When the sun was at it's highest point, Protects-from-Cold got up, clawed himself out of the hole and shook off the dirt from his disguise. The sounds of the festivities drifted on the wind, and he let out a challenging roar that pierced the skies, intending to send shiver running down the spine of any of the guards that heard it. And then he was off, tearing through the idyllic countryside like the rampaging spirit bear he was supposed to disguised as, ripping a swathe of destruction through everything he came across in the process, and snarling and growling all the way to sell the image of danger.
As the Lunar in his green Huraka disguise bounded on four claws along the countryside towards the town at the center of Lushfield, he made sure to plow through as many fences and barns along the way, blasting beast-sized holes through walls as he tried to kick up as much dust and wreckage as possible. His efforts soon bore fruit: As he topped a hill and came in sight of the building-tops, the sounds of screeching whistles and ringing bells rang out. The Lunar felt a deep sense of deja vu, reminded distinctly of the times when he led his fellow beastman warrior in early-morning raids against similar cities on the northern tundra, slaying the defenders brave enough to come out fight, before letting his fighters pillage anything that could be carried off, and finally vanishing into the wilderness before reinforcements could arrive.
Approaching the outskirts of the nearest building, he spotted his quarry, the fiery-haired Archimandrite Celcine mounted on a grey horse, galloping down the main thoroughfare. She was clad in the same red jade suit of heavy armor that Cold recognized from the museum in the upper floor of the town hall that they had toured five days ago, and she had in her hand a straight-saber, its blade polished to a mirror sheen. A small squad of frightened soldiers scurried away from an improvised wooden barricade as she approached, and the horse defly leapt over it. The Lunar noticed groups of heads in the distance popping up on the roofs of the visible buildings, onlookers for the anticipated confrontation.
Cold grinned as he saw his prey approach. Her blade was held aloft, with the red jade armor glinting in the sun as she charged towards at him. It was a perfect representation of a beautiful hero facing a beast in some ancient epic. The way she pranced and waved her blade around was just wasting energy before the battle even begun, he thought. Yet, he fell back a little bit, playing into the fantasy that Celcine no doubt was feeling right now - that she was the heroine of the story. But all she was doing was putting more distance between her and any help. His plan was to make her think she had the upper hand, catch her off guard, and make clear who was hunting who in this tale.
Wheeling around on her horse, Celcine took the opportunity to snap the hinged upper breastplate of her articulated plate armor back in its proper place as she raised the Short Daiklave high up in the air for the benefit of the onlookers - more and more people were enthusiastically streaming in behind the soldiers at the barricade and to the rooftops to watch their Archimandrite in all her beauty and glory defend the nation.
The Lunar remembered back to the conversation he and Warden had with the locals while learning to dance, and remembered how that odious young man who was engaged to poor Rael's sister mentioned how he preferred Celcine's jingoistic militarism over the professional soldiery of Anguilla and Honto's cautioned restraint, and the Lunar had to wonder how many in the swelling crowd were followers of her zealous rhetoric, looking for a sign that Lushfield's future laid along the path of her ambition. Surely, the red jade arms and armor she bore - the relics of the founders of the nation - had to be animating the most chauvinist among the populace.
Prompting a cheer from the crowd, flames rippled in Celcine's eyes, as an Anima glow began to shimmer around her. And then, spurring the horse Pickle beneath her, she bore down in the direction of the interloping beast. Beneath her glorious charge though, masked by the sight of one of the ten-thousand dragons tapping into their dragon-given powers, her makeup began to run from the beads of sweat that dripped from her chin; She was struggling to maintain her composure under the effects of the long-lasting hemlock-based concoction that Persistent Cub had covertly administered the day before.
The Lunar stopped his 'retreat' and turned to meet her charge. The cheers from the crowd spurred him on just as much as they did Celcine. He thought to himself that he was going to enjoy shattering those hopes just as much as he was going to enjoy completing his hunt and claiming Celcine's shape. Cold roared with the fury of one Chosen by Luna, aiming to rattle both horse and rider. He abandoned the ruse of being an ursine quadruped and rose on his back legs, his war form large enough to look Celcine straight in the eye even while she was on horseback, as he struck out, claws trying to find purchase on her jade armor to cast her down.
As Celcine galloped to meet the Green Beast, a trained eye could have seen that she wasn't nearly the same horse-woman as Anguilla: her technique was a little sloppier - for the benefit of onlookers, not for the rigors of combat. She should have been leaning forward, keeping her body as low as possible on her steed's mane to minimize the target she presented, but instead she remained seated straight up in the saddle, like a show-jumper taking an expensive dressage horse for its paces. The heavy red set of jade armor also jangled as she bounced up and down in the saddle - a sign that it was oversized for her frame and wasn't properly fitted.
A fierce flurry of claws lashed out to meet the blade of the Short Daiklave and the toughened red jade armor with a shower of sparks as the combatants flew past each other. Cold skidded to a halt and turned to see the effects of his attack: The well-trained destrier wheeled around, but Celcine was leaning backward unsteady in the saddle, and failing to grab for for the reins dangling in the wing that she had lost a hold of. The unfamiliar weight of the heavy armor was too much for her, and she slipped off he back of the horse, managing to land in a roll, the thick plates of the red jade armor protecting her from any serious lasting harm from what would be a much more serious fall for any mortal. As Pickle ran off away from the fight, the Fire-Aspect managed to gracefully get up to one knee, spitting out a mouthful of dirt and pushing her hair out of her face.
With a look of anger and with her Short Daiklave raised high once again, the woman's Anima Flare transforms into a wreath of flames, and the blade begins glowing red-hot as she runs at the beast, lashing out to strike. Her flames assault the green ursine creature, who is driven back by the wild strikes from her fiery brand, putting Cold firmly on the defensive. A smirk crosses her face as a cheer goes up from the crowd. Everyone was right about these Hurakas, the look on her face seemed to say. They're just mindless animals that would shrink in the face of the majestic flames of righteousness. I don't know why they were so worried.
The flaming wreath surrounding her also fades away, leaving only the intense heat of her crimson aura that illuminated her in the dirt field for all to see in her radiance, and she raises her blade again to go for another attack, this time on the offensive with her footing steady, rather than her previous flurry of desperate strikes.
Cold kept his eyes firmly on Celcine, ignoring her smirk. He could feel the flames die back already. He just needed to keep his head cool and go on the counterattack after she tired herself out. The Lunar had involuntarily growled as her fiery essence scorched his fur. Now though, it was his turn, and he aimed to make it count and put her on the back foot. He rushed forwards, claw swiping at her armored form, trying to get her attention in the hopes that the ill fit of her armor would delay her response.
The Lunar's razor-sharp claws batter the poorly-fitted heavy artifact armor, flakes of glittering red jade falling to the earth as he drove back the momentum of Celcine's assaults, giving himself some momentary breathing room. The two now were on equal footing, and eyed each other. Is that all it's got?, thought the cocky Archimandrite. It's nothing but a cornered beast lashing out in desperation. Raising her blade again, her dragon-blooded Anima Banner leapt in intensity to its maximum, radiating intense heat around her as she closed the gap between the two, ready to strike the blow that she expected would crush this wayward cur's will's will to resist.
Protects-from-Cold didn't relent, however. He didn't want to give her any space to breathe, so he needed to keep pressuring her. Putting his entire weight into his next strike, his lips curled back in a snarl as he lashed out in the same instant as the Fire-Aspect leveled her strike! Time had come for this hunt to come to an end, so he lashed out, intent to simply end Celcine's life in one blow, snuffing it out and tearing her asunder to spill her heart's blood.
Honto and Anguilla, with the four Solars trailing behind them, put on a show of making their way to the south of town, in the direction taken by the Archimandrite. Reaching the the crowd gathered behind the soldiers manning the stockade and pushing their way through, they made their way to the front of the barricade just in time to see Celcine and the green beastly Huraka that Cold was disguised as crash together. Celcine was cloaked in her fiery Anima Banner like a figure at the center of a bonfire, and the observers could feel the radiating intense heat even at this distance, more than a hundred yards away from the contest of strength.
Celcine yelled and Cold roared as they came together, her lashing out with her Short Daiklave and him with his knifelike claws. There was a momentary shroud of dark smoke as the two met, as fur and feathers and plant matter ignited instantly into ash and burned away, filling the air. When the smoke cleared a few seconds later, Cold was standing alone on his two back feet, triumphant. Celcine was staggered, on one knee, a massive gash across the side of her face that had torn away a clump of her hair on her scalp, leaving a bloody wound, and the Daiklave hung limply in her hand. The ill-fitting red jade artifact heavy armor she wore had its whole front torn up with gashes, with the leather straps that held it all together ripped out, exposing the seams between the plates.
"Heavens above! Why didn't she wait for us!" called out Honto is his most authoritative voice as he began climbing to the top of the barricade, where he could be seen. He had injected concern and fear into his tenor for the benefit of the crowd. "Didn't I tell her that Hurakas were extremely dangerous? Come on, she needs help!" He hauled up Anguilla in her blue jade Lamellar behind him. Only the Solars could tell, from the faintest hint of a concealed smile on the edge of his lips, and the less-than-urgent pace he adopted in mounting the wall of dirt-filled canvas bags, that he was internally beaming.
"Go! Save her!" Cub calls out to Honto and Anguilla, false anguish audible in her voice.
As the Eclipse Caste looks at the pair going over the barricade, she cannot help reflecting on their time in Lushfield and particularly on its dragonblooded inhabitants. She cannot claim to have liked any of them to any extent, but Honto's smug smile as he looks back makes it clear in her mind whom she dislikes the most. When she met him, he had seemed like an island of civilization in the barbarous Threshold, but first his explicit offer of money for murder, and later his outbursts during the confrontation in the Cathedral had stripped him of any goodwill his beds and baths had gained him. And here at the end, he still cannot see that he has more in common with the woman whose death he has orchestrated than with her. That too rankles. Despite Exaltation and powerful allies, here she is yet again playing a part in a production put on by one of the Dragon-Blooded. It is a part that gets her what she wants, but still it feels like a loss. Like shame. Like marriage.
Looking away, she casts a last glance at the Archimandrite as Cold's sharp claws close in on her, and a spike of pity stabs at her heart. Celcine didn't want this, Cub put her there. Though the blades aimed at her throat were not held in Cub's hands, the Fire Aspect would not be in their way if not for her. It was almost too easy to bring this confrontation about, too easy to put the woman in harm's way. Oh sure, Celcine was hardly innocent, but manipulating her felt a little like taking candy from a child. She did not deserve death, and in a better world Cub would have been able to steer things to a better end. But in this one she cannot even see the end she would have wanted for this strange city.
Khi stood well back from the impending slaughter, fading into the crowd of soldiers and peasants. She didn't enjoy what was going on - she had, after all, barely spoken with the woman, but she didn't feel much in the way of guilt, or horror. Khi had seen death and violence before, and been taught to appreciate the visceral thrill of someone else's pain. Happily, she didn't feel that. She merely felt...she felt almost nothing. This woman's death was a price she had allowed to be paid for Sadrica, and, while that altar was, increasingly, heaped with offerings, there would be more to fill it before her duty was done. Nevertheless, anonymous, Khi tried to slip away. She had no reason to watch, and Cold, clearly, had the murdering well in hand. He was right about his boasts of his violent prowess - the young man was quite good at it, if a little too eager for the opportunity to spill blood.
Warden watched the fight, his expression stoic. He reminded himself again why Celcine had to die: She was a zealot that would have led her nation into a bloody and pointless war, spent the lives of their peasants like coin to achieve her ambition. It brought back bad memories of a fire-swathed conqueror, expanding Prasad's reach with callous disregard to advance his own agenda... He shook his head and averted his eyes as the gruesome killing blow was delivered. It was done now, for better or worse.
Whilst Cold was engaging Celcine, Scales had more mundane matters to attend to; thankfully, moving the dirt and soil back into place at the secret entrance they had dug into the underground tunnels was a much faster and easier job than it had been to remove it. Finished with his task, he took a roundabout route back, stumbling upon the site of the fight from the east, just in time to see its bloody end. From the encounter with the Tiger's Eyes, he had the feeling that the young Lunar would have this well in hand. As for Celcine, well, there were no strong feelings one way or another. Scales was no stranger to death, and knew sometimes one has to die to save more; further, he didn't know anything about her personally, save for what snippets he heard during the dinner and Lo-Biven's callous remarks. Truth be told, Scales had not forged any particularly strong bonds with any of the dragon-blooded of Lushfield.
In the end, it was swift. The tremendous bonfire pillar of red glaring anima reached up to the heavens in its glory, and then it was gone, blown out like a sixteenth-yen candle hit by a gust of wind through an open window.
It was a reminder that the border between existence and oblivion in this vast place called Creation was thin, that in the greater scheme of the heavenly cycle of reincarnation, even the lives of the blessed were trifling and insignificant. Any among them could be violently ripped away in a single heartbeat, and existence would go on. The graveyards were full of indispensable men and women. The sun would rise the next morning, and the billions who woke with it every morning would go to tend to their crops and herds and ledgers and workbenches, and the next day and the next, until one day too they would rejoin the cycle as well.
The body lay before the blood-spattered and singed lunar. The final blow had ripped open the top half of the ruby-red jade armor, with a claw slicing through her throat.
Celcine had fought better then Cold would've given her credit for. At the start of this hunt, he had though that taking Celcine's shape would be easy, and that he would be able to make better use of it then this lazy socialite ever could have. But when faced with the end, it had seemed there was something that resembled a warrior's spirit hidden beneath the layers of arrogance, lazyness and pettiness that he saw in her. She had put up a fight, and didn't merely snap like a twig. Then again, maybe he was reading too deeply into all of this this. All the Lunar he knew was that her shape was worthy of being called a trophy to commemorate a fight worth remembering. The Lunar bent down to complete the ritual of the sacred hunt.
He wasn't able to celebrate for long, however. The next part of the plan was being put into action: Honto and Anguilla needed to put on a show of destroying the beast, and they weren't exactly in on the secret that it wasn't an expendable spirit summoned for the purpose, but in fact was a Lunar in disguise. Protects-From-Cold was cocky, but even he knew better than to tussle with two dragon-bloods, after already having expended quite a bit of his Exalted. Both of them looked like they could fight better then Celcine could.
The Seneschal of Lushfield had stopped at a point around seventy-five yards away from the Lunar, and had unslung the carved wooden longbow that he wore across his back. He knocked an equally finely carved wooden arrow into the bow's vermilion-colored string, aiming it up high in the direction of the green beast devouring the body. Anguilla had stepped a few feet away from him to give him extra space, holding her Guandao in a defensive posture. The man's eyes suddenly glowed a blank white as his green colored Anima blossomed to life around him, drawing power from the life in the fertile soil below him into a swirling cloud of pollen, flower petals, and leaves that flowed all around him, the geomantic power slowly growing more and more concentrated into the shaft of the wooden arrow, which began to flicker a harsh brown-orange light. Without a doubt, the Honto was about to unleash the might of his sorcery upon the monster that had slain his beloved cousin.
A Huraka was a spirit - a being capable of demateralizing and returning to the realm of wind where it had been born from. Unfortunately for Cold, he was not in fact a Huraka, but instead his flesh was much more more concretely tied to this material plane called Creation. Still though, perhaps he had tricks he could play.
When the sorcerous light show started, Cold knew that it was best for him to make himself scarce. He probably could make it look like the creature had dissipated into its ethereal spirit form if he shape-shifted into a mouse or something else very small, but he couldn't exactly do that while in the open. He needed to get out of sight, and so he fled, acting precisely like the ursine beast they were taking him for, looking for anywhere he could hide.
Easier said than done. The Lunar was in the form of a seven-foot tall war beast, with fur died forest green, wearing a disguise to make it appear as if his claws were avian talons and his underbelly was plumed with multicolored feathers, most of which were now charred into crisp blackness. He was also in the middle of an open, freshly plowed brown field, and had hundreds of sets of eyes on him. Stealth was going to be impossible here - if he wanted to go to ground, he was going to have to find something that could obscure a beast of his size. There was only one option: a barn, two stories, fading red paint, about a hundred yards away. He would have to move like lightning to make it inside, and he wouldn't exactly be able to fiddle with any doors - he would have to smash through the wall.
Honto's body slowly pivoted with his bow as he adjusted his lead, the Senechal's glowing white eyes tracking the fleeing beast as it fled across the field. No doubt this spirit was attuned to the smell and taste of sorcery, as many supernatural creatures were. The Lunar's incredible strength propelled him ten yards a bound, making it seem very much as if he were a spirit of the winds. But it wouldn't be fast enough to outrun an arrow. More and more essence flowed out of the earth and into the brightly glowing arrow, as the sorcerer's green anima flare intensified.
Cold's heart was hammering in his chest as he darted towards the barn. The fact some unknown sorcery was trained on him spurring him on quicker and quicker. Did he fear it? He absolutely did. He knew absolutely nothing about sorcery and what it did.
The Senechal's focus remained as he calibrated his aim, observing the spirit slightly stumble. He could taste its panic. The arrow was glowing a near blinding white now: the spell was nearly ready. There was an incredible release of pressure as the bowstring thrummed with energy, distorting the air in a sphere around Honto and and blasting rippling waves of loose soil away from the sorcerous archer. The glowing white arrow launched skyward in a high arc, and his aim was true. If Cold's plan had any chance of working, he would have to reach the cover of the barn now.
Protects-from-Cold felt his heartbeat nearly jump out of his chest as he heard the sound of the arrow blasting off and whistling through the air. With the fear giving him a last second burst of speed, he managed to reach the barn. He didn't even bother slowing down, and braced himself for whatever came first, the ensorcelled arrow unleashing its power, or his impact with the wooden wall of the building. The crashe through the wall came first, and he plowed through it with all the grace and subtlety of a drunk in a fine teashop, using his claws like anchors and digging them in the ground to slow his momentum so he didn't crash through the other side. Mouse Mouse Mouse, he thought, desperately willing his body to transform so that he could make his escape.
Less than a second after the green beast crashed through the side of the barn, the radiant white arrow fell from its high arc like a brilliant white cliff egret plunging down from their lofty nest into the river waters below, smashing through the shingles at the top of the barn.
For a moment - nothing. A single pregnant heartbeat that lasted an eternity.
And then the barn detonated from the inside out, the entire structure instantly reduced to splinters, as if a thousand-foot tall giant had swing a massive club through it.
Warden watched the sorcerous missile annihilate the fragile wooden barn, hoping that his Lunar companion was as durable and hard to kill as the tales suggested. But assuming Cold came away mostly unscathed, it seemed like their plan had succeeded. Now he just needed to hope that things would really turn out for the better once they left.
Scales also witnessed the sheer destruction from the detonation of Honto's magical arrow, and felt only admiration. That level of destruction was something to aspire towards; the unity of magical might and martial skill, greater together than separate. Yet, could I take it further? Add the magic of the dead to the mix? A worthy goal. And as for Cold's continued survival? His fellow Lunar should be made of sterner stuff than a wooden building.
For a brief moment. The Lunar's entire world was white as the sorcerous energy washed over him. And he, in the form of a small mouse, and everything else in the barn - nailed down or not - went flying as well.
In the end, his small size and innate Lunar resilience saved him from the worst of the damage. He landed in a soft dirt field hundreds of feet away, amid a rain of debris, the soil cushioning the fall. He was battered and groaning in pain, but he would survive. Now though, he needed to make his way back to the safety of the wagon, where he could return to his true form and let the essence already stitching together his wounds continue its work.
The heavy wooden wagon wheels jolted over a buried rock in the late evening twilight, ten miles outside a godforsaken, blessed, maddening place they called Lushfield.
They had been unceremoniously shuffled off without fanfare or as much as a thank you from the dwellers above or below the ground. It may have been understandable, given the circumstances, but it rankled all the same. There was no gratefulness left in this world. Such is the undeniable reward given to all true heroes, and perhaps it was why so many ended up as villains with time.
The caravan departed one horse richer than it had arrived. This one was accursed, it was said: its last two riders were dead. The ill-omened creature had been excommunicated. These are the way of things.
Inside the coach sat a lanky figure in a wide-brimmed straw hat that had thick tassels hanging down all around the brim. They were scrutinizing a queer melon-sized wooden object - whatever was inside was the reason for this whole episode. The researcher wore a black leather duster wrapped around their skinny frame that extended all the way down to their boots, with a tall buttoned-up collar that covered the bottom half of their head up to their beady eyes.
On the floor of the coach, there was a still-sleeping young woman. Her bruises that had seemed so horrible only a few hours ago when they had to carefully convoy her to the wagon had almost entirely vanished.
Next to her was a five-gallon keg that none of them could look at for more a few seconds without chagrin. They would undoubtedly feel different about it in the morning, but tonight it was just reminder of the indignity of the whole affair. A talent of silver that they hadn't even asked for, forced upon them as the price for their virtue. It robbed them of even their self-righteousness, and reduced it all to a vulgar transaction. Whores, one and all. So goes the Age of Sorrows.