Prelude and Chapter 1
I will speak now of the Prophecy of the Circle…
A circle of five hearts, five souls, that when brought together, will either save or damn all the worlds within and beyond the Veil.
The First is and yet is not of my blood. She who is mortal, yet she who is not. I know now that this speaks of Elurra; she is the First, born of my blood, and ascended to my sphere in Moonshadow, yet who may cross freely into the Veil, born of it as a mortal.
The Second is the creator, the giver of life to the lifeless, yet who bears only a false life herself. The Second will be born in a great age of strife, and will decide the ultimate fate of the human world.
The Third is the destroyer and the counterpart to the Second. He will be the healer who brings destruction, the innocent monster whose path will be forged in fire, blood, and darkness.
The Fourth I know well, yet know not, a life given for a life claimed, the restoration of the natural order of life and death. The Fourth will be the key, who will prime the circle.
The Fifth is the trickster of half-blood, whose heart contains the deepest shadows. It is the Fifth who will complete the circle, and upon their power will hinge either the success or failure of the prophecy, and thus, the fate of all things.
He doesn’t scowl as he looks upon me. His features merely settle into a cool, dispassionate frown. But he cannot hide his thoughts. Surthath, once my father and now my equal in power, sets himself opposite to me in our cosmic limbo as we continue our game of chance and strategy for the right to rule mortals as we see fit. I am Dur’Artoth, the Old One of death, tyranny, and nothingness, and I have set myself to glorious purpose; ending the problem of mortality.
A board rests between us, the method of visually representing our feud. The pieces on our board, mostly sapphire and obsidian, represent our followers waging war all throughout the cosmos.
This will be our final bout.
Surthath checks my move, taking a pawn with little ease. This is acceptable, as I see a fitting retaliation in the next six turns.
I ease into my seat; a reflection of the throne I’d shattered in my invasion of Darkmoor; the tortured realm of my predecessor.
As my realm has changed to suit me, so too has my body, now a reflection of the four horned visage of my newfound brother. Where he is beautiful, if alien, I am a thing to be feared. Where his fur is white, his two sets of horns, one curled like a ram’s, the other long and winding like a gazelle’s, are of polished ivory, and his mail-backed robes glitter, I consume brightness and light with tarnished titanium armor, serrated horns, and matted fur the color of night. My black feathered wings unfold, twitching as I consider my next moves. My hair is a mane of writhing tentacles that periodically gush rivulets of acidic slime down my shoulders, and a drop strikes one of the Magi God’s pawns, dissolving it into vapor.
“You put much stock into your lessers. How tragic.” I say with a chuckle, weaving dark magicka into a new piece to replace the one I’ve lost, its surface pitted and scarred, indicative of the soul’s condition. My brother seethes in anger, his talons gouging into the board, “How far you have fallen, my child, calling upon the dead, but have you forgotten in your haste that it is now my move?”
One of Surthath’s sapphire pieces, indicative of an elven magister residing in the mortal world of Carthspire, strikes out at one of the Skraul, a nocturnal and virulent species once extinct that has been re-emerging due to my attentions, and the vampyre falls, returning to the void of my realm of Darkmoor.
“Was it not you who suggested this gambit? You, who seek to preserve something which is doomed to failure? You do this for what end, I wonder? Do you perhaps seek to finish Anima’s work, or your own? A god of logic, indeed…”
“...and might I add that you, in your anger, have sacrificed your lead? Tengu.” I whisper, calling to fruition a gambit that I had made decades previous. The souls of all mortals shall wither and die upon my victory.
I will succeed.
The wind abruptly changed direction, and in it she could smell her pursuer. Uchiki dashed through the forest, carrying her infant daughter in her arms. Why had she not asked Lenao to accompany her to the hot springs?
She’d spent several years in this world, adjusting to the climate and learning of potential hazards, but she was sorely weakened. She could not combat such a threat on her own anymore...
It moved so quickly!
It didn’t seem fair to her, having to outrun something that walked on four legs, but she knew the animal could climb with decent ability as well, and scaling one of the trees wouldn’t save her. No, she had one chance; she had to reach Lenao’s tower before the creature overtook her!
The beast roared, no longer so distant, knocking aside the same low hanging branches that had hindered her and indeed hindered her still. She wasn’t unarmed, of course; Lenao had given her a wand; a small length of ebony enchanted to contain a electricity-based spell, but such a thing would kill only a human. What chased her was a bear, and its damnable bulk would absorb much of the shock, making her weapon little more than a useless twig.
There! It was still so far away, but Uchiki marked the tapered peak of the tower above the roof of the forest. She was nearly home!
“A little bit longer, whole of my heart…” she gasped, clutching the babe to her pained chest as she leaped over a fallen tree. Her sandals plunged into a shallow puddle, sending up a splatter of cold water, but Uchiki pressed through her numbed feet and quickened her pace. So close! She was so close!
The beast broke through a fallen log, and couldn’t have been more than a bowshot away. Closing in for the kill. But fear was lending to her own pace, and Uchiki nearly broke out in hysterics, the shapes of the forest seeming to take on lives of their own; every shadow now a hungry beast biting at her heels. Without warning, the ground suddenly rose up, and she collapsed.
Uchiki looked up, dazed, to see a jutting shard of rock marked with a red stain. Her child was still in her arms, upset but unharmed: she’d had the sense to land on her back, but she noted distantly that her foot was twisted awkwardly at the ankle. There was shouting somewhere in the distance, but in her state she couldn’t make any sense of it. The bear was catching up to her too quickly…and now…
Uchiki realized she wouldn’t make it. Not with a wounded foot slowing her steps.
“Forgive me, Lenao…” she whispered through tears, readying her life energy in order to trigger a final spell. As the beast broke through the thick vegetation, frothing, snarling in impotent rage and something else that she couldn’t identify, Uchiki uttered a single word of power, and whisked her child away.
Shinabi flinched, as a terrible scream pierced the silence of the early night. He brought his bow back into position, all the while quickening his pace. The Ussuri Brown he was hunting wasn’t far, and the scream had come from the same direction. Had his quarry mauled someone in its flight of terror?
“Faster.” he whispered to his fellow hunters, each carrying a similar bow, and each of them followed as he pushed his way through the Gampi and Marsh trees, ignoring now his discomfort from the long chase.
Though he saw little in the still forest around him, he knew the bear was near. He took aim, and he saw a small patch of brown fur amid the bush that marked the beast and its position. They struck in unison, and four arrows plunged shaft-deep in the bear’s flank. The neurotoxin coating their arrows, harvested from a Mamushi Viper, took effect almost instantly, and the beast collapsed almost without a fuss. Shinabi crept through the undergrowth, a second arrow already poised for flight, but the telltale rise and fall of the chest was not present. Its eyes were already glazing over. It was dead…
“Try and find them.” He said to the others, who would surely have heard the scream as well, and they swiftly combed the surrounding area about a stone’s throw wide; a bushy copse that loomed beneath the shadow of the heretic’s tower. Shinabi in truth knew little of the enchanter that supposedly resided within, save that he was an ex-member of the Renmei Kisai, who for whatever reason was admitted outside of their fortress to the north.
He returned his attention to the ground, and noted the blood staining the bear’s claws; fresh, not even clotted. Someone had been attacked by his quarry…
The guilt weighed upon him, but Shinabi didn’t stop his search to grieve or berate himself for fear that the victim may yet be alive and in need of immediate attention. Rhenmaru appeared with a grim look on his face, confirming his fears.
“I found a trail of blood, leading several bowshots into a small canyon with the river leading across it. If they fell, they must have been carried away by the river. As cold as it is…”
“Very well, let us clean the carcass and be-”
A noise interrupted him, something that may have very well slipped by the attention of another. But he was a skilled hunter, trained all his life to notice signs that most would not. Shinabi paced around the carcass, following a second noise akin to the first; almost a mewling of a cub, but mixed with the chirp of a bird. Seven paces stood between him and the bear, and the sound repeated, more frantically. One of the Gampi trees ahead had a hollow, probably served as a nest at one point.
The mewling quieted, but Shinabi had already honed in on its source, and he reached into the hollow with both hands, blindly feeling the inside of the gutted tree. His hand caught something soft; skin. Someone had left a babe out here?! Perhaps the bear’s victim? Shinabi explored softly, trying to get a firm grip but not wanting to harm it, when a few tactile sensations…confused him.
What was he holding?
He took enough of it to gently pull it out of the tree, and when his eyes fell upon what he had found, surely they nearly fell out of his head!
The size and shape of a human infant but much slimmer, the creature that he held was reptilian, with light blue skin and patches of light brown on its belly, underarms, and throat. There were pale stalks sprouting from the crown of its head, almost like tufts of hair. As he cradled the creature, it grasped his hand softly with opposable thumbs, a forked tongue darting in and out of its narrow snout. A pair of bright violet eyes appraised him, fearful at first, but calming quickly, perhaps from his body heat or something pleasant in his scent. Rhenmaru approached him, drawn by the resuming mewling, eyeing the creature with mixed awe and confusion.
“What is it?” he asked, not daring to touch it. The creature had a few distinguishing marks, enough to determine that it was female, and the softness of its skin and muscles suggested it was indeed relatively newborn.
“It’s a girl. A little baby girl”.
She was covered in a knitted wool blanket of fine quality. He also noticed something wrapped around the creature’s…her, hand; an arrangement of beads held together with string, each bearing a peculiar runic symbol, which he inspected through the babe trying to nuzzle him. The first few were alien to him, unreadable, but the last sequence formed letters of the Common Alphabet he’d been forced to learn as a child.
“It’s a name... sounds like…”
Shinabi struggled with the syllables, forcing himself to recall back to his tutoring as a child, “Kaileena”.
Frustration and failure welled up inside him, and the stale air carried his screams all throughout the dungeon. It was no use. Here he sat, waiting to die.
Yokai idly manipulated the woven steel bindings that covered his wrists and were muffling his magickal powers, just wishing someone would end it already!
Yokai; the enchanter of tainted half-blood. That was his name, though the moniker was incorrect. Half-blood he may be, born of a native of Teikoku and an elven foreigner, but the later was no taint. Indeed, no ordinary human could have accomplished what he had; none could have possessed the patience. Decades...silent under the tyranny of his Renmei Kisai Masters, the “fellow enchanters” that had pretended to tutor him, to befriend him.
Indeed, they had taught him much; how to live as a slave under the thumb of the magicka-phobic tyranny of the Hitorigami. They had taught him how to cast away one’s pride as a wielder of magicka, how to be led about like cattle, creating enchantments that would be used by those that hated and feared him, feared all of them...
But he had been vigilant and patient, silently weakening the Renmei Kisai from within; converting its apprentices, hiding excess reagents, extracting Vitrium from his own body as the obscure, forbidden texts had detailed. Decades, imprisoned in the only home he’d ever known, plotting his revenge, and his revolution. He had planned to tear a hole in the fabric of reality and summon the Dragon Tengusraczaria. With such a powerful ally, he could have crushed the Renmei Kisai, and lifted those in his service to the higher calling of open revolt against the Hitorigami. But the masters had known! They’d used his efforts as a means to identify and exterminate rebellious elements in the organization, if it could be called such a thing.
Yokai scowled, waiting for the coming morning in which his former brethren would cast him aside to the Karyudo Kisai, for his execution, just like all the others. He’d been so close! The fabric of the Veil had yielded to him, and the Dragon had appeared just as the extra-planar entity had described. She could have aided his escape from his prison, with his followers in tow...she nearly had...
And then the Renmei Kisai masters had come…interfered with his ritual, and banished Tengu before he could fully bind her to his world.
He hissed in sheer, hopeless frustration. Those with power like his should have been ruling this world, and yet under the tyranny of The Hitorigami he would die a slave, wretched and hated and alone.
“You know better than holding to hope…” Maki, his guard and an agent of the Karyudo Kisai, the Hitorigami’s secret police, mused, spinning his sickle-shaped kusarigama in his hand, his finger-length hair matted and flecked with bits of dirt, his bad eye seeming to wink, “It’s all over now”.
“You are a cruel man, Maki."
The Karyudo Kisai agent smirked, laughed, and his mirth only grew in volume even as he left the room. He was alone. As he had been his entire life. As he would be when that miserable life came to an end.
The path led him through utter desolation, emptiness, a barren waste without end. The wind blew in torrents, blasting him with loose grey sands, and Ryū tried in vain to shield his eyes. The wind was an organic force, however; it pushed around his defenses, seeped through the cracks to irritate his eyes and wounds. It was cold…so cold…and he had nothing for warmth but the shredded loincloth that had been given to him by his Skraul masters.
Ryū pawed at his back, at the red-black gashes all across the silvery sheen of his skin, until finally, his strength depleted, he collapsed onto the sands. He fell into wound shock, curling into a ball, opening the wounds further, and loose rivulets of his blood congealed in the grounds under him in an expanding pool. When he had lived among his people, the Silkrit, Ryū had been a healer, a medicine man, and so he clearly understood the gravity of his injuries. It was over; he would die here, on this day, alone and so very far from home.
The Silkrit did not see his life flashing before him, as they often claimed would be the pre-mortem transition. Instead, he only had one thought flashing through his mind; that of Oki, his mate. She’d been so young, and he, in his middling years…the others had often wondered why she had chosen him as her mate, but he hadn’t needed to understand. He still didn’t. He’d been so happy, more so than he had ever imagined…until…
Ryū coughed up bloody phlegm, and after the fit, he saw something that nearly stopped his heart. Within his own sick, black streaks intertwined with the red and clear saliva. A very clear hint of what awaited him when he lost consciousness.
No! He had to get home, get away! This was not happening!
He had seen the profane ritual, observed as the vampyric Skraul had mutilated themselves and their Silkrit slaves in worship to the Dread Hammer Dur’Artoth. Skraul blood, the blood of vampyres, was black…and his was turning black as well!
Ryū tore himself from what was to be his grave, gritting his teeth through the pain as his breath started to fail him. N0! He would escape, find someone…cure it before…
Ryū collapsed a second time, and his vision grew hazy, with black spots swimming in the blurry, unreal sight of the wastes. He thought of Oki, of the child he would never see, and finally, mercifully, he knew no more.
“...for crimes such as this, no punishment is sufficient.” The speaker announced to the roaring crowd, which peppered him with curses and scraps of rotten food. Yokai didn’t lower his head as most prisoners would, instead opting to stare holes in the back of the speaker’s head.
The sun was rising in the distance, its ruby glow igniting the petals of the cherry blossoms, now coming into full bloom. It was the second month of spring, and the fourth month of the New Year, and of this month it was the twenty-second day, a very important day; the day of his execution.
The executioner stood behind him, still sharpening his Ōdachi with a whetstone. Single edged and forged of the finest folded steel, the blade was beautiful as it was deadly, featuring a standard cloth-wrapped manta-skin handle and a finely carved guard shaped like a diamond. Intended for two-handed combat, it was also a perfect choice for beheading. The blade could even cut a man in half, splitting them at waist level, and this was just the means of death to which he’d been condemned.
Yokai recalled a tale of similar swords that were tested for sharpness and durability by the successful completion of such executions, and the ones that were not up to the task were merely honed, and used again on the same victim. Some of those botched killings supposedly took hours to complete. Yokai suppressed the thought that such a fate might befall him, as the executioner had used that damnable weapon many times over, judging by its notches, and it was most assuredly up to the task of a single, clean blow. The death that followed, however...
His true killer hovered in the crowd, and Yokai didn’t need to put much effort in singling him out. The Colossus, as he was called, was only recently admitted into the ranks of the Karyudo Kisai, the Enchanter-Hunters, and had already developed a reputation for unnecessary brutality that had unsettled even the most callous of his superiors. From what Yokai had heard, the entire conversation between the Colossus and the leader of the Karyudo Kisai, Commander Itaku, had consisted with the former handing the head of a wanted rogue enchanter to the latter. In truth, no one was known to have spoken with the giant of a man at all…
Garbed from head to toe in lacquered wood and steel armor, the Colossus’ face was obscured by a mask depicting a leering animal that resembled a lion. The Colossus, like all members of the Karyudo Kisai, didn’t use magicka, but did carry powerful enchanted items created and maintained by the slaves of the Renmei Kisai, specifically designed to neutralize enchantments or twist them against their wielders.
The nerve was almost as immeasurable as the irony…
Yokai had faced the monster during his attempted escape, draining every ounce of the power within his enchanted items, but the Colossus had seemed utterly impervious to his Jumon; his spell craft, and Yokai, on the other hand, had not at all been immune to the strikes from the viscous kanabo that the Colossus used. The kanabo was the most singularly malevolent weapon ever conceived by his “people”; a massive wooden club tipped with iron studs. One swing could break swords and bash through even the stout iron suits of armor that the Pirate Lords had brought with them when they had sailed in from an unknown shore, fleeing an unknown enemy.
The gruesome weapon had smote his ribcage, and nearly killed him with the impact alone. But his captors had seen fit to (mostly) allow his wounds to heal so they could make his death public.
Yokai stared at the Colossus, who made no indication of motion at all through the thin black linen eye covers of his mask. His heart pounding blood into his head, Yokai was led to the wooden post and tied standing up with his arms stretched overhead, set in position for his execution. “Have you any last words, enchanter?!” the speaker hissed, the howls of the blood-crazed crowd becoming deafening.
“It shall not be my death today, but yours.” Yokai replied simply, staring defiance into the wretches who thought themselves worthy of ending him. There had to be something Tengu had taught him that would save him now!
“See it done, Shorkiru”.
Shinabi watched the flames crackle in the stove; an invention of the Pirate Lords imported into Teikoku. It was still early in the morning and he didn’t want anyone to catch cold, so he kept it at a high temperature, alternating a series of dials to control the amount of heated air that poured out from the inner chamber. Gatsuyu, his son of two years of age, sat on the rug, toying idly with the painted Koma tops that he’d bought a few weeks prior. His son was still struggling to stand, let alone walk, so thankfully Shinabi hadn’t needed to keep too close a watch.
Kaileena, on the other hand, had developed with incredible speed in the four months he’d raised her, and had proven a more difficult challenge. As he watched, she was scaling the ropes from which his cooking pots hung, clutching them with slender but firm hands as she tasted the air with her forked tongue, eyes wide with insatiable curiosity. She must have been born of a creature akin to a tree lizard, but Shinabi still hadn’t found the slightest clue as to who or what had cried out that night.
“Mind your grip, my dear. Don’t fall…” he teased, knowing she couldn’t understand him. Still, Kaileena looked back to him, those violet eyes with thin reptilian slits somehow both eerily intelligent and oddly humorous, as was the gurgling sound that escaped her lips. He didn’t bother to try and explain to himself the abnormal family he’d been given, merely thanking The Great Totoanatsukami for the gift. His wife Yarikoi had died giving birth to Gatsuyu, and Shinabi had at the time cursed the Creator Gods for taking her away, but he’d managed, having one of the midwives from the nearby settlement care for his son while he’d hunted to keep them both fed. After bringing home Kaileena, it’d seemed like Shinabi had found a daughter and a sister for Gatsuyu, and with the new demands of the family he’d forsaken the hunt. He’d sought out a merchant in Kazeatari, bought up as much seed and fertilizer that he could, and changed his profession to that of a farmer so he could always be near his children.
They were still too young for proper clothing; a good thing, because he hadn’t secured any hand-me-downs from the villagers, who were in fact curious of the variety that he was asking for, knowing his wife was no more and had only borne a son. All he could provide for either of them for the moment were the rag diapers that did in fact help keep some of the…un-pleasantry…of child-rearing manageable. As he watched, Kaileena slid down the rope and landed on the rug rump first, and he tensed. The girl did not cry, however, merely looking at the Koma tops that Gatsuyu was playing with.
Something unseen startled Kaileena, and she turned her head to the far wall. “What is it, my dear?” Shinabi asked, wondering if she’d detected an animal nearby. He’d noticed some time ago that Kaileena had an incredibly acute sense of smell in addition to her mobility, and had climbed out of her crib one night because she’d smelled the soup cooking outside. It might have been his imagination, but he thought he saw a change come over those eyes; the color, and the intelligence therein.
Shinabi shrugged, dismissing the thought, when he saw her lips moving, joined by a few stings of babbling. He nearly fell out of his seat; was she trying to talk?! That hadn’t happened before…
“S’ll-sh...ft.” Kaileena struggled out, sitting contentedly on the rug, and her veins suddenly appeared starkly pronounced. Cringing, blinking, he looked closer, but found that the bizarre phenomenon had passed. Her eyes again revealed only childish wonder and boundless curiosity.
Had he imagined it after all?
Sighing, the hunter saw his daughter look to him again with a wide, detached smile that was utterly guileless. Shinabi scooped up both her and Gatsuyu, and placed them both on his lap, finding that he too was smiling. Sometimes fate gave odd blessings…all that one could do was appreciate them.
What was that? Did I imagine that?
I eye my brother from across the board. He had cast no spell...but a spell had indeed been cast.
I scan the pieces on the table, checking and double-checking.
No...not him. He had left a conditional enchantment; a spell that would trigger at a certain time, when certain conditions were met. Something that drew from energy he had already set aside. He must have. But it didn’t emanate from him; he’d set it to be cast upon another...from another? Who...who?
Irritated, I decide I will keep my eyes peeled for any more trickery...
The Ōdachi shattered as it struck his side, displacing tiny shards that blinded the executioner. Yokai knew not what just happened, or what had given him a consumable reserve of magicka, but didn’t need to understand…
“Tengu, aid me!” he cried out, seeking his ally’s telepathic presence. He was answered almost immediately, as she cast a possession over him.
“Die, fool mortals!” Tengu’s lithe, sibilant voice snarled through his lips, and Yokai tore free of the ropes, falling onto the wooden platform with a reptilian hiss. The Colossus leaped onto the platform, his kanabo already in an overhead swing. Tengu-Yokai summoned a pocket of compressed superheated air beneath him, manifesting in the form of a tremendous sublimation in all directions. The men not possessed of defensive enchantments were incinerated and hurled bodily by the impact, but Tengu-Yokai noticed with a scowl that the armored giant of a man was already rising to his feet, seemingly unharmed. They shouted out an arcane couplet, channeling the Dragon’s raw magicka into a spell, which needed no enchanted item to activate. A disk of concentrated telekinetic energy formed beneath his feet, and the conjoined being propelled itself into flight, to freedom and future conquest.