Book 4

Chapter 1

"The truth will imprison you."

 

The desert was on the escarpment of another collapse. The people of this realm were rotten. Their hearts were rimed with avarice and calloused to the point they spurned their brethren. And with that divulgence pertaining to her origins, Tahira couldn't have cared less. The crown she had served financed that facility, calling into question her fealty. Did the queen and her house rate her devotion? What other villainous secrets were they suppressing from the masses? And while it might have been easy to look the other way, lumping the whole sordid affair as undeserving of reflection. The inquisitor couldn't rebut her need to pardon the atrocity she had borne witness.

Privately she rummaged through her mother's documents. Taking her capital, she inherited and invested it with a few trusted associates. The newly appointed squad combed through ledger upon ledger, journal upon journals. The more they dived, the more tangling the web became. Her mother Faaria was anything but the saint she had aired in life. And in death, that long since buried truth had been excavated. That dark passenger, the Qareen whispered within her ears. The parasite sensed frailty and endeavored to appropriate this trying time in a bid to commandeer command over her vessel.

The inquisitor discovered herself beset on all fronts—the conscious wrestling with a myriad of strifes that would have shattered a lesser woman. Her life was a fabrication, her family a lie, and that vile spirit within was anything but benevolent. She had butchered many lives, fell many beasts in the name of an unfit crown. And while it might have been tempting to impart all culpability onto the Queen and her Mother. Tahira couldn't deny her responsibility within such transgressions. One day, while alone, the Qareen rose to challenge her. The two engaged in a metaphysical tug of war for possession over the body.

While the precise gravity of this event initially eluded her grasp, let alone the consequences of failure. The agent reached deep inside and refused to yield. Perhaps she wasn't alive? Maybe the investigator didn't deserve a second chance? Ultimately, she summarized such quandaries were irrelevant. At that moment, the mockery yearned for one thing, survival. And with this grit at the forefront, she clashed and eventually devoured her passenger.

That victory, while mayhaps crucial, yielded with it a metamorphosis. The homunculus consumed a Jinn, and her ingrained heritage unlocked as she transcended to something new. This power coursing through her veins caused those teal eyes to emit a soft glow as the slayer felt alive. Whatever just ensued wouldn't distract Tahira for long. The elf returned to her investigations as she more and more comprehended what she was and why she had been created. The original Tahira, that one who was born from a womb had perished. And the fractured mind of a bereft woman went to work flouting nature in some crack at a second chance at motherhood.

The present Tahira was the consequence. The mushrooming of various factors. A culmination of Faaria's wealth, faction, government aid, and tenacity bore fruit. Tahira's body was replicated from the corpse's tissue. And "life" was given through the energy of the planet and an unknown event. And while the alchemist had no way of knowing it then, the inquisitor had a good inkling of what facilitated this happenstance success. The Qareen, his tethering at the moment, formulated the perfect storm to create the ideal little effrontery. The elf laughed within that study, dropping the book as she found it all to be some cosmic joke.

With the truth revealed, Tahira found herself at an impasse. Those lapdogs of the state would divulge this information to their superiors. And while the exterminator could have entreated and petitioned to their humanity. The mer had discovered long ago that the denizens of this land were anything but benign of heart. While they studied, she drew her blade and moved through her manor. Secretly, she amassed her energy only to boot open that small room and fill it with her ionizing gas. Those inside were caught wholly off guard. Their excruciating wailings and the odor of burnt meat and hair branded themselves for perpetuity within her mind.

Her soul was weighed by shame and remorse as the final heir, and lone survivor of the family roosted within the main room of the mansion. Angrily, those eyes stared into the crackling fire as she poured herself a glass of wine. Tahira pondered what to do with the bodies. Thankfully, none knew of their closed-door assignment, but their absence would not go without notice. And if there is one thing she understood about the Eternal House, it was their dearth of clemency. It was then she heard the sound of cannons; rising from her seat, she'd move to the window and peek through the curtains. Ships, lobbing cannon fire were assaulting the region. 

The Jorgenskulls had finally invaded, carrying with them the sort of wrath seldom beheld. The agent gathered her things without delay before moving outside to her porch and sat there under the moonlight. Tahira consumed glass after glass as she watched the carnage from afar and the army drawling closer. The racket of those fleeing reached her ear, yet it drew no response. This was fortunate for her. This "battle" gave her the perfect reasoning for why they died. Those men and women stalwartly strained to repel the invaders, only to be overwhelmed. And how did she survive? The same way anyone else would. A stroke of luck. 

Soon enough, the army shambled its way, cleaning up the mess they left in their wake only to find Tahira on her knees with those hands behind her head. The inquisitor was seized, pummeled, questioned as they expected answers. However, she gave none. Not out of some hollow sense of honor, but because she despised the Verdant Dynasty more than the current regime. The weeks rolled by, only for the war to eventually end. As per the terms of the national agreement, Tahira was let go as a prisoner of war. Only to stand before Samara Del'Fluent and be lauded as some hero.

Her fib was utilized to bolster faith, endeavoring as some grandstand against impossible odds.

 

Yet another lie, another sin to stain her blade and spirit...

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Book 4

Chapter 2

"Introspection."

 

Tahira would once again rove the land fulfilling her duties as an inquisitor. With this newfound freedom from her time as a prisoner of war. And the acceptance (At least partially) of who she was. The elf ascertained some comfort not by confronting her anguish but by immersing herself in work. This time, as she moved from post to post. The atmosphere of her voyages had changed. She no longer felt as if she belonged to this world and more or less resembled a wandering apparition. A divide had formulated, wedging itself between her and the inhabitants.

Whenever alone, she brooded over her plight, how things may have differed if she had spurned her curiousness and inextinguishable itch for the facts. Whenever she was between contracts, the slayer kept whetting her skills with that blade and expanding her mastery over plasma. That ambiance of stoicism and monotonous delivery of her lingua kept many at bay. And while she begrudged after fellowship, Tahira couldn't help but query if she rated such a commodity? Could something artificial relate to those birthed naturally? The inquisitor was a stranger in a strange land, an aimless spirit safeguarding a nation of ingrates.

Monstrosity after monstrosity fell to her blade as her reputation continued to swell. Matsumota had trained her. She was the sole heiress of the Quil'Kovesh line. The youngest member of her branch, a survivor of the defilement at the skeletal highway, vanquisher of rebellions, and fought within two war campaigns. Many descanted her praise, yet they were clueless of the travesty of it all. And while some ogled her with covetous eyes, her arcane-tinged lanterns gawked back with equal envy. This resentment, like an acid, feasted away at her soul. 

The magnetic buzz of delirium would continuously be skirted as the agent refused to be ensnared by such pitfalls. With each mission and accolade, word of her deeds had been disseminated—a gallimaufry of truths and falsehoods. Wild exaggerations were needlessly bloating her triumphs. This stardom was something she never panged for, and that slake for anonymity became more problematic to quench. Often she'd have to stare down any that recognized her. Their psalms were met with a cold glower until they inadvertently shrank. Some designated her as a bitch, but Tahira leaned toward the term self-sufficient.

The sea of faces blended into a singular mob. All the while, the elf sashayed within that pensive stupor. Those feline foci were scouring through the journals of her creator in the expectancies of encountering some answers. Yet, no amount of exertion had established itself as adequate. Such longings only bequeathed more inquiries and further dilemmas. That question Chatana had posed before she fled circulated within her mind. What was she? Was she just some trophy? The success of a sinful experiment? 

Did their history and environment solely define a people? What then about those with no people and only regurgitated a false account? It was then she reached a startling conclusion. Suppose she had to choose between two lies. The one of her past and the current fiction, then she wouldn't choose at all. The exterminator always gave vague answers whenever someone strived to delve into her past. Left to their diminutive imagination, they often painted her of indulging in self-pity, compiling her pain and casting it within the unbefitting mold of trying to appear edgy. She couldn't fault them for this insolence. It wasn't as if they'd believe the truth even if she had expressed it.

Her time on the road marked the advent of a new chapter. One riped with serendipity. This uncertainty, while initially foreboding, ironically bestowed some temporal reassurances. It meant that for the first time, the agent was rudderless. And the helm to steer her life was hers for the taking. No longer would she be entirely beholden on another. And while she still maintained her duties, she'd do it her way. She had plans, the sort of ambitions that one might surmise as treasonous. 

Sadly, Tahira couldn't accomplish it alone, even with her capital and aspirations. What she necessitated was the aid and perspective of another, which left one final question on the mind. Could a lone wolf ever hope to integrate within a pack? And if the current factions were lacking, maybe it was time to start one of her own...

Book 4

Chapter 3

"The resolution."

 

The people who called this province home were irredeemable. The iniquities adulterating their souls were far-reaching. Tahira, head inquisitor to the Eternal House, had seen the true face of the empire. While hidden from most, its odious essence had reared its grotesque head. Her life was a cluster of fabrications, sutured together by a family that no longer existed. Rakash and Faaria were dead, and Mazana was an enemy of the state. For decades she wielded her blade in service to Samara.

Tahira shouldered the atrocities of her motherland for the good of the people. Not once had the mer challenged her actions, not once had she faltered in her resolve. Yet, the purpose that steered her blade was a lie. The nation knew of her rearing; they invested in her birthing. Outwardly the mer appeared normal, but in truth, she was a blemish upon the natural order. And while the citizens may have remained oblivious, those that governed them weren't faultless. Her retirement might have taken Samara by surprise, the false queen was ignorant of what her prized possession had unearthed.

Within those eyes, there was no rebutting the truth. That facility tucked within the Ashlandian mountains contained many secrets, many horrors, and crimes against the planet. The inquisitor had beheld it and ended it. Hundreds of replications, each increasingly malformed, lamented in utter anguish. They implored for her to terminate their wretched existence, not out of hate but kindness. Tahira Quil'Kovesh perished that day within the heaps of cancerous corpses. She died not once but a hundred times over.

Each time that sword plunged into their hearts, she felt a fragment of her wilt along with them. That facility, its men of science, were butchered like cattle. That great beacon of advancement was set ablaze. Wrath unbridled was let loose. For the first time, Tahira listened to the drumming of the planet's heart, beckoning to its exclamations for blood. The dried sands were saturated that day. Their white hue besmeared red as the cerulean welkin was blanketed by blackened smog.

The detective knew it would only be a matter of time before her crimes were known. And while the Eternal House could never hunt her publicly, given it would divulge their experiments. The inquisitor expected the coming game of cat and mouse to be carried in secret. Yet another war from the shadows, a crusade meant to vilify what the shortsighted citizens anointed as a "hero." There was no escape, no quarter from that coming judgment. And rather than slink away and burn out within obscurity. Tahira selected to confront it fearlessly and go out in a dazzling conflagration.

The renowned champion of the desert, the state's fabled ashen hound, had cast aside that collar. She'd meander through the streets of Emerald. The people beside her failed to register, as she felt wholly alone. They were so divorced from one another that she couldn't dream of forming a lasting bond. The white sands, its residents were not her kind of people. After all, how could an imitation ever hope to bond with what they were engineered to parody? No, their mere permeance was a rancid reminder.

Tahira Quil'Kovesh was nothing. She had nothing. And what she had known were fantasies planted within her mind since birth. And so, she took the moniker of Zero, a befitting designation. Her wanderings ended as she blundered across a gathering throng—the behemoth of an elf standing above most in stature as she investigated: Valerna Jorgenskull, another inquisitor, and some kitsune runt. Interesting, so the enemy of her enemy had arrived?

Silently, the mer abided, waiting for them to vacate themselves out of her way. She had to find her sister, Mazana. Only she could provide answers and possibly closure. Those before mentioned questions that had helmed her stride repeated ever so prevalently within her mind. Before, she sought such material solutions to immaterial quandaries with the hopes of furthering her understanding of the world. Now, the seven-foot elf endeavored to uncover them to find meaning in what was a pointless existence. What is a life? She knew not the answer, but Tahira believed before she died, she'd glean the solution.

Haitham's loitering eyes wouldn't take long to be regarded. The inquisitor wasn't one to be studied. Such improper social interactions only fostered disdain as a cold glower was presented to this sailor. The investigator was inured to such protracted staring, the ogling of an undomesticated beast scanning a victim. Whatever the fetid cur was selling, the ashen wolf would have no part of. The closer Haitham drew, the more conspicuous his arrogance presented itself.

 

She had detected such a creature before. The seafarer was likened to a vulture within her eyes. A voracious little bottom feeder that gorged onto a carcass in some desperate bid to surfeit one's appetite. Ironic, given the she-elf disputed whether or not she could be classified as even a corpse. Such inane determinations were incorporated within her steeled mind. Those teal and emerald eyes spectated as the cutthroat braved to stand alongside her. The inquisitor was beside herself. A bit surprised he had marshaled such resolve.

 

Such mustering and their awe wouldn't remain for long. That silence, while short-lived, had only elevated himself within the elf's eyes. Now that Haitham spoke, Tahira surmised lumping him up with the buzzard may have been an affront to such corpse strippers. They at least had the courtesy to wait till the body was dead before swooping down and encircling their meal. Those catlike eyes narrowed, judging the man as the miscreant dared to analogize her to a giant. Tahira might have been an imitation, some sick lampoon against creation. But she still held some dignity concerning her former station and the accounts shrouding her accomplishments.

 

Casually her foci sailed from the man, her hand unsheathing that katana as it stood without a blade. The brandished hilt was likely to rouse a myriad of inquests. None of which the mer had the time or energy to resolve.

 

"Mind speaking up. It's difficult to hear you from down there, little man. Maybe try using your chest for once."

 

She riposted his crude opening with one of equivalent spurn. That indignation was apparent, as Tahira had zero interest in masquerading her depreciating thoughts on the criminal. Her focus returned as he continued to speak. Haitham's dialogue was off-putting. Tahira had wandered across the desert and jungle alike. Yet, in all of her escapades, she had never bumbled across someone who spoke in such a foreign fashion.

 

"I doubt you care what I think."

 

The seven-foot woman paused, turning to face the man. The agent was a bit shocked he hadn't noticed her attire and the prestige it merited. Then again, the djinn had forgotten she expected much from what was little.

 

"Why do you speak so funny? Are you trying to be clever? Do you think some odd lingo somehow makes you more tolerable or mystifying? No, it makes you come across as a jester, like one of those chimps that clashtheir cymbals for their masters. Try again, this time talk like an actual person. It is you, ye or ya. Even then, no one from the sands says ye or ya."

 

She rebuked the man before turning around and walking away from the crowd. Keeping her senses aimed at the stranger lest he suddenly tried something idiotic. Those sandals moved across the sandy road as she brooded over what sort of defect beset his mind. Was he mentally lacking? Could the elf be the victim of a distant idiocracy? Or was this some farce, an elaborate ruse?

It didn't matter, this nincompoop had offered up enough. Tahira would return home, abandoning the fool that sought to manipulate her pain for his benefit. The sands were dying, and no one was doing anything to thwart this impending extinction. And so the onus fell on her, she'd have to find a way to circumvent the looming devastation and fast. Maybe those of this world were so stuck in their ways that what they lacked was perspective. In short, maybe her unholy birthing was what the planet required to set society straight? 

Book 4

Chapter 4

"Tooth and claw."

 

Eventually, her travels brought her back to Obsidian Canyon. It had been well over a decade since she had last walked athwart its crags. But the agent hadn't come here for sightseeing. No, she had arrived to finish her training and earn her place as Matsumota's official apprentice. Tahira knew what needed to be done to reach her desired alps. She'd need more than her appointment as the head inquisitor to garner the necessary support to bring about sweeping changes. And, if there was anyone she could confide in without risking judgment, it was the khan.

The elf reached the metropolis, only to rove through its bustling streets. The furnace of industry was bright as columns of stone retched forth their exhaust into the sky. The locals' ramblings scarcely deserved much notice, yet their lingering gazes did little to strengthen her morale. She couldn't help but wonder if they beheld her as some sort of freak. It wouldn't be the first time given her stature, those eyes, and her offputting deportment. While perhaps belated, she'd reach the palace of the Devante's. It hadn't changed much since her last time here. A thought further verified as she stepped beyond the vestibule.

The various trophies of previous games embellished the wooden structure. Tahira's eyes vaulted from one to the next as she recalled the stories behind each kill vividly. Her master drilled her peoples' history into her mind, never failing to blabber off the significance of honoring and remaining mindful of the past. There, standing within the meeting chamber, her eyes met Matsumota's. The fox appeared as lively as ever, almost as if she hadn't aged a day since their last chanced meeting during the war. Without delay, the inquisitor presented the famed butcherer a salaam, only to be razzed for such reverence. The two drank and reminisced, regaling one another with the hurdles life had spread forth during their voyages.

 

For the first time in a while, Tahira felt happy. It was almost as if she had procured some semblance of belonging. The subtle glimmerings of anguish wouldn't have evaded the old fox's keen senses. And when pressed, uncharismatically, the mer yielded and divulged the sum of her dilemma. Throughout the exposition, her former master said nothing. Matsumota solely listened and took it all in without an air of disbelief or stupefaction. This struck the agent as bizarre. While she predicted the khan would accept the account, she anticipated at least an exiguous degree of skepticism.

Upon mentioning the journals, the vulpine instructed the former student to show her the details. The two continued to drink and smoke as they combed over what Faaria had left behind after her passing. It was then that the khan made a proclamation. She remarked that she wasn't perturbed because she knew the other homunculus. And while it might have been easy to be enraged with her master. Tahira knew Matsumota wasn't one to harbor secrets if the details were relevant. The khan cared little for politics or the Eternal Houses schemes. Her attention was focused on one thing, defending the Devante line and the Beastkin Union.

The color flushed from Matsumota's face as the fox stared at a particular passage. Their eyes met while the warlord extended her sole hand and stroked the mer's face, only to tug it about and examine it closely. Protesting initially, the agent complied upon being met with a snarl. The khan rose while a moment of silence pervaded the space between the two, electrifying that once stilled ambiance. 

"I see it now. And, to be honest, I think I sort of always knew. Your mom, the bimbo, used a corpse as the basic blueprint for her little toys. Aquaria Devante, my brother, is the unwilling father of your kind. That's why your signature struck me as familiar. It's why I always saw you as more than a student. Tahira Quil'Kovesh, you are also Tahira Devante. And while maybe not from traditional means, you are family nonetheless. So be it, I will finish your training and designate you as my replacement. Watari is off doing his own thing, and Myan is too preoccupied with the courts. You will be the heir to my station and the future of this houses legacy."

What followed wasn't a hug or some heartfelt exchange between family. Instead, a boot to the chest from those sandals as the khan whistled for sparring swords. There the two danced from dusk to nightfall. Not once did Matsumota relent, treating the elf twice as severely as she would any typical pupil. Their time together brought some happiness, as the imitation came to some terms concerning her condition. Stillness, magical efficiency, the Devante sword technique were all imparted. And rather than be a copy of the khan. The elf melded both sword techniques she knew into one new choreography.

There, before the council of the Beastkin union and all members of the Devante house. Tahira finally became the next in line within that illustrious faction. A fusion between worlds, a melding of noble houses and ethos. The child born from the planet and not of the womb had achieved the inconceivable. Once the ritual was completed, Matsumota and her spent a final night together. Come morning, Tahira will be off to carve her name into the sands. Though before she was ready to vanish behind that horizon, the khan had one last word of advice for the mer.

"Real or fake, it means shit. You have earned your place. And what has been conquered by tooth and claw, let no gelatinous noble take away. Just know this, my idiot apprentice. Eventually, you will have to choose a side. We are in a period of peace today, but that garbage is a lie. It won't and can't last. And if you should choose poorly, I pray it's your sword that stabs me. Now go fuck off, and show this dried pussy of a realm why you deserve your place within the dunes."

Hiking across the distance, Tahira brooded over those words. Could a reproduction become something more?

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