The Black Hand (An Enchanter's Cycle Standalone)

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Chapter 3

Twenty years passed.

With Toshisha and Enshi at her side, Kogoeji-ni endured her strange existence as a daughter of Dur’Artoth, ruling as one of the eight Matriarchs who governed their world. The slaves, male Vampyres or imported lesser races, had taken to calling it Darklight, either in reverence or horror.

It was aptly named; the wastes remained as they always had, but in a single act of deference to the biological needs of the mortals that toiled and bled for the Skraul empire, Mother had created scores of resonating arcane constructs modeled after the crystals used by Surthath’s Djinn. They emanated a constant atmospheric pressure that shrouded the great cities in breathable air and livable warmth, but manifested as a curious dark-tinted radiance that resembled soft, dim moonlight.

In the two decades that followed her weapon’s birth (and she considered it a birth, not a creation), Kogoeji-ni had focused upon developing her abilities to such an extent that she need never fear her siblings, or her elders for that matter, consolidating her power and influence among the emerging nobility.

Hundreds called her mistress, groveling for her favor.

She could now manipulate elemental energies at will, particularly those that drew ambient heat from any source she desired. With a flick of her finger, she could petrify one of the many subservient, insignificant males, leaving them as frozen, lifeless husks. With a concentrated effort, she could cloak her entire palace in a winter storm, and often chose to do so as her mood took her. She was polite, of course, in allowing her servants a ten minute opportunity to flee to their homes...

Her city, Fuyuzora, which meant “Sky of Mid-Winter”, was one of the larger capitals, sporting a population of over eight hundred, with her palace atop a large plateau to which the rest of the city surrounded. There was a natural arch at the foot of her abode, sloping down to the lower elevated sections, that she’d ordered lined with descending concrete steps, the only safe way to travel to the city proper.

There were two levels below the palace, one stacked above the other, every building a part of a near-perfect ring that surrounded the plateau . The upper level consisted of the manses of those few Skraul who managed to elevate themselves above the rabble and be declared her nobles, a series of Forgehalls, where weapons and armor were created alongside war machines like catapults and ballistae, and Festhalls, where the commoners drank and procreated to their heart’s content.

The lower level was strictly concise, stacked hovels that housed the lowest of the commoners, mostly slaves, who either possessed the misfortune to be born as one of the mortal races of the Veil, or the sheer stupidity to prove themselves unworthy of the limited freedom enjoyed by the Vampyre masses.

Kogoeji-ni, as was her due, sat upon her throne, a great three-pronged pillar of ice. Three pairs of silken banners hung from poles to either side, emblazoned with her personal crest; a circle of spinal disks surrounding a prism adhered to the material.

The walls of her palace were wrought of transmuted marble with magickally enhanced glass windows, stained a litany of blues, purples, and whites, which were amplified by were-lights that constantly orbited in fixed positions around the palace grounds.

Unlike her siblings, her murals depicted not scenes of blood and death, but of the night sky and shifting clouds, as she’d seen on that strange world on which the tournament was held. That image had burned itself into her mind, accompanied by a longing that she didn’t wish to consider.

Where there was not glass, on either the walls or the ceiling, there was ice, maintained by the low temperatures she favored, forming fine sheets that lined the support columns. The ice was also sculpted by her slaves into complex statuary of winged beasts and haughty elven champions that filled the great chamber, their “skin” dyed black through the introduction of paints frozen within the water.

Behind the throne, there were several chambers, their portals concealed by draping curtains, and stairs leading to two levels of basements that held her closest servants, her accumulated wealth, and a shrine to God Death, to which noble and commoner alike were required to attend on a regular basis.

Her personal attendants, all female and protected from the cold by her enchantments, lined a central path from her throne to the entry hall in front. Most were humans, a curious, round-eared mortal species that was pleasing to the eye, though she’d recently purchased a few elves as well. He favorite was an Oni, a red-skinned variant, whose temper had taken years of conditioning to dispel.

Each servant wore a gown or emblazoned mail armor, as their role dictated.

Sipping a concentrated wine distilled from fermented honey laced with blood, she stared with icy composure at the three male Skraul who knelt at her feet.

Each of them had, up to this moment, proven to be able-bodied soldiers, advancing her through the murderous court intrigue of her family with numerous acts of subterfuge, sabotage, and assassination. She had determined the decisions and actions of each agent, of course, but they performed admirably, displaying the cunning and ruthlessness integral to life in Darklight. They had served her well, and she would reward them for this.

“Rise, Arbiters, and endure my gift...” she replied tonelessly, waving to a specific servant, who scurried off to the chambers behind her throne.

Each of the males rose; Sachio, whose wicked cleaver could flay flesh from bone or split a single hair down its length as he decided was appropriate, Nagaharu, who rapier never missed its intended target, and Baku, whose knowledge of magicka and its applications had been instrumental in eliminating Ranshi’s chosen consort.

Each of them were as visually contrasting as their physical abilities; Nagaharu was defined by a hard, angular face, a lean, almost sickly looking body, and a light and supple coat of silvery mail. Baku, whose girth would have been offensive upon the body of another, less intelligent male, was suited in heavier plate-lined armor, and his eyes gleamed with naked ambition.

Sachio was difficult to describe; his unassuming features and camouflaging leather armor were offset by an unusual quality that was difficult to articulate. His almost feline grace was so distinctive, even among a race that prided itself in bone-crushing strength hidden behind deceptive frailness, and there seemed to be a faint aura of intangible mystery that clung to him.

Her servant returned, interrupting her line of thought, followed by a dozen armed guards, the middle two carrying a locked chest, inside of which she knew there were three ornate vials.

Kogoeji-ni detested this, but in order to bestow Blood-Forged Enchantments upon her vassals, she’d been forced to extract Vitrium, a unique brew formed from the blood of mortals during periods of intense distress. Unique among her kin, she had chosen to brew Vitrium by subjecting her slaves to perception-altering illusions in substitution of actual physical torture. Through a unique form of telepathy, she’d learned to create and maintain complex scenarios that the subject would accept as real, provided she could break down their mental defenses.

For a determined enemy, it was all but impossible, but for a cowed slave...

This proved equally effective as the more conventional method, even more so, because she could systematically erase their memories afterward through a similar technique. Most mortals broke physically and mentally after a few sessions of torture, and this way, she could extract as much Vitrium as she pleased from a select few, and they needed not remember the unpleasant experience. It was more than such inferior beings were rightfully owed...

The armed escort presented the vials, each large enough to contain three pints, and each Arbiter claimed one for himself, drinking half its contents in a few frenzied gulps, before drawing their respective swords and pouring the remaining blood onto them. The change was almost immediate; their swords gleamed with perceptible magicka, and their eyes emanated a pale luminescence that betrayed their newfound abilities.

“Dismissed.” Kogoeji-ni commanded, “Discover your new prowess in the weapons hall. You have my permission to cull the prisoners there if you wish, but spare the female. I plan to harvest her over the next few weeks”. Each of her vassals nodded in turn, and she enjoyed another sip of wine as she considered their next task; a very important task...

“Zaela.” the Vampyre said, addressing her courier, an El’Dari garbed in form-fitting armor, “Attend me”.

The slave approached, and abased herself below the throne, her forehead touching the ground as her hands stretched palms-down, reaching forward, “I have a letter prepared for my sister, Enshi. You will collect it from my personal quarters and carry it and my wishes to my court magus. Allow him to transport you to Enka, her capital city, and present the letter personally”.

The slave rose, eyes downcast, and nodded, and for her own benefit, Kogoeji-ni tactfully added, “And if I hear that my personal seal was broken...well...”

Wide-eyed, Zaela nonetheless bowed once more, and awaited her nod to briskly walk behind the throne, to the lower floors.

Kogoeji-ni eased back into her seat, pondering. Word had traveled quickly throughout Darklight; God Death had returned for the first time since the conclusion of the tournament. His presence at Mother’s private temple, the very one the brood had been raised in, was no coincidence.

It was time...

Enshi received word from her sister, the sole sister to whom she trusted, through the usual medium. The letter, having removed its protective seal, was blank, but the message was clear.

Kogoeji-ni wished to contact her.

As her position on the throne permitted her to survey documents without any of her subjects having the potential to actually see them, she paused, as if she were reading a short document, before disintegrating the parchment into vapor and rising to her feet. “I will be performing a brief experiment in the manner my sibling has suggested. ” she informed her consort, an attractive bladedancer whose name she barely remembered, “See to it that I am not disturbed”.

Bowing with a practiced flourish, the male nodded his acquiescence, and Enshi activated her Blood-Forged weapon, Musekaeru, dissipating into a cloud of living smoke. Inspired by her improvised elixir on the eve of the tournament, Enshi had infused Kogoeji-ni’s Spatha with a few drops of the very same brew, influencing its fundamental enchantment.

She had likewise re-forged the weapon a second time, thinning its blade significantly and threading the pommel with an incredibly dense, diamond-woven filament. The blade could now detach from its own handle, connected by a thin string; a deadly garrote. All she needed to do was twist the pommel to release it, and a single thought could command the blade to retract.

It was a useful, and amusing, method of concealment. She had extensively practiced with Musekaeru, developing her own unique style of combat, which utilized stealth, misdirection, blinding speed, and rapid conversion of fighting stances.

Oh yes, she had practiced long and hard, that she might be better able to defend herself should Dekeshi or anyone else seek to eliminate her. The tournament would have claimed her, were it not for Kogoeji-ni and her unbelievable, blasphemous actions.

Drifting up through a series of air vents that connected her four-floored tower palace, Enshi reformed in her private quarters, her bare feet digging into lush carpets. Most of her personal effects were imported; stolen from the lands of light by the very same parties that were smuggling slaves and valuable intelligence. Her room was very boisterous, as suited her taste, all vibrant reds and violets, with plush divans, a rounded bed concealed by draping curtains, and an assortment of wine racks. Not a single item scattered about her room represented anything other than carnal indulgence.

Except for one...

Withdrawing a specific vintage from the rack, which was in fact empty, Enshi reached behind it to produce a small glass orb, roughly the size of her closed fist. A containment sphere, housing a spell that bestowed a form of astral projection.

Shattering the device and releasing its stored power, Enshi felt a disorienting, uplifting sensation, and looked down at her corporeal body with detached amusement. Lacking the chiseled imperial features of most of her siblings, she possessed a rounded, cherubic face, with large eyes and a small forehead. She was shorter and more rounded than her sisters as well, lacking their unnaturally graceful posture. Her hair, which she found improper as a mane or long braided lengths as many favored, was cropped short, just below the ear lobe, which gave her a slightly disheveled look at odds with the fine assortment of gowns and robes she wore.

She was by no means unattractive, but she hardly looked the part of a Matriarch, to her eternal displeasure.

Dismissing the notion, for she’d aptly developed power to offset this lacking, Enshi sped her essence through a concealed magickal rune inside the far wall. The rune, a written form of spell-craft, transported her to a very special sealed chamber akin in nature to the incorporeal inconsistency of the Faded Veil.

It had been her own creation, of course; Kogoeji-ni was more expert at conventional magicka, but Enshi was uniquely suited to transmutations, to which this method essentially was. The portal was in fact a simple teleportation spell, and the chamber was not of the Faded Veil, but of a room in the palace that she’d transformed to resemble its properties. None without both that special form of rune or her technique of astral projection by way of living transmutation could hope to enter it without her consent and assistance.

Thus, only Kogoeji-ni could enter that room; it was their hidden place, to which they could scheme with impunity, to the detriment of the rest of the brood. Neither of them had forgotten their rivals, by any means...

Kogoeji-ni, seated calmly at one of two chairs in the room, a richly cushioned piece with a high back, was her only valid ally, to whom she could trust almost unconditionally. Not the figure of feminine intimidation herself, she was rapier thin, and short, almost child-like in her slender physique. Her puberty had barely marked her as an adult, though what was, was distinctly so. Her hair, oil black, was long, reaching beyond the back of her waist, with a long topknot cut unevenly so that it appeared wild and unfettered.

In addition to the necklace she still wore, smaller beads of Lapis Lazuli were strung in netted lengths throughout the top portion of her hair, supplementing a fey, ethereal bent that was suggested in the layered, billowing gown she often favored, a slightly brighter shade of blue with accents of white and black.

Yes, Kogoeji-ni did not possess a conventionally fearsome appearance, but her intensity and confidence implied regality in a way that Enshi could never duplicate. Even with Musekaeru freely belted to her waist, it was Kogoeji-ni, with her whipblade coiled about her arm and hidden inside of her sleeve, that was the more imposing. No matter...

Calm as she rarely was elsewhere, Enshi took all of this in, all the while knowing that her sister’s scrutiny was just as intense.

Their silence lasted a few moments, then, “I will not bother you with pleasantries, sister. The time is nearly upon us”. Inhaling a startled breath, Enshi smiled, “I agree. Father’s presence can only mean that the war is almost begun. It is nearly time for the empire to spread to the other worlds of the Veil”.

Yes, it was by no means a logical stretch; Dur’Artoth’s freely spoken motivation was the systematic conquest and destruction of all the mortal worlds, and eventually, all of the realms of the rival Old Ones. Though Darklight was prosperous, and their soldiers already infiltrated other words for valuable commodities, it was widely known that the Skraul Empire would eventually mobilize in earnest. That time, it seemed, had come.

“Much will happen at once.” Kogoeji-ni noted, “And we will be tested as we have not all our lives. El’Dari, Carthspirians-” (and that name was said with a vile oath, for that fetid race had caused the Vol’Dari, their genetic ancestors, much grief) “...And, eventually, hated Surthath. Many will die, even among the Matriarchy. I wish to plan our next steps, that it may be the others who perish in our place”.

Nodding, Enshi considered, then, “We will select worlds to conquer. If multiple Matriarchs are selected for single planets, we should consolidate our efforts. If we are each to conquer separate worlds, they must be easily reachable by Way-Gate”.

Kogoeji-ni grimaced at that, and while Enshi did not understand her sister’s reluctance to utilize her slaves, as was her right, the Vampyre did comprehend her distaste at the gruesome requirements of the Way-Gate, a form of mass teleportation that would move their armies between worlds.

Such power required the taking of a life, and it was not a pleasant taking...

“Have you any specific targets?” she asked, and Kogoeji-ni smiled, “I have found a few planets that support very...interesting forms of life. They will be difficult to siege, even with magicka, but they will offer a uniquely effective breed of servants”.

“Oh?” she asked, to which Kogoeji-ni’s smile widened, revealing her fangs, “The first is a world whose name is unpronounceable, since the ones who inhabit it do not possess mouths. It is a world of deep subterranean caverns and long nights and winters, populated by an insect race called Koriko”.

“They seemed to be able to name themselves well enough...” Enshi chided, to which her sister guffawed, “The scout that visited the planet named them. This species is massive, covered in a protective chitin shell and armed with two sets of arms; one bladed, one grasping, and two pairs of fleet legs”.

“Oooh...” Enshi purred, seeing the advantage of a warrior naturally armored and bladed, requiring no assistance in this regard. Likewise, a mobile armored unit, akin to cavalry, would be an effective shock troop, ideal for wiping out less advanced civilizations.

But her sister was not finished, “The other world, a frozen world in which the only advanced life resides within steep mountain slopes and protective clouds of warming mist, is called Xzal’shirlkk by its own denizens, and is peopled by the Alaae, an intelligent and devious winged race”.

Immediately seeing where her sister’s strategy was leading, Enshi laughed, “A light but highly defensible cavalry force, fortified by winged scouts, messengers, and marksmen, with a strong, heavily armored and magicka-savvy Vampyre rearguard. The ultimate attack and retreat. Devious, though you won’t be able to easily hold a fortified location with such a force”.

“I do not intend to.” Kogoeji-ni replied, “Such an army can move swiftly, so what need have we for a base of operations beyond the sake of having one? The goal of this war is to exterminate and destroy, is it not? I will raise a structure for the sake of the purebloods under my command, but what need have half-bloods for shelter beyond that which shields them from the light of the cursed sun?”

“Well said.” Enshi conceded, “This is a sound formula for an army, but how will they respond to the change?” to which Kogoeji-ni shrugged, “That is what I have my subjects determining presently. I waited until I was personally assured that both the Koriko and the Alaae were susceptible to vampyrism, but the long term effects are, as of yet, unconfirmed. A short-term army of half-breeds will serve their purpose, regardless, and we can work on more conventional forms of domination in the meantime”.

Nodding, Enshi replied, “So be it. We have our goal. I will do what I can to improve its odds of success. We shall bask in the glory of victory together then, as we should have in the tournament. Let us not be separated again!”

Sachio leisurely traded blows with a trio of chattel, the lowest rank of Vampyre, occasionally spicing things up with an intentional botched parry or sweep, offering them an advantage to press.

They, trained and enthusiastic warriors, almost always did, but he saved himself with risky footwork, inventive feints, and his new Blood-Forged enchantment. It had taken an hour or two to understand its limitations, but his sword, that had named itself Torikomichu, could distort his enemy’s perceptions and skew their sense of direction and distance.

Its limitation, as he had proven in the last hour, was his imagination.

Already he had scored several major hits with routine offensive techniques, having merely reversed their understanding of left and right, or up and down, or the exact measurement of a hand’s breadth. It was a subtle, and deadly, power for him to wield. But he would have to be careful; such a power might deteriorate his base skill with a sword if he let it.

Nagaharu, he noticed as he fought, possessed no such subtlety in his actions. His sword created beams of disorienting light. He used this technique to imbalance and blind his foes, a score of mortal slaves, to which he butchered with mindless ferocity, gorging as he went.

Baku, the resident spymaster, used his magicka more than blade work, but his foes were a pair of arbiters, higher ranking Vampyres lacking a Blood-Forged Enchantment. At times, they simply closed the distance despite his efforts. As they battled, the Arbiters activated magickal runes, a common method of spell-craft, that hid them in a cloud of concealing mist. Baku, having developed a power specifically designed to counter assassins, enveloped them in clinging vapor that burned brightly, revealing them, and their movements, thus allowing him to counter them at every turn. Not once did he allow them to strike him, and the bout had lasted nearly as long as Sachio’s own.

All in all, things were set to be very interesting among Kogoeji-ni’s closest subordinates...

She had always known it would come to this.

In spite of her misgivings, Kogoeji-ni had eagerly awaited the time when the brood would leave Darklight. The moment that their conquest of the Veil would begin in earnest.

Then, perhaps, she could calm the silent voice in her heart that rebelled against Father’s teachings in the fury of battle, or, failing that, she could at least find insight as to exactly how she felt and why. Why it was that she did not resonate with the promise of power and absolute rule. Why she secretly wished to observe these worlds in person, these places so unlike her home, peopled by beings so unlike her family.

To choice to succumb to the darkness that constantly gnawed at her resolve, her empathy, or to finally rid herself of it once and for all, even if that meant slaughtering any who stood in her way.

And so her journey began.

The Skraul empire mobilized at an agreed upon time, as many armies did. On the eve of the winter equinox, the longest night of the celestial year, the Way-Gates opened upon eight mortal worlds.

The Matriarchs, each choosing a world to invade, led their nobles, their war machines, and their slave hordes, swarming the initial sites and butchering the unsuspecting natives.

Toshisha was put to test against mortal blade and claw.

She gorged in blood, beside her primes, beside her nobles and commoners, beside her thralls. The screams of dying slaves echoed through the air, and were silenced.

Kogoeji-ni knew not of the conquest of the other worlds, but her experience with the Koriko was that, as the only sentient race in their planet, they had not expected an organized army to descend upon them.

Their villages, crudely assembled chitin structures build from their own dead, were put to torch or pummeled into dust by the Skraul war machines.

Those that died were re-animated by Dur’Artoth’s magicka, temporarily fortifying their martial strength further, and those that lived, swiftly came to wish they had not. Those that were not turned by the Blood Kiss, a profane ritual that fully transmitted the dark gift, were put to manual labor, for their ooze-like blood was not suitable for Vitrium production.

Their numbers multiplied; by dawn, Kogoeji-ni’s army had swelled to over fourteen hundred, not counting the two hundred that remained to safeguard her city of Fuyuzora.

They crossed over forty leagues, coming to settle in a series of deep subterranean tunnels that hid them from the light of the cursed sun. The next night, they struck anew, clearing over fifteen square leagues of steep mountain ranges, setting to torch thirty-two small villages.

By weeks-end, she had cleansed an area comparable to a city-state.

Within the year, a third of the continent rested in her control, flensed of all life.

The tunnels beneath the surface were massive, and misdirecting. It took months for her scouts to map them, and months further to rout the villages scattered throughout the network.

She chose just such a village, built below a natural ceiling from which grew a unique blend of organic mushrooms whose spores creating a cloud of misty luminescence, as the base to build her city, a single city from which all pureblood activity would occur from this point.

Slaves, the few that had remained in Darklight, bore heavy litters filled with building tools through lesser Way-Gates, and she herself summoned mounds of darksteel from Father’s shadowy realm of Darkmoor. That, combined with the harvested stone of the caverns, provided the basis for a highly defensible fortress rivaling that of Fuyuzora.

Construction commenced and concluded within two weeks, the miserable slaves worked (for the most part) to death.

But their blood purchased a fine city. Kogoeji-ni looked down with admiration as its walls closed. A high tower, forged of pure darksteel, sat at its heart. It could only be accessed through blood wards; a new magickal defense that responded to the blood of a Vampyre.

There was no ingress, or egress, save that which she desired.

Four overlooks, one of which she now stood upon, in turn stood at the four corners of the city limits, melded to the stone ceiling by magicka. Glorified sentry posts, these one-floor open bunkers allowed her soldiers to view the edges of the massive cavern, and would serve as a marshalling point to the scouts regularly patrolling the outlying tunnels.

The city itself, high-walled, with buildings stacked atop each other, served to house her long-standing slaves, as well as the ones newly acquired. She was still puzzling out the Koriko’s odd clicking language, but was confident that they would be put to more delicate work within the year.

Provided there were any around by then.

“I wonder how my sister fares with her conquest of the Alaae...” she mused, aloud for once, attracting the attention of her Primes; her three generals, “Make a note to prepare my usual channels. I may have a letter for her in the coming days”.

Sachio was first to reply, bowing low, “It will be done, milady”.

Nodding, satisfied with things as they were, the Vampyre considered her next moves. When the planet was fully under her control, it would quickly be time to branch outward.

Ranshi was even then tackling the Mrrg, an ancient and powerful mortal species that would make her army all but invincible, but there were many options left to choose from.

The Carthspirians?

It would lend poetic justice for her to eradicate the species responsible for her ancestors’ near-extinction.

But would she be able to contend with the might of their legendary wizards?

No, not yet, not yet.

“Aurora.” she decided, “The Human World. Once we are done here we will lay siege to it. The followers of Surthath and Anima will drown in the blood of their fallen”.

Now thoroughly satisfied, Kogoeji-ni watched with rapt attention as the rest of her army marshaled outside of the city, finally awakening from their painful transformations...

Sachio stood beside his mistress and his Broodlord rivals, Torikomichu belted to his waist, as they oversaw the influx of fresh troops.

The Koriko had taken to the dark gift well. Now, beneath the surface of the planet, over two hundred thousand awaited their first orders, eerily still, eerily silent, their minds consumed by the shock of undeath.

The initial stage of the invasion was complete; with loss of life (only purebloods were considered a loss) no higher than three hundred. It was now the task of these slaves to siege the rest of the planet, spreading chaos and destruction far and wide, bleeding its inhabitants to extinction while Kogoeji-ni called upon God Death’s power to achieve the same end.

The dark gift, thanks to a spell cast by Kogoeji-ni, would spread from bite alone, and that initial frontline would continue to grow exponentially. There was no longer any need for pureblood Skraul to risk themselves on the field.

Thus, they would wait, in this heavily fortified location.

Eyeing his mistress, unable to contain his grin, he figured they wouldn’t have long to wait.

A pity, to be sure...because he’d seen her covered head-to-toe in Koriko blood and the sight lingered in his mind for longer than it should have. He would have to see her feral side in other, more intimate, situations...

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