Shikabanegami - Part the First









                    One more time, old cat.


                    The desert’s surface was warm. An hour ago it had been almost scorching, the sun’s glare reflecting off the individual particles. Runils magic hadnt helped. But now the sand was cooling as the sun set. And as Takarro bled into it.


                    Almost belatedly he groped for his wounds. The first cut was one and half an inch deep, diagonal, running three inches across the underside of his collarbone, severing his left brachiocephalic vein. The second cut was three quarter-inches deep and ran half a foot down his right thigh, opening his femoral artery. I need to lift myself up. The Alik’r was drinking as hungrily as any vampire, the porous sand reddening, hardening as it absorbed his lifeblood.


                    Any normal humanoid would be going into hypovolemic shock by now – an entire three-foot circle of crimson had been painted around him, and the pool was still expanding – but a shinobi who had taken the Clear Flask could lose twice the amount of blood before suffering organ damage, and one who had consumed the Red Flask could endure another three times that. Takarro’s hand found the gashes. He pinched them together with two rigid claws and a burst of Regeneration; almost the last of his Magicka reserves.


                    One more time, you wrinkled sack of bones.


                    As his flesh knitted, the Grandmaster tried to stand, to regain his footing. He extended his left arm as he rose to one knee and a black ribbon of smoke trailed from his palm to a nearby Altmer’s body, whisking into the corpse’s nostrils and mouth. The fallen Thalmor jittered, arms and legs twitching.


                    Then Runil snarled, brandishing Dawnbreaker like a wand. The holy blade swept downwards, burning a white-hot trail through the air, burning through Takarro’s smoke and severing his bond with the corpse, burning into his eyes as the light itself blasted him off his feet.


                    Takarro went blind as he flew backwards. His left hand caught on rock and he dug his claws in, stopping his momentum. His kusarigama was still in his right hand. He flicked it, unwrapping the weighted chain around the kama and flipping the fundo over to his left hand.


                    There was a steady breeze coming from behind him, and Takarro could feel the air pressure change. So, I’ve been backed to the edge now. It would take a while for his vision to recover, but a Shadeclaw did not need eyes to fight… as Runil very well knew. The elf was waiting for him to make the first move. It seems you’ve finally learned the value of patience, Runil-do.


                    The wind picked up. Small, loose particles of sand rustled under Runil’s boots. The difference in pitch with the rest of the shifting sands was almost imperceptible, but for Takarro it was enough. He flashed forward, scythe blade singing downwards diagonally in a thrust directed at the gap between Runil’s helmet and chestplate. The tip of the kama shivered as it sailed past the elf’s shoulder. Then Dawnbreaker leapt upwards as Runil turned his wrist, stopping Takarro’s strike before it could penetrate his chainmail.


                    Takarro grunted, feeling the heat of the enchanted sword on his fingers. He disengaged before his fur could catch fire, leaping to the side and hurling a fan of four shuriken in a sixty-degree arc. In the same movement, he caught Dawnbreaker by the blade with the crook of his kama, yanking it backward and opening his opponent’s flank. The shuriken bounced off Runil’s glass armour on the right side, further diverting his attention from his left. Takarro slid his grip on the fundo down the chain, extending his reach by two feet, and swung the thirty-angaid steel weight like a flail.


                    The manrikigusari strike managed to put a dent in Runil’s plate, and now it was the elf’s turn to grunt. Despite Takarro’s enhanced strength, however, the fundo was not nearly heavy enough to cause lasting damage. Runil snarled again, raising a gauntleted fist. Takarro’s vision had recovered just enough for him to see the holy magicks streaming from between the mailed fingers. He threw himself to the ground as Sunfire seared the air above him. Then Runil stomped him in the head.


                    The world went black for a brief instant, but Takarro had enough sense left in him to turn his face along with his spine, absorbing the impact of the blow. Runil kicked him again, this time in the stomach. Takarro felt his gut explode as the malachite-tipped sabatons impacted and he rolled to the left, groaning. Runil took a deep breath, then marched forward after him, slow and implacable.


                    Takarro hid one hand under his torso and snuck one single wisp of black smoke along the shadows atop the cliff, snaking it around to the dead footmer and battlemages lying behind Runil. For a few seconds, it almost seemed as if it had gone unnoticed. Then the Altmer’s eyes widened in outrage and Dawnbreaker flared once more, cutting away Takarro’s dark tendril as a tailor would an unwanted thread.


                    ‘No,’ Runil growled, looming over him. ‘No more of your blasphemy. No more rape of my comrades’ corpses. Nagaburoth racunye. By Arkay’s Breath and Meridia’s Light, I will end your reign of terror right here, necromancer.’


                    It took all of Takarro’s strength just to sit up. His laugh was bitter and tasted of blood. ‘You haven’t changed one bit.’


                    Runil did not reply. He raised his sword.


                    Takarro stared at him wearily, into those lively amber eyes. That determined fire was still there, still raging bright. There had once been a time when it hadn’t burned with the contempt and self-righteous fury as it did now. But that was lifetimes ago, in a faraway land.









    4E 2


    The Summerset Isles



                    Takarro squinted as he stepped off the ship. The capital of the High Elves was even brighter than he’d been led to believe. He was under fire by a constant barrage of colours, the prismatic architecture dotting the skyline catching and refracting sunlight into rainbow rays and shooting them all across the city. The nineteen-year-old found himself pining for the familiar white and black outlines of Tsukikage’s huts and temples.


                    After taking a minute or two to adjust – it took longer still for his eyes to stop throbbing – he set off inland. Takarro had been to foreign cities before in his missions as a kit, but never this far to the West. Alinor was a place like no other. Even with his rigid discipline, he found it difficult to ignore distractions. Aside from the glass prisms the Altmer were fond of building their towers with, the spires themselves were also constructed in swirling, fantastic shapes, spiralling skywards in an almost organic fashion. The sound of merchants and traders hawking their wares was no stranger to any operative who had ever left Tsukikage, but the smells were fascinating. Takarro detected no less than thirty-seven different spices coming from a single stall, and the scent of exotic meats, wafting over to his nose from a nearby restaurant, was almost enough to make him salivate.


                    A couple of pedestrians stared at his black fur and whiskers as he passed, and Takarro suppressed a grin. No doubt beastfolk were an uncommon sight here, and it was likely even stranger to see one striding confidently through the port to the city like he was a local. Even a kit of ten winters knows the value of reconnaissance. The ship that brought him here had set sail from Stros M’kai, and even before it had reached the open waters of the Abecean, Takarro had memorised three different maps – one of the Summerset Isles; one, more detailed, of Alinor itself; another, still more detailed, of the city’s coastline.


                    The Battlemages’ Academy was located at the southmost section of the city, where the coast flared off into a point. It took him three hours to arrive by carriage. He could have run there in less than half the time, but it wouldn’t do to attract too much undue attention. Summerset might be part of the Empire, but the Altmeri government had retained much of their ancestors’ xenophobic tendencies. It had taken a dozen letters, almost a full year of correspondence, and the signature of Potentate Ocato himself to secure his position in the Academy. It was worth it, though, Takarro thought. None of the other urotsuki-nin in Year 416(3) had the opportunity to spend their three years away from Tsukikage in Alinor, studying magic under the High Elves. The Crystal Tower might have been destroyed, but Takarro knew that the Altmer’s magical prowess was still leagues ahead of any of the other mages in Tamriel, save perhaps the Telvanni.


                    The two elven Legionnaires guarding the gate seemed uncomfortable in the heat. Their standard Imperial armour had been reinforced with Summerset-style glass. Takarro could smell their sweat even before the carriage came within a quarter-mile of the Academy.


                    The Legionnaires grunted as he approached, raising their pila. ‘Authorised personnel only,’ one of them said lazily. ‘You don’t look like a battlemage to me, cat.’


                    ‘One moment, sirs,’ Takarro smiled – that only seemed to annoy the pair – and produced a letter with an Imperial seal. ‘Please take this to Headmaster Ondrion.’


                    The two guards stared at the Septim dragon on the letter, then at Takarro’s black fur and grey tunic, then at the weapon chained to his hip. Both elves blanched.


                    ‘Ceyener’, one of the mer breathed, swallowing hard. ‘You are the Shadeclaw we were expecting?’


                    Takarro bowed, grateful to Grandmaster Raikko for having sent word ahead.


                    ‘You may proceed, uh, sir,’ the guard on the left said nervously, holding out a box in front of him. ‘But the Headmaster insists that you leave your weapons here.’


                    Takarro nodded, then unslung his kusarigama from his waist and dropped it into the box, along with the brace of five kunai tied onto his shoulder. He made for the gates, but only managed one step before the Legionnaire on the right held up a hand.


                    ‘I’m sorry, s-sir,’ the elf stammered. ‘B-but the Headmaster insists that y-you leave all your weapons here.’


                    The Shadeclaw – yes, I’ve finally earned the title – tilted his head and the footmer cringed. After a few seconds, he smiled and rolled up his sleeves. His four belted shuriken holsters went off first, then his right pouch of smoke bombs, then he untied an additional fifth strap around his right forearm and removed a small rack of six throwing needles, and then, almost as an afterthought, he reached down and pulled a slim pair of tanto from their hidden sheathes on his boots.


                    ‘I also have a collection of fifteen different poisons in my left pouch in both liquid and powder form,’ Takarro said pleasantly. ‘Will I have to leave these as well?’


                    ‘If you please, sir,’ the Legionnaire gulped. Takarro nodded again, then took off the entire pouch.


                    ‘Please be careful,’ he warned. ‘Some of these substances can be absorbed through the skin.’


                    ‘Duly noted, sir,’ The Legionnaire on the left seemed more composed than his companion. He was the one to pick up the box. ‘We’ll keep these safe for you in the armoury.’


                    Takarro thanked them, then passed through the gates and into the Academy.


                    Headmaster Ondrion greeted him in his office with a terse, ninety-degree bow with both hands clapped to his sides. ‘I welcome you to the Academy, Takarro-jo,’ the former battlemage said politely. ‘I hope the way I am greeting you is appropriate – my lack of knowledge in Po’ Tun etiquette shames me.’


                    ‘It is more than proper, Ondrion-ri,’ Takarro answered, hurriedly returning his own bow. ‘You do me far too much honour. The ninety-degree bow is a gesture of utmost respect. I am not worthy.’


                    ‘“Headmaster” will do,’ Ondrion said, eyes twinkling behind a pair of tinted spectacles. ‘I confess, I am quite thrilled to have a master shinobi here studying with us. I have fought alongside your people on multiple occasions.’


                    ‘I am no master, sir, only a Shadeclaw fresh out of apprenticeship. I look forward to learning from the greatest mages of Tamriel.’


                    They exchanged more pleasantries until there came a rapping on the office doors. Ondrion raised his voice.


                    ‘Come in!’


                    A young High Elf clad in flowing yellow robes swept into the room. Takarro turned to bow at the newcomer, who looked at him with appraising golden eyes. The Altmer’s entire bearing commanded attention, towering one entire foot above Takarro, who was not short himself. His jawline was firm, his chin set, and his nose could’ve been chiselled out of marble. His voice was loud and energetic.


                    ‘You sent for me, Headmaster?’ Takarro caught a distinct Northern Summerset accent.


                    ‘That I did,’ Ondrion said, gesturing to Takarro. ‘This is the Po’ Tun who will be training with your class from now on.’


                    ‘The one you told us of in assembly two weeks ago?’ The student’s eyes widened in excitement, then he hastily added, ‘Sir?’


                    ‘Yes, this is he,’ Ondrion chuckled. ‘Takarro of Tsukikage, allow me to introduce Runil of Cloudrest, formerly of Crystal-Like-Law – the Dux Decuria of your new class.’


                    Takarro bowed again and shook Runil’s hand in the Tamriellian fashion, then turned back to Ondrion.


                    ‘Forgive me, Headmaster,’ he said, troubled. ‘But you spoke of me in assembly, sir?’


                    ‘That I did.’ Ondrion raised a placating hand. ‘Everyone who has been admitted to this Academy is already of a significant rank in the Empire’s standing armies. We all know of your village, and your efforts in preserving secrecy. Rest assured, we shall not compromise it.’


                    ‘…thank you, Headmaster,’ Takarro murmured, and said no more.


                    Ondrion steepled his fingers, turning to a mountainous pile of paperwork on his desk. ‘That will be all. Once again, Takarro, welcome to the Academy. Runil, would you mind showing our new student to his quarters?’


                    ‘Of course not!’ Runil grinned from ear to ear and pushed open the office doors. ‘Come on, then, this way!’


                    The young Altmer’s merry attitude was infectious. Takarro followed closely behind him, a smile beginning to form on his own face.


                    The Academy’s corridors were long and lined with the same prismatic glass that so many other structures of the city were made of. The whole wall was a giant window, and the entirety of Alinor was visible from this angle. Takarro was so busy admiring the view that he didn’t notice Runil looking him up and down until he turned around.


                    ‘Is there something I can do for you, sir?’


                    ‘Oh, please, you don’t need to call me “sir”,’ Runil waved him off. ‘We’re in the same year! Anyway, shinobi, eh?’


                    ‘I am indeed a shinobi,’ Takarro lifted his head proudly. ‘Did you have any-’


                    ‘Where are your star-darts?’ Runil interrupted, then shook his head at his poor manners. ‘Sorry, I always get carried-’


                    ‘The guards confiscated-’ Takarro cut in, then winced himself. ‘Apologies, I sometimes talk-’


                    ‘Confiscated? Now why in Arkay’s name-’ Runil groaned and apologised again. They continued back and forth for some time, both of them too eager to wait for the other to finish.


                    ‘All right, all right, let’s slow down.’ Runil held up his hands, grinning. ‘I swear, this is a problem for anyone who thinks fast in societies with proper manners. I honestly envy the Nords sometimes. Interrupt in a Nord conversation and you either get off scot-free or you get challenged to a holmgang. Nice and simple.’


                    Takarro snickered. After a very brief silence, Runil continued. ‘So, the guards confiscated your darts?’


                    ‘They are called shuriken, Runil-do, and yes, I was not allowed to carry my weapons or any other shinobi tools inside. Perhaps an officer high up your chain of command does not trust us Shadeclaws fully,’ Takarro smirked. ‘That person is quite wise.’


                    Runil glanced at him playfully, faking a suspicious frown. ‘Why? Are you actually here to assassinate someone?’


                    ‘If I needed to assassinate someone,’ Takarro said ominously, his ten claws flicking out of their sheathes as he lowered his voice. ‘All I need are these.’


                    Runil blinked as he tried to figure out if he was being serious, then Takarro laughed. ‘Although weapons would certainly help, considering anyone here could tear me apart with a single spell.’


                    ‘And don’t you forget it,’ Runil said, bursting into laughter as well.


                    Takarro answered several more questions about the Shadeclaws and Tsukikage to the best of his ability, then, as his curiosity grew, asked a question of his own.


                    ‘Dux Decuria, Runil-do? That is an Imperial title, no? Head of the class?’


                    Runil’s face darkened. ‘That it is.’


                    ‘You dislike it?’


                    ‘Too much outside influence in Summerset these days,’ Runil growled, then quickly lightened his tone. ‘Not that I have any problems with you being here, Takarro. On the contrary, I’m quite happy that you’re so eager to learn from us. But the way some of these… radicals… talk, it’s as if our traditions didn’t matter anymore.’


                    ‘Radicals?’ Takarro’s expression sharpened. ‘You refer to extremist groups such as the Beautiful?’


                    ‘The “Beautiful”,’ Runil sneered. ‘Yes, there are criminals like those, but there’s also just… a general trend of agitators and idiots trying to tear down everything that’s made us Altmer. I overheard two students from the year above us actually celebrating the ruin of Crystal-Like-Law, can you believe that?’


                    ‘Now that you mention it,’ Takarro said, trying to change the subject. ‘Headmaster Ondrion said that you were once of the Crystal Tower?’


                    No sooner had the words left his lips than he began to regret them. Grief replaced the scorn in Runil’s eyes, and his gaze was full of pain. Pain still fresh, Takarro reminded himself. It’s only been two years.


                    ‘Once, yes. Before the Crisis,’ the young mer whispered. ‘Before the Great Anguish.’


                    ‘Runil-do, you don’t have to-’


                    ‘I saw the Tower fall,’ Runil choked, his manners all but forgotten. ‘Saw it crumble, collapse, trampled in the dirt like a leper’s corpse. And through it all, through the rubble, the vile legions of the Enemy crushing our legacy under their feet.’


                    ‘I cannot imagine-’


                    ‘Oh, but we made them pay,’ Runil hissed. ‘We made them pay for every inch; for every pertan of ground the filth gained, our archers brought down dozens from behind fortifications, our footmer flattened hundreds with their shields and skewered thousands with their spears, and our mages filled the air with shattered, roasted, disintegrated flesh.


                    ‘But it was all for nought,’ Runil gasped, holding back tears. ‘All of our efforts futile; pointless under Dagon’s baleful red eye. I stood with the defenders to the very last, stemming the tide of daedra and buying time for the refugees to flee, and even though I was but an infant child compared to the rest of the wizards, I felled all that came before me. Then the ranks of our foes thinned.’


                    Takarro said nothing. He had seen the records; studied them, even, and knew what came next, but he had no idea what he was supposed to say.


                    ‘We hoped – we dared to hope that they were retreating. Retreating!’ Runil laughed mirthlessly, his voice high, thin, deranged. ‘And then from the dust they left in their wake, our dead comrades rose. The daedra had trapped some of their souls earlier in the massacre, and they vomited them back into their bodies as they pulled back. I saw the captain who had been shielding me fall to our own arrows; saw the seer-mage I had trained under split in half by a greatsword of glass, wielded by the same bodyguard who had stood watch outside her door every day for a century.’


                    The halls were silent as Runil took several deep breaths. They had reached Takarro’s room almost half an hour ago, but he did not think to bring it up.


                    ‘Necromancy,’ Runil spat. ‘There is no art more foul.’


                    Then he shook his head as if to clear himself from a daze.


                    ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, stricken. ‘I didn’t mean to pile all of that on top of you. You must’ve endured much during the Crisis as well.’


                    ‘I was seventeen at the time. Thirteen Oblivion Gates came into existence atop Mount Furiya,’ Takarro recalled. ‘The village did lose around a fifth of our population, but that was nothing compared to what you’ve been through, Runil-do. For what it’s worth, you have my undying respect.’


                    ‘Offer that respect to the Thalmor,’ Runil smiled tiredly. ‘It was they who brought the destruction to an end and saved our race from extinction.’


                    ‘I wouldn’t know anything about that,’ Takarro said cautiously. ‘Tsukikage is so far removed from the rest of Tamriel that we had only ourselves to rely on. Our last Grandmaster Yagurra banished the thirteen Gates, sacrificing herself in the process.’


                    Runil bowed his head solemnly. ‘She must have been a remarkable woman.’


                    ‘She was my martial arts instructor,’ Takarro said, feeling his throat tighten. ‘The Grandmaster is the leader of the village. Few in our history have ever combined that burden with the duty of training new generations of shinobi, but Yagurra-ri managed it.’


                    ‘I can believe that.’ Runil laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘She raised an exceptional pupil.’


                    Despite himself, Takarro let out a snort of laughter. ‘Runil-do, we’ve only just met.’


                    Runil laughed as well, recovering his good cheer remarkably quickly. ‘I’ll have you know I’m an excellent judge of character. Besides, you’re here, right? That says something.’


                    ‘I see,’ Takarro said, a slow grin spreading across his face.


                    ‘Yes, it says something all right,’ Runil replied, mirroring the Po’ Tun’s cat smile as best he could. ‘Though I’m not sure what. Perhaps you were doing so badly they had to send you here for alternative instruction.’


                    ‘Oh?’ Takarro cocked his head to the side. ‘I sense a challenge from our Dux Decuria.’


                    ‘Well now, I’ve got high hopes for you, and so does the Headmaster. People are eager to see what one of the infamous Shadeclaws can do. Don’t disappoint me!’ Runil wagged a finger in his face. ‘Oh, that reminds me – classes start at six a.m. sharp every day except for Sundas, which is our day of worship.’


                    ‘Ah, yes,’ Takarro said. ‘The primary deity in Summerset is Auri-El, no?’


                    ‘Indeed, which is why we give praise to the gods on the Day of the Sun.’ Runil hesitated for a moment. ‘I’ve heard that the Po’ Tun worship no gods at all. Is this true?’


                    Takarro chose his words carefully. ‘We do pay tribute to our ancestors, and the most accomplished among them we revere almost as much as a Tamriellian would a deity, hence our tendency to invoke the name of the First Grandmaster… but yes, it is true that we do not worship.’


                    ‘Hmm,’ Runil said, sounding displeased. ‘Be that as it may, you must still join us in the Chantry for our weekly prayers. You need not sing our hymns, but your presence will be expected.’


                    ‘Understood,’ Takarro said. It wasn’t the most unreasonable request.


                    ‘Good!’ Runil brightened. ‘Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time. You’ve travelled long and far; you must be exhausted. Rest while you can – our first lesson tomorrow is Practical Application of Destruction Magicks with Professor Eldafara. They used to call her Cahoth in the Navy. That means “Hurricane” and I assure you, she has earned that nickname.’


                    ‘Is that so,’ Takarro chuckled, stroking his whiskers.


                    He did not much feel like chuckling twelve hours later.


                    ‘Uuuuwwaaaaaaaa,’ Takarro yelled as three hundred mile-per-hour winds sent him whirling into the early morning sky. The wind died when it lifted him a good seventy feet above the ground. He hung suspended in space for an instant, then started to fall.


                    The shinobi flashed a lopsided grin at his classmates as he dropped, somersaulting upright after doing five rather fancy backflips, his spine, pelvis and leg joints loose and ready to receive the impact. Seventy feet? That’s nothiiiIIIIINNNGGGG-


                    Professor Eldafara summoned another gust of wind, this one thrice as strong than the last, flinging him two hundred feet into the air.


                    ‘I usually cushion the fall the first few times I do this since I’m not in the habit of killing my students, unlike some of the other trainers,’ the Cahoth said dryly, juggling Takarro up and down like a child’s pigskin ball. ‘But that was such an impressive display of agility, I suddenly remembered that shinobi never fall to their deaths. Go on then, young Master Takarro, give us a good show.’ And she let him fall to within two feet of the ground, close enough to draw gasps from some of the girls, before blasting him all the way back up again.


                    Takarro saw Runil grinning up at him as he hurtled downwards yet again. Having fun? The grin was asking.


                    Raising a shaking hand, Takarro returned the grin along with a thumbs-up. Loads!


                    Eldafara was not amused. She did not send him back up this time. The rocky ground rushed up to greet him. Po’ Tun instinct kicked in and he curled reflexively into a ball, subconsciously applying the silent kiai across his skeletal structure, dispersing all the kinetic energy he was receiving into the surroundings. He landed without a sound, springing from a roll into a crouch.


                    The class released their collective breath, and for a brief instant even Eldafara looked thoroughly impressed. It was only a brief instant, however, and not a second later her voice was cracking across him like a whip.


                    ‘Do you think this a game, Ceyener?’ The Hurricane pinned Takarro to the ground with a downward channel of wind. ‘Do you think us fools? Jesters at the King’s court? Do you think you’re here to join the circus? You are here to learn of magic, of how you can kill with magic, of how you can be killed with magic. Disregard these teachings, and you will die. I will not be made light of in front of my own students!’


                    The wind died and Takarro stumbled to his feet. The moment he was able to stand straight, he sank into a ninety-degree bow. ‘I have shown you great disrespect, emeroth,’ he said, as formally as he could. ‘I humbly cry your pardon, and I promise not to repeat this mistake.’


                    ‘I care not for bootlicking,’ Eldafara said, subsiding nonetheless. ‘Now – again. Free yourself!’


                    The wind picked up again, carrying Takarro skywards. It took him another two revolutions before an idea sparked in his mind.


                    As the wind began to spin under him, Takarro stretched out two hands, sending two jets of fire to either side of the whirling air. As he’d thought it would, the wind weakened, lowering him slowly, then subsided and died after a few seconds. Takarro clenched his hands shut, extinguishing the flames.


                    Eldafara rubbed her chin, nodding with grudging approval. ‘A roundabout solution, but still a good one. Who here can explain what our feline friend just did?’


                    Two hands shot up – Runil and a young brown-haired elven woman beside him.




                    ‘Fire in its basest form is hot air,’ Runil said, gazing at Takarro with admiration. ‘In other words, fire feeds off of air. By casting flames on either side of the cyclone, Takarro drained the force from the spell, eventually pulling the wind formation apart.’


                    ‘Correct,’ Eldafara said. ‘Cyra?’


                    The girl still had her hand up. ‘Ma’am!’ she squeaked, snapping to attention.


                    ‘What are the drawbacks of such a technique?’


                    ‘Ma’am! It takes significantly more energy to draw air with heat than to move it via magic itself! This is not a viable approach against sustained wind magic! Ma’am!’ Her enthusiasm made Takarro smile. She’s like a hyperactive version of Runil.


                    ‘Excellent observation,’ Eldafara said. ‘You choose your partners well, Runil.’


                    There were laughs and catcalls from the rest of the class, but at a single motion of the Cahoth’s hand, the lesson resumed in silence. Takarro nodded to himself. It’s not shinobi discipline, but it’s pretty close. Then he remembered his antics mere minutes earlier and grimaced. I’m not the best example of shinobi discipline, though. Am I glad Master Yasha didn’t see that display.


                    The lesson lasted until ten a.m., and then they dispersed for one hour of free time. Takarro strolled around the little rocky island that served the Academy as a practice field. It was more than seven miles off the mainland – if anywhere in the Isles could actually be called the mainland – and was likely chosen to ensure that training accidents wouldn’t damage the rest of Alinor.


                    Takarro made polite conversation with a couple of the other trainee battlemages, then found himself in front of Runil again. The young mer was talking with Cyra, who looked even more animated than he did. They broke up their conversation as he approached, and Runil beckoned for him to join them.


                    ‘Come here, come here! We were just talking about you!’


                    ‘Your acrobatic prowess is incredible, master shinobi,’ Cyra exclaimed. ‘This cannot simply be the result of training your body – mortal flesh just isn’t that durable!’


                    ‘There are select Akaviri techniques that allow a shinobi to perform… ah, preternatural feats. You need not be so impressed, Cyra-ko. After all, your magic allows you to accomplish the supernatural,’ Takarro said, though he was still pleased.


                    ‘Oho, look at the Po’ Tun sage and his clever wordplay,’ Runil teased, then leant in close. ‘About those Akaviri techniques… some of them involve potions, don’t they?’


                    Takarro looked at him, surprised. ‘You’ve heard of Rendanshu, Runil-do?’


                    ‘Right, that’s what it was called. I’ve studied a bit of Eastern Akaviri literature – what little was available, anyway – and that term kept popping up, along with obscure mentions of potions and some kind of a “black bottle”. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.’


                    ‘Rendanshu refers to a series of ancient Akaviri alchemy procedures, used to produce potions that enhance a Po’ Tun’s physical abilities beyond the limits of natural humanoids.’ Takarro stopped briefly, wondering if he might have said too much, then continued on without much thought. It wasn’t as if he was giving away the Rendanshu formula. ‘The Black Flask you read of refers to the final iteration of such potions. It is the most powerful of them all – as well as the most dangerous, and the most unpredictable.’


                    ‘Unpredictable?’ Cyra asked, her voice hushed.


                    ‘The power granted by the Black Flask manifests itself in strange ways.’ Takarro scratched his head, feeling slightly awkward. ‘Those who choose to drink it risk death, and those who survive… erm, well, they don’t always learn how best to make use of their new abilities.’


                    ‘You took the Black Flask,’ Runil said. It was a statement, not a question.


                    ‘I did,’ Takarro said, scratching his head again.


                    ‘Well, what does it let you do?’ Runil asked impatiently.


                    Takarro sighed. ‘I can produce a gas that lets me control small animals.’


                    Runil blinked. ‘That’s it?’


                    Takarro shrugged helplessly. ‘I wasn’t expecting it to be that underwhelming, either.’


                    Cyra tried to be uplifting. ‘Well, I think it sounds interesting! Can I see how it works?’


                    ‘Of course, Cyra-ko, but it’s really not that impressive.’


                    ‘Oh, never mind that, I want to see!’


                    Takarro shrugged again, then stretched his hand out towards a pair of low-flying seagulls circling overhead. ‘All right. First, I concentrate, and force out the gas-’


                    Runil and Cyra erupted into furious giggles.


                    ‘Thank you, I feel like such a dignified Akaviri today.’


                    ‘Quit your yapping and get on with it already,’ Runil said, still shaking with laughter.


                    Takarro turned his gaze back to the sky. ‘First, I concentrate…’


                    The black smoke hissed out from his palm, issuing outwards like a winding rope.


                    ‘Looks like the fumes from a hookah pipe, but a lot darker,’ Cyra murmured. Runil shushed her.


                    Focusing his mind, Takarro twisted the smoke and sent it shooting towards the two seagulls. The pair squawked in alarm and tried to flap away, their beating wings separating the stream into several smaller wisps. Well, saved me the trouble of dividing them.


                    Takarro drew his fingers together, forcing the smoke through the seagulls’ nostrils and into their beaks. The birds jerked mid-air in violent spasms, losing control of their motor functions and plummeting to the ground. Cyra cried out in alarm. Then Takarro pulled his hand upwards and the seagulls followed his motion like marionettes on a puppeteer’s strings, flying upwards in complete unison, tracing the exact same circle through the air. He made several other circles with his hands, and the seagulls under his control followed suit, making complex patterns, loops and zigzags. Takarro brought both his hands down and made a fist. The seagulls landed in front of the trio and simply stopped, remaining as still as carved statuettes.


                    Runil clapped, delighted. ‘Underwhelming my arse! Not even the finest Illusion mages can control an animal this freely. You could rival even the Spriggans’ abilities in enthralling fauna!’


                    Cyra frowned and gestured at the frozen creatures. ‘You can let them go now, right?’


                    Takarro blinked. ‘Of course.’ He opened his palms. The black smoke whisked out of the seagulls’ heads and the birds fluttered away, terrified.


                    Runil shook his head. ‘How did you do that?’ he marvelled.


                    ‘According to Tsukikage’s healers, my smoke can replicate the complex electrical energies sent across a living creature’s nervous system, overriding the signals sent from said creature’s consciousness. If I spread a high enough volume of my smoke over a host’s brain, I can control their body as if it were my own.’


                    ‘Fascinating,’ Runil said, at the exact same moment Cyra muttered, ‘Disturbing.’


                    Runil raised an eyebrow, and Cyra stared at him frankly. ‘Tell me truthfully, Master Ceyener,’ she said sternly. ‘Have you ever used this ability on a human being?’


                    ‘I am no Master, Cyra-ko,’ Takarro replied. ‘And truthfully – I have tried repeatedly and failed.’


                    Cyra withdrew from him slightly. Runil’s lips twitched upwards in an expression of mild distaste, but his voice remained friendly. ‘Any idea why?’


                    ‘A multitude of reasons.’ Takarro conjured another stream of black smoke, drawing little stick figures in the air with them. ‘One, a sentient being’s willpower is nothing to scoff at. Even the most inebriated drunkard can easily muster more self-control than a beast of the wilderness. And two…’


                    Takarro spread out his hands and generated as much smoke as he could, filling the air around them with murky darkness. Cyra flinched and started to hold her breath. ‘You have nothing to fear, Cyra-ko,’ Takarro said gently before continuing.


                    ‘Two is a matter of volume. I need to achieve a certain… thickness, or viscosity, in my smoke before I can force an active central nervous system to ignore its own electrical signals and accept my commands. Human brains are just too big. And while, through constant training, I could most certainly increase the amount of smoke I am capable of producing, that does not change the fact that the brains of vertebrates are wrinkled to make the most use of the limited volume inside the skull, which means that the surface area of an animal’s brain increases exponentially with the volume of its cranium. There simply isn’t enough room inside a human brain for me to “talk” over the cacophony of nerve signals inside.’


                    Runil nodded. ‘I think I follow. Ah well. It’s a pity we sentient beings are so hardy, eh?’


                    ‘Compared to some of the creatures that stalk Nirn?’ Takarro smiled darkly. ‘Only in the mind, and even then, you Tamriellians have proven time and time again with your Illusion magic how easy that is to break.’


                    Cyra shivered. ‘Enough! Let us talk of more pleasant things.’


                    ‘As you wish,’ Takarro said, his smile broadening. ‘When Professor Eldafara spoke of the two of you as partners, did she mean…?’


                    The two of them both beamed. ‘Yes,’ Cyra said, entwining her fingers with Runil’s. ‘We’re betrothed!’


                    ‘My heartiest congratulations,’ Takarro bowed a light thirty-degree bow. ‘You must be very happy.’


                    ‘We are,’ Runil said proudly. ‘Cyra is the prettiest girl in the Academy, the most clever woman I have ever known, a peerless mage, and perhaps most importantly, our bloodlines are both pure!’ Cyra blushed, then kissed him lightly on the cheek.


                    Takarro studied the two of them. ‘I see you’ve inherited the traditional Altmeri views on racial purity.’


                    ‘Of course!’ Cyra puffed herself up. ‘It wouldn’t do to have highborn stock mixing with the low, after all. Don’t you Po’ Tun have some form of population control as well?’


                    ‘Population control, yes,’ Takarro said peaceably. ‘Selective breeding, not so much. After all, in addition to our rigid training, Rendanshu ensures that all kits express the necessary physical attributes of a Shadeclaw upon reaching adulthood.’


                    Cyra shivered again. ‘I know I said to talk about more pleasant matters, but you shinobi are a cold lot.’


                    The conversation drifted apart soon after, then they teleported through a set of portals on the island when the hour was up and returned to the Academy to resume their lessons, which ended at half past six in the evening. Takarro packed up his tomes and ate a light dinner of pan-fried tilapia in the mess hall. The freshly caught fish was delicious. He could tell that the cook was exceptionally skilled, having seared the tilapia long enough for a pleasing golden crust to form but just enough to the point where the white meat came off in juicy flakes inside his mouth. Delectable. This must be what they call ‘the flavour of the sea’, Takarro thought, munching away. It lacks the raw punch of a good Akaviri stir-fry, however. Perhaps the Altmer palate is a tad more sensitive.


                    He headed straight off to his quarters after his meal. The High Elven bedchambers were far more luxurious than his simple room in Tsukikage. The bed was an ornate four-poster furnished with velvet and sheets smoother than cream. Takarro did not feel much like using it. He pictured sinking into the soft, spongy mattress and imagined the experience would feel much like drowning on dry land. He hadn’t slept in it on his first night either.


                    Instead he knelt on the spot, back straight, breathing perfectly modulated, legs crossed in the lotus position. He meditated for five straight hours, then sat up, completely refreshed.


                    Students were allowed to stay up and roam the Academy for however long they wished. Insulative magic sealed into every bedchamber ensured that absolutely no trace of noise could enter. Not very clever design. What if attackers were to invade? There may be guards and other security measures in place, but I still value my hearing.


                    The halls were quiet. Most of the trainees were asleep, getting ready for another early morning’s lesson. Takarro melted into the blackest corners of the Academy, savouring the utter silence of each step he took like a fine wine. Alinor in the day had been dazzling, a continuous explosion of sight and sound; magical even without a touch of the arcane, and he had truly enjoyed the experience. But here, now, all alone in the dead of the night, he was a shinobi in a shinobi’s element.


                    A guard patrolled past him, torch flickering. Takarro instinctively backed away from the glow, curving around the oblivious footmer like a living shadow before slipping away into another dark corridor. And so he continued on, picking his way through the building, until at last he caught a glimpse of dim light coming from around a corner.


                    Following the light, he came upon a set of oaken doors. One was hanging slightly ajar. He pushed his way in noiselessly.


                    The doors led into a very long hall, dully lit with candles. His pupils shrank as they met light once more and he squinted at the flickering flames. Wooden pews lined either side of the hall. It was clearly designed to accommodate everyone in the building. There was a tall elf kneeling in front of the foremost row of pews, murmuring words of prayer to a stone idol – one of nine arrayed across a shelf that covered an entire wall. Takarro could tell by the scent that the elf was Runil.


                    He glided over slowly to the praying Altmer, treading only where the candles’ shadows overlapped. There really was no need to sneak – it was simply force of habit. Plus, he was in a mischievous mood.


                    Runil finished his prayer, touched the shrine with two extended fingers, and bent his head. Then he moved on to another, and another, and yet another, moving to and fro across the shelf in no particular order. He spent a particularly long time in front of a shrine marked by a bright sun and a dragon, then moved on to another shrine on the left. He stayed for a minute in front of an idol with the face of a matronly lady centred on a cross, then spent only thirty seconds on the one next to that. Then, finally, he spent almost fifteen minutes kneeling before the last shrine, an eight-pointed star wrapped around a small globe.


                    Interesting. The structure of this pantheon seems to follow the Cyrodilic Nine Divines, yet the Altmer here still refer to Akatosh as Auri-El, Takarro observed. Despite their staunch traditionalist outlook, there has still been a significant amount of cultural integration.


                    Runil murmured the last words of his prayer, then fell into silent contemplation. Takarro chose that moment to speak.


                    ‘You spent more time in front of Arkay than even Auri-El himself.’


                    Runil started so violently Takarro almost thought he’d broken his neck.


                    ‘QUELNANYE-’ he roared, turning to glare at the shinobi, who was trying his best not to laugh.


                    ‘What are you doing lurking around in the dark?’ Runil yelped, wiping his brow with the back of one hand. ‘Right,’ he snapped, regaining his composure with impressive speed. ‘Stupid question. Forget I asked. How long have you been there?’


                    ‘A little over half an hour. You seemed rather absorbed in your prayers, Runil-do, and I didn’t want to interrupt, but you looked so peaceful I didn’t want to leave either.’


                    ‘Heard of knocking?’ Runil growled.


                    ‘I was already inside.’


                    ‘That’s the bloody point of knocking.’


                    ‘But then you’d have stopped!’


                    Runil sighed. ‘All right. Never mind. Looks like you found the Chantry three days early. Good. Now I won’t have to come fetch you on Sundas. Anyway, shouldn’t you be getting some sleep?’


                    ‘Sleep is not vital to a Shadeclaw. We have other methods of recovering our mental and physical energies.’


                    ‘Huh,’ Runil grunted. ‘You seem to have a lot of different methods for doing a lot of different things.’


                    ‘Indeed we do. What of you, Runil-do? Does prayer rest your mind any more than sleep?’


                    ‘Far more,’ Runil murmured. ‘When I close my eyes they all come back. Not the daedra; I’d almost be grateful. My fallen comrades, my dead brothers and sisters... they reach for me in my sleep, reaching with gnarled fingers and twisted bodies, reanimated by whatever foul magicks the fiends called upon.’


                    ‘I’m sorry,’ Takarro said. There was little else he could think to say.


                    The elven mage-in-training turned to stare at him, past him, past even the thick walls of the Chantry. ‘I had a senior in Crystal-Like-Law, an upperclassman who used to sneak me books I wasn’t yet allowed to read because of my age and low rank. It was thanks to him that my magic grew as much as it did. I saw him climb over my captain’s body, black gunk dripping from his grinning teeth as he crawled over to me, both legs gone at the knees. I burned all the skin on his skull clean off and he still kept coming, kept crawling, that rictus grin still etched across his melting face.’


                    Runil buried his head into his hands, covering his eyes with his fingers. ‘That grin,’ he whispered. ‘Will haunt me until my dying day.’


                    ‘And Arkay,’ Takarro said quietly. ‘Does he help?’


                    Runil took a deep, gasping breath, like a swimmer gulping his first lungful of air after a long dive, then let it out in a long sigh and lifted his face once again. To Takarro’s surprise, he saw a sort of contentedness there, almost joy. ‘There was a time when I didn’t put stock in the gods, but… yes. Yes, He does. Arkay reminds me – reminds us all – that life and death are but two sides of the same coin, an endless cycle that shall continue long after our frail mortal bodies return to dust. You see these spirals?’ Runil pointed to the swirling shapes carved onto Arkay’s shrine. ‘Death from life from death from life from death. All that live must die, but the dead shall beget new life.’


                    ‘That is a rather trite observation,’ Takarro pointed out. ‘A gross simplification of all the natural processes that occur in Mundus. It seems little better than a child’s proverb. Does that truly bring you comfort?’ Even as the words rolled from his mouth, he winced at his insensitivity. Master Yasha would smack me silly.


                    Runil did not get angry, though. He simply smiled. ‘Of course it does. It tells us that it is only natural for living things to die, and because of this, I know…


                    ‘I know that the false life brought forth by necromancy are but perversions of Arkay’s will.’ Steel entered the Altmer’s eyes now, cold and hard and unflinching. ‘And I know that such abominations are doomed to fall, for the natural order shall always reassert itself.’


                    Takarro remained silent. He sat down on a pew and stayed there until the small hours of the morning, even after Runil stood and walked out of the Chantry without a word. Before he left the Chantry himself, a strange compulsion took over him.


                    The black-furred Po’ Tun rose, lifting his right arm. He twisted his waist, coiled his leg muscles and loosened his shoulder. As the first ray of sunlight illuminated the sky outside Alinor, the shinobi struck. His form blurred across the entire row of shrines in a Rawlith Khaj swipe, stopping just short of scratching the idols and extinguishing all nine of the candles burning in front of the High Elven gods, leaving a trail of shadow and smoke in the wake of his claws.


                    The sun rose and their lessons began. Runil greeted Takarro like an old friend as he arrived just in time, and he returned the Altmer’s good cheer. Neither of them would ever speak of that night again.
















7 Comments   |   A-Pocky-Hah! and 7 others like this.
  • Paws
    Paws   ·  February 6, 2018
    Utterly fascinating. From the opening fight scene between someone I know and someone completely the opposite, I was enthralled. I needed to reference terms, the pictures helped, while I absorbed the unfamiliar concepts and weapons. To think these two were...  more
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Utterly fascinating. From the opening fight scene between someone I know and someone completely the opposite, I was enthralled. I needed to reference terms, the pictures helped, while I absorbed the unfamiliar concepts and weapons. To think these two were...  more
        ·  February 6, 2018
      Oh hey, haven't seen you on my work in quite a while, Phil-jo! I apologise for some of the more obscure terminology. This story is based off of Roaring Thunder, my main work on the site. The Takarro featured here is much younger, though, and is hopefully ...  more
      • Paws
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        The Sunflower Manual
        Oh hey, haven't seen you on my work in quite a while, Phil-jo! I apologise for some of the more obscure terminology. This story is based off of Roaring Thunder, my main work on the site. The Takarro featured here is much younger, though, and is hopefully ...  more
          ·  February 6, 2018
        No need to apologise Harrow! To enjoy a story and learn something at the same time is the very thing I like most :D Thank you for the link, will certainly give that a read and am sure to learn loads more from it. I didn't struggle to identify with an...  more
  • The Long-Chapper
    The Long-Chapper   ·  January 31, 2018
    Hmm, it is hard to read something that goes to an area that is very special to you, that you researched very hard to capture as accurately as possible when you went there. Very hard, because I lived through that battle, lived through that tower falling, a...  more
    • The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      Hmm, it is hard to read something that goes to an area that is very special to you, that you researched very hard to capture as accurately as possible when you went there. Very hard, because I lived through that battle, lived through that tower falling, a...  more
        ·  January 31, 2018
      Yes, definitely looking forward to more Takarro.
  • Karver the Lorc
    Karver the Lorc   ·  January 31, 2018
    I think you have done mighty good job here, Harrow. It´s good to see Summerset, especially in such vivid imagery. And Runil...that´s some fine shit right there. Battlemage apprentice, righteous Dawnbreaker wielder, Thalmor torturer, humble Arkay priest. W...  more
  • A-Pocky-Hah!
    A-Pocky-Hah!   ·  January 31, 2018
    It seems you embraced the way of the Long-Chapper, which I respect. An interesting choice of character, I wonder how the next chapter will go down.