The Black Hand (An Enchanter's Cycle Standalone)

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Chapter 6

She slipped away from the empire with hardly a word spoken.

The Way-Gate, created by means so gruesome she’d emptied her stock of Skraul prisoners rather than her mortal slaves to fuel it, had served to transport her to Aurora, to the secluded mountain ranges south and west of the more heavily populated settlements of the Elves.

With her, she was accompanied by Tenri (obviously), Sachio, twelve elite arbiter soldiers, each armed with broadswords and small hand crossbows, and four maidservants, including Vala, who bore no weapons.

She felt...distressed, about their last encounter, and had decided to offer the rebellious El’Dari with a loftier station in apology. Likewise, she’d brought her here because she would ask Vala’s final service to her; as ambassador and translator.

She’d chosen this location for several reasons; first and foremost, it was sparsely populated. Secondly, there was no real method of communication between the mortals that were present. Even if her party were to be discovered, there was little concern of an organized retaliation. Thirdly, this location fascinated her; she wished to observe, or perhaps even communicate, with the Starborn Monks.

She’d scoured Vala’s memories of them, but found the unresponsive woman to be largely unhelpful in communicating their peculiarities.

And most importantly, the mountain’s peak faced magnetic north...and this particular overhang faced due east...

This would be her first and most important hurdle if she was to understand this world and the peoples within it.

She stood on a small plateau halfway up one of the larger mountain ranges, the night skies clouded, comfortably sheltering her party in gloom. She had forsaken her gowns for light and supple leather armor, slim calf-high boots, and ornately carved darksteel vambraces. A stylized torc, resembling a serpent with a head at both ends protected her throat, and a finely embroidered black cloak obscured her figure, her belly increasingly pronounced with her pregnancy.

Her lapis lazuli beads, her lone indulgence in adornments, were still present in the form of her necklace and strung circlet.

Toshisha, her only physical weapon, lay active and coiled in her sleeve.

A thin crest of blue marked the horizon. Dawn wasn’t far off, but she had little doubt that her mortal servants could barely see, if at all.

Her vampyric eyes, however, scanned her surroundings with ease.

Below their perch, small winding paths descended into lower elevated valleys intermittently carved into deeper trenches by thin rivers of clear water. Each path was easy to regularly monitor; none would approach without her knowing far in advance.

Likewise, the paths leading further up the mountain were scarce in this area, and she could assign an Arbiter to watch each of them during the night.

The wind was light, but intensely cold; this late into fall, even the outlying regions would soon feel the first enervating bite of winter. Knee-length weeds and coarse tufts of bushes grew sporadically in the softer, less sedimentary soils, waving gently with the wind. The stone itself, a vibrant orange-brown species, featured odd streaks of red, possibly an imbedded mineral.

It was a strange place, beautiful and foreboding.

She took an instant liking to it.

“Settle in.” she ordered her underlings, motioning over her shoulder to the shallow cave she’d chosen as their expedition base. It wasn’t luxurious, but it would keep away the rays of the sun until a more permanent abode could be located or constructed. Sachio stood at her side as the other Arbiters descended into its deeper darkness, dragging the reticent slaves with them.

“What was that?” Elurra asked, her dagger-length pointed ears perked to the wind. Her luminous blue eyes darted to and fro, hands resting comfortably on the pommels of the thinblades belted to her waist.

Alteriun could only shrug, stirring from his meditation, “I am uncertain. I sensed a fluctuation in the natural forces. A spell, something powerful. A...displacement, perhaps?”

“Or a wormhole.” Elurra replied, waving her hand in a mystic pass.

The runes marking her skin, magickal symbols pulsing with her natural reserves of energy, flared brightly. This energy spread outward in a blanket that covered for several bowshots in every direction, a spell meant to resonate off of active fonts of power.

His apprentice paused, her nostrils flared, before frowning, puzzled.

Nothing, then.

“Perhaps it was merely a ripple created by natural processes.” Alteriun offered, and Elurra nodded, her gaze returning to him.

Studying her intently, Alteriun again regretted that his apprentice had already mated; one of his own kin now, she was a stunning creature.

Her smooth, oil-black skin, narrow, shapely membranous wings, and vibrant blue eyes were remarkable even among the Djinn; the immortal, magickal children of Surthath. Her chitin plates, a natural defense, were honed down and carved in ornate patterns that resembled the soft, flowing script marking her flesh, unique to her specifically and betraying a gentle, if playful and vivacious, personality, more prominent along her wrists, the ridge of her spine, and crowning her roughly triangular head.

She wore a sleeveless hauberk of finely crafted golden mail, golden bracers, and shin guards. Violet and blue silks flowed from her waist in a skirt specially cut as to not restrict movement, held together by a series of thin belts sporting several small pouches filled with spell components. A small amulet adorned her neck; a spherical charm of golden filigree, a family heirloom carried by her human ancestors, and a thin circlet marked her brow.

Though, as a male, he was over twice her size, he knew that her skill with both weapons and magicka made her a daunting foe, and that she could match him on the field of battle with ease, adornments or no.

“Anyway...” he started, lest his gaze linger too long, “We have work to do. The disappearances in this region have increased in recent years. The El’Dari are concerned. Apparently, Surthath is as well, else he would not have dispatched us”.

It was quite unprecedented; occasionally, their father (Elurra’s ancestor by thousands of years, technically) periodically sent one or two of the Djinn when he felt that one of his rival Old Ones, particularly the Dread Hammer, was in violation of The Pact; a powerful sealing spell that prevented the Old Ones from manifesting directly in the Veil.

That he would send two of his most powerful agents to Aurora meant one thing; that the inevitable war between Moonshadow, Surthath’s kingdom, and Darkmoor, the broken realm of the Dread Hammer Dur’Artoth, was imminent.

But thus far, nothing had been amiss.

The Starborn Order had reported sightings of...unusual creatures, especially at night, but the two of them had found little, save traces of encampments and scraps of darksteel. That cursed ore was proof enough of some mischief, however...

There was something at work, but certainly not signs of an army, either of the resurgent Skraul, or of Dur’Artoth’s foul generals and the Djinn’s dark counterpart, the shapeless horrors known as R’yzthaek.

But what, then?

What could Surthath find so important here?

They stood, side by side, watching the skies turn from pitch to a pale grey.

Already, his skin ached.

“Be still...” Kogoeji-ni instructed, a swirl of magicka surrounding her, manifesting as a cloud of freezing mist. The cloud expanded, solidified, and in it, he could see small reflective patches of ice that glinted like gemstones. The cloud parted to include him, and sealed shut.

Immediately the light dimmed.

“What are you doing?” he asked, alarmed, and his mistress nodded, visibly tense, “For too long I have trusted the words of others to define my life. I would see that which we’ve been taught to fear with my own eyes, and judge accordingly”.

He felt a peculiar itch in his head, but relaxed, sensing Tenri’s telepathic presence. She joined their vigil, receptive to their visual and auditory stimuli. Her ability to influence while inside the womb was very impressive... He’d never heard of an infant capable of it.

With both of them, oddly, he felt quite safe from what would come, despite his rebellious instincts that urged him to find the shelter of deeper darkness. There were some things a Vampyre was simply not meant for...

The air grew warmer. The skies lightened further; he could see a bloom of pink, which expanded outward until the entire sky was alight with it.

Kogoeji-ni watched with apprehensive awe, which he was certain he mimicked perfectly.

Suddenly, a flash of yellow alit the distance, and he was blinded. He sucked in air, unconsciously prepared to release it in a pained hiss, but their immediate surroundings remained dim. He experienced nothing more than a biting itch all throughout his exposed skin.

Slowly, his vision refocused; black turned to a milky white, which slowly became translucent, revealing minute details. He imagined the experience to be similar to floating inside of a cloud.

His vision fully re-established itself.

In most of its subtleties, the sight before him was no different than it had been before; the overhang, and the lands below, were still the same.

And yet...this was not the case.

All about him, the world seemed to be aflame, awash in stinging, painful light. Colors were so vibrant, so fully defined, that he realized in one crushing moment of despair he’d never seen true color; only a muted grey that was present in their gloom.

The sun was no more than a pinhead in the far horizon, but even now it seared his eyes so intensely, even in their cloud of darkness, that he was forced to look away.

Since he could not look upon the sun, even face it, and he turned away with a grimace.

And saw that Kogoeji-ni possessed no such scruples...

Her eyes were slightly downcast, below the sun, but her gaze did not waver as his did. Her expression stole any words he may have uttered; her smile was radiant. No other word could define it, and he understood in a moment’s prefect, horrifying clarity, that she was a creature of these lands in the sun, not of Darklight or Morthusk or anywhere else that never saw the light of day.

He deflated; he knew this woman was beyond him.

This was too much, it questioned too much of the life he’d lived to this point, of the teachings of God Death, of everything he’d ever known.

He turned away, to the cave, to the safety and sheltering darkness it offered. Or tried to. Kogoeji-ni’s grip upon his shoulder was like cast iron. She forced him to face her, but her eyes were not wrathful.

They were understanding...

“Nothing is beyond us, my love.” she replied, offering this new, frightening moniker without hesitation, “With my powers, even this wondrous, formidable land is open to us”.

Nodding uncertainly, he dared a second glance to the periphery of the sun. Even it was no match for his mistress’ strength. The fear, the sheer unbridled terror in inspired, was no match for her will.

And this moment, this perilous moment, had been inspired by her sentimentality, her softness of heart and openness of mind. Perhaps these attributes were not so far separated from her implacable strength as he had initially believed...

Kogoeji-ni and her consort, Sachio, entered the cave long after the sun had risen.

Each bore jubilant expressions, eliciting more than one uncomfortable grimace from their subordinates.

Vala studied them intensely, all the while unpacking their supplies with the other handmaidens. Her wounds had all but healed, though her scars remained. She could trace a network of lashes all throughout her body.

But it was the three across her face that wounded her the deepest, beside the crater in her forehead. Despite this promising change in her, Vala would never forgive her mistress.

She could not...

None among her order had been so disgraced, so reduced. And now she stood within a week’s travel from her home, tormented by its memory.

Why had Kogoeji-ni chosen this location?

Why had she been included?

Was this some new pettiness? Some subtle mockery of her unwillingness to ingratiate herself by becoming a monster?

Or had she experienced a change of heart? Did Kogoeji-ni plan to release her?


In the short term, Vala’s presence was most likely that of an asset to curry favor with her order.

Perhaps Kogoeji-ni was only here to attack the temple and carry away more slaves, slaves that intrigued her, ere the entire matriarchy invaded. Despite her training, her heart hardened with anger.

This was some trick. It had to be.

And even if it wasn’t, their kind were lost to the Dread Hammer’s evil. After the atrocities she’d witnessed as Kogoeji-ni’s servant, knowing the woman to be one of the most lenient and understanding of the Matriarchs, she knew they could never ally with mortals. Not for long, anyway.

If she had the chance, she would make contact with her order first...

An opportunity.


She watched events proceed with a grin. This was her chance to prove her worth to Dekeshi, to prove her loyalty.

The Thrall, soon to be something far more, probed the sensations experienced by the members of Kogoeji-ni’s court that she’d murdered and animated in her time in Morthusk.

Now home in Dekeshi’s castle in Darklight, protected in a cocoon of unbreakable magicka strands, she plucked each string along the web as it suited her, controlling the limbic system of each flesh puppet. Though they were dead, they perfectly mimicked their behaviors in life. They wouldn’t rot. As their lifeblood had drained away, she’d embalmed them using a special technique. With the loss of the Heart of Darkness, she’d never experienced or enjoyed its raw necrotic energies, a tragedy to be sure.

Then again, had the events of the Dreadborne War occurred differently, she may very well not have existed...

Now, at least comparable in power to necromancers of passed days, she’d acted as Dekeshi’s servant, aiming to advance to her spymaster.

Kogoeji-ni’s downfall would bring that advancement, and the freedom and power that accompanied. This bizarre sojourn had already fully aroused her suspicion, and that of her mistress. With her agents acting in her midst, all the bitch needed to do now was spout some nonsense about defection, and it would be over.

She would wait, and listen.

And, when the time was right, she would strike...

Starseeker watched as Elurra paused abruptly in their conversation, her ears flicking again in agitation.

Her eyes closed, and she mouthed silent words.

A telepathic communication, no doubt.

Both of them had kept a dialogue with the order of monks populating the mountains, though they worshiped the heretic Starborn and offered no formal alliance with Moonshadow.

They must have discovered something in their domain.

Elurra’s expression darkened, then faltered. He hadn’t seen her at such an utter loss since their first interaction in a magickally created dreamscape, when she’d just been a young dilettante with a spark of true power in her eyes.

She snapped out of her trance, and eyed him intensely, “You are not going to believe this...”

Kogoeji-ni lay beside Sachio on a narrow plateau north of camp, watching the night sky through half-lidded eyes.

Tenri was sound asleep; her parent’s lovemaking had exhausted her as well, even though neither of them had been particularly rough.

Her servants scouted the terrain, reporting back every hour. With their unnatural speed, agility, and climbing ability, they had mapped out entire sections of the mountains already.

Their enthusiasm was likely based on the notion that they were here to acquire slaves and intelligence. the Vampyre knew she would have to do something about them soon...

“The others will come here...” Sachio said idly, his hands crossed behind his head, one leg propped over the other.

She nodded.

“They will destroy this place.” he added.

Again, she nodded.

He sighed, “We should not be here, milady. This land is not meant for us”.

She smiled, “That was precisely what I was thinking. We should make it so none of our kind come here after us”.

“Right, we can be back by...” he paused, and then his eyes went wide as coins, “You cannot be serious?! To defy the Matriarchy-”

“Am I not a Matriarch?” she asked him testily, “Is your duty not to your Matriarch?”

“It is...” he replied, warming to events, “But the others may not be so receptive to this. Say the word, and I will...inspire them”.

She grinned, thankful for his loyalty and his understanding. It was refreshing to know that she and Tenri were not alone among the Skraul.

Perhaps a few of her servants would come around after all.

Perhaps even Enshi... She wanted her sister beside her for this.

“I have contacted one of the senior monks in a nearby temple.” she added, watching a cloud obscure the moon and finding herself mystified by the play of light through the puffy opaque mass, “I asked to parley with him and his order today at dusk. For all he knows, I am a travelling emissary from the human lands to the north. I left out the specifics for his own benefit, though he may have inferred”.

“Are you sure this is wise?” he asked, and she laughed, “I am not powerless, and it will be at our time that we arrive. I will transport us by spell. There is much that I can learn from them, and much I can show them, both from my experiences and the teachings of Go-...of the Dread Hammer”.

She abandoned that patronymic then and now.

He had been nothing of a father or a god to her, and she would find a place beyond even his power.

Placing a hand on her swollen belly, Kogoeji-ni closed her eyes, and basked in the sounds of wind and faint birdsong, the earthy smell of the cloud-swept peaks, and knew a peace she’d never before imagined...

...The day came and passed.

Neither of them worried over the sunlight, cocooned in protective shadow.

The sun fell below the horizon. Its crown of rosy pink descended in its wake.

It was time.

“We go.” Kogoeji-ni ni stated with audible mirth.

She felt Sachio’s eyes upon her, and wrapped them both in her magicka, calling upon a swift teleportation.

She took one step and...

And she stood at the terminus of a great flight of finely cut steps leading to the top of one of the higher peaks, so narrow she could roughly gauge its circumference.

A bridge of rope and wood connected this peak with a far one, and it was there that the Starborn Monks were based. Its peak had long ago been shaped by mortals; a massive complex cut right into its depths, half the size of her palace in Darklight and protected from the rear by a stone shell the depth of a dagger’s toss. From another direction, the edifice would be virtually undetectable.

She took to the bridge, ignoring the dry creaking that it elicited in protest of her weight.

Protective aura’s sheathed her, intermingled layers of defenses that could turn blades, projectiles, and all but the most powerful of spells.

With conscious effort, she could teleport back to the base camp. Similar contingencies protected Sachio.

She didn’t think she would need these precautions, but she hadn’t lived as long as she had without being careful.

At the end of the bridge there was an open stretch of paved road. At either side of the road was topiary, all of it edible from the looks of it. There were roots and tubers, patches of wheat grain, berry bushes, and even a few small, forlorn looking fruit trees. The vegetation likely sustained the monks within for extended periods, as they could hardly trade with neighboring regions.

The complex, on further inspection, looked like a three-storied manor.

Tenri delighted in studying it.

Simple wooden shutters betrayed individual rooms, though most were closed. There was only one visible means of ingress and egress; a pair of interlocking doors directly ahead. Before the mansion stood four figures, cloaked but without hoods. She felt her daughter’s attention affix upon them. All appraised her, though each were visibly frazzled.

Only the fourth gave her pause.

Assuming a mantle of supreme confidence, even arrogance, that was unique to all royalty, Kogoeji-ni approached them with her chin held high, though her stomach fluttered with nervousness.

Much depended on this first encounter, and she bore no desire to return to Morthusk or anywhere else tainted by Dur’Artoth. Furthermore, she had no experience in parlaying with the le-...the other races.

Nothing for it, she studied her hosts.

The first of the four was an elderly male, an El’Dari, or Elf, his hair a dark brown with narrow streaks of grey. He had an open, youthful face, his age betrayed only by his hair and the weariness and experience in his amber colored eyes.

The second was a young woman, also elven and so similar in appearance the Vampyre assumed they were related in some way.

The third was a human male, likely in his late thirties; she had a good grasp of the pitifully short life span of the species.

The final, more alarming member of the group, wore a dark cloak over her golden armor. Her anatomy, far removed from her counterparts, perfectly matched the visual and spoken descriptions of Surthath’s Djinn.

The first, the elder, bowed low, and she replied with a slight, ever so slight, inclination of her head, “Well met, traveler. You are far from home indeed”.

“I know not what you speak.” Kogoeji-ni replied, speaking their tongue only with some difficulty, “I have no home to speak of. Neither of my palaces has ever constituted as such, nor the temple in which I was raised”.

As the male frowned thoughtfully, Kogoeji-ni grinned, taking a deeper bow, much to Sachio’s chagrin, “But well met indeed. I am Kogoeji-ni, Skraul Matriarch and sorcerer supreme, somewhat estranged daughter of Dur’Artoth the Dread Hammer. With me is my Prime, Sachio”.

"And I am Tenri, daughter to Kogoeji-ni." her daughter projected mentally, and the Vampyre winced as the strength of her sheer telepathic presence.

So did the monks, though the Djinn only flicked her long, pointed ears in consternation.

“I am Nurien.” replied the male, “Arch-Curate of this temple. Beside me is my granddaughter and senior monk, Seti, Valko, a fellow senior monk and Prince of the Outer Coast Isles, and Elurra, scion of Lord Surthath and Emissary of his realm. We greet you warmly, though your presence raises...concerns”.

She smirked at that, “Fear not, friend. I bring no word of invasion. The Empire has not yet targeted this realm. But I warn you, they soon will”.

Their expressions hardened.

Elurra’s grip tightened on a pair of slim, curving blades.

Kogoeji-ni lifted her hands in a gesture of acquiescence, “Peace. I am not here in any official capacity. In fact, I have no intention of taking part in any future offensive against the Veil”.

Scowls gave way to puzzlement, and Nurien nodded uncertainly, “Elurra tells of several worlds that have ceased any communication with Moonshadow. And Cloudvale, the home of the Orgu’Alu, who we ourselves had contact with, reported of catastrophe before its few remaining denizens went into hiding. Your words imply that these worlds are no more. These are...horrible tidings”.

“Indeed.” Kogoeji-ni replied, eyeing the Djinn, “We have received only minimal retaliation from Moonshadow, and have swept through these worlds with ease”.

Elurra scowled, “We have been aware of the resurgence of the Skraul, and we have erected formidable defenses in key areas throughout the Veil, primarily, here in Aurora, and in Carthspire. Your war will come to a grinding halt as our defenses expand to encompass neighboring realms”.

Kogoeji-ni shrugged, “I sorely doubt that. But we are veering off topic. I am here because... How do I explain? This, all my life, really, I have been subjected to a firmly held belief of my place in this verse, and have, to the best of my abilities, tried to behave accordingly. But all that has transpired...” she struggled to formulate decades of ill-understood sensations, “...has rendered me...disenfranchised. With Dur’Artoth. With the Skraul. With the war. Everything. I have been drifting through my station for years now, mired in doubt and confusion”.

She studied her hosts intently, trying to gauge their reactions, “I have spoken with one of your order, an El’Dari named Vala that was captured by my people and sold to me. Her words have led me to believe that many of my questions can be answered here, in this place as much as in Aurora in general. Many of them already have been”.

“I wish to study here.” she continued, “I wish to meditate on the answers I seek, though I do not fully know what the questions may be. I would offer my insight, my knowledge of the arcane, in return for safe haven in these lands for myself, my Prime, and my daughter. I will also allow Vala to return to you; I have a...debt, that must be paid between us. And, if possible, I would that as large a portion of my armies defect, the better to serve as a bastion against my wayward kin”.

They digested her words for a time, then spoke amongst themselves.

Several minutes passed.

She found her fingers drumming anxiously against her thigh, and stopped herself, agitated.

Tenri seemed equally nervous, her daughter’s frayed thoughts reverberating through her mindscape.

“We will...” Nurien replied with authority, “...consider your proposal. We had thought Vala to be dead, and that you offer to return her is an offering we would not take lightly. However, we demand to know if your kind plan to abduct anyone in this region in the future”.

“Among my” Kogoeji-ni replied bluntly, “But I cannot speak for my race”.

“Nor can you answer for their crimes.” Elurra conceded, her hostility diminishing, “But you will account for your own, Matriarch. When you have your answers, you will accompany me to Moonshadow and stand trial”.

“I think not.” the Vampyre said coolly, “That I have declined to participate in the war any further does not mean I will bend over to Surthath’s vaunted justice, Djinn. I am no frightened whelp to fall upon myself and offer you my belly”.

Sachio tensed, hand on his cleaver.

Elurra likewise stiffened, her eyes shifting in color from blue to red, but she shrugged, “When the time comes, we can get to that. As his offspring, you would not have been allowed any alternative but to serve him. If you indeed serve a penance in Moonshadow, it will be a lenient one. But I am also concerned as to how you intend to feed yourself here”.

Kogoeji-ni shrugged, “I have other thralls to call upon. This is a small excursion, you understand. I have no need of a large escort”. Elurra shook her head, “Unacceptable. My associate, Starseeker, will provide Vitrium for your party to consume. We have large quantities of it stockpiled as evidence and contraband from the first incarnation of your kind. You will, in turn, surrender your remaining thralls”.

Sachio snarled, “And who are you to make demands of-”

“Done.” Kogoeji-ni interrupted, silencing his protests, “I will, of course, expect an advance supply. A token of good faith, you understand”.

“Of course.” Elurra replied, and that was that.

"You have been quiet thus far..." She projected telepathically to both her consort and her heir, ”Are you at peace with this decision?” to which both answered in affirmative, though Sachio was far more hesitant in his response.

"I feel no lie in them." Tenri added, and Kogoeji-ni believed her. Her daughter’s telepathic potency was unquestionable; she could certainly read the thoughts of others on a basic level without much conscious effort, leaving no trace of her presence.

“Then it is settled. My expedition will arrive tomorrow, and you will offer each of them asylum as well. I look forward to a long and interesting alliance between us”.

“It will be a short venture, heretic...” Dekeshi snarled, materializing the moment her thrall broke off the telepathic link which had allowed them to share visual and auditory stimuli. There was more than enough evidence to seize her sister’s armies now!

Beside her, twenty highly trained arbiter soldiers assumed a wedge formation, shields leading. Each of the little mortals started, and the Djinn, the cursed spawn of Surthath, drew blades, her eyes flaring bright red.

Kogoeji-ni turned, nonplussed, Toshisha in hand.

Enshi appeared as well, and before she could gut her, the little whelp turned on Kogoeji-ni as well, shortsword angled forward and slightly down.

"How could you do this?!” she asked, horrified, “Turn from the empire? Turn from God Death?! Have you gone mad?!”

Kogoeji-ni shook her head, “It was madness to serve and end that would result in my death, in nothing but death. Join me, Enshi. Let us turn from the Dread Hammer together”.

Enshi paused, and Dekeshi could sense her uncertainty, her conflict.


But no, her expression hardened, as did her combat stance, “No, sister. There is no path save the one in the shadow of God”.

She cast her defenses into being; a curtain of dark smoke sheathing her body and concealing its exact location, a circle of translucent crystal swords that orbited her person, and a pair of hollow suits of ornamented armor, animated golems forged of thick darksteel plates.

Dekeshi, for her part, hefted her trident, Iki-o-Korosu, aloft, its head crackling with electricity.

The skies darkened, and rumbled ominously...

Vala grimaced as dozens of Skraul warriors materialized at the mouth of the cave with weapons drawn.

A cloaked figure, unarmed, stood in their midst.

“They bear Dekeshi’s standard!” snarled one of the members of the party, whose voice was met by the rasp of drawn steel.

“Desist immediately...” rasped the cloaked figure, a woman, albeit more like a corpse. She lifted her parchment-dry face to them, her green eyes piercing, and the Monk fell to her knees, terrified.

All knew the One, the Angel of Death, who peeled apart the skies and boiled the oceans. Whose touch was the void and whose voice heralded the transition between life and death.

“Grand Matriarch.” gasped a member of Kogoeji-ni’s personal guard, “You were not expected here...what is happening?”

“Treason...” Botsu replied without emotion, and Skraul and slave alike tensed.

The warriors in her midst grinned, closing fists over their own weapons.

Kogoeji-ni’s band did not, they threw their weapons to the earth; to resist the One was a fate worse than death.

The slaves cowered, eyes downcast.

Vala alone watched the proceedings.

“I will determine your judgment in time. For now, you will return immediately to Darklight.” Botsu finally concluded, earning more than one relieved sigh.

Vala, however, was not comforted. To have come so close to her home...

Though it pained her, she knew what to do.

She would have no choice but to kill her sister, Enshi, who had truly proven herself to that familial title in the decades they had conspired together.

Dekeshi would be a challenge, to be sure, but with one of the cursed Djinn on her side she had little doubt she could repel both of them.

Calling upon the raw elemental magicka suffusing her being, Kogoeji-ni compressed cooling air towards her, forming countless ice crystals that orbited her body, before compressing them further into plates that coated her armor, reinforcing it. Several thicker plates covered her face, their rib-like sections snapping together to form a closed helm.

Dekeshi struck first, disappearing and reappearing several paces forward, trident leading.

Toshisha lunged in response, trailing a coil of its segments that snagged the weapon even while thrusting for its wielder’s head.

Dekeshi, no base prey, ducked under the attack, twisting her trident free with an emitted cloud of electricity that melted gouges into the ice. She felt, albeit distantly, her weapon’s dissatisfaction at the experience, but pressed the concern that her weapon could be wounded aside and met Dekeshi’s advance.

Sachio struck as well, having used Kogoeji-ni as a visual barrier to creep into Dekeshi’s blind spot, and his cleaver dug into her shoulder, drawing blood and eliciting a pained grimace. As he pulled his sword free, Kogoeji-ni saw a glint of white bone protruding from the wound.

Dekeshi backpedalled, pointed a finger at him, and as Kogoeji-ni charged forward to intercept the attack, a single narrow line of energy smote him, bypassed her wards upon him, and propelled him backward as electricity arced through his body.

Cursing, knowing he would either be alright or...not...she charged her hated kin with a scream of purest boiling rage.

They collided; Kogoeji-ni jabbed with her open palm, all the while coiling Toshisha to thrust, and Dekeshi swung her trident with both hands like a quarterstaff. Her elbow and forearm caught the swing and displaced its momentum, sending a painful vibration all throughout the bones of her arm.

Dekeshi hissed, snapping her mouth forward to bite, twisting her arm to snap her whipblade down, and the Vampyre was forced to retreat, retaliating with a flick of her wrist and a hasty riposte. Toshisha thrust with intelligence and purpose, instinctively targeting the most difficult angle to evade.

Dekeshi gasped, but Toshisha passed right through her! She smiled a mouthful of fangs, and broke apart on impact, dispersing into a cloud of bats.

Snarling, Kogoeji-ni forced her latent magicka outward in a cloud of subzero vapor, forcing the bats away lest they latch onto her and feed. Several sported severe frost burns as they screeched and darted away, and several more dropped from the air, frozen solid.

Enshi appeared from the swarm, clawed hand outstretched, her mouth forming inaudible syllables.

Toshisha coiled about her just as Enshi completed her spell and sent the orbiting blades about her person forward in a single unified attack. They broke upon her aegis, but not before damaging Toshisha more severely. Many of its segments sported deep cracks and rents, which regenerated slowly by leeching upon her body’s supply of Vitrium.

Tenri’s voice echoed in her head, a peculiar song composed of irregular, lilting intonations and unfamiliar words, and Toshisha’s regeneration quickened, fortified by whatever spell her daughter had cast.

Enshi snarled, and rushed forward with her shortsword, the very sword that Kogoeji-ni had forged for her in their childhood.

So be it...she wouldn’t back down now...

Elurra crosscut the armor construct, beheading it. Knowing most such devices to be powered by a central core, she backed away, assuming a guard stance and targeting a spot in the stump she had just created. The monks handled the other device, striking with their bare hands but with such force that numerous deep gouges and dents marred its breastplate, and Starseeker materialized, hefting his crystal staff as his great black wings spread wide.

He pointed to the Skraul that had harried Kogoeji-ni, and the soil around her began to churn and crystallize. In seconds, she was completely obscured within a prism of reflective diamond, forged from the minute molecules of carbon native to nearly any species of soil.

“I am sorry, Sister...” Kogoeji-ni moaned despondently, her hand pressed against the prism, “But I cannot allow you to stop me”.

Elurra, for her part, spread her wings, which propelled her leap onto the construct and strengthened her momentum as she pressed both of her thinblades into a pulsating gem inside of the neck stump, splintering it on impact. Drawing its expending energies into herself, the Djinn empowered her next spell and reversed localized gravity, propelling the remaining construct into the air.

Unlike her casual variation, it did not dissipate; the construct tumbled head over heels as it soared further and further up, disappearing from sight. It would travel through the planet’s atmosphere and drift out into empty space, where it would remain until the combined radiation and extreme temperatures therein served to dismantle it.

Nodding to her allies, Elurra, Starseeker, Sachio, who seemed to have partially recovered as he hobbled forward, his armor still smoking, and Kogoeji-ni, who had given up trying to cast through the prism to kill its occupant, turned to face the final adversary...

Dekeshi snarled as she reformed, her skin coated with patches of hoarfrost. She’d lost the threads of her spell as she changed form; her thunderclouds had dispersed.

“So be it!” she snarled, cursing Enshi’s weakness and lifting her trident high, “I have more than enough power to obliterate all of you at once!”

Pressing the three barbed tips of Iki-o-Korosu into her flesh, she merged with it and assumed her true form, the single greatest expression of Dur’Artoth’s might.

Searing light buffeted her prey, and the winds stirred in protest.

New thunderheads gathered, blackening the grey skies and discharging streaks of yellow.

Her enemies faltered in their charge, and she lifted a hand that was transparent and filled with power instead of flesh.

Energy poured, flowed, gushed, from her being. Her three attackers crumbled before it. Summoned blades and ice shards hurled towards her, bypassed her attacks, and passed through her without resistance.

True to the teachings of God Death, she had shed her flesh and ascended to a higher state of being, though it was only temporary. She did not call upon the storm. For these choice moments, she was the storm.

“Kneel, whelps, to the unbridled power of the elements!” she hissed, brandishing Iki-o-Korosu’s true form, which shimmered and flowed like the tides of purest water.

Kogoeji-ni twisted Toshisha in mid-flight, and hurled it towards her body. If Dekeshi had shed her lesser form, than so would she! She spread her arms wide, head downcast like a penitent, and awaited the onrush of strength that accompanied the transformation.

It did not come...

“My dear, darling daughter...” Botsu croaked, forcing her head to snap up in horror, “What have you done?”


She saw her mother, the Angel of Death, clutching Toshisha’s tip, its resonating cloud of freezing mist stilling. As she watched, it returned to its inert form, that of a simple bone dagger.

Luminous threads of sanguine energy coiled about both Kogoeji-ni and Botsu, and spread to Sachio as well, intertwining and forming complex arrangements.

A spider web...

As the threads tightened about her body, shearing through her armor without resistance, every contingency spell on her person corroded. Every one of her protective wards faltered.

Sachio, garbed in mundane leathers, groaned as the arcane netting dug into his flesh, creating deep furrows that bled black..

Botsu seemed untroubled, if irritated, by the bindings, and looked over her shoulder, “You should develop your aim, thrall. Had I not repealed my negating aura, it would have extinguished your life energy”.

The two Djinn tensed at her motion and the words of her mother, but made no indication that they saw Botsu or the threads.

The mortal monks approached, uncertain.

“My apologies, Grand Matriarch.” echoed a sibilant, feminine voice, “Projecting my consciousness in this manner roots me to a fixed location. I did what I could from this angle.”

“Flee.” Kogoeji-ni said to them flatly, “Flee or die, all of you. It is over”.

They eyed her sidelong, confused.

Even Dekeshi ceased her attack to gloat.

Enshi’s crystal prison winked out of existence, and she approached with a despondent expression, assessing these new developments in an instant. Botsu eyed Enshi, then returned her attention to her, specifically, to her lower abdomen.

A surge of absolute terror engulfed her.

Tenri’s matched it perfectly.

Pure white light pooled in Botsu’s outstretched hand, and with a swift pass, it smote her. She heard Tenri scream in her mind, felt a surge of agonizing pain, and then nothing at all...

A ripple of heat and displaced air struck Kogoeji-ni, collapsing her. It pooled about the three Skraul, and each of them faded from sight. Elurra hurled her thinblades at the two females as they vanished.


They were gone.

Attuning her vision to the weft of magicka, she studied the lingering traces of the teleportation, trying to pinpoint its destination.


“Shit.” She cursed, casting divination after divination as Starseeker inspected the remains of the fallen Golem with the mortal monks, each of them endeavoring to infer the origins of its ore. Seconds, precious, irreplaceable seconds, passed, and she grew increasingly frustrated.

“They will have warded their constructs and slaves against scrying and other such measures.” she said to them, “They’ve done it before. We must target Kogoeji-ni specifically. She may have revoked her defenses, especially if rendered unconscious. We must locate and free her”.

Even the momentary discourse between them had shown Kogoeji-ni’s potential as an ally. And, as Surthath’s emissary, it was her sworn duty to protect the people of the Veil.

A former enemy, even a Skraul Matriarch, was no exception to this.

Concentrating as only one with the developed frontal lobe of a Djinn Arcanist was capable, Elurra pored over her extended knowledge of the arcane, communing with Starseeker and all other Djinn in the mental collective in Moonshadow, struggling to determine a solution.

A possibility came to mind.

She could target Tenri, and through her, her mother.

By her initial inspection, Elurra had placed her age via rate of gestation to roughly a month. The powers that be may not have placed such measures on her.

Ignoring the diminishing temperature as dusk passed into true night, Elurra joined with Starseeker, and cast the invocation.

And struck face-first against a hastily erected ward.

No mortal could resist them with such a brief spell. Unfortunately, the sheer might of its caster repelled them with ease. It could be none other than the Dread Hammer himself.

A blanket of darkness manifested in their midst, and Elurra gasped as pulses of shadow magicka putrefied the soil and air about her. She spared her protections, and passed them to the Starborn Monks, who had nearly retreated into their sanctuary at her behest. Her skin sloughed off, her armor blackened, and a fragment of her raw essence was pulled away from her body.

Before her heart stopped beating, she felt the attack weaken, felt the negative energies constituting The Pact minimize and then equalize the spell, dissipating it harmlessly.

Her heart resumed beating, irregularly at first, but with increasing confidence. She sighed as her flesh regenerated, as the dead muscle and skin was pushed away from the new, healthy tissue. She tossed aside her ruined armor, nude but very much alive, and eyed her fellow, who fared little better.

His expression was equally sullen.

That was it, then. The Dread Hammer had reclaimed his own.

“Where did you go, Kogoeji-ni?” Elurra asked, short of breath, “Where did you go?”

Sachio felt every muscle in his body stiffen.

In a surge of panic, he found himself unable to move, petrified mid-crouch over his mistress’ prone form.

She did not move...was she dead? Was Tenri...?

“No, and yes...” Botsu whispered to him, “And you may very well follow suit. But I have no need for your head at this time. You will rejoin the other primes of Kogoeji-ni in Morthusk and await your reassignment”.


"No!" he thought, but could not say, ”I will not-"

“Yes, you will!” the Angel of Death snarled, “Be gone from my sight, weakling. Contemplate your future. I will see to Kogoeji-ni...”

Enshi drummed her fingers against her thighs as she stood at attendance, in the halls of her childhood home.

It offered no comfort.

Six of the eight Matriarchs were assembled. Plots and counter-plots were whispered hastily, alliances were brokered or denied, requests ignored or mocked outright.

Mother had called for this conference three days after their return to Darklight, and Enshi knew precisely why.


Despite her genuine desire to, she had never understood her sister. Perhaps if she had, she could have anticipated and prevented this.



Kogoeji-ni had abandoned the campaign, taking with her the most powerful being in the Empire. Worse, it was this being, this heir, that had proven her undoing, that had inspired this heresy.

So be it... It was done.

Enshi had felt that life force extinguish days ago, when Botsu had struck Kogoeji-ni down with her power. Her sister would be fortunate if her body could still conceive, even more so if the Grand Matriarch chose to pardon her.

If the source of the rebellion was quelled...and Kogoeji-ni was repentant, then perhaps...

Her fists balled.

She found that she was grinding her pointed teeth, but stopped, noticing Mother’s scrutiny. She refused to give the caustic bitch the satisfaction.

She didn’t want Kogoeji-ni to die.

And now she would likely die...if she had not already, and Enshi would be without an ally.

Botsu cleared her throat, which sounded something like sanded parchment scraping against itself.

The hall quieted.

“We stand here, on this day...” Botsu wheezed, held upright only with the assistance of a cane, “To bear witness to the accused, and to implement her punishment. Bring forth the accused”.

Dekeshi acted on cue, and ordered the slave-borne litter to push forward.

The double-doors of the inner sanctum parted wide, and all eyes turned to the spectacle. Some brightened with hunger, others with surprise.

Only one person looked disquieted.

Kogoeji-ni, or what was left of her, was held upright in a closed metal framework, her wrists shackled over her head. The weakling had, in this moment, become the greatest masterpiece Dekeshi had ever managed.

She had found a purpose at last.

Her wrists were heavily lacerated, puffy black bruises swelling the areas around the cuts. She’d put up a fight, even barely conscious. Lashes covered her body from head to toe, forming an intricate network that Dekeshi had pioneered specifically for her individual anatomy. She’d been careful to cross every nerve cluster and probe every pressure point in her body, inflicting the greatest amount of pain without slicing open an artery and allowing for a quick death.

Accompanied by the whip, she’d used small nails to further target these areas, all of which were still embedded. They formed little constellations along her limbs, with larger, almost dagger-length specimens between her ribs and lining her intestines. Pulling even one of them outside of the correct order would disembowel her.

Dekeshi had also allowed her slaves to enjoy her sister; her delicate areas were swollen and inflamed, a little remnant of their attentions flowing in a bloody stream down her legs.

Her hair had been shaved off; her proud windblown tresses dotting the floor of her cage. The smell was abominable; blood, rot, and excrement, all intertwined and aged during her period of captivity.

It was wondrous.

“This is unacceptable!” Enshi snapped, shadows lengthening about her, “Traitor or not, we don’t even treat thralls like this! Kill her and be done with it or release her, now!”

Botsu’s expression hardened with disgust, but she offered no protest.

It seemed that her daughter had taken after her more than she had initially realized.

Her weakness.

Her sentimentality.

And all of that had bled away, leaving a broken husk before her eyes.

Oh yes, Kogoeji-ni had managed a perfect duplication to her own existence. And now, if she survived, all of that petty sentimentality would measure only as a dim spark against the raw fury of her hatred.

She would be more useful to the empire like this, perhaps. Kogoeji-ni stirred...

She drifted in and out of a fugue of agonizing pain.

She remembered weeping, though for how long, or how long ago it was, she couldn’t say. She remembered Dekeshi’s laughter, her own screams.

Then, darkness, so deep that even she could not pierce it.


“You awaken, my child...”

Now, at last, she knew it would end.

This worthless, miserable existence would end.

She knew Tenri was dead. She knew she had failed her. The single accomplishment that would have justified her life...and she’d failed to see it through. Her daughter. Her beautiful daughter...

“I’m disappointed in you.” Botsu continued, circling around her, “This defiance, this betrayal, inspired by your weakness. You have never learned of the falseness of love, not until now, so for this, I am forgiving”.

The last statement was not without irony.

“I am not.” Dekeshi mused, mirth bubbling up on every syllable, “I say she needs another night of my attentions.”

Now that she saw more clearly, Kogoeji-ni realized she was in the sanctuary that she had begun her life, in the shrine of Dur’Artoth.

Father was not present, but the brood was.

Eight pairs of familiar eyes bored into her, and a ninth she did not recognize.

“We should kill her.” Enshi noted dryly, “She isn’t even coherent”.

“No.” Botsu snapped, her eyes merciless. Then, to her, “You have been tried and found guilty of treason against the empire and the brood. Your heritage is forfeit. I strip from you your identity as Kogoeji-ni. I strip from you a sizable modicum of your powers; you will never again bond with Toshisha and summon your true form. I strip from you your womb; never again will you bear offspring”.

She wept, horrified, but her mother’s face was impassive, merciless, “And I strip from you your freedom. You are no more than a thrall, and thus, it is fitting that I shape you to better resemble your station. Sleep, slave. When you awaken, your face will be one that you will not recognize...”

Minutes passed. Botsu’s corrosive energy washed over her sister. Then, it was done.

Enshi looked upon the result of Botsu’s magicka, and couldn’t hide her grimace.

Kogoeji-ni was insensate, moaning as she drifted between wakefulness and unconsciousness. For this, the Matriarch was thankful.

Her sister was mutilated; her stark, imperial features obliterated, leaving an obvious insult towards Enshi’s own round, cherubic face. Her body had shortened and rounded, another such insult towards Enshi’s figure. Her ears were shortened, though a remnant of their original pointed tips were still present. Her eyes, once blank orbs, were now a grey-blue, featuring black pupils. Short tusks jutted from her overextended lower jaw.

She looked like an Orgu’Alu; a mortal race conquered by Karoshi and serving as war fodder for the empire.

“Interesting...” Dekeshi mused, scratching her chin, “I have a greater urge to play with her now. Can I take her back for some...ahem, private interactions?”

“No.” Botsu replied, her voice raspy, “Uejini, you can await my tribute in Baleblood. As for the rest of gone. I care not where”.

“Well enough.” Dekeshi conceded, turning away and slipping into a hastily drawn portal, “I’m returning to the front. Send the bitch with Uejini to the wastes if you must, but I will have my time with her soon enough”.

With that, the others departed, save her and Botsu.

“All this time...” Botsu said coolly, eyeing her with unmitigated hostility, “I thought it would be you I would visit this punishment upon. Your weakness is infectious, it seems”.

Enshi scowled, tightening her grip on Musekaeru. “You speak unjustly, Mother.” she replied calmly, “Here I stand with an army of Alaae at my beck and call, and a fleet to rival Dekeshi’s. I could use her too, however”.

Botsu shook her head, “She will go to Uejini, my promised aid to her. But first, she must prove her right to exist. I have exactly the task in mind”.

“I could use her...” Enshi insisted, earning a mildly surprised look from her mother, “When the Silkrit are dead or turned I want you to give her to me. I would use her talents”.

“We will see...” Botsu replied disinterestedly, gazing back to what remained of Kogoeji-ni, “Remember that she is not your sister, not anymore. If I send her to Dekeshi instead, you will lose little”.

Nodding, for it was suicide to disagree with the Grand Matriarch further, Enshi dared to ask, “Who will take her place?” to which Botsu grinned, “A Matriarch becomes a seems only fair that a thrall becomes a Matriarch. Tali, if you please”.

Turning with a hiss, Enshi watched...something...approach them. It appeared no more than a muted shadow, but bright amber eyes burned in its depths. A network of blood-red threads surrounded it.

“A field of intangibility?” she mused, though her blood boiled, “So that was how you infiltrated Kogoeji-ni’s court. You slithered right into her palace”.

The shadow nodded, and took on physical form. Enshi snarled, Musekaeru nearly free of its scabbard before an invisible hand closed around hers, cold as the grave.

“You would make this...lesser creature, a Matriarch?!” she gasped, horrified, and Botsu nodded, eyeing the slave, “Ease, Tali. Your defection is noted, and appreciated, and you have served well. I name you...Senbotsu, a form of death that matches your fighting technique. You will have your army in time. For now, I bequeath to you this thrall’s former possessions, save those that will be...damaged, in the coming day. Dismissed. And you as well, Enshi.”

Day turned to dusk.

One departed from the sanctuary long after the rest, armed and armored, a single command burning in her mind.

Pain and despair washed through her in palpable waves, drifted from her shoulders like a choking miasma.

But beside them was hatred, hatred without form or focus, hatred that demanded violence. Violence she was now all too happy to commit, even had she not been enspelled by the one she’d come to hate the most, save herself.

She travelled through the portal awaiting her, to her throne room. With a silent mental command, she began to call upon those of the court that were not present.

Then, she began to kill...

Sachio heard his lady’s call.

All of the primes did, and each of them eyed each other with visible apprehension.

Kogoeji-ni; only she had the power to contact them through their Blood-Forged Enchantments. She’d returned...alive.

That could only mean she escaped the other Matriarchs and was preparing a coup, or that she’d been punished, but spared.

“About damn time.” Baku mused with a sly grin, “Whether she returned with or without the approval of the matriarchy, things are about to get interesting, and potentially very profitable”.

That was it, then. Tenri was gone and all would be as it’d been before. He endeavored to forget the sun, forget everything he’d learned in recent days. It was what he would need to do in order to not go mad.

Forming a triangle, Sachio tapped into the Vitrium in his body, and cast a true spell of Blood Magicka, one that would teleport them to the palace. He felt the pooling energies rebound and amplify off of Nagaharu and Baku, their combined effort increasing the potency of the spell and decreasing the amount of blood consumed in the casting.

A flash of light, a rush of heat, the nauseating displacement of air and space, and they were at their destination, blinking in bewilderment and unease.

The palace of Darklight was in ruins.

The floors of the main hall lay blackened, the statues and murals and windows shattered or missing, the bodies of butchered slaves piled high.

Blood slicked every flat surface.

The throne was cloven in twain, its banners aflame. A small figure stood beside the table, kneeling down to a prone slave. Each of the primes approached, weapons drawn. Sachio paused, when he saw the familiar head of Toshisha peak through the figure’s cloak. He grinned, expecting his lady to be in a foul mood now that they culled her cattle, but grimaced, as he noticed Toshisha was covered in blood.


The figure rose, the tip of her index finger coated in blood. Beneath her, was the body of Vala, the Elven slave she favored.

Kogoeji-ni pressed her finger against her forehead, turning her head towards them. Sachio gaped, disbelieving, at the face of an Orgu’Alu, lower fangs gleaming, a red dot of blood marking her brow, between and above the eyes.

“Who are you?!” he demanded, raising his weapon. The Orgu’Alu exhaled, her breath a cloud of frost, “I am no one”.

Her voice was Kogoeji-ni’s...

Baku snarled, but ere he called down a single spell, Toshisha buried itself to the hilt in his chest, and as Kogoeji-ni retracted her baleful weapon, its pronged edges carried with them the Prime’s still-beating heart, dashing it upon the floor. Nagaharu drew his rapier, and left with no recourse, Sachio readied his cleaver, advancing upon their mistress.

“What has happened to you, milady. What have they done?” he asked, heartbroken, reading her expression.

There was nothing.

A hole.

A void.

An impenetrable darkness.

“What happened to our daughter?” he dared, and grimaced as tears marked her otherwise impassive features.

She charged them, her muffled footpads carrying her without a sound. Sachio conjured a swarm of constructs animated by shadow magicka, manifesting as a flight of carnivorous bats. Nagaharu waved his rapier, and columns of blinding light engulfed her, forming an intricate maze to hopefully break her concentration.

Finally, the fool seemed to be using his brain...

Kogoeji-ni snarled, her eyes wild, lunging from the light columns with a sheet of freezing air clinging to her like torpid mist. His bats latched onto her, and bit deep, but they quickly frosted over and detached, shattering as they struck the floor.

“Again, Nagaharu!” he snapped, casting the direction inversion of his Blood-Forged Enchantment. Again, the space around Kogoeji-ni erupted in light.

“Desist, milady!” Sachio shouted above the din, “Let us aid you. We are your servants!”

The Matriarch shrieked, pain and hatred boiling from her voice, laced with magicka, and the enchantments surrounding her dissipated. Sachio ducked, rolled, and found his feet, Toshisha already coiling to strike again directly above him. He parried with Torikomichu, its bulk also serving as an aegis to prevent its sharp prongs from grazing him.

Nagaharu reached her first, his rapier thrusting forward. Toshisha retracted almost instantly, but as it circled to enclose his sword, he demonstrated genuine brilliance, and moved his momentum into his other hand, which had drawn a slim dirk.

The knife buried into her clavicle, grinding against her shoulder blade, just too high to pierce the heart. Kogoeji-ni grunted, as did Nagaharu, who pulled back a pale, icy hand. She shrieked again, and a wave of cold so intense that even Sachio felt it engulfed Nagaharu. As the Matriarch butted heads, his face, nearly frozen solid, cracked, his nose splitting.

Dark blood oozed from the wounds.

Sachio met them with his charge, and swung his cleaver low, towards the base of her spine. If he could paralyze her, even temporarily...

Toshisha shot over her shoulder, all the while coiling around Nagaharu like a serpent. It rebounded off of Torikomichu; he twisted the blade so its edge faced the ground, and pushed outward, slapping Toshisha aside. It buried into the ground tip-first, and he kicked the back of her left kneecap.

Nagaharu struggled still, though his face was a ruin, his eyes blank and unseeing. Toshisha dug into his flesh, freezing as it did.

Kogoeji-ni fell to a knee, twisted, and elbowed him. Instead of striking his solar plexus, it glanced off his forearm.

Nagaharu gasped, then went very still, his entire body frosted over.

Bellowing his rage, Sachio found his footing, took Torikomichu in an executioner’s grip, and swung, aiming to kill rather than maim. There was nothing else he could do.

Kogoeji-ni shrieked a third time, and his eardrums split. Hoarfrost filled his mouth. He wavered, his sword slack. She dropped Toshisha, caught his sword arm, and pressed it out wide. She kicked him, hard, and he fell back, just in time to see Toshisha lift of its own accord, encircle his head, and press home.

He shared a look with his mistress, felt an amount of pain, regret, and unspoken words equal to what he saw in those moist, mortal eyes, and he exhaled one final time.

Sachio’s head fell to the ground, moments before the rest of him.

She stared at him, in disbelief, before she heard an agonized moan.

She scanned the room, checking the ruined bodies of her servitors for signs of life. Then, she realized she was the one making it.

Her hatred bled away. All that remained was emptiness.

"Well done..." Botsu said in toneless praise, and the sneering triumph of all her sisters, save one, washed over her through a telepathic connection. ”You have gained your right to exist, slave. Forget your role as Matriarch. Forget your life as a daughter of the brood. You are reborn as a lesser being, and so, you inherit a lesser name. Choose wisely. Be known now as a minor Broodlord of no great title other than that which we pass to you“.

"You will be our instrument." Ranshi added, her voice rich with haughty authority, ”You will be our weapon of terror to cull the weak among our race; those who, like you, sought joy in the arms of others, those who embraced the deception of love“.

"Those who wonder of a higher purpose other than the wishes of Dur’Artoth or the greed in their own hearts." Botsu continued, ”Those who, like you, feel the offense of hope. You will visit your despair on all who prove themselves victims of similar failings“.

"You will be our tool." Dekeshi whispered with mirth, ”You will be the darkness that orders the empire, that all will tremble at your approach. Your path will be of blood, and pain.”

"You will be our darkness." Said Enshi, despondent, ”You will be our spy, our infiltrator, our warrior, our agent. You will be our talons, our claws, the bloodied dagger in our iron fist. Our Black Hand.”

"And rejoice." a new voice echoed tonelessly, ”For in the centuries to pass you will forget all you have loved, all that has condemned you to this fate. You will fade away, until all that remains is what we wish of you, and when all the worlds lay in ruin, death will find you, and you will become nothing at all."

A name occurred to her.

And in this, Vala witnessed the final truth.

She’d been right all along in seeking to defy the Matriarchy, in defying the empire.

It proved to be little comfort.

A sheet of pristine darkness coalesced in the throne room, a portal to wherever they would send her next.

Looking back upon all that had been her domain, there was little to leave behind now.

She eyed Sachio, considered Tenri.

Had it been worth it...all this pain, all this loss, for the few moments beside them?

Eyes blurred with tears, she turned and stepped through the portal with her answer.

Marked upon her face was a grim, weary smile.

Surthath closed his eyes, glistening with tears.

He knew it would be raining outside.

It always rained in Moonshadow when he was upset.

All was as it would be, then. Tenri had fulfilled her task, and he now had an inactive asset within his brother’s regime. In time, he would activate that asset, and she would deliver to him the Second, and perhaps the Fourth.

For now, he left a mother to grieve.

Rising to his feet, a tightly wrapped bundle in his arms, the Old One readied no spell. He simply willed himself into this new location, that of a lonely temple in the plains west of ruined Augur, a civilization his brother had nearly destroyed in his ruthless quest to enable the summoning of the Heart of Darkness, an artifact now lost to time.

The temple had been devoted to Anima once, the Old One of Life, before her self-sacrifice to the Heart for the sake of all the races of the Veil.

Her symbol; a tree contained within a circle of will, had once plastered nearly every object in the chamber, but after the goddess’ demise, her followers, her human followers, had abandoned the temple, their faith damaged beyond repair.

But they had taken much of the iconography with them, as a reminder, no doubt, of all that had been lost.

Lost, but perhaps to be found again...

He looked down into the bright blue eyes of a babe, a human infant, a female.

“When you come of age, my dear...” he said sadly, restricting his divine aura lest it warp her developing mind, “You will remember this place, and seek it out. You will make it your own, and here you will serve as my Seer, as you have my Prophet. Here, you will guide the Five of my prophecy, and, when the time comes, provide their final test. All that we have done, and will do, has been for the sole purpose of leading you to that moment. You, my dear, are the final key in all we’ve hoped to achieve. Complete our work, Tenri. I will do what I can for you, and for your mother. I promise.”

The babe smiled, oblivious, and Surthath smiled, stroking her cheek.

All things, in due time...

To be continued in the first issue of the Enchanter’s Trilogy, The Path in the Shadow

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