly up into the back of his head. His mouth hung open, the tip of his tongue drooping out like a tired mutt’s.

Damian snapped his fingers in front of the man. “Snap out of it. We have questions for you.”

The mage trembled, but did little else. Damian sighed, glancing back at his wife, who hadn’t removed her hand. Her ravenous gaze fell upon him, and her slit pupils dilated suddenly, indicating another mini-orgasm. To her credit, she held her energy inside her body as it crackled all around her, but several locks of hair stood on end, jagged and sizzling. The little electrodes on her kimono shone brightly.

“Audra, get this man some water,” he instructed. Had to give her something to do with her hands. She sighed, rose up, and stepped into the kitchen, her little paws completely silent against the floorboards. She returned, handing Damian a tankard, and “accidentally” brushed his hand with her soaked fingertips.

Fine, two could play that game. He shifted the tankard to his other hand and sucked his moist fingers into his mouth to lick off her honey, gazing deeply at her as he did so. Audra bit into her lip with both fangs, hunger dancing in her eyes. Sitting down, she crossed her legs over her hand and went right back at it.

Damian turned away from her before his manhood burst out of his pants. Goddess! Insatiable little creature, his wife. Wouldn’t have it any other way, though. Carefully, he tipped the water into the man’s mouth. The mage coughed briefly, before realizing what the liquid was. He then gulped it down greedily.

“Ugh,” groaned the man as he finished. Damian slung the overcoat onto him as he untied the bonds.

“It seems my wife got rather carried away,” he said to the man as he tossed the tankard in Audra’s direction. She caught it with her free hand without missing a beat. Showoff. Turning back to the man, he fixed his gaze upon him. “If you don’t want me to leave you at her tender mercies again, I suggest you answer a few questions.”

“Just…” moaned the man, “Let me… touch her…”

 “No,” said Damian firmly. “She’s a tease and a temptress, but she’s my wife.”

“Please…”

“Answer my questions,” Damian commanded. “And maybe. Maybe we’ll find a girl to spend some time with you.”

“It… it hurts…” cried the mage.

“Then, I suggest you speak quickly,” Damian murmured. “Who are you?”

“Antonio… Aurellius… of… Tenebrae Vincunt…”

“Who is the man impersonating the Operative, Eamon Heath?”

The mage presented Damian a perplexed expression before shuddering. “No… No name. Called… the… the… nnggg…”

“Speak!” pressed Damian.

“Ward of Darkness!” cried the mage. “I cannot! My form shall be remit to the void, where I shall know no death yet feel no life!”

“Your wards will not help you anymore,” said Damian sternly. “But neither shall this evil possess you any longer. Even the imposter feared the power my wife and I wield. Now tell me. Who is he?”

There went that puzzled expression again. “You seek one who has no name. No identity. Known to us only as the Nameless.”

“Tell me more.”

The mage gulped. “The Nameless leads… Tenebrae Vincunt… and can assume the identity of anyone after absorbing the body of that person.”

“Where did the Nameless flee when we defeated him?” pressed Damian.

“To… to…”

“Tell me!” bellowed Damian.

“To Atlantis!”

“Atlantis?” Audra asked softly. “What is that?” she prompted as she took her place beside Damian. Her curiosity overcame her lust, at last. However, the hand she rested upon Damian’s arm glistened with her honey, which crept into his shirt.

“Not… I don’t…”

“Speak…” Damian growled.

“I don’t know!” the mage cried. “Please! None of us have ever seen it! Only the Nameless!”

“Is there anything more you can tell us about it?” Audra pressed.

“Only… an educated guess,” he admitted. “We, the mages of Tenebrae Vincunt, that is, believe it’s a city locked away somewhere that cannot be found except by those who know how to reach it. Anyone with access can use it to travel anywhere else in the world within the blink of an eye.”

Damian cursed. “Of course. That must be how the girls kept arriving from Zipangu.”

“What?” interrupted the mage. “No. Many of them came by boat, but some of them arrived through another means. Only the Nameless travels to the ancient city.”

“What other means?” pressed Damian.

The mage shuddered. “Cracks. Seams, creases in the world, where the distance to travel is shorter than it should be.”

“Where are these creases?” Audra asked him.

“Never in the same place,” said the mage. “With every use, the Nameless altered them, shifting them around.”

Audra glanced up at her husband. “The Nameless doesn’t even trust his own men…”

“Why?” Damian demanded of the mage. “What is this all for?”

“The Nameless has allied Tenebrae Vincunt with a sorcerer based in Atlantis,” explained the mage. “We don’t know who he is, but he seeks ancient power and knowledge. Anything lost to the sands of time that may have existed before Maou challenged the gods.”

“Arc Helix,” murmured Damian.

Audra gasped. “And Rani!”

“Yes,” nodded the mage, his eyes narrowing with anxiety. “The Nameless took a special interest in that girl. Said she was ancient, and though that did not make much sense to us, we do not question the Nameless. So, we took the girl as instructed. Is she truly that old?”

“It’s complicated,” groaned Damian. “How did you know how to find her?”

“You’d have to ask the Nameless that question,” said the mage ruefully. “We travelled to Zipangu, led by the Nameless, directly to the shrine that hosted Lady Kutharei. We found her daughter, and the Nameless personally convinced her to come with us. We were halfway to the mainland before the little girl figured out what was happening…”

“That can’t be right,” Damian countered, shaking his head. “The voyage to Zipangu takes days, even in the fastest of ships. Weeks or months, for sailboats.”

“Not for the Storm Chaser,” replied the mage.

“The boat outside?” asked Audra. “Why do you call it that?”

“That vessel contains technology none of us have ever seen before,” the mage explained. “We believe much of it comes from Atlantis. It runs on electricity, gathered from storms.”

“Would Audra’s electrickery power it?”

A smile flickered across the mage’s face briefly. “There is nothing subtle about the power of Arc Helix. You could travel anywhere by sea as long as you wished, barring equipment failure.”

“And how long does Storm Chaser need to make the voyage?” Damian asked.

“A day and a half at full power, maybe two,” replied the mage. “But, powered by Arc Helix? Less than a day, at most.”

“I suppose that’s why they wanted it?” thought Audra.

“No…” the mage shook his head. “The Nameless wouldn’t waste your talents on powering a ship. The Atlantean sorcerer wants you for something else.”

“Dare I ask?” Damian pondered.

“I truly have no idea,” admitted the mage. “But you are in even greater danger than I.”

“If you were us,” Damian said, “What would you do to escape the Nameless?”

The mage shuddered, trembling violently. “There… there is no escape. Nowhere in this world can you go to escape the reach of the Nameless. Not even the corrupted city of Lescatié or Maou’s Royal Demon Realm.”

“We’re going to need help,” admitted Damian. “We need to reunite Rani with her mother.”

The mage gulped, shaking his head. “The Nameless will surely anticipate this action…”

“Is there any way to draw him out?” asked Damian. “There’s got to be some way to stop this guy.”

“Fleeing to Zipangu would draw the ire of the Nameless,” nodded the mage. “But a confrontation at sea would surely cast us all to the mercies of Poseidon.”

“We’ll see,” Damian murmured. “Very well. You answered my questions to my satisfaction. As a mage, your spirit energy would be a hearty feast to any of the girls here. Make your selection, and I’m sure none would refuse you.”

The mage gulped, his gaze resting longingly on Audra.

“Except her,” her husband growled.

“Any others like her?” the man asked hopefully.

“You’ve ruined him, Audra,” sighed Damian. “There are two other Raiju here, and both are spoken for.”

“I could always just shock him senseless,” Audra offered.

The mage shook his head. “Please. Just one kiss?”

“No!” grumbled Damian. “It has to be a Raiju?”

The mage looked ready to jump out of his skin to assault Audra. Guess that answered that question. “Um,” Audra nibbled her lip. “Are there any girls amongst your people that you like? I could always…”

“No, Audra,” Damian quieted that idea.

“Just trust me,” she said softly, planting a gentle kiss on his cheek. “I’ll be back.”

Audra darted out before Damian could voice his concern. “Are you sure you want someone like her?” he asked the mage. “She’s a handful.”

“I need her…” the mage admitted with a tremble. “I don’t understand it!” he grunted. “Is this the witchery your kind uses to ensnare men?”

“Perhaps,” shrugged Damian. “I’ll admit, our first encounter was rather… explosive. After that, I craved her shocks.”

“So, you understand?” the man pleaded.

“Unfortunately, yes,” sighed Damian. “I told her to behave…”

“I’ve never felt anything like it,” the mage told him. “Please… I’m begging you… I need her to touch me.”

“And I’m not sharing her,” Damian growled at him. “You’d best hope she succeeds with whatever she’s planning, or…”

Audra burst back into the room. “Damian!” she cried. “I may have a solution!”

“Good,” Damian said with relief. “What’s the plan?”

“There’s a girl, named Callie, on the Order side, who was grievously wounded during the battle,” Audra explained. “Harrington’s men are trying to treat her, but it doesn’t look like she’s going to make it.”

“Arc Helix?” suggested Damian.

Audra shook her head. “She wouldn’t even need that much. She doesn’t have any marques. A simple sharing of essence to transform her would probably save her. She’d need a hearty infusion of spirit energy afterwards, but, luckily, this man is a mage. He possesses a massive store of it.”

“Harrington might object to…”

Audra cut him off. “There isn’t time, Damian. Jinx and I spoke to her, and she’s already agreed. This is a chance to show them what we do isn’t evil!”

“Well, Antonio?” Damian prompted.

“She’ll become like your wife?” he asked.

Damian nodded. “Yes.”

“Follow me,” Audra beckoned. The mage rose, carefully clutching the overcoat around himself. Damian followed directly behind him, ensuring he didn’t get too close to Audra. They entered the town hall and proceeded to a side chamber, which Harrington’s men set up as a sort of infirmary. Lying upon a bed of fresh linens, a pretty, freckled girl with short, red hair laid bleeding, straining to breathe as medics attended her.

“She took a nasty hit from debris after lightning took Krysta,” Audra explained. Medics worked to clean the woman’s wounds, but granules and shrapnel peppered just about every inch of her front and right side. She opened her green eyes, barely, as Audra approached her.

“Is… Is he…?” Callie strained to ask, coughing up blood into a small cloth a medic was using to dab her face.

“Your spirit energy donor,” nodded Audra. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

“Can’t… Can’t die…” Callie cried softly. “My brother… would never…” She coughed sticky blood into the cloth. “I’ll do anything…”

Callie’s eyes slid out of focus, and she passed out. The medic near her face gasped and pressed two fingers against her throat. “Her heart stopped!” he announced.

“Get out of the way,” cried Audra. “Stand clear!” she shouted as she spread out her hand over the woman’s chest. The medics backed away. Audra closed her eyes and released a jolt into the woman’s body. Callie’s body shook, but remained lifeless. “Back up!” she shouted and held out both of her hands. Tossing her head forward in concentration, Audra unleashed a torrent of energy into Callie. Sparks danced across the girl’s skin, igniting her clothes and cauterizing wounds. Leaning down to her, Audra planted a kiss upon the girl’s lips, drawing out the remainder of her spirit energy. As she did so, she slid her hand up and down Callie’s nude figure, replacing the lost energy with her own sparks.

“Ahhh!!” gasped Callie as her eyes flew open. She cried out at the suddenness of Audra’s presence. Audra smiled and backed away, covering the girl’s body with a sheet.

“How do you feel?” Audra asked her.

“Mmmnn…” moaned Callie. “I ache. I’m starving… Did… did you shock me, or something?”

“You were dying,” Audra said. “I had to act quickly.” She guided the girl to sit up. A hungry gleam ringed Callie’s eyes.

“I feel… strange…” she announced. “Tingly. Sort of itchy inside. And my skin burns, like I’ve been in the sun too long.”

“You need a donor,” Audra told her. “You’re hungry for spirit energy.”

“For what?” asked Callie, staring at Audra in bewilderment. “I still don’t understand what that means…”

Antonio whispered to Damian. “She doesn’t look like a Raiju.”

Damian smiled knowingly. “Not yet. Audra seeded her. She’s done this before, trust me.”

“Come over here,” Audra beckoned to Antonio. She guided him to Callie. “Callie, this is Antonio. He’ll be donating you some of his spirit energy.”

“How?” asked Callie.

“Kiss him,” she suggested.

“But… I don’t know him?” Callie protested gently. She twitched as Audra rested a hand on her shoulder.

“It’s all right. He’s here for you.” Audra smiled and sent a small shock into the girl’s shoulder. A healthy blush crept into the girl’s cheeks, spreading delightfully across her adorable freckles. Audra gently shocked her again and the blush deepened into a rosy color.

“You shocked me again?” Callie asked. “Nn…” she grunted, her lips parting. “Haahh… haah…” she panted. “What… what are you doing to me?”

“Shhh, it’s all right,” soothed Audra as she guided the two together. “Just kiss.”

“But…” protested Callie.

Antonio bridged the distance and kissed her. Callie’s eyes widened, and energy crackled between them. Antonio grasped her face firmly to deepen the kiss. Callie, trapped and unable to move, glanced down at her shoulder out of the corner of her eye. Audra had released her a moment ago. The energy was coming from Callie herself, not Audra.

Damian chuckled at the girl. The moment realization reached her, she arched into Antonio and embraced him, the sheet slipping off her shoulders. Audra carefully tied it together behind her. Patches of fur were already beginning to form on the backs of Callie’s wrists.

Their work completed, Damian and Audra turned to leave. Harrington stepped aside to let them pass. “Impressive,” he admitted. “Do all of your kind possess this kind of healing power?”

“Audra’s rather special,” Damian told him. “But all of us hold to a deep-rooted belief that no one should suffer or die needlessly. I was a follower of the Order teachings myself,” he admitted. “It pains me to recall how uncharacteristically feral and bestial the Order depicted Audra and her kind.”

“Even I scarcely believe you two were the ones who reduced the town square to a crater, hours earlier,” Harrington conceded. “I maintain what I said before. I would see our forces united in rooting out the imposter Operative.”

“He’s no Operative,” Damian told him. “Antonio, that mage in there? They had him under some kind of mental conditioning. Once we broke him of it, he told us all about this imposter. Goes by the title of, ‘The Nameless.’ Very dangerous fellow that has the power to assume the likeness of anyone he kills.”

“That’s troubling news,” Harrington said. “What’s your plan?”

“Commandeer the Storm Chaser, travel to Zipangu, and draw out the bastard,” said Damian resolutely. “If he doesn’t show, we’ll travel to the home towns of the mamono the slavers raided, and gather support until he does. We’ll brief Jinx on what we’ve learned. You can coordinate your efforts with her.”

“She has a fine subordinate,” Harrington said with a nod. “You’ll make a rather formidable commander yourself, one day. It’s a shame we aren’t on the same side.”

“It doesn’t always have to be that way,” offered Audra.

“We’ll see,” was all Harrington would say. He returned to the infirmary to guide the new couple to a different room. Damian and Audra exchanged coy glances before leaving to find Jinx.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“So, let me just ensure I understand you correctly,” said Jinx, her chin resting pensively in one of her paws. “The Operative is, in reality, a shape-shifting mage that is potentially hundreds or thousands of years old, known only as, ‘The Nameless.’”

“Correct,” nodded Damian.

“And your plan is to goad him into ambushing us by retracing his steps?” asked Jinx, raising an arched eyebrow.

“If we’re able to reunite Rani with Lady Kutharei, we may be able to combine our power,” Damian told her. “Nevertheless, we must stop this man.”

“If we’re able to reach Lady Kutharei, perhaps,” said Jinx. “But if we fail in the attempt, I’m afraid I will no longer be able to support your campaign.”

“Wha?” asked Audra. “But we’ve come so far…”

“Have we?” the Jinko pointed out. “I admire your tenacity, but from what you’ve told me, the man has access to a spirit realm that permits him an entry point to any position in the world at a moment’s notice. Do you truly understand what kind of tactical advantage he has over us? And to make matters worse, he’s allied his entire terrorist group with a rogue sorcerer that’s been gathering ancient spells and technology—the likes of which we’ve seen firsthand—for who knows how long?”

Jinx sighed and paused to let that sink in. “What would you like to do next?” she asked, throwing her paws up in the air in exasperation. “Storm the gates of Heaven and overthrow the Chief God?”

“We don’t have a choice.” Damian gritted his teeth, balling his hands into fists. “He will never stop hunting us. Audra and I will be looking over our shoulders for the rest of our lives. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let my family live with that kind of fear.”

Audra gasped softly at the word “family,” blushing and nibbling on her lip.

Jinx held her words for a few moments before answering. “I empathize with your situation. I truly do. However, these girls look to me to keep them safe. I lost two of our strongest today, and cannot risk any more chasing an idealistic crusade.”

“You’ve given up on them already?” Damian sighed, balking at her words.

He barely ducked in time as a swing of fur and claws nearly decapitated him. “Those were my friends!!” screamed Jinx as she launched herself at Damian. Audra gasped; Jinx and Damian tumbled to the ground, kicking up dust as they slid into the large crater Arc Helix left behind.

“I’ve been sheltering and caring for these girls for months!” she cried as they came to a halt in the center of the crater, covered in dust and pebbles. Jinx straddled Damian, pinning him to the ground as she bared her fangs in his face.

“Sheltering them?” growled Damian. “There is no shelter from the likes of this man!” He tensed and sent a shock through Jinx’s paws, forcing her grip to relax. Turning the tables on her, he flipped her over and pinned her to the ground. “None of you will be safe until he is defeated!”

“How many more of my friends must be sacrificed before you’re satisfied?” hissed Jinx. The muscles in her powerful body tensed. Damian realized too late and found himself underneath her once more. “Ever since you arrived, all you cared about and spoke of has been Audra. There’s more at stake here than your infatuation with her!!”

“Is that what you think?” gasped Damian. “Love for her at the expense of the lives of others is no love at all!”

A puff of dirt clouded their vision in the wake of Audra landing beside them. Her paws crunched into the ground as she slid near to the two of them. “JINX!” screamed Audra. “Get your paws off my husband. NOW!”

Her anger turned to shock as Damian glanced at her with a smile. “Relax, sweetling. I’ve got this.” Damian glanced back up at the infuriated Jinx. “Let me show you something,” he offered, coaxing the soft blue foxfire magic out with a twirl of his hand.

A soft giggle echoed in the crater as the Kitsune magic swirled around Damian’s hand before disappearing. Jinx’s bewilderment put her at a disadvantage, and Damian flipped her over again, holding her down. She growled and drew a sharp breath to utter a curt word.

Damian spoke first. “Jinx!” he said firmly. “I understand the pain you feel. I lost my wife to the Nameless briefly. At that moment, it felt like he’d shucked the heart from my chest. Without her, I weakened to less than a shell of who I once was. I understand the pain of loss you feel for your friends, and the thought that you might never see them again. I thought the same way about Audra, and I never would have found her again without your help.”

“So, you,” Jinx started to say.

Damian did not let her finish. Not yet. “And you’re right. I understand I’m not fit to lead these girls.”

“You, you… what?” Jinx asked, blinking her eyes in confusion.

“You’re right, Jinx,” said Damian as gently as he could manage while straining to hold the Jinko to the ground. Her strength matched every ounce he could throw at her, and without Audra by his side, he knew she’d overpower him in an instant. “Didn’t expect me to say that, did you?” he said with a grin. “You’re right. Audra is my everything. If I tried to lead this campaign, every decision I made would reflect that. I would do anything to keep her from danger, and it wouldn’t be right to ask the other girls to depend upon my less-than-impartial judgement.”

“So…” grunted Jinx, her skin gleaming in the dim moonlight as she fought for control. “What are you saying? You agree this is too dangerous?”

“What I’ve been trying to tell you,” said Damian, “Is that I want you to keep leading the campaign. I need you, Jinx.”

“I will not risk the lives of everyone here on some idealistic crusade!” shouted Jinx as she finally managed to overpower Damian and roll them both around in a tussle before grinding to a halt atop him.

“As their leader,” grunted Damian, coughing dust up into her face. Purely by accident, he swore. “As their leader, the girls look up to you. But, just like this scuffle of ours…” He sent a rather strong jolt up her arms. Jinx gasped, her face flushing scarlet as her body trembled with pleasure. Damian rolled her easily onto her back. “…Fortunes can change in an instant.”

“What are you saying?” growled Jinx, her anger mixing with arousal in a terrifying blend of passion.

Better make this quick. Damian didn’t know how much longer he could hold this tiger by the tail. “What I’m saying is, without you, Audra and I likely will not be able to stop the Nameless. We won’t give up, and it’s entirely possible he’ll kill us, or, worse, take from us what he wants. And then, maybe he won’t come for you. But if he does, what would you do?”

Jinx relaxed slightly to think about that for a moment.

“There is no place you can run,” Damian reminded her. “No place you can hide.”

“He’s only interested in you and Rani,” Jinx told him.

“Is he?” Damian thought about that. He shook his head. “No, remember what you told me about the slavers. When he showed up, they stopped selling your girls off and started torturing them. Systematic, calculated torture. I’m sure it has something to do with what they have planned, and I seriously doubt they are just going to let you go.”

“What more do you want from me?” moaned Jinx, squirming beneath him.

“Your help,” Damian said gently. “Your respect. Your friendship.”

Jinx gazed up at him for several seconds. Suddenly, she went limp. Damian’s eyes widened as he crumpled on top of her. The Jinko used that opportunity to flip him over and straddle him.

“Oh, very well,” she growled. And kissed him. Fiercely.

“Mmmph!!” grunted Damian. Well, this was different. She tasted much different than Audra. A powerful blend of sharpness along with the sweet. Like a mango. Her tongue abraded his mouth, as coarse as sandpaper. Her eyes firmly closed as blush spread across her cheeks. Not good. Damian tried to push her off, but she was just too strong. Her powerful body enveloped his as she wrapped him in a bone-crushing embrace.

A sudden jolt blasted the girl off of him. He turned to glimpse a seething Audra, her eyes shining the color of envy as her entire body crackled with power. “You’ve ‘got this,’ do you?” she growled.

“Sorry sweetling,” Damian said ruefully as he stood up, stretching, releasing several pops out of his back. “I did until a moment ago. Wasn’t expecting her to do that…

Jinx quivered nearby, curled firmly into a ball as her body twitched. “Nnnnn…” she moaned.

“And I’m sure you didn’t enjoy shocking her several times,” said Audra, her voice dangerously sweet as she pointed between his legs.

Uh oh. Damian checked. Yep. Raging. “Would you believe me if I told you, watching you send her flying is a huge turn-on?”

“I’ll send you flying if you don’t prove it,” she growled. “And then, you’ll never see me naked again.”

Uh oh. She sounded serious. “Sorry Jinx, duty calls. Woah!” he gasped as Audra grabbed his arm and shifted him onto her back. She knelt to all fours and somehow scrambled up out of the crater while he clung to her shoulders. Huh. Impressive. His manhood throbbed against her twitching tail.

“Out of my way,” growled Audra as she tugged Damian by the arm through the small crowd that had been watching from the lip of the crater. Monster girls and Order personnel alike, standing side-by-side.

“Hey, look, Audra,” he pointed out as he stumbled after her. “We unified them! Wooah!”

His wife kicked open the door to one of the houses. A frightened man and his wife backed up into a corner. She glared at them. “Get. Out.”

“You’re… you’re the ones who…” whimpered the girl.

Audra held up her hand, displaying the crackling power arcing between her fingers.

Man and wife ran out of the house in a hurry. Gripping Damian’s coat, Audra stepped back and kicked the door closed. “Now then,” she growled, her hand grasping his manhood through his pants. Tightly.

“Au…dra…” grunted Damian.

She narrowed her eyes at him as she squeezed. “You said, if I was good, I could have this.” Slowly, she rubbed, sending in a few shocks for good measure. “But, what about you? You’ve been a bad boy…”

Uh oh. When did she get claws? She was scraping him and… oh Goddess, it felt good.

“I want it,” hissed Audra sensually. “But first, you better prove to me you don’t have any feelings for that cat! You two have gotten a bit too close, I think.”

“What… would you like, sweetling?” grunted Damian as her claws gently savaged him. He had a feeling he was going to need new pants after this.

“Surprise me. Make it good. Or else.”

Heh. An idea presented itself to Damian’s lusty mind. He began by disrobing Audra and stroking her waist, distracting her from his other hand, which crept between her legs without touching any skin. Leaning in, he breathed smoldering breath onto the side of her face before feathering his lips against her cheek. She watched him closely, blushing only slightly as he planted a soft kiss to her cheek.

“So far, not impr—” Audra started to say, but gasped mid-sentence.

Damian’s ring and middle finger impaled her, suddenly, roughly. Cocking them inside her drenched sex, Damian’s arm coaxed her power into his body. Using that power, he lifted her, holding her only by that contact, raising her up over his head.

“Da…mian…” gasped Audra. “What… what are you…” she reached for his hand but couldn’t get a good grip. Slowly, he sat her down upon his shoulders, burying his face between her legs. Her back bumped up against the wall while Damian pulled her kimono open at her hips. Before she could say another word, his lips spread her open and his tongue streaked inside.

“Mm…” groaned Damian. A feast of cherry blossoms and power awaited him. All was softness and slick. Moist and sweet. Totally different from Jinx’s powerful tang. He measured the two women and found that while Jinx would certainly make another man very, very satisfied one day, he himself preferred Audra over anyone else. His tongue curled around inside her, gathering up her honey, teasing and caressing the deepest, hottest center of her.

“Nnnnnmmm…” shuddered Audra. She buried her fingers in his hair, massaging his scalp, kneading away like a kitten, sparking him endlessly and goading his lust to a fever pitch.

Goddess, he was famished! Using Arc Helix so many times had left him parched beyond belief. He could scarcely imagine how Audra must have felt. Damian growled, digging his fingers into his wife’s luscious thighs, thrusting his tongue deeply inside, devouring her with his need. She trembled around him, her sexual walls closing in around his tongue, offering tense resistance. Good. Make it harder on yourself, Audra. Makes it sweeter for me. Damian began thrusting his tongue in and out, using only the muscles of his mouth. He moved his head only slightly, enough to graze her clitoris with his upper lip. Whenever she cried out and the little nub attempted to retreat, he would trap it with his teeth, forcing a scream out of Audra.

“Yess! Yassss!” moaned Audra. “That’s more like it! That’s what I crave… give it to me!”

Hell yes. As you wish. Damian’s tongue invaded her innermost warmth, supping upon her nectar like a vampire drinking blood. Crackles of energy snapped from Audra’s body to anything metal in the room, each one birthed from the pleasure the spots his tongue stroked. Damian’s manhood strained against his torn pants. He let go of one of her legs, reaching down to pull his pants down. They fell apart, clattering to the floor. Squeezing his manhood, several drops of clear lubricant emerged. He gathered these up carefully, reaching up and applying them straight to Audra’s clitoris.

“Ahhhhnnn!” gasped Audra. “What was that!? Ohhhh!”

Heh. Gotcha. He repeated the action. Licked her for sparks, received a jolt, and squeezed out more lubricant. Damian smeared it onto her trembling sex.

“Guhhh…” moaned Audra. “Guhhh… Gohhh… Goddess! Nnnnn… I…”

Damian grinned against her flesh. Her honey sweetened as her walls came in around his tongue, trembling and tensing. She was close. He slowed slightly, keeping her on the brink, backing off to simply tease her on the edge. Her thighs tightened around him.

“Damian!” screamed Audra. “Sweet Maou, I’m close! Why are you stopping?” she hissed, pounding on his shoulders with her fists. “Take me!!”

All in due time, my sweetling. He chuckled, humming deeply to add vibration to the mix. His wife teetered on the edge. Yes. The slightest touch would send her into ecstatic bliss.

But, Damian didn’t want to give her the slightest touch. He wanted to knock her senseless into that mesmerizing abyss. Gripping his manhood, he pumped it, hard. It only took a few tries. Without her touching him directly, he couldn’t come for much, but he didn’t need much. He tensed, holding her tightly, as he came into his hand, gathering up what he sought. Holding it carefully, he brought his hand up and dripped it onto her sex as he forcefully thrust his tongue as deeply inside her as he could.

Audra gasped, shuddering. “DAMIAN!” she screamed. “YESSSS! YASSSS!!” Audra cried, curling her sweet, little body around his head. Sucking in a breath, Damian opened his throat for her release and allowed her to feed his unrelenting hunger with her love.

Audra came, and she came… clutching her husband for dear life as she trembled limply atop him. As her release slowly tapered off, he carried her into the couple’s bedroom and laid her upon the freshly-made bed.

“Nnnn…” cooed Audra softly as she drowsily met her husband’s gaze. Towering over her, between her spread legs, Damian gripped his massive erection, aiming it at her chest.

“Would you like a massage, sweetling?” he asked her, his voice a low smolder as his hands gently gripped her breasts, kneading the plump globes.

“Are you trying to get back into my good graces?” she asked, a cold—yet coy—smile on her face.

“Shock me and find out.”

“Mmm, yes, I believe I shall. You’ve been rather naughty, kissing that cat,” she said softly, a touch of a growl in her voice at the word, “Cat.” She grinned, reaching up and touching her fingertip to the tip of his erection. “Time to remind you who you love.”

Zap.

A powerful jolt spread through Damian’s cock at her touch. “Hnnnn…” grunted Damian, a powerful release overcoming his senses momentarily. His manhood exploded, splashing release against her hand first. The second and third pulses shot up into her face and hair. The next few oozed less forcefully, but thicker and more plentiful. These landed upon her neck, chest, and tummy, painting her smooth skin milky white.

As his release tapered off, Damian squeezed himself for more, and rewarded Audra with one last jet across her face. Her long, lithe tongue began lapping it up, but Damian pushed her head back down upon the mattress.

“What?” he asked her. “You thought I was finished?” he chuckled, cupping her sticky breasts. “You wanted a massage, right? That was just the oil.”

Audra blinked semen out of her eyes. It still stuck to her eyelashes, making them glisten. “Wha?” she gasped as Damian began kneading his release into her skin. She bit her lip. “Oh… ohh… mmmnnn…” she sighed, relaxing and languidly releasing sparks all around her. Her hair spread out over the bed, locks of it and individual hairs crackling with energy.

“You’re so tense, Audra,” murmured Damian as his fingers kneaded his wife’s tempting skin, moving inward with the slim curve of her waist, spreading out over her hips, moving in towards her tummy, and pausing at her navel. Audra’s small navel glistened with milky white, producing a soft squelching sound as Damian inserted his thumb. Audra giggled; Damian’s fingers teased her sensitive tummy and waist, coaxing her in an arch towards his body. He encouraged this by spreading his hands around her lower back, further marking her with his release. Moving back up and around, his fingers attended each slight depression in her ribcage before coming up to her breasts again.

“Damian…!” Audra’s voice hitched in her throat as large hands came upon her breasts. Warmth. Sticky, sexy warmth touched and attended every inch of her wanton breasts, paying special care to the stiff, erect nipples. Damian’s fingers swirled around them, moving closer to the center with each pass, gathering her lust until coming directly upon them. Droplets of come gathered at the tips, which he left there to fester and tempt. He did not neglect, however. He pinched, and he twisted, and he rubbed, letting her feel the cooling drops, one on each nipple, as he drove her wild.

“Are you enjoying your massage, sweetling?” Damian asked, leaning down to kiss her between her breasts. He lingered for a moment, caressing her only with his hot breath, then traced the tip of his tongue up the crease between her breasts to the space between her collarbones.

Audra hissed with delight. “Yasss… Mnnn… You’re doing… goddess… just… just… take me…”

“Patience, sweetling,” Damian told her.

“The hell… with that!” she moaned. “I’m the one… in charge here…” she said rather unconvincingly as she writhed beneath him. “I’m still… angry at you… after all!” Except, she couldn’t help but gasp when Damian kissed her right at the place where her shoulder met her neck as his nose nudged her hair muff out of the way.

“Yes, sweetling,” murmured Damian. “You asked me to prove to you that I loved you,” he reminded her. “To do that, I must pleasure you the way I love you.” His kisses trailed across her shoulder, making his way onto her upper arm before doubling back towards her neck. “Unrelentingly,” he described it, “Hotly, intently,” he murmured as he kissed his way up her neck and onto her face. “But, most importantly,” he said softly while trailing kisses across her cheek, “Unconditionally.” Damian’s mouth came upon Audra’s, parting her lips with his lower lip as he took hold of her, embracing her and pulling her into him. Her breasts crushed against his hard chest as his arms wrapped around her back. One hand cupped the base of her head, his fingers losing themselves in her hair. His manhood pressed into the soft skin of her flat tummy, throbbing with need. Yet, he withheld his own pleasure, stoking her energy with the flames of his desire.

“Mmmmm…” Audra moaned, her soft voice penetrating Damian’s soul with love and desire. His tongue drifted into her mouth and skimmed the surface of her smooth, sharp teeth. Nudging past them, he quested for her tongue, finding it curled up in the corner of her mouth. Gently, he stroked it with the tip of his tongue, his breath coming out of his nose hotly against her cheek. Goddess, she tasted—and smelled—delicious. The sweetness of cherry blossoms enveloped him, her lust fluttering upon him like shed petals. He longed to dance within her garden, partaking in every delight she had to offer until the end of time.

At last, Damian felt his wife give in. She relaxed her body, melting into his arms. Her breathing and heartbeat quickened, and her tongue shifted from its position, curling around his to taste his hot desire. Yes. Finally, she was ready. Holding her tightly, Damian shifted his hips. His manhood dropped between her legs.

One push was all it took.

One, slow push. Damian sank into the depths of his wife’s passion slowly, achingly slowly. Her walls spread apart for him, inch by inch, offering such resistance as to be nearly virginal. She held her breath as his love invaded her body. So, instead, Damian tilted her head a little and breathed for her. She stiffened slightly at the unfamiliar sensation, but gave in after two repetitions. He breathed in, exhaled into her mouth, feeling her upper body expand. Then, he squeezed her a little tighter and felt her breath release through her nose. He continued to do this for her until he finally managed to fully join with her.

“Audra…” Damian gasped. “I need you… I’m nothing without you…”

Audra opened her heavy-lidded eyes and gazed up at him, her lips still parted from their dazzling kiss. “You breathed for me,” she remarked softly.

“I would beat my heart for you if you asked,” Damian told her as he began slowly thrusting.

“Did…” she started to ask, biting her lower lip as her body began to bounce with her lover’s thrusting. “Did you mean what you said… earlier?”

“I mean everything I say to you, sweetling,” said Damian, kissing her lips.

“You said, you…” Audra gasped, her words hitching; Damian increased his pace. “Wouldn’t let your family live with fear,” she reminded him.

“I refuse,” said Damian roughly, squeezing her tightly. “I’ll protect—”

Audra shook her head, brushing a lock of hair out of her eyes as her breathing came in soft gasps. “No, not that,” she said. “You said, ‘family.’”

Damian gazed down at her, his pace slowing slightly. Her eyes narrowed in concern. “Yes, Audra,” he murmured. “I want to have kits with you.”

Audra gasped. Loudly. Scarlet blush erupted over her cheeks, filling in across her face. Her mouth widened in shock. Her heart slowed, beating harder instead of faster. With each beat, it pounded against her chest, threatening to burst.

“Is that what you want?” Damian asked her, anxiety etching his features.

Audra’s mouth closed and opened several times before she found the ability to form words. “Yes!” she cried.

“Are you sure?” her husband asked intently.

“Please!” cried Audra. “I didn’t know how desperately I wanted them until you spoke that word…”

“Family?” he prompted, beginning to increase his pace again.

Audra practically melted at the sound of it. Her eyes slid out of focus and she nearly came prematurely. “Nnnn… yesss… Watching you standing there, swearing to protect me, and suggesting kits, and… oh goddess I love you…”

Damian’s heart swelled. He gripped her tightly, kissing her with desperate abandon. This time, their tongues fought each other for control, dancing happily in her mouth, then his, and then back again. “I don’t know what came over me, then,” he admitted, their kiss leaving him breathless. “I didn’t see us as just the two of us anymore. I wanted to ensure Jinx knew that.”

“Yes,” she nodded. Audra licked her lips, smiling hungrily. “It was all I could do not to make myself come right then and there. But then, Jinx kissed you, and I…”

“She got a little over-excited, sweetling,” Damian soothed, kissing her gently. “I expect she has been holding herself back for the sake of the other girls for some time now.”

Audra nodded. “Yes, must’ve been such an awful long time since she—” she paused, gasping. “Ahhhnnn…”

“Audra?” Damian gazed into her eyes, alarmed.

“I’m… I’m… closer… than I thought… nnnn… Damian, my savior,” she moaned, “Take me now!”

Oh. That’s all it was. Relief washed over him. Damian nodded and began ramming her as hard as he could.

“Yass!” yelped Audra. “Damian! Yaaaasss! You’re going to… ahhhnn! Make me… c-c…”

Poor Audra. She was much closer than he was. Her body arched, her senses crumbling at the frenzied pace his lust demanded of him. Her little gasps and cries drove him wild, but not wild enough! He’d melted her at the prospect of starting a family while his own lust wilted at the prospect of her rejection of the idea.

Carefully holding the back of her head, he tilted her face back so that he could gaze into her eyes as they misted over in orgasm. She realized his goal and affixed her eyes upon him. The sudden link between them surged new life into Damian’s erection. Audra’s energy sparked out of control, his thrusting keeping her at orgasm longer than usual. Desperately, she clutched his arm and, with her other hand, reached between them to their connection to release a jolt into his manhood.

“Audra!!” Damian gasped, swelling up against her tight walls. She’d become too tight to thrust. No… he’d become too big to do so. Carefully, slowly, he pushed down, burying himself deeper within her than he thought possible. Seed welled up within him, traveling up the length. Any moment now…

“Au…dra…!!” grunted Damian. He held her tightly. The force of his ejaculation took his breath away. And hers. Audra’s body shuddered in a relentless duplication of her previous orgasm. Damian held her tightly as she went limp, and then proceeded to gush within her. Her body drank deeply of his desire, and sent powerful jolts in every direction through the room.

Damian collapsed upon his wife, her shocks eking out a little more with each zap. He felt powerfully energized, yet unable—or unwilling—to move another muscle. His wife’s lips gently kissing his neck forced him to move slightly, however. The desire to gaze into his loving wife’s eyes overpowered the languid weariness of the rest of him.

“I’m so full…” giggled Audra, a contented smile on her face. “Keep taking me like that, and kits are inevitable…”

“I might never let you go, then,” Damian warned her.

“Mmm,” sighed Audra, smiling sleepily at him. “Damian?”

“Yes, sweetling?”

“Hold me?”

Damian gathered the girl into his arms and cradled her against his chest. “I love you, Audra.”

Audra cooed softly against his chest, her hips shifting slightly with Damian’s manhood remaining inside. “How did I ever live without you?” she whispered.

Damian wondered the same thing about himself. Before he could answer her, though, her breathing slowed, and she drifted off to sleep. They laid side-by-side, limbs tangled around each other. Audra’s head rested atop his arm. He smoothed out her hair and adjusted the position of her fluffy tail before an overwhelming wave of contented drowsiness overtook him and he fell asleep with her in his arms.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian stood firm upon the summit of a mountain, secure in the gentle embrace of his wife, Audra, her Silent Storm raging all around them, yet harming none. Everywhere Damian’s eyes looked, all was dust. Desert. Nothingness. At the base of the mountain, dunes of sand encroached upon the village of D’Artagnan, devouring it with the slow encroach of entropy. Audra clung to his arm, bitter tears falling silently from her downcast eyes.

“What do you see?” a familiar voice asked from behind Damian. He felt the Kitsune’s presence. In the distance, the floating isles of Atlantis hovered, keeping watch over the destruction they wrought. The dragon was nowhere to be seen.

“I see sand,” Damian replied. “Lifelessness. Nothing. A barren wasteland.”

The Kitsune floated up beside him, hovering next to his left side. She gazed sadly upon the desert. Her tails drooped mournfully. “This is what will become of us, should the Nameless succeed.”

“Why would the Nameless desire this?” Damian asked her. “Why would anyone desire this?”

“Emptiness may not be the ultimate goal,” noted the Kitsune spirit. “Without love, there can be no life. Treading the path of apathy, desolation will be the only destination.”

Damian’s jaw slacked momentarily. “Can it be, the Nameless has no idea this is the end result?”

“Possibly,” the Kitsune considered. “Or does not care.”

“What do you mean?” Damian asked, facing her.

The Kitsune continued observing the desolation. She did not turn to him. Her form flickered eerily in the dull light. “For those who walk the path of apathy, the means do not matter. Only the goal. Yet, sometimes, the reverse is true. I believe this to be the case for the Nameless.”

“He doesn’t care what happens, only what he’s doing now,” Damian paraphrased. “He’s living in the moment.”

“Now, you see the truth of it,” the Kitsune said, turning her head slightly to gaze sadly at him. Her mournful tone and expression broke Damian’s heart.

“I won’t… let him succeed…” Damian swore through clenched teeth. Raw emotion choked his voice.

The barest hint of a smile flickered in the Kitsune’s face. And… something else. Hope? In her eyes? “I have faith in you,” she said softly. “A terribly long stretch of years has passed since last I felt as such.”

She offered Damian a little bow and turned to leave. “Wait,” he called. She paused. “Who are you? I must know.”

The spirit glanced over her shoulders. Her tails spread apart so that their gazes could meet. “I am Rei.”

“Rei? Kutharei?”

Rei smiled gently, shaking her head. “She is my descendant. In her, many have placed their hopes. In you, I place my faith.”

Rei’s words stunned Damian into silence. Before he recovered, she’d disappeared. He patted Audra’s head gently. She trembled against him, but when he glanced down to her, a smile greeted him, spread across tearstained cheeks.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Knock, knock.

Damian’s stubbornly sluggish eyes crept open. A welcome sight awaited them. Audra’s sleeping face, half-veiled with a thick lock of hair as she laid next to him like an angel. He nudged her gently.

“Nn?” moaned Audra softly. Her eyes remained closed. She shifted position a little to get more comfortable.

“Audra, someone’s at the door…”

“Nn…” She clung to the sheets.

The dream imagery still fresh in Damian’s mind shook his resolve. He sat up, swinging his legs over the side. Two more knocks brought him to his feet. He glanced back at his wife, who clung stubbornly to unconsciousness, her face knotted in a mixture of anxiety and depression.

Damian struggled into his clothes and headed for the door. He swung the damaged door open. It nearly fell off its hinges at his impatient tug. Damian glared out into the morning light.

Garth.

“Ugh,” cursed Damian. “Let me guess. Time for work?”

“Jinx wanted you to know,” Garth said, “Antonio and Callie worked with the Order personnel to prep the Storm Chaser.

“Really?” Damian scratched the back of his head. “Huh. That was fast.”

“Not really,” countered Garth. “You two have been at it all night long. You kept the entire block awake.”

“Uh… Oh.” Damian blushed slightly. “Not all night. We slept.”

“Riiiight…” sighed Garth, shaking his head. “So, could this lovely couple have their house back now?”

Damian blinked fog out of his eyes. The man and his wife from earlier stood off to the side, looking somewhat haggard. Ugh, how long had they been there? “I’ll… just fetch Audra, and we’ll be off.” He ducked back inside and crept back into the bedroom.

Audra slept soundly, rousing only when her husband gently shook her by the shoulder. “Damian?” she murmured softly, drawing him into a sorrowful embrace.

“The dream?” he asked, stroking her arm.

“It was awful,” she cried. “That woman, Rei, has lived on after death this long, only to see her descendants suffer. I can’t bear it…”

“For her, we must,” Damian told her. “This evil stops now. With us.”

“But, how?” pleaded Audra.

Damian sighed wearily. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Let’s focus on the task at hand, instead.”

“I just do not want us to become like the Nameless,” warned Audra, “Caring only for the goal and not the means. Or focusing on the means while losing sight of the goal.”

“We won’t,” Damian promised her, gathering her up for a brief kiss. “Come, let’s get you dressed.”

Audra nodded and gathered her hair back so that Damian could wrap her in her kimono. The electrodes blinked to life as the garment settled on her body, and Damian tied the obi around her waist. He took her hair from her and spread it out behind her, fluffing out her tail, receiving a few sparks as a reward.

Hand in hand, they stepped out of the residence. Audra winked deviously at the man of the house, forcing him to blush as he gazed at her. His wife punched him in the arm. The man fled sheepishly into the house, but burst back out after just a moment.

“Mara!” he gasped. “The house! It’s spotless!

“What?” the woman queried, an eyebrow raised. She peeked inside, stepping past her husband, crying out at what she’d found. “You two!” she shouted at Audra and Damian. They paused and glanced back. “We thought you’d destroyed everything!” cried Mara, running up to them. “We heard the screams. We’d… well, resigned ourselves to not having much afterwards. But you cleaned up after yourselves? I’m… well, not sure what to say…”

“Think nothing of it,” chuckled Damian. “It’s our way of thanking you for our imposition.”

“Imposition?” the girl tilted her head. “But, you’re our conquerors. You’re free to take whatever you wish, are you not?”

Audra blanched. “Of course not,” she said, aghast. “And we aren’t your conquerors. We came to liberate the town from the slavers.”

“I see…” murmured Mara. “So, why did you clean our house? I mean… how did you clean it?”

Damian smiled coyly. “Raiju sparks tend to blast clean any and every surface. Surprise?”

“Truly?” Mara asked, unconvinced. “So, these little things on your clothes…”

Mara reached for Audra’s kimono. “Wait!” cried Audra. But the girl made contact before anyone could stop her.

Zap.

“Ufff…” grunted the girl, falling back on her haunches as Audra’s energy crackled all over her. She blinked stars out of her eyes. “Yes… that… mmm… certainly… nnn…” She blushed scarlet.

Damian exchanged glances with Audra. “Uh oh,” they both said at once.

Mara’s husband came running up to her, his expression fraught with concern. “Mara!” he gasped, gathering her up into his arms. “What did you do to her!?” he demanded of Audra.

“Wasn’t her,” interrupted Mara, her lips parting as she panted softly. “I just… lost my balance. Take me home?” she pleaded, her eyes gleaming with hunger.

Mara’s husband shot Audra a look of distrust, but did as his wife asked. Garth also shot Audra a look of disbelief. “Did you just… seed her?” he asked.

“I didn’t… mean to…” Audra said contritely. “I’m just so… heavily charged, right now!”

“You’re one to talk, Garth,” Damian said pointedly. “You’ve got your own problems.”

“Eh?” his friend cocked his head. Damian pointed over his shoulder. Garth glanced back to find Jill chasing a young couple, flinging bolts of energy at them as she cackled wickedly. “Gods!” he cried. “JILL!” he bellowed, chasing after her.

Damian chuckled at Garth as he sprinted towards Jill. Her fuzzy ears flicked in his direction; she darted into an alley to elude him. Audra nudged Damian. “Let’s find Jinx,” she suggested.

“The docks,” he agreed. It was time.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“There you are!” cried a small voice, echoing behind layers of metal. Lina’s head popped out of a small hull breach she’d been repairing and scowled at Damian. “Where have you been!? Ugh! Don’t you move. I’m coming around.”

Lina’s head disappeared back into the hole. Damian cast Audra a nervous glance. True to her word, the Gremlin reappeared, trotting down the wide gangplank, her arms crossed over her chest. She glared up at Damian.

“Uhh…” muttered Damian. “How’s… the repairs coming?”

“Slow as Hell, thanks for asking,” growled Lina. Damian couldn’t help but smile. She was just too adorable. Problem is, that only made the Gremlin angrier, and the angrier she got, the cuter she looked.

“Sorry to hear—” he tried to say.

“What? You think this is funny?” grumbled Lina. “This ship is full of highly advanced technology! Any other day, I’d be jumping off the walls for a chance to peek inside, much less fine tune it myself! Problem is, those boneheads had no idea what they were doing, and broke half of the stuff inside!” Lina huffed and puffed, catching her breath, and pointed a wrench at Damian accusatorily. “There’s an auto-repair system, but that doesn’t work without power! You two could easily power it with your…”

“Arc Helix,” Audra said with a smile.

“Right… Except, you disappeared!” Lina wagged a finger at her. “So, I’ve had to fix everything BY HAND…” She scowled, tapping her foot, still adorable, by the way. “Ahem. What’s so funny?”

“You’re so cute!” giggled Audra.

Saved by the wife. Again. Lina’s eyes widened at Audra, but she dared do nothing else. “Um,” Lina prompted, poking her toe shyly into the dirt. “So, would you?”

“We’d love to,” replied Audra with a bright smile. “Here?” she asked, interlacing her fingers with Damian’s and holding out her free hand. Power crackled between her and her husband.

“Ack!” yelped Lina. “Not me! I’ll take you to the capacitors.” The Gremlin gulped, blushing crimson as she waved her hands frantically. The red blush contrasted with the green in her hair, giving her the look of a tree ornament. “Not… that I wouldn’t…” she murmured softly. Glancing up at Audra, hope flickered in her eyes. “Some other time?”

Damian rolled his eyes. “Just take us to the capacitors…” he sighed. Audra giggled, nodding at Lina with a wink.

“This way,” the Gremlin said, escorting Damian and Audra below decks. She snatched a manual out of someone’s hands to fan herself with as she led them deep within the bowels of the ship.

Both Damian and Audra gawped unabashedly as they walked. Pipes, cables, glowing energy conduits, pressurized seals, hermetic doors… the Gremlin explained each item they passed by in her excited, breathless voice. Breathless indeed—did the girl even stop to inhale between sentences? Her words melted together into a foggy mush that dissolved Damian’s brain into slime. Sure, he wasn’t the smartest guy in town. But, the more Lina talked about this fascinating device, or that mysterious sensor, the less Damian understood. He began to question his life as his intelligence dropped to the average Bubble Slime. He swore he could feel his knuckles dragging on the metal floor.

“And, here we are!” chirped Lina, throwing two large doors open to reveal a massive, tri-pronged device surrounded by an intricate fishnet cage. The scent of ozone flooded the air, stinging Damian’s nose. Lina ushered everyone else out of the room as she began to explain the device.

“This device serves as both a power storage unit and an energy collector!” Lina said happily, grinning like a sadistic schoolteacher. A very short, very cute schoolteacher. In a creepy sort of way, with that earsplitting grin of hers. “The three coils collect storm energy while working together to prevent overloads if struck directly by lightning!” she continued. “The energy is then passed through the conduits in the walls to the main engines!”

“What’s this for?” Audra indicated the fishnet wiring around the coils.

Lina smirked. “That’s to prevent anyone in the room from having his face melted off, if, say, a bolt of lightning would rather jump into the wall than the coils.”

Damian harrumphed. “So, why’d you shoo everyone out of here, then?”

“Uhh…” the Gremlin shrugged. “How well can you actually aim that power of yours?”

“Want to find out?” Damian glared at her.

“Like I told Audra,” Lina replied, blushing a little, “Some other time?”

Goddess! This girl. Where did Jinx find her?

“Let’s not tease her,” said Audra softly. “You want us to send Arc Helix into this?” she asked Lina.

“Yup!” nodded Lina. “I’ll be right outside.” She trotted out over the threshold and out of the room. “Seal the room…” she said ominously her little voice echoing down the hall.

The doors closed with an odd clang and soft hiss after the metal came together. Damian worked his jaw as his ears popped. Audra frowned at him in concern. “I’m worried,” she admitted. “If the Nameless has access to this kind of technology, how are we going to stop him?”

“He ignores the old ways at his peril,” Damian told her, gently slinging his arm around her shoulders. He drew her close, nuzzling his nose against her fuzzy ear. “Remember how he reacted when Rei’s power thwarted his magic?”

“Mmm,” nodded Audra. “And that was when she barely knew us.”

“We’ll do as Lina asks, get this ship running,” said Damian, “And then, we get Rani back to her mother.”

“And then?” Audra looked up at him, her eyes still fraught with concern.

Damian kissed her briefly. Some of that concern leaked away, replaced by hunger. Not ideal. A hungry Raiju surrounded by metal? Oh well. He’d take the risk. “Remember what Rei told us earlier? The Kitsune ancestors were pleased. Ancestors. Plural.”

“There are more of them…” whispered Audra. “Maybe they’ll help us?

“That’s what I’m hoping,” agreed Damian as he turned to the capacitors. “Ready, sweetling?”

Audra nodded. “Ready.”

Damian held Audra’s hand tightly, nuzzling the back of his wrist against the fur of her arm. He smiled as she shivered slightly at the contact. Her eyes focused on the strange devices in front of her. Following her lead, they both extended an arm towards the capacitors. Energy sparked between Damian and his wife, igniting white-hot lust within him. Rather than internalize it, he sent it back into her. She returned the power twofold, stealing Damian’s breath away. Sending it back towards her, the power doubled, quadrupled, and exponentially grew until Arc Helix formed and twisted around itself as it spiraled into the capacitors.

Instantly, the room erupted with life. Lights and sensors winked on as energy crackled over their circuits. Steam billowed through the air; the doors behind Damian and Audra strained to compensate for the added pressure. Release valves hissed, equalizing pressure. Bolts of Arc Helix seared between the three orbs upon the tapered tips of the capacitors. Floorboards beneath Damian’s feet vibrated as the entire ship roused from its slumber.

“We did it!” cried Audra with glee. Damian barely heard her over the roar of the machinery. She leapt into his arms, wrapping her eager arms around his neck and pressed her lips into his.

“Mmnnn…” groaned Damian hungrily as he supped upon Audra’s enthusiastic kiss. The room sizzled with their energy. Audra’s lovely scent filled his nose as they twisted around in each other’s arms in an attempt to deepen their connection. Goddess! He loved this woman. He never wanted to let her go. His arms encircled her back and pulled her tightly against him. His fingers burrowed into her hair, which sparked and crackled with every caress. Briefly, Damian opened his eyes. Audra’s face filled his vision. Her tightly closed eyes each held a captive tear, and her brows knotted together as her kiss turned desperate. Her breasts crushed against his chest, and his manhood throbbed against her waist.

A louder hiss behind him nearly startled Damian. His instincts had changed, he noticed. Rather than drop the precious treasure in his arms, his instincts told him to clutch her tighter. He briefly worried if his tender lover might squirm in his bone-cracking grip, but her tongue danced in his mouth with delight instead. Ugh, goddess, why… why were they still clothed?

“AHEM…”

An annoying finger jabbed into Damian’s kidney. Out of the corner of his eye, Damian glanced down at Lina, hands on her little hips as she glared up at him. Audra refused to budge, her tongue perfectly content where it was against his.

Lina jabbed him again. “Oyy!” she groaned. “Are you two quite finished?”

Audra’s eyes opened to slits, her pupils dilating. Her lips curved into a ravenous smile, still pressed firmly against Damian’s. She broke the kiss to tell Lina, “We’re just getting started…”

“Ohhh no, you don’t,” grumbled Lina as she grabbed onto Audra’s tail and began to tug.

“Eek!” squeaked Audra. “Why, you…” she growled, sending sparks down the length of her tail.

“Nice try!” giggled Lina, pulling the indignant girl off of Damian. “These gloves of mine insulate me against Raiju sparks. Now get off him! You’ll have plenty of time during the voyage to do what you gotta do.”

Lina ducked as Audra swiped at her. “Come here, you!” hissed Audra, her face flushed beautifully from her kiss. “We fixed your ship!” she cried as she pounced, and missed, the little giggling Gremlin. “You’re going to pay for pulling me off of him! I’m going to make you squirm!” growled Audra as she flung sparks at her.

“Nope!” laughed Lina, leading Audra on a merry chase around the room. Damian’s sides nearly split from holding in his laughter. This was quite possibly the most hilarious thing he’d ever seen. Audra’s tail swished back and forth as she ran, her hips swaying delightfully as she doubled over, practically on all fours, to pick up speed.

“All it’ll take is one!” cried Audra, sending sparks every which way. Unfortunately for her, they were still in the capacitor room, and the machinery devoured her energy tirelessly. Lina knew every safe nook and cranny to dart between, and Audra did not. Several times, she bumped into something that electrified her with her own energy, but that only spurred her on all the more.

“Too slow!” Lina giggled as she ran past Damian.

Gods above, this was too perfect. Damian just couldn’t resist. He tipped his foot out just a little.

“YAAHHH!” cried Lina as she tripped over Damian’s foot, tumbling head over heels.

“Gotcha!” cried Audra, sending a bolt into Lina’s back.

“Hnnnngggg!” Lina groaned, her body going rigid as energy coursed through her. She fell to the ground, flipping onto her back as a scarlet blush spread across her cheeks, filled out her face, and spread to her chest. “Haah… haaahhh…” she panted.

“You ready to scream for me?” asked Audra sweetly, holding up a curled hand above the Gremlin. White-hot lustful electrickery pulsed within her palm.

“Yes… Please…” moaned Lina. “Make me…”

“Audra!” another voice arrested her action.

All eyes turned to see a rather impatient Jinx standing in the doorway, her paws crossed under her ample bust. Lina whimpered beneath Audra, reaching up weakly for another jolt. Jinx bared her fangs at Audra, her eyes narrowing menacingly.

Audra sighed and visibly deflated.

“Nooo!” moaned Lina. “Please shock me!”

“Now, see what you’ve done?” growled Jinx.

Audra smiled weakly down at Lina. “Some other time,” she offered, echoing the Gremlin’s words from earlier. Jinx grabbed the Raiju’s arm and tugged her into the hall.

“Aww…” Lina pouted. Her eyes settled hopefully upon Damian.

“There’s enough electrickery in these machines from Arc Helix,” Damian suggested. “Surely no one will notice if you take aaaaaahhhh—” his words stretched as Jinx yanked him with her into the hall. The Jinko sealed Lina inside and glared at him.

“What are you two doing?” the exasperated Jinx hissed at Damian and his wife.

“Lina asked us to recharge the ship with Arc Helix,” Damian explained. “Doing so left us a little… uh… buzzed. No pun intended.”

Jinx’s glower deepened. Audra’s coy smile wasn’t helping, either.

“Let’s just say,” said Audra softly, tapping her two index fingers against each other, letting out a pop of a spark each time, “If you find me wrapped around my husband and try to separate us, you do so at your peril.”

Jinx glared at her. Audra returned a smile, pure evil its chief ingredient.

“How’s the ship?” Damian prompted, trying to wedge himself in between the two women. They looked ready to tear into each other with wild abandon. Damian’s loins stirred at the thought, but now wasn’t the time.

Jinx’s eyes flicked to Damian briefly. “The auto-repair systems came online when you energized the ship,” she reported. “But, without Lina to regulate them, we’re stuck,” she said, emphasis on the last word. Her eyes settled upon Audra again. The Raiju seethed, her devilish smile widening as energy danced up and down her arms, puffing out the fur on her wrists.

“Why don’t you join her?” offered Audra with a fangy grin.

“Audra,” Damian cautioned.

“Oh come, now,” cooed Audra. “You want me to do this. Desperately.”

Damn. Girl saw right through him. “Not… gonna lie,” he admitted. “But… I’d rather take you myself,” he told her as he turned, cupped her face, and kissed her.

“Wha? But… mmmmm…” she murmured. Damian devoured the rest of her words with his lips, sighing in relief as his sparky wife’s attention turned fully upon him. When their kiss parted, she panted softly, gazing hungrily into his eyes. “Fortunately for all, there is nothing I want more than what is right in front of me,” she said, not taking her eyes off of him.

“Jinx, I trust there is nothing more you need from us?” Damian asked, keeping his gaze upon Audra. If he took his eyes off her ravenous gaze for a second, she’d likely pounce the Jinko.

“We’ll get underway shortly, assuming Lina recovers soon,” Jinx said. “We’ll call if we need you.”

Damian nodded, stroking Audra’s crackly hair. She licked her lips at him. “Audra and I will be in…” he paused, unsure of the cabin assignments.

“The captain’s quarters,” said Audra firmly. “Take me there.”

Damian wasn’t sure what she meant by that. Take her to the captain’s quarters? Or take her in the captain’s quarters? Maybe both? She dug her fingers into his shirt and dragged him off before he could say anything else.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Nobody dared stand in the Raiju’s way as she blazed a trail towards the captain’s quarters. Damian wasn’t even sure how they arrived, only that his wife’s impressive strength hauled him up onto the bed and splayed him out onto his back. She leapt upon him, straddling him with luscious thighs as she ripped his shirt apart.

“Yesss…” hissed Audra, pulling her kimono apart and casting it aside as she leaned down upon him. Damian gasped; his wife’s hot, slender tongue snaked out over his sweaty chest, licking and teasing while her fingernails clawed into his flesh. Her sharp nails left no wounds, only a dull, burning ache and desire for her to lick each mark. She clawed him several times, adding sparks to salt the wounds.

“Nnnn… Audra…” gasped Damian, his manhood throbbing painfully in his pants. He tried to shift position, gain some kind of advantage. His wife sat naked upon him, her sex dripping steadily onto his raging erection as her mouth caressed his chest. Her nipples abraded him gently as she began to massage him with her body, lapping up traces of desire wherever she found it. She licked her way up to his neck, kissing up, to the sides, and all around.

“Yasss!” Audra moaned sensually, nipping his neck with her sharp teeth, bringing on more of those dull, aching wounds. These she did lick with her wicked tongue, torturing him with white-hot fireballs of lust. Damian struggled to embrace her, but she pinned his arms down next to his head. Growling, she buried her face in his neck, resting her tongue against a throbbing artery she found there. She held position there for several moments, enjoying that part of him pulsing against her mouth.

Damian briefly wondered if his wife was turning into some kind of blood-sucker. He tossed the idea about in his mind and found he did not care. As long as she remained Audra, he would love her just as fiercely. He relaxed in her care, letting her have him as she willed.

“Giving in already?” said Audra, her voice a breathy whisper. “Good… You’re mine. Mine.

She bit into his artery. Hard.

“Aghh!” hissed Damian. “Audra!”

Audra giggled, holding his tender flesh in her teeth. With every pulse of his heart, the dull ache she instilled grew sharper, hotter, until his blood boiled with every pump of his pounding heart. Goddess! She wasn’t sucking his blood. She was injecting him with her lust! Did Raiju have venom? Damian shuddered. He didn’t know.

Briefly, Damian’s raging lust overpowered Audra and he grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her upon him. He tugged her down for a desperate kiss, but she turned her head away at the last second. All Damian received was her cheek. Fine. He kissed her there, sucking hard to draw the soft skin into his mouth to bite down upon.

“Ahhnn!” cried Audra, pulling away and re-establishing control. She touched her cheek gingerly, feeling for blood. None stained her fingers. She gaped at him, stroking the area tenderly. Damian hoped he could inflict her with the dull, lusty wounds that she could upon him. Apparently, he could. After stroking the area briefly, she lunged upon him and assaulted him with a mind-blowing kiss.

A torrent of sparks followed the touch of Audra’s lips and tongue, sizzling Damian’s mind and abolishing his resolve. His will crumbled before the insatiable lust of his wife. Her eyes bored into his, slit pupils dilating. Her tongue uncoiled into his mouth, backing his tongue into a corner. Sweet Maou, it was too much. Seed was welling up inside him. Her hot honey kept dripping upon his groin. Each droplet brought him closer to bursting.

Audra smiled hungrily against Damian, pressing her face closer, pinching off his nose with hers. She began to breathe for him, into his mouth, the sweetness of her passion, much like he’d done for her earlier. Like a drug, it was. Hot, lustful cherry blossoms invaded his entire being. Her soft, smooth body slowly ground against him, yet avoided the massive tent in his pants, the steady drip of her honey the only contact she afforded him there.

Damian’s body jerked. He tumbled upon the brink. As Audra’s teeth pressed his upper lip between them and her tongue, she nudged him over. He could not even voice words, for it was her breath in his lungs. She denied him even that. His manhood throbbed, pulsing as seed spurted out and into his pants. Audra held him tightly, stilling his thrashes and throes, milking him for his breath and his love.

Gods damned! Damian’s mind spiraled out of control. He couldn’t come properly, his cock too tight against the unforgiving leather. Much of his seed remained trapped inside, becoming painful. He barely registered Audra doing something with her hands, rubbing his wrists. She held him tightly as he spasmed beneath her, and then for some time afterwards. She continued to breathe for him, her tongue quieting his, keeping his airway open for her to violate as she wished.

Finally, gods, finally, Audra released him. Damian gasped, watching her carefully slide predatorially down his body. He reached for her. Or, well, tried to. The hell? His hands were bound! Tied tightly to the bedposts with pieces of his shirt.

“Let’s see how much you enjoyed that,” Audra said with a soft sigh, settling in between Damian’s legs. She brushed her nose over the tip of his tented pants, eliciting an aftershock. Resting her nose upon the tip, she inhaled deeply.

“Audra…” groaned Damian.

“Mmm,” cooed his wife. “Smells delectable,” she said with a smile. “But, where did it all go?” She traced her tongue vertically up the tip, receiving another aftershock. Her tongue trailed a circle around the circumference of the base of his quivering head. “Is this painful?” she asked softly.

“I want to bury it in your face!” cried Damian, unable to do much of anything against the bonds. She gripped his thighs tightly, preventing them from budging.

“How?” she said teasingly. “All this leather is in the way…”

“Rip it off!”

“Mm?” The girl tilted her head quizzically. “If you insist,” she said with a smile, taking his leather-covered erection in her mouth. Before Damian could say anything else, he felt…

Teeth! She was biting him!

“Audra!” hissed Damian. “What are you… Agh!”

Sharp teeth pierced the leather and grazed the ultra-sensitive head of Damian’s cock. Tilting her face, Audra tore a hole in the leather with her teeth, spreading the tear with ease as the muscles in her slender body quivered with power. She let go, moving back in for another bite, tearing the underside of the leather away from him, and then another angle, fully freeing him for her inspection.

“Ohh, look at this,” Audra gasped at the milky puddle pooled around Damian’s cock. Her tongue slipped from her lips and entered the large hole she’d made in his pants. It dipped into the puddle, dousing itself, before slipping back into the Raiju’s mouth.

“Mmmmm!” Audra moaned loudly, her eyes rolling up into her head with delight. “Goddess… you have no idea how good that tastes!”

Damian was almost curious enough to ask. Audra didn’t give him the chance, though. Her face disappeared within the hole, out of sight, but definitely not out of mind. His inability to see her added another element to her seduction as her tongue and lips set to work devouring what he’d deposited.

As she worked at her unseen task, Audra’s hands drifted up Damian’s sides. Her fingers dug into his waist, clawing him deeply, leaving hot, wanton heat behind. When her fingers reached the waistline of his pants, they did not stop. The leather crumpled and tore beneath her assault, shredding to ribbons. These ribbons curled back behind him, Audra’s fingers tracing their way into her husband’s rear.

Sweet goddess, what was she doing? Her tongue was everywhere inside his pants, licking him cleaner than any sponge ever could. Her hands, oh goddess, her hands! They crept closer between his cheeks, shredding his clothing as they went, and moving downwards. Something soft and mushy came upon them. Another puddle of seed? Yes. Her fingers stopped shredding and clawing, choosing instead to push the leather up, forcing the seed to spill back into his groin for her tongue to lap up.

It was too much. Just too much. Damian’s erection seized up against the side of Audra’s face. She paused in her licking to glance up. A fountain of seed erupted from Damian as he grunted ferally.

“Yass!” cried Audra with glee as the first couple of jets fell upon her cheek. She rose up, grasping his erection tightly, working the release with systematic squeezing of each finger in sequence, holding it back just enough to make it fling up onto her face, which hovered directly above it. Damian gazed in awe at the spectacle. His wife opened her mouth, and several jets of his come flung inside. She swallowed as they did so, but could not capture everything this way. Much of it splashed onto her face, dripping back down into the hole she’d made in his pants. Some of the droplets fell upon his cock and her hand holding it.

Damian gasped, his eyes bulging, straining to keep up with Audra’s hunger. Had she ever been this ravenous? Maybe on their first night? What was different? No, they just slept together. She’d sure been ravenous the next morning, though. She nearly wore him out! She’d done something to him since then, changing him when they pledged themselves to each other. He wasn’t just physically stronger. He realized that, no matter how much pleasure she coaxed out of him, he would remain awake for every second of it. No passing out. No breaks. She’d feed on him until she was satisfied.

Oh goddess, how was he going keep hold of his sanity? Just look at her! She wasn’t even satisfied with his second orgasm! She kept sending shocks straight into his cock, extending his orgasm, so that he painted her face milky white. Droplets fell from her lips, her tongue, her nose, her cheeks, her chin, hell, even her eyelashes. She looked up at him wantonly, sullied eyes hazy with desire.

Sweet goddess! Her purely sexual gaze sent him right over the edge again. This time, she tipped him back into her mouth, keeping her mouth open so that he could watch himself spray into her. She kept her eyes on him for every second of it.

Too much… Too much! He needed her. Needed to be inside her. His groin was soaked to the bone with his own seed, soothed only by the warmth of her breath and the touch of her hand. He strained against his bonds. Something. Anything!

A soft blue glow flitted around behind Audra. Yes! Rei! The thought of her watching their lovemaking should have bothered him. Just a little. Odd that it didn’t. It actually turned him on even more. Not good. He really didn’t need to be turned on anymore than he already was. He’d already had three orgasms! He craved to see Audra’s face flush, her eyes misting with her climax. He needed to touch her more than anything!

A soft giggle filled the air. The glow disappeared. The hell was that fox…

Damian’s bindings loosened slightly.

YES!

Audra glanced around, searching for the source of the sound. She didn’t realize Damian worked himself free until it was too late. Tearing free from his bindings, Damian pulled Audra off of him, throwing her onto her back upon the mattress, and bore down upon her. He tore off the remnants of his pants with one yank, sending a sticky mess onto her waist, hips, and thighs. Her face still gleamed with ripples of it. Damian didn’t care. He crushed her body with his weight, forcing his lips down upon hers.

“Nnnn…” growled Damian, breaking the kiss briefly. “My turn…”

“Wha?” gasped Audra as her husband’s hips shifted above her. He kneed her legs apart, working his way between her thighs. The tip of his sticky erection nudged her entrance, searching for the proper angle. When he found it, Damian thrust inside forcefully, hilting himself inside her with one, smooth motion.

Audra’s eyes shot wide, her jaw slackening. Her neck arched, tilting her head back, flattening her fluffy ears against the sheets. Damian’s arm came up behind her shoulders, into the space her body made as it arched. He pulled her against him, forcing her limp body against his hunger.

Shifting his hips back and forth, Damian gasped in awe at their connection. The girl was drenched, offering him a nearly frictionless invitation. Such was the electrifying pleasure Damian assaulted her with that Audra forgot about the seed coating her face and crumbled against the onslaught. Damian’s hips worked her at a frenzied pace, impaling her forcefully, over and over. His aching cock spread her apart as he delved greedily into her depths, again and again.

“Damian!” she gasped, shuddering. “I’m… I’m…!”

Hot lust boiled Damian’s blood, spurring him on faster and harder. His wife’s world crumbled around her; she moaned throatily as she came. Damian spared her no respite. He clenched his inner muscles, holding back his climax. He wasn’t done with her yet. Not by a hell of a long shot. Carefully, as she still trembled within the throes of orgasm, Damian pulled almost all the way out. Grasping Audra’s hips, he slowly turned her over onto her front, holding her tail firmly. Tugging on her tail, he drew her back down onto him, impaling her from behind.

“Mmmnnn!!” gasped Audra, unable to fight back. Damian bent down onto her, tilting her head to the side as he pushed her shoulders and chest down into the mattress. He gripped her shoulder tightly with one hand, and kept the other on her tail, ruthlessly ramming her with unrelenting hunger. Her body shook with the force of it.

Audra gasped, her mouth opening wide to accommodate the rush of air she needed just to remain conscious. Her eyes widened as Damian’s grip on her tail intensified. She tried sending energy into him, but that only fueled his hunger even more. His body consumed her sparks, his hand pumping her tail for more. She trembled, biting her lip as she cried out.

“Damian!” she screamed. “I can’t! I’m going to… ahh! Ahh! Ahh! AHHH!”

Her little screams were just what Damian craved. More. Yes. “That’s right,” he growled. “Scream. Scream!”

“YASS!” screamed Audra, accepting his demands. “YAA! YAAHH! YAASSS!” she cried as another orgasm gripped her body. Her back curved like a bow, thrusting her hips against her assailant. Her tongue oozed out between her lips as drool puddled against her cheek. She closed her eyes in preparation for the hot, sticky warmth to invade her body.

None came. Her orgasm tapered, and she glanced back to find a hungry beast of a husband waiting for her. He gripped her thigh, flipping her back over, still maintaining their connection. Hilting himself again, he sat straight up, holding her thighs around his waist. Audra had no more strength left to resist. She rested limply against the mattress and allowed her ravenous husband to slake his lust with her body.

“Now you’re giving in,” Damian told her. Commanded her. “You’re mine. Mine,” he growled, echoing her words. “My little Raiju.”

“Nnnn…” moaned Audra. “Your… yes…” she sighed, her body bouncing against his thrusting.

“Do your breasts ache to bounce like that?” Damian demanded to know.

“Yes, a little,” his wife admitted.

“So, why don’t you hold on to them?” he asked tensely. “Squeeze them for me.”

“I can’t…” moaned Audra weakly. “You’ve made my body yours…”

“Yeah,” nodded Damian. “That’s what I thought,” he said with a grin, slowing down. His seed could no longer be denied.

“Why… are you stopping?” whined Audra. “I’m so… so close…”

Damian thrusted in very slowly, his cock caressing every inch of her inner sex. He paused at one spot. “Do you know what this is?” he asked in a low voice, gently tapping the area on her skin where his manhood rested inside.

Audra’s eyes widened. She nodded.

“What do you think will happen if I decide to come… right… here?”

His wife bit her lower lip. Hard. “If you do that, I’ll… I’ll…”

“Let’s find out.”

“No!” gasped Audra as Damian made small, tiny thrusts directly against that spot. His finger pushed down against it from the other side. “DAMIAN!” she shrieked. “I can’t control it!! I’m…! I’m going to…!”

Damian’s wife tensed beneath and around him. Sparks danced around her. All around her body, licking her skin. He gathered them up into his hand and concentrated them into the tip of his finger. Slowly thrusting in one last time, he nudged her most sensitive spot with the tip of it. As he came in contact with it, he sent the concentrated sparks into it from above with his finger.

“AHHHHGGH!” cried Audra. “Nnnnnn! AHHHHNN!!” she screamed. Blasts of energy flung erratically in every direction. This time, Damian was prepared. He held out his hand, drawing them into his body, and willing them into his cock.

The sudden jolt bucked his hips, nearly throwing Audra off of him. He gripped her hips tightly and waited. Any second now. His seed traveled up the base, into his cock, and paused at the head. He swelled, resting firmly against Audra’s sweet spot.

“Nnn… Au…dra…” he grunted. She gazed up at him, her eyes pleading frantically.

It happened all at once.

Damian exploded inside her, right against her most vulnerable place.

Audra screamed, her back arching, her breasts pointing skyward, her tail wrapping around her husband’s arm. She gripped the sheets with her hands, shredding the fabric with her claws. Her energy pulsed into Damian in waves of sheet lightning, dousing him with raw lust with every pass, adding new strength to his orgasm.

It was all he could do just to hold on to her. This soft, slender woman bucked and arched like a feral animal as Damian doused her insides with white-hot lust. He tilted his head back, arching his own body against hers, holding her hips for dear life.

Time seemed to slow, each breath between pulses of orgasm and lightning. Damian briefly wondered what the afterlife might be like. If he’d die from this. As long as Audra remained by his side, he didn’t care. And if there were a glorious afterlife, he couldn’t imagine it being much better than this.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian stood in the desert. His Silent Storm stood beside him, wrapped lovingly around his arm. Glancing down to her, he smiled as she met his eyes with a smile of her own. His heart warmed with the affection from her gaze, and he ruffled her hair gently. Taking a moment, Damian checked his surroundings. They stood upon a hillside made of hardened sand. The empty world stretched out in front of them, with the floating isles hovering ominously in the distance.

Turning to his left, Damian noticed Rei floating a few inches above the sand, hovering at eye level. Had she always been there? Her nine tails waved slowly in the air, illuminated with eerie blue light.

“Rei,” murmured Damian. “Where are we?”

“After all this time,” said Rei softly, “You ask now?”

“I can see Atlantis in the distance,” he told her. “Which means, we can reach it from here. But where is here?”

“There is no here,” Rei said sadly, her figure turning to face him. Her arm stretched out across the desert. “Where we are does not exist. Cannot exist.”

“Yet, here we are,” remarked Damian.

“If form cannot be given to a name,” Rei said, “Name may be given to an idea. This is the space in-between the living and the dead. A space in which one cannot linger, yet many do.”

Audra said something only he could hear. Her lips did not move, yet Damian heard her clearly.

“You’re trapped here,” said Damian, emotion choking his words.

Rei turned away, towards the desolation. “I was a fool,” she said bitterly. “Matters were not always as they are now. Mamono and Yokai alike lived with animosity in their hearts. Hatred and hunger were their constant companions.”

Audra whispered in Damian’s mind. He nodded. “You felt differently?”

“I despised the Hunger.” Rei’s voice tightened. “So many of my kitlings fell to its influence. I held out hope for another way.”

The gravity of her words came upon Damian with the force of an avalanche. “You… you sound like Maou…”

Rei smiled sadly at him, shaking her head. Her tails and ears drooped morosely. “I was before her time. Had I not acted impulsively, I might have lived to see her vision become reality.”

Audra clutched Damian’s arm tightly. She trembled, tears staining his sleeve. “Rei,” he asked gently, “What happened?”

Rei’s image blurred as the ground beneath Damian’s feet shuddered. The Kitsune spirit tilted her head sadly. “I fear our time grows short.”

“No!” cried Damian, his voice echoing as thunder through the desert.

“Do not fight the pull of life,” Rei said sharply. “Go. Return to it. Lest you find yourself lost forever.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian gasped, jolting awake to find Audra’s body entwined around him, his manhood stiff and throbbing inside her. The bed swayed as the ship shuddered and rocked unsteadily. A powerful thrum of energy hummed beneath them. He gently shook Audra awake; she glanced around in alarm.

“What’s happening?” she asked, propping herself up on her elbows. The unfortunate side-effect of her action left her breasts right up against Damian’s face. He couldn’t help it. He kissed her right between them. “Ahh!” she squealed, flopping back down. “I’m not certain we have time to go again…”

A sickening lurch tilted the room diagonally. Damian slid against one of the bedposts, disconnecting abruptly from Audra, then catching her as she tumbled into him. Alarms sounded, and someone pounded on the door.

“Get dressed, sweetling,” Damian urged, setting his wife down gently upon the mattress. He rose and popped the door open a crack.

Garth.

“Damian!” he cried. “We’ve got a problem! You and Audra better get topside, quick!”

“Be right there!” he called, closing the door on his friend. He turned and reached for his clothes. He had one leg thrust into his pants before remembering the sorry state his wife left them. Massive hole in the crotch, shredded behind. Damn. He really didn’t want to go above decks naked. And speaking of decks. WHY was the floor heaving under his feet!?

A soft tap on his shoulder spun Damian around. Audra stood there, smiling, holding up a fresh pair of clothes. Order uniform. Ugh. Audra shrugged. They wordlessly agreed, better than naked. He slid smoothly into the finely sewn and pressed uniform. Huh. Audra knew his size perfectly. But how had there been a… never mind. Buttoning up the shirt, Damian slipped into his shoes and, together, they raced up a flight of stairs.

To chaos.

Good goddess!

Jinx and Lina, in a large room at the back of the ship. barked orders into a device somehow connected with the engine room as they frantically worked to keep the ship out of what looked to be a massive maelstrom. The huge whirlpool blocking the inlet was bigger than the town of Loren! Maybe bigger than two Lorens! The beast of a ship, for all of its power, could not escape it; Jinx and Lina settled for riding the edge, circling the drain, as it were.

“About time!” cried Garth, gawping at Damian. “What the hell are you wearing?”

“Uh, let’s just say my previous outfit is rather worse for wear,” Damian admitted. “So, what is this!?” he bellowed, gesturing at the maelstrom. “Why did we sail into this!?”

“Ahhhhh!” screeched someone. Damian dodged Mila, an Oomkade, as she slid past him, digging into the deck with her claws for stability. Or trying to. The unforgiving metal spurned her claws, tipping her towards the water. Audra grabbed her by the arm and strained against her weight. Damian grabbed onto Audra, and Garth onto Damian.

“Pull!” cried Damian. “PULL!”

More mamono were slipping and nearly falling. Damian shot Jinx a terrified glance as their human/mamono chain skidded across the slippery, slanted deck. The ship turned, heading towards the center of the spiral, straightening out the deck briefly. Mila and the other mamono managed to make their way into the room where Jinx and Lina stood, shaking off seawater and brine as everyone heaved a sigh of relief.

The grim look on Lina’s face chased that relief away, though. She pointed out towards the storm. “That little maneuver cost us. The engines are straining against this as it is. We really didn’t need to get closer.”

“How are we going to get out of here?” Nika asked fearfully, her twin tails quivering between her legs.

“As I suspected,” a man’s voice spoke out, “This maelstrom is not naturally occurring. It isn’t on any of the charts.”

Commander Harrington stepped around Jinx and showed Damian and Audra a map of the region. The small inlet was the only way out of the Kaybern Sea and into the open ocean. Numerous hazards marked the map, and, in particular, the area they were in. A massive maelstrom was not among them.

“It’s gotta be a mamono,” said Lina. “Probably a Charybdis.”

Damian and Audra exchanged glances. “If it’s a mamono, maybe we can reason with her?” he offered.

“How?” Lina asked, tilting her head. “Even your voice, at full power, wouldn’t make it far across that.” She indicated the maelstrom, which, if anything, appeared to be growing.

“Oh, we aren’t going to speak to her,” winked Audra.

The quiet murmuring and nervous chattering fell silent as all eyes fell upon Audra. She offered the group a confident smile. Lina poked her suddenly.

“Whatever you’re gonna do, do it quick,” she urged. “Otherwise, we’re all going to be paying that Charybdis a visit.”

“I hate the water,” mewled Rika, hugging Nika, who nodded in nervous agreement. She yelped as the ship tilted again, swaying in the rough course Lina forced it upon.

“Any other ship, and we’d have been torn apart or dragged under already!” cried Lina. “Go, go!”

Hand in hand, Damian and Audra stepped out onto the tilted deck, approaching the edge. Damian made the mistake of glancing down into the swirling abyss, nearly toppling over in a sudden bout of vertigo. Audra gently tugged him back to her side, steadying him. Ruffling her hair in thanks, he glanced up, back towards Jinx and the others. Rani stood right up against the window, her nose and small hands plastered onto the glass. She watched closely, her eyes wide as saucers. Turning back to the abyss, Damian squeezed his wife’s hand for comfort.

“This one’s going to need to be bigger than all the rest,” he told her.

Audra smiled confidently. “After the last few hours we spent together, it will be.” She winked at him. “Let’s give that Charybdis an inkling of the pleasure we shared.”

“Together,” said Damian with a nod.

“Always,” replied Audra.

Reaching their hands out towards the sea, husband and wife planted their feet firmly and sent energy into each other. The first few sparks barely crackled, but, as before, each one that Audra sent into Damian amplified before returning to her. Doubling. Growing exponentially. Her hair fanned out behind her, her the fur on her tail standing on end as it twitched and curled with pleasure.

A torrent of wind swirled around the two of them, focusing in on them, but never touching them. Sparks became bolts, snapping between their bodies with ominous force. The bolts licked the surface of the metal deck Damian and Audra stood upon, and, as they intensified, the entire ship began to shudder against the effects.

Damian gazed at his wife as the two of them seared with energy. She felt his gaze and tilted her head to smile at him, a predatory glint in her eyes. Together, the two of them opened their hands towards the sea. A rush of orgasmic pleasure overtook Damian at the release of Arc Helix. Hazily, he glimpsed his wife biting her lip firmly, nearly swept away herself.

The roar of energy created a shockwave that rocked Storm Chaser in the other direction, threatening to topple it over. Twin beams of energy crisscrossed over each other in a spinning helix that slammed into the center of the maelstrom. A second shockwave, this one from a wave that burst from the center, hurtled towards the ship.

Audra gasped; Damian scooped her up into his arms and made for the wheelhouse as quickly as he could. Mila held the door open for him, slamming it shut with her elongated body as he dove inside.

“Hard to port!” screamed Jinx. “Bring us into the wave!”

Lina attacked the controls, sending anyone not nailed down sliding towards the wall.

“Punch it!” Jinx cried.

Thrusting a lever forward as far as it could go, Lina pushed the ship to its limits, and far beyond. Rani cried as she flew backwards off the window. Damian leapt to the side and caught her, still holding Audra, and clutched both girls tightly to his chest, shielding them with his body.

All eyes were on the window. None one dared breathe. The wave sped closer… closer…

Suddenly, Damian felt himself hit the ceiling. Stars flashed in front of his eyes. Two warm bodies remained clutched in his arms, and he meant to keep them there. Willing himself to maintain consciousness, he braced himself to hit the floor, which happened a couple seconds later. The ship heaved, nearly flying out of the sea on a massive ramp made of furious water. Jinx braced herself against a counter, mainly to hold Lina in place to work the controls.

“What’s going on out there!?” cried Jinx.

“We’re approaching the center!” shouted Lina. “The maelstrom’s stopped!”

“Full stop,” gasped Jinx as she righted herself. “Check for damage. Damian? Audra?”

“Ughhh…” groaned Damian. Small hands were massaging his head. He opened one eye to find Rani gently kneading her hands into his hair. Had to admit, it felt pretty good. She gasped when she saw his opened eye and hugged him.

“Awake!” cried Rani, her small body trembling with relief. “Alive…” she sobbed quietly, her tails wrapping around his neck.

As wonderful as that felt, she was cutting off the circulation to his head. “Wahhmee…” he mumbled through a tail in his mouth.

“Rani, let go, he can’t breathe,” said Audra softly as she untangled the Youko kit from her husband.

“Uhh…” Lina spoke up as she managed to bring the ship to a halt. “If you three are done, I need you over here. Like, right now.”

Damian rose with a groan, patting Rani’s head with one hand, and Audra’s with the other.

“Oww…” moaned Audra. Rani helped her up, bringing all of her strength to bear.

“What do you see, Lina?” Damian asked. The Gremlin did not answer. She did not need to. Damian saw for himself what she meant. “Oh…” he murmured.

The sea was alive.

Heads popped out of the water, angry expressions set within beautiful faces. Damian confessed he knew the aquatic species much less than he liked, never having bothered studying them as he hadn’t any reason to make a sea voyage in the past. Those sure were a lot of tentacles, though. He wasn’t sure how many of the girls they belonged to. Some of the women appeared to be made of seaweed. Others weren’t even that solid. Slimy, jellyfish-like things that were almost one with the water itself. They all circled around one, larger woman with a thick fin on the back of her head.

“We should speak with them,” said Audra softly. “They will not understand.”

Damian gazed fondly at his wife. A tender gentleness unbecoming of her species tempered her expression as she stepped outside. Damian followed her. Rani, as well, refusing to let go of his hand. He increased his pace to stand astride Audra, but she gestured for him to remain behind her.

“They should see me, first,” she explained, her voice calm and gentle. As she approached the edge, many hands pointed up at her. Damian hung back with Rani, marveling at how the sea had calmed, and even the wind died down. The sea sparkled in the fading light. How long had they slept together?

Many words blended together from the sea.

“Is that a Raiju?”

“That was her energy!”

“How? Why is she not locked below?”

“Maybe there was a revolt?”

“I don’t see how.”

Audra spoke at last, her voice raised, yet gentle. “Greetings, I am Audra of Kawajiri. I greet you as kin, and, hopefully, as friends.” She bowed deeply from the hip, holding her bent position for several seconds before rising up. “This is my husband,” she called, holding out her hand for Damian. He stepped forward and took it, gazing down uneasily at the growing crowd within the calming waves.

“This is Damian of Loren. My savior. My love. My life.” Audra bowed again, taking Damian with her this time. On her way down, she must have noticed Rani, because after rising up, she knelt down, picked up the little girl, and held her up for all to see. “And this is Rani, daughter of Kutharei, Lady of the Vale.”

Damian marveled at his wife, wondering how she knew what to say. A soft blue glow flickered next to the Raiju’s fluffy ear. Oh. That explained it.

“We are familiar with the name of Kutharei,” said one of the women in the center of the throng. She rose up slightly, her massive tentacles treading water to lift her torso up above everyone else. The large fin behind her head fit her like a majestic headdress, framing her deep violet hair, made glossy with oil and seawater. Her voluptuous body was dressed, barely, in a silky-smooth latex-like material that might as well have been her own skin, though it did frame her hips in a kind of skirt before the rest of her body ended in a mass of powerful tentacles. While not monstrous in a massive sense of the word, this woman could do a significant amount of damage to the ship if she so desired.

“Audra of Kawajiri,” she spoke imperiously, “I am Milaire. I bring you Poseidon’s greetings, but demand to know what you are doing aboard that accursed vessel, married to a man of the Order.”

Audra set Rani down and patted her head. The girl wrapped her tails around Audra’s legs. “He’s not Order!” the fox girl insisted.

“Allow me to explain?” Damian implored. Audra nodded. “Milaire, please forgive this misunderstanding. We have taken control of this vessel and make for Zipangu with due haste, so that we might return these women to their homes.” He indicated the monster girls penned up in the bridge, waiting with wide eyes. “As for me,” he added, “I am not of the Order. I abandoned their ways when I clove to my wife.”

“Then, why do you wear their colors?” Milaire demanded. Her tentacles thrashed with irritation.

“That would be my fault,” said Audra softly as she blushed. “I’m afraid I ruined what he wore previously.”

“Hmm,” the Kraken hummed, hands on her ample hips. “You’d have us believe you commandeered a slaver’s ship, filled with machinations we can scarcely defeat, standing beside a man you claim as your husband, yet wears the garb of a captain of the Order. And that your intent is to sail to Zipangu, not to acquire more slaves, but to free those you’ve emancipated?”

“It’s the truth,” said Audra gently.

“And what of this power you sent into our sea?” prompted Milaire.

“It is a power Audra and I share,” Damian told her. “The Youko know it as ‘Arc Helix.’”

Soft gasps spread about small crowd behind Milaire. She glanced back at them. “Quiet,” she said abruptly. “So, that was you, and not a weapon?”

“It was us,” Audra said with a smile, stroking Damian’s arm fondly. “A tangible expression of our love as an example, and offering to quell the storm.”

“Arc Helix is known to our people as well,” Milaire told her.

Rani tugged on Damian’s pant leg. “Told you!” she whispered excitedly, grinning widely up at him.

“It can be summoned only by one known as the Silent Storm,” the Kraken noted. Before she could speak again, Rani interrupted her.

“That’s Audra! That’s Audra!” she squealed, bouncing up and down, her tails smacking between Audra and Damian as they waved about excitedly.

Were it possible, the Kraken’s alabaster face paled even further. “You claim this Raiju is the Silent Storm, little one?” she asked, a little unsteadily.

“Yap!” giggled Rani. “Zap, zap!” she cheered, miming her one-two punch as she bounced.

Milaire glanced back at her friends in the water. They all nodded enthusiastically. Turning back to the ship, Milaire held out her hand. “I am not the one you must convince. Join with us. Accompany us to Lamora Miraca. Present yourself to Empress Yasmira. Her judgement will decide your fate.”

Rani gasped; her bouncing ceased. “Ryugujo…” she whispered.

“W-what?” stammered Damian.

“Ryugujo!” cheered Rani, bouncing again. “I’m gonna go to ryugujo~!”

“How… do we…?” Damian asked with uncertainty.

“Step into the water,” Milaire beckoned. “The sea will catch you.”

Audra shuddered. “Uhm… I don’t know if I can…” she shivered. “My sparks… I’ll…”

Damian grasped her shoulder, squeezing comfortingly. “We’ll go together.”

Rani bounced up, grabbing Damian’s hand and Audra’s, holding them together. “Come! Jump! It’ll be so much fun!”

Without any further warning, the little fox girl leaped into the water, pulling her two captives with her in a surprising burst of strength. Audra shrieked on the way down, but managed to land rather gracefully. Damian, on the other hand, belly flopped. Hard.

“Urk!” he gagged, seawater stinging every inch of him, burning his nose and throat. Rani shimmied next to him, spraying droplets all over his face as he coughed and sputtered. A strong tentacle wrapped around his waist, supporting his weight.

Milaire approached, leveling her gaze at Damian in a hungry sort of way. “Remove your clothing,” she said temptingly. Her grip on his waist suggested she’d not let go until he complied. “It is offensive,” Milaire noted, not-so-amicably.

Audra glanced at him, shrugging with a resigned smile.

Great. Just great. Dozens of beautiful women staring at him, one of them holding him nearly by the balls, and he had to get naked. Even Rani watched with anticipation. Sighing, he removed his coat, letting it float away on the waves. The girls began to edge in on him, eagerly awaiting the removal of his pants. To her credit, Audra covered Rani’s eyes with her hands as he did so.

“Hey!” squealed the fox girl. “I wanna see!”

Milaire snapped her fingers and someone handed her a large, black kimono. Damian quickly slipped into it, much to the disappointment of so many women. A tentacle tied an obi around his waist with surprising dexterity. Yet, even fully robed in yards of fabric, Damian still felt consciously naked. Much of his chest remained visible for eager feminine inspection. The cloth, made of some fabric he could not identify, felt dry even underwater. It was also nearly frictionless, which might have accounted for why he felt so exposed.

“A gift, from the Empress,” said Milaire.

“Give her my thanks,” replied Damian, stroking the remarkable fabric.

The Kraken smirked with a shrug. “Tell her yourself.” She smiled, holding out three necklaces. A small, teardrop-shaped jewel glittered in the dying light on each one. Damian received a sapphire-colored one. Rani grabbed an amber necklace, and Audra took the aquamarine jewel.

As the three companions strung the necklaces around their necks, examining the pretty jewels, Milaire explained, “These magatama are enchanted by Empress Yasmira. They will permit you access to Lamora Miraca, as well as enable you to breathe within the sea.” She smiled, offering him one of her tentacles. “Grab on,” she beckoned.

Damian reached out and the tentacle wound its way around his wrist. Another did the same for Audra. A slightly smaller one encircled Rani’s waist.

“Hey!” giggled Rani. “That tickles!”

Milaire smirked at her and dove beneath the waves, pulling all three with her. Damian gasped, instinctively holding his breath. Water surged past his vision, blinding him to anything that could have been around him. His lungs ached, a burning sensation gripping his chest. He clutched the magatama around his neck with his free hand and exhaled. His vision swam. Dare he trust the Kraken?

His body chose for him. He sucked in a gulp of water. Gasping, he realized it came in and out just as easily as air. He tasted salt within it, but no more so than that of an evening sea breeze. Incredible! He took another gulp of water, breathing as easily as ever.

“This is amaaaaaaziiiiiing~!” sang Rani, holding her arms out to experience the ride as if she were flying. Her tails spun around wildly in the currents.

Damian blinked. Realized he could see her. The moment he’d begun relying on the magatama’s magic, his vision had cleared. And Rani could speak? “Rani?” he asked, expecting to gurgle, yet his words came freely.

“Loooook~!” cheered Rani, pointing at what appeared to be a massive barnacle. A girl clung to the craggy lip of it, her eyes half-closed, and her tongue dangling out in an expression of rapturous bliss. Her nest crackled and snapped with the remnants of Arc Helix as she fanned herself with fresh water. Blushing scarlet, the rest of the world passed her by in a blur.

“The Charybdis?” Damian asked. Audra’s eyes widened at something else.

“What’s that!?” cried Audra, pointing ahead of her. Straight in the Kraken’s path, a massive whirl of water formed a kind of portal between two large pillars of coral. Milaire swam straight towards it. It looked unnervingly similar to the maelstrom the Storm Chaser narrowly avoided.

Milaire accelerated towards it before any of them could say another word. The swirl swallowed them up, showering them with a rush of water and light.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

When Damian’s eyes dared open, he found himself at a complete loss for words.

A vast, bioluminescent city sprawled out before them. Damian waved his hands around, unable to feel the water anymore. Yet, Milaire still floated through it, as if flying. Damian’s eyes struggled to capture everything, while his mind struggled to believe a paradise such as this could exist on the sea floor. Homes, spas, inns, restaurants, pubs, vast parks, massive pools, stretched out as far as his eyes could see. His mind particularly struggled with the concept of pools in an underwater city. How could that possibly work?

Damian gave up trying to figure it all out and decided to just enjoy the sights. Tiny, dangling bulbs of bioluminescent coral dangled across every building and lined every street. Small anglerfish and other bright creatures flitted about in the “air,” lending the viewer the illusion of an ever-changing tapestry of constellations. Living constellations.

In the distance, Damian spied an enormous structure with huge, sloping, curved roofs and multi-tiered balconies. That must have been the palace. Great goddess! He was being summoned there!? As if the beauty of the realm itself didn’t beggar enough belief, Milaire drew closer to the sandy floor, and Damian received his first glimpses of the citizens.

Oh, my goddess.

Damian didn’t even know which goddess to swear to anymore. Interspersed in the streets, and hovering above them, were women and couples. Dancing. Frolicking. Soft music chimed from everywhere, a different tune on every street corner. Some of them carried floating lanterns, each flickering with a differently colored bioluminescent creature. They fluttered about like fairies, and, double-taking, Damian thought sure at least one or two of the lanterns were actually girls. Girls carrying flames in their hands that burned underwater, dancing alongside other girls and men in rapturous pleasure.

Damian stole a glance at his wife. One arm remained in the Kraken’s care. The other lightly covered her awestruck lips. Her eyes wept freely at the beauty surrounding her, her tears drifting away in the water, or air, glittering like gemstones.

Rani, on the other hand, continued to glide through the water like a fish, waving at girls as they passed by. The women observed, grinning ear-to-ear, waving back enthusiastically. Some of them shouted greetings of welcome. Many of them pointed at Damian, blushing and stifling giggles. Ordinarily, Damian would avert his gaze, but the very atmosphere of this place did away with such shy nonsense. He waved back at them and received joyful greetings in return.

Sweet, lovely goddess. Damian knew exactly where he was going to retire with Audra. His feet touched the sandy ground as Milaire landed. Her tentacles unwound from the three of them, and she turned with a smile. A hint of distrust lingered in her eyes, though.

“Welcome to Lamora Miraca, ‘The Miracle of Love,’” explained Milaire.

“It’s so PRETTY~!” cheered Rani. “I can’t wait to tell Mom! I’m in ryugujoooooo~!” the fox girl giggled, jumping up and down. She discovered, much to her delight, she could jump much higher here than she could normally.

“There are several districts to enjoy,” Milaire continued, keeping an eye on little Rani. “This is a summer district, but you may experience any season you wish by exploring the realm. Later, however. The Empress has summoned you. The palace awaits. Come with me.”

Damian gently took Audra’s hand. His wife continued to silently weep at the gorgeous scenery and the ecstatic nature in which each citizen greeted her. She returned their waves as best she could, her lips fixed in a rueful smile as her eyes leaked glittering tears.

“Damian,” she said softly, sniffling. “Are we in a dream? Could such a realm truly exist in a world filled with hate and mistrust?”

“I scarcely believe it myself,” Damian admitted. “Is this even in our world?”

“It is,” replied Milaire, floating slightly above the sandy ground. She left no wake with the swaying of her tentacles, and did not disturb the sand. “Portals exist in many places to speed visitors and citizens alike into the embrace of the Empress.”

Rani bounced higher and higher with each leap. “Wanna bring Mom here!” she cried gleefully, swatting a floating lantern on her way up.

“Rani, be careful,” Damian urged, tugging her back down by a tail. “Don’t want you floating away.”

“There is no danger here,” Milaire told him. “You have nothing to fear, if indeed your intent is pure.”

Damian groaned. Really wish she had kept that bit to herself. Rani continued leaping around, ending up in the embrace of more than one floating dancer, who spun her around cheerfully before letting her go.

On her way down, Rani’s ears flicked to the side. “Hey, fox girl!” a childlike voice called out to her. Damian and Rani paused and noticed a group of children beckoning to her. “Come play with us?”

Rani looked up at Damian with pleading eyes. “Can I~?”

Damian chuckled at her. “You don’t want to meet the Empress?”

Squeaking with a little blush, Rani clapped both hands over her mouth. “Ack! I forgot!” She waved at the children. “Soooorry~!” she cried. “I’m going to meet the Empress! Next time?”

The children darted forward towards her. One of them nearly collided with Milaire’s tentacle. They all tried to speak at once.

“The Empress!?

“You’re gonna meet the Empress!”

“You must be really special!”

“I wish I could meet the Empress…”

“Can I be your friend?”

“Who ARE you?”

“Ahem,” Damian cleared his throat at them. A dozen pairs of young eyes stared up at him. Crap. Now what?

“You’d better be on your best behavior,” said Audra with a smile, flicking a tear out of her eye. “This is Rani, Princess of the Vale.”

Gasps.

“Gahh…” groaned Rani, blushing scarlet, waving a hand in front of her face. “I told you not to call me that!”

“You did say I’d best bow if we called you that,” Audra reminded her, curtsying with a smile.

Rani’s blush deepened. “Ugh, stoppit!”

“Is it true?” asked one of the boys. He looked pretty human to Damian. That surprised him. “Mistress Milaire?”

“It is,” affirmed the Kraken.

The boy blushed, straightening his sandy blonde hair. He knelt to Rani. “Princess Rani, will you marry me?”

Rani giggled and ruffled the boy’s hair. “I’ll tickle you if you call me that again!”

“Aren’t you a little young to be asking her that?” Damian asked, barely stifling his laughter.

“My father is a viscount, recently defected to the Royal Demon Army,” the boy announced, puffing his chest out proudly. “It’s only fitting that I should marry a princess.”

“Your father married his armor,” giggled one of the girls.

The boy blushed crimson. Rani burst out laughing. “Whaaaaat~!? Really!?”

“Grr,” growled the boy, pouncing the girl, a young succubus. They tumbled around in the sand, neither one of them doing any real harm.

“The Empress is waiting,” sighed Milaire.

“I’m sorry, I have to go,” Rani told the children in-between giggles.

“What did I tell you?” Damian said to Audra as they continued down the road. “She’s going to be married by the time we get her back to her mother…”

Audra giggled.

“She’ll find no lack of suitors here,” noted Milaire. “Make no mistake. We choose our guests carefully. Any one of these men would be a fine match for Lady Kutharei’s daughter.”

“I’d rather let her mother make that decision,” sighed Damian.

“The girl has chosen you to be her guardians, has she not?” Milaire paused, glancing back at him. Damian nodded solemnly, as did Rani, less solemnly. “Then, I believe her mother would respect your decision in the matter. Such a guardianship is a great honor. The Kitsune ancestors will look upon you with favor for your service.”

Damian swallowed hard. The Kraken had just about echoed Rei’s sentiments word-for-word. He could not find his voice in order to answer Milaire, so she turned and approached a signpost.

“These wayposts allow free travel throughout Lamora Miraca. Simply touch one with a wish in your heart, and it shall guide you.” Milaire brushed her hand against the sturdy coral sign, and a portal swirled into being next to her. She beckoned to her three guests. Looking over her shoulder, Damian glimpsed a wavy reflection of the palace within the swirling portal.

Damian took Audra’s hand in his, and Rani’s hand in his other. Together, they followed Milaire as the portal briefly robbed them of their senses.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

A stunning series of coral and shale archways, illuminated with bioluminescent pearls, greeted Damian and his companions as their senses returned. Passing through the arched gates, the palace loomed, its massive gates spread open wide to welcome them. An entourage of mermaids and merrows greeted Milaire, ushering her and her guests inside. The merfolk guided their guests in removing their shoes and placing them in a special section, offering silk socks for their feet instead. The silk slid over Damian’s feet like a second skin.

 Polished coral and marble flooring reflected the light cast by large jewels mounted in corners or on ceilings. Wide, open rooms with trickling fountains featured balconies which allowed guests to float or swim up to other levels of the palace freely, or to gaze down at the mesmerizing patterns of the water fountains on ground level.

As Milaire guided the guests through many rooms and hallways, monsters and humans of all kinds stopped to wave or bow at their passing. The only ones who did not were seated upon tatami mats in other rooms, or otherwise engaged in deep conversation and dance. Damian’s fascination never tired of it. The mannerisms of these gracious folk made his own hometown seem boorish and crass. Audra looked right at home, though, waving and nodding her head as she passed by anyone greeting her. Rani simply gazed in wonder of it all.

Milaire continued to lead her guests through another archway that opened up into a massive courtyard. Damian gasped in awe. Hundreds of floating lanterns drifted in the air, as numerous as falling snowflakes. Each of these cast a shade of blue or orange, their colors blending together and casting a fascinating contrast of shadows and patterns at his feet. As he’d noticed before, Damian glimpsed a few lanterns that were alive, and were girls themselves, floating and dancing amongst the inanimate lanterns. Some of them sang softly, adding their voices to the gentle, chiming music.

Circles of men and women in concentric rings danced amidst the lanterns at eye level nearer the center of the courtyard. In the center of the circle, a gorgeous Ryu swayed in the music, her voice leading the others. Behind her, set a ways back, an even more stunning woman floated in front of a large throne made of coral and encrusted with hundreds of gems. She did not sit upon it, choosing instead to sway and twist her elongated body as she followed the Ryu’s mesmerizing movements. The sleeves of her pearlescent kimono flowed like wings, trailing past her arms and over her scales. Numerous veils of sheer organza swam through the air around her in mist-like fashion, guided by a large folded fan in the woman’s hand. Two large horns adorned her pretty head, nestled within silky, dark-violet hair. Several bangles and golden chains dangled from them, glittering in the contrasting light.

As Damian drew closer, he noticed the lights had been chosen to compliment the woman’s coloration. Her thick-scaled, serpentine lower half was a mixture of soft orange and lustrous gold. It needed no adornments to draw the eye. The way the woman swayed her hips as she allowed herself to drift in the Ryu’s song captivated every fiber of Damian’s being. Oh, goddess… Audra was going to hate him. He couldn’t help it. His eyes wouldn’t leave this woman.

Gritting his teeth, Damian forced his head to turn to Audra, preparing an apology. He needn’t have bothered. Audra had begun to dance on the spot, her own heart captivated by the music. Damian momentarily forgot about the enthroned woman as his eyes feasted upon his wife.

Slowly, sensually, Audra twisted and turned her body, swaying and twirling around weightlessly in the air. Her movements glided through the watery air as gently and expertly as any merfolk. Her tail swayed and glided through the air in time with the movements of her hips, and her hands played sensually upon her body as she gently spun and swirled. Casting a wayward glance at Damian, she curled her fingers at him, her heavy-lidded sidelong glance igniting a firestorm of lust in his heart.

Reaching out to take Audra’s offered hand, she guided him into her dance. Their feet left the floor as they spun and swayed, slowly at first, gradually acclimating themselves to the weightless feeling. As their ravenous eyes met, all other cares fell away. The soft music filled their minds, caressing their very souls as the Ryu’s lustful refrain bid them indulge in each other’s sensuality.

Damian took the lead, holding Audra closer as he spun her through the air in a dance of sweet sensuality. As he moved, leading her motions, the back of his mind questioned how he knew which steps to take. Strange. As the music played, and the words filled his soul, he instinctively knew what to do. Other dancers made way for them, surrounding them and focusing their thoughts and passion on them.

Audra’s lips met Damian’s in a soft, breathtaking kiss. His hands made their way beneath her clothes, exploring her body as their tongues explored each other’s mouths. Slowly, Audra followed his lead; he felt her hands slipping underneath his clothes to sample his body. Their soft moans blended into the music; the singers and revelers wove it into the melody in a mesmerizing feat of improvisation.

Such warmth and joy surrounded Damian and his wife. Such love and acceptance. He found the anger and hatred of the Nameless and his minions fading away. Surely, if even the most stonehearted of men could but glimpse this wondrous realm, would their souls surely not be stirred? What manner of evil could ever blemish such a place?

Damian gradually became aware of being inside Audra. Her body trembled with ecstasy, both against him, and around him. He barely remembered shifting under her clothes and slowly taking her. Briefly, he wondered if anyone else could see. He found he did not care. Audra was all that mattered. He throbbed within her, desperate to feed her his love.

Deepening his kiss, he guided Audra’s tongue to coil around his, and began to thrust into it, keeping their lips firmly pressed together. He found no need to thrust his hips against hers. Their bodies naturally pleasured each other as they danced. Audra only needed the mental suggestion of it that he offered her with his tongue. The gentle distraction inflamed her lust, and her arms tightened around him. Her legs slipped in under his kimono, thighs gripping his hips tightly.

The song the Ryu sang for them continued, relentlessly goading and stoking the couple’s lust for each other as they danced. Damian wondered if she’d begun singing to them directly. Again, he found he did not care. Audra’s lustful, desperate gaze kept him transfixed. He needed nothing else. No one else. Only her. Her scent. Her moans. Her love. She consumed him, and he supped upon her in exchange.

Audra trembled, her body jerking against him. Her insides tightened, gripping his shaft firmly. Her back arched, tail curving rigidly. Her breathing quickened, softly pressing against Damian’s face through her nose as her eyes began to shift out of focus. She continued staring at him as best she could as her orgasm shook through her. Powerful energy coursed silently into her husband.

A heady, sweet scent washed over Damian. Cherry blossoms. Sweet, fresh, powerful. He was ready. Ready to release for her. Squeezing her body tightly, he opened himself to her and released his love into her. His eyes slid out of focus with hers as he held his breath for the first few pulses, then gasped against her to give her the rest. Their kiss drifted apart, and he cradled her head against his cheek while their dance slowly carried them back down to the floor.

Somehow, Audra released his shaft without letting anyone else see, setting her furry feet alight upon the marble floor. Their clothing settled in place. Neither one of them spilled a drop. Gently, Damian stroked the side of his wife’s lovely face, gentle pops and cracks of her energy drifting into his fingers. She smiled, nuzzling against his touch.

At last, Damian found himself returning to his senses. The song had died down, the Ryu smiling with approval. She nodded as his gaze met hers. Next to her, a gorgeous feathered woman basked in the sweet scent Audra had released, inhaling deeply of it. Her tanned, tawny skin blushed as her feathered arms shuddered and twitched with sheer delight. A curious stringed instrument hung next to her hips, forgotten for the moment.

The other mamono, sparsely populated with humans, smiled fondly, mostly at Damian and Audra, but also at each other as they began to imitate the dance the two of them performed moments ago. Damian’s eyes searched the crowd, looking for Rani. He found her seated at a place of honor near the scaled mermaid. The fox girl gazed dreamily at Damian and Audra, her lips slightly parted in awe. Her tails waved around slowly as she took everything in. For once, she sat calmly on her tatami mat, the urge to run or bounce around forgotten.

As for the Otohime, she gazed at Damian and Audra, her pink eyes glittering, full of tears as a wide smile crossed her face, blending with a crimson blush that had her fanning herself with her hand-painted floral fan. A wash of relief swept through Damian’s mind and body. He’d just had sex with Audra, in front of everyone, Empress included, as they danced like nymphs with reckless abandon. Thoughts of having offended the matriarch fled, replaced by wonder.

Empress Yasmira paused a moment to compose herself, blinking away her tears. She gestured for Damian and Audra to approach her. “Audra of Kawajiri. Damian of Loren. To Lamora Miraca, I bid you welcome. I also welcome Rani of the Vale, which you have brought before me. Her mother will be delighted to hear she is safe.” She beamed down at Rani, who squirmed on her tatami mat, blushing uncontrollably. Gazing back up at Damian, she asked, “What troubles you, dear one?”

Damian swallowed uneasily at the term of endearment, but when his eyes darted to Audra, she hadn’t displayed any discomfort. Uh. Crap. How was one supposed to address an empress again? “Imperial Majesty,” he said softly, hoping that was correct. “I… apologize for our… salacious display a moment ago.”

To Damian’s amazement, the Otohime burst into peals of heartfelt laughter. Some of the other mamono joined her. It did take her a moment to recover before answering. “Nonsense! Your dance was a feast for the senses,” Yasmira said breathlessly. “Thank you both for sharing that with us.”

“To be honest, majesty,” Damian replied with a bow of his head, “I am not certain where or how I learned…” He trailed off, unsure of what to say.

Yasmira chuckled softly, her giggle a delight upon the ears of all who heard it. “It was borne from your heart,” she told him, a blush reddening her cheeks. “And nurtured with the love of your wife. Such a powerful love it is,” she sighed, swooning slightly as her tongue caressed her lips. “I’ve not enjoyed the dance of a man like you in quite some time…”

“Thank you, majesty,” said Damian, bowing to hide his reddening face.

Yasmira giggled, fanning herself. Her eyes widened as Audra curled her hands around Damian’s arm protectively. “Ohh, my!” the Empress chuckled. “Look at her, shielding you from my words! You need not worry yourselves, dear ones!” Yasmira swore, her fingertips lightly covering her smile. “I’d sooner pledge myself to the Order than to separate a married couple. In fact… would you like to officiate your pledges to one another?”

Audra gasped, her mouth falling open as she turned her imploring eyes upon Damian. He nodded at her. “We would like nothing more, your Imperial Majesty.”

Yasmira giggled. “Ohh, Audra. Have you any idea of the treasure of a man you cling to?”

“I do,” Audra told her.

“Never forget it,” the Otohime beseeched. “And you can stop calling me that. You have shown me enough honor for a lifetime. After your dance, there is no doubt in my mind about the sincerity of your love. My name is Yasmira.”

The Empress curtsied to him and then to Audra. Audra, he could understand. Sometimes he himself felt like bowing to her. But the Empress bowed to Damian! Damian, the factory worker. His mind went fuzzy. A water goddess bowed. To him! Stunned speechless, he just stood there, allowing Audra to support his balance.

“Well, what is everyone waiting for?” cried Yasmira. “We’re going to have a wedding!”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The courtyard erupted with activity. Rank and privilege were forgotten as even Yasmira assisted in what appeared to be menial tasks. At this rate, the Empress and her girls were like to convert the entire palace courtyard into a wedding venue within minutes.

Sadly, she never got the chance. A mershark swam towards Yasmira with frightening speed. Urgency narrowed her eyes as she slid to a halt before the Empress. Swimming closely around the Otohime, the Mershark whispered in her ears. Yasmira’s face fell. The instant change affected everyone around her. They dropped what they were doing to attend her. Swimming away slowly, the Mershark’s fins drooped with the weight of what she’d just told her Empress.

Gently, Empress Yasmira brushed away her attendants and swam towards Damian, a pained look in her pink eyes. “I’m afraid I have bad news,” she said softly as she drew near.

“I gathered as much,” Damian said with a sigh. “What’s happened?”

“Are you familiar with this man?” Yasmira demanded, holding out her hand. The water within her palm swirled with magic, hardening into a likeness of… oh crap.

“The Nameless,” hissed Damian. Audra stiffened by his side.

“This man strikes our land-walking kin with the speed and cunning of a viper,” said Yasmira tensely. “He disappears, slithering back to whence he came, before the stronger among us can apprehend him.”

“What’s happened?” asked Audra softly.

“He’s struck again,” the Otohime said, gritting her teeth as bitter tears formed at the corners of her narrowed eyes. Milaire and the Ryu swam slowly up to them, having overheard. “A fishing village on the shores. Nyoto.”

“How many did he take?” Damian asked.

“All…” Yasmira bit her lip to stem her tears.

All of them!?” gasped Damian.

“How?” demanded Milaire.

“Even the humans?” asked the Ryu.

Yasmira nodded, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. “Bianca was in the region and felt, what she called, a sickening drop in the air. A flash of light on the shore. She went to investigate, and… everyone was… just… gone…”

“Damnit,” cursed Damian. “I was afraid of this.”

The Otohime, Kraken, and Ryu turned to him with questions in their eyes. “It was a risk. We can’t find the Nameless on our own. We knew he wanted Rani, so we took a risk. Sailed to Zipangu in an effort to draw him out. Looks like it worked, gods damnit…”

“Your ship is faster than anything built by humans I’ve ever seen,” Milaire noted. “How did he overtake you?”

Damian and Audra exchanged a dark look. “He possesses the ability to travel anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye,” Damian told the women.

The effect hit them like a punch in the gut.

Fury burned in Milaire’s eyes.

The Ryu covered her mouth in horror with a scaled hand.

The Empress averted her eyes, cringing as the words stung her heart.

“Such a man could enter here,” cried Yasmira softly.

“He wouldn’t dare,” said Audra. The three women focused hopeful eyes upon her. “This realm is filled to bursting with overflowing love,” she reminded them. “The Nameless and his following base their strength on apathy. They mark their bodies with runes that block pleasure.”

The Empress and the Ryu exchanged bewildered glances. “Anti-pleasure runes?” asked Yasmira.

The Ryu shrugged. “I suppose if pleasure runes exist, the Lilim that designed them had to have used something as a baseline to form a point of reference.” She tapped her lip thoughtfully with a talon. “Perhaps the ‘Nameless’ reversed the process once more?”

“No,” sighed Damian. “He has the original.”

This time, the Empress covered her mouth in horror. With both hands. Her folded fan occluded one eye.

“How can you be certain?” the Ryu asked, urgency choking her voice.

“We interrogated one of his cultists,” said Damian. “It took the power of Arc Helix to strip him of the runes, but, afterward, he seemed eager to tell us everything.”

“Where is he now?” pressed the Ryu.

“Aboard Storm Chaser,” replied Damian.

“He’s terrified,” Audra said softly. “Apathy and fear are the Nameless’ constant companions.”

“We have to go,” Damian said sadly, patting Audra’s hand. “We must sail to Zipangu and stop this man.”

Yasmira shook her head vigorously. “No, there’s isn’t time. You must travel there directly from here.”

Damian paused, taken aback. “You can do that? Send us there?”

The Otohime offered him the barest of smiles. “Of course.” She turned to her companions. “Milaire. Make haste to their ship. Tell them to sail to Zipangu with as much speed as they can muster. I shall personally ensure the currents favor their passage. Bring the cultist back here with you.” She glanced at the Ryu, who unclipped a magatama from her hair and handed it over. Yasmira tugged free a thin lock of her own hair and strung it through the little gem, fashioning a necklace out of it. “Take this.”

Huh. So, that’s how she made the necklaces? Damian gently touched his, finding it to be true. His magatama matched several the Ryu was wearing, and the string for it did look like twisted hair.

“Yasmira,” Damian interjected, still uncomfortable at addressing her so informally. She glanced his way, tilting her head slightly. “Audra seeded a dying human woman and joined her with the freed cultist. If you’re bringing him here, she will want to accompany him. She’s likely a Raiju by now.”

“Certainly,” nodded Yasmira, accepting another magatama from the Ryu and preparing it. She handed them to Milaire. “Bring them both.”

“Yes, my lady,” nodded Milaire, cupping them gently. She spun around and rocketed off, darting out of the courtyard with breathtaking speed. Yasmira beckoned to one of the girls nearby.

“Yes’m?” asked a cute mermaid with deep, sapphire eyes and matching fins.

“Fetch Morwena, quickly,” urged Yasmira. The mermaid nodded and darted off. “Selene,” Yasmira turned to the Ryu. “I ask that you escort these two to Nyoto. Ensure that no harm befalls them.”

“None shall—” Selene the Ryu started to say.

“These three,” a small voice insisted.

All eyes turned to the source. Rani stood there, amidst them, glaring up with balled fists planted firmly on her small hips. “I’m going too,” she stated firmly.

“No, little one,” said Yasmira, offering her a gentle smile. “This is too dangerous for—”

“No!” cried Rani, interrupting her. “They’re my guardians!”

Yasmira gasped softly.

“She’s right, Rani,” said Audra gently. “The Nameless would never venture here. This is a safe place for you.”

“Noo!” Rani shook her head, grasping Audra’s hand. “It doesn’t work like that! If you leave me, I’ll be in bigger danger!”

“The princess is correct,” Selene noted. “Kitsune traditions are very specific. If she’s bound herself to you, it is your duty to guard her until such a time as she releases you from your oaths.”

Someone forgot to mention that part…” Damian grumbled.

“Did she?” the Ryu remarked, her brow knotted in concern as she peered gruffly down at Rani. “Shame on you,” she said darkly.

Rani withered. “I’m sorry… it’s just… they need me!”

“What do you mean?” prompted Selene.

“My foxfire!” chirped Rani. “It protects them from the one with no name.”

Selene and Yasmira exchanged glances as another monster girl approached. Gliding through the water using a clench-and-release undulation of her lower body, the girl propelled herself quickly, like a missile. She waved her arms to slow her approach and landed daintily upon what appeared to be a gown of tentacles. Deep violet membranes and tentacles framed a sultry, slender, busty body, barely enough to be considered decent. Lilac skin gleamed with thin coating of ooze. A pair of deep, red, glowing eyes swept over Damian’s figure momentarily, her head of small tentacles wriggling with hunger.

The girl turned to Yasmira. “My lady.” She bowed at the hip. Her eerie, sensual voice echoed slightly in Damian’s mind, dancing around his sanity like a wispy specter.

“Morwena,” said the Empress, appearing to take some comfort in the girl’s presence. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”

“Of course,” smiled the dangerous-looking girl. Her red eyes swept Damian’s body appraisingly. “Shall I get to work on him right away?” she asked hopefully.

Damian’s heart flipped with sudden panic. Audra clung to him, glaring at the girl, who seemed more confused than annoyed.

“No,” Yasmira shook her head. “Milaire is bringing back someone for you. Learn what you can from him.”

“As you wish,” nodded Morwena.

“You’re a Mindflayer, aren’t you?” asked Audra.

Morwena smiled coyly at her. “Yes,” she nodded. “I knew little more than the Abyss before Yasmira found me. I owe her a great deal. Before meeting her, I thought all the world was darkness. Yet, that did not sadden me. There is mystery in darkness. Intrigue. Secrets. Many secrets…” She smiled, an expression of eerie mystique.

Damian blinked haze from his vision. Goddess, her voice… He immediately understood why they called her species a Mindflayer. He could practically feel his mind succumbing to her will. A strange, gentle yearning compelled him to drift into her embrace and feel her tentacles creep across his body.

“I wish I had time to learn…” sighed the Raiju. Audra’s voice snapped Damian out of his daze. He hoped she hadn’t noticed.

“This is my home, now,” said Morwena. “When your task is complete, come find me.” She smiled, her small crown tentacles twitching with anticipation.

“We’re ready,” Damian told Yasmira and Selene.

Yasmira bowed to Damian and Audra. “May the grace and favor of Poseidon go with you. Always.”

Audra graciously returned the Empress’ bow. Even Rani followed her lead. Damian found himself stunned into silence once again. This was really happening, right? This was not some flighty dream or poor attempt at mental teasing? He glanced Morwena’s way, but could detect no devilish deceit in her solemn gaze.

“Follow me,” beckoned Selene.

They left in silence.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The dream did not end with their departure from Lamora Miraca. Far from it. A curtain of air surrounded their passage as Damian clung to the Ryu’s shoulders for dear life. Selene shot through the sea, traveling through the water like a bolt of graceful lightning. Casting a frantic glance backwards, he checked for Rani, who sat wedged between him and his wife upon the majestic Ryu’s serpentine back. A wild look of pure delight spread across Rani’s face as she cheered with glee. Audra’s expression mirrored hers, mixed with determination as she held Damian’s waist firmly, caging in the squirming fox girl and wincing as furry tails kept slapping her in the face.

The surface of the water rapidly approached, and Selene showed no signs of slowing down. Damian gripped her shoulders. She glanced back at him with a sly smile and a rosy blush. “We are nearly upon Nyoto,” she said surprisingly softly, yet her voice carried easily over the rush of water around them. “To the skies!” she cried, facing forward.

Bursting from the surface, Selene’s majestic form soared into the air just like the ancient Zipangunese dragons of eld. Damian gasped, clinging to her all the tighter, waiting for her to plummet to the ground. To his astonishment, she did not. Selene required no wings to conquer the skies. Her serpentine body swayed sensually through the air as easily as it did through water.

“You need not grip me so roughly, Damian,” said Selene gently as she glanced back at him, her blush intensifying. “I will not let you fall.”

“Sorry,” Damian muttered, relaxing his hold on her soft shoulders. A pink blush filled in as blood flow returned. Selene nibbled on her lip, her gaze lingering.

“It is no trouble. You were not causing me pain,” she said softly.

Audra cleared her throat pointedly. Damian glanced back at her. A flicker of envy danced in her eyes. Uh oh. The last time she gave him that look, they’d been forced to evict a couple from their homes. Damian tore his eyes from lustful wife and peered over the Ryu’s shoulder, brushing her hair out of his face.

Before them lay the town of Nyoto, a modest village tucked into an outcropping cape against the ocean. Boats drifted aimlessly in the gentle waves. Nets lay half-strewn against the decks. Some of the boats weighed heavily with a fresh catch. Only one of them appeared to carry any passengers or crew. The rest of the village was completely deserted, at least from Damian’s vantage point atop the flying Ryu.

“Selene!” he called over her shoulder. “That ship, take us down. Maybe they saw something.”

Selene nodded. “At once.”

Gently, Selene swirled down and made her way for the ship approaching the harbor. The deckhands spotted her approach and cleared the deck for her, providing her a space just large enough to coil her large body. The captain emerged from the wheelhouse, his hat in his hands as he bowed to her.

“Mistress Selene, you honor us with your visit,” he offered, bowing deeply from the hip.

Damian hopped off of Selene’s back before she could reply. “You can dispense with the pleasantries, Captain,” he said suddenly. “This is not a social call.”

“Of course, my lord,” murmured the captain, remaining bowed.

Damian groaned. “I mean to say,” he replied, a little softer, “We have questions. Urgent questions.” The captain straightened up; a start, at least. “Can you tell us what happened here?”

“I… must admit, my lord, I’d hoped you would tell us,” the captain said with a sigh.

“What can you tell us?” asked Selene gently as she slid forward with a reassuring smile. Audra took her place beside Damian, holding Rani’s hand.

“We sailed from Jiyyo Prefecture to sell a fresh catch of snappers and trade with Nyoto. We were a ways out when our navigator spotted a series of bright, green flashes over the village. Our regular escort hasn’t arrived yet, so we’ve been waiting here, but…”

“But what?” urged Damian.

“Something’s wrong. There’s a fell quiet on the air. What’s happened to the villagers?”

“They’ve been taken,” said Audra softly. “Taken by the Nameless.”

Every man on deck trembled at Audra’s words. “The Nameless, mistress?” prompted the captain.

Selene cast Audra a troubled gaze. Damian wondered if the Ryu meant for these fishermongers to know the truth. Even he himself wondered if he wanted to know the truth. Audra’s eyes fell.

“A misguided man with frightening power,” Audra admitted. “You need not worry—it is us he pursues.”

“None of my men blame you, mistress,” the captain assured her. “But, many of us had friends in Nyoto. Are they lost to us?”

“Not if we have anything to say about it,” growled Damian. “The Nameless will answer for his crimes. His prisoners, released.”

The captain said nothing, merely bowing to signify his thanks. His crew did likewise. Blushing, Damian turned to his wife, who beamed at him. Selene also smiled with approval. Rani wasn’t watching. Her gaze focused somewhere inland.

“Something’s not right,” she remarked, her tails twitching anxiously.

Selene regarded her with concern. “We must leave and scour the land for the Nameless.”

“Agreed,” replied Damian. “Thank you, Captain. We leave now, to confront this evil.”

“May fortune favor you,” said the captain with a bow.

Taking Audra’s hand, Damian guided her to Selene. He placed Rani right against Selene’s back. “Guide her to what you felt,” he suggested as he slid in, in front of his wife. He held Rani steady in front of him with one hand, and rested his other hand on Selene’s shoulder.

Without a word, Selene propelled herself into the air. Rani pointed east. Inland. “Shinji Prefecture?” Selene asked.

“Yes, that way,” nodded Rani.

Audra’s grip on Damian’s waist tightened. She trembled. Damian glanced back at her. “Sweetling?” he prompted gently.

“Kawajiri is north of Shinji Prefecture,” she said as fear clouded her eyes.

Damian sucked in a breath. “We’ll stop there just to be sure everything is all right. For now, we must follow Rani’s instinct.”

Audra nodded. “I agree.”

“We approach Shinji Prefecture,” announced Selene. The clouds parted, unveiling a large, sprawling city built in a series of rings to grant equal access to a stream that flowed through the city. Citizens and wagons could be seen moving about within the streets. Everything appeared normal, but Rani tensed, nudging Selene’s back.

“That’s it,” announced Rani darkly. “The trouble is there.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“This is the city of Kōchi,” explained Selene. “The city is protected by an Inari. If anything has happened here, she will be able to help us.”

Damian gazed down past Selene’s shoulder at the bustling city. Numerous homes and businesses were laid out in a tiered, ringed pattern, built upon elevation with large, stone walkways connecting them. Down the middle of each path, the builders laid smooth stones for mules and wagons to travel, with stairs for citizens. Lovely structures with sloped roofs and shining lanterns lined each tier of habitation, interspersed with gardens, parks, and plazas.

As Selene drew nearer, many of the citizens began to take notice, pointing up at her as she floated through the sky. She gracefully lighted upon one of the many city squares, near the entrance to an Inari shrine. Oddly enough, the humans nearby bowed to her if Selene met their gazes, but did not otherwise make any moves to greet her.

“They’re acting a lot different than those fishermen,” remarked Damian.

“Something’s really wrong…” Rani noted ominously. She trembled nervously.

Dashing down the steps from the shrine with uncanny speed, a pretty girl in a loose, white and cherry-red kimono approached Selene and bowed. “Welcome to Kōchi, honored one.” When she rose up, no smiles crossed her cute face. “Please, follow me?”

The girl turned, and, as she did, Damian thought sure he detected a faint blue light behind her, in the form of a tail. He blinked, and she appeared normal again. They followed the girl in somber silence. She walked with the grace and sensuality of a mamono, though Damian was uncertain which kind.

The pathway she took led them all through a series of torii painted a vivid red-orange, each one signed by travelers having made pilgrimages to meet the Inari of the shrine and seek her blessing. As they passed the last one, Selene held Damian back and nudged Rani to the head of the line, directly behind the shrine maiden. Selene slithered between Damian and Audra, holding their hands, but moving slightly ahead of them.

Past the torii, the path opened up to a courtyard with a lovely, tranquil water garden in the center and statues of young Kitsune girls along the sides. At the main gate to the shrine itself stood two columns. Upon one of them, a beautiful statue of an Inari woman stood, beckoning entrance with one hand. She held a large key in the other. Damian noted with curiosity that the podium for the second statue stood empty.

The miko indicated a fountain in the center of the water garden. Selene led Audra, Damian, and Rani to it and guided them through a simple purification ritual to cleanse their hands and mouths. Damian felt like a third wheel in all of this. Everyone knew exactly what to do except for him. Every object, column, stone, and piece of wood had a purpose that everyone present knew of except for him. And yet, even still, no one chided him or looked down upon him for his ignorance. He was certainly beginning to favor Zipangunese culture over his own. Was that strange, he wondered?

The miko nodded her approval and beckoned to the guests. As the shrine maiden slipped inside, Damian glanced up at the empty statue. Selene noticed and leaned towards Damian. “That place is reserved for the Inari’s husband.”

Fascinating! The gloom of their mission briefly forgotten, Damian continued marveling at the beauty of Zipangunese culture. Refined elegance that never forgot or forsook its ancestral traditions. As they entered the shrine, Damian noted the similarities between the main hall and the inner rooms of Lamora Miraca.

Still, Damian couldn’t shake the feeling that Rani had expressed earlier. Something was definitely wrong. He could feel it, an almost oppressive gloom hanging in the air. And everything seemed too quiet. Hmm. Glancing around as they passed the offering hall, Damian did a double-take. Ropes attached to bells hung for guests to ring and offer praises or prayers to the enshrined Inari. Beautiful. But… empty.

Where were all the guests? This Inari lived in a modest shrine capable of hosting dozens of people at any given time. Yet, he and his companions were the only ones present. And this miko the only shrine maiden on duty. The maiden turned slowly as she slowed to a halt in the main hall. “Please, remain here,” she requested, turning away and exiting out the back. Damian heard a large bell softly chime.

A moment later, the miko returned, guiding a beautiful Inari towards them. Rani bowed as she approached them, followed by Selene, and then Rani. Damian decided he should bow as well, and did likewise. However, on his way down, he detected a scent in the air that brought a mixture of sorrow and anger to the forefront of his mind.

Reflecting on it, Damian wondered how many gifts Audra afforded him. He certainly appreciated this one—a heightened sense of smell, one that he normally employed in the enjoyment of her scent. This time, however, Damian detected something in the Inari that stirred him.

He’d smelled it before. Many times. Working in a factory carried its own host of dangers. Many times, men had been injured on the job. Himself included. Blood, a coppery, sweet scent, blended with sweat, mixed with herbs and salves to treat fresh wounds. There was no mistaking it.

“Welcome, travelers,” said the Inari softly. As she turned to her miko for a moment, Selene leaned towards Damian to whisper in his ear.

“Do not count her tails, Damian, it is considered rude.”

What? Counting tails was the last thing on his mind. His eyes searched the woman for signs of injury. She wore a snow-white kimono that covered her completely, its oversized sleeves hanging elegantly by her sides.

The miko suddenly squeaked like a mouse with surprise at something the Inari whispered, blushing furiously. She bowed deeply to Rani. “Rani of the Vale, please forgive my previous informal greeting. I did not recognize you! A thousand apologies…”

Rani tilted her head quizzically. She did not reply, an oddity for her. Normally, she hated when anyone recognized her as nobility. She kept her gaze focused on the Inari.

“Eriko,” the Inari prompted gently.

“Forgive me, again,” the miko moaned softly. “Please allow me to introduce Lady Meiko, Inari of Kōchi Shrine, and protector of the city.”

Everyone bowed again. Damian followed suit, the urge to say something gnawing at him like a growing itch.

“Before you stands Rani of the Vale,” said Selene. “I am Selene of Kama Lana. Beside me is Audra of Kawajiri, and her husband, Damian of Loren.”

Gods above. Damian had no idea how to address these women. He was going to have to just blurt it out like a loutish hoodlum, wasn’t he? Slowly, he began to work up the courage.

“You may now offer your supplications,” said Eriko.

Oh, Hell with it.

“Lady Meiko,” Damian said suddenly. “Are you well?”

Eriko, Audra, and Selene gasped. The Ryu turned to him, shaking her head stiffly, her lips pressed tightly together. Damian brushed her off.

“I can’t just dance around these rituals when someone is suffering,” Damian protested. “She’s wounded.”

Eriko gazed on helplessly. The Inari seemed paralyzed as well. Selene gazed hard at Damian. “Are you certain?” she asked tersely.

“I can smell blood,” said Damian. “She’s hurt. Badly.”

“He’s right,” Rani said softly. “I feel it too.”

“Mmph,” grunted Meiko, her blonde tails drooping as she slumped in her chair. She held up her hand to stay Eriko’s protest. “No, Eriko. Let them approach. Seal… the shrine.”

“We should return you to your chambers,” Eriko suggested as she slid a wooden beam across the entry door.

Meiko winced, shaking her head. “No. I can… barely move. Please.”

Damian and Audra stood at opposite sides of the Inari’s chair. Selene settled in front of her. Rani stood to the side, looking concerned. “Meiko, do you trust us?” he asked her gently.

“I have little choice, but, yes, I can see the ancestors favor you,” Meiko said with a nod. “Their guidance has brought you to me in my hour of need.”

She slowly opened her kimono.

Audra stifled a cry of horror. Selene hissed in anger.

Goddess… sweet goddess, help him. Damian nearly wept at the sight. Ugly lashes, cuts, abrasions, and half-etched marques marred the otherwise-flawless skin of the Inari. The wounds appeared fresh, yet the caked-on blood and filth staining the inside of Meiko’s kimono said otherwise.

Audra placed a gentle hand on Meiko’s shoulder, the only place she could find that didn’t bleed or burn red. She sent in a few shocks, causing Meiko’s eyes to flutter heavy with pleasure as the pain began to dull.

“Eriko,” called Damian. “Where are the other shrine maidens?” he asked as the miko approached him.

“They were killed in the struggle,” she replied sadly.

“What struggle?” asked Audra.

“Who did this to you?” Selene demanded.

“We admitted a foreigner with a small entourage,” explained Eriko. “My first thought was that he hailed from the Order, but his mannerisms were different.”

“Different how?” asked Selene.

“A subtle change in accent, as if…” Eriko trailed off in thought. “As if he did not have an accent.”

“What happened after you admitted him?” Audra prompted.

“He and his entourage knew the proper protocol and etiquette, so…” Eriko paused.

“I…” Meiko murmured. “Saw no reason… not to visit with him.” She coughed briefly. “He took great care with the rituals, like a native of our country. I sensed nothing amiss until it was too late.”

“And then?” asked Selene.

“His men seized control of the shrine, affixing all but one of my miko… with… with…” she shook her head, coughing. Audra attended her, fanning her gently and beginning to dab at her wounds with a clean cloth Eriko handed her.

The miko took over explaining for Meiko. “Little metal bracelets that would not come off once attached,” she explained, her voice tense with fear as she rubbed her wrist. “They did something to the other miko, expelling the kitsune-bi from the girls.”

Selene gasped in horror, covering her wide-open mouth with a taloned hand.

“Uh, sorry?” muttered Damian. “Kitsune-bi?” Ugh. Felt like an idiot.

“A newborn kitsune spirit, birthed from the Inari,” explained Eriko. “It is a great honor to host one within you, becoming kitsune-tsuki. To expel one by force is an atrocity unspeakable even in the darkest of hours.” She shuddered with revulsion. “And, in addition, a woman’s body becomes accustomed to the kitsune-bi’s presence…”

“Those men left the girls to die?” Audra asked tearfully.

Eriko shook her head. “No. They laid the bodies outside and destroyed them with lightning.” She bit her lip firmly, tears falling from her eyes. “Why… why would they do this to us? I don’t understand…”

“How did you survive?” Damian asked her.

“While this was happening, Lady Meiko engaged their leader in combat,” she explained. “She managed to fight him off, but at great cost… Only with the grace of the ancestors did we prevail. We had just enough strength to refresh the city wards and flush them from the city.”

“Rest, now,” offered Selene. “You have done well. Both of you. I shall call upon our sisters of the sea to come and bring you succor.”

“In the meantime,” said Damian, “Do you know where this man fled?”

“Why would you seek him out?” gasped Eriko. “He will bring ruin upon you!”

“The only ruin he will bring about is his own,” said Audra with a barely-restrained ferocity in her eyes.

Meiko gasped, sitting up despite her injuries. “It… can it be?” she asked breathlessly. “I can’t believe it… Eriko… this… this is the Silent Storm!”

Eriko’s already-fair skin whitened to nearly that of a Yuki-Onna. Her hands flew to her lips as she gasped, releasing a pained cry. “F-forgive me!” she wailed, fleeing the scene as quickly as her feet would carry her.

“I—I don’t…” sputtered Audra.

Meiko’s gaze fell. “Do not blame her, Blessed Storm, or yourself.”

“What do you mean?” Audra pleaded.

“The Nameless was here looking for her, was he not?” Selene asked, her scaly arms trembling with fury.

Meiko nodded weakly. “He demanded to… to know…” she sputtered, coughing. “To know where she was.” She gazed up at Audra in wonder. “Had we known, we still would not have spoken. Our lives are meaningless compared to the promise of the blessing she will bring to the world.”

Poor Audra. Damian observed his wife paling, gulping nervously. “What promise?” he asked.

“You are her Voice, are you not?” Meiko asked as she gazed up at him from her reclined position. Damian nodded. “There is a legend. A tale as ancient as the world. One that describes suffering and scorn. Wounds that never healed, even over the vast expanse of time. Wounds that you and your wife will mend.”

Holy Hell. Damian’s turn to go pale.

“The love you share with your wife is more precious than you can possibly imagine,” Meiko said as she coughed weakly. “It is a love that transcends time itself, and will leave its mark on the very skies above.”

“I don’t know about that,” Audra said, unconvinced. “But maybe we can mend your wounds.”

“I will heal,” said Meiko, smiling slightly.

“No, Audra’s right,” pressed Damian. “You took a hell of a beating for us. It’s the least we can do.”

“Did the legend say how we’re going to leave our mark on the sky?” Audra asked with a wink.

Meiko’s brow furrowed with confusion. “No, the story is older than Maou herself.”

“Selene,” murmured Damian. “You might want to back up.”

Selene nodded, scooping up Rani, and shuffled back several feet.

“Meiko,” said Audra gently. “Take off your kimono?”

Meiko rose slowly from her shrine pedestal and slipped the garment from her shoulders. “Dare I ask what you have planned?”

Damian smiled at her as Audra collected her clothing and set it aside. “No, but you might also want to lie down.”

“Whatever honor you have in store for me, I would prefer to accept it on my feet, my chin held high,” said Meiko, standing uneasily in her skimpy underwear.

“Those wounds look awful,” moaned Audra sadly as she interlaced her fingers with Damian’s. “Please accept this gift as thanks for enduring such hardships on our behalf.”

Together, Damian and Audra reached out their hands as they exchanged energy with each other, building it up between them. This time, it felt different. Instead of desperation, or anger, or frustration, Damian and Audra focused gentle love and yearning for healing as the energy they shared with each other. The pleasure built slowly between them, but Meiko stood there, waiting patiently. Audra began to pant softly, her face flushing as she smiled, her eyes lidded heavily. Damian felt it too. The energy crackled gently around him, caressing him, not unlike the gentle embrace of his wife. It built steadily between them, coming to a head in much the same way as a sexual climax.

When they were ready, Damian and Audra shuddered with pleasure, opening their hands towards Meiko. From Audra, a stream of energy curled and spiraled towards the Inari. From Damian, matching the hum of his voice, a white-hot, curled beam of energy danced around Audra’s offering, forming a very different Arc Helix that gently suffused into Meiko.

“Gently,” being a relative term, of course. The sheer power of it nearly knocked the woman senseless.

“AHHHHHHHNNN!!” Meiko moaned loudly, floating in the air, hovering as Arc Helix entered her body. Her body trembled with a sudden, relentless climax as pleasure assaulted every pore of her skin. Her undergarments sizzled and crumbled off of her body, taking scabs, half-inscribed marques, and other signs of dirt and infection with them.

Eriko gasped, peering in at the spectacle, attempting to shield her eyes in respect for her Inari, but unable to quell her curiosity. Selene and Rani both viewed it with enrapt attention. Audra and Damian held Meiko in their power for several seconds before gently releasing her. The Inari moaned, sinking to the floor, where she writhed and trembled with senseless abandon.

“Mmmnnn…” she moaned softly. Audra laid the kimono over her nude form, smiling as she inspected what was left of the wounds. While many of the stubborn injuries refused to heal completely, all of the marques fell to the power of Arc Helix, as did every one of her open cuts, lacerations, and abrasions. Only cloudy bruises remained.

“Lady Meiko?” Eriko asked softly as she edged shyly back into the room.

“You… see, Eriko?” Meiko murmured as she slowly sat up, clutching the kimono to her chest. “The two of them are treasures sent by the gods themselves.”

Damian held Audra gently against him, feeling her breathing and her heart pattering against her chest. As Meiko slowly slipped back into her kimono, her words began to sink in. He always knew Audra was somebody special. But not him. Gods, why him? He was a nobody. A lowlife factory worker. A scrap mechanic. A number. Producing more numbers. That was it. If he’d disappeared, nobody would have cared, except maybe Garth.

Now, as Damian surveyed the Inari’s miraculous recovery, Jinx’s words, Rei’s words, and the words of the woman in front of him finally worked their way into Damian’s dark heart. With his wife cuddled against him, he realized that, while Audra was a priceless treasure herself, without him, she was just a Raiju. Nothing more than a fuzzy ball of electrickery. Their love blended the two of them together into a breathtaking force that would leave its mark on the sky.

Why, then, was Eriko weeping in the corner, as far as she could be from her Inari? She covered her face in her hands, sobbing silently.

“Eriko?” Meiko said softly, approaching her shrine maiden.

“Nooo!” cried Eriko. “I didn’t believe it! I didn’t believe it could be true! She can’t exist!! She couldn’t possibly exist!!”

Audra stiffened in Damian’s arms. He released her, observing carefully as she approached Eriko to kneel by her side. The maiden cringed at her presence, tightening into a fetal position, her forehead resting on the floor. Palms out, flat upon the ground, she prostrated herself before Meiko.

“Eriko,” murmured Meiko. “What have you done?”

Eriko sobbed against the floor, unable to speak. Damian made to move towards her, but someone stopped him. Selene? No. Rani’s small hand blocked his steps. She looked up at him, old eyes set within a young face as she shook her head sadly. Damian’s heart broke to see her like this.

“I knew something was wrong,” said Rani softly as she approached the prostrated shrine maiden. “Damian sensed injury to body, but there’s more.”

“What, little one?” prompted Meiko.

“The Nameless flayed her soul,” said Rani.

Damian’s blood iced. Pure, unmitigated terror gripped him. “You… you didn’t fight him off, did you?”

“My wards, they…” Meiko protested. “They pushed him back! Surely! Why else would he…”

“No!” cried Eriko, sobbing, her face curtained against tearstained hair.

“Eriko,” Selene shuffled forward, gazing down at the woman. “How did you survive?”

“By… by…” sputtered Eriko. “By shaming myself!” she cried, gazing up briefly through a veil of hair and tears. “And all of you!” she moaned, dropping her forehead roughly to the ground. The impact her skull made with the polished wood echoed through the shrine’s main hall.

“Speak of your shame, that you may be redeemed,” Selene demanded.

Eriko trembled violently, shaking in a series of convulsions.

Audra gasped, her breath sucked in a shaken hiss. This was horrifyingly familiar. “We’re… we’re losing her!”

“Agghh!!” cried Eriko, twitching, falling onto her side. “Ghhh… khhhh…”

“I wasn’t going to lose you to these flashbacks,” hissed Damian, flipping the girl onto her back. “And I’m not going to suffer Meiko to lose her, either.” With a grunt, he tore open the girl’s clothing.

“GODS!” cried Damian, nearly leaping back. A large, ugly sigil covered the woman’s belly, etched up over her ribs and even onto her breasts. Eriko retched, vomiting up bile and spittle as her eyes rolled back into her head. “Damnit!” cursed Damian. “I’ve never seen one like this!” He cradled the girl’s head in his hands. “Selene, clear her airway! Audra, come here, we have to be quick!”

Selene gently coiled beneath the girl, guiding her to cough up into a small basin that Meiko provided. “What devilry is this!?” cried the Ryu, stroking Eriko’s hair.

“She is Kitsune-Tsuki, is she not?” Audra asked softly.

Meiko nodded. “My gift to her for her devotion to me…”

“Gods bless those Kitsune spirits,” grunted Damian as he wound his arm around Audra under her clothes. “It’s the only thing keeping her alive. Audra…”

“I know,” his wife replied, curling into him for a deep kiss. Only their heartfelt love was going to save this girl. Damian closed his eyes, willing himself into a state of semi-unconsciousness. Briefly, the desert swirled around them. Damian broke the kiss, catching a glimpse of Rei coalescing out of the corner of his eye.

“Rei!!” cried Damian. The valleys and mountains shook with the desperation in his voice. “Tell us how to save this woman!”

Rei’s glowing tails drooped sadly. “Not all of us wish for redemption,” she bemoaned. “Some covet the sweet release of death.”

“Death won’t be a release for her,” Damian said suddenly. Even he wasn’t sure how he knew this. He just knew.

Rei sucked in a breath, even though she did not need to breathe. Her glittering eyes fixated upon his. “You know this!?” she asked with a gasp. “Your wisdom belies the short stretch of your years.”

“Rei,” grunted Damian. “We haven’t got time for soul-searching. How do we save her!?”

Rei’s eyes slid out of focus for a moment. “This magic differs…” she started to say. “It is ancient, from before your more civilized era.”

“It’s not a marque or a rune,” said Damian.

“No,” agreed Rei. “It is the incomplete half of a greater whole.”

“What does that mean!?” Urgency pressed the limits of Damian’s respect.

Rei strained to answer. “I am not certain how to speak of it in a way you can understand!” she cried in frustration. She closed her eyes to think. “In nature, there are many things which are pestilence alone, but required for life when paired with something equally venomous.”

“Find it and we save her?” pressed Damian.

Rei nodded. “And the true identity of the Nameless.”

“Rei!” cried Damian. “The identity of the Nameless has been lost for thousands of years! We don’t have five minutes!”

The Kitsune spirit stiffened, nodding. “Then, you have only one other recourse. Omnia Vincit Amor.

A gust of wind blew away the desert before Damian could ask what that meant. Selene was shouting at him. “DAMIAN!” cried Selene. “Her life is slipping through my fingers!”

“Meiko!” shouted Damian. The Inari’s attention snapped to him. “Omnia Vincit Amor. What does that mean?”

Meiko blinked in confusion momentarily. “Love conquers all.”

“Do you love Eriko?”

The Inari nodded. “She is like a daughter to me…”

“Show her,” suggested Damian.

Gently, carefully, Meiko and Selene traded places. Meiko cradled Eriko’s head in her lap, stroking her forehead gently as she curled down upon her. Their foreheads touched.

“Arc Helix will not be enough to save Eriko,” Damian told her. “You need to convince her to come back. We’ll do the rest.”

“Eriko,” cried Meiko softly. “Do you remember how we met? I caught you stealing rice from my kitchen.” She giggled in spite of her emotions. “You were a mess of a child. Barely six years old. Hair so messy, I could scarcely find you within it. Do you remember what you told me when I scolded you?”

Meiko grasped the shrine maiden’s shoulders tightly, embracing her, keeping their foreheads pressed together in an upside-down position. Gently, slowly, the power of a quiet Arc Helix extended from Audra and Damian, spiraling together, and connecting at a point just above the ugly sigil upon Eriko’s belly. There, they held, pouring their love and compassion into her. It was all up to Meiko, now.

“Yes,” cooed Meiko softly. “Your parents died in boating accident. The city repossessed your house, leaving you homeless. I asked you if you wanted to stay with me. Do you remember what you said?”

Eriko stiffened, but her breathing began to calm.

“You said no,” Meiko continued. “You said nobody could love you like they could. But do you remember what I said?”

Eriko’s coughing tapered down. The sigil began to hiss and smoke.

“I said you were right,” the Inari told her. “The love of one’s parents could never be replaced. And then, what happened?”

Eriko said nothing, but a tear formed in the corner of one of her eyes.

“Some of the girls I’d been caring for at the shrine came in for the rice I’d been cooking,” Meiko reminded her. “I had to tell them you’d eaten all the food,” she said, giggling softly. “But then, what happened?”

More tears formed, trickling down the sides of Eriko’s face. Meiko gently brushed them away with the tips of her fingers.

“They all gathered around you, and assumed you were their newest addition,” Meiko said, chuckling softly. “They asked you if you were still hungry, and began to cook more rice for you.”

Eriko trembled. The sigil slowly began to crumble into ash.

“I told you, quietly,” continued Meiko, “That while I could never replace the love of your parents, so too could no one match the love of the girls I cared for. Or my own. I promised to love you like my own. Just as I did for them. No matter what happens, I will never forsake that promise.”

Almost… almost got it…

“Please, don’t leave me, Eriko,” moaned Meiko sadly. “Please stay with me.”

At last, with a grunt of triumph, Damian observed the sigil fall away and crumple into dust, leaving healthy, pink skin behind. Audra gasped for air, falling into his arms, a contented smile on her face.

“I…” Eriko said, her voice cracked and parched. Her eyes opened slightly. Meiko slid around, helping the maiden sit up so she could embrace her.

“You came back…” cried Meiko tearfully as she clung tightly to the girl. “You came back to me!”

“Even though I betrayed you?” asked Eriko, stiffening. Meiko gently held her at arm’s length, tugging the torn kimono back into place as best she could.

“Tell me what happened,” Meiko said gently, but firmly, “What truly happened.”

Eriko gulped and nodded. “One by one, the men lined us up. Each man took one of my sisters. One took me as well.” She shuddered, but Meiko embraced her again, stilling her fears. “They asked us questions, and when we refused—or were unable—to answer, the man holding the strongest of us put a metal bracelet on her wrist and… and… He took the blessed kitsune from her!”

Meiko hugged her tightly. “And then what happened?”

“The man pushed her away, and a bolt of lightning consumed her…”

“Gods,” cursed Damian. Audra flinched; Damian held her gently, as Meiko did Eriko.

“They did this to every girl?” Audra asked softly, turning in her husband’s arms, yet keeping them hooked around her shoulders.

Eriko nodded. “Every one. When they came to me, I was the last one left. I knew the Nameless was torturing Meiko…” she said, biting her lip firmly. “The men surrounded me, said I could make the Nameless stop.” She shuddered. “They knew I was the weakest…”

“They were wrong,” Selene told her, her pupils narrowing to slits. Her scales scraped loudly against each other as her hands balled into tight fists. The air thrummed with the Ryu’s power.

Eriko shook her head. “No, they knew. Like they could see through me, into my heart. Everyone I knew at one time had died, and they knew I would do anything to protect Meiko. Even betray her. So, I made a deal with them.”

Damian marveled at Meiko, holding Eriko close, acting as a tower of compassion and understanding. “What did they demand of you?” he asked.

“To tell them where they could find the Silent Storm,” she admitted. “I told them, I did not know. They stripped me and burned that image on my body, which would hold me to my promise. If the Silent Storm appeared, I would reveal her. Or I would die in agony. And then, they left.” She shuddered. “I thought we would be safe. A Raiju like that had could only be born once every thousand years. If she existed at all. The chances of me actually finding her were next to nothing. I would never need to fulfill my vow.”

“What did you vow?” Audra asked.

“To reveal you if you ever made your presence known to me,” Eriko said sadly.

Audra shot Damian a terrified glance. “Then…?”

Eriko nodded, her eyes downcast. “I have betrayed you all… The Nameless knows you are here. Your lives are in danger.”

“We can’t stay here!” gasped Audra. “He’ll destroy the whole city to get to me!”

“Then, we fly,” growled Damian.

“Where?” Eriko pleaded. “Where will you go to flee wrath of that magnitude?”

A defiant smile spread across Damian’s face. “Oh, we’re not going to flee. You can tell that bastard to meet us where it all began.”

“Where?” gasped Eriko.

“Audra’s homeland,” said Damian. “Kawajiri.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

They flew north, the time floating by in a blur, with the same speed as Selene’s graceful body carried them. Kawajiri lay nestled against a mountain, rather similarly to D’Artagnan, now that Damian thought about it. However, the way Audra described it, lush forests and fertile meadows presented a welcome contrast to the dirt and dust of the old mining town.

Audra spoke fondly of the caves and forests of her homeland, doing her best to remain brave and focused. She commented on a series of caves that led into the mountains, and that she always took care not to get lost inside them. Once, she did, but a family of werebats showed her the way out.

Damian embraced his wife from behind, nuzzling his nose against her fuzzy ear. She sighed, easing her weight into him as she gripped Rani’s small waist in front of her.

“Urk,” grunted Rani. “Audra, you’re squishing me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” chuckled Audra. “I just want to make sure you don’t…” she trailed off.

“I don’t what?” prompted Rani. “Fall? Selene’s not going to let me fall.”

Suddenly, Audra stiffened. “I… I see it… Kawajiri…”

Down below, forests thinned, giving way to fertile meadows and wide, expansive rice fields. “I shall land just outside the torii,” offered Selene. Audra nodded and guided the Ryu down. They landed beside the sloping gate. Audra slid off her back slowly, her eyes out of focus, as if in a trance.

As Damian stepped down, Rani hopped off and tugged on his pant leg. “Something’s not right,” she said solemnly.

Damn.

The last time she’d said that, a woman nearly died.

Audra’s voice came softly as she waited for Damian beside the torii gate. “I’m home…”

Damian took Rani’s hand and approached Audra, who smiled faintly, resting her hand on his shoulder. The air smelled sweetly of cherry blossoms, fresh soil, and vibrant mana. The winds carried it in great abundance, seeding the land with fertile nutrients and causing the farms to produce bountiful crops.

Love and dedication, Damian sensed it everywhere. Everything here reminded him of his wife. She guided him through the torii and they entered the town. Closing his eyes, Damian focused his other senses to better take in the homeland of his beloved.

Strange. He definitely felt something. A shift in the wind, after passing through the torii. Rani squeezed his hand, murmuring something he couldn’t make out. Glancing back, he found Selene had disappeared. Hmm. Without so much as a goodbye? Did she want to give him some private time with his wife? Heh. The appearance of a Ryu in the midst of such a humble setting might disturb the peaceful climate. He marveled at how thoughtful she was.

“Nothing’s changed,” said Audra faintly. “It’s like I never left.”

Fluttering pink petals filled the air as a breeze carried shed blossoms across their path. Ahh… Damian adored that scent. They strode through the residential areas, taking in the sights. Construction of the houses mimicked what he’d seen in Nyoto with homes built of wood, ceramic, and, in the case of wealthier individuals, brick and marble. Regardless of the materials used, each home displayed the great care and love that went into building it. At the entranceway of each, a small flag was usually on display of two coiled serpents around a staff.

Damian mentally reminded himself to ask Audra about it. He had so many questions, but did not want to disturb his wife as she acclimated herself. Unlike Kōchi, the residents of Kawajiri openly greeted them if they spotted the couple walking by. Audra greeted each of them in return, smiling brightly as she bowed and waved.

More of those flags stood on street corners beside lanterns painted with symbols Damian couldn’t read. Audra followed his gaze and explained, “They’re celebrating Hanami. Goddess… has it been so long? The Cherry Blossom Festival is in full swing. There’s probably dancing in the square…”

“Audra, is your family here?” Damian asked her.

“Mother’s a wanderer,” Audra replied with a wry smile. “After Father’s passing, she never could stay in one place. We traveled all over, but she brought us back to leave us the house when we were old enough. She said she wanted us to find husbands at, or near our homeland.”

“Just you and Raina?”

“Yes,” Audra sighed, her voice betraying a touch of loneliness. “I don’t blame Mother, to be honest. Raina and I were a handful.”

Damian chuckled, rubbing her head fondly. “Sounds like you took after her.”

Audra giggled. “Actually, Father was more of a wild thing than she was. Most men run from Raiju, but when she cornered him, he pounced her!” she giggled again, blushing. “Kind of like you…”

Damian chuckled, feeling a familiar stirring in his loins as Audra’s hand drifted up and down his arm. “I never could resist you. Why bother trying?”

Audra laughed. “Yes! That’s what Mother told me about Father.”

“What happened to him?”

His wife’s eyes fell. “He… He died saving a nearby village from a plague.”

“Then he lives on in your memories as a hero,” Damian said gently. Audra smiled faintly at the praise. Small consolation.

“After that, Mother couldn’t bear to be near anything that reminded her of him,” explained Audra. “So, we packed up and left Kawajiri to explore the world. Or, well, Mist mainly,” she corrected herself. “Father’s dearest friend mourned him, carrying on the tradition of nurturing and healing to honor him. This was their symbol.”

Audra indicated one of the flags, something she called “nobori.”

“Although,” she remarked, “I don’t remember seeing quite so many of them before.” She shrugged. “Let’s go see the festival?”

“Audra,” said Damian hesitantly. “We need to confront the Nameless. We must be ready.”

“And we are,” she countered. “But until he shows himself, there is not much else we can do. I’m so tired, Damian. Tired of running. Of being afraid. Please, just let me have this?”

“I would never deny you this, sweetling,” Damian said softly, reaching around her to draw her close. “But, something feels amiss. I can’t quite put my finger on…”

Audra silenced him with a kiss. His protests and reservations melted along with any hesitation he might have felt. “Better?” she asked, smiling coyly.

“Much. Where is the festival?”

“This way,” beckoned Audra, spinning out of his embrace and curling her finger at him as she jogged ahead.

Rani squeezed Damian’s hand. He’d nearly forgotten she was there. “Rani?” He gazed down at her.

Rani did not meet his gaze. She squirmed, nibbling on her lower lip as her tails twitched anxiously. A villager walked by, greeting her, but she did not respond. Damian nudged her.

“Rani, that was rude,” he chided her. She looked up at him with a familiar expression that stirred his soul. Old eyes within a young face. A brief rush of terror flooded his mind. “Rani… what is it? What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” admitted the girl. “I’ve never felt… umm… I don’t understand what’s…” she stuttered, confusion gripping her.

“Don’t you want to see the festival?” Damian reminded her. “Audra wants to dance.”

The pain of indecision weighed heavily on Rani. Such feelings should not trouble one so young. Damian’s heart quailed to witness it. He gently squeezed her hand.

“I won’t get in your way,” she said at last.

“Rani?” murmured Damian. “What nonsense is that? Come on, you’ll have fun!” He tugged the girl along with him to join Audra.

“About time,” huffed Audra. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”

“It’s alright,” Damian assured her. “Rani’s just a little shy.”

“Rani? Shy?” Audra cocked her head in mild bewilderment. “That’s not like her.” She shrugged. “She’ll be fine. Look, there’s the festival.”

A small gate flanked by nobori bearing the serpent symbols ushered them into a breathtaking park filled with trees in full bloom with pink cherry blossoms. Lanterns hung from poles and sat upon small, short tables scattered throughout the park. Soft music filtered through the breeze, which carried the rich, sweet scent of the blossoms. Kawajiri natives sat upon blue mats next to the short tables, sampling food and gazing up at the trees.

Damian’s troubles melted away at the sight. And at the vision of his wife, drifting through the breeze as if in flight, her eyes closed as she gracefully stepped through unoccupied spaces. Families of humans and yokai watched her go by with interest and curiosity. Many Zipangunese yokai populated the park and surrounding town. He spotted Danuki selling food and lanterns. Crow Tengu floated through the air overhead, basking in the sweet scent. Living lantern girls floated through the midst of the families, lighting inanimate lanterns, much as they had done in Lamora Miraca. A family of Nekomata milled about nearby, the mother surrounded by an alarming number of kittens, all busy chasing floating cherry blossom petals. Goddess, she had her paws full.

Over in a secluded, shady section, sat a woman who seemed to be practically made of hair. Half a dozen men sat around her, dazed expressions on their enrapt faces. Her glossy hair draped across their bodies, moving against the wind. Loud, raucous laughter forced Damian’s attention away from them. Two blue women cheered at a red counterpart as she chugged away at a massive jug of sake.

But just as many humans sat alongside them, their differences amounting to little as they conversed and laughed together. Such an incredible sight! Some of the yokai, like the spider-woman closer to the center of the park, seemed frightening at a distance, but as Audra led him closer, Damian noticed the woman helping a human girl mend a kimono.

Gods. Why couldn’t his homeland accept monster-kin to this extent? He wondered how things could have been different. Would he have traveled so far with Audra? Would he have met Audra at all? His eyes swept the park again. Humans. Yokai. Many different types. But no Raiju. Audra herself was the only Raiju he could see. That seemed rather odd, especially given their ferocious nature, as he’d seen firsthand in Jill, and the spontaneous reaction in humans once seeded. Perhaps Audra and Raina had restrained themselves while living here?

But she remarked on being a handful. Much like those neko kittens. Ugh. There it was again. That nagging feeling that something just did not add up. Damian inspected Audra, but, if any of this bothered her, she failed to express it. She moved towards the source of the music, approaching a throng of dancers surrounding a white lamia draped in an elegant white and pastel-blue kimono. She held a long, stringed instrument, plucking away a tune as she led the dancers in a song as sweet as the breeze in the air.

Drifting into their midst, Audra began to gently spin and dance with the music. Damian held Rani’s hand and observed her with quiet fascination as his wife’s movements embodied the music. Her dark robes contrasted the brighter colors of the other villagers in such a way that they began watching her movements and allowed her to lead them in such a way as to appear perfectly choreographed. Each time, her dance pointed her in Damian’s direction, she reached out for him.

“Rani, stay here,” Damian told the little fox girl.

Rani shook her head nervously, tightening her grip.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he promised her. “I’ll be right here, dancing with Audra. Please, Rani. I want to do this for her.”

“The longer you wait, the harder you’ll fall,” she replied mysteriously.

“You sound like Rei,” Damian sighed.

Rani gasped. “Wh-what? You’ve seen her?

Damian peered at her with curiosity. “Didn’t you know? When you blessed us. You brought her to us.”

Rani gulped, shaking her head. “The magic works differently depending on the person,” she explained. “But I didn’t…”

“Rani,” Damian interrupted her gently. “Tell me, but later.”

Damian separated from her and approached Audra, glancing back. Rani gazed at him, her expression tense with fear. He couldn’t help but worry he was making a terrible mistake, but not even knowing what that mistake was. Damn that Nameless for poisoning such a precious moment!

And then, Audra was in his arms. Nothing else mattered. She guided him into the steps of the dance effortlessly, welcoming him into her world and culture as the scenery and sounds blurred together like a dream, with Audra at its sweetest center. Together, they danced, mingling their love with the dreams and passions of those around them. Always together, but, aside from the initial contact, never touching. Audra’s dance and the male counterpart differed slightly. Audra’s involved careful steps and intricate movements of her arms. Damian’s felt more like fanciful combat with bold thrusts and sweeps.

 Dimly aware that the other dancers made room for them as they had done in Lamora Miraca, Damian marveled at how naturally the dance came to him. The foreign steps and stances differed starkly from the sensual twirls and close contact involved with the dance they’d shared in Lamora Miraca. He longed to hold Audra in his arms, but as they displayed their souls for the other villagers, they shared much of the same satisfaction.

The music shifted to a more upbeat theme as more instruments were brought out, adding a regular beat and rhythm to a more modern version of the same theme. Without missing a step, Audra and the other women increased their pace. Eyeing the men, Damian shifted his pace to match, guided by Audra into slightly bolder motions. The dream swirled around him, surreal sublime atmosphere and harmony lulling him deeper into sensual bliss. Taking a deep breath, Damian focused on his wife. She carried a folding fan in one hand, drifting it across her figure in tempting ways that he was quite certain weren’t part of the traditional dance. No one seemed to mind. Her movements added to the intoxicating nature of the setting, further tugging at Damian’s rational mind.

As the dancing went on, and on, and on, the sun began to dip against the western mountains. The music died down briefly, and a panting Audra fell into Damian’s arms as they bowed to the other villagers, receiving cheerful applause. Many of them complimented Audra on her beauty. Others praised her skill. Oddly enough, no one spoke to her by name.

“Welcome to Kawajiri,” the white-haired lamia said softly. She bowed as Damian and Audra turned to her. “Many were inspired by your dance. We are honored at your display of the love you deeply share.”

“We could not have danced so without your lovely music, Shiori,” Audra replied with a smile and slight bow.

Shiori blushed slightly. “Oh, you know my name? Does my reputation precede me?” She giggled.

“Of course I know your name,” Audra said with a slight frown. “I’m Audra.”

“Recently come to visit Kawajiri?” Shiori asked with a gentle tilt of her head.

A bewildered, frustrated look spread across Audra’s face. “I… I’m Audra… of Kawajiri…”

“Hmm…” Shiori tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Any relation to Raina? You look an awfully lot alike.”

“She’s my sister…”

“Your sister?” Shiori seemed just as confused as Audra. “Welcome back! I wish I had time to get to know you, but I’m needed elsewhere. Are you staying long?”

“Umm… I’m…” Audra’s voice trailed off, her bewilderment getting the better of her.

“We plan to stay for a while, yes,” Damian finished for her. “I’m Damian, of Loren. Audra’s husband.”

“Ohh!” Shiori clasped her hands together with a smile. “My, such a strong and sturdy man.” She blushed slightly as her slanted eyes appraised him. “Loren… is that…?”

“From the mainland,” he finished for her.

“Oh, yes!” Realization hit her and she smiled with relief. “So, that’s where she’s been. Of course. I’m afraid Raina is traveling and may be out of town for the time being. She’s going to miss the festival. Such a shame. I must be going now. Blessings upon you both!”

The Shirohebi departed, leaving Damian even more confused than before. “I don’t get it,” he admitted. “You obviously knew her.”

“Of course, I knew her!” Audra nearly cried. “She was a friend of my father. Raina and I studied healing techniques under her…”

“Maybe she was just tired,” Damian said lamely. Not even he believed that. While it was certainly possible to mistake Audra for Raina, it was not possible to mistake her for anyone else in town, or forget her spunky, sparky appearance. He glanced around, finding Audra had run off to talk to someone else.

“What do you mean, you don’t remember me?” Audra exclaimed as Damian jogged up to her. Audra’s face paled at the young woman nervously playing with the sleeve of her kimono.

“I’m so sorry!” the girl cried and ran off.

Audra took off running, approaching several people at random. Clearly, she knew them, but, for some reason, none of them recognized her or even knew of her existence. The atmosphere had changed palpably around her and people began avoiding her, giving her a wide berth.

Damian jogged up to her to find his wife utterly crestfallen. Gently, he grasped her shoulders. She glanced up at him bitter tears in her eyes. “None of them remember me,” she said softly. “None. It’s like I never even existed.”

The realization hit him, then. Damian shuddered in the recollection of Rani’s words.

 

“The longer you wait, the harder you’ll fall.”

 

Damn! What in the hell was going on here? Wait. Rani. Damian gasped. Looked around.

Oh no…

Rani was gone.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Rani!” called Damian. He waited. The fox girl was oath-bound to come when he called. As honor-centric as her people seemed to be, she would not dare disobey or break her oath.

Unless she couldn’t hear him.

Oh, goddess, what had he done?

“Audra!” he whispered urgently in his wife’s fuzzy ear. “Rani’s gone. She won’t come to me.”

Audra did not reply. Her tears clung stubbornly to her eyes, which had misted over and slid out of focus. A wave of terror swept over Damian as he shook her gently.

“Audra!” he hissed, holding her close. “Audra, don’t do this! There has to be something. Someone. Your father’s old friend. Where is he?”

A flicker of hope moistened Audra’s eyes. She pointed west, towards the mountains. Damian led her out of the park. He just had to trust Rani could take care of herself for the moment. They passed several homes and larger, public buildings before Audra clutched his arm to stop him. She pointed. A modest building, which appeared to be just a home at first, lay nestled against a small hill with a winding pathway leading up to it. Several of those nobori flags framed the walkway. Curiously enough, one appeared to be missing.

Damian led Audra carefully up the walkway and… crap. Was there a special custom for… Screw it. Damian just knocked on the door. The door slid open after a moment and a distinguished, grey-haired man greeted him.

Ugh. Damian hoped this would work. He bowed at the hip. “Please forgive my intrusion, sir. I need your help.”

“Think nothing of it, young man,” the doctor waived off the imposition and guided the couple inside. He happened to notice a pair of shoes sitting just inside, and the doctor in socks. Audra removed her shoes numbly, functioning solely on instinct. Damian followed suit, silently thanking his wife as he led her inside. The doctor guided her to sit upon a tatami mat beside a short table with cloth hanging down the sides. Gently, he guided the girl’s legs underneath it. Damian felt gentle heat radiating from it.

Beckoning Damian to another room partition, he asked, “So, what has come over her?”

Damian scratched his head. How the hell was he supposed to explain this? “This… is going to sound completely insane. But hear me out,” he murmured softly, keeping his voice down. Not sure why he bothered. Audra’s exceptional hearing could probably catch what they were saying even if they spoke outside.

“I’ve heard some wild tales in my time,” the doctor assured him. “Speak your mind.”

“Do… you remember a family of Raiju living in Kawajiri?”

The doctor smiled, nodding. “Of course. Sousuke and Sakura?” Damian nodded in relief. “Ahh,” sighed the doctor. “Of wild tales, that man, Sousuke, was at the heart of many. A fierce hunter and fine swordsman, yet kind and gentle when caring for the sick. And that wife of his…” He chuckled. “Her own ferocity was matched only by her love for him.”

“And their daughters?” Damian prompted, urgency tightening his chest.

“Daughters?” the doctor repeated, tweaking a small goatee at his chin. “I know of only the one. Raina. Beautiful. Cunning. Rather mischievous as well, but she grew out of that. Mostly.”

Damn. Damian sighed. Oppressive weight closed in around him, a cloying grip of grim, dark depression.

“Now that you mention it,” the doctor murmured, “That girl you brought in looks remarkably similar to Raina.”

A twisting sickness festered in Damian’s gut. He could barely form the words. “Here… comes the insane bit. That’s Audra of Kawajiri. Raina’s sister.”

“Sister?” the doctor repeated, stroking his goatee. “Why, that doesn’t sound insane at all. Why would you say that?”

“Because no one remembers her,” Damian explained. “She grew up here, alongside Raina. She has friends here. No one recalls ever meeting her, or even knowing Raina had a sister.”

“And you are certain these details are accurate?” the doctor asked. “She remembers places, people, and events that she should not otherwise?”

“Yes, sir,” nodded Damian. “The events happened. The people are here. And she knows the town as if it were, well, her homeland. But no one remembers ever seeing her.”

“If only Raina were here,” sighed the doctor. “She could shed some light on this, perhaps. Has Audra suffered any recent trauma?”

“I would have to say yes…”

“Harsh, psychological trauma might affect her memory,” the doctor explained. “She might be remembering events through Raina’s eyes, while having actually grown up somewhere else.”

Damian’s mind struggled to grasp that concept. “Is that even possible?”

“Returning veterans of harsh conflict sometimes come back with strange tales they experienced through a comrade’s perspective.” The doctor nodded. “The mind is a curious thing. We assume it always behaves rationally, and that logic can act as a compass to lead one out of the mire of confusion. This is not always the case. Sometimes, when the mind encounters something it cannot comprehend, it makes something else up instead. Or bridges memories that should not be related.”

“How can I help her?” Damian asked, that twisting sickness rising up in his throat.

“She is your wife?” the doctor asked gently. Damian nodded. “Then, you must tread with caution. She may not be the woman you thought you married. That woman may not even exist. When she comes to grips with this, she may change.”

“I will never stop loving her,” Damian swore. “No matter what happens.”

“A noble sentiment, my boy,” said the doctor with a smile. “However, you must be prepared for the eventuality that she may not love you after she recovers her true memories.”

Damian nearly vomited on the spot. He swallowed. Barely. The thought of Audra ceasing to love him terrified him to the depths of his miserable soul. Pain, he could endure. Disease. Even death. But not this.

Briefly, Damian despaired. Black spots drifted across his vision. His world cracked. For a moment, he experienced firsthand what the doctor meant. His consciousness struggled to reason with the possibility Audra might not love him one day. Dozens of scenarios flew through his mind, each new one darker than the last.

Gods above, this was a thousand times worse than the times he’d been physically separated from Audra. But he hadn’t given up then, and he’d be damned if he was going to give up now. Fresh determination chased the blackness and gloom away.

“Then, I’ll just have to woo her again,” he said firmly. “What man gets the chance to fall in love with his wife twice?”

The doctor gazed at him with an unreadable expression briefly before patting him on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit. You two are welcome to stay here for the night, if you want.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Damian. “We have a home.”

“If you change your mind,” the doctor offered as Damian went into the other room to fetch his wife, “You’re welcome to come back.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Damian said, bowing to the man as he helped Audra back into her shoes. Strapping his own back on, he held his wife close as they departed the home.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Audra,” murmured Damian. Audra did not answer him. She stared directly ahead, her eyes glassy in the dying light. Damian gently shook her shoulders. “Audra, don’t do this! Stay with me!”

“I am Audra of Kawajiri…” she muttered vacantly. “I’m not crazy… I’m not… I’m Audra of Kawajiri. Audra. Of Kawajiri.”

“Audra!” cried Damian softly as he clutched her head to his chest. “I don’t give a damn where you came from. I love you! Nothing would change that. Nothing!”

“…Audra of Kawajiri…”

Gods damnit! He was losing her! “Audra. Your house! Where is it?”

“…of Kawajiri…”

Not good. She was cracking. Holding her close, he made for the street and flagged down the first person he could find. “Sir, excuse me,” he said, bowing briefly. “Could you point me in the direction of Au… err… Raina’s home?”

“Raina?” replied the middle-aged man. “Her home is near the edge of town. Past the village square, through the park. Turn north. You can’t miss it. She’s a Raiju, like the girl in your arms, so her home is grounded by metal.”

“Thank you!” Damian waved as he guided Audra in that direction. Her steps shuffled, and she stumbled in the dark. Gently, Damian lifted her up into his arms and took off in a run, ignoring curious eyes. “Rani!” he called out into the dark. “If you can hear me, I need your help!”

Nothing. The fox girl did not appear. Damian’s terror metastasized out of control, cloying despair closing in around him with tendrils of emptiness to scour out his heart and soul. What could have happened to Rani? How was he supposed to help her, or even find her when Audra needed him? He prayed to whatever goddess might still be listening to help him as he nearly dashed right past a house that the gentleman told him he couldn’t miss.

Larger than the average one or two-person house and built of a combination of brick and metal, it stood out from the others by way of its contrast of colors. From above, the ruddy cinderblocks making up the sloped roof matched the other homes, but the bright blue and yellow paint scheme decorating the outer walls distinguished it sharply from its neighbors.

Still carrying Audra, Damian approached the house entrance. A simple metal lock held the sliding door closed. However, on closer inspection, he discovered the lock had no keyhole. It appeared specifically designed so that only a Raiju or her Incubus could open it. Waving his hand over the metal, Damian felt his energy reaching inside it and shifting the lock. The door slid open without protest. Nudging Audra’s shoes off, he slipped out of his and carried his wife inside.

“Audra, we’re home, sweetling,” he said softly as he laid her down on a tatami mat near the hearth. Fresh, unlit fuel rested inside. A quick spark easily ignited it, filling the room with light and warmth. Damian made rounds, lighting lanterns and incense. The home soon glowed with soft light and contained a rich blend of agarwood incense and cherry blossoms.

Damian glanced over to his wife. She laid limply on her back against the tatami mat, having not budged from the spot where he’d laid her. Her hazy eyes stared straight up as she continued to repeat her name and heritage. Gods… what was he going to do? He had no medicine or ideas for treatment for anything like this. Maybe he should have stayed with the doctor? He briefly considered going back.

No. Audra needed her husband, not someone who couldn’t even remember her. He knelt beside her, fanning out her hair as he gently rubbed her head and scratched behind her ears. Audra’s fluffy ears laid back, reacting instinctively, but she failed to respond otherwise. Leaning down upon her, Damian kissed her. Her lips continued to move as she spoke the empty words. Damian deepened the kiss. Audra did not resist, but neither did she respond. Her eyes remained fixed and level. The muscles in her mouth and tongue continued their repetitive motions to form the words, even though they could not with Damian’s tongue interfering.

Sighing, Damian sat up. Audra’s mouth glistened from his efforts. Her beauty remained intact, just as breathtaking as ever, but in this state, she was little more than a doll. Damian wondered briefly if an infusion of spirit energy might snap her out of it. A spark of hope. He gently untied her obi and spread her kimono open. Doing so felt somewhat… inappropriate. She did nothing to stop him, and nothing to aid him. Gently, lovingly, he cupped her breasts, skimming the plump nipples. They hardened slightly, instinctively. No blush spread across Audra’s cheeks. Her breathing remained steady. A single tear fell from Damian’s cheek onto her bare belly as his hand slipped between her legs.

What he felt sealed the final nail in the coffin.

Audra was dry.

For the first time in her life, Damian wagered, Audra the Raiju felt no sexual arousal at all. There was nothing he could do. He slowly eased her back into her clothing. He could not bring himself to take her like this. Cupping her head in his lap, Damian leaned beside her and wept.

“Audra, please,” sobbed Damian. “Don’t go where I can’t follow you! I can’t do this without you! I can’t live without you!”

He could feel it. His heart was breaking. With each beat, the cracks widened and numbness replaced the pain. The tendrils of emptiness crept in, spreading their poison, easing Damian into the blissful, languid torpor of nothingness. He would feel no pain. He would feel no joy. He would feel… nothing.

He would not die. He would lie beside Audra and simply fade away. No one would know. No one would even remember him. He was nothing. He didn’t even have a name.

No name.

Nameless.

A shudder of fear sent icy goosebumps up Damian’s neck. He sucked in a breath and sat up. Damn! Gods! What the hell!? He’d sworn to love Audra forever, and a moment ago, he’d nearly betrayed that vow. What in the seven hells was the matter with him? Gods damnit!

Sudden pain lanced through Damian’s chest. The cracks in his heart bit into the tendrils of emptiness. Fresh blood shot into the gaps with glorious, searing pain. Gods above, that was close!

“Audra, please forgive me,” sobbed Damian. “I nearly gave in… I almost relinquished my love for you… If only you would slap me.” He smiled wryly, taking her wrist in his hand and swinging her hand against his face. “There. You slapped me. I deserved that. Come, let’s get up.”

Carefully, Damian scooped up his wife and set her on her feet. His considerable strength held her in place, even though she made no effort to remain upright. With a pained smile, he straightened her hair and fluffed out her tail.

“Why don’t you show me your house?” Damian asked Audra. As she did not reply, he guided her to another room. A considerable personal room, a flat mattress and sheets covered a tatami mat against the wall. In the corner, a small shrine had been erected. A wooden plaque bore a lovingly-painted portrait of a man who had to have been Audra’s father. Small, wooden Kitsune statues watched over him. Damian guided Audra to kneel beside him in front of the shrine.

“Father of my love,” Damian said softly, “I wonder if you can see us right now. Surely you, of all people, would remember your own daughter. Know that, while I am just a man, and I may falter, I will never abandon her. I will love her and care for her for the rest of my life, for however long that may be.”

Making a small bow of respect, Damian clutched Audra close. “I wish you could tell me more about this room, sweetling. Was this where your mother slept? Keeping her beloved close? How long have you lived her alone with your sister?”

Audra did not reply. She spoke only two words, now.

“Audra. Kawajiri. Audra. Kawajiri. Audra. Kawajiri.”

At least she remembered who she was. Gently lifting her up, they left the room and approached another. Such thin partitions divided the rooms. Damian wondered if these Zipangunese homes could be reconfigured without requiring any form of demolition. He found he harbored nothing but respect for the craftsmanship. Against each wall, corner, and hearth, a metal rod stood tall. Polished iron or steel. Impressive forging technique. Some of them were partially decorated, and, based on the short stature of the markings, Audra or Raina had attempted to do so as children.

“What are the poles for, sweetling?” Damian asked Audra. He traced the cold metal. The rods did not budge; such firm implantation suggested they extended deep underground. But they weren’t part of the foundation. Hmm. Further inspection revealed scorch marks around the base of several.

Oh. Of course. Damian remembered what the gentleman from earlier told him. The house was grounded. A family of energy-generating weasels. Little kits full of sparks that could easily start fires. The rods were designed to catch the sparks and send them safely into the ground. Ingenious!

“Did your family install these after building the house, or did you build the house around them?” Damian asked as he guided his wife inside the next room. Sliding the door open, a different scent wafted towards him. He recognized that scent. Raina. This must be her room. Smaller, with a single-size bed against the wall, it nonetheless contained some personal touches. A potted lotus sat in the corner where it would receive light filtered in from the thin exterior walls. Unique, sapphire-colored petals clothed the flowers, but they had wilted slightly. A pot of water sat nearby. Damian carefully watered the plant, wondering how long it had been since Raina had attended it. The color of the petals matched her eyes. No wonder she liked it. Nearby, a stunning oil painting of Kawajiri hung, its fields awash in a torrential rainfall.

“Your sister lives up to her namesake, eh, sweetling?” murmured Damian softly as he nuzzled Audra’s ear. “Hopefully she can return soon. This is a lovely house.”

Audra merely repeated her name and homeland.

Damian sighed, hugging her briefly before stepping out of the room. Another room stood beside Raina’s. He swallowed hard. This was it. He slid the door open.

Oh, no…

A storage room held clothing, spare furniture, and paintings. A large, wooden chest rested in the corner. The exterior wall appeared darker than the others, perhaps because the wooden shutters he’d seen outside were closed over this room. Holding Audra close, Damian inspected the room to try and find anything she might have owned. Every object, article of clothing, or toy that could have been hers could easily have been Raina’s instead.

For the barest, briefest of moments, Damian wondered if what the doctor said could be true. Memory transference? Could Audra not really be Audra? Whatever. Damian shook his head. He didn’t care. He loved her. He was pretty damn sure she was Audra, though. So was she, too. She kept repeating…

Wait…

Audra wasn’t saying anything.

No… no, no, no, no, no!

Damian spun his wife around so that she faced him. She stared directly ahead, right through him, her vacant expression hollow and lifeless. Her ears remained upright and fixed. Her tail hung limply behind her. Her lips remained closed. She said nothing. Nothing at all. Audra of Kawajiri was giving up at last.

“Audra, no! Don’t give in!” cried Damian, drawing her close. He kissed her desperately, cupping her head in his hand as he supported her limp body with the other. He parted her lips with his tongue and feathered the inner lining of her mouth. Her tongue remained motionless in her mouth, and no amount of caresses or stimulation stirred her in the slightest.

“Audra, my love…” Damian sobbed, holding her in his arms. So now, his trial truly began. There was no longer any reason to remain here. Lifting the Raiju into his arms, Damian carried her out of the room, then out of the house, and then into the streets.

“I will never forsake you, sweetling,” Damian swore to her, bitter tears stinging his eyes. “If you cannot speak, I will speak for you. If you cannot walk, I will carry you. If you cannot eat, I will feed you. If your heart stops, I will give you mine instead.”

Damian embraced her against his chest.

“You are my Silent Storm, and I am your Voice.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Rani, if you can hear me,” Damian’s numb voice spoke into the darkness, “The Nameless has taken Audra. I go, now, to retrace our steps. All the way to Loren, if I must. If I have to put her back in that damn generator to remind her how we met, then, by the gods, I will.”

Nothing.

Maybe Rani was out there, somewhere, having forgotten herself as well. He wasn’t sure how he was going to apologize to Rei. Or, hell, for that matter, Lady Kutharei. At least he would keep his vow. He would love Audra forever, even if she withered into nothing more than a memory that only he could recall. His love for her would never die.

The streets felt oddly empty, even for this time of night. What time was it? Damian couldn’t even tell. Even the moon seemed to be missing. He thought about stopping by the physician’s home, but what more could the man do? No, it was time to leave.

The large torii gate leading out of Kawajiri stood before him. Damian stepped towards it, remembering to exit by the side, for only the gods were permitted to enter through the center. Funny how he remembered the little things. It almost felt painful to leave, but it must be done.

Wait…

It did feel painful to leave. It actually, physically hurt. He stepped through the gate. Or tried to. An invisible force held him back. The hell was this?

“Something the matter?” a gentle voice called after him. Damian turned.

The doctor.

“I’ve lost her, sir,” said Damian with a tightness in his chest. “Yet I will not abandon her. If she does not remember her home, I will bring her to mine.”

“Ah, a noble sentiment,” the man said, nodding approvingly. “Except for one unfortunate problem.”

Damian gulped. “What… would that be?”

“She has stopped speaking?”

“Yes,” replied Damian.

“Then, it is entirely possible she does not wish to return,” the doctor explained. “She has made her peace within her mind and there she will stay, comforted by the memories she once assumed to be her own.”

“What can I do for her?” pleaded Damian.

The doctor stroked his goatee, shivering slightly in the night air. “You are faced with two choices, neither one pleasant. On the one hand, you can continue to care for her body, even though her soul has departed. She will fade, shrivel, and die a miserable existence, but she will be with you a little longer.”

“And… the other?” Damian asked, his face whitening.

“You preserve your memory of her as she is, and set her free.”

“You mean, kill her?”

The doctor sighed sadly. “I’m afraid your wife died some time ago, but I did not have the heart to tell you.”

Damian gazed down at Audra, emptiness beginning to make its way back into his heart. His love for her remained absolute, but he could feel himself fading. There was nothing he could do about that. It was Audra herself who sustained that part of him. Without her, he was going to die.

“If she dies, I die,” Damian said firmly. “I shall follow her wherever she goes, even unto the afterlife.”

“The ancestors would never scorn such a choice,” the doctor said gently. “Come. I have a blend of herbs that will make your transition painless.”

A clap of thunder sounded somewhat nearby. Like a gong, marking his surrender. He glanced back into the valley. Odd that there were no clouds in the sky. He approached the doctor.

Another clap of thunder. Or was it truly thunder? It sounded so close, yet so distant. The air rippled near the torii.

“The ancestors are calling you,” said the doctor with a compassionate smile.

“Rei…” sighed Damian.

The doctor stiffened slightly at the mention of the Kitsune’s name.

Wait… “Would Rei have wanted this?” he asked aloud.

“She made a choice,” the doctor reminded him. “A choice she has regretted for a very long time. She would not have you make the same mistake.”

The doctor ushered him forward and they began to walk back towards his home. Damian just couldn’t shake the feeling, though…

Wait. Hold on.

“How did you know that?” Damian asked him.

“Hmm?” asked the doctor.

“The choice Rei made,” said Damian. “How do you even know who she is?”

A strange sensation rippled through the air. Damian stepped back, away from the doctor. The two men stared at each other for several seconds. No. It couldn’t be…

It just couldn’t…

It was.

“You’re the Nameless!” hissed Damian as sudden realization swept through him. “It’s been you the whole time we’ve been here!”

“Far longer, in fact,” admitted the doctor. “I must admit. I admire you. Your strength. Your tenacity. Your steadfast love. Most break within the first hour. Such power in your love. I’ve not met its equal.”

“Why?” demanded Damian. “Why do this? I thought you wanted Arc Helix! You can’t have it if you destroy her!”

The doctor shrugged, waving off the notion. “The Atlantean Sorcerer covets Arc Helix. Power is what he craves. Power and influence. Influence to reshape the world with suffering.”

“And what do you want?”

The doctor gazed pensively at Damian. “It has been long since anyone has bothered to ask me that. I’d even stopped asking it of myself. If I must truly be honest, even I am not certain anymore.”

“Then, just leave?” implored Damian. “Give Audra back to me, and go. I won’t pursue you. I just want to love Audra, and feel her love in return.”

“No,” the doctor said firmly, shaking his head. “The both of you stand as a living memorial to that what was once lost. I cannot suffer it to exist.”

“What?” Damian asked, bewilderment briefly overcoming his sense of dread and anger.

Another thunderclap. Still no clouds. No lightning. Yet, it sounded so close.

“A memorial to what!?” shouted Damian, thunder creeping into his voice as well.

The Nameless did not reply.

“ANSWER ME!” bellowed Damian. The hills echoed with his fury.

“She won’t,” said a small voice nearby.

She? Damian gasped, spinning around. Rani stood near the torii, her small hands balled into fists and her eyes flashing with fury.

“The wayward fox,” sighed the doctor. “Always so near, yet so distant.”

“Yap,” chirped Rani, yet there was no cheer in her voice. “Just like Mom.”

Rani pointed at the torii. A jet of blue energy shot out of her finger and went into the space beneath the gate. The air shimmered, swirled, and twisted. What remained looked eerily similar in Damian’s mind to the portals leading to Lamora Miraca. Mists and swirls filled the area beneath the torii, and behind it, stood two women. One was Selene, focusing a raging storm against it, the source of the thunder.

And the other, a tall, nine-tailed Youko of matchless beauty. Snow white tails with icy blue tips. Aquamarine eyes blazing with livid, unchained fury. A red and gold silken cheongsam gown hugged her sultry figure tightly, opening up at her hips for her powerful legs to spread apart as she hovered in the air and hurled the full force of her godlike magic at the barrier.

Together, she and Selene opened the metaphorical gates of hell. With the illusion partly dispelled, the might of the storm resounded against the unnatural calm of the town, yet did not reach it. Lady Kutharei’s face flushed with fury as she screamed, her chest heaving with the force of her anger, yet her voice failed to pierce the barrier.

“Selene,” gasped Damian. “You didn’t abandon us…”

As if hearing her name, Selene joined Kutharei’s scream and slammed her fist against the barrier. A dull, resounding thunderclap followed it as a flash of lightning struck the barrier.

Damian tore his gaze from the surreal vision and turned to Rani. “Rani… where have you been?”

“Lost in whatever this is,” Rani gestured around her. The town?

“Kawajiri?”

“I guess…?” the fox girl shook her head. “Feels too weird. Like my ears are stuffed with cotton and my feet stuck in the mud!”

“No wonder you didn’t come when I called,” murmured Damian. “Explain this!” he demanded of the Nameless.

“Since you would not fall to my previous attempts, I decided to try something else.” The doctor smiled faintly. “How did it feel to become Nameless?”

Damian’s blood iced. “You… what… what did you do!?”

“Simple.” The Nameless shrugged. “I removed her from Kawajiri. Or did I remove Kawajiri from her? Time is such a mysterious creature.”

“Speak plain sense!” demanded Damian.

“Ah, right, you are of the obtuse variety. My apologies.” The doctor bowed to him. “The world has a history that continuously flows in one direction. Like a river. Each stone thrown in creates ripples that affect everything else in subtle ways within the river. She is one such stone. I simply plucked out that stone from the air before it reached the water. In other words, I erased her from history.”

Gods above!

“How in the hell…?”

“Again, I will admit, that was rather difficult,” the doctor said with a sigh of weariness. “For the moment, the change is affecting only Kawajiri. Had I not lived here for many years previous, I never would have been able to manage even that much.”

Damian glanced back at Selene and Kutharei, still unable to punch through. “Then, the outside world…”

“Remembers her, for the most part. For now.”

“For now!?”

The doctor chuckled, a sinister sound that chilled and angered Damian at the same time. “See how she withers. When she expires, the changes will spread across the world, and there never will have been an Audra of Kawajiri.”

“You bastard!” cried Damian.

“Oh, calm down, young man,” sighed the doctor. “Once this happens, you will forget her, just like everyone else. You will revert to the man you once were, and wake up in your home back in Loren. If you remember any of this, it will have been nothing more than a dream.”

Damian snarled, clutching Audra protectively in his arms. “You lie. Not even Maou herself is capable of such devilry!”

Yawning, the doctor stretched languidly and gazed up at the sky. “Maou? That stripling’s days are numbered. She lives on borrowed time already. As for my claims, you might be interested to know you aren’t the first.”

Damian gasped…

“Rei…”

“Oh, very good!” laughed the Nameless. “Perhaps you are not as witless as I once thought. Does she regret her choice to stand against me? I’m rather curious. It’s been millennia since we last spoke.”

Fiery red burned the edges of Damian’s vision, but he dared not attack the Nameless. Audra’s breathing was growing fainter by the minute. “She mentioned acting impulsively,” Damian told him.

“Impulsively?” The Nameless smiled wryly. “An interesting choice of words. I suppose it is apt.”

“What did you do?” Damian feared the answer.

“I erased her life mate from history,” the Nameless replied frankly. “Oddly enough, with him, the effect took hold in reverse. Faraway lands forgot him first. Then the mainland, followed by outlying regions of Zipangu and Mist, gradually drawing closer until even his family could not remember him. As he faded, his wife chased him into the void, never to be seen again. I was rid of her at last. Not how I intended, to be honest. Her action broke the chain of events, creating a rather messy paradox with the side-effect of preserving her descendants. It is of no consequence. I shall deal with them soon enough.”

The Nameless gazed dispassionately at Rani.

Damian defiantly planted himself in front of the little fox girl.

“Why do you resist?” sighed the Nameless. “Had I not intervened, the vast majority of mamono and yokai would have fur for tails instead of spades. Love has a curious way of mutating life into such… odd shapes.”

What? Did he mean what Damian thought he meant? He shook his head. “Love makes us strong,” Damian countered. “Powerful. Beautiful. It turned hunger for flesh and blood into longing for each other.”

“A weak and pitiful perversion of its original intent,” the Nameless countered back. “One that I shall reshape, no matter how many thousands of years it may take. Those who rise up in its support shall be cast out of sight and out of mind. All minds. Like the mongrel’s father.”

Rani gasped in horror.

The words stung Damian like a fist to his jaw. He staggered, kneeling under the sudden onslaught of realization. This was no mere sorcerer. This bastard was some kind of god.

“What… what did you…” he sputtered, straining to hold Audra close.

“Have you not been paying attention?” sighed the Nameless. “I erased him from history as well. Clever runt realized what I’d done and fled to the Celestial realm. Delaying the inevitable. Even stars die eventually.”

“You gods damned coward,” spat Damian. “I see it now. You can’t affect the mamono or yokai themselves. They’re too powerful. So, you break their hearts by eliminating the love they share with their husbands!”

“Correction,” the Nameless replied, “I couldn’t. Past tense. I needed to know if my power had grown enough to eliminate the bearer of Arc Helix. The first hurdle would be finding her. I chose the most fertile valley I could find, short of a pure demon realm. The next step was to befriend any Raiju I encountered. I suppose a Thunderbird could technically wield the magic, but Raiju channel their passion far more effectively. Sakura herself was strong, but not strong enough. Her kits, however, yes. Possibly.”

Every word the Nameless spoke scourged Damian’s mind, screeching like nails against smooth stone. Audra was barely breathing. They were not going to last much longer.

“Unfortunately, a band of slavers captured several of the runts from this village, and many others in the outlying regions.” The Nameless sighed with frustration. “Tenebrae Vincunt has proven effective in dealing with such ruffians in the past, but these kits were special. I decided to personally intervene, but the slavers were clever… They eluded my attempts to follow them. None of the sods possessed any magic for me to track. Fortunately, a silly little girl seemed all too eager to find the bearer of Arc Helix, and pointed me in the right direction.”

Rani gasped again, her voice shaking with remorse. “No… noooooo…”

“Didn’t you wonder why I instructed the men to treat you with respect?” the Nameless asked Rani. “You were rather forthcoming on your own.” He chuckled. “Of course, I did not anticipate your new friends mastering Arc Helix so quickly.”

“Zap, zap,” Rani said mournfully.

“Indeed. But, I rejoined you soon enough, in the form of the ever-eager Commander Harrington.”

Another scourge lashed Damian’s mind. “You…? How long…?”

The Nameless chuckled. “I’m afraid you never met the real Commander Harrington. I certainly appreciated your invitation to observe the creation of a new Raiju. Fascinating. You managed to elude me once again after your escapades within that whorish sunken city, but I knew exactly where you would eventually end up. After all, you did tell me your plans. Full circle. All I needed do leave a trail of clues for the runt to lead you towards, and then prepare for your arrival. And here we are.”

“Nooooo…” Rani wailed.

Blackness crept in over Damian, the tendrils of emptiness having become thick ropes crushing his heart. “Jinx… Lina… all of them…”

“Resting comfortably within Atlantis,” the Nameless remarked smugly. “I’m surprised you would have taken the ship, knowing its origins. That was a step beyond foolishness.”

Damian collapsed, Audra’s limp body sprawled over his lap. He no longer had the strength to hold her, and could not feel her breathing any longer. “Rani…” he rasped. “I… I can’t… fight him… Run!”

“Where would she run?” the Nameless asked, his eyebrow arching inquisitively. “Why would she run? She is about to forget you.”

“No,” said Rani defiantly through tearstained eyes. “We’re going to remember.”

“How do you plan to do that, little one?” asked the Nameless, gesturing around him. “This entire village is locked within its own section of time’s river. When the Raiju kit expires, so too will the ripples she created elsewhere in the world.”

“No.” Rani shook her head. “I don’t mean Audra. We’re going to remember you.

For once, the Nameless did not reply as confusion briefly distracted him.

“Rani…” gasped Damian. “What… are you doing?”

The fox girl smiled gently back at Damian, her three tails swishing around anxiously. “Damian,” she spoke softly, centuries of wisdom trapped in a young voice. “How many times have you risked your life, and Audra’s, for me? Since we met, you’ve always been there for me.” She turned to face the Nameless. Damian thought he detected a flicker of fear in his eyes.

“Now it’s my turn.”

Rani pulled a crumpled nobori from under her clothes. Damian dimly recognized it as the missing one from the doctor’s yard. “You see this thing? The Caduceus. Symbol of healing. But, what about when I do this?” Rani asked, holding it up so only half was visible. “Look familiar?”

Damian gasped.

The sigil marking Eriko!

“Yap!” chirped Rani. “You gave yourself away with all these things mounted everywhere!” she said gleefully. Damian gasped; he recalled Rani calling the Nameless, “She.” He thought the girl meant Audra at the time.

“It seems I may have underestimated—”

“Oh, shut up,” spat Rani. “You’re gonna pay for what you did to Daddy.” She scowled. “I NAME YOU…”

“NO!” bellowed the Nameless.

He withdrew the little device that Damian feared.

Too late.

“NINGISHZIDA!!!”

“AGGGHHHHH!!” screamed the doctor.

Nameless no more.

Ningishzida fell backwards, knocked senseless by the power of the memory Rani invoked. The ground heaved underneath the village. A resounding cry sounded from somewhere. Damian sucked in a breath of remarkably fresh air, some of his strength returning. A strange breeze overtook him, blowing straight down.

What…?

Glancing behind him, he beheld a sight he scarcely believed. Lady Kutharei hovered before the torii, her nine tails spinning around her as she extended her mana around the whole village, separating it from the very ground around it, and lifting the entire town into the air. Selene hovered behind her, supporting her with favoring winds and boosts of mana.

Damian tore his eyes away from the sight as best he could. Rani’s anger mirrored her mother’s, and he focused upon her. “Rani,” he gasped. “How did you know?”

“Mom made me study ancient mythos for hours,” the girl replied with a strange smile. “Every day. Something about learning the lessons of history so I don’t repeat them. I guess she was right?” She shrugged. “Anyway, one of the mythos was about the power of the Naming. You figure out a spirit’s true name and they no longer have any power over you. I was really hoping that would work…”

Damian gagged. “You didn’t know!?”

“She’s a god!” exclaimed Rani. “How was I supposed to know?”

There it was again. “She?”

“There’s no time!” cried Rani. “You have to save Audra, now, while I distract Ningishzida! Hurry!”

“But… I’ve lost her…” Damian said with defeat clutching his chest.

“If that were true, she’d have poofed!” Rani poked him in the forehead. “Sleep. Find Rei. She can help you.”

The hell did Rani just do to him?

Damian fell over, passing out before his head hit the ground.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian forced his eyes open. He stood in the desert. Ugh, he hated this place. But it was his best chance to find Audra. “REI!” he bellowed, projecting his voice. “You promised me I would never walk this path alone!”

“Quiet!” hissed the Kitsune ancestor from directly behind him. Damian spun to face her. “You’ll wake the dragon!” she snapped, pointing over his shoulder.

Damian glanced over his shoulder.

The dragon. He recognized it perfectly now. It was half of the Caduceus.

“Damn!” cursed Damian. “Ningishzida’s true form?”

Rei gasped in shock. “What!?!” she cried, her ghostly hands slapping over her lips. “That’s Ningishzida!?” Had she not been a spirit, Damian swore she’d trip over her own tails as she stepped back in utter disbelief. “Of course!” she hissed. “It makes perfect sense… When she lost her husband, her healing powers left her. Without him, she’s nothing more than a venomous serpent. A very powerful, very dangerous serpent.”

Rei’s gaze fell. “Had I but known, much suffering could have been avoided.”

“Nevermind that,” Damian cut her off. “Audra. I need to find Audra! Ningishzida is taking her from me!”

Rei gazed at him fearfully. “Oh… Where do you think you might find her, then?”

The hell kind of question was that? Damian was prepared to snap at her when he followed the direction her finger pointed. At the dragon. The sleeping dragon. Peering carefully, Damian scanned the sleeping form and…

Oh.

Seven hells.

A slight crackle of energy.

Inside the dragon’s mouth.

“You did say you would follow her wherever she went,” Rei reminded him. “Did you mean it?”

Damian nodded, steeling himself. “I’ll get her back or die trying.”

Rei shook her head sadly. “No, Storm Lord. If you die here, you will never leave.”

Gods above!

“Ugh. No pressure, right?” he groaned. “Anything else you can do for me?”

“Only this.” Rei waved her hand at him.

Suddenly, he found himself beside the dragon.

Oh gods… Damian thanked them all for the distinct lack of smell. For some reason, he expected the beast to be rank. Skulking along the sleeping form, Damian crept towards its head, dodging its massive talons. Such an odd, serpentine dragon. Elongated body, short legs, no wings. Reminded him briefly of Selene, except lacking in all of her charms. This beast was nothing short of terrifying, its body longer than the entire village of Kawajiri and wider than six of its roads jammed together. The beast could likely constrict a mountain and crush it into pebbles. Terrifying, jagged fangs dripped venom in its open mouth, a forked tongue twitching nearby.

Carefully, Damian leaped up into the beast’s mouth, landing on one of its curved teeth. Had to pick a spot with no nerve endings. He glanced down at the small storm crackling within.

There!

Huddled in a fetal position, Audra rocked back and forth, her body lodged partly in the monster’s throat. In this in-between realm, Audra, the Silent Storm, was, quite literally, silent. Yet, he could hear the voice of her mind.

I am Audra of Kawajiri. Audra. Of Kawajiri. Sweetling. Silent Storm. Sweetling… Silent Storm.

Gods, Damian’s heart nearly cracked. He swallowed his tears and reached out.

“Sweetling…”

Audra gasped, frantically gazing skyward. Her eyes met Damian’s. Desperately she reached up. Her sudden movement caused the dragon to twitch. Damian lost his balance and fell in. Thankfully, Audra caught him, or he would have sunk inside along with her. Suddenly, she was in his arms, her lips against his.

Oh, gods!!

Audra’s scent enveloped him as she threw her arms around him. Her kiss ignited his passion like a match upon kindling. He would have passed out if he wasn’t already asleep. Her hands were everywhere, meandering under his armor, and… wait. Armor? That’s right, he was fully armored in this strange, in-between realm.

The dragon stirred beneath them. Around them.

Damn!

“Audra, we have to get out of here!” Damian gasped, taking his wife’s arm and pulling.

“I… I can’t… I’m stuck!” her mind cried out to him.

The dragon would wake any second, now.

They had one chance.

“Audra!! Arc Helix! Together!”

She nodded. Clasping their hands together, Damian raised his right hand. Audra raised her left. Their energy, their love, and their anger seethed between them, rising to a fever pitch. The dragon rose up, its mouth closing down on them.

“NOW!!” bellowed Damian, adding his Voice to the Storm.

Arc Helix seared into the air, slamming into the soft tissue of the dragon’s throat.

A deafening roar split the air. Damian found himself airborne, clutching Audra tightly as they flew through the air. Oddly enough, their flight felt rather controlled despite its chaotic origin. He glanced down to see Rei screaming for joy.

“YAAAAAAA!!” screamed Rei, twirling around on the dunes. She sounded just like Rani!

Damian clutched his wife tightly, and this time, she gazed back at him with relief in her eyes. “Come, sweetling,” he murmured, kissing her as he focused his mind on waking.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian gasped, sitting up suddenly. Audra cried out and sat up in his lap, throwing her arms around him. Her sobs echoed loudly in his ears, but he did not care. He’d literally plucked her from the jaws of death. Or worse.

“Audra!!” he cried, crushing her in his embrace.

“Damian…” she moaned. “I nearly…”

“Say nothing more of it,” he said gently, kissing her neck. Her hair muff tickled his nose. Glancing around he checked for Ningishzida. The doctor was nowhere to be found. In his place was a woman, beautiful and terrifying, clutching her throat. Her waist-length black hair pooled around her, glossy and sleek, mostly covering her nude figure, clothed only in scales. Incredibly tall and slender, she had to have been over seven feet tall. In her hand, she held what appeared to be half of a caduceus staff, which she gripped with elegant, long fingers and even longer, curved claws. Only one squiggly serpent rested in her hand. The other part of it, joining them as a pair, was conspicuously missing.

“Bout time!” grunted Rani nearby, holding her hands out in front of her. Damian followed her gesture, able to make out faint blue kitsune magic covering Ningishzida. “I can’t hold her much longer!”

“Audra, do you feel able?” Damian asked his wife, cradling her head gently.

“Yes,” she replied, kissing him one more time briefly. Rising to her feet, she turned, interlacing her fingers with his. Ningishzida observed them warily, raising her staff. She knelt, bracing herself as Arc Helix crashed into her with the full force of the desperate love Damian shared with Audra.

The effect was immediate, if not somewhat different than before. Ningishzida stiffened, her eyes lidded heavily. She produced a strange sound from her seared voice that struck Damian as someone feeling pleasure, yet fighting it. This oddity did not distract him from his course, and he continued pouring his Voice into Audra’s Storm until Ningishzida sank to her knees, gasping.

“It’s over, Ningishzida,” Damian told her, a touch of sadness in his voice. “Whatever your reasons for doing this, we cannot allow you to continue. Release this realm and reverse what you tried to do to Audra.”

“What’s done cannot be undone,” Ningishzida rasped, cradling her raw throat. “The foolish fox is desperately… trying to…” she coughed. “Contain the damage. Converting Kawajiri into a Spirit Realm.”

“Release us!” cried Audra. “Let us tell her it’s finished.”

“It is never over,” spat Ningishzida, her dark eyes narrowing at the girl. “You think you have won? Perhaps you have, but at what cost? The flow of Time’s River through this place has been severed. Soon, it shall run dry, and then we will all cease to exist.”

Audra and Rani both gasped in terror. Damian stiffened, bristling against the implication. “I don’t believe you,” he stated firmly. Turning to the torii, he glimpsed the two women. Selene hovered near Kutharei, floating limply, exhaustion finally taking its toll upon her. Lady Kutharei, however, trudged on, her hands outstretched, her expression a mixture of desperation and panic as she poured her magic upon the village.

“They say, ‘Hell hath no fury than a woman scorned,’” remarked Damian. “But what about a mother separated from her child?” He indicated Lady Kutharei behind the torii. “Do you truly understand the depths she is willing to go for her daughter? I’ll give you a hint. About the same as I was willing to for Audra.”

“An insect may toil as hard as it wishes, even lifting many times its own weight,” sneered Ningishzida. “But, in the end, she is just a speck about to be crushed by the might of inevitability.”

Rani growled…

Damian rested his hand gently upon her furry head. “The problem with insects is, you never find just one.”

Ningishzida laughed, a raspy, hoarse hissing.

“Well spoken.”

…Only to gasp and fall back on her haunches as her eyes widened at something behind Damian. Or someone.

Rani turned first. She squeaked like a mouse as her jaw hit the ground, in much the same metaphorical way Lina’s did when she first glimpsed Arc Helix. A warm light began to spread behind Damian. Dare he turn? He dared. Audra with him.

Oh…

My…

Goddess…

A woman hovered before them, bathed in warm light. She was as beautiful as she was terrifying. Fair skin, imperious, yet innocent expression that overflowed with kindness and compassion as she gazed at Damian and Audra, in direct contrast with an alarming amount of red-orange flames licking her back. Her eyes were a soft golden brown, but her pupils shone like twin stars. Her hair appeared mixed with luxurious fur, and was a blend of white and beige ombre, which matched the fur of her lustrous tail. All across her skin and kimono were traces of stunning red-orange celestial sigils. Some highlighted her features, such as her eyes and hands. Others acted as centers of power, aiding her in channeling magic. These caused the air to ripple slightly, like a hot iron radiating heat.

Heat, such warmth, the woman’s very presence banished the chill from the air, and the night sky receded from her. “Damian, Audra,” she said gently, her voice exuded warmth and comfort, like the rays of the sun on a lazy, summer day. “Long have I anticipated our meeting.”

“I don’t believe it…” Rani gasped.

“Rani?” Damian asked softly. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”

Rani’s gaze jumped back and forth from the goddess to Damian and back, utterly flabbergasted. “Umm… Damian… This is…” She gulped. “This is…” Rani stammered, bowing as far down as she could without falling over. “I’m sorry!”

“I’ve seen a painting of you,” Audra said reverently. “But you were a wolf?”

“Is no one going to tell me?” Damian asked.

Ningishzida, ironically, spoke first.

“Amaterasu…” she hissed. “How dare you interfere!?”

Damian flinched, but the woman’s kind smile only faltered slightly as her shining eyes focused on the Dragon. “How long has it been, Ningishzida? Five thousand years? Feels like ten.”

“You and these mortals have no right to deny me my grief!” she screamed, the power of her voice similar in some ways to Damian’s. Damaged by Arc Helix, she screeched like a raven, having soared so high and fallen so low.

“No one is denying you your grief,” Amaterasu countered softly, “Except you.”

“Grief?” Damian echoed. This was starting to actually make sense! He followed Amaterasu’s gaze as she appraised the village, her smile fading.

“Why, Ningishzida?” moaned Amaterasu sadly, “Why?” Her shining gaze swept over the village, and how its inhabitants remained oblivious to the spectacle in the streets. She glanced back, over her shoulder, at the struggling Kutharei, desperate to break through. “Look what you have done,” she demanded, her hand sweeping over the village. “Do you truly believe Dumuzi would have wanted this?”

“We’ll never know, will we?” growled Ningishzida.

“We answer the question by looking back on his life,” Amaterasu spoke over Ningishzida’s spiteful remark. “Your toxicity knew no bounds. Neither did his. Yet, when the two of you met, your love for him tempered your venom into sweet nectar that brought healing and comfort to the scarred, the sick, and the destitute.”

“Stop!” hissed Ningishzida.

“I remember his fond remarks of you,” said Amaterasu softly. “How you made him forget his anger. Or even why he ever knew anger. How he longed for nothing more than to spend his days coiled around you.”

“Stop!” cried the Dragon, clutching her hands over her ear flaps as her claws dug into her scalp. “Please, stop!”

“Somewhere,” sighed Amaterasu, “In the everlasting afterlife, Dumuzi weeps for you. Longs for you to remember him. To grieve. And then to live.”

“Aggghhh!” the Dragon cringed, falling to her knees, her head in her hands, firmly pressed against her ears. Bitter tears fell from her eyes, burning sizzling holes into the street. “STOP!” she screamed. “You don’t understand!! You could never!”

“Who can?” Amaterasu crossed her arms, shaking her head sadly. “Love is a holy mystery that can never be truly understood. Only experienced. I would have thought Dumuzi taught you that.” The sadness creeping into Amaterasu’s voice wrung tears from Audra’s eyes, which burned hotly into Damian’s sleeve. He glanced at her and found himself to be weeping alongside her.

“Look at these two,” demanded Amaterasu. “LOOK at them!” she cried, pointing a delicate finger at Damian and Audra. “See how they weep to be in each other’s arms? Do you think either of them understands why? Do you think they care to know why?”

“All that matters is that we are together,” said Audra softly, clinging tightly to Damian’s arm.

“She is my love, my life, my sweetling,” Damian said equally gently, rubbing his wife’s fuzzy ears.

“You sicken me,” snarled Ningishzida. “Enjoy it all you wish! It’ll only hurt all the more when you are separated. Mark my words.”

“That is enough,” snapped Amaterasu. “Go! Grieve. As you should have done aeons ago.”

Twirling around as she cast an elaborate spell, Amaterasu uncurled her fingers towards the Dragon. Screaming and writhing in protest, Ningishzida found herself caught up and hurled into the sky. Moments later, a faint cluster of stars sparkled that were not there before. Amaterasu sighed wearily.

“Sometimes, there are no happy endings,” she admitted. “In those moments, grieve. Wait patiently. Bad endings give way to new beginnings.”

Damian and Audra were not sure what to say. Amaterasu turned to them.

“You deserve to know,” she explained softly, Ningishzida and her husband, Dumuzi, were the first two gifted with Arc Helix.”

Damian gasped. “She… she’s Audra’s counterpart?”

“Actually, she is your counterpart,” noted Amaterasu, “The very first Voice of the Storm. And Dumuzi was the first Silent Storm, so named for how his anger fell silent when Ningishzida transformed it into love.”

“A great war ravaged these lands,” explained Amaterasu, “Their Arc Helix was a symbol of their love, a light shining in the darkness. It brought about great healing and could cure diseases. Ningishzida and Dumuzi were even able to enchant various objects, relics, and symbols with its power, and distribute them through the land. When her husband died, she could no longer summon its power. She blamed the humans they were protecting for his death, as well as the gods, for doing nothing to help her.”

“The entwined snakes,” remarked Audra. “Their symbol.”

“Twin lovers, entwined,” said Amaterasu. “Arc Helix. Or, Caduceus, as it later became known.”

“Milady,” Audra said softly. “What did you mean, the gods did nothing for her?”

Amaterasu sighed bitterly, averting her eyes. “Your kin were not the only ones embroiled in futile conflict. In those days, war ravaged all realms, from deep within the Abyssal Underdark to the starry Celestial Havens. We did not help her, not because we would not. Because we could not. It was all I could do to keep the sun in the sky during those horrid times.”

Amaterasu closed her eyes and a single tear fell from her cheek into her hand. It glittered and shone like a jewel, for, in fact, that was what it became. A shining, teardrop-shaped jewel. Damian recognized it at once. Selene wore many of them. A magatama.

“I fear I must apologize to you,” the goddess said sadly.

Damian’s throat closed in shock. Audra answered for him, bless her. “Milady? Whatever for?”

Amaterasu sighed, her ears and tail drooping as her flames dulled somewhat. “For thousands of years have I searched for Ningishzida. My acolytes scoured every inch of this world, braving famine, wars, pestilence, and every other form of evil imaginable. After Rani Named her, at last, the three of you guided my steps from my celestial home so that I might intervene. I fear I must beg your forgiveness for having tarried so long.”

No one said anything. Rani rested her small hand on the shining woman’s side, gazing upward, shaking her head slowly with a smile. Damian’s heart nearly melted at the sight. He wished, briefly, that he were an artist. He would give anything to capture this moment for all eternity.

“But now, what should I find, but a treasure of a man,” Amaterasu remarked, gazing fondly at Damian. “A man who considers himself practically Nameless, yet loves a Kitsune descendant as his own daughter.”

“Uhh…” stammered Damian, glancing at Rani. He wondered which of them blushed harder. Him, or the little girl?

“Amaterasu…” Rani said in a small voice.

Amaterasu smiled down at her. “Yes, Rani?”

“Do you know where my Daddy is?”

Damian couldn’t speak. Could barely breathe. Rani’s question twisted a knife into his heart. Amaterasu gently covered her lips with her fingers, her eyes glimmering tearfully. She nodded and handed the little fox girl the magatama she’d just created. Rani cradled it with utmost care.

“You must forgive me, Rani,” said Amaterasu with a trembling voice. “I could not help you, or your parents, when you needed me the most. I could not, until you strengthened me with your faith. I have wanted to give you this for so very long.”

“What is it?” Rani asked, awestruck.

“A reminder,” explained Amaterasu, “One of my tears. One of many, borne of the pain loving couples feel upon separation.” She patted Rani’s head gently. “It is also a beacon, which will guide your father to you in time.”

“Really?” gasped Rani, clutching the little jewel tightly. “Daddy’s coming home!?”

“Yes, dear one,” Amaterasu nodded, ruffling Rani’s hair. “Be patient with him. He has traveled a long way, and it may take some time for Ningishzida’s magic to fade.”

Audra leaned into Damian, resting her pretty head on his shoulder. His arm slipped around her shoulders, holding her close. “Thank you for helping us,” Damian said to Amaterasu, bringing her attention to him.

The goddess smiled warmly. “With you, I have not yet finished,” she said with a wink. “Come closer. Hold out your hands. Both of you.”

Damian gulped but obeyed. He held out his right hand. Audra, her left. Cupping his hand and Audra’s, Amaterasu steadied them as her flames extended from all around her to feather upon them.

Wincing, Damian squeezed his eyes shut and braced for searing pain. None came. Warmth caressed his hand. Gentle, loving warmth. When he opened his eyes, he cursed himself for having closed them. There, upon the back of his hand and extending up into his forearm, glowed a red-orange swirling sigil, identical to many of the ones gracing Amaterasu’s skin and clothes. As she released his hand, he balled it into a fist, observing the swirling pattern flicker and pulse. He glanced at Audra and spotted an identical mark upon her left hand. Hers blended into the fur of her wrist, giving it the appearance of having been on fire. The mark on her hand glowed red-orange, but gradually changed to blue-white upon her fur.

“What… is this?” Audra asked breathlessly, gazing down at her hand.

“I have shed many tears of grief for the faithful,” said Amaterasu sadly. “I should like to not shed any more for the two of you. For your dedication to the Kitsune and to each other, I do hereby bless you both with long life, and charge you with the duty of healing the land of hatred and malice. Cleanse the land of Ningishzida’s grief, and master her gift. And mine.”

Damian nodded. “We will.”

Audra also nodded. “Yes.”

“Once your many years upon this realm are spent, I invite you to join me in the celestial skies, for there is much work to be done there as well.” Amaterasu smiled sadly.

“Dare I ask?” Damian replied.

Amaterasu shook her head with a smile. “That burden can wait. One last task remains. We must leave this place to grieve in its own way.”

Audra frowned. “Wait, this land is my home…”

Amaterasu’s gaze fell slowly. Her tail and ears drooped sadly. “I am so terribly sorry,” she said softly. “Ningishzida’s venom has severed this place from the flowing river of time. Its damage can never be undone, not even by my power…”

The goddess turned to the torii, upon which Lady Kutharei tirelessly assailed with her powerful magic. “She will never give up,” sighed Amaterasu. “Nor should she, while her daughter remains trapped within. She has sealed the village within its own spirit realm, and here it shall remain, free and safe from the troubles of the world until the end of time. But it is now of its own time, and we are not part of that stream. If we remain, we will become lost along with it.”

“My home…” Audra moaned sadly. Amaterasu bit her lip, struggling with the reality of what she had to do.

“It’s all right, Audra,” Rani said gently, tugging on Audra’s sleeve. “You can live in my palace!”

Audra couldn’t speak, so she nestled the girl’s head against her hip as she choked back tears. She nodded at Amaterasu.

“May this be the last wound Ningishzida inflicts upon us,” Amaterasu said firmly, holding out her hands. Audra took Rani’s hand. Damian took his wife’s other hand, and placed his free hand in Amaterasu’s. Taking one last look at the village that was Audra’s home, they slowly faded away.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

A howling storm ravaged against them, threatening to rip Audra and Rani from Damian. He clutched them both to his chest as he cast his eyes skyward. Lady Kutharei continued pounding away at the village, but it was already beginning to disappear.

“KUTHAREI!” Damian bellowed, his voice resounding over the howling winds.

Lady Kutharei hovered high up in the air, focusing breathtaking amounts of magic at the floating isle she’d created for the remnants of Kawajiri. She paused, glancing down. One look in her eyes at Damian holding Rani, and the seething winds began to taper down. She gestured frantically to Selene, who hovered drowsily nearby. Holding the Ryu’s hand, Kutharei shot down to Damian with a rush of speed.

“Mom!” cried Rani, peeling herself away from Audra and Damian. Lady Kutharei slid to a halt on her knees in the mud, her arms outstretched. Rani leaped into her embrace and immediately disappeared within a pair of arms and nine, soaked tails. Selene landed roughly nearby, grunting as her heavy body splatted into the mud. She slowly made her way towards Damian and Audra.

“Damian!” she cried wearily, thrusting her arm at the storm to dispel the magic churning it into being. The clouds slowly receded, parting to give way to the early morning light. “When you stepped through the torii, I could not follow you! What happened!?”

“We walked right into a trap the Nameless laid carefully for us,” sighed Damian as Audra clung tightly to him.

“Just as I feared…” moaned Selene. “I attempted many angles of entry, but the barrier covered every inch of the village. I was charged to protect you, and I failed…” She bowed, misery and shame playing out across her face.

“I beg to differ,” Damian told her, resting a hand on her shoulder to help her up. Her eyes widened at the mark on the back of his hand. “You brought Lady Kutharei to us.”

“Damn lot of good that did us,” sighed Kutharei as she approached, carrying Rani against her hip. “Damian of Loren. You have my sincerest thanks for caring for my daughter, and my humblest apologies for my inability to come to your aid.”

“Nonsense,” sighed Damian. “Audra, why is everyone apologizing today?”

Audra giggled, blushing as she shook her head. She peeled herself off of her husband and bowed to Kutharei. “Lady Kutharei. Had you not sealed the village with your magic, the curse would have spread across the land, and I would have been lost to a cruel abyss of nothingness.”

Kutharei tilted her head inquisitively. “Audra?” she replied. “Whatever do you mean?”

Audra’s voice tightened. She bit her lip and gazed up at her husband. Damian nodded. “The Nameless smote all memory of Audra from the minds of the villagers. Nearly erased her from history itself.”

“She tried to do the same thing to Daddy,” Rani told her mother.

“What??” gasped Kutharei. “What do you mean? She?”

“The Nameless,” Damian explained, “Is the goddess, Ningishzida.”

Selene nearly fainted, and might have, had the sticky mud not held her scaly girth upright.

Kutharei gasped so loudly, she nearly dropped Rani. Her arm tightened around the little fox girl. “Ugh!” grunted Rani. “Mom, you’re squashing meeee!”

“I’m afraid… I don’t understand,” Kutharei admitted in a shaken voice, relaxing her grip as she glanced at her daughter. “Why would Ningishzida, of all people, do this to your father? Or to them?” She indicated Damian and Audra.

“Because she lost her hubby,” Rani said simply. “And didn’t like it when anyone else loved each other so much that they became strong. Oh. Also. She and her hubby invented Arc Helix!”

“Gracious,” gasped Rani’s mother.

“I beg your pardon, my lady,” Damian bowed slightly. “This isn’t over yet. Ningishzida remanded many other mamono and yokai to Atlantis. We need to—”

“I think I can help you with that,” said Selene with a tired smile. Glancing to the morning sky, she raised her voice. “Observer!!” she called out into the air.

They waited.

Nothing happened.

Selene nibbled on her lower lip. “He said this would work. Ahem. OBSERVER!!”

Nothing.

Selene slapped her tail against the mud with frustration. “I apologize…”

A gentle, feminine voice sounded off from somewhere. “No, it is I who must apologize on his behalf.”

Who…?

Damian’s eyes searched the landscape. There. Behind Lady Kutharei and off to the side stood a dark, beautiful young woman. Her jet-black hair fell to her waist, tied in a twisted braid crown. She wore a tempting black gown with a lace inset Damian could practically see through. Her velvet, lacy boots stepped over the mud without sinking or becoming sullied. Her skin was a pale bluish-grey, and her eyes…

Oh, sweet goddess, her eyes. Terrifying, yet gorgeous. Electric blue set within inky black.

“My name is Enna,” she said softly as she approached. “I believe you were calling to my husband?”

“Oh, yes,” Selene nodded. “Why did he not answer?”

Enna tilted her head with a smile. “We’ve been through a rather trying ordeal, and he is resting now. Seems as though all of you have endured your own trials, as well.”

“I’m sorry, who did you say you were?” Audra prompted.

“I’m Enna, wife of Gath, also known as ‘The Observer.’” The girl offered Audra a mysterious smile. “The two of us have taken up new management of Atlantis.”

Damian gasped. “Wait, what!? Atlantis has fallen?”

“Indeed, it has,” affirmed the mysterious girl. “What do you know of it?”

“It was the base of operations for the goddess, Ningishzida,” Damian told her, “Otherwise known as ‘The Nameless.’”

Enna sucked in a breath, her mesmerizing eyes widening. “The Nameless? The mobile asset… Oh thank the gods she’s been caught. She nearly killed Lady Alexi…” Enna shuddered, then reaffixed her gaze upon Damian. “Where is she now?”

Damian merely looked up. “Someplace where she can grieve in peace.” He remained silent for a few seconds before returning to face Enna. “She captured many of our friends. If you have truly taken Atlantis, might you release them back to us?”

“Many of them are still recovering from the battle,” Enna replied. “But you are welcome to come see them. All of you, in fact, are welcome to come.”

The weary women glanced at each other, and at Damian. “I think we’d all like that very much,” Damian agreed.

Enna smiled, nodded, and twirled around, creating a familiar green ring of light. “Step inside?”

Damian held Audra’s hand and entered the circle. Blinding light swept over them, and they disappeared.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damian gasped, his eyes flying open. Was it over? Was it truly over? He sat up, the covers sinking to his waist. Wait, hang on. Covers? Why was he in bed?

“Audra?” called Damian. Sunlight shining through the windows of his home warmed his legs. Home. Home? What was he doing here? Damian struggled out of bed, his sheets tangling between his legs. Falling out of bed with a grunt, he untangled himself and looked around.

No, no, no, no! Shuffling over to the mirror, Damian checked.

He was himself again.

It had all been a dream.

Dashing over to the window, Damian peered outside. No flimflam guy. No crowds. No Order officials. Damian sighed, his forehead resting against the sill.

Knock, knock.

Out of pure instinct, Damian trotted downstairs and opened the door.

Garth.

“Hey buddy, ready for work?” Garth asked, running his hand through his sandy-blonde hair. He sighed. “Ugh. No, you’re not ready for work. Would you get dressed already?”

Damian scratched his wrist. “Gods, did I just dream…”

“Buddy, you been dreaming about Mary again?”

“Yeah, but she had blue hair and a shock fetish,” Damian sighed.

“A what?”

“And a tail.”

Garth shook his head at him. “Maybe we should lay off the drinks tonight.”

“Yeah, maybe,” grunted Damian. “Gimme a few to get dressed.”

“I’m going on ahead,” Garth told him. “Don’t be late.”

Damian grunted his acknowledgement and closed the door. He scratched his wrist. Heading upstairs, he sponged himself down and toweled off. Checking the mirror as he slicked his hair back, Damian caught a glimpse of what he thought was a mark on his wrist. He scratched it again, fleeting memories of the dream beginning to resurface.

Gods, that had been a hell of a dream. Damian saved the world with a blue-haired girl named… Audra? Yes. Audra. The storm. The, uh, the silent storm. Odd sort of title, but whatever. She was hot. Really hot. And she loved him. Oh gods, did she love him. And he loved her. Damian smacked his forehead. She was a dream! Right? Can’t fall in love with a dream.

Garth had been in the dream too. And Jill. Jill… hmm. He’d be late for work if he went to her shop, but screw it. Damian had to check this out.

Tossing on a shirt and putting on his shoes, Damian headed for her shop, wrinkling his nose as the morning special assaulted his nostrils.

“Good morning!” chirped Jill as he stepped in. Damian smiled warmly at her. She’d played prominently in the dream, but he seemed to remember her with large, fuzzy ears on the top of her head. Jill blushed at his pointed stare.

“Anything I can get for you?” she asked him.

“Hey Jill, how’s your friend, Annette?” Damian asked as he made his way through the racks.

“She’s… good…” Jill replied, tilting her head inquisitively. “How do you know Annette?”

“Didn’t give her the last of your kimonos, did you?” Damian inquired as he slipped into the back corner.

Jill grinned. “Ahh, so you heard,” she remarked fondly. “We got a new one in. Take a look!” she chirped, pointing.

Damian reached up and retrieved a black and light-blue kimono, shorter than the others. It looked to barely reach down to a girl’s upper thighs, and featured unique embroidery and little metallic triangular objects on the ends and sleeves. Instinctively, Damian drew the garment close and inhaled.

Cherry blossoms.

An overwhelming feeling of loss and heartache gripped Damian’s chest. He clutched the garment tightly, warring internally with his emotions before he spoke. “Jill, could you hold this for me?”

“Sure!” she said excitedly. “It’s expensive, though,” she said with a slight frown. “Can you afford it?”

“She’s my everything,” Damian said softly. “I would give anything to be with her again.”

“What was that?” Jill asked as she boxed up the kimono. “Didn’t quite hear you?”

Damian blinked, shaking his head. “Uhh, I mean, it’ll take everything I have for the day, and then some. Could I pay you back over the next few days?”

Jill nibbled on her lip and shrugged. “I don’t know…”

“Please?” Damian implored her.

“I really want to sell it to you, but why is it so important?” she asked.

Damian wondered about that himself. “It… it reminds me of someone I used to know. Someone I lost.” His voice choked in his throat.

Jill nodded, a tear shimmering in her eye. “All right, I trust you.” She held out the box.

“Thank you, Jill,” Damian said in a shaky voice as he took the box. He gazed at her a little longer than he should have. Something just didn’t feel right.

“Um… if there’s anything else…” Jill prompted shyly.

“Oh, no, I need to get to work,” Damian muttered. “So I can pay you back!”

He darted out of the shop before things got any more awkward. The hell was wrong with him today? He’d just bought an outfit for a girl he met in a freaking dream. Tipping open the box, he stuck his nose inside and breathed in.

Cherry blossoms.

Tears welled up in his eyes. The ache of longing nearly brought him to his knees. Damian scarcely remembered returning home. His memories blurred together, but he remembered placing the box on his bedside.

“For you, Audra,” he murmured, feeling like an idiot as he scratched his wrist. He better head to work. He was going to catch hell for being so late.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Yep. Sure enough. Caught hell. Damian didn’t care. He threw himself into his work as he focused on the dream. Oddly enough, he felt stronger today, but his careless attitude got him in trouble more than once.

“Damian!” hissed Garth. “This one goes there, that one goes over here. How many of these have you screwed up?”

“Ugh, just this one, I think,” Damian mumbled.

“It’s all right, Damian,” said Audra. “Just relax.”

Damian nodded, taking a deep breath. He made the adjustments. There. Worked. This engine wouldn’t explode, after all.

Wait, hang on a second.

Damian whirled around. “Audra?”

Several greasy, sweaty guys turned to stare at him. Garth included. Garth wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “You alright, buddy?”

“Yeah,” muttered Damian, “Just… thought I heard a girl.”

“A girl?” Garth chuckled. “In here? You couldn’t pay Mary or any of her friends to set foot in here.”

“Right…” sighed Damian, pulling off his glove to scratch his wrist. Damn. That girl was just a dream! So, why could he still smell cherry blossoms?

The rest of work drifted by in a blur. Garth asked Damian on the way out if he wanted to stop by for drinks.

“As long as it’s not at the Sheep’s Clothing,” he muttered.

“Where?” Garth cocked his head.

Damian shuddered. “Ugh. Never mind. Sorry. I’m broke, buddy.”

“More than usual?” Garth grinned. Damian’s deflated expression took the wind out of his sails. “I’ll say hi to Mary for you,” he remarked.

“Yeah, you do that,” droned Damian as he plodded off into the night. Gods damn. This sucked. Oh well, he had that box at home waiting for him. Damian wondered, if he wished hard enough, could he make a plea to the gods to bring a dream to life?

Hell. Worth a try. Shaking his head and digging his fingers into his ears to block out ambient sounds, he squeezed his eyes shut, and in the middle of town, made a wish like a sappy fool.

And waited.

Nothing.

Gods, he was such an idiot. Pulling his fingers out of his ears, they came out gooey. “Ugh!” he groaned. “The hell is this?” he cursed wiping the slime off on his sleeves. It wasn’t earwax, or oil, or sweat. This was proper slime, like the stuff you’d find on a slug’s ass. Except, it wasn’t sticky or clammy. It felt warm and slick. Wiggling his finger in his ear, he dug out more. The hell?

Rushing home, Damian pulled off his shirt and found slime to be all up and down his shoulders and the sides of his neck. “Gods!” he grunted, sponging the stuff off. Shaking his head, he could feel his brain sloshing around in his head. Ugh. Hadn’t even had anything to drink, so Damian couldn’t blame Artie for this one. Maybe he was just tired.

Tired.

Bed.

Box on bed.

Tossing his shirt in the bin, he ran over to the box and picked it up.

The hell? It felt really light. Oh… oh no…

Damian opened it. It was empty.

“NO!” cried Damian. Quickly, he closed it to seal the scent inside. He opened it a crack and snuck his nose inside. The cherry blossom scent was still there. Inhaling it deeply, over and over, Damian felt tears falling from his face.

Gods above, what the hell was the matter with him? Seriously!? He felt like something was missing. Someone was missing. The weight of it sank into the pit of his stomach, twisting his wretched innards. Was it this Audra chick? Of all the things he’d prayed to the gods for, would they really listen this time?

Carefully, Damian closed the box and slid it under his bed. None of this made any sense. If someone had stolen the kimono, wouldn’t they have taken the box, too? Or left it hanging open, or something? Damian ran downstairs and checked the door. Didn’t look like anyone forced his way in. Or her way in.

“Audra?” Damian asked the empty house on his way back up. At least no one would hear him acting like an idiot this time. “Audra, are you here? Did you like the kimono I bought you?”

Damian squeezed his eyes shut. Wondered what going insane felt like. Figured this was it. He was going nuts. Bought clothing for a girl he dreamed up, and…

Damian shook his head. Just didn’t make sense. None of it. Well, some of it. The dream girl seemed too good to be true, but not the trials he’d gone through to keep her. He’d literally gone up against a god. Sure, he’d had help, but…

Seven hells, just go to sleep.

Damian decided to take his own advice and crashed. He laid there, waiting for sleep to take him. Though his body ached from a full day’s work, sleep danced on the edge of his consciousness, out of reach. Flopping onto his back, he stared up at the moon. A crescent moon, barely there, cupped a cluster of stars that he didn’t recognize offhand.

Hmm. Had that constellation always been there? Oh, what the hell? He couldn’t sleep anyway. Might as well check it out. Grabbing a fresh shirt, Damian put his shoes on and stepped outside.

Sure enough, a constellation of stars resembling a twisted serpent hung in the sky near the moon. Damian didn’t consider himself a stargazer by any stretch. He needed his sleep. But he’d cast more than one drunken gaze at the stars, and could discern seasons by checking their position in the sky. He recognized several constellations, but not this one. It just hadn’t been there before.

Why was Damian dwelling on that? He shrugged, about to go back inside, when a dull flash caught his attention. There, on the horizon, a gathering of dark clouds, flickering with heat lightning.

A silent storm.

Like a punch in the gut, déjà vu held Damian breathless for several seconds. He heard footsteps approaching nearby as he gazed at it.

“Hey, buddy,” Garth remarked as he approached, “What are you doing?” He hiccupped softly.

“You see that storm over there?” Damian asked him.

Garth peered in that direction. “Ugh. Buddy, I can’t barely see six feet in front of me. What’s wrong? It headed this way?”

“Why can’t we hear the thunder?”

Garth shrugged, hiccupping. “Too far away, I’d say. Look, I’m going home. You should go to bed.”

“Tried that, couldn’t sleep,” sighed Damian.

“Well, try again,” groaned Garth. “Or you’re going to be late again tomorrow.”

Garth left.

Damian sighed, staring at the storm. Several people came and went. Some glanced his way; most ignored him. Jill walked past him, a shawl around her shoulders.

“If you sleep now, you’ll never wake,” she said as she went by.

“Wha?” Damian gasped, glancing at her. She gazed at him with a worried expression. She had blue highlights in her hair. And fuzzy ears.

Damian squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head vigorously. When he opened his eyes, he checked Jill’s back as she left. She looked normal again. Damian squeezed his eyes shut again and repeated the action. Still looked normal.

The hell? Damian ran his hand through his hair. It came away slimy. Oh great, not again! He checked. Yep. It was all up in his ears, down the sides of his neck, and all through his hair. How had no one else noticed?

A strange wind blew through the air. It sounded like someone panting. Not a dog. A person. The wind felt warm and moist, like someone’s breath. Damian cursed.

“Gods damnit,” he hissed. “To hell with it,” he grunted, heading inside to grab his jacket. Throwing it on, he trudged off in the direction of the storm.

None of this is real. None of it!

Damian stiffened. He was pretty sure those were his thoughts, but they sounded feminine. Ugh. Clamping his hands against the side of his head, Damian willed himself to stay sane. The voice died down, but his hands came away slimed. He glanced up. The weird constellation was nearly impossible to see, now. Hmm. He checked the horizon. The storm also began to diminish.

Crap!

Maybe he was going about this the wrong way. Damian thought about it, carefully. Did his delusions hurt him, or help him? Hmm… They hurt. But only because they reminded him of something he’d lost. Something he needed. Desperately.

Damian shuddered. He had a choice. Live his life as he’d always done, or… embrace insanity. Chase his dreams. If he chose the latter, and failed, he’d be locked up for the rest of his life.

On the other hand, if he didn’t, he’d work the same job, live the same life, screw the same shallow women, until he was an old man. Damian cringed inwardly at the realization of it.

He was already locked up.

Insanity was his way out.

Screw it.

Damian embraced insanity.

He took off sprinting towards the storm.

“None of this is real!” he bellowed into the night. Several people glanced his way, concerned expressions on their faces. Damian paid them no mind. He ran like the wind, the soft breath against the back of his neck urging him on. “Audra, I’m coming… please! Please be real!”

The town limits flew past, and Damian began climbing the ridge. The storm looked to be north of here, near Varna. As Damian reached the top of the ridge, he felt an odd sensation, forcing him to look back. He felt sure there should have been a caravan… Oh well.

Moving on, Damian angled towards the road. A horse stood there, grazing by itself, saddled and everything. He jogged up to the horse, finding it covered in sweat. It must have been running all day.

Wait a second…

This wasn’t sweat. It was slime. Ooze. The same stuff that was in his ears.

Embrace insanity.

Damian didn’t question it. He hopped on the horse’s back and settled into the saddle. Flicking the reins, he urged the horse into a run. Scenery blurred as Damian’s horse ran faster than should have been possible. It was working. His sanity began to slip faster the more he chose to discard it. Fine, whatever. He’d rather be insane with the woman he loved than to be lucid and alone.

Damian came up on Varna in record time. He glanced up. The storm raged nearby, yet its lightning still produced no sound. “Audra,” he called. A single, powerful flash of lightning answered him.

“Demon,” hissed a woman nearby.

Damian turned to her. “What?” he asked.  He recognized the dark-haired girl. Annette.

“You challenge the goddess, Ningishzida,” she growled. “You have no place in this world.”

More people joined her. Men and women from the pub, from storefronts, and houses, began to surround him. Damian backed up. Where had the horse gone?

“You’re right,” Damian said. “I don’t belong in this world, because this world isn’t real!” he cried, shouting up at the sky. Thunder echoed nearby. “I don’t know who you people are, or what this place is, but you made me try to forget,” he growled.

“You cannot forget what does not exist,” snapped Annette. “Soon, you will not exist. Your memories will fade. Your love will vanish. And then none of what you have done will have happened.”

A brief flash of terror filled Damian, suffusing through his body, mind, and soul.

“Love conquers all,” someone said nearby. A sultry, wispy voice that echoed in his mind, sending a shiver up his spine. Damian twirled to the source.

Morwena.

“Morwena!” cried Damian.

“How dare you interfere,” hissed Annette. Her voice sounded like Ningishzida’s. She screamed a curse at Morwena. The Mindflayer cringed, but stood her ground. Damian moved to the Mindflayer and stood in front of her, blocking her from Annette’s rage.

“Oh, how noble,” drawled Annette in Ningishzida’s voice. “Don’t you understand? You were right. None of this is real. You’re not really standing there. You cannot protect her from me!”

Ningishzida’s scream wrenched a cry from Morwena, who clutched the sides of her head. Damian turned to her in alarm, reaching out to her.

“No!” protested Morwena. “I am of no consequence. Run! Chase the storm! I will hold her here as long as I can…”

“To hell with that!” Damian shouted, scooping the odd girl up into his arms. He took off towards the storm.

“What are you doing?” Morwena squirmed in his arms. “I’ll slow you down! I’m not really here, just like she said!”

“If that were an empty threat, you wouldn’t be trembling with fear,” Damian told her. “I made a promise to Amaterasu! Mend the wounds Ningishzida cut upon the world. NOT let her open up new ones!”

Damian gasped, wincing in brief pain as the mark on his itchy wrist ignited. The scenery blurred around him as he increased his speed. The edge of the plateau approached. Damian skidded to a halt at the edge. He glanced back, setting Morwena down on her… feet? Tentacles? Whatever they were.

Somehow, Annette and the rest of the town were there, edging in around him. Gods damn this dream!

“There is no escape,” Annette snarled.

“I’m sorry,” moaned Morwena sadly. “We were so close…”

She gazed mournfully at Damian. Except, he was smiling. “There’s always a way,” he said with a smirk. Grabbing Morwena around the waist, he leaped backwards off the edge.

“NO!” bellowed Annette.

“Ohh, my!” squealed Morwena. “You are insane!” she cried as they fell.

“I take it, that’s a compliment, coming from you?” Damian asked her. Judging from the sultry smile on her face, he was right. She nodded. Yep.

And then the ground came up to meet them.

Damian held the girl close, absorbing the impact with his body. Good gods, this hurt! Trees and underbrush broke his fall, just as they had done before in the “real” world. As they slid to a halt, Morwena climbed out of Damian’s arms and rested her slippery hands on him.

“How did you know we would survive that?” she asked, working tentacles around him She leaned near his face, sending smaller tentacles into his head through his ears.

Sweet Maou, that felt unnatural. He grinned all the same. “Not the first time I’ve done that,” he confessed. Morwena’s blushing gasp made it worthwhile, though. And whatever she was doing, it made the pain go away. He sat up slowly.

“Take care,” Morwena cautioned him, “You are still wounded. I have merely removed your ability to feel pain.”

“Morwena, how are you here?” Damian finally asked her.

“I’m not,” she admitted. “Not really. I’ve linked my subconscious to yours and manifested myself in this delusion.” She smiled slyly. “It is a powerful delusion, to be sure. I have learned much in the few days I have spent with you.”

Damian gasped, choking. “D-days!?” he stammered.

Morwena shook her head, pressing her lips tightly together. “No, do not concern yourself with that. You must reconnect with Audra.”

“How?”

“At the place where you first defeated Ningishzida,” Morwena told him, “You will find her. Find her, and defeat the Nameless one last time.”

“I take it I won’t have the same resources,” Damian mused.

“No, but you have me.” Morwena smiled.

“And the knowledge that none of this is real,” Damian added.

Morwena sighed sadly, shaking her head. “The danger is very real.”

He stiffened. “Then… if I had left you to die… What would have happened to you?”

“I am not certain,” the Mindflayer admitted.

“Let’s not wait around to find out, then,” Damian said resolutely, holding out his hand. Morwena took it and he helped her rise.

If memory served, Damian would have landed just on the outskirts of D’Artagnan. Sure enough, there it was. The town, full of… ugh. Seriously?

Eamon Heath, Commander Harrington, the doctor, and dozens of other people populated the town. “The identities the Nameless stole,” Damian advised Morwena.

“Audra is there.” Morwena pointed at a small house near the old diamond mine.

“I know,” Damian said with a smile. “That’s exactly where she was before.”

“How would you like to proceed?” asked Morwena.

“I need you to fly me to the diamond mine,” said Damian.

Morwena frowned. “Were this the ocean…”

Damian grinned. “This is a dream, Morwena. Our dream. Look behind you.”

Morwena checked and gasped softly. Strange, webbed, tentacle wings extended behind her. “That’s… not possible…” she said, but smiled at Damian. “I do enjoy how your mind works…”

“Don’t get any ideas,” Damian cautioned her. “I belong to Audra. That being said, if we get through this, you’re going to be right up there alongside Garth as my newest best friend.”

Morwena blushed, reaching out for him. “Shall we?”

Damian took her hand and tentacles extended from her body, enveloping him. Her strange wings flapped silently, carrying them up into the air. Gods, she was right. This was impossible. And insane. But perfect. The only thing that worried Damian was, if the Nameless remembered he’d done this before as well, they might be in trouble.

Sure enough, Eamon Heath greeted them as they landed. “Interesting,” he murmured. “I must admit, I’m impressed. Your subconscious provided you a Mindflayer to guide you deeper into insanity. But you can’t hide from destiny.”

“Damian,” warned Morwena. Others were closing in.

“I won’t leave you defenseless,” Damian said firmly, pointing at her.

Morwena gasped as the tentacles around her right arm swirled around and transformed into a powerful sword with a lime-green eye in the center of the quillons. The violet blade dripped with her ooze.

“The problem with playing with my mind,” Damian told Ningishzida, “Is simply thus: It’s my mind. I can do whatever I want with parts of it that I control. Morwena, hold them off. I’ll deal with this one.”

“With pleasure,” Morwena replied with a predatory smile on her face.

“And how do you expect to prevail against me without your Silent Storm?” Eamon Heath asked with amusement as Morwena set upon the other incarnations of the Nameless.

“With this,” Damian announced, crossing his arms over his chest. Left arm sideways, right arm over top of it, held vertical. The sigil Amaterasu gifted him with blazed with fury.

“That isn’t real, not here,” Heath answered, though Damian detected a touch of anxiety in his voice.

“My mind, my rules,” growled Damian, summoning a weapon from the sigil. Or… wait, what was this? It looked like a disc with flames spinning around it. The Nameless did not pick up on his confusion, instead gazing with distraught at the “weapon.”

“You… you have no right to wield that!” cursed Heath.

“Amaterasu herself blessed me with the right,” Damian told him. “It is you who have no right to be here.”

Damian flung the disc, but not at Heath. At Morwena. The flaming disc spun in front of her, deflecting an attack by Commander Harrington at a crucial moment, allowing the Mindflayer to thrust her blade into his chest. The memory of the commander disappeared. Morwena nodded her thanks and the disc returned to Damian’s arm.

“You see?” Damian said proudly. “You’ve lost. Amaterasu has already sent you to the sky. You’re just a dream. A figment of the original Ningishzida’s imagination.

“Just as she is,” snarled Heath, pointing at Morwena. The girl let out a strangled gasp and disappeared.

“NO!” bellowed Damian. “MORWENA!” he cried, turning to Heath and charging at him. His Voice shook the mountain behind him, shaking loose several boulders. They began to roll down the mountain in… a familiar pattern. Damian clashed with Heath and then leapt back. The other identities of the Nameless ran towards him, but Damian side-stepped and hopped between boulders as they fell, remembering where they would land. The Nameless copies were not so lucky. One by one, they fell, until only Heath remained.

Gods, he needed to hurry up. Damian worried what might become of Morwena if he did not. He leaped towards the Nameless Heath.

Eamon Heath jumped to the side, but Damian hadn’t actually been aiming at him. He crashed through the roof of the shack instead, right beside Audra.

“No!!” bellowed Heath from outside. Damian had seconds. He yanked the blindfold and gag off of Audra and kissed her.

The effect was instantaneous.

A massive blast of energy blew apart the shack, knocking Heath back. Damian stood hand-in-hand with his wife, or, at least, the manifested subconscious image of her. Close enough. She even had the brand Amaterasu had given her.

“Together, sweetling,” Damian said.

Audra nodded. They held out their hands.

“DAMN YOU!!” screamed Ningishzida.

The light of Arc Helix, the pure manifestation of Damian and Audra’s love, blinded him.

Damian gasped, opening his eyes at last.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Mmmph…” mumbled Morwena, hovering over Damian, their faces nearly touching. Her eyes were nearly closed, strained with exhaustion and pain. Two tentacles from her head, one on each side, were inside Damian’s ears. They withdrew slowly as Morwena panted softly.

“Morwena…” Damian murmured gently, raising his hand to cup her face. “Thank you…”

Morwena smiled wearily, nodding, and nuzzling his hand fondly. “It has been my pleasure,” she said softly, a tear falling from her beautiful, red eyes. Those gorgeous eyes moved to the side. Damian followed them, noticing Audra collapsed at the side of his bed, her face hidden behind a curtain of hair, her forehead resting against her arms on the sheet.

“I must rest,” Morwena whispered, her odd, sultry voice echoing softly within Damian’s hazy mind. “Be with your wife.”

The Mindflayer departed. Damian reached weakly to rest his hand on her head, rubbing gently. Her ears flicked in her sleep.

“Sweetling,” Damian said to her.

Audra moaned sadly in her sleep.

“Sweetling, I’m here,” Damian told her.

Slowly, Audra’s head rose up. Damian nudged her bangs out of her eyes.

“Damian…?” Audra’s hoarse voice managed to say. “Are you…?”

“I’m back,” he said with a smile.

Audra gasped and leaped onto him, wrapping her arms around him, embracing him with soulful desperation. “Damian…” she moaned with weary relief. “I can’t believe it… When Ningishzida said it was never over, I was worried she wasn’t just… just…”

She couldn’t continue. Her tears fell upon Damian’s chest as her body shook with uncontrollable sobbing. Exhausted though he may be, Damian had the strength, at least, to rub her head and massage her shoulder. The scent of cherry blossoms reached him, soothing him better than any medicine ever could.

“Sweetling, I’m not certain I understand,” Damian murmured, scratching behind her ears. “What happened? I thought it was over.”

Audra slowly climbed up onto her husband’s body, lowering herself upon him until her face rested against his. “When we arrived in Atlantis,” she explained, her voice soft and lovely, right against his ear, “The bright lights faded from our sight, but we all recovered. All of us, that is, except you. You fell to the ground and passed out. We thought you were just exhausted, and I brought you here, to this room. Selene left for Lamora Miraca to send for Morwena so that we might treat the mages and other members of Tenebrae Vincunt, but…”

“I didn’t wake up,” Damian finished for her.

Audra rose up slightly to nod sadly at him. “When I couldn’t wake you, everyone dropped everything they were doing to attend you. Morwena said it was some kind of mind poison, and offered to help treat it.” She shuddered. “I was a little nervous, but agreed to let her try. Was she helpful?”

“She saved me, Audra,” Damian told her. “She nearly lost her own mind in the process, but she saved me. I couldn’t have come back to you without her.”

“Then I owe her everything,” gasped Audra. “Where is she?”

“Resting,” murmured Damian. “Like I need to do. But not without you by my side.”

“What happened to you in there?” Audra implored.

“I will tell you this once,” Damian said, gently caressing her cheek with his thumb as he cupped her face in his hand. “And then we will never speak of it again.”

“Agreed,” nodded Audra.

So, Damian told her about the dream. How Morwena left clues within about his real life, guiding him to the Storm. To Audra. And how Morwena was eventually able to manifest herself within the dream. Audra giggled softly through her tears as Damian explained how he gave the Mindflayer wings and a sword. Her expression shifted to amazement at the valor Morwena displayed at the end.

“That woman is a treasure,” whispered Audra breathlessly.

“She is,” agreed Damian. “What about the others? Garth. Raina and Jill. Jinx. Krysta. Ophelia. Lina. Everyone else that helped us?”

“They’re here,” Audra assured him. “Safe and well, and resting. Even Meiko’s shrine maidens. Raina wants to throw a party when you’re well enough.”

“I hope they haven’t waited long,” sighed Damian. “How long was I out?”

Audra stiffened and did not reply.

“Sweetling?”

The pain in her eyes nearly broke Damian’s heart in half. “Three days,” she cried softly. “Three, awful, hollow days…”

“Gods above…” Damian gasped, gathering his wife into a sorrowful embrace. “I just want to hold you… and sleep.”

“I’ve hardly slept this entire time,” Audra moaned, trembling in his embrace. “I’ll sleep with you. Just don’t let me go. Not ever.”

“Never, sweetling,” murmured Damian as his eyes fluttered closed. “At least some good came of this. We learned that not even a goddess can keep us apart.”

Audra smiled as she drifted off to sleep in his arms.

At last, Damian could rest. His precious treasure held firmly in his embrace, Damian relaxed and joined her in her dreams.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“You sure you’re up for this?” Audra asked Damian gently, patting his arm.

“I have to see them,” Damian assured her. “Been worried about them since Kawajiri.”

“Alright,” Audra replied with a smile, standing up on the balls of her paws to touch a gentle kiss to his cheek. “Right through here,” she offered, opening the stone door.

The door opened to a raucous cheer!

Lively music filled in the gaps between voices. Several girls and their husbands, the ones that had one, danced within a large, wide-open room bathed in the light of a crystal chandelier. No, really. The entire thing was made of crystal. Light blue crystal made up the supports, and frosty white ones cast their light into the room.

A long, wide table swept across the back of the room, with space for several people to sand behind and prepare food and drink. Huh. Atlantis’ version of a pub. Perfect. Dozens of marble tables were laid out with room to dance between them and the bar. In the center of each table, a thin column rose up, with a wide crystal set within it that glowed softly in the same color as the chandelier. Some of them appeared dimmer than others, and a few actually absorbed light, for couples that wanted some privacy.

A ginger Raiju swept Audra up off her feet and twirled her around. Her dazzling smile briefly stole Damian’s breath before realizing who this was. Callie. The girl they’d set up with Antonio, the mage.

“I’m stealing your wife for a bit!” Callie giggled, tugging Audra into the throng of dancers. They began to spin and twirl around each other, and against each other. Mesmerized, Damian stared unabashedly. A chuckle brought him back to himself.

“Damian,” said Antonio, nudging him as he offered a drink. “Can’t thank you enough for what you did for us.”

Damian imbibed deeply of the proffered drink. Holy gods above, what the hell was this stuff? It seared down his throat like a miniaturized Arc Helix. And yet, instead of dulling his senses, it sharpened them. Sounds filtered in more clearly. He took another sip, finding voices reaching his ears easily. He could even hear Audra and Callie sighing and panting at each other. His manhood stirred to watch them.

“Still recovering, are you?” Antonio prompted.

“Yeah,” sighed Damian. “We had a rough go of it, and that little surprise Ningishzida left for me nearly ruined everything.”

“They told me Amaterasu herself showed up to bring her to justice?” Antonio remarked.

“She did,” Damian nodded, holding up his right hand to show him the mark.

“Good gods!” the man boggled at it. “You have any idea the power that sigil holds!?”

“Not sure I want to know, just yet,” Damian told him. He sipped again, watching his wife and Antonio’s enjoying each other. Leaping around happily, they danced around with their tails wrapped around each other. Girls had begun to line around them, clapping in tune with the beat.

“And yet, it didn’t stop Ningishzida’s booby trap,” murmured Damian darkly. “Had Morwena not been there…”

Antonio rested his hand on Damian’s shoulder. “Take some advice,” he said pointedly. “Don’t question circumstance; there’s no such thing as a coincidence. Everything happens for a reason. The gods sure have plans for you, that much is certain.”

Damian’s gaze wandered as he reflected on those words. “Yeah. You’re right. You…” he trailed off. Where’d the mage go?

Ah. Between the two Raiju, Antonio danced, somehow using his spirit energy as a conduit between them to bounce sparks between them without touching them himself. Breathless, the two girls spun around him, dancing sensually, flipping through the air in a rather wild display. Where had they learned that? Damian didn’t recall any Zipangunese dance or ritual involving such contortions.

Keeping Audra within eyeshot, Damian began making rounds through the room. Garth slapped a jovial hand on his back. “Buddy,” the man chuckled, his sandy-brown hair standing on end slightly. “I’m surprised you’re not over there, frolicking with them.” He indicated the two Raiju with Antonio.

“I think I’m mellowing out in my old age,” Damian sighed. “Pretty tired to be honest.”

“Here,” Jill reached over the table and handed him a prisoner fruit.

Uh. Damian knew what this was. He shook his head, but Jill pressed the fruit into his hand. “Jill…” he sighed.

“Damian, eat it,” she commanded, smiling coyly. “They’re sooooo good~! And I’m told the ones grown here are better than anywhere else in the entire world. It’ll cure what ails you.”

“Sorry, Jill, I’m just not in the mood.” Damian sighed, holding the fruit up to his eyes to admire it, all the same.

“What do you think you’ve been drinking,” a sultry female voice asked him. Damian glanced aside to find Raina with her tongue practically in his ear. A hearty blush colored her cheeks. She hiccupped. “Prisoner wine. Mmmm…”

“Wha?” Damian gaped, but really shouldn’t have. Raina took advantage of his open mouth, plucked the fruit from his hand, and stuffed it into his mouth. She bopped the bottom of his chin to force his mouth closed on it.

The fruit burst in his mouth, suffusing it with a delectable sweetness reminiscent of the ale he’d been drinking. Begrudgingly, Damian had to admit the Raiju girls were right. The fruit lent him some much-needed refreshing stamina. As he swallowed the juice, some of the girls cast him flirty smiles. Raina winked at him, trailing her tongue across her plush lips.

“Got any more?” Damian asked Jill.

“Told ya,” she winked, just like Raina, and handed him a basket full of the damned things. Damian plucked two out and popped one in his mouth. Gods, it tasted so good. The room swirled into alarming clarity. He stepped around the table, patted Jill on the head, and started to walk off. She grabbed onto his arm, shaking her head.

“Hey, where are you going?” she whined.

“Got some more friends to see,” he told her. “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving.”

Jill nodded and turned back to watch the dance as Raina slid into Garth’s lap. Making the rounds, Damian stopped at a small table with only one occupant. Lina sat in a high-reaching chair, completely absorbed in a large, flat crystal lying flat on the table. Peering over her shoulder, Damian glimpsed images within the crystal.

“What’s that?” he asked her.

“ACK!” squealed Lina; she snapped to attention, nearly smacking her head into Damian’s chin. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!” she squealed, blushing fiercely.

“Kaiden Stone?” he asked, chuckling.

“SHHHH!” Lina frantically waved her hands in front of Damian. “The technology here is amazing! I can focus in on just about anywhere in the world.”

“Lina, that’s called spying,” Damian groaned.

“Actually, it’s called scrying,” she corrected him.

“Scrying is magic.”

Lina shrugged. “Sort of. Pure scrying is. But this is sciency magic. Best of both worlds!”

“You’re supposed to be watching the chapters of Tenebrae Vincunt,” Damian reminded her.

Lina stuck her tongue out at him as she shook her head lightly. “I’m on sabbatical. And at a party.”

“So, be at the party,” Damian sighed, flipping her crystal thingy over.

“Why, youuu…” whined Lina, pouting.

Huh, idea. He stuffed the spare prisoner fruit he was holding into her mouth and snapped it closed.

“Mmmph!” grunted the girl, her cheeks puffing out from the sudden influx of juice. Gulping it down, she glared at him. “The hell was that for?” she grumbled.

Damian smirked and pointed over her shoulder. There, in the corner, trying to feign interest in a potted plant, was one of the liberated Tenebrae Vincunt mages. He kept checking Lina out from the corner of his eye. Lina gaped up at Damian, mouthing words he couldn’t make out.

“See, the problem with scrying the outside world is,” chuckled Damian, “You don’t notice what’s going on nearby.”

“How long’s he been watching me??” whispered Lina.

Damian shrugged and grinned, walking off. Have fun, Lina. He kept walking, accepting another drink from a cute… what was that? He asked someone. Kikimora. Huh. Adorable maid. A shame Raiju sparks were apparently so good at cleaning. Wouldn’t mind having one of those around the house.

“Hnnnnn… YESS!” bellowed a familiar voice.

“Aww… howwww?” moaned another.

“I’m just that good!”

Damian stepped up to a large table hosting Jinx, Krysta, and Ophelia, the latter two of which had been arm wrestling. Jinx nibbled on a huge leg of… some wild beast, which looked barely cooked, as she observed her two friends playfully competing.

“Heh. Hey, Damian,” Krysta winked at him. “Wanna try your luck?”

“She’s the strongest manticore everrrrr~!” sang Ophelia, downing an alarming amount of prisoner ale with one swig.

“What’s this?” Damian plucked something out from the crook of Krysta’s tail. It looked like… uh… well… a cock. Squishy, though. Spongey?

Ophelia gasped… her shock quickly turned into anger as she glared daggers at Krysta. “You… you… you cheated!” she cried.

“Woah!” cried Damian as he had to duck under six hundred pounds of angry Wurm suddenly turned airborne. Ophelia tackled Krysta, sending drinks flying.

“Cheater, cheater!” cried Ophelia as she pinned the Manticore to the marble floor.

Someone snapped her fingers. Loudly.

Krysta and Ophelia suddenly disappeared.

Damian’s alarmed gaze met Jinx’s. The Jinko sighed, shaking her head. “Second time today,” she mused.

“Where…” murmured Damian. His eyes rested upon the source of the finger-snapping, a succubus, the prettiest one he’d ever seen, dressed in a sensual, form-fitting black silk and lace dress.

“Oh, there you are,” she said, smiling warmly as she skipped up to him, her spade tail flicking around excitedly. She extended her slim hand to him. “The guest of honor! I’m Cari. How are you feeling?”

Damian took her hand, a thing of pure beauty. She felt, and looked, like a living work of art. He brought her hand up to his lips and kissed it. Cari blushed, smiling as she nibbled on the corner of her lip.

“Better since… well, Morwena.”

“She’s here too, somewhere,” Cari let him know. “You should say hi to her before she goes back to Ryugujo.”

“I will,” he promised. “What did you do to Krysta and Ophelia?”

Cari sighed theatrically, splaying her hand over her impressive bust. “Those two are so naughty. I just sent them to the penalty box.”

Damian blanched. “The… what?

“It’s for their own good,” Jinx said with a sigh.

“Bring them back, now!” Damian commanded.

“Well, if you insist,” Cari said with a wink. She snapped her fingers. The two girls reappeared some distance away from each other.

“Youuuu…” growled Krysta at Cari.

“Now, now, none of that,” Cari said, shaking her head. “You’re only back so soon because of Damian vouching for you. Now be good!”

“Thank youuu~!” Ophelia gushed from behind him. Suddenly, two very powerful Wurm arms coiled around Damian from behind, embracing him bone-breakingly tightly.

“Urrrrkkkk…” Damian grunted, his tongue protruding from his mouth as he gasped for breath. “You’re… welcome…”

“Oh, and this is for saving us!” Ophelia squealed, embracing him again, even tighter this time.

Gods. Damian could feel his spine cracking as Ophelia nuzzled his neck. “Any… time…” he groaned.

“Mmm, you smell so goooood…” she moaned, nuzzling his shoulder as she squeezed.

“Ophelia, you’re killing him,” Jinx said matter-of-factly.

“Oop!” the Wurm yelped, releasing him.

Damian wobbled, feeling like a crushed candy wrapper. He cocked his head, feeling his neck pop. “Where do you get all that strength?” he asked hoarsely.

Ophelia grinned and flexed for him. Hot damn, she was beautiful. And muscular. She twirled, tossing her full head of dark, olive-green hair as she flexed her scaled arms.

“So, how did Krysta cheat?” Damian asked. And immediately wished he hadn’t.

Ophelia rammed her scaled fist into the table. Surprisingly, the sturdy marble didn’t even crack. “She used THAT!” she hissed pointing at the cock-shaped item in Damian’s hand.

“Oh, a raging mushroom,” Cari noted. “It gives powerful physical advantages to anyone who eats it, but also induces uncontrollable lust,” she remarked, eyeing Krysta carefully. “Then again, Krysta is a Manticore. They always have uncontrollable lust.” The Succubus shrugged.

“So, if I ate this…” Damian started to say. Cari gently laid her hand on his wrist to stop him.

“They affect men more strongly,” Cari warned. “You’re an Incubus. If you ate that, a whole room of Ophelias wouldn’t be able to stop you. You’d attack Audra right in the middle of the dance floor for all of us to see.” She blushed scarlet. “Actually, if you really want to…”

She let go of his wrist.

Damian pocketed the mushroom. “Definitely keeping that for later.”

Cari almost seemed disappointed. She shrugged. “We have plenty more if you like.” She turned to Krysta and Ophelia. “Be good. Or spend the day in the penalty box.”

“What’s in the penalty box?” Damian asked her.

She winked at him. “The cold springs.”

Cari sauntered off, her hips swaying with her tail and wings suggestively. Damian shook his head at her and took a seat next to Jinx.

“What are you doing?” Jinx asked, raising a furry eyebrow. “Why aren’t you dancing with your wife?”

“I wanted to make sure you were alright,” Damian told her. “After nearly losing Audra more times than I care to count, I know how you must have felt when you lost these two.” He indicated Krysta and Ophelia, who engaged in another test of strength.

Jinx sighed deeply, twirling a claw against the marble table. It made no marks, so she traced the patterns of the marble as she debated her response. “Krysta and I grew up together,” she said at last. “We supported each other when we left our homes, and she’s like a sister to me. Until either of us find husbands, she’s the closest thing to family that I have.”

“It’s a curious matchup, you two,” Damian noted.

Jinx couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, you’re not wrong. Krysta gets into more trouble than you can possibly imagine, but I’m always there to get her out of it.” Her smile faded. “Until D’Artagnan…”

“That’ll never happen again,” Damian promised her.

“You can’t be sure of that,” Jinx warned him. “I’ve heard the Observer and his wife talking. The mage they defeated? Desmond Volus? He escaped.”

Damian gulped. He’d heard about it, but not known much more than that.

“His weapon was designed thousands of years ago,” Jinx continued, “And, based on what the Observer was saying, it is likely not the only one. All of this could start over again.”

Damian flexed his hand in front of Jinx, displaying the blessing of Amaterasu. “We’re not alone, Jinx,” he assured her. “The gods above are with us. Based on what we’ve learned, no one, of either chaste or salacious intent, desires anything like what happened in those dark times. I made a pledge to Amaterasu, to root out these wounds and mend them. We will find this evil, and we will defeat it.”

Jinx chuckled as she gazed softly at him. She sighed. “Why can’t there be more men like you?”

Damian chuckled, standing up. “There are plenty,” he said with a smile. “I’m not all that special. I just stayed true to my love,” he told her, gazing at the twirling Audra. She sensed his gaze and beckoned to him before spinning back into Callie’s arms.

“You’ll find him,” Damian said to Jinx, “Your husband. Never stop looking.”

Damian left the Jinko to her thoughts and approached the bar. Morwena stood near the end, alone except for the Harpy, Kira, seated beside her, listening intently to something the Mindflayer was saying. Damian approached to listen.

“Really?” Kira asked, wide-eyed. “How deep can you go!?

“In this world, or the next?” Morwena asked, her sultry, mysterious voice echoing in Damian’s mind. He wondered if everyone felt that strange sensation. He found it no longer bothered him. It comforted him instead, to know that someone as mysterious and unique as Morwena cared for him.

“Uhm, this world?” Kira asked.

“There is a trench south of Mist, off the coast of the Vale,” Morwena replied, “Called the Profound Darkness. It is a pit with no bottom, for if you delve deep enough, you will find yourself within the Abyssal Underdark. But at the edge of this world, you may find gemstones crushed under the weight of the world that glow with their own unique radiance.”

“Woooow~!” gasped Kira. “Reaaaally~? What do they look like?”

“See for yourself,” Morwena offered, unclipping a little gem from her necklace and resting it on the bar. It looked like a purple diamond, dimly glowing.  Kira plucked it up carefully.

“What is this?” Kira asked. “I can barely feel it. It’s heavy, but… ackk!” she squealed, dropping it. The gem bounced along the floor towards Damian, who knelt down to scoop it up.

Huh. Fascinating. It was heavier than it looked, but completely frictionless. No wonder Kira dropped it. It, quite literally, had no texture. So smooth was its surface, it felt like it was not even there. Maybe it wasn’t. This was a Mindflayer’s crystal, after all. He handed it to Morwena with a smile, embracing her gently as his arm slipped around her shoulder, drawing her into him.

“Morwena,” Damian sighed, resting his head against hers. The slime covering her body didn’t bother him in the slightest. “I’m glad I was able to see you before you left.”

Morwena smiled, resting her hand on Damian’s against the bar. Her ruby-red eyes narrowed slightly as she smiled. “How are you feeling?” she asked softly, her voice massaging his mind as her hand did the same to his wrist.

Gods, she was so wonderful. Damian practically cursed himself for fearing her at their first meeting. If he hadn’t fallen in love with Audra first…

“Much better,” he told her with much relief. “If you hadn’t been… been there…” he said, his voice choking up again. “I… might’ve… never…” Tears welled up in his eyes, burning hotly, like acid, against his cheeks.

“Now, there,” Morwena cooed softly, brushing his cheek with her free hand. “None of that. You are free from that serpent’s curse. I merely acted as a conduit for the love of your wife to reach you.”

“But, if…”

“Shhhhh,” coaxed Morwena. Her soft, lubricated touch banished the despair and aching pain from Damian’s mind. “It was only fitting that your wife come to your rescue after your gallant display in Kawajiri. In many ways, it feels like I was able to stand by your side during that struggle. Not many regard my kin without fear and revulsion. You will always find a warm place in my heart for affording me such trust.” She smiled warmly, her eyes dewy and glistening.

“And you will always be welcome in our home,” Damian promised her.

“Um,” Kira murmured. “What… exactly did she do for you?”

Damian practically shuddered, but a soft touch of her tentacle to his cheek banished that dark thought. “Do not ask this of him,” Morwena said softly. “I will tell you about it if he allows it.”

“I owe Kira as much as I owe you, Morwena,” Damian said. “She carried me to my wife, across enemy lines, at great risk to herself.” He embraced the Mindflayer gently once more, stroking her silky, lubricated hair. “You may tell her the tale. I need to return to Audra, now.”

“Go, with my blessing,” Morwena said softly.

Damian departed from her with a renewed vigor in his step. He was ready for Audra, now. His wife spun and twirled sensually, surrounded by onlookers clapping rhythmically. She danced alone, Carrie resting beside Antonio to watch.

As Damian approached, Audra was suddenly in his arms.

Gods!

Damian thought he was ready…

Audra flashed a wicked, ravenous grin as she hopped up to kiss him, her heart beating with a frenzied pace. “Damian!” she squealed. “Dance with me. Like in Lamora Miraca.”

Oh boy…

If Damian recalled correctly, they’d had sex in Lamora Miraca in front of everyone, even the Empress. His eyes quickly scanned the partygoers, ensuring Rani wasn’t present. Neither Rani, nor her mother watched from anywhere nearby. They were somewhere else in Atlantis, spending some much-needed mother-daughter time together.

Cradling his wife in his arms, Damian vaulted into the dance, spinning and twirling in something that resembled a tango, but was, in fact, a unique series of steps, twists, and caresses that served as a metaphor in motion for the love they shared for each other.

This time, they did not dance alone.

Beckoning to others, Damian and Audra drew others into their dance, for their friends shared in the efforts to stop Ningishzida. Why should they not share in the couple’s love as well? At first, Damian danced only with Audra. Soon, Garth and Jill joined in, followed soon by Raina, Jinx, and Kira. Kira added a special flair, flying around the room as she flipped and spun. Lina danced with the young mage she’d just met, nudging Antonio and Callie into the mix. Lina clicked her heels together, activating some odd contraptions attached to the heels of her boots so that she could float up at the same height as her dancing partner.

Like always, Krysta snuck her way into the mix, and stole a few moves with Damian before Audra shoved her playfully away. Back in the arms of his wife again, Damian held her close, their faces pressed side-by-side as they strutted across the dance floor together. Sweet cherry blossoms enveloped him. Crackling energy tantalized him. Singing and music soothed him. Audra loved him. And he loved her. They danced, and they celebrated.

Love had been victorious.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“My, how time flies,” Damian murmured. Memories of the party remained fresh in his mind. It had gone on for days and days, spreading out all over Atlantis as word spread of another hero having defeated ancient evil. Having finally quieted down a bit, Damian stood next to Gath, the Observer as they peered over a terrace down into a rock garden below. Within the garden, Audra playfully chased Rani around with a bunch of other children. The man beside him smiled faintly, standing several inches shorter, and slimmer, than Damian, yet cast no less an imposing presence. He always stood to the left of his guests, keeping himself in between them and the terrifying weapon against his left hip.

“That saying carries a different meaning here,” Gath reminded him.

“Ah, yes, the time differential,” nodded Damian, still puzzled by it. “I don’t suppose we can use it to repair the damage to Kawajiri?”

“I fear not,” sighed Gath. “At least, not at this moment. Perhaps later, once we have learned more of Atlantis’ secrets. However…”

Damian glanced at the other man and perceived a mischievous smile he often noticed on his wife, Enna. “Well? Out with it?”

“There are no secrets, nor safe places from my sight,” Gath told him. “If you wished to Observe the village, I may be able to enable you to do so.”

Damian pondered that. Would it be wise to dangle hope in front of his wife? He gazed down, smiling at Audra’s antics as she managed to grab hold of one of Rani’s tails. The girl yelped, flipping free and hiding behind a rock. Someone else laughed; Rani’s mother sat beside Enna at a round, crystalline table filled with tea and snacks. She laughed softly at her daughter’s playfulness. Ever since their reunion, Lady Kutharei hadn’t let Rani out of her sight.

“No word yet from Rani’s father?” Gath asked.

Damian shook his head. “Not yet, though, I swear that little jewel of hers glows brighter every day.”

“I’m eager to meet him,” admitted Gath. “Every now and then, I cast my sight to the stars, looking for him. I do wish I could have consulted with Amaterasu…”

“Can you not find her?”

“I likely could,” replied Gath. “Her radiance would not be easily missed.” He shook his head. “I will not, however, intrude upon her privacy without an invitation.”

“A wise decision,” murmured Damian.

“Damian,” Gath prompted, turning to face him. His red eyes shared little of the mysteriousness of his wife’s, piercing and powerful as they were instead. “Each of us have been given gifts, some of them more precious than others.” His gaze moved to Enna briefly before settling pointedly upon the mark on Damian’s hand. “You share the blessing of Ningishzida and her husband, unwitting as it may be, as well as the favor of Amaterasu. There will come a time when our gifts are needed.”

“When that time is upon us, come find me,” Damian told him. “Amaterasu’s duty may take us around the globe, but it should not be difficult to locate us.”

The two men stood in silence for quite some time.

“How much longer would you like to stay here?” Gath asked him after a while.

“However long it takes to separate Rani from my wife,” chuckled Damian. “In all seriousness, though…” he murmured, his heart weighing heavily in his chest, “My wife nearly had her sanity driven from her. And then, Ningishzida’s last gasp nearly tore my mind from her. Amaterasu will forgive us some time for convalescence. I cannot lose her again… the very thought chills my soul…”

“Believe me, my friend,” sighed Gath. “I understand. Take all the time you need. You and your wife are welcome here whenever you wish.”

“Thank you,” Damian said, turning.

Gath was gone.

Damian shrugged. The first few times the man had done that, Damian found it disturbing. Not anymore. He gazed down into the garden. Rani bounced in her mother’s arms, their tails wrapping around each other. He glanced around, looking for Audra. She wasn’t there.

A pair of hands crept over Damian’s eyes. “Guess who…”

The scent of cherry blossoms enveloped him. Damian chuckled. “Sweetling. If you’re going to do that, you might consider wearing perfume. I can smell that sweet scent of yours for miles away.”

Audra spun him around. He opened his eyes to find her pouting. “How am I supposed to spice things up if I can’t surprise you?” she whined.

“Trust me, sweetling,” murmured Damian as he tilted her head up for a kiss, “Living with you will never grow dull.”

Audra giggled and melted into his arms.

Her love for him would never die.

And neither would his.

Audra of Kawajiri – by ehrrr
LackingFairGoodExcellentPerfect (34 votes, average: 4.47 out of 5)
Loading...

7 thoughts on “Electrickery”

  1. An excellent story, well done, well done!

    Characters were neat. Lots of attention given to portraying many different species of monster girl accurately, with interesting personalities and names. The many unique locales were also portrayed well, and showed an interesting slice of the world.

    The intimacy between the two main characters was sweet and very steamy, although they certainly picked some very questionable times to get it on! I admit I skipped past some of the later ones, as it was starting to feel a bit repetitive. Still, it was a good balance of loveliness and lewdness, which is what MGE strives for, in my opinion.

    With a length such as this, this is really a kind of novel. There was some good growth in it, too. I think the two standout scenes were the ryugojo palace, and Rani running around when she got her third tail. Those scenes were pretty great.

    The story intersection with Eyes was also neat. Now since this is only your second story, perhaps this isn’t warranted, as I don’t know if you plan to have continuity with all of your future stories. But if you do…I have to hope that they won’t all follow the same structure. Meaning, a random nobody having a chance encounter with a mamono, getting embroiled in a nefarious plot, and then discovering that they were actually both the Fabled Heroes of Legend™.

    It’s not a bad thing, mind you. I guess I’m saying that smaller-scale conflicts can be plenty interesting, too. Take it as you will.

    Ultimately it was an enjoyable read that lasted a good length of time. Good job, and looking forward to the next work!

    -EighthSpan

  2. I have to say, this is a great story. I read it for two evenings, and I really looked forward to it after the first evening.
    In my opinion, its nearly perfect, and I wish I could write such stories.
    After that, I read “Eyes in the dark”, and its really the same here – just wow.

    I am really looking forward for more.

    1. I’m glad you liked it. Electrickery had a rough go of things with a poorly written start. I’ll never submit another story without having a few people read it first. But the damage has been done. This one has half of the hits of my others, if that. I’m glad someone found it and liked its revisions!

  3. I read the first ¾ of this story back when it came out, then didn’t get back to the rest for a long time … and dayum, did I miss out! For the first part I totally agree with what EighthSpan wrote (though your more recent Forced Freedom is a welcome departure to the formula), I was caught totally by surprise by the ending. I must say I really enjoy reading your ‘mind games’ sequences, especially as they have (thanks to your long-form writing) so much story to draw on.

    1. I’m glad you liked it. A botched beginning caused this story to fall under the radar for many possible viewers. That, and its length being far above average deterred many potential readers.

      If you like mind games, a few up-and-coming stories should provide that fix in abundance. The next handful of stories will be about the length of Forced Freedom. (30k words, more or less.)

  4. Great Goddess Tachaerus, you certainly love the Epics. A rapid rise from a humble beginning to nigh on omnipotence! With a trip through Princess Bride along the way.
    A) Spelling/Grammar. I couldn’t detect any. My eyes normally check for spelling errors, and Grammar takes a bit more brainpower for me to find. All in all- your Editing ability is well developed, I couldn’t find any.
    B) Creativity/Premise. Well done on that score. A combination of a Sumerian (?) Goddess as the Nameless (Ningishzida) vs Amaterasu. Points east, various Mamono of Zipangu, Sea Mamono, and an Epic tale that hints of past deeds rising to the surface . Then there is the almost Lovecraftian powers of the Nameless. All in all, astounding.
    C) Relatable. Almost from the get-go I could relate to Damian. Though I have to admit that the Ladies of Loren tended to Lay most promiscuously . (Not that such is bad thing.) And who amongst us readers wouldn’t mind having the near constant Honeymoon effect of Mamono Marriage?
    D) Consistency. Most consistent. Though I did feel a bit overwhelmed at times with what the Nameless could pull of his/her ass when it came to attacks; I still felt that you’ve created a worthy villain, that evokes a degree of sympathy.
    E) Other. About the only complaint I have for the story, well any of your stories thus far, is the bloody freaking length! It’s only because I’ve been having a particularly long dry spell at work, combined with my cellphone’s depleted battery, that I managed to finish it as quickly as I did.
    Oh yes, pursuant to what I messaged you via Discord. Just an idea, introduce somewhere on your story: A Cast of Characters. This goes hand in hand with my inability to sit still long enough to go through the ENTIRE story at one go! Such necessities as letting blood flow return to my legs, eating, bodily functions, sleep, work, etc., kept getting in the way.
    Example: Damian- the Protagonist,/Young Human Male. Garth- Damian’s sidekick and best friend. Jill/Businesswoman Clothing Merchant. A cast of characters, interspersed so as to allow those of us with ever advancing memory loss, to try and keep track. Just a thought.

    5/5.

Leave a Reply