The chime of an inn in Patera tinkled as a man pushed the door open, revealing the scene of heavy downpour outside. A stiff gust blew sheets of the rain into the inn, making the man's raincoat whip about him. With some difficulty, he wrestled the door shut against the gale.
The man leaned back against the door, breathing hard, a puddle forming where he stood as the rainwater dripped off his mackintosh.
The inn was empty except for him, only a single smokeless torch burning low in one corner of the lobby, casting long, flickering shadows. Lightning flashed outside, shining through the drawn blinds of the windows, dyeing the inn an electric blue for a short instant. Thunder rumbled shortly afterwards. The deep and low reverberations shaking dust off the rafters. The man threw back his hood, revealing a gaunt face and steel-grey eyes that seemed to lack the spark of life.
With hurried strides, Chusei walked up to the dusty bar and vaulted across the counter. Cobwebs covered the empty alcohol rack behind it indicating the neglect it had suffered. On one side, glasses and goblets lay covered with a thick layer of dust.
Chusei's hands twitched, his habit of wiping glasses, which he had picked up during his short stint as the barkeep, playing up. Ignoring the impulsion, he bent down and opened a cabinet attached below the bar counter. Usually it held spare utensils and on the balmy summer nights, a bucket of salted ice. Now, it too was full of cobwebs, the goblets and flutes reduced to ornate pillars for arachnid architecture.
Plunging his hand into the mess, he felt around at the bottom of the cabinet till he made out a shallow, almost imperceptible, depression. Pressing down on it with his finger, he sent pulses of mana into the wood in a specific pattern. With a clear 'click' a panel rose up, revealing the false bottom. Chusei took out the contents of the secret compartment: a mind crystal shard.
One dark with swirling shadows.
Pumping his mana into the crystal to activate it, he spoke into it. "Lord, they're here."
A distorted voice returned from the other side after a substantial lag. "How many?"
"Two of them. A man and a woman. Both are at Tier 4. The man at the initial stage; the woman at the late stage."
"Good. Ready the formation. I'll come in an hour."
With that the communication cut off. Chusei staggered from the heavy drain on his mana, only keeping himself upright by grabbing the edge of the counter. Shaking his head in a futile attempt at dispelling the dizziness, he forced himself to keep moving.
Walking past the wine rack, he pushed open the door to the cellar.
A rush of musty air assaulted him. Waving it away, and wrapping his mouth and nose in a film of shadow, he walked down the stairs into the darkness. As a shadow mage, the lack of light provided very little hindrance to his footsteps and soon he was at the bottom of the flight of stairs.
Empty crates lay stacked haphazardly and a few drained barrels of liquor occupied one corner of the broad stone cellar. A thick coat of dust covered everything with a liberal sprinkling of cobwebs. The centre of the room, however, was free of any clutter.
There, engraved deeply into the stone floor, was a mysterious design.
Runes. Hundreds of thousands of them intertwined with each other to form the chart. They varied in shape and size – from the huge central rune that could be measured in square metres to tiny runes, several of which could fit on a grain of rice. The only thing common between them in Chusei's inexpert eye was the fact that each of them affected him, making his shadow mana respond in different ways.
Cautiously, he went to work as per his Lord's instructions, activating the runes with his mana in a particular order. Intense dizziness and exhaustion assaulted him making him sway on his feet but he clenched his teeth and insisted, bringing the formation to life. As it absorbed his mana, the formation began to radiate a black halo that grew stronger and stronger the more runes he filled.
Finally, when the last of them had been activated, turning the formation into a seething mass of shadows, Chusei stepped into its centre holding the mind crystal shard. The shadows, attracted by the consanguineous crystal, formed a vortex of darkness that collapsed inwards leaving nothing except for a perfectly smooth, hemispherical crater in the stone floor.
Silence shrouded the desolate cellar.
The stillness was shattered by a crash as a figure emerged from a shadow in one corner of the room; displacing an empty barrel, sending it tumbling. Patting the dust off his lime-green shirt, Nura Rihan, the Lord of the Shogunate, straightened up and cocked his ear in a particular direction. His eyes seemed to pierce all barriers as he locked on to his two targets: A man and a woman floating in the cloud layer, wreathed in blue-violet lightning. The Kirin twins. The cousins of his fourth wife.
It was a rainy night. A moonless night. A perfect night for murder.
Another flash of lightning lit up the inn. Following close on its heels, the muffled thrum of thunder filled the empty cellar - devoid of his form.
"What are we here for, sister?" asked Kirin Ryuugen of his fraternal twin, Kirin Risa, as he floated above the rainclouds that obscured the sky of Patera. His spiky violet hair crackled with blue sparks of electricity and his bare feet touched the clouds, seemingly supporting his weight on the dark mass of condensation. Crystalline blue deer antlers branched up from his temples and an ox-tail swished behind him. A hint of amethyst fish-scales could be made out from beneath the collar of his shirt.
His sister's eyes flashed with purple lightning as she ignored him in favour of concentrating on her spell. Her antlers were a crystalline violet, unbranched and much smaller than her brother's. Scales were visible on the back of her hands and up her forearm. Her flowing blue hair fanned out behind her, undulating in the moist breeze circling her as she reposed upon a seat shaped of clouds.
Rain was unnatural at this time of the year in Patera. Midwinter had only ever brought a dry chilly breeze down on the township built in the caldera of a volcano long dead. But this night, clear starry skies had been overcast by growling thunderclouds within the span of a mere quarter and with a peal of thunder, the curtain of rain had descended.
The torrential rains had caught Patera's residents off guard, drenching their woolen jackets and sweaters thoroughly, sending them scurrying for cover and warmth, shivering.
Kirin – mythical Daemons revered as lords of rain and storm.
Tier 4 ultimate magic: Storm call.
Risa slumped weakly in her seat on the clouds, breathing hard from her exertions. Concerned, Ryuugen took a step towards her. "Are you all right?"
Risa raised her hand, stopping him in his tracks. "Focus brother," she scolded breathily, "I can't sustain this spell for long. It's time for you to work your magic."
"But you haven't told me who I am to search for in this godforsaken place. How am I supposed to find something I have no idea of?" complained the grown man like a petulant child, the lighting on his antlers crackling with greater vigour, mirroring his agitation.
"The Shogun's chief aide, Chusei," replied his sister, finally catching her breath and rising to her feet.
Ryuugen's eyes widened and his mouth fell open. When he finally responded, "What's that fish-eyed bastard doing here?!" he exclaimed.
"Don't ask me!" his sister snapped at him, irately. "That upstart didn't deem me worthy of the few minutes of her time it would have taken to explain. Just because she managed to accrue some merit, she forgets herself." she ranted, the spitting image of her twin a moment ago.
"Ordering me about like some sort of servant! Hmph!"
Rounding on Ryuugen fiercely, she strode up to him. "Now listen here, brother. You will get that scattered attention of yours under control and you will find that man," she said, poking him on his chest to emphasize each word. "And you will do it soon so we can be done with this task and head back home."
She gritted her teeth. "I'll have father tidy that vixen up. See if I don't. That'll teach her to strut about with her nose in the clouds."
Ryuugen held up both his palms in surrender, backing away from her. There was no reasoning with Risa when she was in this kind of mood. The noble blood of the storm-bringers didn't take being slighted lightly.
"Fine, fine… I'll do it. So, calm down, okay. Even if I find him, I won't be enough to take him on. He was at the middle stage of Tier 4 the last I heard, I'm just at the initial stage. Sister, you need to recover your mana first," he placated.
Calming down somewhat at his logical statement, Risa harrumphed and crossed her arms under her chest. "And whose fault is that? I keep telling you to stop fiddling with your sensory Aspect. It doesn't help your battle strength and the time you pour into it is holding back your mana cultivation."
Ryuugen laughed heartily, the sound superposing with the rumble of thunder. "Isn't that what you are there for? Our clan's acknowledged strongest Tier 4 mage and the youngest Tier 4 peak in a century."
He stopped laughing and looked her in the eye sincerely, "My Aspect ensures that we always get sent out together. I find our enemies, you dispose of them. We are a match made in heaven."
Despite her best efforts, Risa couldn't stop the corner of her lip from curving up. Turning her back to him to hide her smile, she sat down and began meditating to speed up the restoration of her mana.
Meanwhile, Ryuugen closed his eyes and spread out his senses. Tiny sparks flickered across his whole body, discharging into the clouds under his feet and spreading outwards. The lively sparks merged and parted, frolicking like a school of fish in clear waters as they overspread the layer of cloud, coercing the natural lighting into becoming their companion. Then, they travelled downwards along with the raindrops, giving the male Kirin a panoramic sense of every single thing covered by the rain.
Every building, every road, every tree, every blade of grass – it all mapped into his mind, forming a model in his mindscape.
Then with a low roar his eyes snapped open, crackling with bright blue electricity.
Tier 4 personal magic: The Eyes of God.
Every man, woman, child and mage in Patera simultaneously suffered from goosebumps as they subconsciously felt a hostile vision sweeping over them. The feeling was fleeting, gone before they could properly address it; leaving them confused.
Every mage, specially every shadow mage, grew extremely alert as a sense of intense crisis covered them for that short moment. Their sharper senses helping them identify the threat much better than the mortals.
Up in the clouds, Ryuugen swayed on his feet as the backlash of the technique hit him.
He had narrowed his search priority to shadow mages but that meant nothing when his technique – unfinished and experimental as it was – returned the information of every single person in Patera, nearly overloading his mind.
Despite the chaotic nature of the data, he had picked up two useful pieces of information.
First, there was only one Tier 4 shadow mage currently residing in Patera.
Secondly, that was the Felidae supervisor that was assigned to the city – not Chusei.
Just as he was about turn around and report his findings to his sister, a soft voice resounded behind him, causing his hairs to stand on end.
"Looking for me?"
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