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Book 3

Chapter 1

"The Funeral."

 

Their family had suffered over the years, losing Faaria, only to regain her and have their mother stripped away. Mazana, lost that only guiding light, that one member within this unit it felt held affection toward it. Tahira was always far too engrossed in her work. And Rakash, he had become a drunk, abandoning and pushing away this frigid rose. Still, it remained within these empty halls. Clinging to the apparitions of the past, yearning for those simpler days. Its brother and sister were away; one was on business, the other sought vice, leaving the funeral arrangements solely a burden the inquisitor had to bear. Thankfully, the somber yet beautiful ceremony had brought them all together, albeit with heavy hearts and silence. Black, that foreboding color, was adorned heavily this day. The actual scope of their mother's achievements was put on display. Mazana, wept, watching over the headless corpse before sealing the tomb.

 

The three were off, heading toward the family estate to go over Faaria's last will and testament. They were stepping through those doors. Despite its opulence, the abode appeared impoverished. Their mother's stern scoldings, eerily absent, making these walls feel hollow. Three seats, by a table, Mazana and Tahira taking one on each side, leaving the middle one for Rakash. The artificial organism, grabbing an envelope, tearing it open as the hands shook from the gravity of what was truly transpiring.

 

"It's ok. It will read it."

 

Mazana stated with a shaky voice, clearing that throat as it looked upon what was left of its family. Being the eldest, it often took the bulk of the responsibility. The one rock amenable to support them, even if her siblings appeared inclined never to reciprocate the favor. Its life, spent in service of others, with the hopes that her selfless deeds might spark a positive change. Not just beyond these doors but proportionately within its icy heart. Lamentably, the universe didn't function in such a fashion. Notwithstanding the life it led, only desolation was bequeathed as compensation. Conceivably, maybe this abomination had yet to balance the scales. Its very existence is a mockery, resulting in an irregularity within the balance of their world. Ergo, while admittedly dismal, this epiphany soundness was not so effortlessly refuted. The lampoon to creation couldn't adjust the balance and hypothesized such an endeavor could only be perpetually met with failure.

"Umm, I will begin...To my two children," it paused, considering this may have been written before Tahira's natural birthing? "To my two children, I leave my estates and all worldly attainments. To Rakash, my favored son, I bestow the Nirvana assets and those of crystal town. I know you have a darkness in you, and while you might doubt your worth. Know this; you were my greatest treasure. I pray that you find joy in this world and know that your mother will always be watching over you."

 

Tahira and Mazana placed their hand on the rodent's shoulder, rocking him back and forth to provide comfort. The wintry monk, feeling closure, knowing that their parent did indeed see her brother for the treasure he was. Tahira, snatching the papers playfully, grinning, playing a game with Mazana as per usual.

 

"I get it; this doesn't include me. While outdated, I will honor whatever mother's wishes were. I don't care what she had to say anyways..."

 

The silver-haired elf chuckled before reclining back and continuing where Mazana stopped. "To my one and only daughter..." A long pause this time, as the teal orbs scanned the parchment in disbelief. "Eh, who cares about some document, right?" The monster slayer sought to slip the paper away, only to have Mazana rip it free.

 

"Your reflexes have slowed little sister!"

 

"Mazana, don't!"

 

"To my one and only daughter, Tahira," The heart sank, its drumming desisted as the color flushed from the skin. Notwithstanding this fear, the frigid rose found itself compelled to continue.

 

"I leave Emerald city and fungal forest. You were the one good thing my body produced. And, while I may no longer be among you, know that I never harbored resentment toward you. To Mazana, I have cared for you out of an obligation. Your face, reminding me of my sin, your twisted body, is an indignity to my legacy. To you, I leave nothing. You have served this house well, and thusly, I release you from your duties. My greatest regret was never exposing my disgust toward you while alive. You once asked me for the truth, so here it is. You were created to be a weapon, to protect the others, an antiquated model that I only didn't dispose of due to the others. You once asked me, were you alive? I have gazed into each of my children's eyes, yet, when I looked into yours, I saw nothing, felt nothing. Aquaria, his genes were contaminated, yet, I failed to calculate how much damage the Eldritch hordes taint had on the cells. Comm Orra had shown me that you are a liability. And, if you love your siblings, you'll leave and never come back. As you are eternally marked. A blight, a scourge that will rot anything it touches."

That rodent's words, while to some might seem sentimental, to Mazana they were laced with poison. Those wintry eyes swelled with the bitter strength of a polar gale. Wrath, an emotion seldom savored, had manifested itself as cathodic. Those hands were balling into a fist, shaking, as the gentle murmurs of the leather disturbance might grace one's ears. Long ago, this thing might have longed for her sibling's affection. However, his actions had spoiled such a prospect. No, the prodigal son, the rat that could do no wrong, was bequeathed a long leash. Family, that one thread suturing its life, had fully unraveled. Some semblance of clarity finally bestowed upon the abominations frostbitten soul. Comm'Orra, for all his deceptions, uttered at least one single truth. That, no matter its travails, even if the monk should whittle its fingers to the marrow, in the end, Mazana would find no recompense.

 

This world, its surface, was perpetually glazed in a sheet of permafrost. The people's hearts, encapsulated within an impenetrable glacier. And no matter the ardor and warmth, this weapons "soul" would fail to thaw out any sense of compassion. Even now, Rakash's little spectacle was fueled by a singular notion, selfishness. Mazana's anguish, the comedy that is its existence, is merely a pawn dragged across the board to facilitate its brother's delusions. Hunter had spurned this tool. Faaria had never cherished it, but, worse of all, Rakash toyed with it. Tahira, the last remaining member of this dysfunctional unit, persisted as an enigma undeserving of its efforts. Even if that Mer manifested appreciation, it would be tainted by the awareness that Mazana was a cold product, a relic discarded for this new, improved heiress.

 

It could scream, it could chide the vermin it once knew as a brother. Chastise this self-indulgent dipsomaniac who had bartered his sister for liquor. Yet, in the end, what purpose would this serve? Mazana had seen enough, endured enough, and for the first time, understood what needed to be done. The legs of those chairs screeched against the floor as wordlessly, the inquisitor rose. The body language, that chilled gaze spoke volumes. It left, leaving the two alone, with nothing but the echo of those heels to address its cognizance. It had killed many, endured hardships surpassing descriptions, all in the name of "family."

 

Famly, ironic, the biggest swindle that tormented its permanence. The door slamming shut while the introspective induced organism departed far from the carcass of what could have been. It stood on top of a large wall; those honeyed eyes surveyed the expanse, beholding the pinkish light from those setting binary suns. A lonesome tear, moving down the cheeks before becoming solidified by the coldness of its flesh. It recalled, exiting that incarceration, shattering the chains of its grandfather. Gazing upon these very same sols, within a comparable spot, childishly contemplating that together Rakash and it could inspire a better tomorrow.

That reproduction of a heart unfurled, yet, rather than water it; her brother stomped and bent the stem. The rime that is despondency, while thawing lightly, had never truly dissolved. The frost is unendingly kissing and defacing the exterior, spreading putrefaction. Seasons may change for most. However, ostensibly, Mazana appeared eternally confined within winter. A rose scorned, tucked from the perceptions of the world, concealed under a sheet of ice.

 

"I-it's perfect..."

 

Those words from before deviated from quivering lips. Mazana strode forward, gazing down at the rock at the bottom of the cities exterior walls. A hefty sigh, expanding the nostrils, while with a jittery hand, the lampoon tore one patch from the shoulders, followed by the other. Each was a symbol of prior service, its time under the yoke of two nations, each undeserving of the sacrifices it made. That gentle breeze to most carried warmth and succor but, to this Djinn, offered no respite. As no amount of heat could bring warmth to what is already dead. Grudgingly, it let them free from its grip, glancing athwart the horizon as both patches were blown into the distance. Mazana Quil'Kovesh had wilted long ago. What prevailed was the echo of what could have been. Two guards, patrolling this wall, stopped their movements as they looked upon that lone figure.

 

"Hey! Who goes there!" Mazana said nothing, that unwillingness to retort irking the two soldiers. Angrily, they marched; the clamoring of their armor while betraying their advancements didn't motivate an outward acknowledgment from the frigid rose.

 

"Hey! Are you deaf?" The rose no one cared to esteem had heard them, pondering how to answer a professedly innocuous inquest. Who and what, the two things it never knew and the fiction it embraced, seemed no longer relevant. Those roots were ripped from the soil. It now gradually shriveled under the bite of this bitter world.

 

"I-I am nothing. Mazana, of nothing." It turned around, walking off, exiting the city as the guards looked bewildered. Eventually, she vanished, to expire as it lived, alone.

What in Comm'Orra's name was that bimbo thinking? Even if she felt this way, why couldn't Faaria have taken such disdain to the grave? What beetle shit, the only thing their parent cared for was herself. All that so-called esteem she sent this exterminators way was wasted breath. As if a letter could make up for the murder of Feyre! However, all such wrath would find itself quelled as Rakash felt compelled to speculate. Those arcane embued eyes drifted toward her brother as he spilled forth his heart. And while Tahira loathed their mother, even she wouldn't be as absurd as to refute that bitches love for the vermin. A deadpan expression plastering itself on that birthmark marred face. How she wanted to bonk this jabbering oaf on the back of his head but refrained, thinking violence wouldn't for once remedy a situation. The disturbance of that chair dragging, veering her glare, as the mer spectated Mazana's apparent distress.

 

The inquisitor anticipated her sibling to chastise Rakash but was even more disturbed by the silence. The monk excused herself, albeit without a word, while Tahira was left astounded.  The door slamming shut, prompting the rat to spring from his seat and totter down the hallway. Tahira, rolling those eyes, grunting as she rose to those feet and gave chase after him. How the voyager wished to lie, tell the distraught Rakata that everything would be alright. Nonetheless, she couldn't. No, before Mazana left, Tahira had a good long look into those chilled orbs, and what she witnessed rivaled that of men dying on the battlefield. The two, standing outside, as vainly Rakash shrieked across the city.

 

"Shutup. Are you retarded? Do you not understand why she hurts? Do you know, when I was young, Mazana always spoke about how you saved her? She called you her guiding star. Mother rejected her, the world might have failed to appreciate her, but in Mazana's eyes, you were the one thing she could hold onto. And, when she needed you the most, you turned it all about you. Mother never resented you; you were her favorite. Do you think that she kept you as some trophy? Imbecile! She gave you a compass, gave you her blessing to see the world, and that stupid blunderbuss! What moron lets their prized possession free? Does Mazana have such a trinket? No, she got shit!"

 

Tahira was enraged, balling that gloved hand into a fist before spitting to the side.

 

"You will stay here. I am going after Mazana! I will bring her home, and maybe by then, you will be sober enough to have an iota of introspection, you fucking moron! Try not to drink yourself into a coma while I am gone. If you two assholes could endure whatever the hell happened in that elven ruin, you can work through this shit! She's my sister too, and I will be damned if I am going to let some pretentious cunt ruin us from beyond the grave! Now, I need to get my girlfriend and head out into the desert."

 

Tahira, kicked open that manor door, rushing to Faaria's study. When she was young, she recalled seeing where she tucked that damnable black book. Ripping the draw free, she snatched it before once more stomping past Rakash.

"Clean up the house! Mazana should return to some semblance of order!"

 

The slayer shouted before running into a full sprint toward their centipede mobile home. With this list of contemptible secrets, unquestionably, Tahira could uncover that facility their sister was born. If she knew Mazana, she'd seek solace by braving the past.

 

"Chatana! We are fucking leaving! Drive, I need to do research!"

 

While rude, it was clear the mer wasn't in the best of moods. That something besides a funeral had unfolded this day. The centipede, scurrying off as the two exited the town. Meanwhile, the samurai poured over that tiny booklet, praying to find something to lead her to her sister...

Book 3

Chapter 2

"The Debriefing."

 

Her time searching for Mazana had borne no fruit. It did, however, usher with it a sullen epiphany concerning the realm. That being the land never flowed with milk or honey. Each day was filled with strife; the sands were a cruel mistress. Its cascading knolls and arid climate forced the denizens' to prevail or die by the sweat of their brow. Whether a commoner or a prince, only those who languished through the wasteland's drought, heat, and uncertainties may find a home in these lands, these badlands were devoid of manners, laws, and ranks. There was no justice in these parts, and while those within Nirvana might fancy their titles and festivals, those nested beyond those walls couldn't dispute this revelation. Those teal eyes had observed the horrors of the collapse, the bitterness and immoral inclinations of those she once swore to protect. Bandits ravaged the region, garrotting the carcasses of their victims within the towering fungi as a simple proclamation that any voyager roaming beyond this point was subservient toward their iniquity.

 

The wheels of her cart turned, being hauled by a centipede as the serpentine road stretched ahead. That elongated insectoid shuffled its limbs while it kicked up a thin haze of particles. Those blistering binary suns loomed aloft, casting forth merciless rays. One ransacked abode after another laid scattered forth on this dreary trek. Those that were smart took their own lives, while others ventured to see through this dreary period. The scurrying of necrophages in the distance unveiled a heartless anecdote. That notwithstanding their resolution to live, the world had characterized them as inept.

The scarce toadstools and their umbrella cap bequeathed shade, conferring brief respite from the heat. But much like peace, this illusion wouldn't tarry for long. An ash storm formed near the horizon while sparks of lighting thrashed about within that fog. They weren't far from their destination, and with any luck, they might elude the impending storm. Their mobile home strode ahead. The vociferation of their transport warding off the corpse eaters as they ogled from on high. Hungrily anticipating their bodies to join the sea of decay they had pushed through. However, despite such a grisly journey, the mer took solace that thus far, both Chatana and her still drew breath. Clearing a bend, the stacked slab homes of Ashtown sneaked into view. The residents were always a vigorous lot, enduring the spurn of proceeding empires had outfitted them with the determination and expertise to persevere.

 

Horns trumpeted in the distance while the militiamen were perched on top of the makeshift exterior walls while preparing their caster arms. Their kerfuffle resounded across the expanse, inspiring the pale elf to raise the banners of the Eternal House

 

. "Stay calm. Our job hasn't changed. We are still slaying monsters, albeit they might now be wearing the skin of men."

 

The agent wasn't the best at providing comfort; however, she refrained from uttering fabrications. Within those arcane-tinged lanterns, it was best to know the unsettling actuality of a situation than to nurse on the knocker of self-deception Their objective wasn't this hamlet, no, that lurked within the mountains just off into the distance. This diversion was carried out with the sole task of rallying other servants. Whatever this research facility housed had to be valuable to warrant so many hands. Their dwelling moved beyond the opened gate.

That symbol of authority had thus far repelled any malicious behaviors. However, Tahira recognized that such a symbol cut both ways. Others might be intimidated, while a few might see this as an opportunity to exact retaliation. Their cart was coming to an abrupt halt as the centipede whiffed out some air making a whistling sound from those pincered mandibles. Cooly, the inquisitor dismounted, stretching those feet before leaning against the lumber siding of their quaint nest. Those arms were folding under her bosom while those feline pupils surveyed the bazaar. There were few shops opened, numerous homes appeared forsaken, which signified that many fled in the hopes of securing asylum elsewhere. She weighed how many of those corpses on that road were associated with such fools?


"Rise and shine! I advise eating while you can. Also, be a doll and prepare some face shieldings. Even if that ash storm hits us, we will be heading out into the wilderness. If nothing else, that means we can wrap up this assignment so we can get back on the trail to find my sister." Tahira shrugged, grunting softly as those wits remained fixated on their surroundings. "If that horn, our cart, and those banners don't convey the message to the others, then we are better off going it alone. Otherwise, they'd be a liability."

 

That skin was paler than usual, while those blue veins beneath the eyes stood out more profoundly. A not so elusive hint that her condition took its toll. And Tahira was far too prideful to declare otherwise. The mer was far too preoccupied looking after her lover that she often failed to keep track of her health. A subject of contention, but one that revealed how much Chatana sincerely cared for the exterminator.

As an inquisitor, Tahira wasn't fond of being followed. The only thing staying any acts of aggression was the fact that this horned man was likely of the Eternal House. Those eyes drifted toward Abbas as he made his approach. The stalker's shortage of an introduction didn't bode well. Wordlessly, the mer cast preliminary judgment, analyzing his form in the effort to cull some information pertaining to his proficiency or identity. Considering his identity eluded her apprehension indicated that if he was of the same faction, this tiefling must have been of lesser rank or distinction. This internal schism would yet to manifest itself; Abbas presented some clemency due to the racket of other's advancement. Those arcane-tinged orbs of blue topaz wandered to the origin of that disturbance, noting the two men's unmistakable uniform. One was another elf, the other, a varenkun.

 

Tahira was the first nonkitsune to have undergone their training, her heart content to see others had accepted the calling and mantled that obligation. If they had merited their position, it seemed inconceivable the duo would substantiate themselves as a noose around her neck. The exterminator abided in muteness, hearkening to Sugekei as he so appropriately spouted off their rulers' long and illustrious appellations. The vampire quickly deduced what manner of man the dark-skinned fellow was, having quite the history with his sort of people. Warriors, bound by their principles to the point it may yet exhibit itself as a weakness. The hare, Qadan, complimented his comrade while presenting himself in a differing light.

The agent pushed herself from off her mobile dwellings siding, caressing that centipede's carapace before meeting their gesture with identical fervor. Unlike Abbas or the other two men, this pastel mer was in a distinct advantage; she had walked both paths virtuously. Her youthful days were spent stalking these arid badlands and beyond with her master Matsumota, while her contemporary ones were invested as the sword of Samara.

 

"Tahira Quil'Kovesh, the albino wolf. A former apprentice of Matsumota and seasoned inquisitor of the Eternal house."

 

Once such pleasantries had been exchanged, the tall mer returned to her standing position, those eyes glancing toward the welkin as if striving to appraise whether or not the subsequent ash storm would strike or pass them by.

 

"There is another in my cart, Chatana. She is occupied guaranteeing we have the customary protection should we discover ourselves caught up in the looming storm. We have some time. I advise stocking up on any supplies or if somehow the information wasn't imparted given how logistics love to be vague about pertinent information for us field agents. If you are ready, I will begin going over the plan. If not, gather what you need but do not dawdle too long. I haven't all day to lounge around waiting."

If nothing else, Abbas appeared a man of few words. Knowing when to speak and when to hold one's tongue was a mark of wisdom. Tahira couldn't care less about Sukegei and his goading; she was far too weathered to be influenced by such antics. For 'neath that visible veneer of disdain slumbered an iota of respect. The need to evaluate oneself, while commendable, would only persist as such as long as it refrained from hampering the mission. Notwithstanding their allegiances, one thing remained undeniably true: they were confederates for the moment. And the towering mer could take solace from this fact. Still, his attempt to elicit an acknowledgment would only be matched with a deadpan stare as those glacial eyes assessed the samurais. The necromancer had thus far been ignored, an appearance of charity that wouldn't endure everlastingly. No, while she bore that uniform, her behaviors reflected on the inquisitors and the eternal house by proxy.

 

That infernal voice from her Qareen echoed within that mind, chuckling as it could sense the building ire. Tahira had come to tolerate the parasite. She was observing him as neither a colleague nor an adversary, merely a passenger of sorts. This viewpoint did little to quell the tawny entity's agitations, inspiring him to let out a grunt. For now, those arcane orbs would refrain from gawking at her shadow, drawing on her military discipline to veer those feline pupils onto Niazmina.

"Sorry? Not yet. Your verbal lashing can wait. This mission takes precedence."

 

A commitment, the vampire was nothing if not faithful to her word. Next to Sukegei, the varenkun seemed far more amendable. While his partner may have insulted her queen, he had thus far restrained from participating. The other inquisitors could sling virulent retorts if they so fancied, Tahira had to prepare for the debriefing. The mer was sighing as she took out a map from her bosom, settling it against the wall for all to behold. That Djinn chuckling, somehow taking amusement in the fact his host had been given charge over such a pitiable lot.

 

"My, my! It looks like they may listen? Tell me, Tahira, does the burden of responsibility weigh on you? Do you feel culpable for those that have fallen under your supervision? What about the innocents deprived of a future at that port town? Indeed you should take some accountability for their passing, given it was you who led the initial offensive?"

 

The shadow entity vocalized within her mind, dancing about as if trying to snatch her attention. Thankfully, the others wouldn't be able to witness this shameful performance. And, lest her wandering eye provided illumination, she'd keep those aquamarine lanterns focused on the map.

"We are here, Ashtown. To the east, nestled within the mountains, lurks a research facility. Whatever they were working on had received enough capital to warrant Queen Samara's outrage at their silence. For now, we are to operate under the assumption that their quietness is due to the recent upheaval. Our mission is simple, investigate why they haven't sent word, assemble any relevant research that was superintended by the recently departed Faaria. And escort any high-valued personal back toward Nirvana for questioning. If they should verify themselves as hostile, our mission will change to an extermination, with the procuring of any documents and securing a few prisoners as the new priority. Given the distance, we should reach that facility by midday. And yes, we will march through the storm if it should pass overhead. I trust no one here is allergic to a bit of sand?" The Qareen laughed, leaning forward as it whispered into his anchor's ear.

 

"Look at you being all professional. So, it seems mommy dearest was in charge of this lab? I do hope this doesn't unearth some family squabbles. Tell me, are you glad she's dead?" Tahira, continued to ignore him, turning around to face the group, bestowing them ample time to survey the map and prepare any questions. "Queen Samara had entrusted Lady Faaria and Lady Secret with such matters. She sends her sincerest apologies for being unable to relay more information." A gentle way of putting it, given the crimson menace, was seldom so considerate toward the inane viewpoints of others.

 

"Any questions? And Niazmina, for being late, I am assigning you to drag back anything we should find. Who knows, maybe the sweat of your brow and a sore back will motivate you to be on time."

The discrepancy between her fellow agents was notable. One favored abiding within muteness, while the other harbored no scruples concerning scourging forth her rasping tongue. Whether they knew it or not, both her subordinates were being evaluated this day. This operation was of the utmost importance, and what a more reliable way to divide the fit from the slothful than through the bellows of tribulations? Tahira wasn't at all annoyed with the Devante's; she anticipated minor friction. The exterminator of the state wouldn't endorse even this Sukegei the opening to erode their cohesion. This union, while unconventional, might linger onward as a precedent for prospective partnerships. And, while the samurai was within his scope and power to assess, so was this vampire. The elven interloper might have envisioned himself as some dignified figure, but within those calculating orbs, he was a boy. Those muscles may have been honed. His sword conceivably drew blood before today, yet that speech and his attitude didn't reflect that of a savant of death. Tahira surmised he was no true practitioner, just a testosterone-infused heap of meat perilously clawing at the opening to vindicate his worth.

 

His comrade Qadan was far more tempered and thus immensely more appealing by contrast. For the moment, she'd tolerate his ruse, permitting the oaf to dig his grave for her. Standing without waiver, Tahira hearkened to their inquests. She was conferring respect that had partially authenticated itself as anything but reciprocal. Men, ugh. How she loathed their need to pull out their cocks in some primeval ceremony to prove dominance. At least Abbas knew when to bite his tongue, and Niazmina treasured the commodity of humility. Meekness, however, was absent within Sukegei's cognizance. Thankfully, Qadan had at least an iota of perspicacity, noticeable by how he endeavored to appease the donkey he was obligated to follow. Those polar and verdurous lanterns swerved toward Niazmina, analyzing her with little consideration for subterfuge.

 

"Next time I give you an order, the only thing I want to escape from that fat mouth of yours is yes ma'am. If I wanted a song, I'd pay a bard. If I cared for a story, I'd read a book. And since I don't see a lute in your hand, nor a stack of volumes. I am going to assume you are neither a writer nor a musician. Do I make myself clear?"

The life of an inquisitor wasn't an easy one. Life on the road was taxing; the sacrifices they endured seldom annotated within the pages of history. In truth, they were martyrs—a revenant who subsist to live and die in silence. The only thing keeping the rapacious maws of oblivion at bay during their voyages was the discipline they were fashioned to shoulder. While her tone and selection in words might appear stiff, they were in truth presented in the effort to preserve this lady's existence. Now that Tahira had put her house in order, it seemed an appropriate enough moment to mitigate the hounds of Matsumota's concerns. But not before glancing over at the cart, apprehending the stomping of her wife within the abode. What by the elder's names was Chatana up to? Was she slaughtering the livestock and tanning their hide for a face shielding?

 

"It seems I was overly charitable in my assumptions. Forgive me. I had presumed you both would have known that such an operation by its very nature was to remain concealed? But, in case there is a mite of doubt in your mind, yes, you are not authorized to divulge anything pertaining to this joint mission, now onto the settlement. I am not your benefactor, nor did I write up your agreement—Thats something you'll need to take up with the powers that be. I am here for a single purpose. To ensure the mission succeeds and that none of you needlessly fall on your sword or something. It's why I have the map."

 

Speaking of which, Tahira would roll up that map once more, attaching it to her belt while those arcane imbued jewels scanned the town. The people, their faces filled with despair. Innocents swept along the maelstrom of chaos, and while some of them were blamable for the fall of their world, others were lacking culpability. It was then that a much-needed change in scenery poked itself free from a window. The vampire, detecting her spouse's voice, peered over at that gorgeous face. Her heart skipping a beat, devising Tahira to deliberate what she did to warrant such a suitable companion? What was it those sunflower-hued eyes beheld that enticed her to nest within this ailing wayfarer's bed? Oh, how she'd adore to boot in that door and attend to Chatana's demands. It was with a troubled heart that the head shook, gesturing "negative" as a rejoinder. Only to raise that hand and present a solitary finger as if to convey "one minute." It was indeed time; the inquisitor had waited long enough. And with the prevailing opening and stillness, she'd be a fool not to reprimand Sukegei.

"After I discuss things with my partner, we will depart. Sukegei, wasn't it?" Sorry, I have a habit of forgetting minor details." Those lips curved into a grin, Tahira tilting her head to the side his way while those feline pupils fastened onto the samurai.

 

"Indeed, while you were off hunkering within the canyon. We were out offering our lives to postpone the inevitable. Before you started your tutelage, I held the line. When you took your first steps, I stood within a valley of carcasses. While you swung that sword at dummies and sparring partners, I gutted insurrectionist. While you stared into the orbs of your favored wench, I witnessed the light fade from brothers and sisters' eyes. When you lay your head down at night and sleep, your worst nightmares are blissful dreams compared to the horrors I faced. How hard was it to take your first life? Did they fight back? Could they fight back? I have seen things, monstrosities that your fresh mind would fail to imagine."

 

Tahira turned her back, moving around the cart before beating the dirt free from her sandals. The hand reaching for the handle only to pause, gradually the tall mer leaned and peeped from the side at the obstructive child.

 

"One last thing, mock my Queen again, and I will see to it that those balls drooping between your legs are freed...permanently. Trust me. You don't need a cock to fight. You might find it liberating. Visualize not having that vulnerability or being weighed down by such a sack? Do I make myself clear, boy?"

With that being said, Tahira would belatedly force the door open, hunching down as she squeezed beyond that threshold only to secure the wooden barrier behind her. Those eyes were widening as the inquisitor visibly and audibly gulped. A faint glow, an all too familiar spectacle within this eccentric abode, resided athwart her modelesque appearance. H-here? Now? Was her wife's craving for lewdness that insatiable? It took a second for the vampire to piece it together, sighing from relief, given her back was still marred by last night's joining.

 

Those pearly fangs were exposed, plunging themselves into the neck as voraciously the starving mer ravenously surfeited herself on that blood. Belated moans of gratitude, while muffled, exited that gullet as those hands returned Chatana's torture. Those dutiful yet nimble fingers were grazing the sides of her feminine gates through that cloth. Eventually, she'd cease her feeding and toying of the vessel, only for those feline ears to be graced with an audible pop of release. Tahira would slap her breasts lightly, only to rise and stretch with her rear facing her wife as she strolled those eyes toward the window near the rider's booth. 

"You are all I have. Why would I ever turn you away? Sorry for leaving you alone in bed; I wanted nothing more than to arouse you more creatively from that stupor. However, my obligations sometimes do not permit such luxuries. When this is done, I wish to head back to Nirvana and see my brother. I need to inform him of my wasted searches and apologize for yelling at him. Rakash may be dumb, but he's family all the same. Love, thank you for breakfast. But I need to show myself less the children get angsty. When you are ready, join me and bring those masks, we may need them."

 

Tahira slapped her own rear cheeks before strutting to the window, that gloved hand sliding it open. Tahira teased before crawling out the window and settling herself onto that rider's bench. Those armored hands seizing the reins as her arcane-tinged eyes looked about taking in the others.

 

"We are leaving! You can either hop into the cart or follow alongside it. Please do not break anything, or I will split your body. If you have to piss, do it now. Along with any last-minute needs, once these wheels start turning, they will not stop until we reach that destination."

 

Tahira added, annoyedly, not at them but the fact, her body, still panged for more. Having her hunger satiated, but that sexual thirst, in turn, had been provoked, yet not quenched due to her lover's cruelty. Whatever they decided mattered little, as the centipede obeyed its mistress and started shuffling those legs a minute afterward, dragging the party onward throughout the town.

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Book 3

Chapter 3

"The Worms."

 

She had embraced muteness, that analytical mind applying the scientific lens to gauge this party. While Tahira admittedly had sparse details, the mission had to be foreboding given the force that was dispatched. What was it Queen Samara anticipated? What sort of wicked secrets remained buried behind those soulless walls of metal? The vampire pitied them, the Devante's and her fellow inquisitors. Thus far, her time under the eternal house's banner had been riddled with strife and misery. Nonetheless, she had managed to bear it all with a stoic expression. 

During the darkest hours of twilight, when all light appeared to be snuffed from this world. The mer often retreated to the words Mazana had often relayed. "You have two strong legs, use them to keep marching forward." There, within her thoughts, she elicited solace from the resurfacing of memories. Rakash, her brother, for all his faults, had been the one sibling to induce a simper on an otherwise still grimace. Tahira missed her family. Ironic, given when they were once whole, she childishly pushed them away. But, the older the agent became, the more she depended on others. 

The lone wolf, the unadulterated introvert, was a myth. All beings, no matter their race, required some fellowship to endure this bitter reality. Those blue and green eyes, looking back through the window, watching Chatana closely with a grin. No matter what awaited them on this crusade. Tahira could take comfort in knowing her partner would stand by her side through it all. This wholesome moment wouldn't persist. All good things must eventually come to an end. 

The hare, Qadan, had decided to whet his tongue. The soldier was flinging verbal excrement her way. Tahira, for all her posturing, found this offense to be arduous to swallow. Did he presume their love to be solely stoked by carnal hankerings? How appalling, as if this elf would stoop so low as to offer her body and soul for turpitude alone. There was no shame in lovers accepting one another's embrace. Such lascivious manifestations of love within those arcane-tinged lanterns were the belfry of life.

If the varenkun panged to evoke virulence, he'd find himself disappointed.  There was no wrath within those eyes. No anger was expressed in her body language. Tahira sympathized with him. To be so lonely and aloof that the unsullied exhibition of love could be surmised so barbarously.  Something both him and Sukegei seemed to share, an utter lack of fulfillment or purpose outside of their work. And while she could have cast judgment, Tahira abstained from doing so. For not so long ago, she too meandered down a comparable road.

"I will beseech the elders so that one day you might savor the love I know. Qadan, this is your only warning. Do not besmear my spouse nor our love lest I be forced to terminate you. There is nothing debauched that a wife can do with her partner. And Sukegei, your previous lovers lied to you when they said size doesn't matter...""

Tahira gazed down at Sukegei, the dark-skinned soldier keeping close as the wheels of the cart continued their turning. The caravan, exiting the sanctuary of the town. The landscape was an expanse of bleached dunes, with the most solitary of fungi to present shade from those binary suns. Whatever relief they rendered wouldn't persist, as their march wouldn't halt for anyone or anything. The wind, flogging across the scene, kicking up particles of sand to pelt their skin. Those dusky clouds inching ever closer, as at the horizon, the jagged crowns of the mountain range peaked over the border. One didn't need to be a meteorologist to deduce that the storm was impending, and they'd find themselves caught within its tumultuous zephyrs.

The crackling of lightning resounded while the flickering of illumination danced within that rearward clouds. The imprints they left were quickly blown away, buried, almost as if they had never trekked across this wilderness. The desert was sterile, devoid of any life. The region was an utter vacuum—an area deprived of even the cry of a vulture. Let alone the scurrying of an ash cricket to stimulate one's senses. Tahira knew this feeling; she had encountered it before. That stillness, the calm before a frightful storm. Animals, while lacking intelligence, had enough wisdom to seek asylum when such natural forces were on their way.

"Chatana! The masks!" 

She cried, the ground quivering as bolts of fulmination struck the distance behind them. While from the sea of grains, giant worms rose to court one another. Their scattered croons were otherwordly, made all the more terrifying by how viciously their bodies collided against the earth. They emerged from the sands like dolphins, reaching toward the firmaments like wiggling fingers, only to succumb to gravity spell. The ionization, so strong one's tongue can taste the molecules. This wasn't your typical storm. No, this was one that emerged every decade.

The worms besieged them in the distance, meaning no matter what path Tahira took them, they'd have to face them. Retreating would mean death. Moving forward meant strolling through the sandworms orgy and the turmoil of nature. But, if they could reach the facility, they could seek security within those artificial walls carved into the mountain. 

"Prepare yourselves! We will have to move through them! The facility! It's the only shelter!"

The mer was unsure if her voice could be heard, given the clamor produced by the increasing frequency of lightning strikes. The atmosphere above was darkened, the wind whistled. A haze of particles like a fog had already begun to limit their visibility. Time, was a luxury they didn't have... 

Now was not the moment to play the role of the chivalrous warrior. What the hell was Sukegei doing? Did that dimwitted elf not realize their plight? Had the harrowing extent of their predicament somehow eluded his perceptions? Whatever, if they died, she'd push the onus of blame on him, given this delay diminished their window for escape. The winds bawled, the bellowing cries of nature made their voices hard to hear. Tahira tried her best to listen, making out bits and pieces of their cries, yet could not piece it all together.

 

Those remarkable eyes, her best hallmark, veered toward Chatana. That insatiable little minx sitting by her side only reinforced the vampire's resolve. Somehow, no matter what, they'd pull through this. For there was nothing this world could hurl their way that could rattle their bond. A final smile stretched across her face just before the inquisitor shielded it by securing that face mask. This fabric, its use wasn't negotiable. To carry on without it meant risking suffocating on one's fluids. Asphyxiation wasn't the way she envisioned herself going.

 

Sukegei, the reasoning behind this slight delay, had tardily returned. Despite being deaf due to the vociferation of the storm, Tahira could feel their eyes locking upon her for guidance. The lightning crackled as the haze of kicked-up sand thickened. Tahira narrowed those eyes as she held the reigns and encouraged her centipede to move onward. Its legs were shuffling, leaving imprints that vanished as quickly as they had formed. Its elongated body wiggled with its stride as it charged full speed ahead as a sequence of flashes ignited across the storm's influence.

 

Specks of sands were turned to glass, flying across the scene, thankfully not toward the party. The vampire glanced to the right, witnessing a worm moving alongside them. Ahead was an alpha, letting out its eerie song. The worm rose from the dunes, colliding with it, as their bodies lifted and whipped across the scene. Tahira veered to the left, while the end of one of their bodies scarcely missed the cart. The foundations of the world kept trembling as all around them; these behemoths wrestled and laid waste to the surrounding region. A mouth opened, drawing in the sand ahead of the party into its ravenous gaped gullet of spiraling fangs. At the same time, the dueling pair flogged behind them dangerously close.

 

Tahira knew fear; she experienced every fiber of her body working in tangent to keep those wits about her. Relentlessly tugging and whipping on the centipede as she moved ahead regardless of the peril. The mer grunted, cursing as she leaned to the right, skirting and riding along the outer rim on that whirlpool of grains. As long as they hugged it, they'd have enough momentum not to be pulled inward. Clearing this hurdle, the centipede would bounce. Ahead of them resided a passageway of jagged earthen walls on the left and right with an opened top. They pushed through, the mount barely squeezing through.

 

The worms were sliding overhead, rolling about as they latched onto their mates. Sections of rock falling downward, but as long as they kept a low profile while riding, she'd figured they would be ok. Tahira had no time to worry about the others; either they were alive or were dead. Regardless, they'd gather soon enough at the installation that had inspired this tango with death. After all, it shouldn't be far now.

The inquisitor's mind was focused on a singular goal, to avoid death so that she and Chatana can live to spend another day together. The mission, one's country, and creed, while important, were but dim flickers of inspirations when venturing into the fray. Tahira's heartbeat vehemently against the chest as she seized those reins harshly.  Her lover's words failed to reach her ears. All fruitless stimuli were forced out, as the vampire steered the cart through that restricted passageway. Pebbles struck her cheek, as the behemoths of the sands rolled overhead.

 

The racket of lightning strikes, the howling of the wind, and the tremoring of the foundations of the world were a firm warning that death had an omnipresent influence within this tempest. The wagon rocked, infrequently bouncing a few inches off the ground as those wheels struck the debris lain out ahead. The strain of the worms was near-deafening, while their pulsating bellies brightened what was a dark tunnel. Tahira grumbled, mumbling forth quite the colorful array of profanities as she struggled to maintain control. Outwardly, the agent of the eternal house appeared collected, but, privately she was terrified. Her marriage with Chatana had given her something to fight for, however, equally, it stood as something she could lose. The vampire had seen death, but she had never endured the passing of a lover.

 

Such concerns would be ejected from the mind, defiantly, the vampire kept moving forward against the odds. If this universe yearned to snuff out their ardent flame, it would have to do so with a great deal of trouble. Behind them, a few walls started to cave in as the weight of these beasts proved too great. That commotion only kindling her desire to live all the more, a big middle finger to the Elders and this desert seemed appropriate if they somehow survived. Her breathing picked up its pace as they neared the end of this passageway. Inexplicably as they drew closer, the titans of the grains appeared reluctant to give chase. The storm, its haze still present, as they eventually exited that confined space and reached a more open expanse.

 

Not wishing to test their luck, Tahira maintained their current pace and trajectory until they approached the foot of the mountain. Pulling on the reins as her centipede came to an abrupt halt. The air, it was still, the region devoid of life with only the whispers of the wind to shatter the silence. Wordlessly, while remaining roosted on that driver's bench, her eyes surveyed the scene observing overthrown supplies, the scars of magic long since hurled, and even a few specks of blackened blood on the rocks. Guardedly, the inquisitor dismounted, walking to the other side as she'd offer her wife a hand to assist Chatana off the seat. It was then she'd finally look around.

 

"Gather to me, I need a role call and to assess how everyone is doing before we move on."

 

The hairs on the back of her neck were standing upright, something was off. If there had been a battle, where were the bodies? And, more perplexingly, why couldn't she see any weapons? Had they been raided? A slew of questions, although, upsettingly no satisfactory answers were to be found.

Niazmina's concerns were prudent, albeit misplaced. If this were indeed some trap then they likely would have sprung it by now. Especially considering how defenseless they were with the storm at their back. As to why there were no corpses? She hadn't the faintest of clues. And this perhaps concerned her the most. Nevertheless, now was not the time to exhibit debility. The slightest indication of such vulnerability may further impair the morale of those beneath her charge.

 

"I suggest we continue and keep our wits about us. I know not what awaits us, but; I do know this to be true. Together we are stronger, so let's keep our wits sharp."

 

Tahira glanced toward her lover, providing her a wink as the only rejoinder concerning her appreciation. The mission took precedence. And, while she hadn't said the words out loud, the vampire supposed her wife could infer her meaning through such a flirtatious signal. The exterminator walked over, grabbing the reins of her centipede before guiding it a bit deeper into the opening so that it remained shielded by both walls of the earth. These natural barricades should limit the sands, and given the claustrophobic tunnels beyond that sealed door, it wasn't like Tahira could bring her girl inside. No, the mount would have to make due outside on its own, along with her mobile abode. She'd invest a second to pet the insectoids chitin head; while she delved into thought rummaging through a slew of feasible explanations.

 

"Beyond these steel doors are our objective." Tahira pointed out before making her way to that slab of steel. The inquisitor ran her gloved hand across the surface, vainly seeking a way to open it. Frustrated with her failure, she'd boot the surface and grunted.

 

"Open sesame!" She cried theatrically, wiggling her hands and fingers at the door comically.

 

It was then a crystal built into the top of the threshold emitted a flash of light, nearly blinding Tahira. Annoyingly, she'd stumble back and fall on her ass as the doors began to open.

 

"136." A voice cried out as the grains of sands dropped from the opening doors' base. "There isn't much time; hurry inside!" Confounded, she'd blink thrice before rising to her feet, feeling a few grains slip within her crack. Wonderful, those particles of sand were going to annoy her for the rest of this mission. Curiously, Tahira glanced at the party while smacking her bum to pat it free of dirt.

 

"A voice? That means someone is home? No matter if this is a trap or not, it is our only way inside to accomplish our mission..." She pointed out before stepping into the darkness, once each had entered, or those brave enough, the door would drop and slam shut behind them.

 

"We are coming, do not be alarmed. Given this precarious time, we have taken measures to assume this facility's continual operation. Those outside were raiders, a common sight these days. While unorthodox, I feel you will come to see our measures as necessary." The voice from before called out, almost seemingly from nowhere. Nearby doors opened further down the hall, as a dozen men carrying caster rifles poured into the passageway and surrounded the lot. As a series of crystals flickered on, providing illumination.

 

"About time the Eternal House sent someone. We've been operating in the dark this entire time." The commander cried out, his face covered by a helmet while his hand gestured for the men to lower their arms. "Had to make sure you were who we thought you were agent. You've become a sort of legend and symbol of our training success given what happened at Skeletal highway. It's good to see you have survived the chaos out there. I am Amun, one of the first inquisitors. I ask that you lower your arms and come with me as there is much to discuss."

 

Tahira nodded, before looking around at her comrades. She'd ignore his little praise, finding it pointless. "We are here to evacuate this facility. But it would be nice to get some information from the head of research as well as whoever has authority over institution 14. I would introduce my brothers and sisters in arms, but, they have tongues and can speak for themselves." The men looked at one another through their masks as if confused.

 

"Of course, it's good to know that the other institutions were safely evacuated given they have all been going offline one by one. That alleviates much concern." The commander's retort bewildered Tahira. She had heard of no such operations, in fact, Samara specified this was to be their first attempt. Did the queen lie? Or, was something happening to the others? If so, why and by who? For now, she'd keep these thoughts to herself lest she disseminates panic.

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Book 3

Chapter 4

"The installation."

 

Initially, their time within that installation proved mundane. Silently the party rove down those serpentine corridors. The flickering lights and signs of battle were ever-present. Tahira had no inkling regarding what horrors slumbered within this research facility. What had initiated as a rescue mission would evolve into something words failed to recount accurately. Sukegei and Naizmina went outside, safeguarding their transport while Chatana and Tahira moved deeper into the mountain. There was something off about the survivors. 

Eventually, while under armed escort, the two ladies would enter the head researcher's office. They conversed a great deal, culling data while unveiling what exactly was transpiring beyond those walls. The way the room's occupants looked upon the elf fetched an air of umbrage with it. This vexation adhered to the agent's soul. Belatedly she'd dust it aside and remain attentive pertaining to the matter at hand. Chatana would amble away, exploring while the head investigator resumed the dialogue. But rather than retreat, the scientists were adamant about disassembling their work first.

This struck the mer as bizarre. Here they were, endowed with the opportunity of freedom and secure passage. And rather than clutch it, the personnel were fixated on trivial logs? That nettlesome suspicion only magnified as they requested her to stay put while they tended to such affairs. Propestrous. While they had their obligations, Tahira still had her orders. And within the inquisitor's mind, her mission outweighed their paltry beseechment for privacy. The ensuing squabble waned as an ambiance of pang matched the cadence of her hammering heart.

A scream reverberated, ricocheting off those steel walls as her tinged eyes veered to the advent of that commotion. Chatana was pale, bolting toward her. Concerned, Tahira stretched out only for the feline to swat her hand away. Those sunflower eyes were filled with tears as but a single phrase reached the inquisitor's knife ears. 

"What are you?"

Caught off guard, the slayer took a step back only to watch as Chatana jilted her within that facility. Filled with bewilderment and wrath and much to the researcher's mortification, the agent proceeded where Chatana had fled. That blade materialized from the hilt as she tentatively wormed to an ajar door. Something told her to escape, to abstain from slipping beyond that threshold. But that fascination for knowledge was too assertive, overriding her gut. Once inside the room, Tahira froze. Those feline foci were dilating as they frantically yawed athwart the compartment.

She saw them, twisted, tumor ridden and malformed imitations. Replicas of herself strapped to tables, floating within amniotic tubes or piled in the corner near a furnace. The employees inside froze, holding a corpse they intended to dump into the fires. The bodies, their wounds, they were fresh. The wailings of these variants billowed. They pleaded to be freed, imploring for Tahira to extinguish them. Whatever they were, these things addressed her by sister followed by that number.

Tahira knew they spoke the truth. A part of her deep down inside also discerned something was amiss. The mind shattered there. Rather than capitulate. The agent of the state would give them something better—the chance for them to inflict pain on those who had tortured and experimented on them. Intuitively, she released them as a sea of shambling husks moaning in agony descended upon the scientists. One by one, they and their guards were overrun and pummeled to death. Tahira joined her siblings as they massacred everyone within those walls.

This installation became a crypt. Those dead inside were deemed undeserving of a memorial. Alone, Tahira conversed with herself. The hideous aberrations explained everything in lucid detail. Tahira Quil'Kovesh was a lie, a fabrication. She never knew Feyre. Her mother was a memory inserted to keep this epiphany at bay. 

The inquisitor wasn't even living, just a lampoon, a caricature of what life is. Her body was a vessel, a puppet infused with the energy from the planet. And the reason why she remained intact wasn't due to an alchemical breakthrough. But the Qareen that shared this lump of cells with her. Angrily she demanded answers, the djinn chuckling as he forced the repressed memories free from within Tahira's mind. She saw it all, relived the needles, the incisions. Her sisters, these things, they were her opponents during those years within this prison. These wooden chips were created for a sole purpose. To suffer and stoke the pyre that was her ascension.

Tears ran down her face as one version of herself used its twisted and cancerous finger to wipe away that moisture. She wept with them, holding the survivors close. How could they forgive the agent? She killed them. They suffered in some horrid effort to recapture lightning in a bottle. Tahira didn't deserve their love; she warranted only their disgust. This new family wouldn't last; it couldn't. For it was then they requested once more to be executed.

Initially, the mer protested. Yet their rebuttal struck a chord with her somber heart. They asked her how they could continue? Their bodies were marred, their essences were artificial. They were robbed of any opportunity at knowing normalcy from the moment they were germinated within those flasks. Weakly, the exterminator rose, her knees shaking as that sword trembled within her grasp. One by one, she granted them their wish. Not out of hate, but out of love. Tahira passed that day, not once but a hundred times over.

Silently, she walked down those halls. Her pale skin doused in their blood as the alarms and flickering of lights finally died, leaving only darkness. And a single question. What is a life? Or, better yet, was she even alive?

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