The Black Hand (An Enchanter's Cycle Standalone)

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Chapter 4

The home world of the Koriko gradually but dramatically transformed in the decades that followed the initial Skraul incursion.

Kogoeji-ni, her body being used by Botsu as a physical medium, struck apart the planet’s atmosphere, rendering the surface uninhabitable.

All mortal life outside of a series of Skraul-controlled cities maintained by the very constructs that gave Darklight its name perished due to the extreme heat and cold of grounds exposed to the outer reaches of space, not to mention depressurization and lack of oxygen.

The planet, hardly visually pleasing to begin with, came to be characterized by endless deserts of grey sand, dotted with city-sized sheets of seared obsidian. Water was absent save in subterranean pockets, hardly enough to sate a standing population. The few mortal Koriko servants were turned to Vampyres in direct proportion to the planet’s dwindling resources.

Their species’ extinction seemed inevitable, especially now that her army was nearly prepared to move on to the next world, the human world, and their degenerate undead remains were to be utilized as fodder for the inevitable counterattack of Surthath’s Djinn and mortal magi.

So be it...

Meditating, lest her troubles at this notion leech through her telepathic link to her mother, Kogoeji-ni sat in a private chamber deep inside of her second capital city, a crude iron box to contrast a jewel like Fuyuzora.

She was preparing herself to transmit Botsu’s unadulterated power; perhaps the most toxic magicka she’d ever encountered, to poison the unmapped tunnels throughout this planet, to which she had named Morthusk.

With this, and perhaps one more debilitating casting, Morthusk would be utterly under Skraul control, and she could make her preparations for the next invasion in earnest.

"Your mind wanders..." Botsu projected, and Kogoeji-ni frowned, ”I wonder when our enemies will respond to our actions“.

"Your sister Ranshi observed a lesser Djinn during the culling of the Mrrg, but yes, you are correct in your suspicion." Mother replied, ”Fret not. They are daunting foes, but very manageable with the proper technique. Do you remember what to do?"

"Pierce the heart and cut off the head." Kogoeji-ni said without emotion, reminiscing Father’s lectures with some interest at least within a purely intellectual capacity, ”Their physical manifestations can be destroyed thus, but their essence will return to Moonshadow and be reborn anew. This takes years or decades, however“.

"Indeed." Botsu replied, ”Each of you has the potential to engage a Djinn in battle and emerge victorious. And you grow stronger as your age increases, as they do. The first kill, I assure you, will be the most difficult. Have you even fully tested your prowess since the initial attack?" to which Kogoeji-ni shook her head.

"No matter. You will have the opportunity, soon. I agree that Aurora will ideally be a target of the empire, but we must await the completion of the sites we already have“.

"Uejini..." Kogoeji-ni groaned, ”She still has yet to finish off that pitiful lizard-race?"

"The Silkrit remain...elusive." Botsu projected, ”And my efforts are better spent on the worlds that do not possess such open and manageable terrain, obviously. We must not allow any mortals to survive on any world we take. It is unseemly. I will task you or Enshi to assist her, perhaps“.

Assist Uejini?

How tiresome.

Uejini was the weakest among the eight. Even Enshi had taken great strides to grow in power; Uejini was too interested in cloning Skraul and amassing an army to bother with personal martial strength, a wise choice in most decisions, but the gods pity her when the Djinn inevitably took interest.

Likewise, with little magicka to draw on, the Silkrit, a race noted for its ability to survive in varied terrain, lingered in scattered pockets, even though Uejini had managed to cow the Karu, a brutish, hulking rival species with foul green blood. She had her army, Vampyre and otherwise, and still she could not break the Silkrit in their entirety.

There was little resistance, as of yet, but soon, perhaps...the natives would begin to strike back.

"If our interference becomes necessary..." Kogoeji-ni warned, ”I may decide to impose my dominance and add her assets to my own. Uejini is more like a Broodlord, anyway. She hasn’t even properly bonded with her weapon and unleashed her true form“.

Kogoeji-ni sensed her mother’s approval, and began the process of fully surrendering her motor functions to her, in preparation for this single, devastating spell.

Power, vile and terrifying, suffused her, chilling her body and coating her private chamber with hoarfrost.

Never, not even during Father’s lessons, had she ever felt such darkness, such evil.

Even Father’s power could create; through necromancy, he shaped death into a semblance of life. With his illusions, he created perception that defeated reality. With shadow magicka, he shaped and released energy, to alter matter or to disintegrate it into its base components.

Botsu’s power was different, almost an opposing polarity; it did not create, it only degraded, degenerated, and destroyed, leaving nothing behind. She didn’t know how Botsu could channel such power without it becoming a genuine threat to her. Even Kogoeji-ni herself feared it, feared taking it into herself, and feared releasing it even more.

She sighed, though it was actually Botsu who sighed through her. Her eyes darted to and fro, and not from her conscious effort.

It was always an uncomfortable experience, letting her mother control her like this.

Her hands lifted of their own accord, and made a series of intricate mystical passes, focusing the forces that were even then threatening to overwhelm her. Kogoeji-ni perceived, but did not understand, the sheer scope of this spell, and knew it to be well beyond her ability, even having learned everything she had, become everything she had, even having sacrificed much of her inhibitions in regards to the treatment of her slaves, even, to an extent, having emulated her less wholesome sisters.

This poignant reminder of her remaining limitations rankled, and Kogoeji-ni didn’t even care that Mother was privy to this, though her smugness swiftly became insufferable.

The energies peaked; her vision swam with black spots, and a pale light enveloped her body. Through her education, Kogoeji-ni knew that many of the lesser races considered pure white light to be a manifestation of goodly forces, and it was a terrible irony, this power surging through her.

Botsu’s destructive, poisonous magicka manifested as pale light; colorless and ephemeral. But she knew well its hidden nature; it was an absence, a void, lacking the distinctiveness of color only due to its lack of any defining feature other than its supreme toxicity.

Her concentration shaping purpose and direction for this power, lest it overwhelm her (and Kogoeji-ni by mere proximity), Botsu released the spell, and through her, the Vampyre felt as millions of lives were instantly extinguished and absorbed by the leagues-thick clouds of energy that poured through the deepest reaches of Morthusk, their very essences siphoned and drawn to the original caster; Botsu.

That influx of power, that life, just barely returned what the Grand Matriarch had expended to create her killing wave.

Gasping, though she needed no air, Kogoeji-ni slumped over, the connection with her mother offering a taste, a mere taste, of the body-wracking fatigue that struck Botsu as the spell concluded. Such power, such death, did not come without a price...

The Vampyre lay there in that undignified position for some time, disoriented, coughing and sputtering and breathing in air that didn’t offer relief. Her head throbbed, in regular, agonizing pulses, and Kogoeji-ni waited for this feeling to pass. It always did, at least for her, because Mother eventually regained her composure and terminated the mental link.

It took several minutes this time.

At least, that’s what it felt like.

Groaning, rising to her feet, not in pain but uncomfortably flushed with heat and very tired, Kogoeji-ni no longer felt her mother’s presence, and considered that a dismissal if ever there was one.

Without preamble, she fell onto the heavily cushioned bed in her private quarters in Morthusk’s capital, and submitted to the oblivion of deep slumber. The body needed no rest, but after such effort, the mind was another matter altogether.

Botsu grimaced as she quelled this rebellion of her flesh, reasserting dominion over herself. She was the Grand Matriarch, Broodmother of the Vol’Dari and their legacy; the Skraul. Such trivialities as the crushing weight of the unwinding mortal coil were beneath her!

“This power, as I knew when I first claimed it for my own, becomes ever more unstable.” she mused idly, staring with numb disbelief at her shriveled claw of a hand. It did the rest of her body.

Each time...each time she grew back just a little more incompletely.

The wrinkles on her skin looked just a little thicker, the veins them a little more pronounced. How would she look after another casting? A score more? Would she wither into a prune, or break apart into dust?

“Fret not, my Angel of Death...” Dur’Artoth purred in her ear, “As your body withers, so does your beauty increase. So do you more resemble your age, your experience. So do you resemble death itself. It pleases me. It excites me”.

Still weakened by her spell, Botsu offered no resistance as her body was hoisted up by her patron, even as his long, wormlike tongue snaked down her throat.

Yes, she would have her revenge...soon...

Sachio sat at attention as Kogoeji-ni and her court dined in the entry hall of Morthusk’s capital.

A great table, fashioned from ice, reached from end to end, at which over two dozen Broodlord and Arbiter nobles were assembled.

So to, were the servitors, Kogoeji-ni’s terrified handmaidens, and so to, were the appetizers.

Young mortals, all inferior human males, had served their last as the beginning of this meal. They lay sprawled atop the table, piled by the scores. A notably playful pair of Arbiters had taken to plucking off the limbs of one and feeding upon each separately while the living torso created an ever-expanding crimson pool for them to enjoy afterwards.

Following the humans would be the main course demanded by the court; twelve young elven maidens, all un-blooded, and then dessert; a pregnant human female.

He’d taken a choice morsel for himself, requested beforehand; a newborn plucked right from the mother’s womb, but hadn’t had the chance to properly savor it. Kogoeji-ni’s piercing gaze had been upon him for much of the meal’s initial stages, and he sensed her regular caustic scrutiny.

He must have been imagining it, but the Prime could have sworn that she was displaying...disapproval?

How odd.

It was bad enough she insisted the meals be drugged beforehand, leaving them without a certain, piquant flavor of fear and pain. She didn’t honestly feel sorry for them, did she? After all he’d seen her do in the initial invasion, her ice sword cleaving Koriko by the dozens, the notion tarnished the early infatuation he’d been harboring.

He almost coughed when she noticed him staring for too long, and their eyes locked.

Oh, gods, how that look could shatter glass!

He must have been mistaken; no soft heart could contain such fearsomeness! She was an exquisite paradox; so composed and yet so savage, so cold and yet so filled with anger and aggression.

He had to have her!

He had to taste her!

Fear and exhilaration warred in him for a time, and he did not avert his gaze, eyeing her own meal. His Matriarch did not favor her blood fresh, drawing aged Vitrium from special, airtight vials, that she harvested through enspelling her slaves.

This night was no exception; her bottle was already emptied. She’d taken no effort to pace herself, to enjoy it... Why? Did feeding unsettle her? What kind of Vampyre would be so...-

“Is something troubling you, Sachio?” she asked, her voice carefully modulated but tinged with a hint of calm menace, and much of the conversation dimmed. The lady speaking was generally followed by grim dismemberment, or hilarious slapstick. Either was appreciated by the court.

“Your taste in drink is impeccable, milady. But why not allow yourself to appreciate it in its fullness?” he dared, drawing more than one incredulous stare at his freely spoken words, “The best vintages are to be savored slowly, preferably beside other, more urgent, indulgences”.

Kogoeji-ni seemed to consider this for a time, her face expressionless, then, “And perhaps I disagree with your opinion, what then?” to which he smiled all the wider, “Forgive me, milady. I would not impose to know your tastes, but tastes, at least between sensible sorts, are not all that different when viewed and compared through the should I say...perspective. We could perhaps explore our common...perspectives, yes?”

She didn’t react to his double-meaning, not directly, as she usually did when she was irritated, but beside the coldness of that stare, Sachio recognized a flash of dark hunger.

Oh yes, his words had struck home in precisely the way he wanted them too.

The night was to be a very interesting one, indeed, especially since he’d always found himself coveting that which could not be taken by one of his station...

Kogoeji-ni exhaled slowly, though she needed not breathe, as she messily extricated herself from her Prime. The bone-deep gouges all across her torso shrank before her scrutiny, her open pores releasing what little body heat she possessed, most of it created through friction.

Sachio crossed his arms as he lay, still atop the bed, his own badly scarred body regenerating, a relieved but tense bent to his expression. He likely wondered if she would kill him, as post-coital murder was often a trend among mating pairs.

Deep gouges marred his skin, much in the same way as hers, punctuated by several deep puncture wounds left by her fangs as well as sheets of frostbitten flesh created by her latent magicka. It had been by no means a gentle pairing, as was enjoyable and appropriate.

“See...” Sachio said, grinning that insufferable but infectious way he often did, “How much better did your evening become with a little excess? You cannot stave off your urges as you do, sublimating your baser needs like some cloistered peon. It’s not healthy”.

Frowning at him, Kogoeji-ni replied, “A male should not presume to speak for their betters, or compare them to chattel”.

He nodded, “Quite so, milady. But concern for your happiness is not such a presumptuous gesture; believe me, that your well being promotes my own. I would not proclaim weakness by thus acting in your best interests out of some sense of sentimentality, never you worry, though I have always found you irresistible. Nor, as I have said, would I presume to bend your will to my own, for I am no fool”.

She ignored him and his pretty, petty words.

Blood caking her gums, Kogoeji-ni licked her lips to clear them, and eyed herself in the vanity mirror against the wall as she approached it.

Her hair was in disarray, puffy and tangled, though most of the lapis lazuli beads had held up to the abuse nicely. Vampyres didn’t sweat, as the lesser races did, but there was a fine sheen to her skin as its pores opened. She ignored this as well.

For the most part, she’d come to the mirror for the bottle of Vitrium in the icebox hidden as a drawer. Taking a long draught, energizing as the lovemaking had exhausted, Kogoeji-ni grimaced at her hypocrisy. She did not approve of feeding on something that had been created through suffering, and yet here she was, draining an entire week’s carefully measured stock.

So be it; perhaps some things were indeed meant to be enjoyed.

And if Sachio intended to speak honestly while appeasing her, perhaps she would suffer his directness; a refreshing change of pace with her interactions with her kin, admittedly, and keep him a little closer than the others...

“I hope you’re more durable than you look.” Kogoeji-ni snapped at her underling with a snarl, tossing him the bottle, “I am by no means finished”.

Grinning fiercely, Sachio drank deeply, a streak of red flowing down his cheek and dripping off his chin, “I certainly hope not. The night is still so young, and the sheets remain un-bloodied in choice spots”.

She went to him, and her tongue traced that path of blood back to his lips...

He witnessed the creation of his seer from his private sanctum in the bowels of Moonshadow’s inner crust, a secret place that he went in order to escape his worries above.

Outside, he knew, the skies would be clouded.

The skies were always clouded when he was troubled.

Indeed, he was fearful, and he despaired at the suffering that had, and would, continue to occur, but he was also filled with hope.

All was going as he’d predicted, for better or worse. This moment, as was the Dreadborne War, was the catalyst for all that would follow.

Stroking the dangling tufts of his beard, pale as the driven snow, the Old One sat cross-legged before his personal scrying pool, angling his head so that a single eye could affix on the device. A shallow bowl of platinum-lined titanium, the pool was roughly six square feet in size, only ankle high, and lined with intricate silver runes that circled its edges.

Its surface, normally clear and undisturbed, instead portrayed the event to which he’d been waiting, for it signified the next stages of his prophecy. His prophecy, which would shape the future of the Veil; indeed, would shape the future of everything.

Surthath, Old One of Magicka, Fate, Memory, and Knowledge, frowned, considering the events that would occur, had to occur, for his vision to be realized.

The cost would be terrible, on all of them, himself included, but if it succeeded...

He looked into the pool, upon that which would become his emissary, his seer, his prophet for his prophecy. Elurra was to be his champion, and she would learn the truth of that in time, but Tenri was to be an even more beloved vassal, on which would hinge the final success, or failure, of his machinations.

“Tenri...” he whispered, dipping a single claw into the pool and stirring it, transmitting his thoughts directly to her, “My beautiful Tenri. Do me proud, and I promise there will be a place for you in my domain. Perhaps for your mother as well, for she will come to love you as I do, and will never forgive herself for her failure to protect you...”

She slept for several hours, at least. She would’ve preferred a few more, considering...

Crawling out of bed, Kogoeji-ni groaned, clutching her abdomen. She felt nauseous, and a little dizzy. Too much Vitrium, maybe... Mixed with wine, it could be notoriously caustic, and God Death knew she’d drank plenty of both last night...

Eyeing Sachio, who looked much better for the experience despite the fact that he still slept, she considered flogging him to relieve her discomfort, but dismissed it. Even their kind needed a few hours of unconsciousness sometimes...and she had kept him busy.

It was a good thing she wasn’t bored of him yet, for his sake!

Righting her hair and jewelry, she found her gown a little tight around the chest, which seemed odd. Dismissing it, she slipped Toshisha, inert in its dagger form, into a fold in her sleeve, concealing it from sight. She again considered striking her consort to wake him, but shrugged and departed to her throne room.

She felt oddly mellow, and non-combative, quite unlike her.

Down the hall, a flight of stairs, she passed a few servants who promptly abased themselves, save those who carried heavy platters laden with more intoxicants, who merely inclined their heads and stared at the floor. She reached her throne, and sat with a sigh, already exhausted.

No more late night entertainment. Definitely.

After her rough morning, Kogoeji-ni calmly considered her next steps, either towards Aurora or the unnamed world of the Silkrit, depending on Uejini’s success or failure. If Aurora, she would strike the human populace first, then move to the elves when she’d amassed a sizable horde of vampyric thralls. Humans weren’t nearly as formidable as Koriko, so human Vampyres would purely serve as a disposable fodder, though if she found practitioners of the arts, rare but not extremely so among that race, she would bestow Blood-Forged enchantments to augment their battle capabilities.

That would be a fine addition; Skraul developed conventional skill in magicka far too rarely. Outside of their natural affinity for Blood Magicka and the enchantments of their weapons, Surthath’s gift of magicka was beyond their reach, for obvious reasons.

Considering with delight the eventual assimilation of the fey elves and their own blend of sorceries, the Vampyre watched as one of her new couriers (the last one had sadly been disposed of, having delivered a very special package to Enshi) knelt before the throne.

Another Elf; a pale-skinned, brown-haired specimen with amber eyes, her name was...

Oh, never mind that, she rarely kept track of their names...

“A missive from Matriarch Enshi, milady.” the slave replied to her in a desolate, toneless voice, presenting the letter. Nodding, Kogoeji-ni made the motions of reading a document, thought there was nothing to read, all the while pocketing the glass orb that would be consumed in the flesh-transmutation spell, before destroying the document.

Before she rose to depart, Kogoeji-ni noticed something odd about this slave. Her skin was unmarked, save for the brand hidden on the thigh that proclaimed her as property, as well as a visible tattoo she’d never seen before. It graced her forehead, between and above the eyes; a small red dot, almost like paint in its brightness, but definitely a permanent mark.

“What does that marking signify?” Kogoeji-ni asked idly, nodding to the slave, who tensed as if expecting a lash. The newly trained ones did that sometimes...

“It is my Ajna Chakra.” the slave replied, still kneeling and visibly afraid to stand, “It signifies an opened third-eye; a heightened sense of understanding”.

Curious, Kogoeji-ni prodded further, “When and why did you mark yourself as such?” to which the slave calmed somewhat, “When I graduated from initiate to monk, in a remote temple devoted to the Djinn of Argosaxx”.

Very interesting...

“Argosaxx?” Kogoeji-ni mused, “An odd choice. Argosaxx was the usurper, the bane of the Old Ones, even Father, and an enemy of all the races. Why would you worship him?” to which the slave cringed.

“Not Argosaxx himself, for he was indeed the enemy, the great enemy. We revere only his Djinn; the mortal races, and another; the Starborn. They are not well known, or well liked, among Surthath’s or Anima’s faithful, as many of my kin are affiliated. Thus, we relegate our worship to the remote mountain ranges to the south and west of our forest homes, below the Outer Coast isles.”

“We, the Monks of the Starborn, mark ourselves in a special ink, that gradually travels along the route from our lower abdomen to our forehead, to display our progress to enlightenment. I attained the Ajna shortly before I was drugged and captured by slavers”.

“Fascinating.” Kogoeji-ni replied, politely ignoring the last part of her story, “It is blasphemous that you call to any but God Death in reverence, but I will forgive that for a time. Conversion is always a lengthy process if done willingly, and I prefer to do so as such with my servants. What is your name?” to which the slave replied, “Vala”.

“See to the shrine’s cleanliness, Vala; I think one of my primes may have sanctified it earlier. Afterwards, you are dismissed for the day. My research will abide me for now.” Kogoeji-ni commanded, and the slave nodded, rising to her feet, her eyes downcast, but slightly less so than when she’d entered...

...Alone now, save for her handmaidens, the Vampyre closed her eyes and meditated, sighing with relief. It did well in days like these to calm her thoughts; over the course of the afternoon, Botsu had again tapped into her motor functions and called down another killing wave to purify Morthusk of life.

Her body still ached from the experience...that, and while she would not admit it to anyone, even Sachio, especially Sachio, she still felt misgivings about the campaign.

In traveling to these new planets, her people ended up making them into an approximation of Darklight; bleak, colorless, and dead. Morthusk had been no paradise, certainly, but she missed the open, starry skies and the snow-capped mountains of the land that was before. Soon, all the worlds would look like Darklight, and she was not pleased by this.

But what was she to do?

Those who were weak; those that did not follow God Death and his teachings, perished. She had seen firsthand the power her kin wielded over the lesser races, and to take another path was folly. She had survived this long because she possessed strength, and sought greater strength. It was all that mattered, wasn’t it?



These things were integral to survival, and survival was life’s greatest boon.

Why, then, was she so malcontent?

Why had she always been so malcontent, with all of this?

Vala’s words had only increased her confusion, for how could these Starborn, whom she spoke of in awed tones, not be doomed to follow in their father’s footsteps? Was not the fate of one the precursor to the other?

How could one born from evil choose another path, indeed, so heavily detract from their parent’s ways?

Indeed, she had much to ponder...

That next morning, it was brought to her attention that her presence was demanded in the throne room, and Vala dressed quickly, not daring her new mistress’ wrath.

The slavers that previously held her captive had very clearly imparted the consequences of failing to comply to any demand, no matter how petty.

Rushing out of the bunkhouse in the lower levels of the palace, Vala dashed up the steps to the main level, collecting herself before entering the throne room with dignity.

It would displease the mistress by appearing disheveled.

Kogoeji-ni sat as she often did at her throne, regal and haughty, if hauntingly alien. Her eyes settled on the monk, virtually pinning her with the intensity of her scrutiny, though, without visible pupils, this feeling of her regard was more along the lines of the purely instinctual.

“Well met this morning. I will not mince words, mostly because I do not care to. I am in need of competent servants, and suspect you may, despite your unfortunate heritage, be sufficient to my needs”.

“I am to understand you are skilled with a sword?” Kogoeji-ni continued, brow raised questioningly, and Vala nodded, “I am proficient with the short sword and shield, bow, spear, and the crescent moon spade”.

“The what?”

“It is a staff-like weapon pioneered by Starborn Monks, one end a flat spade, the other a horizontal crescent-shaped blade, sometimes ornamented, but most often simple steel. It is meant to function both as a method of defense against bandits, which plagued the frontier, and to bury the dead, should a monk pass a corpse. Travelers often venture through the mountains surrounding our temples, and the slopes are treacherous. This was a regular occurrence, you understand”.

“A peculiar courtesy.” Kogoeji-ni replied, nonetheless intrigued, “Then again, your order sounds quite peculiar, and it is thus fitting”.

“A courtesy that is as pragmatic as respectful, milady.” Vala explained, “For corpses breed disease, and we succumb to maladies of the flesh as you do not”.

Nodding, for such was an explanation she could likely understand, Kogoeji-ni grinned, her filed teeth making her look ghoulish, “I would use one with your experience to better effect, as a retainer and guard of this palace. I trust you find the prospect of a weapon and armor suit appealing?”

It was hardly a question.

“I do, milady.” Vala replied, and Kogoeji-ni’s grin widened, “Excellent. Do well, and you may find yourself in a better station still, for I am a generous sovereign. A sword and shield it is, though you will explain the design and use of your monk spade to the smithy when you arrive. It will make a fine addition to the weapon archive”.

Displeased that she must betray a signature weapon of her order for the benefit of its enemy, Vala nodded and bowed regardless, eager to have the comforting heft of steel in her hand once again.

Let her masters be more cautious in whipping her now...

Two days passed, each morning marked by a wave of nausea triggered by her first feedings.

Sachio said nothing of this, but eyed her oddly, and she let him be, not wanting to discuss the possibilities that her condition suggested. For an undead Vampyre, they were few in number indeed.

Kogoeji-ni practiced in the training hall this day to clear her mind, forsaking her silken gowns and robes for weathered but welcome darksteel mail and beaten leathers. Hoarfrost coated her joints, and a cloud of frost emitted from her body as her pores opened with the effort of her displays of martial prowess.

Toshisha in hand, the Vampyre thrust, twisted her weapon, hooked, parried, sidestepped, and riposted, her sword extending like a loosed arrow to cover ten paces and spear one of the target dummies along the far wall.

Retracting her whipblade, Kogoeji-ni spun her body, Toshisha coiling about her and covering several likely angles of attack. Virtually hidden from sight, she lunged forward, blade retracted into a proper sword, crossing those ten paces and impaling the same dummy, splintering it.

Unsatisfied, Kogoeji-ni walked calmly to the center of the hall, before eyeing her hitherto unnoticed audience. All three of her primes were present, Sachio, with his infuriating but infectious grin, Nagaharu, with his surly, pickled expression, and Baku, with his thoughts tightly concealed behind a veiled frown.

“You. All of you.” Kogoeji-ni commanded in a tone that brooked no argument, “Step forward. Draw your weapons”.

Nonplussed, her chosen servants did as instructed, Sachio, with his cleaver, Nagaharu, with his rapier, and Baku, who currently favored a pair of ornate silver wands tipped with amber dollops. His Blood-Forged sword was belted at his waist, but she knew he rarely drew it.

They formed a triangle around her, cautious.

“Enchantments?” Sachio asked, and Kogoeji-ni shook her head, “Simple steel. Nothing fancy”.

Nodding, her consort assumed his weapon stance, knees and elbows bent, edge angled perpendicular to the ground, pointing towards her and supported by a two-handed grip.

They didn’t fight with honor. They fought as Vampyres, charging in unison, covering the distance swiftly.

Kogoeji-ni ducked under the thrust of Nagaharu’s rapier, sucking in her belly as Sachio’s cleaver sailed under her chin and made the slightest mark on her breastplate. Baku swung with his wand, transmuting its amber tip into a long, slim double-edged blade. She snapped her elbow up, displacing its trajectory, although it sheared through her mail with ease.

Toshisha whipped upward with the flick of her wrist, looping around Baku’s trailing weapon and tangling it. Pressing back, Kogoeji-ni pulled her Prime forward into her, before butting the back of her head against his nose, crushing it.

Extending her whipblade’s length, she pulled her arm down, creating an arc with Toshisha’s segments that deflected Sachio’s next attack with a simple obtuse angle. Nagaharu scored a deep hit on the inside of her right arm, drawing blood, but Kogoeji-ni pulled Baku in again, elbowing him in the solar plexus, twice, thrice, sidestepping Nagaharu as she did while using him as a shield against Sachio’s advance.

Baku disengaged, dropping his tangled weapon and activating his other wand, forming it into a javelin. She gave him no opportunity to throw it; Dekeshi had already unintentionally shown her how to defeat such an attack. Freeing Toshisha, the Vampyre dashed in close, hurling her own body upward and colliding shoulder-first, toppling him, before kicking hard at his temple and stunning him as he hit the ground.

Turning her body with the momentum to recover her ideal footing, Toshisha’s segments coiling about her, she came to face Sachio and Nagaharu, the former hiding in the latter’s shadow.

Toshisha deflected the rapier thrust, grinding against it in a shower of sparks and wrenching it down, and Kogoeji-ni struck the inside of Nagaharu’s kneecap with her foot, while displacing his opposite elbow with her open palm, ruining his center of gravity.

With the closed fist that held her sword, Kogoeji-ni uppercut him, before slicing down, whipblade segments grinding against his armor.

Had it been a true swing, that hit would have disemboweled him, and with Baku still dazed, her only remaining foe was Sachio. Who had in that time closed on her exposed left flank...opposite to her sword hand.

Twisting to face him, she knew she wouldn’t have the time to bring her weapon to bear against his first strike. Time seemed to slow...the cleaver, over seventeen pounds of solid darksteel, traveled at chest-level, too low to duck under. Nonetheless, ducking was precisely what she did, elbow bending and hand leading upward.

Sachio’s grin wavered, probably because he thought he would behead her, for his weapon was now level with her neck. Foolish male...

Her palm struck the cleaver’s bulk from below, and propelled by her vampyric strength, its edge leapt upwards. It parted a small lock of her hair, no more, flying harmlessly over her head. Toshisha retracted instantly, and she pointed it like a wand, towards her Prime’s midsection, before launching it. Sachio recovered instantly, striking her sword’s tip in much the same way she had, and, protected by a series of thick rings, his hand successfully deflected it downward.

Into his kneecap.

Her prime grunted in surprise and pain, buckling, and she backhanded him, toppling him.

Baku rose in that same instant, javelin raised, and Kogoeji-ni drew from Sachio’s flesh and whipped Toshisha up, deflecting the spear. Dekeshi had also given her experience in evading and defeated ranged attacks, as had poor Jusatsu.

His final weapon exhausted, and his bloated body in no condition to sprint, he backed off.

The entire exchange had lasted no more than twenty seconds.

“Well enough.” Kogoeji-ni shrugged, looking down to Sachio, who grimaced but did not protest as she offered him her exposed forearm.

Not daring to test her patience, he drank of her blood without hesitation, “You used your allies as a shield, and struck at your enemy’s most vulnerable point in their moment of weakness. You improvised as your attack failed, and did not succeed only because you were uncertain of my weapon’s irregular trajectory. Sachio, you would have prevailed against any other foe, though you must keep in mind that you will often be confronted with unusual weapon styles as we sweep clean the Veil. You must develop your ability to improvise and estimate at a moment’s notice”.

“And you...” she said less enthusiastically towards her other two vassals, “Would be dead or captured, your tactics no better than common chattel. You can feed on the thralls, I think, to mend your wounds and your pride. Baku...get some exercise; there will be times when magicka does not avail you and you will need to combat a foe on equal terms. We both know that cursed Surthath’s Djinn are skilled fighters as much as they are skilled Magi. You would do well to lose some of that blubber. Nagaharu...get out of my sight. You have been nothing but a burden since I elevated you; train your blade, or your spell work. Just do something useful. Dismissed”.

Eyeing her consort, who had finished feeding and was unsteadily finding his feet, his punctured leg healing before her eyes, Kogoeji-ni grunted, “I expect you to be present in my chambers within an hour. Clean yourself off, would you?”

Vala stood outside her mistress’ quarters as she mated loudly with her subordinate. As a guard, now her personal attendant, the monk knew the difference, slight as it was, between Kogoeji-ni at battle, and Kogoeji-ni...otherwise.

The broken glassware was one signifier, certainly.

Shrugging, trying to ignore what was happening on the other end of the door, Vala considered their conversation earlier that day. It was the second time they’d spoken at length, and she confessed a burgeoning familiarity, even cordiality, with the Vampyre Matriarch.

A Vampyre, like the ones that had killed her friends, had enslaved and tortured her!

And yet...there was something about her.

She was...different, though Vala didn’t know exactly how, or how much.

That she was a being to be feared, Vala had no doubt. She’d heard about her brutal lessons with her underlings earlier that day. And yet...that concern, which drove her to constantly test them that they may survive battles that would otherwise fell them, betrayed her sense of loyalty.

Kogoeji-ni was not sentimental, by any means, but she was not the callous overseer she’d expected her to be, and indeed, at first glance, assumed her to be. She led monsters, and sometimes acted monstrously at the behest of her god, but was she a monster herself?

Vala wasn’t certain anymore.

Then again, perhaps she was being sentimental, imagining patterns of meaning and reason in the endless chaos of Skraul society. She would watch her mistress closely, in her official capacity as well as her personal one. Perhaps, she could convince Kogoeji-ni to leave this place, and forsake this wicked campaign.


She had the time to wait and see what the future might bring...

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