Widening Gyre: Gyre05
One moment, Yuusuka is standing on a pleasant, sandy beach. A gentle breeze, bearing the faintest scent of oiled leather, plays with her long, auburn hair. The clouds part and a shaft of sunshine peaks through, brightening everything to the point that she reflexively shuts her eyes...
...and then opens them to find she's wide awake in a strange, dimly lit tent with...
"What the Dragons is that?" Yuusuka wonders aloud, looking somewhat cross-eyed at the slender object resting on her forehead. Her look of annoyance softens somewhat as she takes in a deep, luxurious yawn.
Shan steps back, letting in more of the light from the antechamber, and it shimmers over his armor. He holds out a hand to Yuusuka to help her to her feet. “It’s midnight, and there’s some glamour over this town. It took cold iron to wake you. Your sword and saddlebags are just outside.”
He pauses, looking her over carefully. “How are you feeling? Are you alright?” Sitting up, Yuusuka replies, "I'm fine, Shan." Streching her arms wide, she tries to brush the cobwebs from her mind but she feels like she's forgetting something. Seeing Shan's proffered hand, she frowns and grabs his arm by the wrist. She tugs on his arm to force him to lean in closer, both so she can speak discretely as well as hopefully counter his annoying habit of finding excuses to slip away when she wants to settle serious matters.
"You're late," she pouted, "I have some very important matters to discuss... wait... why are you dressed like that?"
“It’s midnight,” he says. “I thought it best to let you sleep, but just now something changed. I think it happens every night, and unless I miss my guess, they’ll be about the camps feeding on dreams.” He makes an educated guess. “The Spire last night was their doing as well.” Shan seems to be doing his level best to find excuses to change the topic.
Outside the tent, something at last pierces the silence which shrouds the night: the sound of hunting horns, coming as if from impossibly far away.
"Slow down. They?" Yuusuka asks just as the sound of horns blares in the distance, "Are you saying we have unfriendlies in the perimeter?"
Yuusuka demeanor changes from indulgent princess to the hardened military officer she had been trained to be. From her youth up she had been indoctrinated to lead the Realm's forces against supernatural threats to Creation, both foreign and domestic. When Duty called, any other present concerns had to take a back seat.
Yuusuka pushes Shan away as she swings her legs out of bed and stands up. She brushes herself off and straightens her garments before demanding, "I want a full report on the situation: enemies sighted, our available manpower, camp layout and the last known location of the fae-girl."
Yuusuka strides into the antechamber coming to a stop behind Shan's table. She plants her feet firming on the ground to begin her Untiring Earth Meditation as she awaits the expected prompt, well drilled response from Shan.
“We do, and you’re looking at our forces. I’ve some two-hundred foot, all incapacitated. Last night’s hostiles were hobgoblins, plant-based. Mnemon and the girl were able to take care of them, but the girl took a sword to the gut. She’s two over, my healer’s tent.”
As he speaks, he reattaches his sword at his waist. “They’ve got more than hobgoblins, but I haven’t seen it. Whatever it is has put this whole area to sleep.” He looks at her. “The other option’s the Hunt. They’ve got wards – but I’d swear the head shikari is behind all this.”
"As for the rest of the tacticals, the camp's in standard legion fashion, so we might have some time before they get to us."
Yuusuka ponders Shan's report for a moment. If the half-breed had fought against her fae cousins, that would be once less concern to worry about. And yet, Shan's evaluation of the Wyld Hunt concerns Yuusuka that he isn't being completely objective. Clearly, she needs to confirm matters for herself.
Yuusuka takes Sozin's Comet in its sheathe off of where Shan had left it resting on top of his brass-bound chest. Strapping it on she orders, "Move out to the medical tent. After securing that, we'll see how many soldiers we can rouse before the enemy is on top of us."
The night is still. In the midst of the silence, in the midst of the stillness, great swaths of pale light flow towards the distant clocktower atop the town hall next door to Mayor Wangler's home. Out of every building flows the light in great shimmering strands, simultaneously like a light, a liquid, and like a thread. Atop the distant clocktower, far beyond the view of either Shan or Yuusuka, a shape of wild beauty born up on gossamer wings gathers up the threads up dream-stuff, carefully storing away its power for later use.
There is something new tonight: a new presence in the town, marked by the wild calls of hunting horns and the distant baying of hounds, though both come as if from an impossibly great distance. High above, the false moon shines brightly, the oppressive weight of its gaze bearing down on all who walk free beneath the stars in this land of enchanted slumber: the guards are all asleep, collapsed at their posts. Everyone is asleep, and there is no sign of movement anywhere in the Ashadar encampment. Not far away, the medical tent stands outlined sharply in the light of the false moon.
Shan scans the area. Based on Mnemon’s story, he’d figured as much of the sentries. His first concern is for the hunters. As they do not immediately seem to be in evidence, he turns his attention to the river of stolen dreams. He does not have the perspective to see to where they flow, and so he moves cautiously towards the healer’s tent, looking for a break in the skyline that will give him the view he desires. He has drawn his sword, and the sky-blue blade gleams in the midnight radiance.
Yuusuka stands in the doorway of Shan's tent glancing from left to right with narrow, suspicious eyes. She watches Shan make his way over to the medical tent, her outstretched arm prepared to loose elemental fire in the event that any lurking threat leaps out at Shan. Seeing him reach his destination safely, she signals for Shan to watch behind her as she draws Sozin's Comet and dashes over to him.
Shan finds his gaze unnaturally drawn upwards, towards the unwholesome moon, and Mnemon's words come back to him: "Something wicked preys upon the people of Wangler's Knob, something with power far beyond the scope of my understanding..."
Shan grounds himself, feeling the hardpacked dirt beneath his feet, the rough grip of the sword in his hand, and thus fortified, turns his understanding to encompass the purpose of this nameless horror.
"...hungry, so hungry, so nice to taste the spark, look at me, look at me, I want to see you, so hungry, your mind to tear and gobble down the spark, little spark, funny spark, hungry, so very hungry..."
He breaks the hold the thing attempts to lay upon his mind. Looking back to be sure Yuusuka is clear, he calls to her as she runs towards him, urgency giving his voice a sharp edge: "Don't look at the moon!"
Yuusuka is tempted to turn Sozin's Comet so as to see the moon's reflection in the blade's mirror-smooth surface, but given the reports of fae operating in the area, she instead locks eyes with Shan and closes the remaining distance. She motions for Shan to go inside and secure the tent while she stands guard a yard or so outside. She scans the darkness as little wisps of fiery ephemera orbit her form, her high strung aura ready to sing at the slightest expenditure of essence.
Shan uses the scabbard to push aside the tent flap, and enters, searching for Mnemon and the girl.
The interior of the tent is dark, a half-melted candle the only source of light within. Sitting crosslegged behind the candle is the girl, Kirika, meditating peacefully. Her appearance has reverted to normal: no longer the transcendent, wyld-touched beauty but now simply a girl, perhaps sixteen, still lovely, but with her distinct aquiline nose combined with bed-head, it is now a human, ordinary sort of beauty. Orlando lies unconscious and still on the futon further inside the tent, gossamer leaking from his open mouth and flowing out into the night out the back of the tent.
As Shan enters, Kirika looks up, surprised. "Who's there?" she calls.
Manners must play backstage to efficiency. “Ashadar Shan. You are my guests; my healer has tended your wounds.” He indicates Mnemon. “Can you wake him? By the sounds of it, there are hounds and riders approaching, and I doubt they're friendly. Counting you, there are only three awake here.” After a moment he asks, “and can’t you do anything about that?” His gesture takes in the ephemeral stream of light.
"Lord Ashadar," the girl murmurs, and then goes red with embarrassment. "Sifu Orlando told me what happened while I was... not in my right mind. I apologize for any difficulty I may have caused." A beat passes. "I can wake him, but I shouldn't. Sifu Orlando is very wise and skilled, but he's still damaged. He looked into the Eye." She looks at Shan. "I doubt the hunt is here for the sleepers, though. You don't cut off your own supply chain. Not even if you're a faerie." A glance towards the door. "is Lady Yuusuka with you?"
Outside, the baying of hounds grows closer, and louder.
Yuusuka paces back in forth outside impatiently. As the baying of the hounds gets louder, she almost calls out to Shan to hurry it up but then stops in her tracks as she realizes the baying is coming from underground beneath her!
The hounds sound closer now, and the Hunter's horns are scarcely more distant. The volume crescendos, rising to near deafening heights, the very vibration shaking the earth beneath Yuusuka, and then... Silence. And then the sound of rapid growth. Movement. Movement everywhere. All through the camp, green, thorn-covered vines begin to rise up from beneath the earth, their growth pattern creeper-like, like ivy. A red, red rose blooms on the vines, and then another, and another, even as the vines begin to coil around the base of the nearby tents. Some sixteen yards distant, the vines grow together into a... Hedge? There is an opening in the formation, there. A hedge slowly forming into a perfect green portal, beyond which a verdant staircase leads down into depths unknown...
Yuusuka startles for a second as she was preparing to leap away from some thing that she was sure would be snapping at her feet any second now. She waits for a moment and when seemingly nothing leaps out to attack her, she looks around and cocks one eyebrow at the riotous display of vegetation.
"Shan," she calls out, "you better get out here... and bring her with you."
“She is,” Shan affirms. “But can you leave Mnemon here?” Yuusuka’s voice raises outside. “I hope you’re capable of fighting or fleeing – it sounds like they’re here.” He doubts the girl can flee with her sifu, even if she is Forsaken. Whether she protects the dynast or flees without him will let him know whether Mnemon made the right decision earlier. There is no time for anything more. Shan turns and steps warily out of the tent.
"Lord Ashadar, wait!" Kirika calls, and rushes out of the tent, cursing under her breath. Her eyes widen slightly as she sees the briar-wrought stairway, and she skids to a stop. "Oh..."
A mote of light appears in the midst of the darkness of the stairwell. Then, with a sound like a freight train roaring through a tunnel, a shape emerges, then another, and another: three massive hounds wrought of mist and shadow, one white, one red, and one black, each with eyes of fire and impossibly distinct forms for all that they are lies given flesh. Behind them on a grey horse wrought from living nightmare rides Arawn, the Huntsman, also called Gwynn ap Nudd, and his countenance is kingly. The rider and his pack race up into the sky, and in the moonlit night over Wangler's Knob, he sounds his hunting horn once, twice, three times, and horse and dog alike descend upon the three Exalts like falling stars.
Shan flows into a stance, sheath held forward almost like a second sword, Empyrean Judgment held high behind him.
Riding low in the sky above the heads of Shan, Kirika, and Yuusuka, Arawn lifts his horn once more to his lips and lets sound a note as deep and terrible as the foundations of the world. In response, all throughout the Ashadar encampment, the ground begins to stir. In front of the three Exalts, a misshapen green hand suddenly bursts from the dry earth, and then another: a disfigured green humanoid crawls up from the ground, naked and covered in sap. His pointed teeth are brown wood, his flesh green and etched with leaf-patterns. And he is only the first. Another crawls free, and another. A dozen. A hundred. Two hundred. Four hundred. The first of the hobgoblins turns towards the three Exalts, bares his wooden teeth, and lets out a hiss of expelled air.
Yuusuka holds out Sozin's Comet, point first, towards the nearest fae creature, seeking to keep at bay as she points her free hand at the flying huntsman. A ball of fire grows in her hand before springing forth upward into the night sky.
The ball of fire soars upwards, but the Huntsman swerves out of the way, and the blast detonates harmlessly if spectacularly in the sky over Wangler's Knob.
Kirika, meanwhile, quickly draws her plasma tongue repeater and takes aim, though it's hard to tell if she's aiming at a hobgoblin or at the Huntsman, who even now has raced over the trio's heads, carrying in its wake a wave of cold and frost.
"Lord Ashadar," Kirika says. "I can't do much against this by myself, but I can help you. ... but it's going to be a little weird. Will you trust me?"
If he did not, he would be hard-pressed to fight alongside her. Shan nods.
Empyrean Judgment lashes out, once, twice, three times, its razor edge sheering cleanly through the hobgoblins’ bark-like skin, too swiftly even for their sap-like blood to adhere to the blade. A vagrant wind catches a few dismembered leaves and wafts them back to their fellows, promising them the same fate. As they begin to press in, Shan steps back into a defensive position with Yuusuka and Kirika, steeling himself to meet the rush.
Kirika levels her pistol at the flying Fae, her injury forgotten in the heat of battle. All that exists is the two of them. Channels of essence connecting the two... she can almost see it. She draws in a breath... There. *click*
There is a crack like thunder, and a tremendous stream of flame flares violently out of Kirika's plasma tongue repeater in a spiral of fiery essence, washing over horse and rider alike. The Arawn's grey steed neighs fiercely, rearing back in mid-air as fire crackles around its body. ... yet for all that, when the fire fades, Arawn and all his hounds are completely unscathed, and the laughter of the Fae is her only answer.
With a maddened laugh, Arawn leaps from the back of his horse, descending upon Shan like the coming of doom, bringing down his scythe as he drops, gossamer-forged blade aimed to cleave the Solar from shoulder to hip. Even as he drops, his dogs leap down onto Kirika, and though she struggles to fight them off, she gets the worst of the exchange, staggering to her knees in pain.
Chiaroscuran glass meets glamour with a sound like the tolling of a great bell, as essence contends against essence. Creation’s reality wins out, and Shan brushes the scythestroke to the side, where it carves a vast furrow in the ground.
Just as the Huntsman starts to yank his scythe out of the vast furrow in the ground, Yuusuka hops up onto the angled haft with one foot and swings her other leg up like a pendulum to kick at his face. However, the pale faerie lets his momentum carry him as he spins his scythe, bringing the haft up perfectly in sync with Yuusuka's movements. He deflects the kick with the cold wood while the blade sends a spray of dust into the air as it comes free of the furrow.
Pushing off of the haft with her blocked foot, Yuusuka somersaults over the fae as he turns beneath her. His movement flowing like water, Yuusuka can find no opening in his defense as the dust swirls around him as if caught in a vortex, bent towards his chimerical form by the moment's gravity. Even his hounds look up from their savaging of the half-fae to observe his grace as he moves to decapitate the impertinent Dragonblood landing in front of him.
Yuusuka ducks at the last second, the curved edge reaping the ends of her hair like auburn wheat. With her back to her enemy, Yuusuka reverses her grip and stabs past her waist, finding a weakness in his chitin and leather seeming hauberk. Yanking her blade free, she steps away from the fae and pivots to face him. Halfway through her spin though, the fae's cruel blade completes its orbit around its master and snatches Yuusuka's weapon by the cross hilt, flinging it aside like shucked chaff on the wind.
Stepping aside, Shan ducks beneath a tent stay to come up opposite Yuusuka at Gwynn ap Nudd’s side, breath steaming in its freezing aura. Even as Yuusuka’s sword goes flying, he brings Empyrean Judgment around in an arc of blue flame, to take his vengeance upon the wyld devil.
The faerie is overextended – his scythe is far out to be any good, and it will take too long to pull it back in to block, yet even so he is not utterly defenseless: the dust his scythe-blade had kicked up yet swirls around him in a vortex, and as he turns to look at Shan, it is this vortex of dust which flies out towards the pale man's face. Yet such an inconsequential thing cannot distract the Chosen of the Sun, and Shan’s blade disperses the dust as effortlessly as it parts the huntsman’s armor to bite into his essence-hardened flesh.
A thin rivulet of blood trickles down the blade as the goblins form a ring around the fighters, watching silently. Their eyes glitter in the light of the false moon.
Bloodied and battered, Kirika staggers back to her feet. Blood has made the trigger of her weapon slick and treacherous, and her aim wavers beyond her ability to control. "... I won't go back," she whispers "Not ever. If my mother sent you..." Her voice rises in volume, "Tell her I'd die first."
Even in the midst of his game, the Faerie looks at her in askance, his hounds fading into smoke and then dissipating, though he himself does not release his combat stance. He speaks then, for the first time, and his voice is almost hypnotically melodious. "Whatever made you think this had anything to do with you?" He makes a dismissive gesture. "We have far bigger game to chase than a sad, pathetic mongrel half-breed who's run away from home." His eyes light upon Shan and Yuusuka. "At least your friends have provided better entertainment."
Kirika grits her teeth, and with her free hand, reaches out and grasps Shan's sword by its azure blade, and a thin stream of blood begins to flow down it from her palm. "Lord Shan, I wish... I wish I didn't..." She shakes her head, then looks from Yuusuka to Shan and back. "I'm sorry."
All at once, a golden sunburst flares to life on the girl's forehead, blazing like a star in the night, marking her as what she is for all to see: Anathema. Forsaken. Sword of Heaven. Bands of golden light race down into the sword, connecting it and Shan and her for a single glorious moment, as she speaks a chant in Old Realm, long, melodious words rolling out across the camp, into Shan, and into the sword...
"By Nishkriya, the principle of conflict; by Mokadi the god-bludgeon; by Aardra, who drenches the Wyld with blood; by Tejaprabha, the sun-slaying missile; by Ishiika, the grass-cutter scythe, let this Ashadar Shan pass through the Shinma and be reborn."
It is almost like exalting again, like the first time he felt the essence of the world flow through him. Shan’s head whirls as his perceptions expand, cascading layer upon layer, and he understands the battlefield of narrative causality spread all around him. The horde of hobgoblins, he comprehends as the fantasies they truly are. So, too, he realizes that he may step out of his role as participant, to struggle for authorship. He is one with Empyrean Judgment. The sword is one with him, a connection even deeper than the one he forges when immersed in swordwork. The shock is enough to stagger him.
Thy Will enforced upon Creation Though hell itself should set its teeth against me
The words etched upon the blade feel as though they are scored into his very flesh. “Thy Will enforced upon Creation / Though hell itself should set its teeth against me.” The Immaculate Texts attribute the line to the Firstsworn of Mela, Accordant to the Call of Battle, during the war against the anathema.
Thy Will enforced upon Creation Thy Will enforced Thy Will
Shan opens his eyes.
(((I really wish I'd found cause to work this particular line into the story before this. It's been sitting in Shan's description for ages, because I love these little touches of idiosyncratic heresy in his character. He'll cheerfully pray to the dragons (you'll note that he considers Mela his patron). If this were the Hundred Gods Heresy, he'd be fine, but it is entirely improper to regard the Immaculate Dragons in such a fashion. Thus, he hides behind a facade of... well, we'll use the word piety. It's almost correct.)))
Arawn's eyes narrow. "You little bitch!" he snaps, glaring at Kirika. "How DARE you!" He turns to Shan. "It's a pretty sword, but it won't do you any good. In fact, it should be growing quite painful to hold by now." ... and so it is. Even as Shan holds the blade, it grows warm, and then hot, and then painfully hot, and then agony: the sword begins to glow with the heat of the forge, searing hands, searing fingers, searing bones. "Wouldn't it be easier if you just dropped it? Don't worry. I won't tell anyone. Just let it go, and the pain will stop."
An anima banner explodes into existence around Ashadar Shan, blazing light pouring off him in torrents so great as to have physical pressure, whipping at the fabric of the surrounding tents even as the cloth bleaches beneath the glare. Essence coalesces into the shape of a vast golden dragon, five-clawed, maned and whiskered, radiant as the noonday sun. Upon its brow is a blinding pearl of essence. Its sinuous form winds and coils about the unmasked solar.
Eyes aglow with righteous fury, Shan displays the wrath of a god-king to the rabble that dare sully his Creation. Ignoring the feeble attempt to cause him pain, he flickers, appearing between Arawn and Yuusuka seemingly without traversing the space between. Empyrean Judgment blurs, a solid sapphire crescent, slamming into Arawn’s scythe in an explosion of golden sparks that settle upon the watching hobgoblins, igniting them, turning them into mobile torches, consuming them. The space between the tents is a wasteland of charred forms that were once an army. The wyld noble parries once, twice, but the third blow tears the scythe from his hands, before plunging deep into Arawn’s chest, stapling him to the ground. Golden flames war against and consume his frigid aura.
The light fades, leaving Shan in shadows made starker by the light of the obscene moon. The last of the glow still reflecting in his eyes, he glares down at Arawn. “Your toys are broken, Hunter. Yield or die.”
Yuusuka stands in shock for moment at having first been disarmed, then witnessing the revelation of yet another Anathema, followed immediately by the fae-whore soiling Shan's sword with her demon taint. Yuusuka never quite liked the odd dialect that the demon-girl favored, so she can't quite make out exactly what is being said. However, Yuusuka puzzles out enough to know that she's witnessing one of the Four Major Heresies; blasphemy enough to make even a less than devout soul such as hers, blush to hear it.
Yuusuka is stunned speechless and the next few moments are all a blur. She finds herself staggering back and bringing up her arm to shield her eyes from the blinding light coming from a form standing before her, eclipsing her view of the Huntsman. Turning away from the light, she can barely see Sozin's Comet standing point first in the ground some yards away. Her ability to see in the night ruined with afterimages dancing on her peripheral, Yuusuka stumbles away from the melee and yanks Sozin-kun free of the dirt.
His army broken and destroyed, his body damaged, and facing a trio of Exalted, Gwynn ap Nudd clenches his hands around the scythe blade in his chest, blood pooling around it and flowing down into the ground all around his body. He glares at Shan, at Yuusuka, and at Kirika. "Child of Heseish... Forsaken... Deceiver... Don't think that this is over. Where two stand, there shall be one. Though now abates the terror of my might, though quenched the flame of furious despite, bloody vengeance shall yet bear you hence to your underworld's baleful bowers. I take as shield the Cause of Enmity Eternal against you and yours. From this day forth, my cause and the holy church of Balor are joined as one. We shall meet again."
And with those words, the faerie seems to disintegrate, flesh and armour alike collapsing into daffodil petals as his winter gives way to spring. The night breeze takes them, and the whole mass of yellow petals blows away, first one or two at a time, then larger clumps, then all of it in a great whirling vortex of daffodil petals, streaming away down into the portal from whence the faerie came. The scythe, still planted in the earth, begins to melt as if it were made of ice and set before an open flame, quickly dissolving into... water?
High above, the false moon fades into nothing, and across the city, the creature atop the clocktower takes up the gossamer which it had gathered thus far, and vanishes into the Wyld.
For a long moment, all is still in Wangler's Knob. ... And then the crickets and the night birds begin their songs, and the night is clear once again. Yuusuka turns and looks up at the night sky, wistful for a long moment. Letting out a soft sigh, she composes herself and then walks straight for Kirika, her fiery aura trailing behind her somewhat subdued from its combat peak. She gently pushes Shan aside as she passes, her anima not hot enough to harm him. She stops directly in front of Kirika, taking in her measure of the fae-woman.
After Yuusuka stares wordlessly at the grievously wounded Kirika for a long moment, the sound of leather rubbing is clearly audible over the chirp of night crickets as she tightens her grip on Sozin's Comet. Yuusuka whips her arm up over her shoulder, cocked for a crude, overhead chop. Kirika sluggishly makes a very clumsy, pained effort to get out of the way as the blade begins its arc downward. However, the execution strike is promptly arrested as an unseen hand reaches out from behind Yuusuka and grabs her wrist.
“She saved us, Yuusuka,” Shan says. His grip is gentle, but firm. “Though I cannot say I like her method.” When he’d held the reins of the story, it seemed that anything was within his grasp. He could shore up the Realm, throw back the dead, build a shining empire to last until the end of time. That rush of certainty, invincibility, has faded, and the fact that he is not altogether glad of it is reason enough to be mistrustful.
“She’s not going anywhere like that, or without Mnemon, and we need to plan how to deal with the rest of them tomorrow night.” He tries to lower her arm, seeing if she’ll go along with it. “For starters, how am I going to get you armor?”
"Armor?" Yuusuka asks. The tension in her arm slackens and she lets Shan guide her arm down to her side. Not turning to face Shan, only Kirika sees Yuusuka lower her eyes to the ground, the sole crack in her otherwise expressionless facade. Uncharacteristically philosophical for a moment, Yuusuka whispers one last thing before pulling away from Shan and walking away, leaving him to tend to his brutally wounded fellow Anathema:
"What need do I have of armor when I'm already damned?" The way Yuusuka appeared earlier that day still remains with Shan, and causing her pain is something he cannot abide.
Unlike the day before, he goes after her, leaving Kirika to bleed.
He catches up with her past the last of the bleached tents; gnarled strands of rosebush still twine over and about the encampment, though the growth is lessened here, so far from the eldritch staircase.
He matches his stride to hers, not letting her get away. “Why are you torturing yourself like this? I know you look at me and think ‘Deceiver!’ and ‘Ignore his poison words!’ Ignore my words, then! Judge me by my deeds. Look at what I have done, not what has been done to me!”
Yuusuka comes to a halt, and begins to ruminate aloud, her tone more concerned than demanding.
"I don't know, Shan, what have you done? You claimed you are here to help the Wyld Hunt and yet they've already found their quarry without you." She glances away for a moment before looking back at Shan. "And yet here I find another of your kind hiding in your camp. Are you still going to help the Hunt and hand her over or are the two of you conspiring to free your fellow Anathema?"
She holds up her free hand to cut off Shan's response.
"On the other hand, why is the Wyld Hunt taking prisoners? Instead of returning home, they're planning to move on in five days taking their prisoner with them. None of this makes any sense."
She furrows her brow, exasperated.
"As for me, I came out here to find a cure for you, Shan. I..." she pauses momentarily, as a blush turns her elemental complexion several shades darker. She sheathes Sozin's Comet and tugs off one of her traveling gloves. Turning to face Shan squarely, she looks down as she lays her hand on his chest.
"I thought I could hold back the Golden Demon in abeyance. I thought I could..." She trails off and looks back in the direction of their recent encounter with the Huntsman. Looking up at Shan, searching his eyes she sighs, a slight smile of regret on her lips, "I can't do it, can I?"
“It’s true, I stopped you from killing that girl until we make an end of the fae.” He seizes a climbing rose and crushes it in a mailed fist. Thorns skitter and screech across the glassy scales, pierce the leather palm, draw blood. Rose petals, shaken loose, float to the ground. “The Hunt sits there behind its wards ignoring this! Why? They’re supposed to protect Creation against the Wyld. But none of these are proper arguments, because I’m a demon.”
His voice softens, and color creeps into his pale skin. “Demon or not, I care for you, Yuusuka. If you still think I need curing, you’re welcome to try. I’ll tell you everything I know about what I am. Maybe it will help you.”
"I don't think you're a demon. I just..." Yuusuka sighs, "I don't know."
She was born and bred to be a solider, not a theologian; complex spiritual matters just aren't her thing. She needed to simplify things. Clear the air, define her objectives and execute them.
She steps back from Shan, takes a deep breath and exhales. "Look, there's just too much going on all at once here," she strategizes. "I think we need to prioritize things." She starts pacing, chewing on her lower lip thoughtfully.
"We need to one, secure this camp against further incursions. Two, root out the fae and either drive them off or eliminate them at night. Three, during the day we need to keep a low profile."
She stops pacing and points at Shan, "I've heard about some sort of funeral festivities you're planning on holding. I can't say I'm fond of this, but if you observe the minimum proper observances and keep your head down, I think we'll be ok. If we can hold out a few days, the Wyld Hunt will move on and then we can figure out how to best treat your condition."
Shan and Yuusuka continue to converse, caught up in themselves and in their own muddled feelings, and back at the healer's tent, still on her knees in the midst of rose-bushes, Kirika sways faintly, all but overcome by the pain of her injuries: the gash in her side tore open during the battle, and the bites and scrapes that the hounds gave her have done little to improve her condition. She sits there, motionless, rage mingling with grief and self-pity in her bosom at the knowledge that the man she saved has left her to her injuries in pursuit of the woman who just tried to cut off her head.
A tear traces its way down her cheek, and then another, and another. Everything hurts, but to move is to turn that pain into agony. She remains kneeling. Covered in thorns and bleeding, she stays exactly where she is, crying like... like an injured teenaged girl.
Several minutes pass. ... ... ... Presently, something changes. Something in her eyes. A hard glint that was not there before. She wipes her eyes and glares down at her bloody, thorn-torn hands. "If you are going to win any battle, you have to do one thing: you have to make the mind run the body." Even as she speaks the words aloud, she feels the strangest sense of disconnection. Her voice doesn't sound like her voice. It should be deeper. Older. Harsher. Memories flit beneath the surface of her mind, memories of wonders she has never seen and people she has never met. "Never let the body tell the mind what to do."
"The body is never tired if the mind is not tired," she murmurs. "The body is transitory. The body is an instrument. The body will do as it's told."
The half-fae's eyes gain a sort of focus that they hadn't possessed before, and immediately, the gash in her side stops bleeding. And then, one agonizing movement after the other, lacking the strength to stand, Kirika instead begins to crawl. Over briar and thorn, bleeding from her hands and feet all the while, she crawls into the healer's tent, leaving behind her a bloody trail of torn flesh, torn clothing, and broken roses.
Night passes into morning.
As the day begins and the camp awakens, the final preparations for the funeral of Ironhand Kel are made, complicated by the appearance of the rose-bushes throughout the camp, and by the need to dedicate two hours of what might have gone towards preparation for the funeral to remove them. Still, the favorable weather is a good omen, and the scent of burning roses is a thing pleasing to the spirits.
So it is that, not four hours since the rising of the summer sun, a large crowd has gathered on the field outside the Ashadar encampment which was prepared for the funeral games. Before them stands Tepet Kiriel, her voice passionate and melodic as it rolls out across the crowd, rising and falling like the swells on the ocean.
"...If I did not gain these things on my own virtue, do they have a worth?" Tepet Kiriel looks out across the field of those gathered for the funeral, and upon the face of Black Frigate, clad all in white as was fitting for the bereaved.
"I tell you the truth: for the departed, they do not. Let us all consider then where we find our treasure. Do we find it in the pyre, heaped upon us by others? This is fit and seemly for a man beloved by others, but it will not bring him to enlightenment. Ironhand Kel has gone on to his next life, and may it bring him closer to the Immaculate truth. For those who remain behind, remember the lesson of Daana'd. Groves blossom, cities grow fair, the world seems new. The face of a loved one, a friend's embrace, a companion's encouragement: all these things urge on the eager of spirit, but they leave only pain when they are gone. Let us take comfort, then, in the knowledge that enlightenment is not a thing solely dependent upon the cycle of death and rebirth: enlightenment is a thing of the here and now, and I pray you may each find it." She allows her anima banner to bloom around her, a rippling halo of aquamarine, rolling like the ocean waves. Faintly, the sound of pounding surf echoes on the breeze, and her voice gains in power and majesty.
"Valiant myrmidons, famed Marukani, men and women of Wangler's Knob, of Nexus, and of the Realm, with the blessings of the dragons, let the funeral begin."
The others then put off every man and every woman their armour, and seated themselves in great multitude beneath the pavilions raised the previous day for the feast, and there does Ashadar Shan feast them with an abundant funeral banquet. Many goodly ox, with many a sheep and bleating goat are butchered, many a tusked boar moreover, fat and well fed, do they singe and set to roast in the flames of Heseish. An offering of fat and choice meats they set aside for the gods, and upon the rest, they feast, one and all.
Then did Ashadar Shan bring prizes from his tents: cauldrons, tripods, horses and mules, noble oxen, and swart iron. The first prize he offered was for the horse races: a six-year old mare, unbroken, and a three-legged cauldron that had ears for handles, and would hold twenty-two measures. This was for the one who came in first. For the second there was a goodly cauldron that had never yet been on fire; it was still bright as when it left the maker, and would hold four measures. The third prize was a dirham of silver, and the fourth a two-handled urn as yet unsoiled by smoke.
The horse-race, everyone predicts, will be dominated by the Murakani, until they see the other riders. Arneson arrives first, astride his tall bay mare. While locally popular, even his friends give him poor odds.
Two officers of the Hunt are next, Kanata, short, bandy legged, with tonsured head, but his black gelding has a fierce look, and a frame that speaks of great endurance. Tinogi’s hair is cropped short, though her head is unshaven, and her gelding is a varnish roan.
The Marukani are five, and arrive in a group, their hair plaited, their riding tack covered in knotwork. Noble Iorwerth upon his pinto, fragile-looking Meiriona upon her appaloosa, broad-shouldered Sieffre and sandy-haired Rhydderch upon their palominos, and Ercwlfe upon his piebald stallion. With their arrival, the betting declines.
Last to arrive is Ice-handed Tchen, only recently in town, who is whispered to be a scavenger lord. Surely his gray palfrey stallion is a beast befitting a lord, tall and proud. With Tchen’s arrival, the betting begins again in earnest.
Kanata takes an early lead, spurring his black gelding forward liberally with his crop. Behind him comes the Marukani, whooping and laughing as they ride. Tinogi and Arneson contend with each other, doing little to gain ground on the rest, and lastly comes Tchen, to the dismay of those whose money rides with him.
Then Kanata’s horse begins to flag, and Ercwlfe is past him, then Sieffre, and Meiriona, but Rhydderch’s stallion stumbles, for the course is uneven, and Arneson, on his heels, is forced to draw rein. Tinogi sweeps past him, and overtakes Iorwerth, but Tchen’s mount now seems to exert itself for the first time, and eats up the distance between him and the rest, streaking by Tinogi, and passing the Marukani one by one, to where Meiriona’s appaloosa strains against Ercwlfe’s piebald. The Marukani no longer whoop as they round the final turn in the course, racing flat out back to the grounds, but when they reach the finish, the gray edges the appaloosa by a nose, with Ercwlfe half a length behind, and Ice-handed Tchen is feted by the many he's enriched this day.
The funeral contests go on. Presently, the son of Damaran, when he has listened to all the thanks of the victors, offers prizes for skill in hand to hand combat. A strong she-mule six years old and never yet broken was for the victor, and for the vanquished was a double cup. After many rounds of competition and the efforts of many noble fighters, two champions stand forth: the one is mighty Tal Tak, sheriff of Wangler's Knob; the other is one of Lord Ashadar's personal guard, and well skilled in the fighting arts. Together they strive as only two such mighty warriors may do, each seeking to best the other, neither willing to give way lest he dishonor himself by falling more quickly than is seemly. At last, pale skinned Tal Tak of the frozen north proves the victor, casting down the tall Thorn Shrike into the dust.
Next there is the telling of tales: a Skald of the Marukan comes forth to tell the epic of Cuculin, a man who had striven with the gods themselves in days gone by, and whose spear could pierce even the armour of the demon-princes. It is but a foretaste of what was to come: tomorrow was the poetry contest, and that the crowd looks forward to with great relish.
The atmosphere is a festive one, and Usua Rowen, owner of the Wayfarer's Rest, has brought many barrels full of pure water and of mead to quench the thirst of those that play and those that watch. Indeed, vendors from the city can be seen all throughout the crowd, offering sometimes food, sometimes drink, sometimes trinkets of various kinds. As the first day of the games draws to a close, there is an excited buzz in all the town: the locals all agree that things have not been so grand here since... since that day, two years ago.
That night, the new wards put in place by Shan's thaumaturge, the Wasp Minister, hold firm around the Ashadar encampment, and yet for all that the camp is now warded, perhaps it needn't be: though the wards are tested, no serious effort is made to breech them, and no faerie activity is sighted in the city as a whole. The fae, it seems, have been given pause, and will not quickly resume their activities in Wangler's Knob.
The second day of the funeral games brings with it great promise for Wangler's Knob: for the first time in two years, the city is buzzing with an excitement that does not altogether vanish after midnight. Indeed, the night watchmen native to the city find themselves scarcely able to believe that the hours between midnight and dawn are returned to them. Dawn breaks bright and early, and it is already warm when the last night-shadows are banished from whence they came. A priest from the city is on hand early, performing the rites necessary to preserve the body of the deceased throughout another long day of summer heat.
The day is perhaps less exciting for noble Jeradin than for those that dwell in the city of Wangler's Knob, and in the tent city which surrounds it. His fate for the last two days has been an unpleasant one, bound as he is at the hands of Sesus Lahor, and served by the untender ministrations of Cynis Marad. Indeed, Jeradin has spent the majority of his time subjected to various tortures: the first day was a day of blunt trauma, the second, a matter of numerous small cuts. Today... today, they had taken his sight with acid, and though his Exalted constitution would heal the damage, for the moment, he is blind and in agony. They had made a point of not allowing him any sense of the passage of time. Sometimes Marad says it was morning, sometimes evening. Sometimes he says it was time for breakfast, and five minutes later he might call it time for dinner. The constant is pain. They don't let him sleep. They feed him irregularly. The tent stinks of his own waste. At times he feels the faint tingle of thaumaturgy working its way through his body, its purpose unknown. ... He tries faking an inability to handle what he is subjected to, he tries to fake passing out, but they aren't fooled. He doesn't want his captors knowing just how much he can take, but they find out soon enough.
Sometimes, only sometimes, they leave him alone. Rarely more than a few minutes at a time, but it is enough. He snatched up one of Marad's scalpels during one of these times, and he is sure they don't know he has it. He tries to break the chains with brute strength, but finds strength to be useless. He tries to pick the lock, but finds picking a lock without the benefit of eyesight to be beyond his means. Yet his range of motion, despite his captors, has begun to increase: the first day of his torture, he could barely brush the lock with his finger that kept his chains attached to the wooden post. The second day, he can reach it easily, and he struggles to undo it with the tool he had stolen to no avail. ... And yet, he keeps sensing that there was another way. As he suffers, a pattern of essence begins to take shape in his mind. He knows that if he could only fill it, the lock will spring open in his hand, with or without the scalpel. ... And something else takes shape in his mind. Something dark. A shadow in his memory of another time and another place...
The Invisible Fortress.
Patiently, ever so patiently and delicately, his captors cut, and beat, and burn him, with thaumaturgy rippling through his veins all the while. They don't seem to care about any information he might give them. They don't even listen to his answers anymore. But they know as well as he about the shadow taking shape within him, and with every blow, every cut, every burn, the shadow of memory grows larger, more concrete. ... and with its approach comes the certainty that if he tells them what they want to know, he will be dead soon afterwards.
The second day of the games opens with a breathtaking performance prepared as a joint venture between the bards and dancers who have accompanied both the Wyld Hunt and the Ashadar expedition. Such a thing has not been seen in this region in a hundred years, and for a time, all but the bereaved are able to forget that these are funeral games and not simply a grand festival. The city has not seen such an economic boon since the prospectors first arrived in search of First Age relics. Rose bushes continue to burn throughout the day.
As the day rolls on, there are swimming races across the Grey river, high jumps, long jumps, javelon throwing contests, archery contests, quarterstaff fights on unstable platforms anchored to the bottom of the river, wrestling matches, and even footraces. The second day is in all respects and by all accounts grander than the first, and the jewel in its crown is the poetry competition. It is the last of the days' events, with only the lighting of the pyre to follow, and the audience sits spellbound as poet after poet weaves their words into things of wonder, playing upon the emotions of the audience as if those emotions were the speakers' instrument. Tales are told of the Immaculate Dragons, and also of Sun-Kings, of strange, shapeshifting beasts which can take the forms of men, of Siddhartha the wise, who found enlightenment in Gaia's shadow, and of Amaterasu, the unwise goddess who sought to usurp the place of the Sun, and was cast down into the Underworld by the Elemental Dragons. Curiously absent from the day's events are Yuusuka and Orlando: Yuusuka has some of Shan's servants set up a tent for her at the edge of the Ashadar encampment, but is otherwise unseen, and Orlando remains in the healer's tent, watching over his wounded student.
And then, at last, as the sun sinks towards the horizon, and shadows lengthen, the second day of the games draws to a close. It is then that Black Frigate goes down to the riverbank, where he has made preparation. With him come no few of the other mercenaries, along with many curious townfolk and travelers. The still-smoldering rosebushes redden the western sky and perfume the air.
The tall man stands beside the boat that holds the remains of his love. The man’s weapons and armor lie within, helm hiding his face, shield covering his breast. With him, too, rest a goodly sum of prizes taken from across half of Creation – two-handled cups made of silver, a copper mirror, cunningly wrought torcs, cowries strung on strands of silk. It’s no longship, and thousands of leagues separate him from the sea, but it will have to suffice. He is sure Kel would understand.
“Ironhand…” he pauses for a moment, briefly overcome with emotion, before continuing in a voice conditioned to be heard across the din of battle. “Ironhand Kel travelled with us, drank with us, fought beside us. He was one of us-“ He chokes back a sob. “He was a good man!”
Tears stream down his face as he sets the boat aflame. The pitch catches quickly, and Black Frigate wades out alongside the vessel until the current catches it, bearing it downriver. The light of it illumines the near bank as it passes.
Black Frigate will never again hear the man he loved call him by that exasperating name. He watches as the lonely flame slowly passes out of sight into the gathering dusk.
The second night after the confrontation with the hunter passes more or less without incident: the Wasp Minister has begun extending the wards to Wangler's Knob itself, though completly covering the town will take weeks, and though the wards are tested, flaring to life every now and again, there is otherwise, once again, no sign of the fae. As the sun rises on the morning of the sixth day of Descending Fire, a messenger is sent from the encampment of the Wyld Hunt to the Ashadar encampment. The messenger leaves a sealed envelope with Shan's aide-de-camp, instructing her to give it to Lord Ashadar as soon as possible. Inside the envelope are two letters. The first reads as follows:
My plans are moving quickly these days, and it appears we have come to a crucial moment. Your presence is required immediately in my camp. Nodoka will be waiting for you. Bring Cathak.
P.S.: I require your expertise once again. It seems none of my Hunters read Old Realm. Well, except for Ledaal, but I don't particularly care for Ledaal. What do you make of the included letter?
The second letter is written in old realm, and is of the same worn parchment as the first of its kind that Shan saw several days previous. It reads as follows:
It has been too long since we last spoke, far too long. The conflict in the north echoes even here, and we hear stories of Solars who survived the ambush being executed. I do not want to believe such tales, but our friends no longer respond to correspondences. I do not fear the worst, but I think, perhaps, we might have underestimated the earth-blooded; they are weak but many. Crinis Proleg says we should leave this hidden place and come to our brothers' aid, but all she does is talk, and most of us try to ignore her. We are thinkers. What good would we be in battle? Certainly, we are more valuable here. We will defend our temporary home and hope for the best. There is always hope. Always.
Worse news, my love, Master Bax has gone to the Sun's Court. We found him in the baths, the glint gone from his eyes. He was an ancient man, fifteen times my own not insubstantial age, and he will be missed not only by we, his friends, but by the world. Who else will sculpt Essence flows of such grace and power? Being his apprentice, I will be looked to, and I have learned his craft but not his genius. I fear I will fail. I have been practicing, though, molding rock beneath the chateau. I fashioned a tomb for Master Bax. It is a low and ugly thing, but it will suffice until we can return him to the capital and give him the funeral he deserves.
Our food stores, which we consumed with such relish at first, are almost half gone now, and some of us have taken to eating conjured food one meal of the day. The taste is the same, but too much of it makes one weak. Aure Orchester used to go hunting and bring back fresh game, but now, the lands around our home are almost stripped bare - not by us, dear, we are not that fat - but by the demon laborers Master Bax used and then bound to this place. We expected they would wither and die, but instead, Aure says they are multiplying. I pray he is mistaken.
On a brighter note, our discussions and debates are truly things of beauty, and the modified Reality Engine continues to keep us nicely concealed from the rest of Creation. With the Guardian watching the outside world and the servants catering to our needs, we are given time to exercise our minds. We talk about the world, the future, and many new and wonderful theories about Essence. These are truly gifted people - and brilliant. I feel that, when we do return, we will be toasted in the parlors and salons of the capital as true thinkers. We may even shape policy after this war is over.
I await your response, my love. Yours, Ozymandius
Lahor could not be lured from his prisoner despite all the enticements the funeral provided. Now this. Shan tucks the letter into his sleeve. His jacket is the same midnight blue silk with silver embroidery he wore when meeting Venerable Ibsen, and Shan considers that fitting. His trousers are gray, his boots gleam like mirrors. Empyrean Judgment is belted at his waist.
Though hell itself should set its teeth against me
Sesus’ tent may not be Malfeas, but it is hellish enough in the patrician’s estimation. He checks the smoothness of the draw with a practiced motion. It will serve, if need be.
With that, he goes to find Yuusuka.
The scion of Cathak is ensconced in Achama Kitaiko’s tent, that worthy having been evicted to give the dynast a place to herself. Shan has not seen Yuusuka since the skirmish against the fair folk; she had shaken off his attempt at rapprochement, accepting only his offer of a place to stay.
The hour is early, when he calls upon her, and he finds her still in silk dressing gown, her hair loose about her shoulders. The sheer fabric reveals glimpses of dark crystal amulets set into the flesh of her wrists and shoulders. Shan does not look too closely; he knows that each is inscribed with symbols of power, and, though he has never seen them, that there are more set into chakras across her body. She – or rather the powers that be within her House – had the aegis-inset amulets implanted two years before graduation from secondary school, to better synchronize with the warstrider House Cathak expected her to pilot.
“A moment, Shan” she drawls, marking her place in the large leatherbound volume she had been perusing, then locking its polished bronze clasps in place and setting it aside. “I’m not at the beck and call of some shikari’s whim.”
“Of course not,” Shan smiles. “But I thought you could use the diversion. You’ve been a shut-in these two days.”
With a somewhat put-upon sigh, Yuusuka glides towards a large folding screen, and Shan, ever the gentleman, withdraws.
She keeps him waiting rather longer than is strictly necessary. When she emerges, an hour later, Yuusuka has donned a deep green ruffled dress, cut to expose her shoulders, as well as somewhat more bodice than Shan thinks the occasion calls for, and fastened with satin ribbons.
Her hair is pinned up, and a single ivory poppy tucked behind one ear. A charcoal parasol reclines languidly upon her shoulder.
Clearly, they will not be riding to the Hunt’s encampment.
The palanquin that bears them to Lahor’s tent is a touch plain, and the gilt is flaking, but it is serviceable. Shan hands Yuusuka down from the conveyance, and she wrinkles her nose as she alights. “What is that smell? And why is it coming from that tent?” Sudden realization crosses her face, and she turns to Shan with a flat, “You do not expect me to go in there, do you?”
As Shan and Yuusuka arrive, Sesus Nodoka emerges from a nearby tent, clad all in armor forged from green jade, her brown hair tied back into a neat braid. She is lovely, though not so lovely as Yuusuka, and hers is a hard, unyielding sort of beauty. A jade powerbow and a brown leather quiver full of arrows are slung across her back. She nods to Shan and Yuusuka in turn, and then glances towards the tent which Yuusuka had reacted to. Many servants had been cleaning out the tent as part of the preparations for today's experiment since the break of dawn, but clearly the smell is still an issue.
"Lord Ashadar. Lady Cathak." Her voice is clear, and full of quiet authority. Her face is a mask of professionalism. "I am instructed to bring you to the prison tent." She indicates the tent in question. "My noble brother awaits you both inside."
Yuusuka frowns slightly, struggling to recall if she's met this Dragonblood before or not. Perhaps in passing at some long forgotten social function? Coming up blank, she notes the Dragonblood bearing the mon of House Sesus and as such addresses her, "Shikari... Sesus is it? As you know, the Wyld Hunt has seen fit to summon Lord Ashadar and myself. While we are happy to accommodate the Hunt in this way, you'll pardon me if I insist on an explanation before setting foot in that..."
Yuusuka closes her eyes and places a white, silk-gloved hand over her face to ward off the stench before continuing, "...outhouse you call a 'prison tent'." She emphasizes the words 'prison' and 'tent' in a way that clearly conveys her incredulity at the thought that she should be expected to take the concept of a prison made out of a tent seriously.
Nodoka raises an eyebrow. "I apologize if the accommodations we've made for our prisoner aren't to your liking, Lady Cathak," she says, and it is only through sheer force of will that she manages to keep the sarcastic edge out of her tone. She holds up a small clay container, and offers it to Yuusuka without further comment. She looks to Shan. "Now, if you please, my noble brother does not like to be kept waiting."
That Nodoka is Lahor’s sister comes as somewhat of a surprise. Shan had believed them to be cousins. “Of course not,” he agrees. “I have reviewed his correspondence. Pray, lead on.” He would rather not feign sycophancy with her. There looks to be enough of that in the immediate future.
Yuusuka looks down at the clay container, noticing that it appears to be filled with a white wax substance giving off a very strong, aromatic odor. She recognizes it as a substance used by combat medics to deaden their sense of smell when things got... especially messy.
Yuusuka looks up at Shikari Sesus and cocks an eyebrow. She could tell when she was being told in so many words to stuff it. Had a mortal been this brazen, she would have smashed the clay pot over their head and the Dragons were merciful if that was the end of it. However, that would be a somewhat improprietous thing to do to a fellow Dragonblood. And so, with a simple turn of her hand, Yuusuka lets the pot fall from her fingers before turning and wordlessly walking away back towards her sedan.
Nodoka scoops up the pot in one smooth gesture. "I urge you to reconsider, Lady Cathak, but I will not wait for you to make that decision." She turns to Shan. "Come. Lahor has decided to show you his captured Anathema, and he has already been made to wait too long." With that, she sets out towards the tent, isolated from the rest of the camp, and still emanating a faint odor of waste despite the best efforts of the servants to clean it.
“Think of it,” Shan says, as he catches Yuusuka by the shoulder. “An anathema captive and helpless. Where else could one see such a thing? Surely a little… squalor… is worth the benefit of this incomparable opportunity.” For the sake of those around, he adds, "Most notable Cathak, forgive my brashness, but won't you reconsider?"
"Well then, if that's the explanation for it..." Yuusuka snaps her parasol shut and holds out a hand for Shan to take, "...then I suppose I'll reconsider." She favors Shan with a faint smile while pointedly ignoring Shikari Sesus as if she didn't exist.
Shan and Yuusuka make their way after Nodoka, quickly leaving the main area of the camp with all its gilded excesses behind; ahead lies the prison tent, and when she reaches the door, Nodoka steps to the side, waiting for her two guests to enter. "Lady Cathak," she says, "Lord Ashadar."
The entrance is a thick, layered silk, totally cutting off all external light from reaching the inside when at rest, and as such, the tent is substantially darker than the outside, and it takes a moment for the eyes of those present to readjust to the light: a few scattered glowglobes float here and there, giving light to the darkness.
Jeradin is chained to a large wooden pole that rises up to the tent's ceiling and descends some twenty feet into the earth, wrists and ankles in shackles. The shackles themselves are a strange design, made from two distinct materials: the one is clearly oricalcum, shining even in the candlelight as if it were purest gold, the other, some unknown substance as black as death in which, if one were to observe it for an extended period of time, he might discern the vague shapes of faces in agony drifting across its surface. All around the pole is etched a five pointed star in a circle, and the lines of the design glow with a very faint red light that... pulses, like a heartbeat.
A man all in silver and black is going over Jeradin's body, checking his condition, perhaps, and the mon of House Cynis is upon his breast. And there, standing at the very edge of the circle, is Sesus Lahor, having turned to face the entrance, smiles delightedly. "Lord Ashadar! And you brought Lady Cathak! Well done. I say, well done." He turns to regard Yuusuka, and when he smiles, his perfect white teeth flash briefly, "I am Lahor of the noble house of Sesus. A pleasure, my Lady."
The tent is no more pleasant this time than the last. Shan can already feel the skin between his shoulders itching, the feeling that despite everything before him, the true extent of the horror is yet to be revealed. He bows low before Sesus Lahor.
“This one has received your missive, most sagacious one. It documents the anathema as the weaklings they truly are, stripped of their lies; they huddle in fear, summoning demons in vain hope of escape even as their kind is purged from Creation.”
“Have you learned anything more?”
Yuusuka gives Lahor a courteous nod, but waits to further return Lahor's introductions until Lahor is finished conversing with Shan. In the meantime, she moves to stand slightly off to the side, studying the features of the bound captive.
"I have," the flame-haired man says. "Though really, I think we should at least be big enough to give our enemies credit where credit is due. Everything I have seen leads me to believe that the Anathema fell not out of weakness, but out of pride. A dreadful failing, don't you think, Lord Shan? But it's true. Only the Dragon-Blooded, descendants and disciples of the Immaculate Dragons, are so close to enlightenment that their commands cannot cause a soul to stray from the Road. The Anathema... they had great power, certainly, but not the wisdom of the Dragon-Blooded Host, and so they fell, becoming the demons we now know them to be." Lahor shrugs casually. "Or at least, those are my own thoughts on the matter." He looks towards Jeradin's body. "I have learned several interesting things, Lord Shan. Did you know that you can beat an anathema unconscious, and he will be fully recovered six hours later?" He produces a small notebook, opens it to the first page, and nods. "We tried that four times before we moved on. They are remarkably resilient creatures." He turns the page. "... Two hundred minor cuts and scratches delivered with the tip of a dagger, healed by the end of the day." He turns a page again. "If you notice the glazed look in the demon's eyes, Lord Shan, it is likely because of the acid we applied, but he's healing quickly." He shakes his head in admiration.
"I have a new test in mind for today. One I hope you and the Lady will enjoy viewing." With that, he takes Yuusuka's hand and kisses it like a gentleman. "The rumors of your remarkable beauty were not exaggerated, Lady Cathak."
Yuusuka graces Lahor with a warm smile, replying, "Oh Lahor, you're far too kind. Please, call me Yuusuka." She motions to the center pole with her free hand, continuing, "I would be most interested to hear about your interesting design, but... perhaps over tea at some later occasion. I wouldn't want to delay your present artistry further."
Shan would much rather delay. “Your interpretations are truly intriguing, majestic one. This one must confess that it never crossed his mind in his small perusals of the Immaculate Texts.” Somewhere in the Ashadar mansion in Heroncrest Prefecture, there is a lavishly illuminated set of the Texts. Shan won it in his second year at the Harmonious Spire Transcendent, winning a competition by reciting the entirety of Advice for Every Season: The Petitioner of Clouds Accordant to the Call of Battle’s Admonitions to a Young Upstart (A Tale in Five Sections).
Even if he were freed, could Jeradin even be moved in his current condition? “Perhaps you could enlighten this one further?”
"Perhaps another time, Lord Shan." He nods to Yuusuka. "Lady Yuusuka, then. But where were we? ... Ah yes. Marad. Dear Cynis Marad had something he wanted to say to the prisoner. Didn't you, Cynis? What are you waiting for? Wake him up."
Marad turns from where he stands in front of Jeradin, giving Lahor a dark look, and then produces a small container of smelling salts, which he holds below Jeradin's nose.
"My Shikari don't much care for me, Lord Shan, but they do as they are told."
Jeradin opens his eyes, and they are clouded. Marad waits for him to come fully back to wakefulness before he speaks. "... For what it's worth, I am sorry," the shikari says. "Torture is one thing, but this... if I'd had my way, you would have been given a quiet death. Painless. Dignified. ... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Marad looks away, disgusted.
Lahor's expression is totally unreadable, and his eyes glitter in the light of the glow globes. "Yes, assuage your conscience. Now, are we ready to begin?" He gestures towards the design on the floor. "I'd be happy to share the design with you, Lady Yuusuka. Of course, it's not intended to contain the Anathema. It's intended to contain the Fae. Marad, do exit the circle, unless you want to be within when she arrives."
Waking up to the odor of smelling salts was a bit like being punched in the nose by an amateur boxer. So, all-in-all, it was the most pleasant wake-up that Jeradin had received in days. If he hadn't needed to play-up his weakened state, he might have smiled.
The world seemed to come at him in a rush, as if he had been at the bottom of a dark well and then was pulled up with a rope attached to a very fast horse. When he reached the "top" the world began to come into view... but stopped before it was completely in focus. For a moment, Jeradin could not remember the horrific blinding that he had endured, but when he remembered he was very grateful for the sight he did have... even if it was of Cynis Marad's hated face.
What came next struck Jeradin by surprise. He never expected Marad to apologize for anything he had done. Unfortunately for Marad, words could never sooth the wounds that had been inflicted upon Jeradin. Schooling his voice to be weaker than he felt, just loud enough for Marad to hear, Jeradin said, "Perhaps, some day, I will be able to do you the favor that you have had to deny me." In Jeradin's oppinion, to do so would be much more than Marad deserved, but he was willing to be the better man... he wasn't sure that he could be so noble with Lahor. If Jeradin had his way, he would have Lahor begging for the treatment that Marad had been inflicting on him for the past few days.
Lahor shakes his head even as Marad backs out of the circle, the noble scion of Cynis unable to meet Jeradin's eyes..
"Of all the wonders I've encountered in my life, a Pain Technician with a conscience has got to be the most odd." A brief pause, and then, "What do you make of this riddle, Lord Shan? I'm fairly certain that the Invisible Fortress is keyed only to be accessible to certain people. Certain... Anathema. If I'm right about the content of the other letters from the deservedly departed Ozymandius, it's possible that there is a password of some sort locked inside his brain which can allow access to individuals who aren't keyed to the Fortress, but how to get at it? I could torture him for years, and I doubt he'd give it up." Lahor grins winningly, "Though I'm fairly certain he'd give all manner of false passwords in the hopes of the fortress' defenses destroying me. It seems to me that I need a way to either extract a true password from someone unwilling to give it... or a way to extract the quality of recognition for my own use. What do you think?"
This is where Shan would shrug, but that’s a bit blithe for the current situation. He keeps his head carefully downcast, even as he moves closer to study the inscriptions Lahor has prepared.
“It is not for this one to guess. Will the Dragons not provide the way, even as one was provided to the Scarlet Empress, for her to seize and claim the throne of Creation? Surely your kairos awaits even now, august one.”
"Well, if the circle around the pole is meant for the Fae..." Yuusuka furrows her brow pondering the implications.
"It seems one might be able to have one of the Fae extract the information from his dreams, but then that leaves the issue of getting the information out of the Fae reliably." Yuusuka turns to Lahor, giving him an expression of curiosity as she waited for him to explain his master stroke.
Lahor nods, pleased that Yuusuka, at least, understands. "A curious thing about Faeries, Lady Cathak. Did you know that they are completely incapable of breaking a sworn oath? Oh, make no mistake, they're still dangerous, and it requires a very carefully worded oath, as they are bound by the words spoken, not by the intent behind them, but I've managed." He turns to the prisoner. "Which brings us to you, Jeradin! Because I am a compassionate man, I am giving you one more chance to give me the password to bypass the Fortress' defense systems, before I call the faerie in to extract what I need from you." He holds up his right hand, pulls a glove from his pocket with a pale blue hearthstone set into the back of it, and puts it on his hand. After a moment, the hearthstone lights up: it is as clear and blue as the western ocean. "I will know if you lie."
Jeradin looks up from his position, seated with his back to the post. "Lord Sesus, I am glad that you can know when I am lying, because I would like to tell you now that I will kill you. I am not going to make it pleasant either. Lord Cynis is good at what he does, but I could teach him a thing or two. I will have you begging for death, but it will be very, very slow in coming." As he said this, he readied his body, being sure to keep his preparations below the surface or out of sight of his dragon-blooded captors.
"So be it, then," Lahor replies. He reaches into his pocket, produces a small compass which glows with a green light, the arrow of which is fixed upon Jeradin, steps forward, places it in the place prepared for it in the center of the circle, and then moves back to the edge. "Lady Kaori," he intones, "by the Oath you swore, I command you to come forth."
A point in the air above the circle... ripples. There is a sense of something unfolding, of unraveling. The air becomes charged with both the promise and the threat of possibility, crackling, cold, red electricity writhes around the point, and there is a smell like ozone. It spirals outward, then, the red lightning arcing wildly across the circle, opening into a gateway of sorts, through which steps a woman, though none would ever mistake her for human: she is a creature of flesh and of wood, her hair is a vibrant riot of red, orange, and yellow leaves, her flesh brown as tree-bark, but supple, pliable, alive. Her eyes glow with a green, living light, and she is clad in a dress made from green gossamer, hinting at everything which lies beneath, revealing nothing: her low-cut blouse is made from pale-skinned living hands, fingers and palms concealing her own flesh from bosom to wrists. Wooden branch-wings extend from her shoulders, and her feathers are leaves with the same mix of colours as her hair. Another shape enters in her wake: a small, green, sharp-toothed goblin, with wooden teeth, green eyes, and green, leaf-patterned flesh.
Beyond the portal, a glimpse can be seen of a forest of trees forged from human arms, each tree as tall as a small moon, and growing from the fertile soil of grey-streaked sorrow and despair; beside the forest runs vast, rolling river which ripples with insensate lust.
Lady Kaori has arrived.
Shan shoots Yuusuka a glance. Her standards might be a bit unpredictable, but for him this is clearly beyond the pale.
“This one trembles at your prowess, Sesus most superlative.” The patrician is getting a trifle bored thinking up new compliments. “By what oath have you forced the nobles of the Wyld to do your bidding?”
His awestruck appearance covers lengthy appraisal of this “Lady Kaori.” He has read that nobles among the fair folk often define themselves into roles. The one he defeated two nights prior, perhaps, as a hunter, or warrior. Perhaps hers is simply “nobility.” If that is the case, could she be responsible for Lahor’s eccentricities, or has she merely aggravated them?
"Our interests are not dissimilar, Lord Shan," Lahor replies. "We each want the Fortress. Though Lady Kaori and her friends want something very specific from it. Something I am prepared to give them. After all, what use do I have for a Reality Generator?" He makes a dismissive motion. "I hope the day finds you in good spirits, Lady Kaori. Everything is prepared exactly as you requested."
Lady Kaori smiles, and when she does so, her beauty could slay a dozen heroes on the spot. Beside her, even the lady Yuusuka looks plain, though Yuusuka has the dubious advantage of still being human. "It's just what I've always wanted, Lahor." She glances to the goblin at her side. "Isn't it, Mister Muggles? Oh, look, it sparkles!" With the unspeakable grace of a dancer whose skill is beyond divine, she ... glides... to the center of the circle, picks up the compass, does a pirouette holding it over her head, and then drops it: the green compass drifts down like a leaf in the breeze, settling easily back into its place. "It reeks of Secrets," she murmurs, and gives Lahor a questioning look. "Couldn't you have prepared something less... law-bound?"
"My apologies, Lady Kaori," Lahor replies. "One must work with such resources as one has."
Kaori brightens visibly. "I forgive you! And look, Mister Muggles does, too!"
For his part, Mister Muggles has not taken his eyes off of Shan, Yuusuka, and Lahor, and he tenses slightly as Nodoka slips in through the tent entrance to watch the goings on, taking note of her faintly disapproving look, his green eyes glittering in the light of the glow-globes.
Kaori clenches her fist, then, and as quickly as that, a curved bow forged from ebony and horn appears in hands She draws back an invisible string, and a crackling bolt of essence takes shape where an arrow might otherwise go.
A bolt of pure wyld-essence flies from her bow, striking Jeradin full in the chest. Red lightning crackles around his form, and then arcs to the prepared circle, and the compass. The light is almost blinding. The compass lifts into the air, its light instantly changing to red, pulsing exactly in time to Jeradin's heartbeat.
For Jeradin, there is a sensation of tugging. Something being pulled away. A sense of... binding. There is pain, but it is a distant thing. So very distant. Behind Lady Kaori, the portal expands ever so slightly, and tiny bits of Wyld energy begin to leak through. ... and Lady Kaori claps delightedly, her bow vanishing as she takes up the compass and hands it to Lahor. "Look! Look at the pretty thing I made!" she crows, Jeradin, for the moment, forgotten.
Pain, anger and the giddy thrill of finally telling his captors off had filled Jeradin with the strength and motivation to find a way to fill the essence pattern he knew would open the lock. With renewed hope he looked deep within himself for any scrap of essence, any reserves that had not been sapped by the ever-hungry soul-steel… and found what he was looking for.
Before the wyld essence arrow had even formed, Jeradin was springing his plan into action. By the time the arrow strikes his chest he was on his feet, working the essence into the shapes he had seen in his head. He barely takes notice of the pulling, the pain. He has things to do. Into the shape of essence, he extends his hand and then directs it towards the gray iron lock that keeps him bound to the pole, and at Lahor’s mercy. As he grasped it, the lock fell open at his touch with the sound of grating metal on metal. The never-smoothed jags on its edges he could now turn to his own purpose. With a heave, he whips the heavy chains over his head, once around to gain momentum, then takes three steps to bring the edge of the arc against the tent wall. Canvas parts like paper, though the lock tears free to clang off a support pole. The light pouring into the tent dazzles all within, leaving them temporarily blind.
In the next step, the wax of the eldritch circle crunches beneath his foot, flakes cracking into the air as he shatters its eerie symmetries. To be sure the job is done, he drags his next step across the line, red sparks arcing to his foot.
Jeradin points at Lady Kaori "You'll get yours" as he passes, diving headfirst through the torn canvas, rolling into a somersault on the other side. Then the scalpel is in his hand, flickering to either side of him. With the sound of a mighty archer loosing an arrow, tent stays part like spiderweb, and part of the tent collapses in a rush, raising clouds of dust. The air fills with its musty smell.
The fair folk has reached through the circle. No matter that it was never designed for warding; combined with Jeradin breaking free a moment later and fracturing the tracings, her movement provides Shan with the casus belli he was looking for.
“Step back, Lady Cathak!” Empyrean Judgment is in his hand in a flicker of blue light, and he puts himself squarely between fire-aspected dynast and inhuman noble, and if his swing is oh-so-precisely wild, and his footing allows him to bring the blade around to sweep the compass out of Lahor’s hands, well, what are these but the clumsy antics of a panic-stricken mortal?
“Noble Sesus – your wardings! The Raksha is free!”
Even as the sword clears its scabbard, a corona of fiery essence arises upon Sesus Lahor. The fire aspect burns with glory, powerful and painful to look upon. Shan’s blade does not find its mark.
Dynast deigns to look down upon patrician: “You forget your place, Shan!”
As if realizing how near his sword stroke came to injuring the mighty dragon-blooded, Shan holds up his free hand in supplication, "A thousand pardons, most eminent one." The length of Empyrean Judgment magnifies the slight tremor he allows in his arm, and the point wavers, setting reflections of Lahor’s anima to dance along the remaining tent walls. "But she is right there, and I forgot myself in the moment, forgot you have no need of other protection. Please stay your wrath."
Yuusuka is alarmed at how quickly Lahor's seeming control of the situation has deteriorated. Clearly she'll have to intervene to prevent a total disaster. Glancing around the half-collapsing tent, she decides between the now-missing, murderously eyed Anathema, the leering, enigmatic pair of fae and the awkward exchange between Shan and Lahor. To her mind, the rampaging Golden Demon is the greatest threat and runs out of the tent through it's natural entrance calling out behind her, "Lahor, you deal with the fae; I can handle the Anathema!"
After the other night, she conceded that she can't control the Golden Demons but if she can find this man, maybe she can calm him down before the Demon completely takes over and rampages through Wangler's Knob. She hopes she can repeat whatever it was she did back in Suttervale to rein Shan in; hopes the Wyld Hunt is too preoccupied fending off the fae and securing the 'prison tent' to interfere and provoke the Demon further.
As Yuusuka emerges from the tent, she finds that Ledaal Hakara, Tepet Kiriel, and a dozen soldiers of the hunt are already jogging towards the tent, fully armed and armoured. "Yuusuka!" Kiriel calls. "Are you injured?"
A thick bank of fog is rising from the river, and has reached the outskirts of the Wyld Hunt's encampment. A human shape can faintly be seen heading towards it, dashing along the roofs of the tents, leaping from one tent to the next as easily as if they were made of stone and not canvas or silk.
As they reach Yuusuka, the force comes to a halt, and Hakara takes a sword from one of the soldiers and offers it to the fire-aspect.
Yuusuka gasps out to Kiriel, "I'm fine, but there is a pair of loose fae in the tent!"
Yuusuka doubles over, feigning being out of breath and waving off the offered sword. She grimaces inwardly hating each second the Hunt were delaying her but she didn't want to get them involved with the Demon except as a last resort. She starts to stumble away, hoping any second that the Hunt will rush into the tent and she can give chase to the Demon unhindered.
Even as Shan cowers before the powerful Fire Aspect, even as Yuusuka leaves the tent, part of the torn tent fabric drifts towards the still open portal, drawn as if by some invisible force. By the time Yuusuka replies to Kiriel's question, the tent material crosses the threshold. Infused by the energies of the Middlemarches that lie beyond, a ripple runs through the section of fabric, and through it to the tent as a whole. What happens next is a horror straight from the heart of the Wyld: the very fabric of the tent itself, and of all its supports, is instantly transmuted to warm blood. There is a tremendous splatter and splash as what was a tent simply collapses into a wet, bloody mess.
Lady Kaori laughs, licking some of it from her fingers, and Mister Muggles capers around her, neither of them leaving the circle.
Lahor towers imperiously over Shan, his aura blazing like the sun itself. He trembles visibly, then looks to Nodoka. "... Rally the Hunt. I want Jeradin found, and I want him dead. RIGHT NOW."
"That would be unwise," Lady Kaori says slyly. "... Your pretty toy will only work while he's alive, dearest Lahor."
Lahor's face reddens in rage, though it's hard to tell through the blood. "NOW!"
... Nodoka stares at the chaos and horror around her, meets her brother's gaze, folds her arms, and does... nothing.
Hakara, Kiriel, and the other hunters stare for a moment in stunned silence.
“Might I suggest,” Shan says dryly, “that it might be time for the Wyld Hunt to live up to its name?” He is speaking primarily for Nodoka’s sake, giving her a way out. That it gives Lahor a way out is measured against the vanishing likelihood the man would take it. He wipes a hand across his face, doing little more than rearranging the gore. “Lord Sesus, I consider it my sworn duty as a loyal citizen of the Realm to free you from the snares of these –“ he pauses for a moment, then decides not to justify them with anything flowery, “–things.”
Ten hours earlier...
It is close to midnight, the air is clear, the waxing crescent moon does little to illuminate the land, and the viking funeral boat has long since sunk. In the hour, a pair of dragon-blooded come to call upon one Ashadar Shan, Kiriel and Hakara by name. Their faces are grim, their purpose set, and once announced, they stride side by side into Shan's tent. There is no casualness in their bearing, nor any hint of sociability.
As the tent flap swishes shut behind them, Hakara exchanges glances with his partner, and then steps forward. "Ashadar Shan," he says, "Are you yet the Realm's loyal servant?"
“Do you think me that fickle, Ledaal Hakara?” responds the patrician. “I have said it in the past, and it has not changed. I am loyal to the Realm – though that loyalty is tothe Realm, not to any one of its citizens above another, save the Empress herself, the Dragons illumine her. I have seen what you’ve seen – some of it – and I know firsthand why the Hunt must keep its strength. Give me the signal, Captain, and I will place myself and mine at your disposal.”
Hakara nods. He had expecting nothing less. He produces a small ring and puts it on his finger. Immediately the sounds coming from the outside of the tent become muffled, distant things. "We move tomorrow. Take only men that you can trust. I want them waiting there in advance; he'll grow suspicious if he sees you arrive with an escort."
Kiriel speaks, then. "We don't expect miracles from you or your men, Shan. Lahor is one of the most powerful Exalts I've ever known, and if we cannot sway his sister to our side, things will get messy; she's a prodigy. The youngest to ever master the Wood Dragon style." She looks troubled, then. "Lahor has become Anathema. He's not a golden demon, but it's close enough. ... I only ask that you and your men resist the Anathema to the fullest degree of the abilities of your present incarnations, and do not fall into despair. Do we have an understanding?"
The next morning, in twos and threes, the men of Ashadar Shan’s personal guard filter into the camp of the Wyld Hunt, careful to enter through one particular guard post, and assemble in one particular cluster of tents. Unarmed and unarmored they come, so as not to draw suspicion, and the joke with the other fighting men they find waiting.
Lastly comes Black Frigate, leading a string of mules all hung round with panniers. Unpacked, they contain heavy lacquered lamellar, and the men quietly thank the gods for the unseasonably fair weather of the last few days. All are equipped save Black Frigate, for he intends to fight as he so recently dueled, with spear and net, bare-chested, his sea-gray trousers falling in hundreds of small pleats. Heavy and razor-sharp, his weapon is more harpoon than spear, and he has proven himself a master with it.
At the appointed time, the warriors gird themselves, and arm, and then there is nothing but the final, interminable, waiting.
For the first time, Lahor seems emotionally vulnerable. As Nodoka stands there, trying to decide what to do, the fire-aspect actually looks hurt. "Sister?" he asks plaintively.
Shan's words find their mark: Nodoka lets out a long, slow sigh, and then shakes her head. "I'm sorry, Lahor," she says, and her voice is thick with emotion. "You've gone too far this time, and I can't fix this for you. Consorting with Fae? Neglecting your sacred duty in an effort to use an Anathema for your own advancement? No dream is worth this. Surely you must see what you've become."
A mix of emotions plays across Lahor's face, then. First shock and grief, but these are quickly subsumed beneath a deep sense of betrayal. ... and then rage. Oh but how there is rage. A burning aura springs up around Lahor, and the blood-slicked ground around where he stands dries immediately. "I don't need you," he hisses, and then turns to the approaching hunters. "Ledaal, Tepet, I want you to rally the men, hunt down Jeradin, and kill him."
Hakara produces a jade chakram, his expression hard, and not one of the soldiers moves. It is Kiriel who replies: "We're not taking orders from you anymore, Lahor."
Now resembling nothing so much as a cornered animal, wreathed in flames, Sesus Lahor turns to the two fae within the broken circle.
"Don't do this, Lahor," Nodoka says. "Please. For our mother's sake."
Lahor whirls on her in sudden fury, then, his face contorted into a mask of wrath. "Don't you talk to me about my mother, you illegitimate bitch. I don't need you. I don't need any of you! Lady Kaori. Kill them. Kill them all."
Lady Kaori and Mister Muggles exchange glances, and Lady Kaori nods. "Poppets," she murmurs, "How I love poppets." An evil grin splits Mister Muggle's features, and he dances a grotesque little dance in place upon the remains of the still glowing circle, kicking up red sparks with every motion. It takes a few seconds at most, and at the end of his dance, Mr. Muggles leaps into the air, coming down in the middle of the circle, sending up a tremendous shower of red sparks. ... and then, with no space between the two states, each spark is a tiny monster. They look like seven year old children, if such children were only a foot tall each, with elf-ears and fangs, and dressed in ragged green tunics with worn skirts and tights, with brown leather boots that curl upwards where the tips of their toes should be. It's hard to tell if they're male or female, but each wields a tiny, needle-like spear, with a minature bow slung over their shoulders.
For a moment, all is still.
Then Mister Muggles lets out a roar, and a hundred of the tiny monsters scream their high pitched war cries in response. Leaping, skipping, dancing about half of them go forth into battle, and the twelve soldiers of the Wyld Hunt, weapons drawn, rush forward to meet them. The other half... the other half begins to scatter across the camp. At that moment, a serving girl screams, and then another, and then several of the animal handlers do as well: for though the tent was somewhat isolated from the rest of the camp, it was not completely so, and only three hundred of the thousand people within are anything resembling a soldier. Everything goes straight to hell.
Battle is joined in the Wyld Hunt's encampment: soldiers meet with poppets, and at first, the soldiers don't think much of it. One of them manages to cut a little fae-child in half with a sword swipe, but the rest all dart out of the way: the nimble little devils are surprisingly hard to hit, and when the first of them hits back, the soldier it strikes - really not much more than a glancing blow - drops to the ground, paralyzed. Screams begin to fill the air as serving girls and the various support staff of the camp begins to flee, stampeding away from the sight of the battle, and harried by the second group of poppets as they run. Lady Kaori laughs, dancing gracefully around the shattered circle as the portal crackles, expanding ever so slightly with every passing moment.
Lahor, unable to contain his hatred for Ledaal Hakara any longer, flings a tremendous blast of fiery essence at the Air Aspect. Hakara sets himself against the blast, his arms crossing in an x pattern in front of him as it strikes him, forcing him back and leaving foot-shaped furrows in the soil. He is scorched, but it isn't a serious injury. Yet. Still, he's learned his lesson: he ducks behind the dubious cover offered by a clawstrider cage as he prepares for his next move.
Nodoka and Kiriel react almost simultaneously, each of them dropping into a combat stance and preparing to use their respective Immaculate styles, Nodoka drawing her powerbow in the process.
A moment later, Lady Kaori notices Shan's presence, and her eyes fix upon him. She licks her lips, and begins to approach him, smiling seductively even as battle rages all around. "Oh, dear, dear nobleman," she murmurs, "Surely you don't wish to raise a hand against me and mine? No, no. You couldn't bear it. You couldn't bear it if anything happened to me, could you?"
For an instant, Lady Kaori seems the most beautiful person in – or beyond – Creation; the wind stills, the din of battle abates, even the clouds part to let radiance descend from Heaven to light her face. Filaments of wyldstuff crawl across Shan’s mind, invasive, hungry.
They meet resistance, then the ancient power within the Eclipse leaps forth, uses them as conduits to invade Lady Kaori’s mind in turn. "It's been so long since I've tasted the virtues of the Realm, and I AM feeling rather peckish..." Her attack abruptly shatters against a tower of iron will.
Yuusuka looks at the gore soaked camp grounds where the so called 'prison tent' used to be in horror. She glances back at the fleeting form of the one that must be Jeradin, but her long years of drilled training won't let her leave her old classmates behind. Won't let her leave Sha...
Merciful Dragons! Yuusuka's eyes go even wider as fiendish imps appear everywhere!
She jogs awkwardly away from the press of mortal hunters and swarming pookas, cursing her choice of high heels all the way. She just about lines up a shot at the big daddy poppet when one of his wyld-eyed, misbegotten fiendlings leaps for her face. She ducks and the ululating little bastard arcs overhead. Standing up, she wills her birthright to coalesce, burning brightly in her hand. She takes a step forward and casts the pilum of fire at the Poppet Master. Nailing him square in the chest, the fire swarms over him like wildfire over dry summer grass as he tumbles backwards landing face down beneath the portal, twitching horrifically.
The stink of blood fills the air as Shan’s boots raise splashes as he lunges the few steps towards Lady Kaori, following up the thrust with an immediate slash, and then a second, backhand, as though Empyrean Judgment is anxious to add her blood to the ground.
The thrust skitters off her unaccountably hard clothing of living hands, but the next two blows strike home, cutting through the bone and sinew of her armor and into her own flesh.
It is at this point that the Ashadar heavy foot crashes into the thrashing horde of hobgoblins. The shock of them, a wall of tower shields broken only by stabbing spears, at first belies the fact that there are but fifteen of them. Achama Kitaiko calls commands, Kumage Nichi at the fore, and Black Frigate seemingly always where the action is heaviest.
Even as Shan raises his weapon, Lady Kaori is rolling her eyes. "Oh, don't be silly, you stupid human," she says, "No mortal weapon can har-" That's when the second and third blows penetrate her armour and digs into her vulnerable flesh beneath. She staggers backwards, eyes wide, and a moment later, even her shock at the unexpected (but not altogether unpleasant) pain is shoved aside by the importance of the sight of a grotesquely twitching Mister Muggles, smoldering beneath the portal.
"YOU KILLED MISTER MUGGLES!" she shrieks.
Seemingly heedless of the battle around them, Lahor and Nodoka move almost simultaneously. In a flash, Lahor's daiklave, Combustion's Profligate Mistress, is in his hands. His anima burns around him like the heart of a star as he turns the act of unsheathing his sword into his first attack; Nodoka only seems to shift her weight in response, his iaijutsu missing its mark, but the Sesus scion is not done there: scarcely has Nodoka recovered from the first attack when a second is sent her way. Boar Rampages Down the Mountain. Nodoka steps back to evade the controlled overhand chop, and Lahor follows it up with a full force thrust that at last finds purchase on her form: blood runs down the blade for a moment... And then Nodoka is out of range, eyes wide with the realization: her brother means to kill her.
Lahor isn't done: his momentum building, he pivots smoothly and engages Shan.
Empyrean Judgment rises to beat Lahor’s first attack aside, meeting Combustion’s Profligate Mistress in a shower of sparks. Then the dynast blurs with supernatural speed, bringing his daiklaive around at an angle Shan cannot hope to block.
“Six-fold Rushing Winds Style – Cliffside Deflects the Hurricane!” The patrician’s blade trails an essence afterimage as it impossibly interposes to block Lahor’s second attack. The hard-packed earth buckles beneath Shan’s feet at the force of the blow, and a soundless shockwave creates a perfect expanding ring in the blood surrounding the fighters.
Lahor’s anima bursts into appearance, wisps of flame curling about the shockwave from Shan’s block. As the fire-aspect blazes more fiercely, Shan steps back, one boot crunching through the charcoal ribs of the still-smoking ruin of Mister Muggles. Fast footwork puts Lady Kaori between him and Lahor. It is at this point that he notices her rabid expression and at exactly whom she is screaming. His reaction is immediate, and rather than continuing to rain down sword blows instead he plunges the iron ferrule of his scabbard into her face.
The chance of battle changes; so may all battle be. As the Ashadar heavy infantry advances against the disorganized mass of Poppets, it is the Poppets that are driven back, allowing the seven survivors of the dozen that stood with Hakara and Kiriel sufficient time to reorganize. Neither do the two Shikari stand idle: Hakara begins to chant, gathering his Essence as glowing sigils and energies begin to appear around him: six Poppets recognize the sorcery for what it is and charge wildly. With a loud kiai, Kiriel tears the first in half with her dragon claws, it's blood glistening on the blades; a pulse of watery light flashes as the poppet dies, and the other five instantly drop, knocked unconscious by the blow.
All is not well, however: several fallen soldiers rise to their feet, Poppets nestled into their hollowed out chest cavities, now wearing the corpses like armour, and rejoin the fray, much to the dismay of their fellows.
Meanwhile, even as Shan moves to strike her down, the faerie is responding, bending over backwards until her hands meet the bloody ground, letting the weapon pass directly over her body, her gossamer dress fluttering in the breeze of its passage before she falls gracefully into a backwards roll which brings her back to her feet. "Naughty little boys shouldn't play with the cold-fire metal," she murmurs irritatedly, "She killed Mister Muggles, and you won't stop me from thanking the lovely one for bringing me to grief." With those words, the ground beneath Yuusuka's feet erupts in a mass of rose-covered thorn-vines, rising up at Lady Kaori's call...
Yuusuka leans forward into a tuck and roll, thorns drawing thin trickles of blood as they grasp for her legs. She springs up out of her roll and daintily hobbles away from the vines heading towards the fae witch as fast as her high heels will allow. Slithering and roiling along behind her, the vines snatch for her but coil around naught but the warmth of her growing anima's passing.
As Shan maneuvers to attack Lady Kaori, placing the faerie between himself and Lahor, the Fire Aspect stares at his daiklave for a long moment, not quite able to believe that this pale mortal has managed to defeat his flawless attack. The hearthstone set into the daiklave lights up, and immediately, the weapon is sheathed in fire, the heat of it sending up a cloud of red steam all around Lahor. His muscles tense briefly, and then he is in the air, soaring over Lady Kaori's head to come down in a counterclockwise spin, intent on driving the blade through Shan's skull.
As Lahor descends, Shan braces Empyrean Judgement with his second hand on the flat of the blade, catching the blow and torquing it around to his right. He steps to the side, one hand out for balance, and is able to deflect the thrust that follows. It shears the corner off an iron-bound chest that had been standing near the door of the tent. The blood on it flashes to steam, the iron binding parts like cloth, weeping molten drops. Shan backflips over the chest, but the obstacle proves no impediment to the enraged Dragon-Blood; Lahor's final blow carries the weight of a forge hammer, the heat of the furnace, less a sword stroke than an incoming tide of flame. Again, it is as though Shan focuses his Essence: "CLIFFSIDE DEFLECTS THE HURRICANE!" The azure blade leaves cerulean contrails as it interposes itself, stopping Combustion's Profligate Mistress cold, throwing back the rush of flames, as the rush of the tide is thrown back by an immovable breakwater.
Meanwhile, just as Lahor is leaping through the air, Yuusuka takes two little hops over to the side. With each hop she pirouettes and kicks off one of her ungainly shoes at the fae witch. Landing bare foot, she steadies herself and keeps track of Shan out of the corner of her eye so that she can move as needed to keep the fae flanked between Shan and herself.
At last, Sesus Nodoka's reluctance breaks. "Enough," she announces, and lets her powerbow clatter to the ground. She glides forward smoothly, a green glow blooming around her, accompanied by the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze, her every movement full of the impossible beauty of life itself. She strikes Lahor lightly, slipping easily inside his defenses, touching a series of pressure points: his jaw, his cortoroid artery, his chest, leaving behind a glowing green mark which sinks into his flesh. For a moment, nothing seems to happen. ... and then Lahor's aura receeds, and his eyes become glazed as he stares blankly at nothing. Nodoka guides him gently to a sitting position, shielding his helpless body with her own. "Stay down," she murmurs, and looks up to meet the gaze of the man who had been in combat with her brother.
Shan and Yuusuka continue to circle the wary fae when Yuusuka notices Hakara finishing up his spell. She wasn't precisely sure what it was but she was sure it involved setting the immediate area on fire. Any sane mortal would retreat to avoid being caught at ground zero, but she is no sane mortal! She is a Dragon-blood and it is up to her to ensure that these fae didn't escape yet again to ravage Creation another day.
Also, she is extremely vain and can not abide anyone upstaging her, let alone a creature of darkness.
Realizing she has to act quickly if she is going to leverage Hakara's spell, she jukes left but then slides right, her bare feet hydroplaning along the gore slick mud as she attempts to pass behind her target. She focuses essence into her fingers, now like dragon's claws as her arms snake underneath the fae's arms. Latching on from behind, she arrests her sliding movement as she clasps her hands together and puts the fae into a full nelson, leaving her defenseless before Shan's ministrations.
Shan ducks as a poppet mounted on a headless flamingo charges past. Rootlike tendrils join bird to fae, and though its truncated pink neck lolls limply, its wings flap madly, shedding feathers as it careens through the melee. With Lahor temporarily paralyzed, Shan can turn his attention to Lady Kaori, and he moves to exploit Yuusuka’s grapple. His sword flickers, slicing through and through, while he again drives the scabbard in his off-hand into the wyld-born monster. Off to the side, he is aware of Ledaal reaching the climax of his casting.
Lighting her aura ablaze, Yuusuka leans back, still clutching the fae from behind. Bending over backwards, she shouts, "Chaaaa!" as she dragon suplexes the fae, splashing mud all over both of them. Bridging with her back and legs, she holds the fae sorceress upside down pinning the fae's head and shoulders against the slick earth. In this manner, Yuusuka simultaneously gives Hakara a clean shot at a helpless target while at the same time unwittingly flashs Shan with her undergarments.
Crackling invocations of divine law intermingled with glowing formulae and arcane iconography fill the air before Hakara as he completes his spell, every rune, every icon, every invocation of divine law collapsing to a single point: the air aspect thrusts his hands forward, and the tiny fiery bead is sent flying towards the Lie Given Form which calls itself Lady Kaori, expanding in mid flight to take the form of a massive, brilliant bird made of living flame.
Lady Kaori desperately invokes the power of the Wyld within her to fend off her attackers, and behold: each stroke of Shan's sword leaves behind a jagged wound from which bleeds rose petals all in a mass, and each thrust with his cold iron-tipped sheath leaves behind a hole in her being, glowing around the edges, beyond which is only a whirling vortex of Essence. Yuusuka's grip slips slightly as Lady Kaori's body continues to collapse into rose petals... And then the firebird strikes home; all at once, Yuusuka is not holding a woman, but a blazing conflagration.
As the fae melts away into fire consumed petals, Yuusuka's arms pass right through where the fae witch used to be. Set ablaze by a magical fire not her own, she reflexively rolls away from the inferno ruining what's left of her brand new summer dress as she becomes completely covered from head to toe in mud and grime while putting out the flames. Woozily, she tries to stand up, but slips in the muck before trying again and rising wobbly to her feet. Somehow, perhaps by some hidden magic she manages to appear stylishly disheveled, wearing the mud almost regally as if by some incongruous trick of the mind.
Shan is unscarred by the conflict, though not quite untouched. His midnight blue jacket is dyed to a dark purple by the rain of blood. He does, however, remove it and offer to drape it over Yuusuka, which she deigns to allow with a slight nod and a grateful smile.
He looks at Nodoka and bows deeply. “You saved me, Lady Sesus. This one could not have hoped to continue for long.”
Shan’s men stand shoulder to shoulder with those Hakara brought, circled around their paralyzed and wounded. Ohalu Manyscars has added more to his list today; a dead poppet hangs from his chest, its roots partly embedded in his ribs. With a mighty yell he tears the mass of it loose, but the clinging roots remain.
It seems glacial, but the response by the mortal harriers of the Wyld Hunt is quite swift; already they have turned the tide against the poppets and begun to mop them up. Unfortunately, during their brief spree, the hobgoblins did more than paralyze and maim – many of the animal cages stand empty, their inmates loosed upon the camp. Nearby, three soldiers use spears to force a clawstrider away from the body of its victim.
In the background, the swirling gateway into the wyld gapes like an open wound, bleeding streamers of madness.
Nodoka gives Shan as gracious a nod as she can manage under the circumstances. "I had not heard that the Lord of House Ashadar had achieved mortal Enlightenment," she says, easing her grip on her seemingly still mesmerized brother. "The Dragons shall surely grace you with Exaltation in your next life."
Lahor, for his part, stares blankly into the Wyld portal, his eyes defocused, the maddening sights therein playing across his optic nerve over and over... and then his irises begin to rotate in sync with the portal. His expression clears, and with a mighty heave, the mad dynast knocks Nodoka backwards.
"Lahor, no!" she cries, and for a moment - a brief moment - he hesitates, looking at her with a confused, startled expression on his face. Then his expression hardens. All at once, he blazes with the glory of the Elemental Dragon from whence his power is derived, the Glowing Coal Radiance forcing those assembled to look away. "I will remember this," he hisses, his voice filled with venom. "None of you will live to claim the Fortress." And then he blurs, moving so fast it is hard for the eye to even perceive the act, passes through the portal, and is gone.
Nodoka stares after him, horrified, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears, sinks down to the muddy ground, and is silent.
Shan inclines his head, but is otherwise silent. It would be impolite to draw attention to the grief of Lahor’s sister, and so he says nothing, allowing her a respectful distance. Lahor himself did not receive a fifth part of what he deserved, though Shan would not dream of mentioning it.
The battle now little more than a mop-up operation, Hakara and Kiriel at last approach what was once the prison tent. Looking upon the blood-drenched, mud-covered Yuusuka, Hakara grins. "Nicely done, Firebrand," he says. "And may I say, though I'm not impressed with the impractical foreigner shoes, that's a good look for you."
Kiriel scoops up the shoes from the mud and handing them to Yuusuka. "Hakara! Leave the poor woman alone."
Hakara shoots Kiriel a sidelong glance. "Why? Are you jealous?"
Kiriel rolls her eyes, and drags a grinning Hakara back to the mop-up operation.
Though it seemed an eternity to those who fought in it, barely more than a minute and a half has passed. For Jeradin, that time has been well spent: he is now wel into the cover of the riperian ecosystem that makes up the Grey Dells. Before him the ground descends steeply a hundred yards down to the banks of the river. The smell of the woods mingles with the scent of the river, but the birds are silent. The drone of the cicadas mingles with the faint murmur of the river. Jeradin is alone.
Though the apparent isolation is a major weight off Jeradin’s shoulders, he doesn’t trust appearances… not with his life. Despite the fading sound of screams and battle coming from the camp behind him, he didn’t let his pace flag as he plunged deeper into the fog rising from the river valley. A pang of guilt runs through him at the thought of the innocents who may be dying behind him in the camp, but the thought does not slow his flight. He would say a prayer for their souls, later.
The fog began to dampen his clothes and hair as he ran through the trees that line the banks of the Grey River. Jeradin had assumed that the fog was coming from the river when he had decided to run for its misty cover, and wasn’t sure what to think when he notices that the fog isn’t coming from the river, but seems to be coming out of the trees. All he knew was that he wanted to get away from anyone who may be following. When he came upon a low branch, he prepared to launch himself up into the canopy and from there to the tops of the trees.
A note sounds through the fog: the hard, dry sound of a sanxian being plucked, floating ghostlike in the mist. At first, it is easy to think one imagined it; the fog will not be kind to the instrument's strings, but then another note sounds, and another, followed by the drum of fingers on the instrument's membrane, and there is no mistake. It is indeed a sanxian. It's hard to tell the source of it; it echoes strangely. Shrouded by the fog and seemingly oblivious to the sound of the increasingly distant camp, someone is playing music. The sound is a nostalgic one: Jeradin heard it often once, long ago, in his home town.
When the first few wavering notes began to play, a chill ran down Jeradin's spine and the hairs on his arms and neck stood up. The music drifting through the thick fog seemed to be coming from all around him, and yet... it shouldn't be found in this foreign land at all. Often he had heard the sharp-sour notes of the sanxian coming from the yard of a near-by noble as a boy. He used to climb a tree to watch over the man's garden wall as he played in the shade of his pagoda. Much later in life, he would sit in the tent of his Mistress and listen as she coaxed beautiful melodies out of the instrument with her elegant fingers.
The memories came flooding in, distracting him from the urgency of his flight, causing him to falter for a moment, but he shook it off and continued on. As he leaped from the low branch, a voice called out through the fog: "Leaving so soon, Jeradin?" It is Marad's, and, like the sanxian, the voice is impossible to localize, echoing as it does all across the forest.
As he flies through the air, Jeradin grabs an over-head branch and swings his body up, and translating the movement into a tight roll, head over heels, aiming for a largish branch deep within the cover of the tree. When he reaches it, he lands as lightly and soundlessly as a cat and crouches, peering into the mist for any sign of the man he has promised to kill. "I wish I had more than this scalpel" he thinks as he waits for some sign of his pursuer.
The sanxian continues its song, an old Thornian folk melody drifting through the mist and echoing across the river. The leaves of the trees sway ever so slightly. Water drips off a leaf and lands upon a stone. Drip. Drip. Drip. A voice chants faint and low:
"When the voices of children are heard on the green and whisperings are in the dale..."
Those aren't the lyrics. At least, not quite. There should be laughing on the hills, not whisperings in the dale.
"The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind, and my face turns green and pale"
A pause. "Do you believe in fate, Jeradin?"
Jeradin didn't answer, he just formed his body as closely as possible to the damp bark of the branch, willing himself to become one with his surroundings. He hadn't been a successful assassin by talking to his target and giving away his exact location. Instead he once again delved deep into himself, searching for essence that the insatiate soul steel had missed. As before, he found a hidden reserve and fashioned it into the shapes necessary to open the shackles, but unlike last time, he can't quite find the point of focus. The essence seems to nearly lock into place, then it slips from his grasp, fading away. Jeradin is no better off than before, and he has used more of his precious reserves.
Something passes by Jeradin, hitting the tree branch inches from his head with a loud 'thunk': a dagger, still quivering. It came from the south, but there is no sign of the one who threw it. The unseen musician continues to pluck the Sanxian uninterrupted, and the low chanting voice echoes once more through the mist-shrouded wood:
"Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down, And the dews of night arise;"
"I used to believe that the Dragonblooded were above Fate. That Fate was something that controlled the lives of mortals. Now... I'm not so sure." A faint laugh. "Maybe our meeting again this way is Fate. A second chance to finish what should have been done the night you took my hand."
South... at least he knew that much. That, and the fact that hiding isn't going to work this time.
Jeradin reaches up and pulls the dagger out of the branch with a tug. He then leaps up and begins running south through the canopy. He ducks and dodges the branches as he flies toward where he believes Marad can be found, wishing he could move silently, but unable to do so with the chains still attached to his wrists and ankles. Despite the risk of being heard, and therefore seen while moving, he must get closer to Marad if he is going to join him in battle rather than being his target. After ten or fifteen yards, Jeradin begins to make out a dim outline in the fog, it's Marad, and he's staring strait at Jeradin while standing in the open playing the sanxian. Jeradin's body reflexively prepares to enter battle.
Jeradin's foot appears to fall short of the next branch, and for a split second it looks as though he has made a fatal misstep, but instead of slipping through and falling to the ground, he plants his second foot on top of the branch, with his first foot locked under it and his body goes ridged. Suddenly he is swinging around the branch like the arm of a trebuchet. As his body descends through the leaves, his arm follows an arch within an arch, releasing the knife at the perfect moment.
Marad doesn't try to dodge. He doesn't draw a weapon. He smiles ever so slightly, and lets his pick strike the strings of the sanxian with more force than the song calls for, loudly striking the chord beneath the melody line he had been playing. The dagger flies straight and true, but as Marad strikes the chord, the air immediately in front of him ripples in response, the sound-waves made visible, intermingled with gently glowing Essence; the dagger strikes the distorted air and decelerates visibly, moving as though through a thick syrup. Marad absently plucks it out of the air with his Jade hand, not losing a beat, twirls it, and then lets it drop point first into the damp earth.
Silence, broken only by Marad's faint song. Water drips from tree-leaves onto a stone. Drip. Drip. Drip.
"Is that all your anger amounts to?" he asks with a chuckle. He shakes his head.
"Your spring and your day are wasted in play, And your winter and night in disguise."
After rounding the branch, Jeradin releases his hold and arches his back, rotating in the air to land upright and on his feet on the forest floor. The soft smell of disturbed leaf mulch blends pleasantly with the sharp smell of hardwood sap rising from his feet, which are now covered with crushed bark from his circuit around the tree limb. As soon as he lands, the scalpel is in his hand, and just as quickly is flying through the air toward Marad. Jeradin has no hope of actually hitting his target after witnessing his last throw turned into a cruel joke, but there is a chance that dealing with another blade flying through the air will distract the dragon blooded enough to close the distance between them and for his second and third blows to land. As expected, the throw is met with another chord on the sanxian and the torture implement slows to a casual pace. Once again the deadly throw is lazily plucked from the air. "So that's where that got off to." Marad says as he drops the scalpel next to the knife.
As Jeradin approaches Marad, he crouches to give his punch more power and directs it all at the slender neck of the instrument. The punch landed with enough force to punch a hole in a small fishing boat... and yet... the force of the blow seemed to dissipate on contact. That was when Jeradin noticed the orichalcum and moonsilver strings. The sanxian was an artifact! There was no way he would ever be able to break it. Changing plans in an instant, Jeradin redirects his third blow to knock the instrument from Marad's grasp.
Marad snatches the sanxian away from Jeradin's attempt to pull it from his fingers, and the music fades. The dynast lashes out with his free hand - the jade prosthetic - at Jeradin's face, but the solar is no longer there, avoiding the blow with impossible alacrity, to briefly stand supported on Marad's outstretched wrist. Marad quickly counters, watery essence lending fluid grace to his movement as he twists his hand from under the solar's foot, grabs Jeradin's ankle and casts him to the ground.
"Nothing to say, Jeradin? Really? You weren't so stoic the day you murdered my friends." He snorts. "I suppose you still think House Cynis was responsible for the assassination. Our files did say you were unimaginative."
As Jeradin is being thrown down, just before he hits the ground, his hand darts out, unseen, and grabs the discarded knife and scalpel from the soft earth. Unfortunately for Marad, the soil here is thick leaf mulch, which frustrates his attempt to use it as a weapon. The impact doesn't even knock the wind out of Jeradin. As soon as he lands, he bows his body with his hands and feet on the ground. In an instant, his feet fly up, striking out at Marad's chin. Jeradin had hoped to hear the loud "clack!" of teeth slamming shut as his foot impacted Marad's face, but the Dragon Blood ducks back, out of the way at the last second. As they complete the transit over Jeradin's body, his feet trail leaves through the air which flutter elegantly back to the ground as if mocking the mortal battle being waged atop them.
As he flips backward Jeradin breaks his silence. "I saw you and your friends murder my mistress! Am I to believe that House Cynis had nothing to do with sending its members to kill someone who was about to expose their... your treasonous corruption to the Realm?"
Jeradin regains his feet from the backflip-kick, then crouches to the soft earth and immediately launches himself back into the sheltering branches overhead.
Marad laughs out loud. "Our treasonous corruption?" He looks at Jeradin now as if looking on something entirely new and novel, half delighted, half pitying. "You're a damned fool." Absently he plucks at his sanxian, sending out a few experimental notes. "And an inconsiderate fool. Do you know how hard it is to keep these things in tune? ... No matter. It was never about House Cynis. Nellens Sayana stumbled onto something that was too big for her. The All-Seeing-Eye intervened. One dead Magistrate, Dragonblooded or not, is a small price to pay for the security of the Realm."
"You will suffer before you die for uttering her name!" Jeradin growled as he wove between the branches, looking for the next opportunity to throw the knife. "And I know what 'security of the Realm' means to the greedy vultures of the high Houses. It means planting one's self into the throne of the Empress (Dragons haste her return), or being allied to those that do!"
Jeradin dove around a particularly thick tree trunk and, with it between Marad and himself, he climbed strait up with grace and speed that would make a hummingbird jealous. Once above the sheltering canopy, he reversed course and began running atop the leaves as though they were a stone road. Unencumbered by the need to dodge and weave he was able to hold the chains still and silent until he was directly over the spot where Marad was standing. Knife at the ready, he dove back into the trees like the cliff divers he had seen once on the coast. As he dove past and around the last two branches between himself and the Dragon blooded noble he once again loosed his knife strait down on the unexpecting target. The blade flies true, glinting in the diffused light that ambles into the forest through the thick fog. It turns twice before plunging to the hilt into Marad's shoulder.
Jeradin fell past the injured terrestrial, hitting the ground behind him with a roll.
Even as Jeradin lands behind him - between him and the river - Marad moves. He's fast. Horrifically fast. He tosses the Sanxian into the air and flows like water, like the tide, graceful, beautiful, and inexorable all at once: such is the nature of the Terrestrial Hero Syle. His fists charged with Essence, he first sends his artifact hand cutting towards Jeradin's throat.
Marad’s unnatural speed is matched by Jeradin’s nearly god-like grace. As the terrestrial’s Jade hand streaks towards his throat, he turns effortlessly on one heel, and leans back only a fraction... not far enough. The blow comes only just shy of crushing Jeradin's throat, but Marad isn't done yet. He sends a powerful, punishing blow into Jeradin's midsection: Jeradin is already bowing his body forward, trying to put his his midsection out of the reach of the enraged noble’s fist, but the first blow has slowed him down, and his evasion is again insufficient: this time, Jeradin feels the shock of the impact with his entire body. As Marad steps forward, putting all his weight behind a final blow, bringing his jade hand like a knife, intending to slice Jeradin from shoulder to hip, Jeradin at last catches a break: his form seems to flicker, and for a moment, Jeradin simply isn't there to be hit. All of this happens in a fraction of a second, and it is only after the exchange has ended that the deafening cracks of Marad's hand piercing the sound barrier resound across the forest: Jeradin collapses bonelessly, his head smacking against the exposed root of a live oak.
Marad catches the sanxian and sets it down against a tree root, then leans down, producing a knife in one hand, a small envelope bearing the insignia of the All-Seeing-Eye in the other. The envelope he forces into the unconscious Jeradin's mouth. The knife he places at the fallen Solar's throat, and lets out a breath he didn't realize he was holding. He smiles. "Give my regards to the Yozi, demon," he whispers. It is then, just as he is about to draw the deadly blade across the flesh of Jeradin's throat and spill his life's blood out across the steep switchback path, the cloaked figure of a man who had been stealthily moving up on the encounter now steps into view, and calls out:
"I think not."
Mnemon Orlando has arrived.
Orlando's morning meditation is interrupted by the sounds of crashing bodies. Seated in the low branches of a tree in lotus, eyes closed, he allows the sound, at first, to pass over and through him. But the clamoring noise quickly grows to a cacophony, and he rises to investigate.
He pauses as he reaches the crest of the hill that leads, steeply, down to the river below, and finds his eyes resting upon the two men fighting. Slowly and carefully, the monk begins to pick his way down the slope, pausing, at last, a dozen or so meters away to watch. Recognition briefly flares in his eyes. He knows Jeradin. Of the other's identity he is less sure. And this fight is looking sour for he with whom Orlando is familiar. It is only when the knife is drawn and at Jeradin's throat that Orlando know that he must act.
"Give my regards to the yozi, demon."
Those words hang in the air, and Orlando's eyes flick between the two men. Demon? Like his student? Doubt flares bright, but something tells him that the events below are not mere happenstance. This is destiny. The unavoidable path, the harsh choice that must be obeyed. Swift footsteps carry him to the switchback path, and his voice rings out before the noble can spill Jeradin's life's blood.
"I think not."
Energy crackles in the air as Orlando focuses his Chi, and the monk leaps, his foot connecting with the noble's jaw with a sickening crunch. The other foot quickly following in an upwards swing, throwing Orlando into a backflip and completing the transfer of kinetic energy from one man to the other. Marad flies back, a spray of broken teeth showering Jeradin. The knife and instrument clatter to the ground, the former spilling over the cliff as the noble falls down, down to the river below.
Marad's blood, sprayed onto the leaves of a nearby tree, begin to drip down to the frothing water into which he has vanished.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
The wood has grown, finally, silent.
A few moments later, the song of birds and the noise of insects resumes: the world has taken its deep breath, and now, life continues.
Jeradin lies unconscious at Orlando's feet.
A small breath escapes Orlando. He looks down at the form of the man unconscious at his feet, and then bends down to pick him up, and sets off back for camp.
Some forty five minutes later, he has set Jeradin down in the healer's tent, aside Kirika. Looking towards Daav Immil, Shan's healer, he says, "I've brought you another one."
The healer peers at the unconscious man. “He’ll live,” he pronounces after some moments. “But I’m frankly amazed by it. His ribs, they are broken , he should be bleeding inside. Yet I cannot find any. His windpipe, it should be crushed. It is not. There is little I can do – I can bind his ribs, I can try to keep him from moving. This man, he is a very lucky man.”
Looking up at Orlando, he points to the shackles that bind Jeradin. “What are these, Lord Mnemon? Is this man your prisoner?”
"No." Orlando replies, looking down at the shackles.
"But I don't have a key. Perhaps there's a locksmith around? If not, we could cut them off."
“Perhaps, my lord. But my patient, you should not be moving him. He and I, we shall wait here for you.”
END EPISODE 5