Log in

No account? Create an account
04 January 2009 @ 08:27 pm
Ultima ratio regum - The final argument of kings (1 of 3)  
Part 1 of 3. Ultima ratio regum - The final argument of kings
Authors: immortal_reaver, serpentnine
Characters: Raziel, Kain, some OCs
Rating: PG-13 for vampires being vampires, and humans suffering the consequences--gore, blood.  Angst.

Takes place a few months after this

Not sure if anyone's reading these, but since no one's begged me to stop, I guess I'll keep posting...

A young Kain and an elder Raziel revisit Nosgoth once again--but now they have arrived in a different and more dangerous time. They begin their search for the Hylden, but a strange malaise is affecting Kain, once that he doesn't want Raziel to know about ....

Kain was unutterably furious.

Even as his fangs slowly grew in, the exhaustion that dogged his steps heightened. He battled it by taking ruthless advantage of the chaos in the wake of April first, overtaking beleaguered businesses, marshalling the remaining placeholders to more efficiently extend his influence. In the blasted remains of one of Haven’s two news syndicates -- Kain had wanted a media outlet; now he had one -- he found the printing press plates for the newspapers that would have been circulated on the date of the fallen stars. The first of April was a fool’s day, a day for jests -- which explained very well the Powers’ intent.

And despite his rage at the perpetrated injustices, his forced and constant activity, Kain wanted more than anything to simply coil up someplace tight, someplace undisturbed.

There was no such place here, of course -- not in the city, where every alien sound and scent grated; not in the wild where monsters of strange ilk prowled, where the fragile fabric of reality was worn thin and crackling in great devastated swaths. The world felt ephemeral to him. So too did the placeholders and their vitae -- their blood was never precisely satisfying in the first place, and as the days passed it seemed to become less so. The hunger became a constant thing, as if Kain were somehow wounded, though his body was whole.

Something must have happened, Kain realized -- something to poison him, or perhaps the placeholders upon which he fed. Perhaps this was a further joke authored by the Powers, or evidence of their disregard for the creatures nominally under their care. He considered seeking Count D; the nature Kami might know something of the contamination from which Kain suffered. And yet the thought of approaching that numinous being in a state of anything less than prideful strength was... repugnant. And, Kain felt, dangerous. The wild could be a fickle nurturer of wounded things.

His eyeteeth were not yet fully grown in, and yet Kain could no longer pen Raziel in request of further delay. Whatever hidden element Kain required was not to be found within Haven. Even at the risk of the elder discovering what had happened, even with the suspicion that this persistent exhaustion might be harbinger of his demise, Kain ached to return home.

And so Kain stood, upon the agreed date, outside the dusty doors of the Powers’ warehouse. Squinting with the lingering brightness of the slowly sinking sun, he awaited Raziel’s arrival.

It took some time; and when Raziel did arrive, it was not from the air, as was his normal wont, but on foot. The effects of his healing of Sanzo were still apparent; haggard and drawn, he walked slowly and deliberately, as if the placement of his feet upon the pavement was uncertain. Raziel knew how he looked—knew Kain’s likely reaction to it as well. But he had little choice, despite his wish to preserve his pride; days had passed since being reduced to this state, and none of the hunting he had done here had healed him or assuaged the empty, gnawing ache in his soul.

He needed to go back to Nosgoth as much as Kain did, perhaps more—and if it had not been for his promise to his sire, he would have already done just that.

“Kain,” he said in simple greeting, once he was close enough.

Such was the depth of Kain’s self-centered concern that his first notice of the elder’s arrival was the scuff of edged chitin against the road’s rough black surface. The elder had approached him from behind, must have concealed to some degree the sheer presence of his aura -- was it some trick, or were Kain’s senses muted to such a degree? Irritated, Kain snarled, turned. “Raziel. What has...” delayed you so? he began, and then his gaze fell upon the winged vampire.

Raziel looked... haggard, ravaged. The armor across the elder’s shoulders fit him poorly; supporting muscle had wasted away. His exposed belly and flanks were sunken, the delicate and slightly inhuman arches of his ribs were clearly visible beneath skin that seemed thin and faintly corpse-blue. Kain sucked in a breath, eyes wide. “What has befallen you?” he demanded.

Raziel had given a great deal of thought to what he would say, knowing that Kain would undoubtedly demand explanations—but even so, he found himself at a loss for a ready answer. He did not want to lie to his sire; but he could not in conscience tell *this* Kain the entirety of the truth, either.

Instead he summoned up a wry, sardonic attempt at a smile as he said, “An injury of my own making, I am afraid. I ... overestimated my abilities, and it has taken its toll. Once we have returned to Nosgoth, I should be able to hunt properly and recover.”

Or so he hoped. There was always the niggling fear, well buried, that perhaps this condition might be permanent, no matter how many souls he devoured—that Sanzo’s purification demanded the unalterable sacrifice of a portion of his power and flesh.

Kain’s eyes narrowed as he stalked towards Raziel. Kain’s exhaustion had not affected his posture or his gait; he would not permit it to. “What overestimation?” he pressed, for he could not in truth envisage a hazard that would weaken a creature such as Raziel so -- not unless the elder had pitted himself against, perhaps, Haven itself. Had the devastation of April first been symptomatic of some larger battle? “This place is poison, agreed,” Kain growled, reaching to bring fingertips to Raziel’s skin, “but what malignancy could have touched you so?”

“It is less a malignancy than an ... imbalance,” Raziel admitted slowly, his back straight as he suffered Kain’s touch. “One that I cannot rectify here, with only placeholders to feed upon.”

The skin beneath Kain’s fingertips was cool -- cooler than his own, -- and too dry, almost papery. The subdermal armor beneath the surface was intact, but gave a little beneath Kain’s touch, the supporting tissue melted away by whatever imbalance Raziel had suffered. Imbalance -- such a simple elucidation for such apparent damage; it could not be the sole explanation. Kain thought on offering his own wrist, but if a poison had gathered in his veins, what would it do to Raziel in this weakened state? Kain snarled, withdrawing his hand, and circled to Raziel’s left, eyes flicking over further evidence of physical depletion. “What imbalance?” Kain demanded. “Was it a foe of flesh and blood? A Power? Raziel, what has happened?”

Somewhat ruefully, Raziel realized that he had been foolish to believe that Kain would accept such feeble explanations, even for an instant. He closed his eyes, bowing his head for a moment—then opened them again. As Kain once again circled in front of him, he held out his hand—talons touching lightly against the younger vampire’s jaw in a gesture that was almost ... entreating.

“It is ... an effect of the contagion in our world,” he admitted quietly, holding Kain’s gaze with his own. “Do not ask for me to say more ... I cannot, for reasons that you have yet to discover.”

The Taint -- the solution for which, Kain knew, involved Raziel to some measure. Nosgoth’s corruption had been at the forefront of Kain’s mind for some time, betwixt Sanzo’s susceptibility and Vorador’s assurances that spreading the taint to others should be well-neigh impossible. Except, of course, that it had happened anyway. Kain’s eyes widened. “Did I...” but no, how could he have passed the Taint to Raziel? The elder was surely already afflicted, having been born after Nupraptor’s corruption despoiled the land. And the Taint was an insidious thing; it did not produce the ravages that Raziel had so clearly suffered. So far as Kain was aware.

Kain pulled back, abruptly remembering why he did not care to have Raziel’s attention turned to his face -- at least, not for the next few weeks. He folded his arms, growling a low rumble. “I will have answers, Raziel, by your will or no.” The timestream could very well go hang, if Kain’s foreknowledge might prevent this from happening to Raziel again. “But I will have them after you have taken finer prey than placeholders.” Quite the pair they two would make, to be certain. But Kain knew just the village -- not far from the place they’d last entered Nosgoth, and sorely lacking in defenses.

Raziel raised his eyebrows at that statement, but did not bother to argue it. Not here and now, with weariness dragging at every fibre of his being—or so it seemed. “Very well. Shall we continue, then, before a new disaster finds a way to dog our footsteps?” He moved towards the door of the warehouse, head up and back straight as if to belie the nature of his appearance.

“This realm does seem to harbor more than its share of calamity,” Kain agreed, watching closely the deliberateness of Raziel’s gait. It did not seem as if Kain would need to bring stunned or bound prey to Raziel, though -- Kain idly checked the contents of a dimensional pocket as he pressed the button to summon the sub-Power to the door -- he had rope enough to do so if necessary.

Makube-X took nearly a minute to arrive, and seemed harried when he did. The warehouse was in greater disarray than Kain recalled; more portals were marked by red lights, and great piles of cargo were stacked haphazardly. Kain found himself speculating as to the palatability of the sub-Power as the two vampires were lead once more to the portal to Nosgoth. The boy was small, to be sure, but his wariness as Kain eyed him was quite... delicious. If consuming the humans of Nosgoth could restore Raziel -- and, Kain hoped, himself as well -- how much better would be the lifeblood of a Power, even a minor one?

And then the doorway to Nosgoth cleared, and a stray breeze flooded the walkway with the scents of night and recent rain and woodsmoke. Distracted from his appraisal of the young human, Kain passed one of the small blue pendants to Raziel, and started for the opening.

Home ... The sights and scents tugged at Raziel like a lodestone, the gnawing need he had lived with for the last ten days becoming sharper, fiercer at the sight of Nosgoth. His power had its origins on that world, tainted as it was, and broken ... and now it urged him to return.

Almost blind to Makubex’s presence, Raziel followed Kain through the portal without hesitation. The wrenching and disorientation that accompanied it were familiar now, if not particularly welcoming, and once Raziel had set foot onto the grassy sod, he reached down, curling fingers into the loam and breathing deep. Woodsmoke, forest and animal life ... and distantly, the scent of human habitation—mud and shit, sweat and blood and iron. He raised his head, turning unerringly in the direction of the scent. “Our prey is not far ...”

Returning to Nosgoth was, for Kain, akin to recovering a lost limb. Core-deep webs of connection and feedback he sensed but only vaguely understood linked into place, a union so deep he could taste it in his mouth and feel it in his soul. For a moment, the sensation of unification overcame even the nausea of crossing so much space and time. Kain cleared his lungs of Haven’s empty air and filled them with scents so real they seemed like colors. Deep black earth, bright blue water that clung to every blade of autumn-gold grass.

And virulent green. Kain staggered a little, hoping that the lingering disorientation was a product of the portal, not his own growing weakness. Green. It was not a scent, not exactly, just... something at the distant fringe of his senses. And for the briefest moment, he did not want to lead Raziel towards it -- but then the breeze brought him the raw sweet sweat of human exertion, the spices and fires of a farmers’ autumnal festival, and there was no thought of controlling the rising flood of hunger. Kain smiled savagely. “Not far, indeed,” he grated, breaking into an easy lope.

Raziel rose to his feet and followed, the anticipation of the hunt pushing back his weakness and lethargy and lending new strength to his limbs. The grassy knoll that they had arrived upon dipped down, and soon they were among trees once more. It slowed their progress—but not by much, given that both Kain and Raziel were experienced woodsmen, and easily avoided the bracken and bogs that lay in wait among the shadows.

They continued that way for sometime, letting scent guide them unerringly to the village beyond the forest, until the trees began to thin once more and the first outbuildings could be seen.

The village was small, and rudely made in the way of most peasant dwellings. Most of the buildings were made of wood, with shingles instead of thatched straw as the only luxury. The village-dwellers had done their best to brighten them with such ornaments as they could make, to celebrate their harvest—braided sheaves of wheat, and bright berries on strings. One trickling stream meandered through the middle of the village, and a bonfire crackled in the center square. Neither would prove a barrier to either of them.

Raziel paused in the shadows of the trees, watching. Assessing the nature of his prey. He saw no soldiers, nor weapons at the ready—just the crude implements of farming.

A handful of peasants yet wandered the square, keeping close to the fire for warmth as the night air cooled. But there were more than half a dozen wooden houses arrayed around the central clearing; that meant there should be forty or more inhabitants. At least some of the peasants must lay abed, though at this distance, Kain could not detect any heartbeats from within the buildings. Kain crouched beside Raziel, eyes narrowed. As much as Kain enjoyed a rousing fight, the thrill of instigating a panic, hunger took precedence over sport. “The slumbering first,” he murmured into Raziel’s ear, with a small gesture at the closest of the wooden buildings. “Have you a hooded cloak?” Provided they did not expose the pallor of bared skin, both vampires might simply walk into any of the darkened bunkhouses without question.

Raziel shook his head. “I do not think I will need one,” he said with a confidence born of experience. Lacking Kain’s innate gifts of disguise, Raziel had long ago perfected his ability at stealth—especially when it came to hunting. “There are no guards here, nor sentries. Only a few tired and drunken peasants to contend with.”

Kain paused a moment, then nodded. Even in emaciated condition, Raziel had been silent as death itself as they had moved through the thick forest -- Raziel’s lesser weight and exceptional familiarity with stealth made him far quieter even than Kain. And the bondsmen yet awake at this hour would be quite nightblind, clustered as they were near the fire.

Crouched low, Kain circled behind the closest of the tight-clustered buildings, expecting Raziel to follow. At the corner, he paused a moment, concentrating on the magic to alter his visage into a more human form. The effort left him faintly nauseous for a moment, and he steadied himself against the rough-hewn wooden wall for the space of a breath, waiting for his senses to clear. Motioning Raziel to stay hidden a moment, Kain stood and, with deceptive calm, strolled around to the front, adjusting a cloak about himself as if to shake off the nonexistent evidence of recent rain.

The door opened to Kain’s touch, and the scents of humans living in close company -- sweet and rank and beckoning by turns -- wafted on body-warmed air. A double-handful of bunks lined the walls, many of them occupied. Movement turned Kain’s head as he stepped quietly within. A young woman, just to one side of the door, was collecting scattered bottles and mugs into a woven basket. “Oh!” she looked up. “Who are...?”

Kain laid a finger to his lips. “Travelers, from distant Coorhagen,” he murmured with a nod to the sleeping figures, as he genteelly reached to take the basket from her nervous hands.

“Travelers?” she said more quietly, letting Kain take the weight of her burden, but not entirely surrendering it. “I don’t...”

Kain met the human’s eyes and ripped her mind away. The earthenware in the basket clinked softly as she slumped against the wall, but held securely in Kain’s grasp, the basket did not fall. Kain set it quietly on the ground, then leaned out and gestured Raziel around.

Raziel slipped from the shadows, wings folded tight to his back. His pale skin and red shoulder-cape should have betrayed his location to any who cared to look, but they did not; he knew well that the human eye, like most creatures’, was attracted to movement over shape or color, and adjusted his movements accordingly.

Giving Kain a nod, he left the younger vampire to his prey and moved silently to the nearest bunk, booted feet making no sound upon the weathered floorboards. The man who occupied it had a face slack with sleep and drink, his pungent breath buzzing unpleasantly through nose and mouth. None of that deterred Raziel, and he bent over the man. The kill was quick—a cut across the windpipe, and then he wrapped his palm over the man’s mouth to stifle the inevitable gurgles and wheezing moans. Pulling the man’s head to one side, Raziel bit deep into the jugular, sacrificing the blood that spilled out too fast for him to drink in favor of a speedy meal. Within moments the man had bled out. Raziel straightened from the new-made corpse, wiping the back of a gauntleted hand against his bloodstained mouth.

Kain realized soon enough that his own prey was of slightly different ilk than the commoner laborers. She was marginally cleaner, and perhaps a little better nourished than was average for a peasant. A poor merchant’s daughter, mayhaps, not that she could be questioned -- her wide-staring eyes held nothing more than mindless fear. Clasping a hand over the human’s mouth to stifle any whimpering, Kain lapped a stripe up her throat, found the pulse, and bit.

Kain’s eyeteeth were far from long enough to rip out the woman’s throat in a single bite; they only just pierced through to the artery. The comparatively small injury alone kept him from devouring the human swiftly -- she was young, vital, and quite delicious. A few hasty, glutinous mouthfuls, and Kain drew back a moment, pressing two fingers over the punctures. “Ah, Raziel,” he whispered, barely a breath of sound. “A most delicate chaser, this -- do try some.” Returning his mouth to the wounds he’d made, Kain tilted his captive’s head to expose the other side of her throat.

Eyes gleaming gold in the shadows, Raziel readily accepted Kain’s invitation. While he would not have imposed himself upon Kain’s kill otherwise, he certainly would not pass up the opportunity to taste the girl’s blood.

He sank to one knee once there, bracketing the girl’s body between his own and Kain’s rough embrace. The girl was already half-dead, eyes fluttering in a swoon and unable to resist as Raziel laid first lips, then teeth into the soft flesh of her throat, and drank deep. Her blood was immensely satisfying, as Kain had promised; it did not have the powerful kick of vampire blood, nor any potency of magic within, but was entirely human, fresh and hotly alive.

The human’s heart sped to pounding rhythm as her body struggled to maintain blood pressure in emptying arteries -- the response only delivered the fluid to the vampires faster. Soft, gasping breaths slowed and then stopped altogether; the heart beat erratically a few moments longer. At last, Kain drew back, lapping regretfully over the wounds and then licking his lips clean. Humans never seemed to last long enough.

But at least there were others to be had. It would be a shame to wash the fine taste of the woman’s blood from his mouth, but under the circumstances, aesthetics gave way to need. Kain rose from the dying body and stalked past a few of the bunks, passing over the first grizzled peasant in favor of a younger man. Kain did typically make some attempt to avoid devouring children or women of bearing age -- not out of mercy, but because the first could provide more nourishment if permitted to age some, and the second were more useful as breeders -- but stripling males were fair game in his estimation. Hand clamped over this one’s mouth, Kain pinned the youth beneath his weight, slit the throat with his claws, and ducked his head to drink.

Raziel dallied a moment as Kain relinquished his grasp on the girl, lowering her body to the dusty floor. Bending, he lapped up a few remaining trickles of blood from the cooling skin, then brushed a palm over the waxen face and straightened once more.

The girl’s blood, and that of the man, had been healthy, human—untainted by the artificiality of placeholder blood or by the pervasive magic of Haven. But it still had not eased his Hunger ... he needed souls. Which meant that either he summoned the wraithblade here, and risked waking others—or forced himself into the Underworld to hunt them there. The latter option was unappealing, especially with the prospect of the Elder God lying in wait for him.

Kain finished with his second kill soon enough, and sat back, hand over the human’s mouth, waiting for the last faint struggles to cease. While the feeding was infinitely more satisfying here than in Haven, the lingering sense of something amiss within him persisted. Physically, Kain was quite sated, and yet he still felt... hollow. Fragile. If something about Haven had somehow poisoned him, would more feeding help? Perhaps another human -- Kain glanced around the cramped room, and his gaze fell across Raziel, who remained by the slain woman, seeming deep in thought. Frowning, Kain turned to query him.

His hand left the human’s mouth.

The man’s cry was strengthless and gurgling -- Kain had perhaps only nicked the human’s windpipe while slitting his throat. As far as dying acts went, it was a small one. But effective, nevertheless. With a snort, one of the older workers awoke and bellowed as he struggled drunkenly with his blankets. The bunkhouse erupted in chaos.

Raziel reacted without thought. The wraithblade sprang to life on his arm, and with a few swift steps, he buried it in the chest of the nearest rousing peasant. The man cried out and convulsed as the soul-eating energy blade ripped through his mortal flesh and wrested free his soul. But he could not fight it, nor flee, and he died in moments, slumping back into his disarranged bedding, his corpse collapsing in upon itself and turning to ash with unnatural swiftness.

The parasitic blade took the soul as its due—and joined with it, Raziel could feel new energy flowing into him as well, healing the ravages of his long starvation. He suppressed the urge to crow in triumph, and instead turned on his heel, looking for his next victim.

Kain lashed out, crushing the head of the closest still-living peasant. Kain had desired a chance to feed the Reaver, though he would have preferred to bloody its blade at a time and place of his choosing. He reached to summon it now -- the Reaver all but leapt from its dimensional pocket. Keening hunger and anticipation, it materialized in Kain’s hand.

And for a single long moment, Kain could do nothing with it. The room had brightened with cold light even before the Reaver’s arrival -- Raziel’s right arm was wreathed in writhing blue flames, his thick talons grasped around the hilt of an ephemeral, yet strikingly familiar, serpentine blade.

The three remaining peasants within the wooden house were tumbling from their beds, gathering up whatever rude farming implements were to hand. One man’s woolen blanket, tossed aside, caught upon the bunkhouse’s small, hooded lantern, knocking it to the ground with a splash of spilled oil.

Raziel paid no heed, lost in the glory of the hunt and the kill. One of the peasants swung a shovel at his head—he ducked, crouching low, then deflected a backstroke with one gauntleted arm. A slice of the wraithblade across the man’s belly, and he was down, dropping the shovel and crying out. A second slice, and his soul was devoured, his body ash.

A scythe clanged off Kain’s smoky black armor, and the Reaver howled as he brought the blade about to deal with the new threat. The sword was too long to handle properly in such a small space -- it cleaved through two wooden legs supporting a bunk and then found its harbor in the torso of a man. Cold blue light pulsed down the Reaver’s length -- the sudden drain to Kain’s weakened magic reserves was breathtaking -- and the peasant... disintegrated. The unfocussed blast of power blew the mortal’s body apart even as the Reaver, shrieking, claimed a soul.

Flames caught hold on the woolen blanket; gore coated the walls and ceiling -- and Kain. The broken bunk began to collapse. And the last peasant, his screams now purely of fear, broke and ran for the door.

Towards Raziel.

Two steps, and he was in the terrified man’s path. Three, and he was within reach of the wraithblade. Lunging low, he struck down the human with a backhanded stroke, blood flying in the air, mingled with blue specks of soulstuff. The peasant crumpled, falling forward, and Raziel stepped forward, wraithblade keening eagerly, the reflected light turning his eyes almost white, and ran him through, devouring the final soul with relish, his face feral and intent.

The Reaver found a new target.

It crackled, lightning coursing the length. The hilt shivered in Kain’s grasp, alive and seeking and desperately hungry in his hands. Kain was disoriented, startled, his grip slick with blood -- the blade dragged him around and nearly brought him a half-step forward.

Towards... “Raziel,” Kain snarled, trembling with the effort to stall the Reaver’s imperative. Ash still showered down around the elder. The energy blade in Raziel’s grasp keened, a high hollow sound, with every small movement. It linked to his arm, incandescent blue wrapping from elbow to wrist. And the weapon that seemed molded to Raziel’s claws -- the hilt, the crossguard, the length of the blade -- all identical to the
Reaver, only formed of twisting blue lightning rather than metal.

The falling bunk spilled bedding into the spreading flames. The blankets smoldered a moment, then caught fire, blazing up behind Kain. Smoke began to fill the rafters, and even over the humming of the twin Reavers, Kain could hear a cry of alarm taken up outside the building.

“So much for the element of—,” Raziel began to say as smoke filled the small building; then his eyes widened and he took a couple wary steps back as he realized the Reaver’s intent.

“Kain ...” He hastily dismissed the wraithblade, leaving only a remnant blue flicker over his talons, and crouched slightly, ready to dodge an attack. He did not think Kain wished to kill him, but whether even a young Kain could control the Reaver blade ... of that he was not so sure.

With the energy blade’s disappearance, the Reaver’s drive faded -- fractionally. The hilt still trembled in Kain’s hand, as if it would leap from his grasp. The Reaver had no force of destiny behind it, not at the moment -- only hunger directed its fury. And while that compulsion was strong, Kain could not, would not, allow it to control him. And... Kain could not risk the demise of the elder. He now had a great many more questions to put to Raziel, for one thing. Kain would direct the Reaver; never would he permit it to force his hand. Kain opened a dimensional pocket and enfolded the Reaver...

...and it refused to vanish. It remained, quivering with the force of its hunger, in his hand, ignoring Kain’s magic with utter unconcern.

“Out,” Kain growled, teeth clenched. Heat bathed his back.

Curbing his instinct to bridle at the summary order, Raziel followed it instead, darting away from the flames and out into the open (if smoky) air. There, unfortunately, was another barrier—villagers, running and shouting and all headed towards the conflagration that had erupted in their midst. Raziel half-turned—none of them were close enough yet to identify him as a vampire through the smoke and the chaos, but that would not last long. He was not about to abandon Kain, however.

Kain followed quickly, ducking outside the rough building. The Reaver’s attention, such as it was, could be ephemeral -- as staggering, milling villagers came into view the blade’s focus shifted. And this time, Kain and the Reaver were in accordance. The Reaver’s electric glow cast light and shifting shadows through the smoky air; Kain caught just a glimpse of Raziel through the billowing clouds. The elder seemed better somehow, no longer haggard. But Kain had no time for a long inspection -- he darted towards where half-dressed villagers spilled from the largest wooden building.

Following in Kain’s wake, Raziel was content to let his sire take point and sate the Reaver’s hunger. The souls he had already taken had eased the gnawing Hunger that he had been forced to live with in Haven, and now he concentrated on protecting Kain’s back and flank, cutting down any peasants who tried to mount an attack. There weren’t many—between the fire and the unexpected vampire attack, chaos ruled, and there were no soldiers or guardsmen around to rally an effective defense. All to the good, as far as Raziel was concerned.

Another man tried to sink a dagger in his back; Raziel backhanded him with casual strength, breaking his neck and sending the body flying backwards. It was a waste of blood, but he did not want to be distracted with a kill when Kain was wrestling with both his own Hunger and that of the Reaver.

The Reaver sang as it swept a straggling peasant’s head from his shoulders, blasting the body apart as it fed. Kain leapt the small stream with ease, boots splashing in the shallows. The serpentine blade’s appetite was bottomless, but the desperate edge to the ravenousness eased after a handful of kills. Kain could neither feed nor utilize greater magic while the Reaver screamed in his hands. He was about to sheathe the blade and turn back -- both to escape the worst of the chaos and to seek Raziel -- when an armored man stumbled from one building.

The guard’s armor glowed a dim, vile green, and something within Kain’s chest... clenched. Seized. A stray sweep of a peasant’s rake struck him to the ground.

“Kain!” Raziel had turned just in time to see the younger vampire falter, and be ambushed in a moment’s inattention. The peasant did not live long enough to savor his victory—Raziel’s sabre struck the man’s head clean off his shoulders.

Closing the distance between them, Raziel crouched at Kain’s side. “What is it—?” he asked ... then saw the glyph-ridden armor through the haze of smoke, and knew. “Hylden ... ” he snarled in hatred.

“Wha --“ Kain gasped, for it seemed that Raziel had simply appeared from the turmoil. The pressure in his chest was easing, but -- “Not a Hylden, only a man,” Kain growled, rolling to his knees. He’d seen the guard’s face clearly. Human, surely -- nothing like the carvings and murals Kain had come across in his travels. But the armor was unlike any Kain had ever seen, traced everywhere with tiny green threads, forming symbols that gave the platemail its sickly glow.

The disoriented guard carried a long spear, and the head of that too was inscribed with symbols. The guard’s head swiveled as he searched, nightblind, for the source of the chaos. Then his eyes fell upon Kain -- and Raziel. With a bellow, the man brought his spear to bear, and charged.

Baring fangs in a snarl, Raziel stepped in front of Kain, giving the younger vampire time to recover as he met the attack head-on. He had battled enough Hylden to be wary of anything with their glyphs upon it; but still, this creature was only human, despite his otherworldly armor. Moving on instinct, Raziel struck the side of the spear with one taloned hand, batting it aside—

—then he hissed, belatedly realizing his error as the green magicks burned their way into even his armored hide. The guard took the opportunity, stabbing forward again. “Die, vermin!”

Kain growled low, scrabbling to his feet even as Raziel intercepted the assault. He gathered himself to lunge, then caught the elder’s hiss as the green runes sizzled against skin. Thrusting the Reaver’s blade downwards, into the soft soil, Kain stretched both hands forward, calling upon his reserves of magic to unleash a volley of telekinetic bolts -- he’d risk nothing stronger with Raziel so close to being in his line of fire.

The bright white balls of force -- lesser cousins of the blasts Raziel so effortlessly wielded -- shot from his hands and struck the human... and were deflected, like stones skipping over the surface of a lake. The guard was only staggered back, rather than blown to pieces, and bolts scattered wildly.

Raziel, already ducking away from the man’s spear-thrust, found himself diving and rolling away from the ricocheting bolts. As he did so the guard’s spear managed to tangle itself in the strap of his satchel momentarily; with an annoyed growl, Raziel tore himself free, letting the small back drop to the ground as he swung his sabre viciously up at the guard.

It was a testament to the man’s skill that he managed to block, even as off-balance as he was. Sabre hit the shaft of the spear with a screech of metal and a flare of green fire, and only Raziel’s greater strength kept him from being flung backwards in much the same manner as Kain.

Raziel’s dive separated him from the spear-wielding guardsman just enough to permit an opening. And the guard, Kain realized, had apparently not had time to fully suit himself. Kain plucked a small, brutal shard of metal from midair and wet its edges in blood between his palms, then released it. The Flay device spun from his hands, slicing through the guard’s sackcloth trousers and the flesh of one thigh -- then the metal spun away into the panicked crowd, deflected by chance or by that vile green glow. But enough damage was done; the guard cried out, dropping to one knee.

Lunging up from his crouch, Raziel took advantage of the opening. With a swift, one-handed thrust, he stabbed his sabre low, below the man’s breastplate. The guard reacted as Raziel knew he must, interposing his spear once more in a frantic defense, and jarring the weapon away—but in doing so he left himself open to Raziel’s *other* hand.

Talons sank into the man’s unarmored throat, carving through flesh effortlessly. With a snarl of triumph, Raziel ripped out the man’s throat, blood geysering over the inscribed breastplate, dulling the green-glowing runes.

Kain pulled the Reaver free of the hard-packed soil and swung it to its hooks on his back. Peasants were still milling frantically, some running for the woods and others dragging buckets to and from the stream, but there was no immediate danger of attack. Half-crouched, he moved closer, to better look upon the dead human. “What foul magery is this?” he growled, then caught sight of Raziel’s talons, and the blistered wound left behind. It seemed almost as if the elder had come in contact with a holy assault. Kain reached out to capture Raziel’s wrist. “How badly are you injured?”

“It is a flesh wound only,” Raziel said dismissively. He suffered Kain to inspect his wrist, though his own gaze was bent on the corpse at his feet, and the armor it bore. “What concerns me more is what a human was doing with armor such as this ... It could not have been made here.”

Hardly a flesh wound, in Kain’s opinion -- the blackened burn would have taken him some considerable time to heal. But there was no opportunity for first aid of any sort in this chaos. Kain crouched and extended a hand, pausing at the twisting clench in his chest. Something about the green glow, even blood-covered, was excruciatingly uncomfortable. “It is of Hylden origin, then?” Kain hazarded. He stood and placed a boot in the center of the slain guard’s spear, reached down, and wrenched up on the haft, snapping the wood in twain. He glanced over the half cap, looking for a forgemark.

“It is,” Raziel confirmed with a growl. “Those glyphs are of Hylden origin, and the magic—I have encountered such before. Though never used by humans.” Letting Kain inspect the spear, he crouched down next to the corpse, looking over the armor, though taking care not to touch it. No need to risk further injury unnecessarily.

Kain glanced up, eyes narrowed in thought. If what he understood of Nosgoth’s history was correct -- and he could not be certain of that -- the Hylden were entrapped in another dimension, and sealed there by the pillars themselves. So either the pillars would decay into nothing in the future, or Raziel had traveled to the past, as had Kain himself. “Where did you encounter these glyphs? And when?”

A simple question with a decidedly complex answer. Raziel chose the simplest one, if not necessarily the most complete.

“In the future, far ahead of this time. The Hylden demons inscribed these glyphs wherever they wished to work their magicks; oftentimes against our kind. Barriers, destructive spells, and other such workings.” Raziel looked at the dead man a moment more, then straightened. “They are singularly persistent, I will grant them that.”

Flames had begun to spread between buildings, Kain noticed, and this was hardly a safe place to have long conversation. Raziel’s pack lay nearby Kain. He scooped it up and handed it over to the elder. The strap was broken; Raziel would have to wrap it within a pocket dimension to carry until a replacement strap could be cobbled together, even if the satchel was more convenient for accessing items swiftly. “Persistent? What do they seek?”

Taking the pack, Raziel frowned down at the torn strap for a moment, then let it dangle from one hand with a shrug. He’d mend it later, as best he was able. “Freedom from their prison, one supposes. Domination, the extermination of the vampire race ... all the things they have always sought.” Seeing Kain was ready, Raziel began walking towards the edge of the village, towards the shelter of the trees.

“It seems, then, that the future has become the present.” Taking up the halt of the guard’s spear, Kain backed away from the furor and then caught up with Raziel. “Best enfold that in a dimensional pocket -- this racket will bring down more Sarafan dogs.” Kain glanced over the elder’s body. It was impossible to be certain, with the blood and ash of battle coating Raziel’s fine skin, but -- “You have healed?”

“Dimensional pocket?” Raziel had seen Kain pull weapons and such from thin air before, of course, but he had never thought the ability would apply to him. “Unfortunately, I ... never learned such an ability,” he said carefully, then turned his hand so Kain could see. “And yes, it is almost completely healed already.”

“It, and yourself as well. A most miraculous recovery,” Kain mused, picking his way rapidly between tufts of damp grass. Blood alone had not healed Raziel so completely, of that Kain was certain. Sometime during the fight, Raziel’s flesh had filled out; the elder no longer seemed emaciated or at all weakened. Kain paced a few moments more, thinking. “Of what derivation is the spectral blade you wield?”

Thankful for the smoke and darkness that helped conceal his expression, Raziel did his best to make his answer casual, offhand. “It is an energy weapon—a parasitic weapon bound to me.” To my soul, though Raziel did not say it, nor anything about the wraithblade’s soul-devouring properties. *That* leap of logic would be far too easy for Kain to make, he feared...

“Parasitic? It feeds you, does it not? And its appearance...” Kain ducked under a bough, brushing it with his hand. A handful of autumn-gold leaves showered down around him. Raziel had been entrapped within the Reaver, before the Powers’ interference. Now... now the Reaver was entrapped within Raziel. Even Kain had to admit the magnificence of that particular irony.

“Perhaps symbiotic would be a better description,” Raziel conceded. “It feeds me, upon occasion—but I must also feed it. And if I do not ... there are consequences.” As the undergrowth grew thicker around them, he fell behind Kain, picking his way carefully to minimize sound and any other betraying signs of their passage.

Kain paused at the top of a low rise, casting a glance back over the field of battle. The village now burned fiercely, its inhabitants having fled to the forest instead of confronting the blaze. Distant sparks of torchlight marked the road -- one bright speck was moving fast, and away from the small town. A runner, perhaps, or a man on horseback. News would travel quickly. Kain reached over his shoulder to touch his fingertips to the Reaver’s hilt, wondering. “Has it all the properties of the physical Reaver?” he asked.

So much for concealing the wraithblade’s origins. Ruefully, Raziel realized it had been a futile attempt to even try. “Most, but not all.” He tilted his head. “Is there a particular reason you have for asking?”

Kain considered Raziel a moment, then turned away, continuing swiftly up the faint trail that wove through the thick underbrush. “And these consequences -- the Reaver’s hunger was the cause of your own... exhaustion?” If so, then perhaps the souls Kain’s own Reaver had taken would affect a cure for his condition. Kain was not bound to his Reaver, so far as he knew, so it could be that the healing would take some time, or a greater number of souls.

“Not ... quite,” Raziel murmured, his eyes upon the serpentine blade slung at Kain’s back. The darkened eyes on the skull seemed to bore into him; a silent promise of his fate. “It is ... difficult to explain, at best. I do not know if I understand it completely myself.”

Kain thought on Raziel’s words for a time. They descended into a shallow vale, sheltered thickly by branches overhead. Kain fisted his right hand and summoned a small ball of magelight, dimming it for his night-adjusted sight, then released it to drift slowly upwards. In the better light, he turned to regard Raziel. “Your physical condition and the spectral Reaver -- they are entwined, correct?”

Raziel met his eyes levelly. He had never before wanted so badly to lie to Kain, to conceal the truth ... But the history between them, as well as his own ingrained habits of obedience, barred that from him. Kain had enough lies from others. Raziel would not add to them.

“Somewhat,” he said quietly. “If I use the spectral blade too much, and do not pause to allow it to feed, it will turn on me, devouring my strength instead. And if I am weakened by other means, the blade will also likewise become less potent. It is ... integrally linked to my power. My ... soul.”

There were layers to Raziel’s words -- old and bitter pain, betrayals more bitter still. And while Kain could not begin to sort through those layers, he saw clearly the truth in Raziel’s eyes, and had no reason at all to doubt. Everything Raziel said seemed quite logical, in any case. The Reaver consumed the souls of its victims, and Raziel had been -- still was, depending on one’s historical perspective -- trapped within; of course the blade would now be linked to him.

Kain reached out to brush back a wing of dark hair from Raziel’s face. Perhaps those layers of anguish explained Raziel’s reluctance to explain whatever had happened to weaken him so -- though the Reaver had perhaps played a role in that event. But unless Kain knew what had occurred... he could not prevent it happening to Raziel again. “Raziel. I thank you, but you have not revealed what befell you in Haven.”

The night was dark and still around them, with only the distant crackling of the fires and the wind rustling the boughs of the trees breaking the silence. Even the insects seemed hushed, as if also waiting for Raziel’s answer.

Raziel searched Kain’s expression—those pale, aquiline features, imbued with intent arrogance, the first face he had seen in his new life. The only face he had known for many nights thereafter. Fighting back the sudden spasm of memories, his talons tightened on the broken strap of his satchel, cutting into the tough hide.

“Sanzo ... asked me to heal him of his taint.”

The Taint -- the rot that wove through the heartcore of Nosgoth. Kain’s eyes widened. “You attempted...” He had some knowledge of the depth to which the corruption ran -- it had filtered through the earth and deep into Kain’s bones. It webbed every aspect of every entity on the planet. Kain already knew that healing it was no trivial matter. And now he knew fully the peril involved in making the attempt.

Kain seized the center clasp of Raziel’s armor and dragged him close, snarling. “Damn you, Raziel -- how dare you court such risk!” Particularly in Haven, where there were no souls to fuel the elder or the Reaver bound to him -- “Are you mad? Did you have any inkling of the hazard in which you placed yourself?”

Surprised by the sudden spike of anger, Raziel was jerked off-balance by Kain’s grip, and only his own instinctive jerk backwards kept him from stumbling fully into the younger vampire. “Enough, Kain,” he snapped defensively. Then, seeing the concern underneath the anger, his stance gentled somewhat. Raziel rarely deigned to explain or excuse his actions to any other ... but Kain was, as always, an exception.

“I knew there was an element of risk,” he admitted quietly. “I was not wholly sure I would succeed in the attempt. But the taint was slight, and ... I did not want to give the madness a chance to spread.”

“Some element of risk? You were...” Kain halted there, glanced aside. Raziel was unlikely to appreciate the reminder of his condition. But Kain would not soon forget that terrible fragility, the thinness, as if Raziel’s body had burned itself away from the inside out. And somehow, despite the damage and what must have been a critical drain on the elder’s resources, Raziel had succeeded.

Kain clenched his jaw. “You have the right of it; the taint could not be permitted to spread.” But he would not have had Raziel bear the cost of excising it. The fault had been of Kain’s making.

The hand that was not holding the satchel came up to Kain’s wrist—not to dislodge the younger vampire’s grip on his armor, but simply to clasp it. “If I had known it would weaken me to such a degree, I would have had better preparations in place,” he replied in half-apology.

The cool, rough, slightly grooved surface of Raziel’s talons came to rest over Kain’s hand. Kain closed his eyes, just for a moment, loosing his grip to let his fingers spread, palm flat over Raziel’s unbeating heart. He nodded, gathering his composure. Matters could have gone far worse than they had, Kain understood. “How long has it been since you... performed the purification?” he asked.

“A few days shy of a fortnight,” Raziel said quietly in reply. Sanzo had approached him soon after he and Kain had laid their plans to return ... and several nights afterward, Raziel had hunted a great deal, futilely trying to find prey that had some scrap of soul to nourish his hungers.

It was a fortnight during which Kain had not sought Raziel out -- had not made his customary forays into Raziel’s territory, seeking discussion upon spellworkings or strategy. Raziel would have received Kain’s missives, requesting delay, just when the elder needed to return home the most. “You...” should have sought me out, but then, Kain could hardly ask the elder to seek assistance when Kain himself would not. He met Raziel’s eyes. “You have my gratitude,” Kain said instead. “And my apologies.”

Raziel tilted his head, not entirely sure what Kain was apologizing for. For not cleansing Sanzo himself? Raziel knew Kain stood no chance of that, especially as he was now. Kain had centuries ahead of him in which to learn the nature—and the ultimate price—of such a cure, and Raziel was not inclined to hurry the knowledge along. “It was my choice,” he said quietly. “You have nothing to apologize for, Kain.”

Another moment, and then Raziel stirred, turning his face to the wind and unlocking his hand from about Kain’s wrist. “The destruction of the village will bring others on our trail,” he said. “We should keep moving.”

Kain nodded. “Best to have a destination first -- I would lay odds that the arrival of Hylden arms and the weakening of the pillars are correlated.” Kain moved to withdraw his palm in order to call to hand the haft of the guardsman’s spear -- he could perhaps identify the wood under this better light -- then paused, fingertips still upon Raziel’s skin. The broken satchel would, at the very least, impede Raziel in flight, and if it should become caught on anything...

How was it Raziel had never learned to fold the dimensions to form a pocket? Kain had seen Vorador make use of the ability. Gypsies and brigands in this era utilized the spell extensively, to carry dozens or hundreds of throwing daggers. Few adepts could contain objects much larger than small blades -- Kain could enfold entire suits of armor. By rights, Raziel should be equally capable, at the least. “The magic to open a dimensional pocket is but a cantrip, Raziel, requiring little more than a measure of natural talent and a grasp of physics. I think t’would be quicker to learn the spell than to repair your pack,” Kain said.

Raziel blinked. In truth, the pack had been the least of his worries. But if the spell was as easy to learn as Kain claimed ... why had the elder Kain never taught it to his progeny? Not for the first time, he wondered if something had happened during the passage of time until his creation, something that had turned his sire into the more secretive, seemingly omniscient elder that Raziel had come to know. Or was it simply the reversal in their fortunes that made this Kain so willing to teach his magicks?

“I am not familiar with the spell—either the ability was lost, or the cantrip kept more secret by my time,” he finally said cautiously. “If you believe it is a simple thing, then rest assured I would be most eager to learn it.”

Kain nodded, nails pressing a little harder against Raziel’s skin as he considered the best method. In point of fact, Kain had never learned this spell, exactly. It had been a part of him, almost instinctual, since he first awoke to the night. Yet humans aplenty learned the spell as well -- surely that must mean it could be taught.

Raziel’s aura was like a live thing, an electric pulse under Kain’s hand. It was strange, now that Kain thought of it, that the elder had amassed so great a pool of magical energy -- and yet was comparatively unpracticed in its use. But perhaps Kain could put that inexperience to his own purposes. While he hoped that sating the Reaver’s hunger would cause his own weakness to abate, Kain could not rely exclusively upon the possibility. A contingency plan of sorts, albeit a distasteful one, might be in order.

“Watch closely.” The tips of Kain’s sharpened nails scored into Raziel’s skin -- Kain had to apply some force, as if he were trying to tear through a chainmail shirt -- just enough to wet the edges in potent black blood. Stepping back, Kain drew a symbol in the air between them, fuelling the spell with both his own power and Raziel’s. The spell neatly peeled back a flap of reality, opening what looked to Kain like an irregular grayish space, floating midair and presently empty. With Raziel’s power co-mingled, Kain hoped the elder could view the spell’s result, as well.

Wary, Raziel watched without flinching as the minor wounds were inflicted. He had received much worse at Kain’s hands, and for less reason, after all. His eyes did widen slightly as the spell took effect, snapping into place with a prickle of eldritch energy.

With unusual hesitancy, he reached out with a talon-tip, poking it at the ... not-space floating between them. “This is what you spoke of, then?” If so, it seemed Kain spoke the truth; Raziel had not felt hardly any draw on his power at all ... “Are there limitations to what it can hold?”

“Yes,” said Kain, in answer to both questions, as he stepped around the sub-dimensional fold and caught Raziel’s wrist. “Of greatest importance, if the portal should close, whatever spans the opening will be severed. Presently, I am holding this pocket open, but when you utilize your own, keep your fingers well clear.”

“As for limitations -- never place anything living inside.” Releasing Raziel’s hand, Kain crouched and plucked a sprig of leaves from the growth at their feet. He stood, reached into the grayish space, and loosed the twig. It drifted downward for a moment, rapidly losing momentum before coming to a halt, floating within the closet-sized area. Kain pulled back his hand and terminated the spell, letting the aperture reseal. “Can you sense the residual magic here? Try opening the pocket.”

Nodding absently, Raziel watched the pocket disappear, brow furrowed in concentration. Then, smearing talons in the blood that still adorned his chest, he attempted to redraw the symbol in the air that Kain had used. His first attempt was not quite right—he could feel it even as he made the gestures, the lack of gathering magic. On the second, he corrected himself, and once again the magic flared, and space opened between them.

Reaching in, he withdrew the twig, which was now a dried, withered husk. “I see what you mean—it is indeed inimical to life. Are there any other limitations I should beware of?”

Kain inclined his head, considering. Impressive indeed that Raziel had managed the spell so swiftly, cantrip or no. The use of a little blood to fuel the spell had been quick-witted; even if the magic could be invoked without. “There are very few other precautions -- the residual magic does not decay, and even if you do not open a portal for years, the items inside will remain untouched by time or wear.” Kain shrugged a little, listing a few more minor considerations. “Objects too large for the aperture cannot be stored; any source of flame placed inside will extinguish once the pocket closes. And -- ah. Though it is easy enough to keep several dimensional containers such as this one, do not attempt to open one within the confines of another.”

Raziel raised his eyebrows at that last admonition. “What would be the consequences if I did?”

“The universe collapses,” Kain said, and then after a moment -- “Or the attempt discharges in under a second the entire magic reserves of a vampire afflicted with an excess of curiosity, leaving that unfortunate individual with a splitting headache for days.” The corner of Kain’s mouth turned up just a fraction. “One of the two.” Opening a pocket of his own, Kain withdrew the length of spear he’d taken from the Hylden-armed guard.

“Ah. I shall endeavor not to do that then.” Raziel paused, and then the corner of his mouth quirked up. “Unless I become inestimably bored, of course.”

He waved a hand at the spear shaft. “Something about that interests you?”

“Something to forestall your boredom, perhaps.” Kain dug his thumbnails into the grain of the wood, cracking the shaft lengthwise in twain. “Unless the Hylden prison dimension is fertile ground for white oak, the wood for this spear came from someplace in Nosgoth,” said Kain, passing one of the wooden halves to Raziel. “And this steel cap bears casting marks; the glyph-inscribed spearhead did not.” The cap was therefore poured in a large foundry, and later joined to shaft and head. The origins of the first two items could provide some suggestions as to the provenance of the latter.

Kain had a valid point, and Raziel was somewhat chastened that he had not thought of it himself. Taking the piece of wood, he scrutinized it. White oak, yes, and ... he brought up the broken end, looking closer. The broken slivers impeded him, but still, the rings were perceptible. And as he did so, there was something ...

Eyes narrowing further, he sniffed at the wood. Underneath the sweat and worn-in grime, there was something ... a tantalizing scent, barely there. For a moment it eluded his memory, then Raziel straightened as it came to him.

“The tree that this was taken from was most vigorous in growth—and on it, there is the scent of sesame oil. It looks as if our answers may lie southward, closer to the trade routes.”

Kain himself could detect no scent of oil under the stink of long use in human hands -- Raziel’s senses were strikingly incisive. The elder was correct about the wide rings of growth in the wood, as well; the tree had grown someplace blessed by plentiful rainfall. “Freeport, then, or Meridian.” Kain knew of several large cities which maintained foundries sufficiently sophisticated to cast such fine steel, but only Freeport and Meridian were located so far south.

Kain looked to Raziel. “I would fly southeast this eve, over the Southern Lake, bypassing the Pillars by a wide margin.” Several hundred miles should be sufficient, in Kain’s estimation. If not -- “Set a teleportation endpoint here, before we depart.”

Raziel’s shoulders stiffened a bit at the Kain’s suddenly-preemptory tone; but his face and the tone of his reply was carefully even. “I have no issues with your suggested direction of travel, but I would recommend a better place than this for teleportation. It would be better to find a shrine or some other place of true sanctuary, rather than a random patch of forest that is likely to be infested with vampire hunters and irate villagers for some time to come, thanks to our hunting this night.” It did them little good to leap from the frying pan into the fire, after all ...

Kain nodded. “Agreed. We can seek a sanctuary along the way,” if feasible, for while Kain knew of many abandoned towers and ancient caves along the route, it was impossible to say which had fallen to brigands, treasure-seekers, or Sarafan. “But set an endpoint here, for the time being.” Kain would probably do so himself, though that, of course, would not address the true issue at stake. He still was not certain what the skeletal blue demon had been, but it was clear that there were beings in this era that sought Raziel’s demise; perhaps as many as sought Kain’s own.

Suppressing the urge to snap at Kain with great effort—it never achieved anything when his sire had been his true elder, and he doubted that would change now—Raziel simply nodded. Some arguments were better saved for things of greater importance.

Setting the sigil for teleportation was almost second nature by now, after his practice in Haven. The torn satchel was placed into the holding spell before Raziel closed it, though not without a small amount of trepidation—he had no idea if he would be able to access it quickly enough for his purposes, but it was still marginally better than trying to affix the broken straps to his baldric. After doing so, he nodded to Kain, unfolded his wings, and leaped into the air.

Kain relocated his own teleportation endpoint while he waited. He stood a moment before following Raziel into the air -- it was a pleasure to watch those wings unfold like butterfly-blades, to watch Raziel make an effortless vertical jump many stories skyward. Would he, Kain, ever gain such strength, to leap so far? And he’d neglected to ask if Raziel had been winged when he’d been human -- if not, then would Kain also possess wings one day? Kain fixed the familiar feel of that dark, electric aura in his mind, then let himself dissolve into hundreds of small bats, and followed.

It was immediately obvious that something was amiss.

The bats were more difficult to control, more likely to wander or grow distracted. Worse, they seemed to lack both strength and speed. Kain left the turbulent open skies to Raziel, sweeping low across the landscape instead, taking advantage of the marginally denser air and more frequent updrafts near the surface.

To be continued ....