He was hunting. The sweltering night still glowed with prey-heat, the city teeming with humans like a plague of rats. He moved through them, wrapped in Rajura’s silken illusion, swords tipped with instant death. How he despised the ningenkai. Poison was everywhere, cloying, sticking to his skin and his venom armor. It was laced on the food, it flowed thick in the streams, it hung heavy in the air.
It was tempting.
He crept through the glaring eye of the world, slower and more slowly still into the darkened niches where no one could tell him apart from the scenery. So a snake evades its prey.
But not its predator. The strike came from nowhere, which Naotoki expected. Yet it also came from everywhere: his windpipe constricted as water vapor coalesced into toxic sweat. There was no skin beneath that sweat. There was only cold armor.
He hit hard, pushing off the assailant. His own armor Doku rattled to life, searching for their prey. No sharpened sense would help; it was everywhere, hiding in plain sight. From poison and bone he had created it, and to poison it returned...
"Nise–" he hissed, and the soulless armor answered. Naotoki sprang towards the attack. There was a satisfying crunch of metal under his fist. But solidity only lasted a moment. Nise Suiko was back at his throat, coiling around his body. Writhing, death-dancing the way he’d taught it.
No temptation was stronger than the call of poison and bone. Naotoki could feel it coursing through his veins, and he swayed with the fresh madness of Doku, the blinding rage that flowed pure from his heart. He forgot about the pain. His unblinking eyes turned to the teeming horde— his venom-clouded mind conjured a poison fog rolling through the streets, pouring down every last uncaring mouth.
You can do this. Right now. Destroy them all, strip the leaves from trees, watch them flop like stranded fish.
The last bits of spider web burned off. Naotoki remembered Rajura draping it over every last gleaming spike of Doku yoroi. Jirou, that perfectionist idiot.
They are your prey. It is your power.
Doku had absorbed all it could take. Naotoki grinned into the blackened helmet. "It is not my right."
He tightened his fatal embrace, and teleported them into the crashing sea.
The serpents took his arms, their flattened tails fluttering like delicate ribbons. His mother had told him about this dream. He remembered, as he broke the surface, that his mother had died long ago.
The morning was spent spitting up seawater. The fishing boats were chugging out into the dim pre-dawn; they would not see him in the cliff’s shadow.
When more of his strength returned, he ripped off his armor, piece by piece. Skin came off with every gauntlet and plate. Hair and scalp stuck to the fanged helmet. He wiped his face, tasted his blood: salty and not bitter. The pain felt clean. The raw flesh under his skin drank the fresh air.
"That’s incredibly messy," said a voice.
Naotoki yanked a strip of skin hanging from his elbow. "Lady."
Kayura waited patiently on the rocks, shakujo crossed over her chest. The priestess was dressed casually today, like a pearl-fisher’s wife. "You think the sea will heal from Nise’s poison?"
He spat red. How many times in his childhood had he hugged the wet ground, dripping blood after some brutal fight? Yet it was comfortingly human. "I tried to purify it. I found I could not do it alone." His eyes were growing too swollen to see.
She hopped down to the strand. "But you tried. And the sea rewarded you." Naotoki heard her laugh, somewhere, and let his soul return him to the golden warmth of home.
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