The Path in the Shadow, Book 1 of the Enchanter's Cycle

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Chapter 4

“Now then, since you’re new to our little family.” the master of the brothel said, eyeing her coolly, "I will remind you of our rules before you watch the others practice. No one goes outside. No free rides. And if a client eyes you, be polite, be presentable, and be sultry."

Kaileena tried not to cringe. After Lord Minamoto had left her here, she’d been forcibly bathed, then clothed in an unflattering silk furisode kimono, white with swirling pink patterns and belted with an obi corset, along with a pair of pink stockings that opened around her toes.

She wasn’t allowed to have shoes, or most of the items she had brought with her except for her homemade perfumes, her dyes, and the potted blue flower, much like the one Father had gotten her as a child. The rest of her things had been sold or discarded.

She’d cried when no one was looking, but aside from the initial introductions she’d been left alone. Until now, where she was forced to attend lessons not unlike the school sessions with Umeka, albeit far less enjoyable…

"Now, Kaileena, this is a popular request among the noble ladies that purchase services here. While the men are allowed to see concubines and mistresses, a woman is forbidden to see male lovers in order to keep the bloodline pure. Due to this, the women of the court will see those such as you in order to feel that much needed relief, especially when their husbands are away. Umi, Shohiri."

At that, two of the gaisho rose from their cushions, both fully nude. As Kaileena watched with reddening cheeks, Shohiri gently nudged Umi onto her back, and spread her legs.

“I imagine this will be commonly asked of you, Kaileena. Watch how she uses both her lips and tongue to full effect.” he advised blankly, distracted by their performance, and Kaileena nodded meekly, wanting to look away but afraid of what he might do if she did.

As passions rose between the two gaisho, Umi moaned contentedly, beginning to gyrate her hips in order to make the movements deeper and more involving. Umi groaned, and cried out as she climaxed, and Shohiri rose with her mouth full.

“Always, always swallow when they finish. They like that.” he said, “Also, keep in mind that this task may be asked of you, or performed to you, depending on the client’s taste. Be ready for either.”

Time passed, and additional positions and styles were displayed, and she was even forced to perform a few herself, to make sure she was paying attention.

Three hours of it...

The master, the only man in the room, watched her the entire time, snapping at her or offering instruction, then, “Now, you have to not only remember all the positions you have seen, but be ready to perform any the customer might suggest. And there will be no refusals, even if the task seems degrading. The only time you have a right to call in an attendant is if they physically harm you...and that doesn’t count the occasional slap. You won’t waste their you understand?” he asked, and Kaileena nodded sheepishly, flushed.

"Good. Word has traveled and the suspension of disbelief has worn off, so there are some clients, old and new, eager to meet you. Your first session came at a high price, and is scheduled for tonight. Now get ready."

She bowed, collected her clothes, and left as fast and as gracefully as she could, returning to her room. Devoid of furnishings save for a sleeping cushion and a vanity mirror, there was nothing for her but sleep, and wait for…for her appointment.

The master had mentioned a foreign bed would be provided once it shipped, and even in her state, Kaileena found herself wondering what a foreign bed looked and felt like. What would it feel like when…?

She laid down, curling up inside of the thin blankets, and fought the urge to cry again.

“Going to do it so soon?” a woman asked from the door, and she opened her eyes again, turned her head to look over her shoulder. There was Shohiri, clothed as she was, a peculiar smile on her face.

“Are you here to harass me, like the rest?” Kaileena asked, shifting positions to face her directly. The gaisho seemed genuinely confused by her question, "Why? Because you look like you do? You look just like the rest of us now."

Kaileena stopped scowling, and had to fight the impulse again.

“If I can give you one bit of advice; for your first time, think of whoever shows up for you as someone you would’ve wanted to lay with in the first place. You do get used to the attention, trust me”.

Kaileena blinked, then made direct eye contact, something that she hadn’t done with anyone since arriving, "Thank you, Shohiri."

She frowned thoughtfully at that, then, “We…don’t say thank you very often here. I cannot remember the last time… Ah, never mind. Good luck tonight”.

Freedom. True freedom. Being born into servitude, Shirudo had been born without knowing it even existed. The Skraul had taken his mother, his father, his brother…his mate. One by one, all of them had been sacrificed or bled dry.

It was only when Ryū had stormed the slave pens and cut down his captors that Shirudo even learned of the concept. He remembered the exact words he’d used; “Join me, and live as you were always meant to.”

The world had become so much larger to him after that day; cold and frightening, and yet full of hope.

Ryū had given him that hope, and Shirudo knew he would never be able to repay him. Still, the victory he would soon deliver in Ryū’s name and in the name of their people would be a good start, organizing the largest raiding party in the short but eventful history of the Te Fukushu. Four hundred trained and determined fighters, equipped with Karu weaponry and armored in leather or scale-mail; quite a force indeed.

“Friends; brothers, sisters!” he cried, his voice quieting the cavern, "For over one hundred years we have suffered these beasts who dare to call themselves our masters. For well beyond that we have suffered the Karu. I look into each and every one of your eyes, and I see that pain."

Shirudo nodded at the scowls, his eyes falling upon a female that, lest he was mistaken, was the one Ryū had taken right off a slab and healed with his vampyric blood. Her spear was still blooded from the previous raid.

“That pain has brought us together. The enemy had though the pain would cow and cripple us. Nay; it has made us stronger! On this night, we will reply in kind! I have but one question; are you with me?!”

The looming spires of the necropolis dominated the night sky, peaking above the low, compact buildings constituting the city’s slums.

Ryū quickened his pace to an unnatural sprint, moving with the grace only a being not troubled by the weaknesses of the flesh could achieve.

He leaped up, concealed by the shadows, taking to the rooftops, then scaled up the surface of one of the towers, his nails extending to give him a firm grip, gazing up to the top level at the peak. The cold wind battered him, billowing his cloak wildly, but the elements didn’t overly discomfort him, stricken with the sensory deprivation of undeath.

As he neared the peak, skirting the occasional and quite unnecessary jutting spike, Ryū felt the tower slowly bending inward, towards the apex. He must have been at least three bowshots high by then. There was no proper door at the peak of the tower, but Ryū had attempted to cross such a barrier before; only the Skraul, or in this case, one with their powers, could enter. Only through this method could an iron tower be breached, save for a magical portal.

The only indication of the opening was a runic symbol, which Ryū activated by forcing himself up with one arm, drawing a dagger with the other, and cutting himself near the elbow, allowing blood to fall upon the rune. The surface of the tower melted inward; the “door” falling away as a viscous liquid, and Ryū pulled himself inside.

While it might appear to most that it was the dead of night, dawn was fast approaching, and he would wait an hour or two before he began his work, for the sun to fully take the horizon. The vampyres would enter a state akin to hibernation; a coma from which they could not wake easily. In the daylight hours, they were vulnerable, and Ryū would take full advantage. They thought themselves the predators of his world.

Today, they were the prey…

Kaileena wasn’t as nervous as she thought she’d be when her first stepped through her door. She shivered as he brushed his hand against her neck, playing his fingers along the ridge of her jawbone, but she was in no danger of fainting or screaming or throwing up.

Remembering Shohiri’s advice, she pictured a masculine version of what she imagined was her species; larger horn nubs, some of them curling. A wide, rippling chest. A mouthful of pointed teeth. Nimble but firm hands.

She forced a smile, her eyes set just below the client’s face, as was appropriate. His hands explored her body, as the tip of his nose ran along her neck, taking in her scent. He pressed her against him, his hands cupping her lower back. Then, they went a little further down...

“She will be lovely, thank you.” He said, dismissing the attendant and closing the door, and then he led her by the arm towards her bed cushion.

“Look at me.” he commanded, and as they locked eyes, she forced herself to see who she wanted, instead of the dark-eyed, gaunt human who was really there.

He’d paid more for her first time than a man might for most Geisha.

She tried to picture that, think of him fondly, for nobody would pay that price without holding the girl in question in no small regard. Physically, at least.

He drew the ribbon holding her obi together, and pulled it apart, unfolding and releasing her kimono.

She flinched, hands reflexively snapping up to hold the garment together, but he took hold of them, ignoring her shivering, and parted them, exposing her to him. Her tail lashed the floor. He dropped the garment to pool at her feet, leaving her nude aside from the stockings.

Kaileena did as she’d been told to, pulling his tunic loose by unwinding a cynch along his waist, letting her hands idly brush against his groin as she did. Minamoto’s words repeated again and again in her mind; ...wherever you live, you can come to love it.... ...Wherever you live, you can come to love it...

“So, Kaileena…” the client said gingerly, though there was a frightening hunger in his eyes, "I find I have need of you."

His pants loose enough to slide off, the client pushed himself into her, dragging her down onto the cushion. Kaileena gasped, as he held her arms back, locking her in an embrace. Her heart was fluttering, but Kaileena kept that image, forcing herself to believe that she wanted this, as the client leaned down and kissed her, hesitant, at first. Trying to figure out how to manage with her snout.

Kaileena sighed, whimpered, as her body went slack against him, flushed with his heat. He was like a furnace. Something even hotter probed between her legs, and she closed over it, as it prodded her lower belly, playful almost. His tongue slid into her mouth.

Then, as she let herself think this wouldn’t be so bad, he penetrated her. Sharply, and abruptly. She gasped, panting, trying to keep her breathing steady. She had seen the other girls perform, and it shouldn’t have hurt nearly this much!

He starting pushing, and she tried to gyrate her hips like the others had, crying out he made his way deeper.

It will get easier. she told herself silently, It has to.

She groaned discontentedly, and the client licked her, starting between her breasts, and working his way up to her neck. As violated as she felt, Kaileena knew this was the best that she could have hoped for; no man wanted her for a wife.

This fate that had been chosen for her, intricately knotted itself in the flux of her emotions; mixed disgust and frustrated sexuality. He nibbled at her neck, and Kaileena felt like she was suffocating with heat as his body settled her.

Was this what the humans of Kazeatari had wanted in the first place? Was this the only way she would be acknowledged as anything other than an oddity? As opposed to an object of curiosity, was she to be an object of lust?

The thrusts became more frequent, each one accompanied by a brief flash of pain adding to the constant ache in her modesty, and she opened her eyes, seeing his open and staring. She fought back the awkwardness, knowing that if she were stiff and unresponsive it would offend him, forcing her body against his in spite of the pain and her roiling emotions.

Suddenly, the client removed himself from her, and Kaileena gasped, from both the physical sensation and the thought that she’d offended him, but before she could say anything he pushed her over onto her belly. Breathing heavily, she pushed up her rump, knowing what was to come, as he yanked her tail, and forced into her from behind. He didn’t favor her modesty, it seemed...

She tried not to scream, in vain, forcing her eyes closed; it hurt far more there. She felt something hot and wet drip onto the sheets. Looking down, she cried out when she saw red.

How long she remained in that humiliating position, she couldn’t say. Time had lost all meaning.

The client was adamant now, forcing it in and out with heavy and frenzied thrusts, rutting her, deflowering her. Kaileena knew she was being too loud, but it hurt too much to quiet herself. He gripped her thighs has he thrust, rubbing her buttocks almost as a way of apology, then roped his hands around her legs, forcing her backward into him.

He held her quivering body to him as he thrust violently, his breathing uneven and strained, and as she couldn’t take any more, as it became truly unbearable, Kaileena felt a deep bloom of heat deep inside, felt something flowing, nay, bubbling, into her body.

She cried out, her legs wavering unsteadily, as he removed himself a final time, slumping over onto the cushion. Before she knew it, she rested against him, her back to his chest, her temples pounding in her head, somewhere between pained from her aching body, humiliated by what she’d just done with him, and relived that it was over.

“For your first time, you do well. I very much enjoyed myself; deflowering is a rare service in your profession. More the pity you won’t be so unschooled next time.” He said idly, manner-of-factly, squeezing a breast. Kaileena felt a deep shame with those words, mostly because he was right.

“Still, I would like to do this again. I’ll treat you, since I feel like you didn’t really enjoy it. Would you like that?” he asked, turning her to face him.

Kaileena nodded, meekly, meeting his eyes. He smiled, forcing another deep kiss, and it occurred to her that she didn’t even know his name. Nor could she ask; she was a gaisho now, and there would be many more men like him…

Black blood whet his lips. It gushed onto his face, his chest, his hands. Ryū savored every drop of Skraul blood, each successive slice punctuated with a fresh splatter and a pained moan.

The female before him was awakening from her slumber, only to find her throat cut and his arms pinning her down. Ryū smiled a mouthful of fangs, a pair on both the upper and lower jaw just a little longer than the rest, and bit deeply into her throat, tearing out what he’d cut. Her legs twitched, her eyes went wide, but so deep in death-like slumber she could only watch, helpless, as he fed off of her.

His frenzy peaking, he took a handful of black hair and twisted her head with an audible snap. When he could no longer see her face, the Vampyre pulled the head off and tossed it into a mirror against the far wall, shattering it on impact. Ryū hissed dispassionately, disinterested in a mere corpse, and crept back out into the corridor, searching for more prey.

Five rooms on the entry hall, unguarded. Six vampyres had occupied them, but there were six no longer. As their life energies filled him, Ryū also collected a variety of memories from their blood, as had occurred during the ritual that had transformed him. Not enough to puzzle out their erratic behavior of late, but more than a few interesting tidbits.

He drew Hyosho and Kaminari, his twin wakizashi, and now knew them for what they were; Blood-Forged weapons. Enchanted items given rudimentary sentience by his vampyric transformation and fed by the life energy he drew into his body through feeding.

They were just as vampyric as Ryū himself was!

The enchantment upon each Blood-Forged weapon was unique to the creator, influenced by the contents of their character. Once a healer, who sought only to help and comfort others, Ryū recoiled as a moment of introspection of the destructive nature of his weapons deprived him of the notion that that person was still in him somewhere.

So be it; his people didn’t need a healer right now. They needed a monster, which even the Skraul would fear. He felt vilified in spite of his shame, knowing he’d made the right choice in choosing to exist; he would save his kind, and then he would die content with his purpose completed, all his enemies burned to ash or staked in the fields to rot.

“Hello.” a man said behind him, “Fancy meeting you here.”

Ryū turned, his blades bared and crackling with energy, and found himself face to face with a fully alert and armed Skraul. Skin the color of obsidian, with milky, lidless eyes, it grinned a mouthful of fangs, armored in dark iron. There was a stylized crest upon his breastplate, one that gave even Ryū pause.

A Prime...

“I’ve heard so much about you, and it’s such a pity that our encounter will be so brief.” the Skraul said pleasantly, offering a stiff, formal bow, “You may call my Kyokan, if you wish. It does seem appropriate that we be properly introduced”.

Ryū grinned, his forked tongue tasting his enemy’s scent, "So be it. I am Ryū, breaker of chains and hunter of Skraul. Introductions made. You, like the rest of your kind, will die for your crimes against my people."

Kyokan lightly shook his head, "Animals are slaughtered for food. It is the way of things, no crime to speak of. And you are even less than a beast; a feral of tainted blood. A half-breed. You aren’t even one of them."

They eyed one another, letting the silence stretch a few moments. Ryū attacked first, driving both blades forward in impaling motions, and Kyokan parried both points with the flat of his blade and scabbard, both items flaring a swirling viridian aura. Ryū blocked the counterattack, and pushed a blade up while driving his other low in a riposte, and Kyokan dashed away, his vampyric blood lending him unnatural speed that made him blur with his surroundings.

Ryū advanced again, his own speed nearly equal to the Prime’s, spinning in a flourish that kept him on the defensive.

“Perfect form in attack, perfect form in defense. But are you perfect in the transition between them?” Kyokan mused, suddenly forcing him backwards.

Ryū sidestepped a horizontal swing, but the Prime was already upon him, driving a shoulder into his abdomen with enough strength to rupture his solar plexus.

Grunting, he anticipated the next move, even as his vampyric flesh regenerated the wound, and brought Kaminari to bear in time to parry the expected clubbing strike with the scabbard, all the while stabbing at the prime’s exposed side with Hyosho. Upon impact, his wakizashi sunk in about an inch, and the black plates of Kyokan’s armor glazed over with hoarfrost, even cracking at the point of entry.

The Skraul grimaced, but used the momentum and his own freakish strength to throw Ryū overhead, and the Silkrit was sent careening into the next room. Ryū landed on his feet, swords in hand, and the prime smiled, “Pain…glorious pain. It has been…so long since anyone has managed to cut me…at least, without my permission. Thank you, Ryū”.

Ryū took his stance, disgusted by the odd behavior of his opponent. The prime stuck a finger into the gap in his armor, twisting it and preventing his healing blood from regenerating the wound.

Hissing, he lunged in, determined to end the duel then and there, and Kyokan suddenly appeared beside him, gripped him by the arm, and threw him a second time, and he hit the wall hard enough to bend the support beam.

He rose, albeit more slowly, blood spurting from his mouth from his ruptured lungs, but Ryū was still able to parry a thrust, and deliver a kick to the prime’s kneecap. Kaminari ascended, and Kyokan blocked it with the damned scabbard, throwing him off balance.

There was a blur of motion, and Kyokan ceased to occupy the same space, moving so quickly that Ryū couldn’t even track his movements, and that same scabbard clubbed him in the back of the head, disorienting him and slamming his head against the wall.

Still open to attack, Ryū was cut deeply across the back with Kyokan’s wicked blade, right across the scars dealt before his transformation. It was like being laid out on the slab all over again, and he doubled over, screaming.

“Come now, half breed... You still have some of our blood flowing in you. Fight me!” Kyokan raved, assaulting him with a barrage of kicks and knee strikes to his abdomen and shoulders. His wakizashi began to feel heavy, but Ryū felt Kaminari surge with sudden power, banishing the excruciating pain that had held him.

He found his feet again.

Activating another outlet of its enchantment, Ryū’s flesh acted as a conduit of electricity, and the strikes he was receiving sent painful jolts into Kyokan’s body, causing massive convulsions, while Ryū himself remained unharmed, even stimulated, by the flow of energy.

Knowing his window of opportunity to be minute, Ryū drove Hyosho forward and down in a diagonal stroke. Kyokan used his unnatural speed, his outline blurring, but the electrical convulsions caused him to falter, allowing Ryū a glancing blow to the arm. The plate on Kyokan’s forearm-to-shoulder joint shattered from brittleness, ice crystals peppering the Skraul’s eyes.

Ryū came in one final time, and was immediately catapulted away by a pulse of green energy. A wave of nausea assaulted him as he rose to his feet, and Ryū vomited up some of the black blood he’d extracted from his earlier prey.

“What…?” he gasped, and Kyokan’s eyes flared with that very same green as he assumed a defensive stance, flat of the blade resting atop his forearm.

“You have yet to truly master your blades, if you don’t know. Don’t feel ashamed, for I’ve had over a century to do so! Still, you’ve served as an entertaining diversion, if not a real challenge, so I think you have earned this…” he said with a smile, his black sword becoming translucent, emanating that sickly green glow.

Kyokan disappeared, and reappeared in the space of an instant, driving his blade towards Ryū’s chest, and the Silkrit forced himself to the side. But the point still struck his shoulder, and unspeakable agony filled every microcosm of his being. He silently screamed, his jaw muscles clenched, biting off the forked tip of his tongue. But he hobbled away as best he could, shaking, nearly doubled over.

“It didn’t paralyze you completely? Pity…” Kyokan mused, “And where do you think you will run to?”

The Silkrit smiled, half his face sagging and lopsided, focusing his will into the medallion at his neck, signaling the attack.

If he could just keep the Prime occupied...

“This city isn’t the reason I’m here, half-breed.” Kyokan chuckled, as if reading his thoughts, "I am here for you and you alone."

Ryū coughed up a globule of drool, and found that his mouth was loosening, “Shorry to dithappoint you…” he choked out, spitting up phlegm, "But I don’t have the luxury of dying yet."

He brought up his wakizashi with great difficulty, blood dripping from his shoulder, his regeneration gradually sealing the wound.

“My apologies, but what you have or need is immaterial, now.” Kyokan replied smarmily, and Ryū dashed in, feinting with Kaminari, and when the move was blocked, he slid under the Prime’s legs, cutting Kyokan at the ankle with his other blade. Knowing that he had at least a second or two before Kyokan would regenerate; he sheathed his blades, swiped some of the blood dripping from his shoulder, and threw the fluid onto the far wall that he had expertly backtracked to, even through the battle, causing the rune to activate and the iron wall to melt away into an exit.

As he leaped through the opening, the morning sun burned his skin, causing immense pain, and Kyokan caught him by his ankle. However, the Skraul was likewise directly exposed to the sun, and faltered in his grip, his flesh smoking, sending Ryū into a deadly fall. He forced himself to stay conscious through the pain, as he drove Hyosho into the outer wall of the tower before he fell too far away from its apex, skidding down several paces before grinding to a halt, his body suspended from an immensely great height…

Maki felt himself awaken, his senses returning through a thick drug-like haze.

What was happening? He’d been ready to give the order to attack!

His eyes opened, but the rest of his body wouldn’t obey him. Panic threatened, and in his delirium, it nearly overtook him, before he set it aside and forced his mind to function only on a secondary level of awareness that perceived the world around him, not his internal functions. He was alone in a large open room, a high-reaching ceiling lit only by the moonlight that filtered in through a single circular opening. It was cold, as cold as a burial cairn.

Was it a burial cairn? Had he died?

Maki forced his eyes to focus more clearly, taking in every detail. He was lying prone on a stone slab with iron shackles binding his wrists and feet, and only now did he realize that there were other slabs all throughout the strange chamber, many of which held his men, others...held only corpses; men and women, in varying stages of rot.

He couldn’t move anything below his neck, and Maki inwardly cursed, knowing he was en-spelled or drugged.

There was chanting penetrating the walls of…whatever he was in, too muffled to comprehend. The cult, more likely than not.

How long had he been here? Minutes? Hours? Days?

No matter. Maki smiled; he’d outsmarted them, had prepared for exactly this sort of situation. While they had taken his kusarigama, there was another weapon in his arsenal; something hidden…

“Shatter Apart!” Maki snapped, activating a latent enchanted item still on his person, and the shackles disintegrated. At his request, he’d commissioned a sliver of iron to be surgically embedded into his femur, bearing an enchantment that would bend telekinetic energy to his will. Likewise, the shard absorbed poisons and toxins, which explained how he’d recovered from whatever afflicted the others. Made getting high a bit of a bother, but worth the frustration!

With his bindings removed, he found his feet, needing to quickly and quietly awaken the rest and hopefully find his damned weapons. He had vermin to kill.

“Ryū has engaged the enemy! To arms!” Shirudo bellowed, loosing an arrow aimed straight for an oblivious sentry. The entire Te Fukushu regiment, having infiltrated the city in scattered groups, attacked simultaneously with a combination of his and Ryū’s orders, cutting down any enemies near them. The crowded streets broke into chaos, hunters dispersing weapons among the slaves, and their numbers multiplied before the thick-skulled toad men could even organize a defense. The Silkrit didn’t attack with fire this time, wanting to keep the city intact, but they did use pressurized canisters to spread poison into the barracks. The reports came in of progress. Things were going well…

A shadow stretched behind him, and Shirudo sensed the danger in it. He darted forward just in time to avoid a two-handed weapon swing.

Turning back, arrow drawn, he smiled, seeing a Skraul bearing a large black sword, standing at the very edge of the alley.

“Not very smart, vampyre! Look around you.” he said mockingly, "The sun is out, and you cannot touch me."

The Skraul laughed in turn, and caused his dark shadow to stretch over him, muffling the sun’s light as he advanced out of the alley. Shirudo frowned; the light wouldn’t help if it didn’t actually touch the fiend.

Shirudo fired, and the Skraul parried the projectile with the flat of the blade, advancing into the daylight unharmed. For the moment, he was alone. No reinforcements here.

He leaped back, drawing another arrow, and the Skraul was already upon him, seeming to disappear and reappear several paces forward. Shirudo blocked with his bow, but the steel weapon split it without effort, drawing a thin line though his armor and across his chest, penetrating the skin but, hopefully, not the muscle underneath.

Shirudo grunted, sensing the vampyre was advancing again more than seeing it through his blurry eyes, and he backpedaled to avoid an impaling strike, falling flat on his rump.

With the creature looming over him, close enough to touch, he pulled out a ceramic canister and smashed it against the Skraul’s groin, releasing pressurized salt and fungi, which together formed a powerful dissolving compound.

The vampyre wrinkled his nose at the smell of burning leather, and cried out in pain when the compound reached his genitals. Capitalizing on the distraction, Shirudo drew a hidden pair of tantos and stabbed the vampyre at the underbelly, though a coat of padded leather, twisting and spilling a gout of black blood and bowels.

The shadowy sheath dissipated with the loss of focus, and the rays of the sun charred the Skraul’s flesh, toppling him. Shirudo smiled as his foe roasted in the sun, “Sorry about the balls, friend. Underhanded, that, but sometimes you just have to play dirty.”

It was there again; the cloaked men and the hallway. The end of the hall was dark, utterly dark, as if its very presence ate light. They called to him, beckoning him to the other side. He would not, could not, abide them.

“No!” Ryū shouted, “They need me!” and the figures pointed to him, their hands as black as night. There were whispers that he could not understand, but he did understand their hate. They wouldn’t be denied for much longer.

His consciousness returning, the first sensation that Ryū knew was pain, as if he were on fire. The wind was blowing, but it only stoked the heat that was roasting him alive. He opened his eyes, and nearly lost himself as he dangled on the side of the tower, his grip maintained only by his extended nails, still clutching Hyosho. The sun was bearing down on him, suppressing his regeneration, and the wounds that Kyokan had given him were worsening. Were it not for his cloak, which held at bay the worst of its damaging rays...

Ryū pulled free his weapon, and began to unsteadily scale down the rest of the tower.

As he got close to an adjacent lower-hanging tower, he kicked off, and leaped several stone throws onto its apex. He landed hard, rolling nearly off of the peak, but he drove in Hyosho to maintain his position, and his shoulder nearly dislocated from the strain.

Ryū hissed, but managed to stay aloft, when some of his blood dripped out of his shoulder wound and caused the nearest rune to activate, and he fell through the rift into the tower. He landed hard. Again

After a few moments in the darkness, he felt immeasurably better, good enough to keep himself moving. He rose unsteadily, Hyosho and Kaminari drawn for anyone who might have heard him, but there was nothing. He was alone.

Ryū didn’t see living quarters, as he had with the last tower; there was only one path leading down into a stairway. It must be the path to the sacrificial chambers.

The stairwell was steep, almost vertical, but Ryū went down easily with his vampyre-given speed. He smelled burning meat, forcing him to greater speeds, and the bottom of the stairway just seemed to appear from nowhere. At the end of the hallway was an open portal, leading into a massive chamber. As he entered, he saw many Skraul, all looking at him, all smiling. It was a trap.

There was a small coffin of iron at the end, set above a roaring furnace. It was opened, revealing a blackened husk that only vaguely resembled one of his kin.

“How good that you could join us, half-breed. And just in time.” One of the vampyres said mirthfully. Like the others, and like the figures of his dreams, he was robed in black. Ryū took one glance back at the victim, hopelessly beyond help, and scowled, "I don’t want to hear your words. Only your death rattle."

Ryū charged, determined to end as many of the beasts as he could, when a wave of tangible force blasted him off of his feet. Hyosho and Kaminari were ripped from his hands, and invisible chains bound his arms behind him.

He rose to a knee, straining against whatever had attacked him, and the Skraul smiled, a black blade in his hands. "Oh, now, now. That won’t be necessary; this little gathering is in your honor, and we’ve had time to prepare for you."

His muscles flexed, veins bulging, but his arms rejected his commands, refused to move in the slightest. “Do you wish to know why we burn them?” the Skraul inquired, and Ryū didn’t respond, still desperately trying to free himself.

“Not much of a conversationalist. Very well; you will see for yourself soon enough. Lay him on the iron…and rip off a flank of the last sacrifice for me; the smell of seared meat has whetted my appetite.”

Shirudo tracked Ryū to the tower undercroft, drawn by his scent. The Skraul blood rune was still active, holding the solid walls of the tower peak apart for him. They’d needed hook ropes and climbing claws in order to reach the peak, but the Te Fukushu were flowing in behind him. The slave revolt had completely set Corpsespire on its head, and the blood of the Karu filled the streets in rivers.

He’d lost a good number; roughly fifty of the original four hundred, and probably twice that in the freed slaves, but that could trouble him later. All the remained now was to deal with the Skraul presence in the iron towers.

He forced his troops down the stairs, The grand alchemist’s weapon strapped across Tarkiri’s back. Crafted of metal and glass, the sphere was about the size of a Karu head, and contained a liquid that looked like quicksilver and glowed faintly.

Robed vampyres assailed them as they reached the bottom of the stairs, mostly chattel. He remembered that the Skraul, while fiercely independent, relied on a strict hierarchy based upon strength of arms and magicka.

The chattel, the majority of the Skraul, were only slightly stronger and faster than he might be, and they were cut down one by one by the Silkrit’s superior numbers and aggression.

The Arbiters; the warrior middle class, were more powerful, but still manageable by many lesser attackers. The Skraul that he’d managed to kill outside had been an Arbiter…and as he drove his dagger into the neck of a chattel, he thanked fate that he hadn’t been forced to fight the third rank of Skraul; the Broodlords. Primes, the Royal Line, and whatever other horrors not yet witnessed by his kind composed this class, and Shirudo prayed that the Te Fukushu numbered in the thousands before such creatures had to be directly engaged.

With few casualties, they drove the chattel back into the sacrificial chamber, filled with more of the dark-skinned demons, and there was an iron coffin near the back.

It was smoldering.

Shirudo leaped over the melee, rushing on to rescue whoever was within. “Release the weapon!” he ordered, and Tarkiri twisted a knob along the side that ignited the fluid, releasing alchemical light that imitated the rays of the sun.

The dark room became ablaze with radiance, and the Skraul began to burn, their flesh cracking and breaking apart like clumps of dry sand, hissing and shying away.

Tarkiri was grabbed by a swarm of black hands, slashed to ribbons, but it was too late to stop what had been wrought. They died with him, burning apart, and Tarkiri smiled as the light faded from his eyes.

Shirudo reached the coffin, and found a Skraul beside it that didn’t appear troubled by the torrent.

“Sorry, but your friend is ours.” it hissed, drawing a black sword emanating a pale blue glow. The Prime?

“Kyokan, deal with it, please.” it said, and a second Skraul appeared, bearing a similar blade with a sickly green aura. His heart sank.

“I hope you put up a decent fight too; your friend left a few wounds upon me. They felt so good.” Kyokan giggled, his fangs extending with his smile.


“I just have one more trick up my sleeve.” Shirudo growled, pulling out a ceramic canister.

Ryū felt a concussive blast tip over his burning tomb, and knew, even through the pain, that Shirudo had found his way down here. The Te Fukushu would have cleared the city before daring an iron all that remained of the enemy was likely in this very chamber.

He pushed against the seal locking him inside the coffin, extending his nails, unable to see through his burst eyeballs, their fluid trickling down his face like tears. If his friend’s satchel bomb had damaged the lock sufficiently…The iron cracked, possibly from the added heat as well as the explosive blast, and it gave way, releasing air that to him seemed icy cold.

He moaned, burning and in pain, forcing his ruined body out of the hot iron, and he landed hard onto cold stone. There was a painful light, but it died away, and his vampyric regeneration began to take effect. There were sounds, but they were too drowned out for him to understand. His hearing slits were still damaged, perhaps.

"HyoshoKaminari..." Ryū wheezed, his forked tongue reforming in the back of his throat, “Come to me…”

With the Skraul’s telekinetic bindings gone, his trusted wakizashi appeared in each hand, and he closed his charred fingers around them. Ryū’s eyes reformed, refocused, and he saw Shirudo incapacitated, held by Kyokan, a look of supreme disappointment on his ugly face.

Ryū found his feet, his weapons blazing silver, and his injuries were regenerating, the dead skin and muscle flaking off in sheets. Like a phoenix, he rose anew from his own ruined body. Ryū took a step towards him, hissing in pain, and Kyokan smiled, “So quick to renew. Back to the fun, then”.

Kyokan tossed Shirudo to the ground, and Ryū lunged forward, frenzy both focusing and blurring his senses. The Prime parried strike after strike, but Ryū wasn’t going to let him make a single attack, striking with his knees, elbows, and ankles as much as his wakizashi.

He went wild, bloodthirsty, ascending to greater heights of skill in his singular focus; the Skraul must die. Their blades collided so viciously that it sent up sparks, so rapidly they seemed to blur into near-nonexistence.

You…Will…Not…Stop...Me!” he hissed, punctuating every word with a vicious blow that knocked the Prime back a pace. The chattel around him lay butchered, intertwined with Silkrit bodies, and Te Fukushu warriors harassed the Prime from all directions. A second Skraul, the one that had captured him, released a wave of telekinetic energy, and the others were thrown back by the intensity.

“Your blood was enough, half-breed.” it said, “The price has been paid. The Way-Gate is open!”

Ryū was forced onto the defensive, Kyokan gaining momentum from the confusion.

“Such power you hold, slave; we didn’t even have to burn all your life energy away to power the rift…” the other Skraul said from across the room, "Now, I must take my leave. The Renmei Keiji cult requires my attention."

Daring a look at his fiery tomb, Ryū grimaced. The fires now flowing from the iron coffin took on shape, forming an arch with a swirling vortex at its core. A Way-Gate. A portal.

The Skraul offered a final bow, and disappeared through the flames, his body consumed instantly.

“What did he just do?!” Ryū gasped, sidestepping a flurry of attacks, and Kyokan’s smile widened, “He seeks the means to move our society into another mortal realm. This one’s about used up, I’m afraid."

They were forced into a grapple, each holding the guards of each other’s swords, their edges a hand’s span from vital areas, “Your kind can no longer produce the Vitrium that we need to feed our masses and empower our magicka. We will find another race to provide it”.

Their exchange brought them into close proximity to the portal. Seeing his window of opportunity, Ryū head-butted the Skraul, breaking his nose with a satisfying crunch, and darted towards the gate. The secrets he gained from the powers that be had told him of this. He’d found the Way-Gate, and now had to find the child.

Kyokan followed after him, “Do not run from me, half breed!”

But Ryū ignored him, sped on with all haste, forcing himself into the fires once again. He didn’t feel pain as he crossed the threshold, the Prime and the chamber disappearing behind him. His awareness of his body fragmented. It was as if for one moment he was in all places at once, his body separated and spread over all creation. All around him there was light, and then, darkness.

The “pieces” of him reassembled, and singular consciousness returned. The Skraul was on the other end of a long tunnel of light swirling with tenebrous motes of shadow, turning to appraise him with a wicked grin.

“Do you feel the power required to create this rift, slave? Can you imagine how many of your kind died today to accomplish this feat? How many died in agony?” The Skraul said with mocking laughter, drawing his black blade. Ryū hissed, his tail curling with hate, and Kyokan appeared with them, but did not advance, crossing his arms.

“Prime, assist me.” the Skraul commanded, and Kyokan laughed, “Why would I do that, Borgu? You seem capable of handling one injured half-breed on your own.”

Ryū didn’t care that the Prime could attack at any time. He kept his back to him. His people had been murdered...for this?! The Skraul before him had boasted of it, and for that he would die.

Ryū spun his wakizashi in a flourish, surrounding the vampyre with a web of shifting mithril. Hyosho bloomed with light, and the air around them both grew thick and heavy with frost. While Borgu slowed from the cold, Ryū felt invigorated, the chill soothing the last of his burns, and he quickened his pace, delivering lightning fast strikes that grazed the Skraul’s layered robes at the arms, shoulders, and abdomen, drawing black blood that slicked his wakizashi, before disappearing as the weapons literally drank the fluid in.

Having judged the strength of the vampyre’s sword arm, Ryū knew he’d already won. He didn’t kill his foe immediately, prolonging his pain, thrusting his blades into its body again and again.

Liver…stomach…intestines…it all began to roll out in a squirming mass, but still Ryū didn’t relent, didn’t inflict a wound that would be immediately fatal.

“Kyokan!” Borgu gurgled, “Assist me”.

But Kyokan only smiled, laughing.

“Damn you, Prime!” Borgu growled, forcing his blade’s power out in another wave of energy, which caused his limbs to seize up, but didn’t immobilize him as they had before. It had no strength to empower its enchantment.

Die!” Ryū shrieked, taking a reverse grip and crosscutting with all his strength. Hyosho and Kaminari struck true, cutting right through the black blade and digging deeply into Borgu’s chest from two opposite angles, peppering him with flecks of black blood, puncturing his lungs.

Kyokan smiled at him as the other vampyre collapsed, choking on blood, perishing from wound shock and exsanguination.

“Well done, my boy, well done! Maybe you’re cut out to be one of us after all. See you on the other side; I want this little game to go a while longer.” Kyokan mused, motioning for the end of the portal. Ryū nodded uncertainly, and walked towards the edge. Unlike his dreams, this was a path that he was ready to take.

“Try not to disappoint me.”

Maki smiled as the cultist turned his back, offering just the right angle for a killing stroke.

Put him on a slab, will they?!

He stepped from the shadows, and planted his kusarigama down between the clavicles and shoulder blades, and the robed heretic slumped backwards into his grip, his lungs perforated and his breath stolen. Cutting his throat finished him off.

His men, trained Karyudo Kisai one and all, trailed behind him, fanning out. Using a series of short, soft whistles, the Karyudo Kisai relayed his orders, and advanced silently, hugging the wall as he went. The voices ahead grew louder, and there was a thin layer of smoke in the air.

The room ahead was some manner of bricked-off burial cairn, packed with black robed men, and at the center, there was a massive iron box. No…more like a coffin, and all the smoke was coming from it through a series of small vents. Maki gave the word to attack when the room filled with blinding light, followed by an explosion. The cultists were sent careening into the walls, alongside his Karyudo Kisai agents.

The iron shard in his femur absorbed some of the energy, allowing another use of telekinesis, and Maki rose unsteadily to find something standing over the iron coffin’s remnants. Garbed in black and silver, its skin was a dull red like drying blood, its face hidden behind a mask with the likeness of some manner of horned serpent. His men were recovering faster than the cultists, getting just enough of their wits back to finish them off, but this creature could change things…

It surveyed the chamber, and bolted over to him, and Maki brought up his kusarigama to strike. The creature’s motions blurred, and it suddenly appeared beside him, and he was knocked off his feet as it darted out of sight.

Maki grunted, turned in pursuit, when a dark-skinned hand clamped onto his shoulder, dislocating his arm. Backpedalling after instinctively lashing out with his working elbow, Maki gasped, as the High Cultist removed his mask, revealing a oil-black face with milky, lidless eyes.

“You will pay for tampering with the Way-Gate, mortal!” it rasped, drawing a ceremonial dagger. Activating the shard in his femur, Maki struck the beast in the chest with a spike of telekinesis, bursting its heart from the inside.

“What a fucking day.” he said wearily, wavering on his feet a moment before following the creature to the floor as it collapsed, dying.

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