The Black Hand (An Enchanter's Cycle Standalone)

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Chapter 2

Six more sisters perished in the two years to follow her unlikely alliance with Enshi. Two years by no means spent idle.

She’d grown at least four inches, and noticed an uncomfortable pressure in her chest that became more insufferable against the rough fibers of her tunic. She was due for her first bleeding, and was in no hurry to experience it.

No matter.

While she suffered and tried to ignore the confusing and painful spurts of puberty, she’d also honed her crafts in much-needed solitude.

Kogoeji-ni looked down at her latest work, having separated the blue stone from the cave into twenty-seven pieces and rounded them into smooth, spherical cabochons. She’d then drilled a small hole into each one and fitted through a twined leather thread, before removing the thread and sanding down and polishing each cabochon with a mixture of ingredients including lemon juice, oil, and black tea, all pilfered or bartered from Mother’s storeroom. In the end what she had was a necklace of prayer beads, most the size of the last digit of her thumb, while the central bead was twice that.

She’d asked Mother about the stone, presenting a small chunk of it beforehand, and had learned that the mineral (for it was a form of unusually hard and lustrous mineral and not a proper gem), was called Lapis Lazuli, a rare, semi-precious species made more rare by the hazardous environment.

The name rolled pleasantly off the tongue. It made her forget her murderous sister’s antics.


Both Ranshi and Dekeshi had, unfortunately, returned home a day or so after she and Enshi had, battered and furious, but neither had dared a direct confrontation within the walls of their temple-home.

That was just as well; because another sister had recently intruded upon her hidden tunnel and set off her flame-bomb trap. The damned thing had been so strong it’d collapsed the tunnel, burying the fool and whatever useful things they may have carried. She hadn’t yet found the time to reopen the tunnel, and indeed saw little reason to. It was now a liability more than anything else.

Donning the necklace and her re-threaded clothing, she considered her finished sword, another craft that’d occupied her time and attentions over the last two years; a fine bone scabbard concealing its darksteel blade.

She’d started by re-forging the ore in the smithy, creating harder and softer variants by application of carbon. The softest and most malleable ore she forged to form the spine of the blade, with the harder ore along the outer edges, allowing both flexibility and durability.

Styled after a Spatha, its edge was less angular, specializing cutting over thrusting, with a threaded bone handle ending in a pommel of iron, shaved down to a rectangular shape. The guard, likewise iron, was just wider than the blade, and short of length.

It was a fine weapon to Blood-Forge, a worthy weapon, as she and the rest of the brood had been commanded to create.

Yes, she would need this weapon very soon. Mother had declared a new challenge, one that would reduce their number from forty to roughly ten. The Tournament of Blood-Forging; each daughter would participate in this gruesome elimination event upon accepting Father’s blessing.

When enough had fallen, and each remaining daughter had proven their mettle in armed combat, these ten victors would bathe their weapons in the blood of the vanquished, and imbue them with powerful dark magicka, creating sentient items with powerful enchantments unique to their mutual species.

It was implied that all forty were to be tested at once, so Kogoeji-ni assumed it would be decided on the grounds near the house. Aside from this, she had no idea as to the conditions of the bout.

Left with no way to predict the topography of the arena, a strategy would have to be decided immediately upon being thrust into the competition. So be it. She was up to the task.

But she also knew that both Ranshi, Dekeshi, and any others that’d discovered her alliance with Enshi would try to ensure neither of them survived. Conspiracies were commonplace, designed to eliminate a powerful rival, but...Enshi had decided to trust her, and Kogoeji-ni felt no inclination to betray that trust. Something had happened between them; a sense of familiarity, of kinship, that she couldn’t properly articulate...

She would be certain that Enshi remain alive, at least until she could understand her feelings.

Dekeshi cornered the brat in a narrow corridor between the cellar and the lower bunkrooms.

Enshi, wide eyed and sporting a bloodied lip, crept to the side, her weapon low and wavering. Called a Macuahuitl, the club-sword was a length of hardened chitin with a rounded handle, featuring sharpened chips of volcanic glass imbedded throughout its length.

It was a fine cutting weapon, but she’d never get close enough to use it. Dekeshi’s trident and its three deadly prongs were fixed on the little conspirator, her other hand clutching a lump of tightly bound netting, which would restrict and slow her foe long enough for a killing thrust.

“You will suffer for initiating open combat here!” Enshi hissed, body tense. Dekeshi cut off her only way out, smiling wickedly, “No, I won’t”.

Likewise tensing, Dekeshi taunted her sister, “Father knows you’re weak...he will not come until you’ve proven yourself or perished”.

Seeing the worry betrayed by Enshi’s shifting expression, she advanced a step, then another, “I will make a fine necklace out of your fangs, something to compare to that glittering abomination Kogoeji-ni wears...”

Giggling, savoring the tension that her advance brought to her foe, Dekeshi struck, thrusting low.

Enshi yelped, backpedalling out of the weapon’s reach and against the wall. Tossing the net, which spread in the air as it travelled, Dekeshi kicked at her weakling sister as her weaponless arm became entangled.

Enshi’s Macuahuitl came up, and Dekeshi evaded the swing, dealing an underhanded elbow to her underbelly and doubling her over. Cracking the trident’s butt across Enshi’s temple, she took the bite of the Macuahuitl as her sister correctly brought her weapon in close for an improvised parry, grazing her forearm. The weapon dug in deeper as she pressed Enshi hard against the wall, the obsidian on its reverse end likewise cutting into its wielder. Enshi kicked out with her foot, knocking the trident out wide, before using her other hand, the one still enclosed in netting, to snare Dekeshi and prevent her from finding the proper angle to thrust.

That was fine.

Dropping her weapon with a smile, Dekeshi opened wide and dug her fangs into flesh, twisting her head in the wound.

Her prey screamed, thrashing in her grip, and Dekeshi held her in place, drinking in her blood. And gasping, stunned, as strength did not suffuse her body. She could determine no effect at all.

Disengaging, confused, Dekeshi snarled as she saw the blood covering Enshi’s teeth, and a pair of c-shaped clusters of puncture wounds on her own forearm.

“Touché...” she said with a smile, amused by their stalemate but determined to break it. She went in for the kill...

Studying her sister’s behavior, Enshi realized the stupid bitch hadn’t even noticed that she’d lost the advantage. She still had her Macuahuitl, and Dekeshi hadn’t yet reclaimed her trident.

Likewise, she’d subtly shaken the compound in her belt pouch; the brew she’d been making in the cellars. It’d needed time to simmer, but the altercation had stressed the fluid enough to synthesize it fully. Possibly...

It was time to turn the tables. She charged, sword leading, screaming her defiance. And her weapon turned black and disintegrated in her hands...

“Foolish, Dekeshi.” a sister’s voice echoed from up the stairs, “Very foolish. Did we not agree to work together?”

Her skin gooseflesh, Enshi looked to find Ranshi, hammer in hand, a bright red rune marking her palm.

More sorcery...

Dekeshi grunted, retrieving her trident, “This one is weak. I wanted her all to myself, thank you”.

“Obviously...” Ranshi retorted with disdain, “But what’s done is done. We’re both here, and we will kill her together”.

“I think not!” Enshi snapped, pulling free the finished compound. Contained in a slim ceramic vial, the recipe was exacting; Elixir of the White Hare, motes of ash from an ancient elm tree, a pinch of grave dust taken from a very specific battlefield, and a shard of a black gem, a necromantic artifact that stored the souls of the dead.

With all these ingredients, its magickal properties had (hopefully) yielded a single effect, one quite useful to someone who needed to confound a foe, or, in her case, make a quick escape...

Drinking the potion, she grinned as her flesh became opaque, turning into a fog-like vapor. Passing through and around a furious Dekeshi and an indifferent Ranshi, Enshi floated up the stairs and to relative safety.

Dekeshi watched, incredulous, as her prey escaped her. Ranshi didn’t even turn to pursue.

“What are you doing?!” she screamed, “You could have ignited her, even as vapor.” to which her sister replied only with that smug, condescending frown.

“Yes.” she stated, slowly, as if she were speaking to a dullard, “But this might prove more beneficial. The tournament is tomorrow and Enshi has no weapon. I burned it to ash. Kogoeji-ni is now possessed of a gangrenous limb; an ally already weak, further weakened. Will she sever this limb, or hold it close, protecting it even as it spells her undoing?”

Kogoeji-ni meditated in her room in the brief hours before nightfall, a new reinforced door protecting her from intruders.

The next moments proved it to be unsuited to the task.

Rising with a surprised grunt, the Vampyre drew her sword as a thick fog seeped through the locking mechanism, congealing far too quickly to be a natural occurrence. Her surprise turned to puzzlement, as Enshi materialized in the fog, bloodied and weaponless, her hands raised in a gesture of submission.

“Do not sneak up on me.” Kogoeji-ni said icily, “I might not wait next time”.

Her sister wearily nodded, lowering her hands, “I need your help...but first, I will offer you a gift”.

A single brow raised imperiously, Kogoeji-ni bid her continue, “Ranshi has improved on her enchantments. She burned my Macuahuitl with a single, well-placed spell”.

Troubled, for she knew no others among the brood that had developed magickal abilities, Kogoeji-ni considered her next moves. Ranshi had to die. As did Dekeshi. She knew this; both presented a very credible threat, especially now, and her only ally among the brood was no longer of use to her.

Not unarmed, at least...

“You plan to ask me to help you recoup your loss.” she stated, not asked, and Enshi nodded, “Most of the brood has a proper weapon, except for...for Byo’Ku... Anyway, we need to...relieve a sister of their weapon”.

Shaking her head, Kogoeji-ni sighed, “Mother will be watching carefully now, on the eve of the tournament. She likely didn’t interfere because she hoped you would perish, but now...if we tried to kill another, one more in her favor...”

There was no need to say it aloud; an attack within the house’s wall bore a strict penalty; a swift but horrible death on a planet burdened by the light of the sun.

“Then what else should I do?” Enshi snapped, “I studied armed combat. I cannot fight with my fists like Byo’Ku! What should I do?” to which Kogoeji-ni considered. What a development. Her foes were stronger than ever, and in turn her own resources dwindled.

Perhaps it was a test.

Nonetheless, she knew the answer, but most certainly not the right one. Her first instinct flew in the face of everything she’d known all her life, and yet...

Strengthen an ally, strengthen oneself...

Without a word Kogoeji-ni offered Enshi the Spatha, unsheathing and presenting it without expression. Enshi eyed her, incredulous, then the blade. When neither moved, Kogoeji-ni forced the weapon into her sister’s hands.

“Get out...” she whispered, pondering the waves of desolation and confusion sweeping through her heart. Perhaps Mother and Father were right about her after all...

Enshi didn’t move, holding the sword as if she were afraid it might bite her.

"Get out!” Kogoeji-ni screamed, pushing her away and slamming the door behind her, “I have work to do...”

Botsu rested in the central chamber; the shrine to God Death. Continuous sequences of rings of forged iron rested on the floor, welded directly into the mortar and stone. Within each was a sequence of runes cast in tarnished silver, each a complex invocation to the darkest and most destructive powers of the Veil.

No one, not even the Djinn of cursed Surthath, could threaten her or the brood in this chamber; it was her contingency if they ever discovered her presence.

Rows of pews lined this room, at which her brood sat when hearing the sermons of Dur’Artoth. Atop a stone altar at the far end, raised by a set of three steps, was a draping cloth; dark, deep purple, emblazoned with a black hammer and outstretched wings. At the center was a single, burning red eye, an enchanted dollop of jasper.

Atop this cloth rested Zetsumei, her Blood-Forged rapier.

A slim blade of bright mithril, not darksteel, it seemed ill-befitting for a Skraul matron, with a bright leather wrapping affixed with spiraling braided gold thread, and an elegant guard and pommel, the former resembling antlers, the latter a joined pair of hooves.

But she had been beautiful once, suited to the blade, in a realm where only strength was revered. She had lost that beauty inside, if not outside, slowly, gradually, coming to more resemble the filth she’d always despised.

Zetsumei had gained its new name, and its new enchantments, following her in her descent into darkness. Morag Toth...he was to blame, as was Surthath.

One was dead, consigned to an eternal cosmic grave, and the latter would follow him.

Her inner peace interrupted by her musings, the Angel of Death decided to see if her worthless daughter, Enshi, had met her demise yet. The ambush had taken place almost two hours ago, after all.

Dekeshi would have to be pardoned from the tournament, because already possessing a Blood-Forged blade would constitute an unfair advantage. Botsu was, if anything, willing to provide each member of the brood equal odds of survival; it was up to them to prove themselves capable of utilizing it.

Extending her consciousness, as she could do within a radius of several leagues at all times, Botsu determined that Enshi was...still alive. She’d used a complex elixir to mutate into living vapor...

“Resourceful.” the Angel of Death mused with a surprised chortle, “I will concede that much, and...” And... And she was holding Kogoeji-ni’s Spatha!

“What is this?” Botsu gasped, before smiling wickedly, “At last, she proves herself up to the task! She must have turned on her ally and claimed her weapon. Well done! I might be able to use you after all”.

Amused, Botsu sought to find Kogoeji-ni’s corpse.

It was a shame, to be sure, to lose her, but Botsu was nothing if not pragmatic.

She found her, quite alive, carving a length of bone in her room. Confusion and horror warred within her; ”Kogoeji-ni." she hissed, transmitting her words telepathically, ”Come to me at once. Attend my judgment“.

Her daughter startled, eyes darting to and fro, before she nodded grimly, rising to her feet. There was much to explain...

Kogoeji-ni watched the emotions play across Mother’s face as she explained what she had done for Enshi, and was unsure how to react.

Botsu, the all-knowing, immaculate, implacable mother, seemed genuinely speechless, pacing wildly in the shrine. Never once had she seen Mother uncertain of anything...

But that confusion gave way, as her face took on an iron cast, her eyes blazing with wrath.

“Be gone from my sight!” she snarled, and Kogoeji-ni was all too happy to oblige, sprinting back to her room.

Botsu was at a loss at how to react to this strange development.

She should have punished Kogoeji-ni for being weak.

She should have killed Enshi for accepting aid so easily.

Certainly, this was no arranged conspiracy as she sometimes applauded in her younglings; this was loyalty, a measured and careful bond between two disparate beings. She must have been imagining it, but Botsu would’ve sworn Kogoeji-ni entertained some manner of affection towards her sibling, in spite of the fact that they might very well have to kill each other in the tournament ahead.

And Kogoeji-ni had just willingly sacrificed her advantage in the form of that finely crafted weapon!

“If she dies tomorrow...” Botsu decided, dismissing the matter, “Then so be it. Her foolishness will have proven her undoing”.

Morning came.

The tournament would soon begin.

Kogoeji-ni belted on her new, improvised weapon, then tied her Lapis Lazuli beads about her neck. If she was to die on this day, she would do so with the knowledge that her confusion and doubts would be at an end.

If she lived, then she would live to unravel these strange urgings in her heart, that demanded she help her sister even by risking her own life, that had given her thoughtful pause when listening to Father’s frenzied lectures of the races of the other worlds, that made her want to see these strange new worlds for herself, even those blighted by the sun.

With these notions plaguing her confidence, Kogoeji-ni left her room, and sought out the others in the shrine...


Dekeshi’s gape of astonishment swiftly turned into a leering grin.

The fool! Enshi now wielded that wicked little sword, and Kogoeji-ni entered the shrine to God Death with a simple bone dagger. A dagger!

Confidant that her final victory was upon her, Dekeshi sat calmly as the rest of the Brood trickled in. After a time, when all were seated, he came. Dekeshi knew his presence long before he actually arrived; the air, already frigid, turned positively arctic. Her skin tingled, and the small hairs on her arms went erect. Evil, the sheer essence of it, darkened the chamber, emptied it in a way she couldn’t fully define.

Able to see acutely in that darkness, she beheld Him.

He was massive, nine feet tall and well over five times mother’s bulk, his great dark wings unfolding to make him seem even larger. His armor glinted even without light, the plates naturally growing out from his flesh nearly indeterminable from the ones he wore atop a coat of fine titanium mail. Black fur sprouted across exposed flesh in tufts, especially around his chin, which formed a fine beard. Slimy, writhing tendrils draped down his shoulders and back in a wild mane. Horns, two pairs of them, crowned his roughly conical head, and his eyes blazed with cold blue fire.

Dur’Artoth, the Dread Hammer, God Death, ...Father...

“Welcome, children of the brood...” he whispered in a soft, sibilant voice, and even that was enough to send most in the room to their knees.

He exuded power, as he exuded evil, and Dekeshi felt awash in it, in awe and reverence...and desire.

This was the power she wished to wield against her foes! This was why she kept living; the sheer possibility that she could revel in that glory, that godhood. It was...exquisite...

“...To the Tournament of Blood-Forging...” he continued, playing over each word with emphasis, “Today, the brood will be thinned, purged of its unworthiness. By nightfall, all who remain, and they will be few indeed, will be Matriarchs, possessing powers rivaling that of the Djinn of accursed Surthath”.

He eyed them, his gaze pinning those it fell upon to the floor completely, leaving them writhing with mixed ecstasy and terror.

“All of you, at this moment, possess a divine spark; a fragment of my essence, my vital force...” he continued, “It remains inert, inactive. The blood of your siblings, now that all of you have sufficiently matured, will awaken it, allowing you to invoke it at will. It is this spark you will infuse into your weapons, granting them sentience. From bonding with this sentience, your magickal potency will increase a hundredfold. This is my legacy, passed unto you, as Morag Toth had bestowed upon the original incarnation of the Skraul.”

His smile widened, became more abjectly threatening, “But, as I have said, few will ever experience this glory, for I look upon you, my children, and am terribly unimpressed with your fortitude”.

Towering over one sister, Isshiho’Koku, he lifted his hand, and leveled one gnarled claw in her direction. The sister screamed, black blood pouring from her eyes, before she collapsed, quite dead, and he scooped her up with one hand.

“Look upon the price of weakness!” he snarled, crushing her limp body, impacting her ribs and spilling her organs through her burst abdomen, “And know that weakness will not be tolerated, not now, not ever! Matriarch or not, if you defy my code or, worse, seek out another deity, I will flay you to shreds upon a black altar and feed upon the remains! For I am a jealous God...”

Dropping the mangled corpse, God Death licked his hand, his tongue long and serpentine, “The portal that I will create will transport all of you to the tournament grounds. Each brood-ling that passes through will be sent to a different area of the field. It will fall to you to seek out your allies. Be warned...” he eyed her especially, “That the locations are not randomized. I will place those of similar strengths apart, so that they may cull the weak first and foremost. Most of the deaths will occur within the first minutes”.

“Oh!” he noted excitedly, “And do have fun, my daughters. This will be by far the easiest task I shall ever demand of you personally”.

God Death lifted his clawed hands, and spoke a single word. She heard the word, but it passed from her memory in an instant.

Cold, violent winds gathered in the chamber, and coalesced into a sliver of black ice. Frozen air, mostly sulfur, the crystal shattered in a cloud of dark glittering specks, which vaporized, expanding into a great oval-shaped arch.

Within the arch, where the vapor was thickest, distorted shapes swam inside its surface. A reflection of the tournament grounds on the other side, no doubt.

As the first sister, Byo’Ku, stepped into the cloud at Father’s behest, she vanished, and the reflection altered somewhat. Kogoeji-ni watched Dekeshi enter the portal, then followed shortly after.

Father’s cryptic words were obvious, for a change.

She knew who would be waiting for her on the other side. Without fear, she plunged into the cosmic maelstrom studying what she could that might suggest the layout of her point of entry.

Kogoeji-ni found herself within strange ruins. There were sandstone arches with intricate carvings marring their surfaces. The walls reached high above, and plunged the corridor she was in into shadow. She knew immediately, however, that this place was not from her world.

The air was...different...

Advancing silently, the Vampyre studied her surroundings; the walls were not uniform; some had great cracks throughout the hieroglyphics. Sand covered the floor, the result of a partial collapse, perhaps, though it seemed odd for such an event to occur belowground without a complete cave in.

Likewise, she noted with horror, that light, blinding to her eyes, poured from an impacted corner. She avoided it as best she could, fearing the burning pain that would follow immersion.

Father’s sense of humor shone through; this was a planet that saw the light of the sun, of that there was no doubt. But was that light from the sun, or from the white orb known as a moon?

All her life had been spent in either complete darkness or oppressive gloom. She couldn’t tell the difference...

She rounded a bend in the structure, and crouched, expectantly, sensing the presence of another. Her filed bone dagger; roughly three times the length of her index finger, was a weapon purely designed for thrusting. All she had to do was close distance on her foe, and the advantage would be hers.

Unless it was Byo’Ku on the other side...the lunatic who tore her foes to shreds with her bare hands. She had no strategy in mind to kill that one that didn’t involve claiming another weapon from a slain kin.

Hugging the wall and doing as best she could to conceal her shadow, Kogoeji-ni waited patiently for someone to approach, and was disappointed. Whoever they were, they were content to wait. So be it... Scooping up a handful of sand, Kogoeji-ni counted to twenty, then rounded the corner.

And took an arrow to the gut.

Jusatsu, “Death By Being Shot”, stood at the end of the next hallway, an arrogant smile on her face, already fitting another arrow into her long bow. To close the distance on an archer, armed with a dagger.

Damn. It might already be over for her.

Doubling back around the corner, Kogoeji-ni dropped her sand, and picked up the flattest, widest piece of rock she could find, then charged again. The second arrow missed her ear by a hair’s breadth, and she used her wounds to trigger a burst of vampyric speed.

Just as Jusatsu did.

Three more arrows launched her way in the next heartbeat. She parried the first with her stone, and reached down, deflecting the third even while ducking under the second. No matter how fast she drew, Jusatsu’s arrows themselves could only travel as fast as physics allowed.

That was her weakness, and an exploitable one too...

Kogoeji-ni’s own dagger would match her speed. She reached her sister, and thrust.

To have her weapon rebound off of Jusatsu’s bow. Thrusting again, her sister pressed her out wide, using her bow like a quarterstaff, before unstringing it and making it just that.

Kogoeji-ni had no idea how her sister had found such supple material for that weapon in their ruined world.

Reversing the grip on her dagger, she slashed at her sister, before sending her backwards with an improvised knee to the solar plexus. Jusatsu used the momentum created to whip around her improvised staff and bash the Vampyre on the temple, the bowstring still attached to it and dangling loosely.

Sidestepping and ducking under the attack, Kogoeji-ni took a handful of that string, wrapped it around her hand, and tugged, ruining Jusatsu’s balance.

The string, narrow and taut, quickly and painfully cut off the circulation to her hand, but knowing her sister wouldn’t find leverage with her weapon tangled up, Kogoeji-ni endured it and lunged, dagger thrusting from a bent arm.

Jusatsu grunted, struck in the lower abdomen, and dropped her staff, favoring her fists. Taking a claw swipe to her face, Kogoeji-ni stabbed again, taking her sister under the ribs.

Jusatsu, bloodied but keenly focused, took hold of the arrow still imbedded in her gut, and twisted it. Kogoeji-ni screamed in pain, but did not renege, knocking her sister’s other hand wide and delivering a third thrust, between the ribs, under Jusatsu’s budding breast and through her heart.

Gasping, Jusatsu twisted the arrow again, and pulled it free, but with a wail of mixed rage, pain, and an odd, detached sense of sadness, Kogoeji-ni stabbed her heart a second time, then a third, and a fourth, collapsing to the ground with her. Again, and again, and again, screaming, Kogoeji-ni extended her fangs, plunged deep into her sister’s soft throat, and took Jusatsu’s lifeblood into herself.

The feeling was indescribable.

This was not like taking a pittance of blood from cattle; this was lifeblood in the truest sense, drawing the very life force from the dying.

Power, sheer power, overwhelmed her, blinding her to her pain and deafening her unexplained misgivings in taking her sister’s life. Kogoeji-ni screamed once more, now in ecstasy, feeling her wounds seal, feeling her body strengthen as it had not since her desperate flight from the sulfur storm.

Rising from her kill, her first kill, Kogoeji-ni looked to her dagger.

By all appearances, it was the same rough shiv she’d begun with, but she sensed its burgeoning lethality. Where once it was no more than bone, she sensed it now possessed a hunger of its own.

It was no Blood-Forged weapon yet...but now it had the potential, the unrealized need, to become one. She knew that unless she killed again, and soon, it would crumble to dust. The thirst already boiling up through her body, Kogoeji-ni darted forward, and claimed Jusatsu’s bow and quiver, restringing it as she ran.

Let her be feared, at long last!

Botsu stood and watched without remorse before a multi-faceted scrying mirror as the brood thinned.

In the first five minutes of the tournament, thirty-nine became twenty-five.

In the nest ten minutes it became seventeen, nearly a quarter of the sixty she had begun with over a decade ago.

“Fret not, my love...” God Death whispered, somewhat mockingly, in her ear, “They do well. Kogoeji-ni is still alive, fighting off her kin with a little bone twig. So entertaining. Oh, and look at Byo’Ku!” he giggled, watching that particular daughter tear out a sister’s throat with her teeth, howling and gibbering with wild, mad abandon, “The flurry of pleasure and pain. The sheer exercise in life. I love it!”

Not really sharing her unwanted patron’s “enthusiasm”, the Angel of Death studied each daughter, alert for any sign of weakness that might be exploited beyond the tournament.

She would not waste a victory on a fool that wouldn’t live to their fullest extent.

“Do not disappoint me, any of you...” she hissed, seeing the end of another child, then another...

Kogoeji-ni continued through the ruins, ascending and descending through increasingly steep hills of sand. She had no idea how such odd formations could have occurred without a full collapse, and proceeded cautiously, alert for any signs of her kin.

Through a pathway, ascending through a level of overlapping stairs, being forced to double back due to a fully collapsed tunnel, she pressed on. Eventually discovering a gap in the ceiling large enough to reach through, Kogoeji-ni leapt a stone throw into the air with her vampyric agility, landing amid a wide antechamber.

The broken stairwell was behind her, and before her was a wall of light; the exit to the outside, the only other route available. Squinting, still unable to determine the nature of this most treacherous obstacle, Kogoeji-ni paused, uncertain.

There was no other way to go, unless she’d improperly navigated the ruins below.

Had she?

There seemed no possible way for a structure large enough to hold the rest of the brood to be down there. The matter was answered for her...

Rekishi, whose name roughly meant “Death By Being Trampled”, descended from the light, unharmed, her eyes wild, her twin stone mauls spattered with fresh, black blood. Knocking an arrow into her newfound bow, Kogoeji-ni eyed her sister, a brute and bully like Ranshi, with open contempt.

“The advantage is mine, sister...” she noted, measuring the distance between them, “Are you certain you do not wish to retreat?”

Smiling, Rekishi charged, and Kogoeji-ni fired, already drawing a second arrow from her quiver. Four more launched before Rekishi closed the distance, all but one parried with those mauls, a rudimentary form of war hammer composed of an hourglass-shaped slab of rock tied to curved lengths of bone.

Backpedaling, knees bent, discarding the bow and drawing her dagger, Kogoeji-ni locked Rekishi’s leading arm inside the cup of her shoulder, taking a brush from the side of the hammer with a pained grunt, while bending her other arm, the one holding the dagger, horizontally and upward, pushing her sister’s left arm up and harmlessly away from her head.

Unfortunately, she recoiled, eyes watering, as Rekishi smashed forehead to nose with a wet, painful crunch.

Retreating, Kogoeji-ni snapped back to alertness, and they circled each other. The antechamber was a bowshot wide, roughly symmetrical, with a stone-throw-wide square of sandstone at its center, upon which they stared each other down.

The rest, a lower section, perhaps, was buried in the sand. Overhead, almost a bowshot, was a great roof, smaller in size than the floor, the disparity implying a stacked floor above it of lesser scale. Judging by what she’d observed in the sizes of each chamber up to that point, Kogoeji-ni assumed the building to be some sort of pyramid.

Who had built such a thing?

Lunging forward, feinting, and sidestepping into Rekishi’s flank, Kogoeji-ni hurled her dagger, to which her sister parried easily with her mauls. An arrow swiftly placed in each hand, positioned with the shaft between her middle and index fingers and the pointed heads outward, the Vampyre leapt up, knees cracking painfully against the lifted mauls, before snapping her left hand down to score a hit on Reikishi’s brow, right above the eye. With a burst of vampyric strength, Rekishi hurled her backward, to which Kogoeji-ni back-flipped and landed in a crouch, her knees wounded but thankfully not fractured.

Black blood gushed from the wound atop Rekishi’s brow, coating her eye. With luck, it would halve her vision, at least for a time.

This time it was Rekishi who charged, her bellow fearsome, and Kogoeji-ni spread her center of gravity out wide, crouching, ready to sidestep or roll as needed. Rekishi raised both hammers, then flinched, gasping. She collapsed, and there was a length of darksteel protruding from her back. A spear. A three-pronged spear...

“Well, well, well...” Dekeshi mused, her grin wide and predatory, “Still alive, hmm...?”

Cursing, reclaiming her dagger, Kogoeji-ni watched her sister cross ten paces in one, her weapon sliding from Rekishi with a wet, grinding sound. A severed spinal column...quick, devious... And to score such a lethal hit from such a distance...

Knowing her odds, Kogoeji-ni approached as close as she dared to, to pick up one of Rekishi’s mauls. Speed was likely her only advantage, but the comfortable heft of the bludgeon felt distinctly reassuring. Finding a passable combat stance with a weapon in each hand, maul leading, she waited for Dekeshi’s first attack, no doubt to hurl the trident like a javelin.

The netting in her other hand would no doubt serve as a passable shield...

Silence stretched, each sister eyeing the other patiently. As the closeness between them became uncomfortable, Kogoeji-ni lunged forward.

Dekeshi indeed hurled the trident, and she gasped, as she parried with the maul in a passable imitation of Rekishi’s tactic, only to have one of the trident’s prongs puncture her hand between her index finger and thumb. Shrieking in pain as the trident fell, its weight dragging that prong down her hand and dropping it uselessly to her side, Kogoeji-ni in turn threw her dagger as she had before, to distract her sister long enough to free her hand before that damned net dropped on her. Holding her right hand outstretched, she prevented it from fully closing around her, drawing a final arrow from her quiver and using it like a prod, pressing Dekeshi away.

Nonetheless, her time was short; Dekeshi had nearly reclaimed her trident, drawing it close by the chain connecting it to a bracer on her left hand.

Tearing free of the net with her claws, wincing as the wound in her hand closed, Kogoeji-ni threw the net at its wielder, grimacing as Dekeshi caught it with her trident.

Damn it all! With the net as it was, Dekeshi could still use it to tangle, and she could still attack with impunity, for the prongs of the weapon poked free of the netting.

Snarling, Kogoeji-ni retreated, recovering the bow, followed as she darted to one of the parried arrows. Leaping into a roll and claiming her ammunition, Kogoeji-ni turned, drew, and fired in the same instant, as Dekeshi loomed over her. The arrow sailed high, and Dekeshi snarled as it dragged cut her from lip to jawbone, before lodging where her ear connected.

Sidestepping the deadly thrust of the trident, Kogoeji-ni stood up, grabbed the shaft, and twisted, turning that snarl into a wild, animal wail of pain.

Dekeshi shrieked in rage, extended her fangs, and lunged down, intending to bite. Kogoeji-ni pinned her sister’s head upward, forehead to her chin, while stabbing her under the ribs repeatedly with the reclaimed shaft, the arrowhead still embedded.

Dekeshi grunted, slowing, before dropping the trident and striking her with the flat of the palm. Kogoeji-ni lost comprehension for a moment, stunned, then looked up, horrified, as Dekeshi thrust her trident. It bit deep into her stomach, and Kogoeji-ni hissed in pain, watching as the wounds marring her sister’s face began to mend. Dekeshi shoved the trident in deeper, and Kogoeji-ni writhed upon it, in anguish.

Reaching for something, anything, she felt her hands close on one of Rekishi’s mauls, and hurled it overhead.

Spinning on its head, the maul smote Dekeshi on the face, flattening her nose and throwing her head back with such force that her neck snapped with the strain.

She collapsed limply.

Gasping, feeling her lifeblood being drawn into the trident, Kogoeji-ni pulled it free, screaming as its barbs drew her bowels and muscle outward with it, before submitting those items with a wet ripping retort, leaving them to sink back into their proper places.

Doubled over in pain, Kogoeji-ni advanced on her sister murderously on all fours, choking on blood, drawing the maul and staring down at her foe. Dekeshi stared sightlessly, breathing faintly, paralyzed but likely not for long. The recent infusion of blood would likely have fortified Dekeshi’s regeneration, as it had with her.

One blow, one blow and this rivalry would come to a sudden, bloody end.

Her hand shook, with bloodlust or disgust she knew not, and Kogoeji-ni steadied herself, ready for another feeding. It would offer satisfaction beyond the last; Dekeshi had likely amassed a far higher body count than Jusatsu, and her blood would be far more potent.

All she had to do...was finish the deed, and that blood would be hers; dripping, sweet, and...and...

Kogoeji-ni heaved, gasping... would make her no different than them, would it?

Was this the only way?

“Yes...” she grunted, lifting the maul again, “Survival is the only need that I have right now. Beyond power, beyond glory, beyond bloodlust, it is all that I cherish in this cold, miserable existence”.

If there was more, Kogoeji-ni had never witnessed it, never imagined it beyond this gaping emptiness inside her heart.

Let her fill that emptiness with the blood of a hated foe!

Let her cull this weakness in herself once and for all, slay Enshi for the weak fool that she was, and earn the praise of God Death, her father!

Let her become this dark, merciless warrior he sought in her, in all of the brood!

Let her forsake this feeling for satisfaction, for dark pleasure!

Let her end it, all of it!

All of it!

All of it!

Slamming the maul down, against the stone of the arena, Kogoeji-ni wept. It was not enough...not enough...

Kogoeji-ni lifted her sister’s arm, and sank her fangs deep. When she’d drawn all she could without killing her she broke away, her head held low.

Jusatsu had been different; the fight could have ended either way before piercing her heart. Kogoeji-ni was no executioner...she would find her own way among the brood...

“The Tournament of Bloodforging...” God Death proclaimed in a voice that boomed across the field of battle, “...Is complete. All those who remain, bathe your weapons in the blood of the fallen, and speak my name to depart. To claim any more of your rivals is to invoke my wrath”.

Watching him carefully, Botsu considered her words, before, “Kogoeji-ni continues to defy our wishes”.

He nodded, arms crossed, as his baleful gaze spread across the mirrors revealing their eight remaining daughters, “She continues to not only survive, but thrive. Slaying Jusatsu at such a disadvantage, and likewise defeating and humbling Dekeshi. She may try to defect to another Old One, but until that happens she will serve honorably and with success”.

He pondered that, then grunted, “Success is all I care about right now; the honorable part will simply have to be suffered”.

Agreeing, Botsu eyed this daughter, this strange yet intriguing child of the brood, and saw a reflection of herself from her youth.

That one, for better or worse, most emulated her.

Botsu hoped, in a distant sort of way, that Kogoeji-ni would not emulate her mother more fully...

Desiring to see for herself this strange light she had until now feared, Kogoeji-ni stepped from the antechamber of the ruins, and into a place so open and vast that she was left with uneasy footing.

Beyond her structure, dozens of smaller and larger pyramids and roofless ruins dotted the landscape, a landscape defined by uniformly flat plains of sand. Drawn by the wind into great swirling clouds, the sand failed to obscure the great black skies overhead, unmarred by the sulfurous clouds of her homeland.

The moon, for this great shining orb of pure white had to be the moon, swam in a sea of obsidian darkness beside thousands, nay, tens of thousands, of tiny crystalline lights glinting like gems.

Breathless, Kogoeji-ni took only casual note of her other sisters, who scurried among the ruins. She distantly thought she recognized Enshi, or at least someone who was holding her Spatha, but these things held no sway over her attention. Standing here, in this beauty, Kogoeji-ni did something quite unlike herself.

She smiled, her eyes closing, circling beneath this wondrous light and shadow and darkness, feeling the chill night air fill her lungs.

Now, at long last, she understood why Mother and Father breathed, for the cold spread through her, refreshing her, soothing her wounds.

Power, ecstasy, suffused her, until she feared it would burst free. She released this power at the height of her revelry, opening a barrier within her mind that she’d never known existed.

Opening her eyes, she found that her hands were coated in clouds of frosty vapor, elemental frost manifested physically. Releasing more and more of this power, the vapor thickened, hardening her clothing, leaving sleek patches of ice all across her skin.

Calling her dagger to her, as she now could, Kogoeji-ni drew from the energy within her, and passed most of it to her unintended weapon. The blade collected a cloud of its own vapor, then lengthened into an outline of the most outlandish weapon she’d ever seen.

Appearing as a length of spinal disks, the sword was now half the length of her body, ending in a double-edged, dagger-length tip. The outline thickened, then hardened, and the weapon was quite real, formed of blue-tinged ice crystal.

On instinct alone, she swung this weapon, and by its own volition, the blade became a whip, the segments detaching from each other, connected by an inner spine of pure elemental energy.

The whip doubled, tripled, then quartered in length as she swung in a variety of ways, depending on the nature and stage of the swing, correcting its size to offer maximum momentum and strength behind every swipe.

Thrusting forward, Kogoeji-ni grinned as it reached far beyond its seeming length, spearing a far wall twenty paces away. Her weapon had ceased to be an improvised shiv; now, infused with blood and a fragment of her divine spark, she felt its joined satisfaction in their newfound power.

"Name me, wielder...” a voice whispered in her mind, and Kogoeji-ni’s grin widened, “So be it then, sword. I name you Toshisha, and declare you my weapon alone. Let us take what we can from this world, and shape our own destiny!”

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