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The Black Hand (An Enchanter's Cycle Standalone)

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A companion novel to the Enchanter's Cycle, detailing the origin one of its most prolific characters. On an ancient, ruined world, witness the birth of Kogoeji-ni, the Frost Matriarch, one of the God of Death's daughters and chief lieutenants, her rise to power amid a resurrected Skraul Empire, and the disastrous events that precede the Enchanter's Cycle series.

Fantasy / Scifi
Ely Cady
4.0 1 review
Age Rating:

Prelude and Chapter 1

Before there was light, there was darkness.

Before life, before death, there was nothingness.

So it was, during the second birth of the Skraul race. A lone survivor, birthing from nothing, creating that which would return the universe to its own nothingness.

To her, it was fitting.

Botsu, unwilling consort to Morag Toth and one of the most powerful beings in all the multi-verse, brought life into their world, her home. In its still-burning ashes, a temple was raised by dark magicka. A temple to the new Dread Hammer Dur’Artoth, who had declared her his Angel of Death, his champion.

Her womb was already heavy with the offspring she created, by dark magicka where the flesh would not abide, and it was her task to tend to this temple, as she would tend to her offspring. This was a duty not inspired by motherly affection; her vengeance upon those who’d brought about the first extinction of her race would depend on her success, and the strength of this new brood.

She knew, with a heavy heart, that this new incarnation of her people would not be the same, by any means. She also knew, with a heavy heart, that most, if not all, would perish before their task was complete; the mortal worlds of the Veil conquered or destroyed.

So be it.

In this lonely place that knew no life, she waited, mired in regret, for the potential wasted, the life denied to her by her patron, and by the patron she’d always yearned for...

“My fate shall be yours, Surthath.” she whispered to the night, eyes filled with bitter tears, “You will watch, as I have, as your children perish. You will watch as your kingdom crumbles around you. You will return to nothing, as will I. Then, and only then, shall you be forgiven!”

Chapter 1: Awake

Sixty days.

Botsu remained in the inner sanctum of the temple for sixty days, and on each day, she birthed a new Skraul. A female. A powerful Matriarch, from whose blood she could create males to serve under them.

Thirteen days passed, and on this day, the Angel of Death welcomed home the thirteenth child, whose first cries were marked by a chill wind and a full moon. She ignored the birthing pains, the blood. She cut the umbilicus without ceremony.

This was no joyous event.

Botsu’s studied this child, her cruel, piercing green eyes ever alert for any signs of hereditary weakness.

Again the Blood Magicka had rendered it...different; where Botsu had long, shapely fangs among her teeth, theirs were uniformly sharp, more akin to those of a fish. They left deep, painful gouges in her breasts when feeding. The child had oil-black skin and pointed ears, the only thing reminiscent of their race, her hair a mottled black, far removed from her mother’s stark white mane.

But it was her eyes that captured her attention. Her intelligent, pupil-less eyes, were a deep, dark blue. This set her apart.

Botsu was unsure of what to make of it.

It was this trait, and the wind, that inspired her name. Each of Botsu’s sixty offspring would bear a name which translated to a manner of death, for the purpose of each child was to bring death, and then nothingness, to all the Veil.

The girl’s mind, too, was unusual, compared to what she’d already observed in the first twelve. Each of them, even freshly born, possessed a fully formed consciousness. Most of the others, especially Byo’ku and Dekeshi, possessed immediate and consuming ambition. If they could, they would have bled her dry in their feedings to claim even an echo of her power. So single-minded were they, that Botsu knew neither would survive the war Dur’Artoth planned for the Veil.

But this one was different... The curiosity, even affection, was most out of place.

“Kogoeji-ni...” she whispered to the child without mirth, stroking her cheek, “In these coming years, I will teach you the cruelty of this place, of all things. I will make you strong, so that you may come to make it your own. I will make you something to be feared, something to inspire awe. I will make you a daughter of Dur’Artoth...”

Ten years passed since hearing her mother’s first words to her, in that dark, cold place.

She learned to crawl, then to walk, then to fight, with tooth and nail and darksteel. She learned to hunt, to kill, and to defend herself when her siblings sought to assassinate her. Kogoeji-ni advanced rapidly in the rigid hierarchy that Mother had demanded of her and her siblings, constantly tried, constantly tested.

Many did not survive; sixty became fifty, then forty-five. The brood grew stronger as it dwindled; the hard lessons were taken to heart by the survivors. Dekeshi was responsible for many of the more abrupt deaths, her trident thrusting home from the deepest shadows. Others perished in the harsh elements of the world outside, having failed in some aspect in Mother’s eyes and been abandoned to the wastes.

Her more personal studies had been equally grueling. Mother had taught her to find an inner, deadly calm, to find focus even under duress, and how to terrify and baffle her foes. This had been her favorite exercise, in spite of the pain the needles brought when pressed under her fingernails, for she’d been gifted with a natural ability to remain calm and calculate her choices with detached precision.

Father, during his rare appearances, taught her and the others of the worlds beyond, of their many hated enemies. The Elves; timid, ephemeral entities clutching to the skirts of the gods. Humans; narrow-minded, short-lived fools, redeemed only by their unbridled ambition. Carthspirians; small, clever tricksters and butchers, who slaughtered their people in the first age. And the worst of all; the Djinn, towering fiends of dark skin and shimmering runes, their vital spots protected by natural chitin armor.

This, Kogoeji-ni also studied intently, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the mortal and immortal races he showed her in order to supplement her own strengths and identify her own weaknesses.

She meditated, on this and many other things, in solitude, having learned long ago to avoid her volatile siblings and distant mother. Her room, seven paces by seven paces, featured a low roof, and no windows. A small door constituted most of the far wall. A pile of rags in the corner constituted a cushion to more comfortably relax. The room was an awkward but defensible fortress, the only place safe to any degree in her temple home.

Her body, removed of much of its infantile softness but not yet succumbed to the tremulous puberty Mother had assured her would soon occur, was now more able to expertly wield the shortsword she’d crafted from ore taken from the armory, honed with a chip of stone and water. She’d also carved herself a handle from an ancient, petrified femur from the wastes outside, a dead place of ash and volcanic heat, the skies stained yellow with poisonous fumes. The femur had been a prized find from her weekly excursions, more durable and somehow more supple and lightweight than wood.

The wastes were aptly named. However, she was thankful her home was the way it was; Father had shown her visions of a terrible orb hovering in the skies of most planets, which could burn her to cinders in moments. He’d demonstrated this with a failed sister, and her screams as her flesh flaked apart still haunted Kogoeji-ni’s dreams.

But today was not a day to dwell on it. Today, she would again venture outside, whereupon she could hopefully find another femur to hone into a scabbard. Or...if she found a piece of volcanic glass, she could fashion a dagger to pair her sword with, or even a shield, if the fragment was large and thin enough. Her skill, her passion, was creating objects that proved useful or amusing, setting many clever traps to curb the wild ambitions and passions of her siblings, and honing ever finer weapons to use when these measures failed. It was a skill mother had fostered from an early age.

Rising to her feet, ready for the new day, Kogoeji-ni covered them in thick rags to protect them from the elements, also donning a threadbare tunic and leggings, the former of linen, the latter of worn wool. She then wrapped the lower portion of her face with a scarf, throwing on a hooded cloak, before belting on her sword and a canteen filled halfway with preserved blood harvested from the livestock Mother kept. Tied by a thin cord, she also set a timepiece around her neck. A small lump of iron filled with clockwork mechanisms, it displayed the passage of time in this world that seemed bereft of it. Perhaps her most important tool, for it also helped her determine distance and direction.

A third-portion per day; that was their allowance, unless one of them managed to steal some without being caught. Those that were caught, were denied their blood portions for the next week. Thus, it was more common for her sisters to steal blood from each other, to which there was no punishment. For this reason, Kogoeji-ni was not about to leave such precious resources unprotected.

As ready as she could be, the Vampyre crept through the narrow shaft in the corner, covered by a slab of stone precisely measured to the tunnel’s width and height, that she used to depart from the house without calling undue attention.

It’d taken a great deal of time to burrow through, even with her sharp claws.

Just large enough for her, it was admittedly an exploitable weakness, or would be, were it not for her first line of defense. About halfway through the lightless tunnel, Kogoeji-ni felt for the telltale bump in the surface of the left-facing wall, and finding it, gently reached forward and deactivated the wire signified by the warning.

This wire, a high-tensile string, could be undone at its end, but if irritated near its center, which hovered in such a way that any careless trespasser would pass right through, the wire would snap, the tension uncorking a small bottle of compressed gas buried in the opposing corner. The release of the cork, thanks to a friction-building flint chip against a fibrous piece of sandstone, would also create a spark, to ignite the fumes and incinerate anything caught in the blast radius.

Likewise, the noise would alert her to the intruder, and she could inspect the remains for anything useful.

Careful to instead release and fold the wire, Kogoeji-ni crawled beyond the trap, re-activated it, and continued on her way.

Having measured the dimensions of her home; a temple dedicated to Father and his grim philosophies, she’d placed her escape route’s point of termination under a small overhang of rock. The temple, resting atop a large hill, loomed above, casting her in its dull shadow.

Ignoring that dreary, despicable place, Kogoeji-ni sprinted down the rest of the hill, chunks of dry sediment clinging to her footwraps. To maintain her balance and to diminish the sound produced, she also had to use her claws sporadically to slow her descent.

At the bottom of the hill was a shallow gorge, through which poured a narrow stream of foul water. Harboring no desire of getting the filth all over her clothing, the Vampyre deftly sidestepped onto the sandy ditch beside the stream, her body still concealed by the walls of the gorge, and continued on.

For two hours she ran through the gorge and onto flat plains, never once tiring, never once short of breath. In fact, though she saw Mother and Father take in air and blow it back out, Kogoeji-ni had never felt the inclination to do so herself. It was as if they needed something in the air that she did not. She couldn’t imagine what it was, in the putrid, choking gasses, that warranted inhaling...

Then again, Father had shown her worlds with the horrible fiery orb in their skies that had clean air, water that was clear, and animals that didn’t have thick skin and armor plating to protect them from the elements. Perhaps breathing that air was different...

Not one to consider unanswerable questions, Kogoeji-ni crossed the narrow, putrid stream as it flowed into a larger river, over six hours from the house and beyond any prying eyes. The land was mostly flat, with rocky hills and larger mountains in the distance. She could see the nearest active volcano, black smoke rising from its peak, within that forest of jagged stone.

It was near the mountain along the southern edges she’d uncovered her last prize, and it was there she would search again. Where there was one bone, there was bound to be more. Many more.

The sound of something scraping stone stopped her dead.

Startled, Kogoeji-ni crouched, scanning the horizon. Turning, she gazed back the way she’d come, searching for the source of her alarm. Nothing...

A low growl issuing from her, she sniffed the stale air for spoor. There was a faint metallic odor, but so far as she could tell, nothing was amiss.

She was alone.

Alone...and that was how she preferred it; the company of others had been one failed attempt on her life after the next. It was necessary to root out the unworthy among her family, but, obviously, it had failed to endear any of her siblings to her.

As for Mother...well...

Kogoeji-ni became confused whenever she considered her mother. Botsu had given her life, had given her the knowledge and experience to stay alive through her trials. She was cold, fearsome, and yet... There was something Kogoeji-ni wanted from her mother, but she didn’t know what it was.

She knew that, in her heart, she would serve Mother without complaint, without question. There was a natural instinct of obedience, even of familiarity, though Kogoeji-ni also feared in her heart that this feeling was foolish, and would end in her detriment, just like any other allegiance she’d tried to make in her ten-year-long life.

Shrugging, Kogoeji-ni crept through the barren wastes, crawling up and ascending down the more numerous hills that signified her proximity to the mountains. Scanning the ground for anything useful between the blinding gusts of sand-laden wind, the Vampyre found only sand, sandstone, shale, and even more sand.

That was to be expected; so close to home, her sisters had already picked the environment clean of useful or interesting trinkets. She’d been more than lucky to harvest enough clay to make the jar for her explosive fume trap some time ago, and the length of cord and the stopper had been pilfered from Mother’s supplies.

That had been a risky venture...

As she neared the base of the mountain range, some seven to nine hours from home, Kogoeji-ni grunted as she slowly made her way upward, where the sand gave way to hardened sediment and jagged pebbles. She scuffed her knees and elbows when she had to crawl, but her vampyric regeneration held the worst of the wounds at bay. Yes, she would definitely have to feed after this trip, but if she could prize out a few more useful components it would be worth the cost.

Besides, in this empty, desolate world, there was little else to do to pass the time.

She looked up, pondering, then in alarm.

A ripple split the yellow sky, and Kogoeji-ni watched as a tendril of green formed in the gash it created. The colder winds in the upper atmosphere were being pushed down by the gravitational pull. As it was being forced down, that cold air was colliding with the hotter air nearer to the ground. The chain reaction would result in a severe thunderstorm. Lightning...in a sulfur and hydrogen-rich environment.

“Shit!” Kogoeji-ni cursed, sprinting up the mountain. The household was warded against such dangerous natural events, but so far away, this sudden, this uncannily sudden storm, could very easily kill her if she were caught in the open.

She had to reach the cave she knew to be two hour east and a half-hour south, near the bottom of a shallow ravine.

Using a burst of adrenaline empowered by the dark, flesh-shaping magicka that comprised the core of her being, she glided more than ran, as fast as the wind itself, leaping clear over ditches and jutting rocks that would’ve taken her precious minutes to navigate.

A greenish tint slowly overwhelmed the skies above her, and thunder rumbled ominously. The wind grew steadier, stronger.

Extending her black nails, the Vampyre scaled the breadth of the first true mountain before her, body angled horizontally. The cave was not far; near the gap between one mountain and a smaller hillock. The ravine, a deep gash in the mountain range, was over two bowshots deep, and easily recognizable.

Stepping over the markers left behind on her previous outing, Kogoeji-ni slowed, in no way fatigued but unable to tap into her abilities any longer. Daring a glance back to the skies, where the green-colored cold front had nearly filled it, she cursed again, desperate but reluctant, before drawing out her flask of blood and guzzling it all.

Tapping into newfound reserves of strength, her world became a blur of rushing wind, stinging acidic rain, and scouring sands.

One of her nails broke off into a fold of stone she hadn’t noticed, and she hissed in pain as it regenerated.

Lighting struck a peak hours deeper into the mountains, and the green sky flashed red.

Genuinely afraid, for this was supposed to have been a diverting scavenging hunt, Kogoeji-ni snarled, and accelerated beyond the point of physical pain. Up, up, and up she went, crawling nearly parallel to the ground, now four or five bowshots down. The steepness would’ve proven impossible to manage without the recent influx of life-giving blood, would have led to a long fall followed by a terrible lingering death in the merciless terrain, if the coming storm didn’t claim her in a more abrupt and violent manner.

There! She could see the ravine!

Lightning struck anew, behind her, and the temperature rose noticeably. Her dust-covered cloak became stifling. Leaping down the ravine, blinded by a new, unspeakable light, Kogoeji-ni landed hard, striking her knee, before hobbling into the cave just as her skin began to blister. Deep, deep she delved, the residual moisture sizzling in the cave’s mouth. Her timepiece caught on something, and was pulled from her neck. She didn’t stop to retrieve it.

Gasping from the pain in her knee, the Vampyre rounded a bend and fell into a narrow shaft, and into darkness.

Blessed, merciful darkness...

She watched the flames wash over barren earth, blot out the skies, sear the waters into vapor. She saw rock turn to glass, then to dust, then to ash. How the violence appealed to her, the chaos. How it sang to her soul.

Ranshi lifted her hands, exultant, swaying in tune with the crackling lightning, which flashed an instant before igniting the atmosphere and transforming into searing beams of superheated gas, which in turn detonated outward in terrific explosions that numbed her sense of hearing, light that seared her eyes beyond the realms of pain and into the transcendent state of divine pleasure to which all other, lesser violence could be considered only a dull afterimage.

“Beautiful...” she whispered, breathless, “So very...beautiful.”

But she was not merely watching the dazzling display. She was studying.

Kogoeji-ni was missing, having slipped away for some mischief. Ranshi had a good idea as to where her wayward sister had gone, and scanned the grounds while the storm wasted itself into nothingness, plotting out what course that Kogoeji-ni might have taken.

Dekeshi, her sole ally, likewise suspected their mutual sibling’s actions...

“She will likely have died.” Ranshi noted, tut-tut-ing as she stared into the maelstrom.

Dekeshi did not seem so convinced, “The mountains have caves and deep ravines to hide in. She could still be alive...but...”

“But wounded...” Ranshi finished for her, “Or otherwise in distress. It would be terrible of us not to be sure”.

Dekeshi smiled that cold, terrible smile of hers, “I agree, sister. I agree. We should go to her. Make sure...that she’s all right”.

Hefting her darksteel hammer over her shoulder, Ranshi nodded, “That we should. Get your trident, for this storm will only last a few hours. No need to retire to our rooms without a little sport...”

She woke from the dreamless slumber of undeath, analyzing her wounds with detached scrutiny. Her kneecap was broken, though it had partially mended already, as was her ankle, which had not, and there was a deep gash on her forehead that oozed black blood.

She might have been here a few hours, or perhaps a day. It was impossible to tell, but she dared not seek the entrance aboveground, if the intense heat in the cavern was any indication of the storm’s progress.

Nothing else to it, Kogoeji-ni sat back, and rested, studying the natural limestone shaft she’d blindly dived into. It had been a steep, but thankfully, short drop, and her reflexes had allowed her to catch herself before striking the hard shale ground; a secondary chamber deeper into the mountain. It had an uneven, ribbed surface, likely created from a river vein, the surrounding moisture too prevalent to have come from simple condensation.

Long, narrow stalactites ringed the shaft that led back above. A series of them met below; a wide lip in the shaft’s termination point, into a spiraling column, more finely honed than any vampyre-made structure, which reached all the way to the floor, increasing in width into a flowstone, a wide formation akin in appearance to a half-melted candle.

Kogoeji-ni also saw an oddly textured layer of stone, and decided to inspect it more closely, grunting as she painfully found her footing. The ankle was mending well, and the kneecap was almost completely healed.

Thanks to the blood...but she would have to feed again soon...

Placing her head on the surface, it felt rough, like sandstone, but the color was off. Fortifying her vision, Kogoeji-ni looked more carefully, and her eyes widened with delight...

It was definitely not sandstone; it had a rich, dark blue color, like her eyes, with motes of violet and gold all throughout its slightly translucent surface. It almost reminded her of the opal Mother had affixed to the pommel of a dagger she sometimes wore at her belt.

It was a wondrous find; almost the size of her fist. A great number of things could be made from something so large and obviously rare.

Without hesitation, Kogoeji-ni started to chip away at the surrounding limestone, carefully harvesting the strange mineral. When she pulled the stone free, a layer of useless limestone ringing it, she found it to be nearly as thick as it was wide.

“You must have been made from a number of other minerals...” she decided, “Like soapstone”.

She tried gouging it with a steel file, and succeeded, albeit with some effort. It was slightly harder than quartz, but much softer than diamond. Definitely durable enough for jewelry, but not durable enough for a weapon.

That was fine, she was sure she could find something to do with it.

Grinning with satisfaction, Kogoeji-ni decided to celebrate. Sure, she might die down in this pit, but if she lived, the trip would have been both profitable and amusing. What more could she ask for in life?

Finding her seat once more, the Vampyre drew another craft of hers from her pack. Made from a bone too long, narrow, and delicate to serve as a scabbard, her flute had nine holes drilled along its length, eight near one end, one at the other. The tips of the hollowed-out bone were sealed, and she blew into the hole at the near end, which she held somewhat perpendicular to her face, and used her fingers to seal combinations of the other eight to produce different notes. The entire piece was long, almost as long as her entire arm, thus, it was difficult to play, at least until she grew more.

But play she did, testing herself in maintaining a single, steady rhythm, having mentally numbered the holes, starting from the first in the line at the end that was closest to her. This first note had the highest pitch, almost squeaky, whereas the eighth had the lowest pitched note, and when playing two or three notes at once, she combined similar pitches to produce more elegant notes.

She tried a specific combination at various speeds, alternating as it suited her, before adding to the melody with a lower-pitched undertone played at the same moment. Again she played a three-part note, so low, so deep, it was almost threatening, before shooting up in rapid succession, implying a mischievous tone.

She didn’t need to breathe, but she liked playing the flute because it forced her to fill her lungs. Something about it felt satisfying. But this, like many things, was inexplicable...

Ranshi crept in silence, following the strange echoes emanating from the caverns. Never had she heard such a haunting melody, such precision and order.

It sickened her.

Life was chaos, destruction! Not this structure, this harmony.

“I will kill her...” she hissed, drawing her darksteel hammer, a magickal rune marking its head. She’d carved it herself, having studied the arts of Blood Magicka, which her race had used before being granted the dark gift by God Death.

It had taken four weeks of blood, enough to starve one of her weaker sisters, to gather the necessary reagents for the rune, but its properties were potent indeed...

Kogoeji-ni startled at a faint hissing sound, expecting a rush of superheated air escaping from a volcanic vent.

When no shift in the temperature was evident, which suggested another, less immediate but more troubling concern, the Vampyre hugged the wall, setting down her flute and favoring her sword.

Undead, her body left no heat imprint, but neither would any others who might have found the cavern. Her nose was overwhelmed by the stink of sulfur, thanks to that damnable storm. Sound alone would betray her, or her enemy, and the enemy was likely on the move. She just had to stay very quiet, and wait for it to come to her...

...Hours passed, or perhaps only moments...

She heard the regular dripping of moisture, the roaring of the skies outside, but naught else.

The Vampyre remained absolutely still, tense, alert for any sign she was no longer alone. Had she imagined the hiss? How could anyone have possibly found this secret cavern?

Unwilling, absolutely unwilling, to challenge her hard-earned survival instinct, Kogoeji-ni changed her approach to the situation. Silently, ever so slowly, she lifted one of the jagged pebbles that had been displaced alongside her precious blue stone, and hurled it against the flowstone across the natural chamber, rebounding it up the shaft overhead, before it fell and landed against the floor with a devastating thunk.



It was there...subtle, enough that she almost missed it, even blood-deprived. A reflective shimmer, from a pair of eyes. It was momentary, a trick of refracted light so uncanny as to be miraculous in such a deep place.

Silently offering a prayer of reverence to Father, Kogoeji-ni calculated her target’s most likely movement patterns, angling her sword for a wide range of movement while still protecting her exposed flank. She didn’t scream or hiss as she attacked, acting with precision and stealth. Kogoeji-ni struck, and her foe hissed in pain as metal sliced into flesh.

“Stop, damn you!” Enshi gasped, backing away in the darkness, “I’m here to help!”

She was too stunned to do anything but to press her advance, driving her sister towards the ascending shaft.

“I tracked Ranshi and Dekeshi to this place.” Enshi snapped, now visible, her blank grey eyes wide, the hard chitin club in her hand scoured by deep cuts mirroring a slash across her cheek, “I thought I heard them down here”.

“And so you rushed on down to engage two unseen opponents?” Kogoeji-ni breathed, aghast, no longer attacking but still readied to strike anew, “Are you insane, or just a fool?”

“Ranshi has started stealing my blood supply.” her sister replied back acidly, her expression pained, “Her last mark starved to death. It was kill Ranshi here or suffer as she had. I acted with more than my usual level of subtlety”.

“And now they are here.” Kogoeji-ni cursed, eyes darting to and fro, “Still undetected and having pinpointed our location by our bicker-“.

Something large dropped onto Enshi as she began to press away from the shaft above, and Kogoeji-ni ducked as a three-pronged spear sailed over her, dragged back by a length of chain.

Ignoring for now the trident-wielder, for their weapon was still dragging impotently across the cavern floor, Kogoeji-ni lunged and shoulder-butted Ranshi off her other sister, who in turn rose with a snarl and a strike from her club, grazing Ranshi’s ankle. The trident wielder had to be their mutual, unhinged sister, Dekeshi.

“God Death grant me strength!” Kogoeji-ni hissed, thrusting her sword towards Ranshi, who parried with a great darksteel hammer. Angling around her, Kogoeji-ni likewise evaded Dekeshi, whose long braids rattled against each other, using Ranshi and a pair of thick stalactites as a shield.

Her weapon reclaimed, Dekeshi advanced side-by-side with Ranshi. Enshi tried to double back to meet her, but the two assassins wedged them apart, forcing her to a corner. Reluctantly deciding to aid her foolish ally, Kogoeji-ni advanced, blade angled low in a two-handed grip.

“A conspiracy?” Kogoeji-ni asked bemusedly, noting the exact positions of the flowstone, the larger collections of jagged stalagmites, and the shaft that led back up.

Enshi nodded, popping her left shoulder back into its socket and testing her club with a few experimental swings. Smiling, for her reticent ally had just proven herself more sensible than first assumed, Kogoeji-ni steadied herself for battle.

Dekeshi would be the greater threat; though she sensed powerful magicka in Ranshi’s hammer, Dekeshi would fight until either her or her foes were no more. Worse, that one had proven herself able to shrug off grievous wounds, and fight to the brink. And she assumed that even now, her sister was being energized by a large intake of blood. The same life-giving, strengthening sort of blood that Kogoeji-ni had been forced to spend to evade the storm...

Unwilling to offer her foes the first attack, Kogoeji-ni lunged forward, blade leading. As Dekeshi lifted her trident to throw, she twisted her body, hurling her pack forward and lodging it onto the prongs of the weapon. Thrusting, for she knew Dekeshi could still block with the shaft, Kogoeji-ni hissed in frustration as her sister knocked her sword low.

Ducking under the ascending butt of the weapon, the Vampyre righted herself, swinging up and diagonally, under the path of the trident.

She felt her blade find purchase, dealing a shallow but long cut through Dekeshi’s threadbare tunic and the flesh beneath, before shoulder-butting and striking her foe in the solar plexus.

Retreat was not an option; she might not get another chance to close the gap between her and her sister, for the trident’s reach and accuracy was widely acclaimed.

Dekeshi, realizing her disadvantage in such close quarters, hurled her trident to the ground, and fought with tooth and nail, using her blood-infused strength to deadly effect. In the next moments, Kogoeji-ni grunted, her nose broken, a deep gouge under her lip, and a sharpened fingernail imbedded under her cheek. Unable to find the leverage to bring her sword to bear, she was forced to retreat, bloodied.

Dekeshi grinned fiercely, hurling herself forward, arms outstretched.

Enshi, the side of her face scorched, smote Dekeshi as she leapt, altering her trajectory down. Silently praising her sister for such a bold play, Kogoeji-ni thrust, realized her error, and sidestepped Ranshi’s descending hammer, which struck the ground she had occupied and burned it to a fine molten red.

An enchantment...lovely...

Elbowing her assassin from behind, Kogoeji-ni turned, brained the bitch with the pommel of her sword, then lunged forward to reclaim her pack. Enshi realized what she was planning to do, and hurled her club at Dekeshi, who was forced to parry. Kogoeji-ni leapt for the shaft, reaching the next level above, followed by Enshi.

“Find something heavy to wedge the shaft!” Kogoeji-ni snarled, “Bury them alive!”

Enshi sprinted away, while she thrust down with her sword, gouging Ranshi across the chin and breaking her grip, forcing her to retreat lest she receive further injury. Dekeshi’s damned trident thrust up, impaling her upper arm and wedging against her shoulder-blade, but Kogoeji-ni gritted her teeth, held the weapon still, and sliced the chain connecting weapon to wielder with her sword.

Using the shaft of the weapon, even imbedded into her flesh, she blocked several possible angles of ascent. Enshi approached, her eyes bright with the recent consummation of blood, dragging a small boulder greater than the dimensions of the shaft and several times her own mass.

Sensing her peril, Dekeshi hurled herself upward, hand on the shaft of the trident, and pulled. Screaming in pain, Kogoeji-ni sliced open her own shoulder, detaching the weapon, then kicked out, unbalancing her foe just as Enshi lowered the boulder.

Dizzy, bleeding, Kogoeji-ni fell onto the boulder, forcing it down with all her strength.

Forced to climb up the shaft, neither Dekeshi nor Ranshi likely possessed the physical strength to force the boulder free, but she wasn’t going to take the chance. Enshi, sensing her intent, did the same, and together they held firm. Moments passed, then minutes, and Kogoeji-ni felt a decrease in the pressure exerted on the other side, and an increase in the temperature of the stone beneath her.

The heat was emanating from the boulder...

“Ranshi is trying to melt the boulder with her hammer.” Enshi cursed, and Kogoeji-ni nodded in agreement, “Do you think you can collapse the outer entrance?”

Shaking her head, Enshi replied, “Not enough blood for that, and the way I just used won’t be available again”.

Confused, Kogoeji-ni looked up, as her sister showed her the bite marks on her upper arm. “You self-cannibalized?” she asked, horrified, and Enshi smiled wearily, “Ranshi stole my blood, remember. Desperate times, right?”

Desperate indeed... Unpleasant things happened when vampyres tried to feed upon the blood already circulating in their bodies...

The rock beneath them became stifling, then painful to hold. Smoke wafted up...

“No, wait. I have it!” Enshi gasped, her smile widening, becoming feral, “Sulfur, from outside”. Impressed by her sister’s quick thinking, Kogoeji-ni nodded, “They will have an unpleasant experience when the rock becomes too hot. Look into my pack and take my blood canteen. It’s empty, as I suspect yours is. Fill both with the water of the pools nearby. Look for the heaviest concentration”.

The water was not safe to tread in, even when stagnant. Especially when stagnant.

Infused with the sulfur from the air and stone, milky white concentrations collected near the surface, and became very hazardous when introduced to extreme heat. The storm would have consumed most of these pools, but at such a low elevation thanks to the nature of the ravine, a usable source might still be present immediately outside. It took Enshi a few minutes, during which Kogoeji-ni’s skin began to blister against the boulder, but her sister returned, bearing two canteens.

“You left a pocket of air in each one?” Kogoeji-ni asked, and Enshi smiled, “Of course. And I pressed the stopper nice and tight! I know how to make one of these, you know!”

A pocket of air was needed to ignite the brew; oxidized sulfur was more flammable.

Setting their little surprise for Ranshi and Dekeshi on the boulder, which was slightly flat at the top, Kogoeji-ni grunted as her sister hoisted her up, and led her to the mouth of the cave. Daring a cautious glance to her kin, she noted that Enshi met her gaze, and was likely considering the same matter she was.

Kogoeji-ni knew she’d expended her strength, and having fed upon herself, Enshi still had some to spare. With their enemies neutralized, it would be a simple task to end their alliance and consummate a new opportunity to eliminate a rival.

Enshi considered this for a time, then, “A conspiracy ends when the enemy is no more. And we have over three-score potential enemies remaining. I would have a worthy ally in the days to come”.

Nodding grimly, Kogoeji-ni allowed herself to be led up the ravine, and into the wastes...

Her patron eyed the cavern, grinning as their two daughters limped away.

“What an amusing development...” he mused, and Botsu studied him carefully. The stones shook as Kogoeji-ni’s clever and devious trap activated, creating a small but deadly explosion of flammable gasses.

There was a pause, then...

Ranshi leapt from the cavern’s mouth, screaming, her flesh smoking, and Dekeshi followed shortly after, even worse for wear. Cloaked in invisibility, for the combatants needed not know of their audience, Botsu studied the blistered and deformed skin covering Dekeshi’s left eye and most of her nose and mouth. Her hair had melted on one side, burned to her scalp. The fingers of her left hand were pressed to her palm, little more than scorched bone curled into a ball.

Ranshi, for her part, sported second degree burns across her race, shoulder, and torso, but seemed otherwise unharmed. The rune engraved into her great hammer glowed fiercely, and Botsu smiled in approval.

The enchantment Ranshi had created not only dealt intense heat, but also shielded its wielder from the same. A wise defense, in a world rich in flammable elements.

“That one will do me proud.” Botsu decided, “Once she learns humility. Dekeshi, I think not. Kogoeji-ni...” she considered, troubled, “I know not what to make of this alliance. She is a clever one, but far too soft. She will face hard lessons in the future”.

God Death nodded, “All things must end. She will decide the time of her end, and the conditions thereof...if she is fortunate”. He eyed her, his countenance feral, “Come, my Angel of Death. The smell of burnt flesh entices me. I would we retire to a more...intimate location”.

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