The Black Hand (An Enchanter's Cycle Standalone)

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Chapter 5

Botsu felt Surthath, knew his touch and his presence intimately as his lover in ages passed.

Moaning in agitation as she tried and failed to rise from her repast, she gritted her teeth and activated dozens upon dozens of scrying and divinatory devices, attempting to locate the focus of his magicka, his trickery.

Nothing occurred in her empire without her notice!

Isshiho’Koku, her traitor daughter, had not known these defenses were in place. If she had, she would never have attempted to commune with Surthath, would never have offered to feed him information in exchange for her pitiful life and a place in his court.

Now moaning in pain, she shivered, and drew the blankets closer to her withered frame. They were covered with hair, her hair, which had been falling out more and more lately.

Her arm, little more than a desiccated twig, reached out, her gnarled fingers grasping a bottle of unguent. Shaking, she animated the bottle with another spell, and left her arm outstretched to receive its contents. It might soothe the pain, for a while...


Kogoeji-ni already knew the day would not be a pleasant one...

Another morning of illness, and at this point, Kogoeji-ni expected a certain someone to contact her telepathically soon. She wasn’t sure she could continue the campaign personally.

Vala stood at attention at her left side; Kogoeji-ni had changed her position to that of a guard and not yet regretted it. She rather favored the even-tempered, martially trained Starborn Monk; she even considered granting Vala the dark gift...

Even if she was one of the lesser races she would make a fine Arbiter, provided the change didn’t make her forget her place...

“Any deliveries?” she asked idly, waving a servant over and demanding some watered-down blood to calm her stomach.

“No, milady.” Vala replied, and the Vampyre rubbed her temples, trying to banish her migraine. She’d been expecting a missive from Enshi by now; her sister had offered to survey Uejini’s realm.

One of them would “do the honors” of putting the Silkrit in their place once and for all...and taking what was left for their own reserves of soldiers.

“Right, then.” she said, taking the whole decanter as the servant returned with it, drinking deeply. Vala flinched at the display, but said nothing, and for some reason she found that irritating.

“I have been considering your, shall we say, promotion?” she mused, and Vala’s expression became further veiled.

Moments stretched, then, “You plan to set me free?” to which Kogoeji-ni nodded, “Among other things; I have been considering offering you a place in my court. I have need for competent warriors, especially after Nagaharu’s “incident”“.

An incident indeed...Kogoeji-ni required a certain degree of professionalism from her subjects, and butchering the entire staff of a brothel because he was spotted eliminating a high ranking member of Ranshi’s court was something unfitting thereof.

Imbecile...

“I would be willing to serve you in any way I can...” Vala replied, “...but I am not sure I understand”.

“Think of it...” Kogoeji-ni supplied, “As an El’Dari, you are already immortal, but as a Vampyre with the blessing and protection of a matriarch, you would enjoy a greater freedom in these lands and in Darklight. You could freely pass from this city, provided it will benefit this house. And...you will be permitted to create your own Blood-Forged weapon, attaining power unique to our race. Are you not tempted?”

“No.” replied Vala, without hesitation, and Kogoeji-ni prodded, “Why is that? Tell me”.

Vala said nothing, and her frown deepened.

“Tell me.” Kogoeji-ni repeated, in a tone that brooked no argument.

The slave blinked, “I have no wish to become like you. I have not abandoned my faith for that of the Dread Hammer”.

“Nonsense.” she replied coolly, “God Death offers power, to those capable and willing to seize it. Why cling to the belief in those that have abandoned you?” to which Vala eyed her directly, defiant. Kogoeji-ni returned that look in full force, snarling.

"Speak!”

“I am not abandoned...” Vala replied, shivering either in anger or in fear, “I have my training, and my experience. I have what I have been given, by my faith to the Starborn, and it has not diminished here, in this place. And it is because of you, and your kind, that I am here, not because of the Starborn, or Surthath”.

“Oh?” Kogoeji-ni asked, leaning over, hands on the arms of her throne of ice but only with conscious effort, lest she throttle her slave in public, “And I suppose that means you still consider your teaching to be true, correct; that compassion, that loyalty, can overcome strength? That it can...-”

Was that not what Enshi had proven by helping her fend off Dekeshi and Ranshi in the caverns beside their home? Was that not what she herself had proven by offering her sister her sword, and perhaps her life, on the eve of the tournament?

“I believe...” Vala interrupted her and her line of thinking, ignoring the incredulous stares of the other slaves, and the expectant chattel and arbiters listening intently to the exchange, “...That you are more than the others; that you have the potential to be something more than a weapon for the Dread Hammer. Even after all you have done, even after all of the atrocities you have committed. That is why I have remained alive. I refuse to be made into a servant of Dur’Artoth, and you should as well!”

She should... She should...?

Kogoeji-ni lashed out with Toshisha, spearing Vala through the kneecap, splintering it.

The slave crumpled, screaming in pain, and Kogoeji-ni encased her armor in subzero cold, making it hard and brittle. A simple burst of telekinesis shattered it, leaving Vala with only a cloth jerkin with a few scraps of frozen mail adhered to it.

“A whip, now!” she snarled, holding out her other hand and dismissing Toshisha. One of her arbiters, she didn’t care to see who, handed her the braided leather handle of a three-pronged scourge, tipped with small brass beads that rattled as she unfolded it.

She advanced, even as Vala began to draw her sword. It never made it out of the scabbard.

The first lash took Vala right in the face, leaving three deep cuts across her beautiful features. Blood spattered in a fine mist. The sword fell to the ground.

The Vampyre struck again, across her torso, doubling Vala over, before kicking her over and exposing her back. Then Kogoeji-ni laid her open, lashing again, and again, and again, shredding the jerkin and revealing the mangled flesh beneath.

"Who do you think you are, slave?!" Kogoeji-ni screamed, stomping on the back of her head, collapsing her completely.

Who was Vala to declare herself better?!

Who was she to suggest that Kogoeji-ni somehow had a choice in this?

That she wanted to live as a Matriarch of Dur’Artoth?

That Vala was somehow better than her by holding faith to a worthless cretin like Surthath or weaklings like Starborn or whatever else?!

Compassion?

Empathy?

They made her weak, not strong. She had survived this long by stabbing a sister to death, not by offering another sister her sword. It was her strength, her cunning, her will to live, that has made it so, not her willingness to blaspheme God Death! Compassion alone would have left her in a shallow moldering grave!

The passage of time became unclear; she blacked out whipping her slave, and when it passed, she was stomping down into Vala’s back, blood soaking into her delicate slippers.

She knelt over, and lifted Vala up by her hair, her breathing unsteady and her eyes open and unfocused. Drawing a vial of Vitrium, which could heal mortals as well as it could nourish Vampyres, she force-fed her slave, who groaned as her flesh re-knit together, leaving shallow, silvery scars. Her face was mostly intact, with three diagonal lines marring it.

She was certainly no beauty anymore, but the dot tattoo on her forehead remained.

That irritated her, so Kogoeji-ni peeled the skin on that spot off with her fingernail, eliciting another pained shriek from her slave.

“Listen to me, Elf. The only thing that matters in this world is strength.” Kogoeji-ni stated, force-feeding her slave another dose of Vitrium, “I have that strength, and I offered it to you with a price far lower than that which any of my peers would demand. You were a fool for rejecting it, but I will forgive that. Do you renege? Will you accept this gift?” to which Vala only groaned, insensate. Shaking her awake, Kogoeji-ni repeated the question, and Vala whispered, “It is a curse. I pity you, milady, for you were born with it. Doomed from the start. I refuse”.

Regaining control of herself, Kogoeji-ni released her hold, letting Vala plummet to the floor, broken.

“Send her to the servant’s quarters.” she calmly ordered a pair of grinning chattel, “Her new position will be far less appreciable. I think a life of a stable-hand will serve to curb her tongue”.

It was more for appearances than anything, to satisfy the demands of her station; Kogoeji-ni didn’t particularly care to humiliate the Elf further.

She felt drained...

Those words, foolish and arrogant, nonetheless resonated. Was vampyrism, and the strength that it offered, something other than a gift?

Thoroughly tired, from the morning and several things besides, she decided to go back to sleep. The day, or as much as she had wanted to experience from it, was over...


Enshi ran over in her mind again and again the veiled and disturbing message she’d received telepathically just moments ago from Kogoeji-ni. She had felt her sister’s adrenaline, her dark hunger, awakened with the scent of mortal blood.

The Matriarch assumed she’d just fed upon or killed one of her slaves, nothing unexpected from most certainly, but from her knowledge of how her sister treated her cattle it seemed incongruous.

"Why do we fight?” she had asked, ”What do we fight for? What do we live for?“.

Enshi hadn’t known how to answer that question.

Kogoeji-ni had ever been prone to odd bouts of philosophical introspection. It was, and had always been, a means to sharpen her intellect.

But this?

It was obvious, of course; they lived and fought for Dur’Artoth’s glory, walking the path he’d set for them. It was the destiny of the Matriarchy to rule the Veil in Dur’Artoth’s name. Since she was a child Enshi had believed in the path set before her, her fate, her destiny.

But then, she could not explain this in words; it was a notion naturally shared by all the sisters of the brood. That Kogoeji-ni had come to question it...

She considered this, again and again, knowing she would have to keep a close eye on her sister, and protect her as Kogoeji-ni had once protected her. Those words overheard by the wrong person...

Standing on the deck of her ship, ”Swift Strider”, she pondered her sister and their shared task. The war had gone well; she now led one of the most powerful fighting forces in the empire; the spearhead of the Skraul Aerial Offensive.

Her flagship, as was the rest of her fleet, were magickally-sustained airships, resembling mundane vessels save for the membranous wings that propelled them alongside a constant aura of levitation. The construction of her fleet; a design pioneered by Dekeshi’s court, had been the most valuable prize ever stolen from her rivals, a victory enabled only by her cunning agents with the assistance of her and Kogoeji-ni’s sorcery.

Its crew, winged Alaae and loaned Koriko from Kogoeji-ni’s realm, augmented her sizable force of lesser purebloods, who served as officers, navigators, and consorts if the mood took her. Lately she’d been considering the Alaae for that task; ranging from seven to nine feet tall, ash-skinned, lightly muscled, and gifted with wings akin to the ship’s, they were striking creatures, similar in appearance to purebloods when turned. And they were of Dur’Artoth’s blood now...it made them distant kin.

Besides, she was a Matriarch, and her will was the will of God. Was it not her right to take as she pleased?

Lacking a central base of operations, her fleet was currently scattered, culling the remaining traces of the Alaae. ”Swift Strider” made slow circles above the highest mountain peaks, a translucent barrier protecting it and its crew from the elements.

There was no fear of the sun.

Xzal’shirlkk was a frozen world, its skies eternally clouded. Sunlight had never plagued its black spires or its snowy caps. Only the protective clouds of warming mist near the base of the mountain ranges could sustain life; the winds could freeze flesh to the bone in mere minutes. This high up, they were likewise safe from the few remaining denizens of the planet.

Looking down at the mountains, she felt apart from them, in a kingdom all her own in the sky. It made her feel safe, but more importantly, it made her feel powerful.

Here, she was protected by her army and the success of her campaign, the favor of God Death. Here, at the heart of her power, not even Dekeshi could strike her down.

“But I would not prefer to continue my campaign without my strongest and most loyal ally...” she noted dryly, watching a blizzard form in the distance, promising a night of deafening gusts, “Do what you must to find your will to fight, but be ready. We will take to the skies together, soon...”


She slept, then woke, then dressed, then sat upon her throne of ice.

Slaves cowered, or averted their eyes.

Her nobles, those that were present, made petty demands or abased themselves before here, seeking to curry favor.

Kogoeji-ni was so bored, so tired of their antics, she just politely nodded to whatever they asked, earning a few petty promises to be kept, or not kept, on a day that she felt more like taking action.

Her second capital was nearly fully mobilized for the next attack, upon either Aurora or the world of the Silkrit; war machines damaged in the skirmishes with the last vestiges of the Koriko were now repaired, oiled, and reinforced. All Koriko still living were taken by the dark gift, mindless obedient drones to slaughter on a whim. Her primes were ready to wield their Blood-Forged weapons against her foes.

It was all so...tedious.

Dispassionately, she considered the chaos to come. Millions would perish, billions perhaps.

For what?

To what end?

So Father could gloat over the remnants of the Veil and trumpet his dominance over his rival Old Ones?

Since the disastrous conversation with Vala, Kogoeji-ni had found herself increasingly disillusioned with her own existence, harboring blasphemous thoughts as to her purpose...and lack thereof.

When it was over; when all the worlds were empty and ruined...what then? Would Father turn the empire upon itself, scouring it from existence as well? Was this path truly the way to ensure her own survival?

And even then...was survival truly the only amiable goal, as she had believed for most of her life?

Sighing, Kogoeji-ni rubbed her temples, contemplating the inexplicable void in her life, that yawning emptiness she could neither explain nor identify. She felt this void, this dissatisfaction, intensify.

Elemental magicka filled the room; her slaves’ shallow breathing frosted over, and they eyed each other nervously.

A manifestation of her powers betrayed her mood... She considered surrendering to her impulses, and confirm their fears, their conception of her.

Then... Something sparked inside her.

Her undead heart fluttered.

A surprised hiss escaped her, making more than one of her attendants flinch. A telepathic contact, brief and incomplete, reached her, accompanied by an oddly torpid confusion. Immediately, she began to gather her magickal defenses, rising to her feet. Toshisha uncurled languidly in the hidden fold of her sleeve.

Nothing.

No spells assailed her.

No telepathic attack sought to breach her mental defenses.

The hall remained empty, save for the slaves who shivered from the cold and the sheer terror of their mistress.

She paused, uncertain, raw elemental magicka crackling about her person; a sheet of swirling frigid mist so intense it cracked the floor beneath her. Hesitant, she began to reach for the lingering threads of the telepathic connection...


There is was...

Botsu snarled, summoning the scrying orb to her, and peering with disbelief at its contents.

The spell had been simple; a minor evocation to communicate images and sensations across vast distances.

That was of no importance; though she couldn’t defeat his divine protection that clouded the message from her, she’d inferred the target of the communication.

“So be it...” she rasped, her breath a pained wheeze, “I watch, and wait. The traitor in my camp will reveal herself in time”.


Kogoeji-ni retreated into the deepest levels of her psyche, the place from which the call had issued from.

With her skill in Mindbreaking, a rare form of telepathy, she’d mapped out all the regions of her mind into a sort of visual construct, to which she could peruse at will. It was a valuable skill in regards to recorded events, a sort of eidetic memory which allowed her to perfectly remember any and all events in her life, from the most relevant to the inconsequential.

It was also a means to categorize and review her thoughts, though it required intense concentration and regular meditation to support itself.

As she descended into the more personal, more intimate sections of her consciousness, she found an area that was hers, and yet...not.

This was no region of her mind she’d visually manifested before.

It was connected to her...but it was completely new, unfocused, and somehow gradually separating from the whole.

“I was wondering when you would try to contact me...” Kogoeji-ni said numbly, adrift in an astral sea not of her making. It was as she had suspected, known, really.

At the present, with her doubts as they were, it was not an ideal time to wean offspring, but now that she’d managed to impregnate herself, such was how it would have to be. A Skraul child was not like those of the lesser races. From the moments of its creation, the soul, the mind, was complete, only waiting for experience and knowledge to focus and solidify it.

She remembered her own first moments in Botsu’s womb, the experience of birth, and suckling at her mother’s breast. None of these had been particularly pleasant events.

Her first sensation as the consciousness took notice of her was a muted surprise, then elation. Its happiness was so profound that she distantly felt her body shift uncomfortably in her throne room.

"You have not yet learned to speak...” Kogoeji-ni said, ignoring its wordless exclamations, ”But I will ensure that you do ere you leave my body. I will show you all that I have learned, that you may have a chance to survive the war you will be born into“.

Still, it elated, still it wrapped its psyche around hers, the telepathic equivalent to an embrace, and Kogoeji-ni pressed it away, irritated, ”Desist. You are a daughter of the Fourth Matriarch of Dur’Artoth. That you gestated only days ago does not diminish your responsibilities and duties.”

She probed this consciousness, seeking out defining attributes.

Female. Good...

She would not abide a lesser male to her court if she could help it.

Undeveloped telepathic ability, certainly... Raw magicka.

She would have the potential to be a Magi, a True Magi.

Kogoeji-ni’s misgivings turned to greed; with a Magi at her side her position of power would be solidified further among the brood. Perhaps she could finally settle matters with Dekeshi...

The child didn’t understand her intentions, but beamed at its comprehension of its mother’s pleasure.

“What is this?” Kogoeji-ni grimaced, opening her eyes to the broader depths of her offspring’s capability. It was... No...

This was impossible!

What she’d seen thus far was only a single fold in the depths of the child’s developing mind, and opening her “eyes” fully, she was privy to the sheer depths of its power!

It was...incredible.

Transcendent.

Divine.

Not even in Mother had Kogoeji-ni seen such magnitude, such potency!

"You will come to rule this empire...” Kogoeji-ni gasped, imparting images of their race and its achievements, ”With your strength, you will lead us as even Botsu cannot“.

The right to rule.

Supreme dominion.

"Your name is Tenri.” Kogoeji-ni decided with utter confidence, ”Rule of Heaven. With such power, this name is yours by right. No lesser name will suffice“.

The child pondered this name, then accepted it, focusing more now that it had a tangible identity. It began to hum, not with power but with...sound, or at least the impression of sound.

It began to sing.


Sachio had defied his mistress’ orders, returning to her side. There was no other interpretation to this disobedience.

But he wanted to know.

He needed to know.

As he watched, his lady took in a breath in a startled hiss.

Yes. Definitely. It was a child, a daughter. His daughter. Kogoeji-ni, reclusive and flighty as she was, would not have taken another consort.

He wasn’t sure that to think of this. Every day had been an exercise of pleasure, of the pursuit of enjoyment. He fought, he killed, he fed, he made love. He served his Matriarch, and propagated the teachings of Dur’Artoth who was God.

That was all he needed, all he wanted.

But now he’d provided offspring, and by the puzzled, then astounded expression on Kogoeji-ni’s face, powerful offspring.

On one hand, he was disappointed; with his mistress thus occupied he wouldn’t enjoy such a rigorous lover for some time, and he dared not take another. The jealousy conventionally provoked by such a thing could genuinely mean his death.

On the other hand, he was pleased.

This connected him more solidly to Kogoeji-ni; though siring a child meant nothing to most among their race, he knew Kogoeji-ni would be different in this regard. She was...sentimental, as much as she was strong. It was one of her many contradictions that had puzzled and intrigued him since the start.

Secondly, a powerful child might mean protection down the road. He would have to endear it to him in the coming years; a good impression might be worthwhile should it ever turn on her mother. He was pleased with Kogoeji-ni, but he needed to be pragmatic.

Such was their world.

And...

He would never admit it, because it would mean his death, but perhaps some of his Matriarch’s sentimentality had rubbed off on him. He was pleased by this development...for a reason he couldn’t quite articulate; something about the basest sense of fathering a child felt...hmm.

“I do not know the word for this...” he noted dryly, perplexed.

Wait...

“What is this?!” he gasped, seeing his mistress...cry? Tears hung in her eyes, then poured freely down her cheeks.

“Damn it!” he snapped, drawing a kerchief and wiping them away, “Nobody can hear of this. Nobody”.

He eyed the slaves; all eyes were downcast, save a single pair. With a burst of vampyric strength, he rushed forward, impaled, and beheaded the body attached to them. He would not allow word of this to spread!

“Dismissed.” he snarled, motioning to the others, “All of you. Now!”


Music...

She’d never heard it before; not in her mother’s crooning, not with her pitiful attempts at the flute, not ever. Nothing could encapsulate the raw, searing emotion in this simple melody. The child sang in a rich, light soprano, base and guileless, but all the more compelling because of it.

It spoke in a tongue she did not know, but the words possessed a meaning in their simple melody, in the emotion it implied.

How alive it felt, joyous, and Kogoeji-ni felt something stir inside her. She remembered again in bright, vivid detail, offering her sword to Enshi, her hesitation to kill Dekeshi, her lack of enthusiasm in conquering the Veil, her desire for something she did not, could not, understand, had never witnessed but desired nonetheless.

What this it?

"Yes...” she decided, numb, “This was what I wanted. All this time“.

On further inspection, she detected the uncertainty, even clumsiness, of the tone and tenor of the voice, which had before seemed utterly immaculate.

But she didn’t care; it made the music all the more beautiful.

"Are you sure you are mine?” she asked, dazed, and she sensed Tenri’s amusement. She stopped singing, and Kogoeji-ni felt a primal cry tear free from her. Now without the music, the world felt like an empty, cruel place.

Again Tenri telepathically embraced her, and this time she did not resist.


Dekeshi knew something was amiss.

Her agents stationed in Kogoeji-ni’s court had been quiet lately. Usually, they scrambled over each other to inform her of some petty scandal that, while certainly interesting, gave her no real advantage over her hated foe.

That was good; it meant they were on the verge of something, something more considerable, something she could use to increase her standing.

She’d failed twice already; once in the tournament that had defined their place in the Matriarch, then again in proving unable to claim the world of the energy-based life forms called the Mrrg, who could convert and consume any organic matter, living or dead, and were quite invulnerable to her electricity-based elemental magicka. Her burning ships had rained from the skies into oblivion alongside her ambitions.

Not even her true form, embodied energy, could resist them. Her body was still riddled with blisters and third degree burns. To retain some of her dignity, she’d shaved off her burned hair and braided the rest into a narrow streak along her scalp, tattooing the bare parts with interlocking archaic symbols.

Her sibling and sometimes ally had been more successful. Ranshi had fortified her own troops with her more flexible arcane magicka, allowing them to warp the central intelligence in every Mrrg and turn them on each other.

Now it was Ranshi who stood at the helm of the deadliest assassination force in the empire, whose soldiers were living energy that could become intangible at will and consume enemies by mere contact!

And where was she?

A fraction of her original fleet, quickly out-produced by that weakling, Enshi.

She wanted the Koriko...badly.

She needed a force of her own, and now she lacked the resources to siege another world. Repurposing the bulk of her soldiers into raiding parties to scavenge slaves and resources from the unspoiled and unsuspecting regions of the Veil only bought herself time.

Hence, assigning the rest of her low ranking purebloods infiltration missions to steal either treasures or resources. With leverage against one or more of her sisters, she could blackmail them for additional soldiers or slaves. With a sizable force she could finish Uejini’s campaign and exterminate the Silkrit, and then turn her attention to the humans and weakling elves of Aurora.

She waited patiently for further news...as patiently as she could, at least...


Weeks passed, and every night Kogoeji-ni taught her daughter what she would need to survive, from blade work to sorcery to intrigue.

Tenri seemed especially receptive to the second, and the Vampyre was forced to rely on her memories of Father’s simulations of Djinn and other magickal creatures, for her daughter had already absorbed everything Kogoeji-ni herself knew of Mindbreaking and elemental magicka.

With her daughter’s natural talent, the experience she would impart would make her virtually invincible.

Despite this, Kogoeji-ni was worried as to what would happen as she grew; already, Tenri was able to infer her memories at will through their shared lineage. Another boon of the Skraul was their genetic memory, passed from mother to child.

Tenri was disturbed by much she had done and been forced to do in her life. Though there was no judgment, Kogoeji-ni felt soiled.

Any lingering traces of Father’s indoctrination had bled away; she felt no confidence in the campaign, and had come to outright despise her position of Matriarch.

There was no sanity in serving a cause that would result in her own death, and indeed, the death or mutilation of all creatures of the Veil.

But she didn’t know what to do; Botsu and Dur’Artoth were beyond equal. Nothing, not even the combined power of the Brood, could match them, let alone surpass them.

And with the empire under their control, no force in the Veil could stop them. They would wash over every world in the universe, and flense it of life. There was nothing she could do to prevent this.

Tenri seemed equally uncertain, if less troubled. In her mind, things would work themselves out eventually. Her optimism was refreshing among such bleak circumstances, but Kogoeji-ni was hardly comforted.

During the days, she whiled away the hours dispatching increasing numbers of her soldiers into Uejini’s kingdom, in an effort to finally cull the Silkrit, which had revolted as expected.

Led by an upstart identified only as a red-skinned specimen with a silvery mask and a dark cloak, they had killed a number of Uejini’s servants and the Karu slaves with savagery and chilling discipline.

They showed promise; they would make fine soldiers themselves. Eventually, they would be captured and turned, their minds destroyed in the process. It’d happened several times already, when the native population fought back.

The rest of her soldiers were already dispatched to several outposts of the hated Carthspirians; Byo’ku, the lunatic, had managed to discover several hitherto unknown lines of defense surrounding several worlds they planned to invade. This was unacceptable, and Botsu had immediately ordered all of her daughters to provide soldiers to quickly and efficiently remove these lines of defense.

The task would be completed in mere days, and then dozens of worlds would be exposed...

"Why do you do these things...?" Tenri asked, while Kogoeji-ni lounged in her private quarters, considering a vial of preserved Vitrium.

"Because there is nothing else." she replied simply, ”It is the will of God that we cleanse the universe of all things not bearing his image. No other reason is required“.

Tenri digested that for a time, and Kogoeji-ni surrendered to her thirst, and uncorked the vial. She was drinking for two, after all...

"But it’s wrong." Tenri protested, and she guffawed, ”What is right? What is wrong? You’ve only been conscious for a short time. I wouldn’t expect you to understand“.

"You do not feel that it is wrong? When you killed Jusatsu? When you almost killed Dekeshi? What stayed your hand?"

“I don’t know!” she snapped, aloud and telepathically. Calming, the Vampyre sighed, ”I don’t know anything, child. I have been taking life as it comes. I live, I fight, I feed, I mate. What else is there?" to which Tenri replied almost immediately, ”Music“.

Forced to concede, Kogoeji-ni shrugged, ”It is nice, yes, but survival is more important than music, and survival requires strength. All things in this world and all others revolve around one’s personal strength."

"Are you trying to convince me of this, or yourself?" Tenri quipped, and Kogoeji-ni readied a curse in retaliation, then frowned, her indignation muted and overtaken by confusion.

Was she indeed?

Why had she pondered her actions in her youth for so long, so arduously? Was she trying to convince herself of this, lest she imperil herself with the search for other answers?

"It doesn’t matter.” Kogoeji-ni finally replied, ”Even now further civilizations are being targeted. The legions and fleets and swarms will dispatch in days to their next destinations. By the end of this era, there will be nothing left in the multi-verse to transcend mere survival. It is inevitable“.

To this, Tenri said nothing.

"Enough of this." Kogoeji-ni continued, ”You are powerful enough already to name you a Broodlord, and you are no more than a finger-sized lump of flesh. When you come of age, and by my efforts, you shall do just that, it will be your place to rule this empire. None, not even Botsu, will be able to withstand you. You will be safe, and surrounded with luxury. It is all that I can offer you“.

Tenri’s silent protests reverberated through the dark corners of her mind, but not in words, for they had no tangible focus other than the very same formless yearning that Kogoeji-ni herself had felt towards Botsu.

"Why is it..." she wondered to herself, as her daughter’s focus wavered, “...that the children of a god so utterly lack what the lesser races seem to possess; an ounce of genuine self-assurance?"

"What if we left?" Tenri asked, more to herself than to Kogoeji-ni, and the Vampyre paused, nonplussed.

"Blasphemy." she retorted, ”To defy-"

"Not to defy." Tenri added, the stray notion developing into a more cohesive thought, ”To learn for ourselves that which we lack, or do not lack. To learn of our place, beyond that which others have thrust upon us. Let us leave this place, Mother, for already I feel repulsed by it. I wish to see the worlds beyond here and know if I am right; if this is not the way."

She denied the request out of hand, but internally, she was intrigued.

For too long she had denied herself the understanding of these nagging doubts.

Perhaps she could, even should, investigate them, and judge for herself whether or not she was chasing shadows.

Yes...

She would “tour” the remaining unspoiled worlds, with a small, (comparatively) loyal elite guard. She would have the authority to slip away from the empire and survey the worlds with fresh eyes, with Tenri and perhaps Sachio by her side.

Yes...she liked this idea.

She liked it very much.


Sachio studied his Matriarch as she meditated.

She sat cross-legged in her personal quarters, eyes closed, an empty and overturned vial near her hand.

He was more than a little fearful at his intrusion, but his damnable pride got the better of them. She’d refused his propositions, ignored his flirtations, and his insinuations. He would not slip back into the lower ranks of the empire; this was his chance!

And, despite himself, he wanted Kogoeji-ni. He lusted for her, and sought a higher station beside her, and even more than this, he wanted to know his offspring. It was his right, even if as a male it was a right often denied in their society.

“Interesting.” Kogoeji-ni muttered, eyes opened and focusing on him, her expression deadly neutral. Her eyes blazed, however. She eyed him like a piece of meat, and normally that would have been a good thing.

But then she...smiled.

The gesture held no silent menace, no unspoken threat. He’d never seen her act this way. She relaxed, and sat upright. Her belly was already expanding to accommodate her offspring. He might not have noticed, were it not for the slim, form-fitting gown. She motioned to her belly, “Since you’re here I will ask; do you wish to speak with her?”

Confused, Sachio found his legs propelling him forward, not of his own accord.

This had to be a ruse, a preparation for some horrible punishment.

But he couldn’t see the trap to approach it from a different angle, and he was bound to obey. He reached out a hand, for lacking telepathic abilities, the only way he could “speak” to the fetus was through direct physical contact. He pressed his fingertips against her lower abdomen, and suffering no magickal backlash, his open palm followed. Beneath the soft material, he could feel a bloom of heat. Though Skraul did not produce body heat, a developing fetus did; it was necessary to expand and develop.

“Um...” he stammered aloud, trying to project his words by thinking them intently while he spoke “...hello”.

"Hello." a little voice echoed in his head, curiously distant.

Well, that was getting nowhere.

“What is your name?” he asked, and he finally felt its consciousness. Still distant, he could sense its awareness, and...

“Gods above and below...” he gasped, then held a hand to his mouth, horrified. Blasphemies like that rarely went unpunished.

Kogoeji-ni just shrugged, “She is powerful indeed, Sachio. You sired a fine daughter”.

A daughter...his daughter...

"Tenri." the little voice replied, and Sachio couldn’t deny how appropriate the name was. Oddly, though his greatest ambitions seemed confirmed; a powerful heir, a closeness to both it and its mother...he found that these things paled to the peculiar sensation overtaking him.

Then, as his doubts multiplied, Tenri began to sing...

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