The screams began just before dawn. Though not unexpected, they still came as a shock. Men and boys grabbed sword, spear, pitchfork, whatever lay at hand and streamed to the south end of the city. Women untrained in combat, young mothers, and their children streamed towards the harbor and the last vestige of hope for escape. Many a woman handed off her children to relatives, neighbors, or total strangers in order to make a stand with her man, hoping that theirs would be the arms that would give the defenseless a chance to reach the ships in the harbor even now making ready.
It was a murky, humid morning, streamers of mist snaking through the streets ahead of the doomed and holding back the fleeing. They seemed to be the ghosts gone before come back to laugh at the folly of those who thought to settle this place for their own so few decades ago. The solemn, scared cerulean faces going to meet the insectile horde that had already taken so much of Akikara Island nevertheless hoped theirs would not be a futile endeavor.
Outnumbered some five to one, the Pai-Lung Peistis shouted their prayers to the Sea Lords as they raced forward, clashing on the shields and armored skin of the Truzlos Khitonans. The insect queens of Truzlos were feeling cramped and it was the citizen of Akikara who would next be their victims as the Khitonans butchered their way through the unprepared, mostly unarmored, and woefully overmatched Peistis. Without mercy, without compassion, and seemingly without any emotion, the men of Pai-Lung saw their dooms unfold before them with horrific swiftness.
It was only as the last few handfuls of martyred defenders were approaching the steadily marching lines of the Khitonan horde, and the sun was dawning on this most damned of days, that their futility was laid bare for all to see. At the northern end of the city, as the last few refugees straggled aboard the ships crowding the harbor, the seamen saw that their profession was not going to see them through this holocaust after all. The rays of the newly dawned sun flashed the just-birthed day into being, reflecting off of the chitinous bodies and metallic rigging and snow white sails of the Truzlos Navy awaiting their part in the tragedy unfolding upon the former inhabitants of the City of the Akikara Clan. Nestled protectively behind the first rank of Truzlos warships were the dreaded Khitonan siege ships, a solid rank of barges featuring catapults and heavy ballistae. As their own doom was recognized, the first wave of solid thunks flew towards the merchant and military ships moored in Akikara harbor. Throwing those who had the capacity to flee into the water, the sailors tried to cut loose and make at least some showing on this, their fatal route.
Woman and children, using the gifts the Sea Lords bestowed upon their sea-faring race, dove beneath the perilous surface in hopes of fleeing both burning home and doomed retreat, the city razed behind them and fleet being engaged before them. As they swam beneath the embracing waters, they saw some few ships break away from the docks and sail for the long, narrow harbor that had the city at its bottom. Even as those few who survived city and fleet to swim saw ship after ship join them beneath the waves, adding to those using the Sea Lords' domain as their final attempt at grasping life.
"Archers!" a high, stridulating voice that managed to be vaguely feminine called out as the last Peisti vessel was damaged. "I don't want any of these sea rats making it to shore! Is that understood?"
"Yes, my queen!" The insectile sailors crowding the deck of the ship scurried about, bringing long bows and crossbows to bear on those Peistis they could see in the water. Normally highly disciplined, the sailors began taking bets on which archer would have the highest kill total and the most accurate shot as Peisti after Peisti screamed out and sank beneath the calm waters of the inlet.
The Khitonan wearing silver and gold gilt armor over her own natural exoskeleton watched with tolerant amusement for several minutes, feeling satisfaction over the plan that laid waste to the soft Peisti masters of this place her Queen sent her to acquire for the Collective. She walked to the bow and clashed her mandibles, the Khitonan equivalent to a frown or grunt of disapproval. More of the city was in flames than she had anticipated and her antennae screamed with the scent of burning merchandise being wasted. She would have to speak firmly with the sub-commander about destroying Collective property during acquisition. Said sub-commander will certainly be recompensing the Collective for excessive damage.
"Helm! Ahead full! I wish to inspect our new acquisition before completing our report to the Queen," she chittered back over her shoulder in the stridulating language of the Khitonans, her lower arms clasping with contentment and her upper arms sheathing her sword. "Oh, and assign sub-Commander Gla'kle Hinisiy to send patrols out to comb the wilderness for any sea rats that managed to escape the fun. Both shores of the inlet. Those gills of their will do none of them any good this day!"
Tears streamed down her pale blue face as she clawed her way to shore with one hand, the other desperately dragging her cousin with her. "Please, Oh Lords of the Sea, please let her be alive!" she pleaded with great wracking sobs, trying to ignore the arrow sticking out of her young kinswoman's chest.
The mangroves were thick with near-sharks and razor bills passive from their glut on her kin and kith. She saw few others reach shore and all were of the same mind: scatter in hopes that some would escape to carry word of the Rape of Akikara City back to the Lord Admirals of the Peistis. Her neighbor's son had patched Liani up as best he could, but he was simply an apprentice with years more study before he would be able to fix an arrow through the chest. Despite their gifted meal courtesy of the Khitonans, the razor bills were following the trail of blood seeping out of Liani in a steady trickle. More blood than she had ever seen somebody lose and survive. Yet the arrow still quivered with her cousin's pulse.
Even as she struggled through the mangroves and deeper into the swampy ground making up the southeastern shore of the inlet, Sakura froze at every strange sound, every odd quieting of the beasts ahead, every movement caught in her panic-stricken, hopeless eyes. It was an unknown and unknowable time later that she realized she no longer heard anything that sounded like the invasion she was fleeing. No ships disgorging chitinous hordes. No cracking of the flames raging through her home. Not even the wash of the sea into the mangroves behind her. She was truly into the thin band of swamp that sat between the mangroves and the hilly mountains that were the spine of the island.
And the reputed home of the "lord" of her cousin's clan. Some protection the mysterious and ageless Akikara had proved to the Clan bearing his name! For one and a half centuries her cousin's clan had marked themselves as the vassals of the Am'mortal Akikara and garnered much fame and wealth for it. So much so that by the time her cousin's great, great, grandmother was born, the original Liani was not known by her husband's clan's name but by her supposed "lord's." Liani's husband grew rich as a builder and architect and his clan benefitted from losing their son and gained an ally clan, the Akikara Clan, as later generations created it. From that clan and its affiliations grew Akikara City, far from the birthplace on a dusty farm of Liani Tai-Fwei, and the House of Akikara.
None ever learned from Liani where she met Akikara or where he lived, but every Peisti and merchant who traveled among the Peistis knew of Liani Akikara and her story. Including the Khitonans. Including the Truzlos Khitonans!
As Sakura dragged her cousin through the muck and slime of the swamp, hoping beyond hope that she was still alive but moving forward mechanically nonetheless, Sakura cursed the insectile Khitonans for killing all of her kin and the damned indifferent Am'mortal who let them do it. For even this far from the city, she seemingly could still smell the dreams of her youth burning along with her home. There was nothing left for her but to keep moving; praying to Gods who were also absent that her cousin Liani still lived when she got to wherever she wound up.
"Th-they did wh-what!!!" exclaimed the heavily tattooed man pacing before a table over flowing with maps and scraps of paper. While he might look like a Peisti officer at first glance, one could see that his skin (under all the tattoos) was a weathered tan color instead of blue and his hair, while flecked with the Peisti white, was truly a silvery gray. He faced the wreck of a man standing across the table from him like a tsunami about to deluge his very existence from the world.
"M-my lord, they razed Akikara City! From what few accounts of how they have been making war on the island, the city has probably been depopulated and any survivors either hunted down and killed or packed onto ships and sent off to the slave market in Truzlos," the captain reported, his blue face almost white and his voice thin with exhaustion.
"Wh-wh ... What of the House of Akikara, Captain Xhiewa? Is there any word that some of them made it out with the first wave of refugees?" the Lord Admiral asked, his tone begging the captain the answer in the affirmative.
Swallowing audibly, the captain shook his head. "The Akikaras have become fiercely proud of their heritage and their lands. They would have been the last to leave, if anyone could leave. That no ships flying their colors have been seen in Lung Da, Pai Sha, Dtung-Yai, or Kojumita since their last distress warning means that they are probably not coming at all. There is still hope a ship might limp into a harbor somewhere, but I would not get your hopes up, my lord," the captain said bluntly, eyes sorrowful and haunted. "I know not why they have done so, but the Truzlos Collective has abjured all standard rules of war this time around. Civilians are not protected, wounded are not protected, priests are not protected, and healers are not protected. If there is a definition of total war, it is what Truzlos has done thus far on Akikara Island. If this is the shape of their plans for the rest of us, there can be no more thoughts of honor when facing them in battle, my lord. I beg of you, use your influence with the Grand Admiral. Get him to see this truth. Before we are all in company with the House of Akikara!"
The plain room of that afternoon was gone. As was the bustle of war and survival. The lord sat before a fire in an opulent study lined with rare books from around the world. A luxuriously crafted desk sat in front of the room's only window that faced the frenetic harbor of Lung Da. Opposite the desk, on the same wall as the room's only door, were yet other works of art. Full length fresco maps of the world to the right of the door and of the Peisti realms on the left. The cartography alone would make them amazing but the colors and iconography with which the artist decided to depict the globe in paint made them unparalleled in the world. Placed around the room were comfortable chairs, divans, couches, and stools able to seat any guest the strange master of this place could hope to have.
And yet here he sat before the fire on a plain wooden bench roughly hewn from a species of tree not seen in millennia. "I see you are punishing your arse again, Pyratus," a strange, non-Peisti voice observed tartly in a language dead long before the Peistis had organized themselves into clans, never mind nation-states.
The lord started and looked over his shoulder. A grim smile stretched his handsome face. "Thank you for coming so promptly, Yakanna. I was not sure you would be home," he answered in the same language.
The other man, a slightly overweight figure of slightly above average height with a medium brown skin tone, brown eyes, and black hair, smiled. "And where else should I be?"
The lord went back to staring at the flames. "Given what has been happening, you should probably be over in the capital city with the Grand Admiral trying to pull my chestnuts out of the fire! Only he does not know he should be roasting them yet!"
A distant glow arose in the guest's eyes and he smiled broadly. "Mmm, chestnuts! Do you have any idea how long it has been since I had a chestnut? Ooo, roasted chestnuts! Even better!"
The lord frowned at his guest and snapped his fingers. "Snap out of it, Yakanna! I brought you here for more than just trips down our infinitely long memories, dammit!"
Yakanna sighed and dragged a plush chair before the fire. "All right, so what is so damned important that I can't reminisce about chestnuts for a few minutes?" he demanded even as his eyes started to glaze again. "You think the Collector has a chestnut tree hidden somewhere in that rummage sale of his? Or maybe-"
"Yakanna, dammit, have you heard what Truzlos did three days ago?"
The guest's eyes sharpened and he brushed his hands down the cerulean silk blouse he wore, his sky blue hose and sapphire leather boots almost making him look Peisti in his pigmentation. Yakanna Vaela, however, had not a scrap of his own hide tattooed, despite generations of Grand Admirals trying to lure him down the inked path the lord had acquiesced into taking. While the lord was truly a naval warrior, Yakanna was a naval brain. A strategist and tactician, and the foremost historian of the Pai-Lung Peisti Navy. An advisor to every Pai-Lung Grand Admiral since his appearance in 1128 ME, Yakanna was smarter than the older Am'mortal lord he still called Pyratus, despite the fact that history had lost his elder's name.
Looking at his old friend for a long, searching moment, Yakanna sighed. "This is not mundane business, is it?"
The lord rose and began pacing before the fire, wringing his hands. "So far? Yes, it is very mundane, if unfathomable," was his cryptic reply, his eyes watching his path intently, as if afraid to stray from it. "Will it remain so? If what has been reported has truly come to pass? I doubt it will remain mundane. I do not know him! He is, after all, a legend even among us! We see him when one of us dies or he has need of something esoteric that he cannot fashion, catch, steal, or kill himself. Hell, I think the last time any of us saw him was over a century ago when the brothers destroyed Dei and the Grey Master was killed."
"You need to give me a better clue than that, Pyratus. There are dozens of us that I only see when we Gather."
The lord turned and gazed strongly into Yakanna's eyes. "But few we hear naught of between, my friend."
Yakanna smiled. "Much better," he said, eyes lighting in challenge. "Hmm. The Wanderer would normally top my list but you saw him two decades ago and I saw him last decade, so he is out. I would then slide down my list to the Raving One but he must either be hungrier or madder than usual because the Pai-Lung reported those mutilated poachers near Kojumita to me right before the war..."
"You are getting closer, literally."
"Akikara?! But nobody hears from him! Not even us! If it weren't for that girl what ... a century and a half ago? ... the Peistis would still be talking about the Wild Man of Yakisiamitsu!"
The lord's face grew grimmer still. "How old are you latest war reports?"
"I got a briefing last week when I came through on my way back to Pai Sha," Yakanna replied with surprise. Then he frowned. "By the way, can you explain how it is you get faster reports here in Lung Da than I do at the capital?"
The lord growled in irritation at his guest's lack of focus. "I have runners stationed between here and the straight. The captains and admirals all know to stop and report there before going on to Pai Sha. The last captain to report did not send a runner. He beached his ship, in time of war, to come himself," he answered repressively, his eyes boring into the younger Am'mortal. "Captain Xhiewa brought me news that the Truzlos have been going across the Island like a pestilence, killing all in their track. Three days ago they had Akikara City in their sights!"
Yakanna gaped at him with dawning horror in his eyes. He closed those brown eyes and whispered, "Please ... please tell me they were stopped by the defenses of the city!"
The lord looked into those anguished brown orbs as they closed, finally seeing comprehension and getting no pleasure out of it. "Akikara City was never built to withstand much more than a raid by Jerimandias and his boys. According to the wasted husk that was Captain Xhiewa, they arrived at the walls at dawn with a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning. The Peistis did what Peistis losing a city always do, they sent the women and children to the ships and the men, boys, and what women will fight all went to their deaths. Not a single prisoner was taken by the Truzlos Khitonans as they swept through the city.
"At the harbor, those fleeing made it into the ships just as dawn broke, revealing the Truzlos Navy with their siege ships lined from shore to shore in the harbor inlet. They destroyed all the ships and then used those who tried to swim for shore as archery practice, betting whilst the 'survivors' were slaughtered. The captain was unsure if there were any survivors, but if there were, chances of getting to them before the Truzlos do are slim. Even slimmer that any of them are of the House of Akikara! Only a trapper on his way back to the city saw what happened from farther up the inlet and escaped to flag down a passing clipper on its way to Akikara."
Yakanna was pale with shock. He shakingly rose and made his way over to the liquor cabinet. After a couple of long drinks straight from the decanter, he turned to face his old friend. "I can see why you are in the state you are in. And I also know what that question behind your eyes is and I really cannot say what he will do if her family has been completely slaughtered by the Truzlos," he said in a quavering voice. Shrugging, he took another pull at the bottle before saying, "You are older than me and, of the two of us, you 'know' him better. As well as any of us 'knows' Akikara the Mad. Is he truly 'mad' or did what the Flame Lord did to our race simply make him withdraw so as to not have to watch any more slaughter, mortal or divine. That he can share an island with the Raving One does not recommend his sanity. But the Peistis have owned that island for two and a half centuries and no tales of missing people, no tales of butchered corpses as there are around Kojumita and the Raving One. But he also never gave his allegiance or protection to anyone until that girl. What was it about her that made him pop up from whatever hole he lives in out in those hills and jungles? And once he marked her, did that carry with it the weight that the Peistis put on the ink that goes on that particular spot. Peistis have died and laid waste to their clans and Houses to avenge slights arising out of those damned tattoos. Will Akikara?"
The lord smiled for the first time since the captain left that afternoon. "You do realize you just regurgitated every question it took me an afternoon's worth of brooding to think of in about five minutes worth of rambling free thought."
Yakanna smiled and shrugged apologetically. "Unfortunately, I have no answers for you. As I said, you are older, by far, than am I. If you cannot answer them, neither can I."
The lord sighed and resumed his seat on the wooden bench, scrubbing his face with his rough hands. He looked up at Yakanna and opened his mouth only to close it and jump to his feet again when the door to his study crashed open.
Standing in the light streaming in from the much brighter hall, face in shadow, was a lithely muscular man with stingy brown hair and skin covered in tattoos. Powerful hands were clenched into talons that one almost expected to seen lethal claws sprout from the fingertips. Harsh, ragged breaths escaped unwillingly from clenched teeth, muscles rippling up the jaw as if he were holding in vituperation or invective that would strike any who heard it dead. The two Am'mortal stood staring at this vision of rage with a spurt of something they did not often feel: fear.
"Did you know what they were going to do?" a coarse, broken voice rasped. "Did you know that those things were going to slaughter them all?!"
Yakanna took two steps forward before the lord clapped a hand on his shoulder to hold him back. The younger man looked over his shoulder and gulped, seeing his own fear in the older man's eyes. "Akikara, I swear neither of us knew what the Truzlos were doing on the island until today! We swear it!" he responded as earnestly as he could, trying and failing to make and hold eye contact with the ancient standing before them.
"Is it certain? The girl's family has been killed? All of them?" the lord asked, stepping up next to Yakanna.
"All," rasped the short reply.
"How do you know? The Captain who brought the news was not positive that there would not be ships carrying survivors showing up yet.
"I know," Akikara the Mad said, his voice devoid of tone or emotion and all the more foreboding for it. Yakanna and the lord waited for more while not truly expecting it.
When I found her she was half dead herself from an infected razor bill bite she never even felt. Something drew me out of the hills and jungle and into the swamps that morning, something that felt like her. None of her generation had come searching for me, like their granddame and her offspring and her offspring's offspring had done. She was never my Liani, for I knew her only a scant few days while she recovered from the sabreclaws. I left her very early in the morning the day I sent her home, knowing she would return to find her Akikara. The Mistress of Pain used to take great pleasure in telling me the latest stories of Liani and her Akikara. The Mistress came to me the first time she got a request to tattoo my sign on one of her descendents. The Mistress thought it funny but also has come to take her art as seriously as do her Peisti children.
I knew Liani would return. And she did every year after until she lost her legs to a fever. That she would live another two decades beyond that surprised me. It surprised me even more when her daughter took up her hunt that year. Liani almost died three times before her legs were taken. Once to another pair of sabreclaws when she was twenty-eight. Once to a criminal fleeing from magistrates when she was thirty-four. And once to a very rabid rieli lynx when she was fifty-one. I killed all of them without her even knowing I was there. She would come every year at the same time in hopes that she could remember the way back to me. She even found me the year of the sabreclaws, funny enough. Or at least found the cave where I healed her. I knew she would eventually and had long since moved. But she still searched every year after that.