Kazuya smirked with satisfaction, sailing across the night sky at speeds the human eye could barely register. His tails swam through the air as he jumped from the rooftop of one skyscraper to the next, his golden kimono driving back the vivid darkness. Kazuya took the time to appreciate the bustling nightlife along the city waterfront below before he looked toward the horizon.
No, Ravensworth wasn’t as beautiful nor as technologically or spiritually advanced as Paradise. This city was no golden capital of Dragonbornnia; it was no pride of Valteria. But it would do.
It was always nice to see how far humanity had come. With the help of Valterians acting behind the scenes, of course.
Compared to most cities in North America, Ravensworth was a hotbed for spiritually aware beings. Of the approximate one million and two hundred thousand people that lived in the city, at least a fourth of them could have been considered hallowed or had supernatural abilities.
All things had vapor. Sapient beings, animals, and even inorganic objects to an extent. To Valterians, vapor was the life-force that powers and was self-generated by the soul or the consciousness of a being. It was as vital to the spirit as blood was to a physical organism.
Sensing the amount of vapor in the atmosphere that was unconsciously given off by Ravensworth’s residents, Kazuya felt that the SIGMA assessment was accurate: twenty-five percent of the city’s population were indeed hallowed. Unusual for most human cities in America, but Kazuya was confident in his sensory abilities. Most of the vapor signatures were fairly weak though. Kazuya surmised that probably only three percent of Ravensworth’s hallowed population had powers of any relevance.
Though hallowed made up nine to ten percent of the world’s population, for most big cities on average there were only two hallowed to every ten people. For rural areas eight hundred to every twenty thousand.
Not to mention that influence of the Forum, a group of Valterians that controlled the Earth’s governments from the shadows was an ever-present part of the city—the cult’s tendrils covertly wrapping around the human secret societies, government organizations, and the various villain and hero groups throughout the world. It was difficult to escape a connection to one of their controlled fraternal orders. Practically every major town and city had been built on a secret edifice.
The actual members of the Forum didn’t travel together in large groups, making them hard to locate. Usually, no more than three would be found together in a public area. Four at the most. Kazuya hadn’t been able to sense any hidden Valterians all night, but that wasn’t surprising. Acting in the world in secrecy for millennia, they had mastered the art of repressing their vapor signatures, leaving the masses blind to events they had orchestrated throughout history. They always managed to cover their tracks well.
Being out in the open would attract attention from the Valterian and Arcadian rulership. Powerful beings attract powerful enemies after all. However, though he could not locate the Forum members residing in the city, there were two distinct, familiar Valterian signatures he was aware of—one that was practically blaring through the atmosphere to get his attention ever since he had landed on the planet.
Making another jump, Kazuya hit the side of a skyscraper on all fours. Sending spiritual energy to his hands and feet, he morphed his fingers and toes into sharp claws, using his vapor to stick to the glass surface. Within a second, he scurried across the glass building, launching himself upward. As Kazuya flung himself over the top of the structure, he let gravity pull him toward the ground. His feet gracefully hit the edge of the building with a tap as he stood up straight, completely balanced.
Looking at the lively city below, thoughts of recent events and his current predicament rolled over in his mind. Mercy and Tiffany—even if the latter twin wouldn’t admit it—would probably be worried when they would wake to find him gone the next day, thinking he had left them to fend for themselves with their questions unanswered.
He would be back to check on them; however, it had been a rough few weeks, and he needed time away from the pestering girls that put him in that disparaging living situation. He needed time away from everyone. He needed time to himself.
Time to think, to get his thoughts and feelings sorted out. Kazuya glanced at his shoulder before rolling it twice. It looked as good as new, completely healed after his use of the Sacred Seal; yet, the phantom pain from being struck by Shekhinah’s ruby-shaded lance still lingered.
Exhaling silently, Kazuya leaped from the roof of the skyscraper, once more descending into the night. He had a meeting, someone was waiting for him, and it wouldn’t be good to be late. Getting a better sense of the subdued Valterian energy signature from below, he headed toward Ravensworth’s nightlife scene.
Finding himself deep inside the Downtown area, Kazuya approached the rooftop of a small pub that was almost hidden between the various restaurants, bars and, shops in the area. Kazuya consciously made an effort to lower his vapor as he landed in a dark alley across from the bar, not wanting to draw attention to himself. Using his ability to shapeshift, he absorbed his white tails into his body and slightly shortened his hair. He then morphed his clothing into something more casual, his kimono and sandals changing into a simple dress shirt with pants and well-polished shoes.
No need to change his face: it wasn’t like anyone here would recognize him. Before entering the bar, he looked up at the sign on top of the building. The sign above the bar read The Minister’s Hall. He had been told of this place earlier by the contact he was going to meet.
It was a truce zone of sorts, an establishment that openly welcomed halloweds. Villains would often meet here in costume to discuss future plans and even heroes were seen here occasionally. Most of the time the government-sponsored heroes came around, however, was to mediate talks between the villain groups or help facilitate negotiations between the heroes and villains.
It was a good place to find information on capes if you knew who to talk to. It wasn’t as lavish as he would quite prefer, but it was clean, nice, and comfortable. The wooden floors gave a homey feeling, the bar itself neat and polished. There weren’t any windows toward the back, but the yellow lights gave off a nice, even glow that was dim enough and perfect for the pub atmosphere.
Instead of sitting at the bar, Kazuya looked at the tables on the other side of the pub, his eyes leading him to the source of the spiritual energy he was following. Looking back at him was a man sitting at one of the tables, wearing a blue overcoat and a fedora. Kazuya’s lips quirked upward with recognition. The person he was to meet was none other than Philo, the friend that had come to his aid when rescuing Mercy and Tiffany’s true parents; Philo was Valterian god of science and mystery.
Kazuya approached Philo calmly, internally feeling a bit of anticipation. He looked forward to telling his friend all that had gone on since they had narrowly escaped Corinath’s wrath.
At that time, Corinath and the other Lords of the Twelve Celestial Kingdoms were outraged that one of their own would break the ancient laws against mating with those they considered heathens. His friends, Malachi and Sibyl, were slated for execution, the Arcadian military sent after them along with Corinath himself, presumably enraged that his son would betray him. Malachi and his wife were real parents of the twin Valterian-Arcadian hybrid children, not the two useless agents SIGMA had running about.
He chuckled internally at the thought. The reaction the girls would have after being released from the induced amnesia given to them for the last ten years would be glorious.
Kazuya sat across from Philo quietly and beckoned a waitress with a hand to come to serve the table. As the twenty-something looking girl nervously took Kazuya’s order—taken in by Kazuya’s natural charisma and alluring smile no doubt—he looked around slowly, enjoying the ambiance.
Kazuya noticed that there two hallowed on opposite ends of the pub, neither in costume. They looked ordinary enough, like regular humans. Perhaps they wanted to stay low key? They could blend in easily with the other patrons none the wiser. It made sense. Not all hallowed wanted to be capes. Some people just wanted to have a normal life.
After the young lady hand returned with the drinks Kazuya ordered, he looked at it with a dissatisfied sniff. The alcohol that humans served now was so much weaker than that of what was given centuries ago.
Philo didn’t say anything, his glowing blue eyes drifting as he observed Kazuya. Kazuya said nothing either, his own eyes tracing over Philo’s metal-encased face. The two remained in silence for a few moments longer, before Philo reached inside his coat. Kazuya stiffened, but all Philo did was begin to speak.
“You took your time,” he said, his voice low. “This place will close soon.”
Kazuya smiled. “I was distracted by the city nightlife.”
Philo scoffed. “I don’t like to have my time wasted, Kazuya.”
Kazuya leaned back in his chair, unbothered by Philo’s irritation. “You should learn to relax a bit, Philo. Instead of being cooped up in that lair of yours. Getting some light every now and then is good for you.”
Philo snorted, pointing upward toward the ceiling lights with a finger. “You call that light? My lab is ten times brighter than this.”
Kazuya shrugged, amused by his friend’s trivial complaints. “You forget the atmosphere we are in.”
Philo waved a hand in dismissal. “I never really liked taverns.”
“No? You were the one that suggested we meet here.”
“Because we could talk here undisturbed, and it was an easy place for you to find. ”
Philo glared at Kazuya for a moment. “Why did you want to meet in public so soon after that Arcadia fiasco? You know it’s better for us to stick to the shadows at this time. I’m almost surprised you’re still alive, considering the injuries you had.”
To save the parents of the Mercy and Tiffany, Kazuya had left Valteria alone, not willing to wait for help from his people who were still disgruntled by the actions he had taken earlier that day; his fight with the ex-Valterian king. As he had arrived in at the Arcadian capital of Serenus, he had caused destruction tenfold, drawing the attention of the Arcadian military away from Malachi and Sibyl.
Though he had been a bit careless with his execution, rashly killing innocent Arcadians, in his opinion the Arcadian response had been a bit much. Though the Arcadian military had mounted a counterattack, Kazuya had been able to escape and find the forbidden pair hiding in the forgotten lands of Asterralith.
Corinath had been hot on their heels—chasing them down to the ends of the heavens. Exhausted, Kazuya had fought with his all to allow Sibyl and Malachi to escape with, Philo, and Jun, his own mate. Kazuya had gotten away soon after, managing to slip through Corinath’s fingers. He’d ended up being chased to Earth by Shekhinah and her fellow warriors.
Kazuya huffed softly. “It would take more than Shekhinah and her students to kill me.” Kazuya raised his hands, openly. “As you can see, I have fully healed. I used the Sacred Seal.”
Philo observed him quietly, not impressed by his theatrics. “You’ve healed physically at least. You’ve gotten better with your control of it.”
“You held yourself from killing your little courtesan.”
Kazuya gave a laugh. Philo must have been referring to how he had kept himself from eating Shekhinah. To Kazuya, the brief forbidden relationship that he had with his Arcadian mistress had drawn interesting parallels to the relationship between Malachi and Sibyl. Luckily, for Shekhinah’s sake, he had been discreet; for the most part, Kazuya had only met with her on sparsely populated terrestrial lands. Away from the Arcadian military’s prying eyes.
Kazuya assumed Shekhinah must have jumped at the chance to chase after him when he had invaded Arcadia, considering how their tryst had ended. He smirked as he recalled the reaction Shekhinah had had when she had realized before their break up that he had used her to steal back a family heirloom of the Kairanna kingdom, an item that had originally belonged to the Valterian Fox clan. The Staff of Inari.
“You were there then?” Kazuya asked, alluding to the last fight with Shekhinah. “Standing by when I could have been in my final moments?”
Philo paused. It was hard for Kazuya to tell what exactly Philo was thinking with that expressionless metal mask on his face. He could feel an undercurrent of amusement in Philo’s vapor though.
“I knew you would survive,” Philo said at last.
“Is that because you knew I would use the Seal even though I hate it? Or was it those children?”
“I was too far away,” Philo replied. “I would have sent Jun to your aid if things were dire enough, but after Mercy had gotten hurt, I wanted to see how things would play out.”
Kazuya tilted his head, giving Philo a pensive look. “You were able to tell she had been contacted by Nature in that moment?”
“Of course, who do you take me for, young fox?”
Kazuya laughed at that. “Everything is young compared to your ancient self, old man.”
Philo ignored his barb. “Still back to what I said before. You should know better. Being out in the open while weakened is not like you.” He raised a hand to silence Kazuya before he could interject. “Yes, you have alleviated the wounds of the body but not the wounds of the spirit. You cannot afford to be careless with the type of enemies you have. You know this.”
“Careless? Never that,” Kazuya said with a slight smile. His smile dimmed as he sat up, facing his friend properly. “To be honest, I wanted to know if you were okay,” Kazuya said in a voiced laced with faux-concern. “After we nearly lost our lives and all.”
Philo stared at him. Clearly, he didn’t appreciate Kazuya’s sarcasm.
“Very well,” Kazuya said. “You already know why I’m here since you know everything. Why ask?”
Philo turned his body away from the table looking toward the bar. “I’m not quite sure…”
“The apple,” Kazuya said, looking at the hand Philo still had in his coat pocket. “Did you bring it?”
“You didn’t ask for it,” Philo rasped. “Luckily, I am not you, and I actually remember important things. I have it. I knew what you were planning to do with this ever since we had taken four of the forgotten six to Earth.”
Kazuya smiled, pleased that Philo had come through like always. “It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since we had saved those children from the fallout of the Bloodstained Festival.”
“Yes,” Philo agreed. “Time passes quickly for us that never die.” He pulled an apple out from his coat and gently held it out. Kazuya snapped it up from his hands before storing it with his powers, placing it through a golden portal.
He could have taken the time to carefully examine the fruit, but he trusted Philo. After all, he’d stolen it himself originally, right from under the Elder Gods: an apple from the Tree of Life, a fruit of tremendous power. It held the key to life; it was something that could return Mercy and Tiffany to their former glory.
“Soon,” Kazuya mused, looking off into the distance, “with the way things are going, those girls may need their powers, their divinity. Their memories back.”
“It’s not as easy as you say,” Philo said. “It’s possible that they might perish from consuming it now.”
Kazuya frowned, but before he could reply, he felt a vapor energy enter the pub, energy so strong it threatened to knock him off his chair. It was the same Valterian signature he had felt broadcasting itself all over the city the entire night.
Kazuya did not fall off his chair, of course; he was way too practiced in vapor resistance to actually show that something like that was affecting him. But it still startled him how that ridiculous woman would let her energy run free like that. She would draw all types of attention. Attention they didn’t need.
Kazuya shook his head. She felt no need for subtlety or to stay hidden. Just like her old master, Decimatus. Kazuya glanced at her as she moved deeper into the bar. The woman wore a pale brown fur coat with moss green dress and dark brown scarf. Not bad. It was moderate compared to Kazuya’s extravagant style but it complemented her well. She made eye contact with him as she approached their table, putting on her usual facade of a vivacious personality. She greeted the both of them with her cheery voice, her eyes wide and her lips drawn back in a smile.
“Kazuya! Philo! It has been too long,” she said, giving them both hugs while ignoring Philo’s protests. She glanced at Kazuya, the light in her amber eyes dancing. “So how are the wife and kids?”
Kazuya rolled his eyes. “For the hundredth time, Venus, Jun isn’t my wife. She’s just a mate.”
“Still frolicking through the realms with that Arcadian whore I see. I’m not surprised. Sometimes you make the most idiotic decisions. Challenging Decimatus to a losing battle and then running off after you were beaten black and blue to fight Corinath, to save a pair of fools? Really?”
Kazuya narrowed his eyes and frowned at her. The painful memory etched itself in his mind; the long grueling duel he had had with Abratikhu-Decimatus Dragonborne, the great Valterian dragon god.
He had challenged Decimatus to a fight, one that ex-Valterian king accepted. Perhaps that was a little foolish. For a moment, Kazuya replayed the events of the conversation he had had with the ex-king in his head. Decimatus had been in attendance of a feast held in his honor and hosted by Arden, his daughter and the new king of Valteria. Kazuya had caught up with him during the party, and midway through had challenged him to a fight in jest.
Decimatus, of course—damn his soul—took Kazuya’s gibe as a serious affront to his honor and combat prowess, demanding that they have a battle right outside of the castle dining hall. Kazuya, bored and looking for excitement at the time went through it, knowing Decimatus was one of the only beings in existence that could push him past his limits.
Though he had lost, Kazuya’s decision to actually fight Decimatus instead of giving an apology didn’t go over well with most of the Valterians present—including one of his most precious students, King Arden.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst of it. Soon after his fight with Decimatus, an aide had come to his side to give him a message: Sibyl and Malachi had been discovered together on Arcadia by Corinath. Though Kazuya had been tired from the battle with Decimatus, he’d known that he needed to go to Arcadia to save his old friends immediately.
“I won’t even dignify that statement with a response,” Kazuya said to her at last.
Venus went on, her gaze sharp. “I am serious, not making fun. What gave Malachi the gall to think that he could meet with Sibyl right under Corinath’s nose?”
Kazuya shook his head and sighed. He hadn’t pegged Malachi as the impulsive type, but Kazuya knew that he could be very impatient at times. It didn’t help that Malachi had the habit of thinking with his heart instead of his head.
“I will concede to you on that point. Regardless, Tamamo and Ninigi were fine when I saw them last.”
“Ninigi!” Venus exclaimed. “Where is that bastard? He always promises to spend time with me and never shows.”
Kazuya narrowed his eyes. Calling his son a bastard right to his face? The audacity of this woman. “My son and I haven’t talked since he had left his own family a few years ago. I’m not sure what that boy is up to now.”
“She resides in Paradise currently.”
“Oh? Still waiting for you to bring back Inari’s staff?”
“You know of that?” Kazuya asked with a slight smile. His young daughter would be pleased to finally get ahold of the staff of her grandfather as it was something Kazuya had promised to her long ago. Jun’s father, Inari Ōkami, had lost it a battle with Corinath about twenty thousand years ago, right before Corinath had become ruler of all of Arcadia in a skirmish between the Fox clan and Arcadian forces. Inari Ōkami was forever crippled from that battle, leaving Corinath victorious. But miraculously, the crafty fox survived.
“I know of a lot of things, Kazu,” Venus said while she ran her gloved hands through her long, orange-brown hair, fixing the sunglasses that were on top of her head. “Well, I see that unlike her older brother she’s still of sound mind. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Ninigi’s probably messing around in the Animal Kingdom again. He mentioned something about training there to get stronger last time I talked to him.” She glanced at Philo quizzically. “What is it with boys and their training?”
So Ninigi had disappeared to that no man’s land? Interesting. Kazuya filled that information in the back of his mind for later as he continued to listen to Venus’ complaints about how the Animal Kingdom shouldn’t even be considered to be part of the Nine Great Lands; she disliked the fact that it was a major territory in Valteria.
“You know, I don’t remember inviting you to this meeting, my dear,” Kazuya said.
“Ah,” Venus exhaled in an exaggerated fashion, placing an arm on Kazuya shoulder and giving him an open smile. “I couldn’t help myself after noticing that my brethren I haven’t seen in so long have arrived here in my city,” she paused. “You know how hard it is dealing with these humans. If you stay here alone in this god-forsaken place long enough, you’ll go crazy.”
Kazuya eyed her, his head tilted a little. He favored her with a smile. Her city was it? This girl was too much.
“How is it your city when you haven’t officially done anything to claim it?”
“Oh Kazu,” she coddled. “I play the long game, you understand?”
“Why are you really here?” Philo asked.
“Something you had caught my eye. What you had given to Kazuya. An apple of life.” Venus put a hand on Philo’s shoulder, moving her face close to his silver one, causing him to flinch away. “How did you get it?”
If Philo had any less control, he would have probably dipped his head into his palms right there. “Is this your way of mocking me? Kazuya is the one that took it. Even I don’t know how he had managed that.”
Venus snickered. “Yes, that I do know. It seems you’re not as smart as you think you are, Philo. That’s something you need to work on. Your pride in your knowledge will only get you so far, you know.”
“Is that the only reason you’re here?” Philo asked. “For the apple? Or perhaps you’re spying for the Forum?”
Venus expression turned sour, her face losing its liveliness. She let go of Philo and glared at him. “As if I would associate with those Luciferian mongrels.”
“Really?” Philo asked. “Considering your ultimate goal, the fact that you aren’t working for them is a surprise.”
Venus fixed him with a glare that could freeze the sun. “I told you. You’re not as smart as you think you are. Don’t presume to know me.”
Kazuya regarded the Valterian god of corruption as she fiddled with her golden necklace; she was busy having a staredown contest with Philo. For a second, he looked at the pendant running through her figures. The gem in the center filled with energy and corruption, like a ball of fire and molten rock. Venus looked toward him, drawing his gaze.
“Now to get what I really wanted to speak on. Kazuya, you have an Arcadian problem, and it’s only going to get worse. We all know Corinath won’t be satisfied with the current turn of events.”
“What are you saying?”
“I am saying that I would like to offer my help.”
Philo stiffened, giving Venus a skeptical look. Kazuya, though not worried, felt a little suspicious.
“Why would you go out of your way to help us and fight a battle that isn’t yours?”
Venus gave him a slight grin. It was the most genuine smile she had given him all night. “Because I have a vested interest in the six children you rescued in Avalon. Especially the two hybrids.”