Smoldering Cinder floated in a quiet void, sequestered from the world. She sat with her legs folded underneath her and her palms pressed together, in the middle of an empty space with only her faithful daiklave for company. The sheathed blade lay a foot or so in front of her, just inside the most acute range of her awareness, as she concentrated. At the edge of the void were five flames, each a different color; today her thoughts were centered on the green flame, the one which represented Makoto, the concept of honesty. It was a complex virtue in her philosophy: the lowest level, Li, involved being upfront with one’s words and actions; Yi sat at the middle level, and encompassed doing what was moral and equitable; and the highest level, Ren, espoused treating everyone, even your lessers and enemies, as you would wish your superiors to treat you.
Contemplating the nature of Makoto was always particularly interesting, but Cinder couldn’t help feeling a bit hypocritical doing so every now and again. After all, she was keeping a very big secret from everyone but her two fellow Guardians and Ibis. Honestly, at times she was concerned that she was violating Ren outright. What always convinced her to maintain her silence was the fact that her secret wouldn’t really change much – though it might draw unwanted attention to the valley were it to become common knowledge, the fact remained that Ibis herself was already plenty of reason for enemies to find their way to Three Oaks. Luckily, they didn’t see many visitors from more than a few miles away, and the people of the valley were quite happy to stay mum about their resident Solar when an outsider did show. So if she was actually mistaken in her interpretation of Ren, and would eventually incur an honor-debt for her actions, she would pay it gladly, if the dishonor meant keeping the valley even a little safer.
As her meditation came to an end, Cinder drew in one long breath, closed her eyes, and relaxed her entire body. The flames winked out silently, and the void faded, starting with her immediate surroundings and spreading out until she was once again part of the world. The roar of the falls under which she sat finally intruded on her ears, but she paid it just as little mind as the frigid water coursing down her body and soaking through her thick haori completely. That loose outer robe was the only clothing she wore, but it was still a burden – rather than actually shield her body at all, the extra weight from the material absorbing the water and clinging to her skin forced her to concentrate even more fully to maintain her calm. It was just one of many meditation techniques the mikos of Three Oaks had to practice; in fact, her true purpose for being at the falls today was training the next round of candidates. Three girls were with her this time, and as they had only recently begun the training, she had permitted them the luxury of practicing without their own haoris for the time being.
Finally opening her eyes, Cinder held her pose for the moment, but glanced around at her pupils, seated abreast to either side of her. Each of them hailed from one of the individual villages below the mountain they were on, and they all showed considerable promise. Lilica Brightmoon already knew the basic rituals forwards and backwards, and Iori Catstail, though the youngest at barely more than ten, could enter the dreamscape and speak with the local minor gods with the skill of a priestess twice her age. But the student who had shown the greatest progress was Temari Yula; seated immediately to Cinder’s left, the fair-haired teen managed a good imitation of a miko’s calm, the only chink in her appearance being the occasional shiver of her bare shoulders under the water’s constant assault. Beyond that, she was the image of patience and focus. The other two would make fine Watchers over the central great oaks of their respective villages, but Cinder was secretly expecting Temari to eventually become Soaring Ibis’s immediate subordinate. She wouldn’t be surprised if the girl gained an elemental Aspect of her own, given a few more years of training.
“Alright, my students,” Cinder finally spoke, reaching over to lift Ivory Blaze Dancer out of the water and getting to her feet. “I’m returning to the village for a bit. Continue the usual routine until I return.” The last bit wasn’t necessary; she knew these three would see to themselves just fine, and as she spoke, they nodded in unison, Iori sneezing quietly but maintaining her seated pose. With a nod, Cinder strode out of the pool, and headed for the bank to fetch her clothes.
A few minutes later found Cinder walking through the streets of South Oak, her hands tucked into her sleeves as she went. The sky was a bit overcast today, but it was still a pleasant day, and many villagers were out enjoying the weather. They greeted her with respectful nods and warm smiles as they passed, but otherwise left her to her own devices, and she theirs. She had grown up over in West Oak, but any child of one village was treated as a child of all three, and so she felt equally at home wherever she went. It was a good feeling, that; not the sort of thing she had experienced while wandering Creation.
Turning her view southward, her gaze fell on the towering boughs of Great South, the village’s giant central oak. It was enormous, even compared to the grand trees of the surrounding forests, easily catching the eye from almost three miles distant. Matsuri-Ono told the people that, before he had regained his physical form, those central oaks had been his symbols in the world, his protective instincts made manifest. While in the presence of one, it was hard to believe otherwise – they each were shrines of no small regard, and though they couldn’t compare to the powers of the Wyld Barrier, they still radiated an aura of calm and serenity that Cinder found bordered on the intoxicating. She normally would have gone to spend some time in reflection underneath Great South’s limbs, but she instead kept on her course traveling through the village proper. Meditation had taken up the better part of her day so far; she could do some more walking.
As she made her way through the busier parts of South Oak, she ran into Cerulean Wake. That wasn’t unusual; this time of day, if he wasn’t training on Lake Noamin or atop the Mountain of Storms, he was often milling about the shops of one of the villages. This time, he was engaged in a lively conversation with a man Cinder didn’t recognize. The fellow was rotund, grimy, short, and more than a little bald for his age, and dressed in the clothes of one of the river barbarians who wandered the forest some miles away from the valley. They would occasionally see one or two of them around the valley, usually trading for supplies, but this one just seemed to be enjoying a sumptuous meal in addition to chatting with the Guardian. As they were obviously busy – and Cinder very nearly winced at how disgusting it was to watch the man eat, chewing with his gap-toothed mouth open and propelling tiny flecks of food every so often – she decided against going over, and instead just continued on her way.
Eventually, as she was about to return to the mountaintop, she noticed Lilac sitting by himself on one of the village clearings, a small pot in front of him emitting steam. Heading his direction, she waved and gave a respectful bow once she reached him. “Mind if I join you?”
“Not at all,” he replied, setting out a cup for her as well as himself. “You’re always welcome, Lady Guardian.”
Sitting across from him, Cinder waited for him to pour her a cup of dark aromatic tea, and accepted it graciously, taking a sip and relaxing. “Another lazy day for all of us, hm?”
“Certainly seems to be the case. Just the way I like it.”
“And I as well.” Cinder studied him for a moment, then let her eyes wander away again. Ibis felt that Lilac was always a little guarded, and she wasn’t wrong. Cinder knew quite well that the Wood Aspect had his secrets, and that he had gone to great lengths to bury those secrets and find a different life. Eight years he had been in the valley, and still their first meeting was still etched immutably into her mind.
When he had first shown up, too clean and well-spoken to be just some random vagrant, “Realm spy” had been at the top of her list of suspicions. The other people of the valley had kept a polite distance when dealing with him – what little news they did receive of the world was clear on the fact that any place that still worshiped Sol Invictus was viewed as hostile by the Realm – but Cinder had made it a point to meet him personally as soon as possible. When he agreed to a friendly sparring match, she had gotten a good look beneath the surface, and was quite thoroughly surprised at what she had found. Wake had at first given her funny looks when she told him she had seen all she needed to to trust him, but it was true: this man was not in the least their enemy. Now, years later, he was part of their family, even if he was occasionally obscure and vague enough to exasperate even her.
“You look deep in thought,” Lilac said, his pleasant voice interrupting her reverie.
“Just reminding myself how much I prefer peace.”
Lilac grinned a bit. “You mean even ‘Serene Edge’ herself doesn’t miss the time we spent battling Fair Folk hordes every other week?”
“You tell me, ‘Flowering Requiem,’” Cinder replied with a wry smirk. “Would you rather be knee-deep in whatever passes for hobgoblin entrails, or sitting right here enjoying tea with a fighter who thinks she’s still a miko?”
Laughing quietly, Lilac took a sip from his own cup, shaking his head. “Naturally, the latter. I don’t particularly miss that nickname of mine, either. What was it they called Wake?”
“Certainly evocative, if a bit over-the-top.” Lilac smiled nostalgically into his cup, and then lifted his eyes back to Cinder. “Those were rough times, but they do serve to make the present that much sweeter. I’m glad I found my way here.”
Cinder nodded, smiled back, and looked up at the sky. “And we’re glad to have you, my friend. Always.”
River Rat stood in the middle of the impressive camp, his wide-brimmed hat held in his hands. That meant his bald pate was exposed to the oh-so-hateful Eastern sun – Sol Invictus could choke on a whole boatload of gator nards, so far as he was concerned – but he didn’t want to risk disrespecting his employers, who might emerge from that central pavilion any moment now. And it would stink more to have to sweep his hat off and deal with the sudden heat than to just get used to it over a few minutes.
Finally, there was motion in the doorway of the tent, and a statuesque woman with short, deep red hair strode out. Her formal military cloak, lined with bright crimson, covered most of her frame, but River Rat could still get an eyeful of the shapely figure underneath. Her eyes fell on him, too, and when they did, she groaned in disappointment and shook her head. “Great, the Sewer Rat. What’s wrong, run out of holes to crawl up into?”
River Rat laughed, gave several short bows, and tried to avoid openly gritting his teeth. He enjoyed looking, but god how he detested that woman. “Fine day, Grace. And it’s ‘River Rat,’ but the joke wasn’t lost on me. Quite entertaining, if I may say so.”
“Can it, vermin.” Walking over to him, she stopped once she was just close enough to loom – which wasn’t difficult, as she already had well more than a head and shoulders in height on him, so towering wasn’t a problem – and frowned in disdain. “Don’t forget that I can’t stand you; your very presence makes me physically sick to my stomach, you little deviant. Asalis might think you’re worth keeping around, but if you so much as look at me crosswise, I’ll give you the closest shave you’ve ever had.” The quiet sound of metal being drawn accompanied her last few words, and by the end of it she held one of her curved red blades to his neck, the jade pressed close to his throat. “And by the looks of it,” she whispered, “you could certainly use one.”
“That’s enough, Karanya.” Another woman’s voice spoke from the area of the tent, and when River Rat’s eyes darted over – he didn’t dare move his head at the moment – he saw two more figures emerging from the pavilion, both in cloaks of the same style as Karanya’s. One was a thin, leanly-muscled man with disheveled blond hair and cold blue eyes, who took one look at him and then let his gaze just pass right over, as if River Rat’s existence had less than a moment’s worth. The other was a woman not quite as tall as Karanya, and she looked just old enough to be River Rat’s mother, had she been mortal. But there was no frailty to her appearance; she carried herself with an air of dangerous authority, with her dark blue hair swept back and fastened tightly, and a look in her eyes that said she was used to having command.
Karanya withdrew her weapon, sheathing it back at her waist, and spun on her heel. “Always spoiling my fun, Naratis. But I suppose I can wait a little longer to cut something.” And with that, the woman moved on into the camp, and out of view.
“Bitch,” River Rat muttered to himself, now that he could stop holding his breath. Then he turned to Naratis and bowed deeply and respectfully. “A thousand thanks, Commander Iselsi!”
Naratis gave a half-smile as she approached, her partner heading off in the same direction as Karanya, and waved a hand dismissively. “Not at all. I apologize for the behavior of my colleague. She gets…difficult…while on a mission. Though,” she began in a lower voice, “you might be better served refraining from trying to catch a glimpse inside her tent while she’s asleep, hm?”
River Rat turned bright red, and nearly dropped his hat. “Y-Yes, Commander. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Anyway, Asalis awaits your briefing. I expect I’ll speak to you again before we set out.” Giving a nod, Naratis strode off as well, her blue-lined cloak billowing behind her booted feet as she went.
Once she was gone, River Rat took a moment to puff himself up, and then entered the pavilion, walking through the doorway with a careful combination of respect and swagger. On the other side were two men. The first was roughly the size of a mountain, nearly as wide, and balder than River Rat himself. He could have been a statue for all the motion he made; even his eyes could have been topaz gems in a bronze face. The other was not nearly so gigantic or physically imposing, but he didn’t need to be – his presence alone could have filled the tent, and then some. Standing on the other side of a large central map table, the man was dark, weathered, and ancient, with wrinkles that looked very much like the bark of an old tree stump. But where Naratis’s eyes said she was used to being in command, this man’s entire bearing said he was used to being obeyed. And feared. That was Cynis Inora Asalis, leader of this Wyld Hunt.
“Greetings, Agent Rat.” Asalis’s aged croak even sounded as if he were speaking through a hollow log. “Do you have anything to report?”
River Rat swept into a low bow, practically putting his forehead to the floor. “Only that the target and her accomplices are all still in the valley, Eminence.”
“Have you managed to locate the source of their Wyld Barrier?”
“Not yet, Eminence. Though I have narrowed down the location to a few potential spots.”
Asalis raised a hand to his chin, and stood still in thought for a long moment. He was so motionless that suddenly River Rat felt as if he were the only living being in the room. “It would serve us well to know where that is before we strike; they may try and bring the Barrier down once the battle begins, as a means of keeping us busy while they make their escape. This Anathema scum has enslaved our cousins; I would scarce put it past her to have allies among the Fae, despite this ruse of ‘maintaining the barrier.’” As it was clear that the man was thinking aloud rather than soliciting a response, River Rat remained silent. “However, I feel that is an acceptable risk. We must strike now, before they become aware of our presence.”
“Should you require this humble servant’s aid, Eminence, I would gladly assist however possible,” River Rat kept his eyes lowered as he spoke.
Shaking his head once, Asalis raised one hand. “You have already done us a great service, Agent. I fear, however, that you cannot aid us further without putting yourself at undue risk. We shall move tomorrow morning, but I would like you to stay behind with the camp and await our return.”
“As you command, Eminence.” Taking Asalis’s nod in response as dismissal, River Rat turned and shuffled out of the pavilion.
Once he was back outside, he stood back to his full height, and replaced his hat. Another day, another job well done for the River Rat. Which meant another big, fat payday in the very near future. He could almost smell the perfume of his favorite Realm bordello already. “Just one more day,” he said to himself, rubbing his grimy hands together. “Just one more day.”
The bright blue glow of her eyes fading, Soaring Ibis removed her hand from the translucent cube in front of her. Inside was a perfect sphere, just larger than an apple and slightly pink in coloration. She hadn’t taken this experiment of hers out of storage much since its creation a couple of weeks prior; for various reasons, it needed to stay in its Elsewhere pocket until the time was right to use it. But she had to perform certain tests occasionally, to ensure it would suit her needs appropriately.
This time, the testing wasn’t for her own curiosity or benefit. Instead, she was demonstrating for the lithe woman who sat across the chamber from her. Her companion was bald, with violet skin covered in piercings and tattoos, but smooth and flawless. Eyes like dark gemstones watched the sphere as it floated in suspended animation, and the fingers of one hand drummed her opposite bicep as she held her arms crossed under her breasts. After a long moment, she nodded once, and lifted her eyes to look at Ibis. “Yes…I think this will do nicely. The preservation has worked without a hitch. Are you sure you would not rather use this now, Soaring Ibis?”
Ibis shook her head in response, and gave a quiet sigh, smiling a bit wistfully. “Yes, Tixia, I’m sure. I would like to, very much, but…there are just too many pressing matters. But soon, though. Very soon.”
Standing up, Tixia let her view linger on Ibis for a few moments, and then nodded again. “Very well. I look forward to working with you, I believe it will be an interesting project. Give my regards to the other two; I expect to meet them soon.” Giving a long sweep across her body with one hand, she dipped her head in farewell, and then was gone in an instant.
Long moments passed after the woman departed. Ibis spent those moments studying the sphere inside its cube; she had since dismissed her diagnostic vision, so her eyes were back to their usual hue, but she wasn’t looking for anything this time, just dwelling on the future. She seemed to do that a lot, these days – spending inordinate amounts of time thinking and worrying about the future, instead of letting herself be absorbed into the moment. Was that inherently part of her Exaltation, something that all Solars experienced? Or was it simply that the knowledge she could live for centuries, or even millenia, had gotten her thinking about life and destiny in entirely different ways?
Another sigh escaped her lips, and she closed her eyes. There was no way she was going to sort all of this out right away. She probably wouldn’t have it sorted out in another year, or another decade, really; it was just part-and-parcel of who she had become. Leaving mortality behind certainly did come with its own set of problems, but balanced against the life she was now able to lead, it was a small price to pay.
Looking back at the sphere again, she brought her hands together and reworked the sorcery that placed the cube into its protective hiding place once more. She had driven herself crazy over this issue plenty enough for one day. Time to do some of that “living in the moment” and forget the rest for a while.
The sun had not yet risen, but the camp had been awake and alive for several hours already. River Rat hated being up so early, but he wanted to see his commanders off properly. Also, it never hurt to make one more good impression before the time came to dole out potential bonuses. So he hid his yawns as best he could, and made his way through the camp to the clearing out on the edge where the others would already be meeting.
When he arrived, he saw the ranks of soldiers and monks who had been brought along standing at attention. They numbered around two hundred fifty; only twenty or so were actual Terrestrials, but even the regulars were mortals trained to the pinnacle of Realm military skill. Every one of them was motionless before the imposing form of Commander Cynis Inora Asalis, decked out in his green jade combat armor as he paced a long path between his soldiers and his four lieutenants. Somehow, that ancient voice resonated throughout the clearing in perfect clarity, even to River Rat’s half-asleep ears; he was obviously on the tail end of a speech.
“…came here to continue a task handed down to us from our ancestors, a task that this entire world depends very seriously on us to accomplish. So never forget that when I say we have a solemn, holy duty, you should take those words to heart.”
More preaching. Asalis refrained from such most of the time, but River Rat knew what a devout believer he was in the Immaculate Faith, and from time-to-time, when he got especially geared-up for a mission, it was inevitable that there would be some rhetoric.
“Reports suggest that three of our brethren – three! – have been taken in by this blasphemous harlot. She clearly has the entire valley under her sway, so do not trust these people. They will likely try and stand in our way. We cannot allow them to do so; attempt to frighten them into submission, but do not waste your time or risk your own lives attempting to preserve theirs. Should you run across the three Outcaste fools, remember to lead them to us, according to the plan. It would be preferable to reason with them, but I fear they will likely be beyond that. Though you should feel free to make use of the locals as bait to draw them out.”
River Rat’s eyes ran down the line of Commander Asalis’s team as he continued with his speech. All the way to the left, the perpetually uninterested and unimpressed Jeresh Tirva Nehor, his blue eyes every bit as aloof and detached as they had been when River Rat had seen him at the pavilion. To his left, the mountainous Ragara Ryotheras, looking very much like a white jade obelisk with crossed arms now that he had donned his cloak. Next down the line, the pleasing form of Sesus Natasus Karanya. But he couldn’t even take a moment to ogle her; she stared daggers at him when she saw him looking over, and he could have sworn she would have burst him into hateful flame had her commander not been standing right there. At the end of the line was Iselsi Cherak Naratis, the only other member of the team that River Rat actually liked besides Asalis himself. Actually, she was probably the only one he liked – Asalis had always been kind to him, but the old man had a chilling streak to him when it came to matters of the Hunt that unnerved even River Rat, and spoke to some deep-seated misanthropic tendencies. When Naratis caught his look, she just nodded once, barely perceptibly, and then returned to listening to Asalis.
“One final reminder: if you see the Anathema, do not engage. Send up the signal, and then regroup at the meeting point. Are there any questions?” When silence greeted him, Asalis nodded his head once. “Good. Remember, we only get one shot at this. Now move out!” The commander raised his arm, and there was a rush of motion as the green-clad Terrestrial elites vanished into the forest, moving so quickly that River Rat had no hope at all of seeing them go. The remaining soldiers split off into teams and moved into the foliage quickly after, and finally Asalis and his team stepped into a rift in the air, vanishing in the blink of an eye. Just a couple minutes later, River Rat and the few non-combat personnel who had shown up stood there alone.
Reaching into his belt pouch, River Rat fished out a piece of sourthorn root, and began chewing on it. The others returned to the camp proper, but he had nothing to do for the time being, so he just stayed in place, enjoying the bitter bite of the root. It was nice and quiet again, but part of him wanted to go and watch the battle. From a good distance, of course – he knew quite well what chance he had of surviving any sort of altercation involving that demolition squad. But after a few minutes, he decided against it, and turned to walk back into the camp. Risking getting your head knocked off in a battle wasn’t part of the Rat’s role. He was just fine leaving that to someone else.
A pleasant breeze rustled the leaves of the bamboo forest as Cinder strode towards the peak of the Mountain of Dreams. This far on the wayward side of the mountain, she was outside the reach of the Wyld Barrier, but it had been many years since she had been worried to venture out of the relative safety of the barrier’s reach. After all, Argus had a wide reach, but even fully restored, he could not possibly be aware of everything that happened around the valley. It was important for someone to occasionally patrol the very edge for potential threats – and there was also the fact that these forests were equally beautiful, and equally deserving of being admired.
Her enjoyment of the scene was spoiled by the sudden presences that popped into her awareness. Stopping with one foot forward, she took a glance over her shoulder, moving her head only a couple of inches. “You may as well come out, and tell me why you’ve been following me.”
A single figure in full-body clothing that matched the green of the leaves stepped out of the shadows. “Smoldering Cinder?”
“I wish to speak with the chief miko of the valley.”
“I’m sure you can find her at the main shrine of South Oak. Why seek me out?”
“I have heard you have…dealings with her.”
“You can say that. And your friends?”
“They’re here for protection. We have heard you’re dangerous.”
“Only to those who wish harm on the valley. Who are you?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say.”
“Then I must insist you shake my hand before I let you stroll into South Oak.”
The figure narrowed his eyes, and carefully approached Cinder. He offered his hand, and she took it. The expression on his masked face froze, but Cinder knew that was just a trick of her heightened perception. Images flooded her mind immediately, images of a great temple atop an impressively tall mountain, of an army of warriors being directed by jade-clad commanders, of the banner of the Realm flying over military encampments.
It happened in a flash like it always did, little more than a split-second, but when her perception returned to normal, she could tell that the man had noticed her little trick. His eyes narrowed at the same time that his hand twitched and began reaching for his sleeve, but it was likely just meant as a diversion for his allies, as six kunai came flying from the bamboo. She leaped back quickly as they landed in the grass underfoot, and managed to draw Ivory Blaze Dancer out of its sheath just enough to parry the first man’s incoming ninjato. The strike was fast, and might very well have severed her left arm at the shoulder had it connected.
“Drop your weapon and stand down, and no harm will come to you,” spoke her adversary, his grip on his short blade steady and unwavering. “You are not the one we’ve come for.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. You’ve come from the Realm to bring violence against us.” As she spoke, Cinder saw the forms of several figures dart away through the bamboo, off towards South Oak. “You have no business here. You should leave now before it becomes too late.”
The man narrowed his eyes again, and a second later the air around him started to whip up; Cinder could feel the hairs on her arms begin to raise, and sparks leaped across the space between them, at first just static but growing stronger and more visible quickly. “Then you’ve sealed your own death sentence.” Two of his comrades emerged from the bamboo, one glowing a deep bronze with skin that looked like armor and the other shining with an emerald aura, a fusillade of sharpened bamboo poles floating in a threatening formation around him. “In the name of the Scarlet Empress!” they intoned in unison.
Cinder disengaged from the Air Aspect in front of her with a bounding leap, replaced her blade fully into her scabbard with a click while still in the air, and then set her feet and prepared to draw again as she landed. She didn’t want to fight other Dragontouched, but they were clearly going to leave her little choice. “The lot of you won’t keep me from going to aid the village for long, you know.”
“We’ll see about that,” the Air Aspect replied. And then, with a joint battle cry, the three rushed her….
“I don’t know who you are,” said Cerulean Wake as he ducked a thrown kusari-gama, which embedded itself into the wall of the nearby flower shop, “but I really don’t recommend this course of action.”
“Silence!” The lanky fellow who had thrown the sickle gave it a yank and pulled it back, then spun it in a slow circle as his allies formed up for another series of attacks. “Where is she?”
“I’m not sure who you mean. Maybe-!” Wake pivoted just in time to avoid a nasty cut to the cheek as the other end of that weapon came sailing at him. This guy was good – most people who attempted to use kusari-gamas in that fashion just left themselves horrendously open to attack, but he had complete command of his surroundings. It wasn’t often that Wake met a mortal martial artist who could hold his own against him. Let alone six.
Speaking of the others, before he even had time to regain his footing after that sideways maneuver, the five other warriors came crashing in on him from all sides. He parried and shifted, spun and bobbed around their blows, and in the middle of a handspring swept his legs into the revolving motion of Deepwater Vortex to force them back and give himself some breathing space. Springing back up onto his feet, he took a wide stance, and cast his eyes around at his attackers. “Fighting ain’t gonna’ jog my memory, but it will keep me entertained for a long while. Can’t we just do that instead?”
“Enough messing around with this fool,” spoke a new voice off to one side, accompanied by a muffled scream. When Wake turned his head in that direction he saw a stockier man with a serrated knife held to the throat of a young girl from the village. “I’m sure this little beauty will be more than happy to lead us where we want to go. Come along, won’t you, darling?”
“Hey! Let her go!” Before the protests were even out of Wake’s mouth, the new arrival had darted off with his hostage, while the other six harried Wake another few seconds before following suit. Cursing low under his breath, Wake leaped to give chase, bounding through the rapidly-emptying streets.
The main map of the valley of Three Oaks covered the entirety of the crystal screens in Argus’s chamber. Clusters of yellow dots filled areas of the map around the circle that designated the reach of the Wyld Barrier, and numerous smaller images were overlaid on top of the map, showing people clad in dark green and black clothing, carrying weapons and heading for the villages. Some of them were fighting – at least two showed Cerulean Wake engaged in a running battle with six of them, chasing a seventh who held a young girl captive, while Cinder was displayed in another, fighting through one of the bamboo forests at the valley’s edge. Soaring Ibis’s first instinct had been to run out to give them aid, but they had run through this scenario more than once in training. Where she was most needed right now was right here, assessing their foes and preparing a response. As she watched, some of the dots turned green, while those that remained became a deep bronze color.
“How many Exaltations have we verified now, Argus?” she asked aloud.
“Twenty-two, Soaring Ibis. All Terrestrial Exalts.” Argus’s androgynous voice responded, but the animating intelligence did not appear on the screen. “The remaining essence patterns are all mortals.”
Ibis bit her thumb, then chewed on the nail pensively. That was quite a force, by anyone’s estimation, but why were the Terrestrials avoiding the fight, by and large? They had to know that humans stood little chance against Cerulean Wake or Smoldering Cinder for long. The whole thing stank to high heaven, but she couldn’t take action just yet. She had to keep an eye on the situation and trust her allies to handle themselves. “Continue to monitor them, Argus. Notify me the moment something changes.”
“Of course, Ibis.”
The thorn-covered vine lashed about like a thrashing tendril, catching two more of the warriors before retreating to Lilac at Dusk’s hand. The poison inside of the thorns took effect immediately; whereas other Terrestrials would have still been able to move under its influence, regular humans lost even the ability to stand. Sure enough, the two collapsed onto the ground, conscious and able to speak, but now completely immobile, like their four comrades. Now, they were down to one, a stout claw-wielding man who suddenly looked very, very nervous.
“I know the rest of you can hear me, so let’s try this again,” Lilac spoke, narrowing his eyes as his vine whip twitched like an angry cat’s tail. “I know you’re with a Wyld Hunt. Where are the Exalted?”
“To hell with you and your questions, Outcaste,” the last active warrior sneered. “We have nothing to say to a traitor.”
Lilac glanced around at the other fighters. Each of them stared him straight in the eye and showed the same look of solid defiance. He was certain he could have made any one of them talk, but that would cost precious time – time that he couldn’t afford at the moment. So with one more look at the last standing warrior, he gave his whip a loud crack, swung it in a wide arc, and struck once again. It quickly covered the distance between them like a shot arrow, and caught his opponent in the thigh before he could dodge. With a muffled shout of pain, the man fell to both knees, and then dropped his claw. Lilac didn’t wait another moment; taking only the briefest of motions to gather his whip again, he dashed out of the clearing and back towards the villages. They had attacked him close to his house – it couldn’t have been a serious attempt at eliminating him, as these people clearly had intelligence on the valley, and none of the Exalted who had come to the region were there. Someone was calling him out, and he had a very good idea of whom.
When Iselsi Cherak Naratis opened her eyes again, all she could see around herself and her comrades was…gray. Gray everywhere, as far as her eyes could perceive. Of course, distance as well, in a place like this, could be nearly impossible to gauge. She knew of Elsewhere quite well – she had studied it thoroughly in her youth, and had trained often in an Elsewhere pocket separated from the rest of her barracks – but that had never really dampened the sheer eeriness of the place. Infinite and immeasurable, and yet so empty and quiet.
Her allies did little to break that silence. Blond Nehor was quite pointedly ignoring everyone, his blue eyes focused on some distant point, and Ryotheras stood his usual vigil just a few steps away, arms crossed and only the slightest of deep breathing drifting to Naratis’s ears. Commander Asalis, too, seemed more a feature of the landscape than a living being at the moment, seated in a meditative pose only a pace from Ryotheras. That was usually the case with him; most people found the commander’s stillness in repose a bit unnerving, and Naratis had to admit that, from time-to-time, he creeped her out a little. But it was less intentional than simply an outward manifestation of the man’s inner calm. Like the peace of an experienced headsman.
Karanya paced a short distance away, prowling like a hunting cat. The warrior’s shoes clicked on something, though there was only the most bare-bones impression of a solid floor in this place. “I tire of waiting; are we to spend the entire day hiding away from the fight?” she spoke in caustic tones.
“We hide if it gives us the advantage in the Hunt, Karanya,” Commander Asalis spoke without opening his eyes. “We hide, we sneak, we crawl on our bellies, we do whatever is necessary to ensnare our prey. As does any hunter serious about her work. Do you disagree?”
Karanya looked chastened, but Naratis knew that was not their commander’s intention. In his mind, he was not countering her opinion: he was simply speaking an obvious truth that she was too anxious to observe. Even so, the red-haired shikari muted her protests, and went back to pacing silently. Naratis just shook her head slightly – the tall woman was incredibly skilled, but she lacked patience, and the value of subtlety was often lost on her. In her youth, Naratis would have probably agreed with her, but many years at this job had changed her views considerably. If I had my way, I wouldn’t even be bringing such mercurial youngsters along on Hunts for another few decades, at least. She eyed Nehor as well for a moment, seeing that he was still staring off into space, and sighed. But they’ve proven themselves, not only in training but in actual Hunts. I can’t very well stand in their way, especially with Asalis and the others chomping at the bit for new talent.
Naratis drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Why had things changed so much since the early days? Or had she been the one to change, even more than she had realized? It seemed so long ago, now, since she and Asalis had been idealistic young soldiers in the Order, aspiring to become elite shikari. It had all seemed so simple, then. But they had lost so many allies, so many friends, in the fight to destroy the Anathema. And now, they were resorting to using Exalts who were practically still children to fight these battles, in lands that were far away from their own, against opponents they had never even met. It was bad enough to see so many mortals willing to throw themselves into such a meat grinder; the Exalted were supposed to be meant for much greater things.
The Elsewhere pocket rumbled with the sensation of distant thunder, and Asalis opened his eyes. “We have arrived. Prepare to engage the enemy.” His voice was not much different from that thunder, and the look in his eyes supplied the lightning. This seemed like the only time she saw that anymore.
Getting to her feet, Naratis cleared her mind. This was not the time for such thoughts. Whatever her concerns, one thing had not changed in all of these years: the Anathema were the enemy. They always would be.
Though he kept pace easily with the soldier who had taken Arana hostage, Cerulean Wake was so harried by the other soldiers that he wasn’t able to close the distance without putting the girl in danger. But he could tell they were more interested in leading him somewhere than in actually causing harm to their hostage, so though it galled him to do so, he played along, trying to avoid grinding his teeth too hard while battling through their barrages. Finally, they headed straight into South Oak, making a beeline for the giant oak at the center, Great South, the largest of the Great Oaks. Wake frowned and made an annoyed sound through his teeth, then followed.
When they stopped only a couple hundred feet from Great South, Wake noticed that they were not alone. The telltale whisper of Ivory Blaze Dancer, followed by the sight of a different soldier flying through the air and smacking against the branches of a smaller oak, announced the arrival of Smoldering Cinder, and a split-second later, Lilac at Dusk walked silently out of the foliage, vine whip coiled at his belt. Other warriors in the same style of clothing as the ones Wake had been chasing entered the area as well, more than two dozen of them, and surrounded the one that had taken Arana captive.
“Well, this is all…awful,” Wake spoke with a frown as he watched the invaders carefully. “Who are you people, and what do you want with-”
Cutting off as a black circle appeared in the sky in the middle of what had looked like a low-hanging cloud bank – something that was otherwise quite normal to see this high up in the mountains – Wake’s eyes grew wide as the circle stretched out horizontally into a jagged line, like the maw of some giant void creature dwelling in the space between dimensions. As the line then opened vertically – adding to the “mouth” impression – he could make out the shapes of five individuals standing inside, wrapped in matching cloaks of a military fashion. Even at that distance, he could make out the power that radiated from them…and the killing intent, the cold premeditation of a seasoned predator. Their eyes glanced about at Wake and his two comrades, and for a moment, he could have sworn he saw pity in them. Of course, most of them also seemed to view the villagers who were being herded off to the sides in small but visible groups with disdain.
Wake let his eyes dart over to Cinder, who just nodded once, and then to Lilac. Arana wasn’t the only hostage now; as the invaders continued trickling into the area, they pushed more and more of the valley’s residents into clumps here and there, some actually bound with rope, though most were just kept in place by the obvious threat of violence. There were far too many of those villagers present – the attack had been incredibly quick and unexpected, but even then, more should have been able to escape to safety. It didn’t take much for him to realize that someone must have been spying on them, to have been able to so effectively cut off the people’s escape route. Either way, he and his comrades couldn’t make a move now, with so many innocents around. They would have to proceed very carefully.
“Soaring Ibis,” came Argus’s voice throughout the central chamber again, “I have detected five new Essence patterns directly over South Oak.”
“What?!” Ibis worked her fingers quickly over the access panel, circling the area of the grid where the new dots had appeared suddenly out of the blue. “How is that possible?”
“I am detecting the presence of a large Elsewhere entrance growing from the center of that location.”
An Elsewhere pocket opening that high up? They had to have shrunk the entrance to nearly nothing for Argus to have missed it. Ibis remained silent, waiting for the five yellow dots to change color. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Cinder, Lilac, and Wake converge near the Great Oak, and the villagers who were being rounded up, silently praying that the ones she couldn’t see were safe.
Argus’s voice pulled her attention back, as all five dots turned a bright red. “Essence patterns analyzed. All five are Terrestrial Exalted, S-Class.”
Shikari. Ibis suddenly felt very cold in her chest. The Wyld Hunt is here. Leaping up from her seat, Ibis called out as she spun over its arm and landed on the floor. “Take care of things here, Argus! I’m going!”
“Soaring Ibis, I must protest. You-”
“I can’t, Argus.” She clenched both hands into fists. “I can’t sit back and watch this. They’ll need me out there, and we all know it.” Looking up at the ceiling of the chamber, she sighed. “I’m sorry to do this, but I have to go.” Not waiting for a response, she dashed out of the room, making a beeline for South Oak.
“People of Three Oaks!” boomed the voice of the aged man in the center of the invaders, from his perch high in the air. Even augmented by Essence, there was the hint of a croak to the sound, but that somehow made it even more intimidating. “The Wyld Hunt has come to free you from the presence of the Anathema woman, and your enslavement to the worship of the Unconquered Sun. Give us her location, and we shall forgive the rest of you your…indiscretions…and leave you in peace.”
Cinder narrowed her eyes at the man, fighting the itch to put her hand on Ivory Blaze Dancer’s hilt. If he expected a bunch of wide-eyed yokels, he would be sorely disappointed; the folk of Three Oaks were disconnected from the rest of Creation, but they understood quite well his accusations, and the nature of the Wyld Hunt. Which meant that they understood that the Realm had no claim here, and that this was a bald-faced act of aggression. Her eyes very momentarily caught Lilac’s, but he just shook his head barely imperceptibly. He knew at least one of these people personally, but it hadn’t been the memories of his she had viewed that told her that. They would have to make a move soon, but not just yet. She drew her mouth into a thin line as she felt Ibis approaching, but couldn’t very well object. This wasn’t going to be an easy fight.
“We don’t know what you’re talking about, so get the hell out of our valley!” bellowed old one-eyed Ichigoya, while shaking his fist at the five. “We never done nothing to the Realm!” One of the assembled soldiers – there were at least two hundred of them now, both visible and skulking in the shadows, by Cinder’s count – took his mancatcher to Ichigoya, forcing the weathered man down onto the ground and pinning his arms at his sides while barking at him to be silent.
The green-clad man in the center locked his icy gaze on Ichigoya, who actually cringed a little despite staring back defiantly, and then cast his eyes back out in a sweeping arc across the other groups. “Do the rest of you feel the same? Will no one put aside your personal feelings to do what you know you should?”
“What these people should do is none of your concern,” said Cerulean Wake, his anger only barely contained. “I don’t care what authority you have in the Realm, this is not the Realm. You have no business coming here in force and making any demands of us.”
“The hunting of demons respects no boundaries and makes no exceptions, Cousin. But instead of a demand, allow me to offer a bargain.” The green-clad leader took a few steps forward, and looked down directly at Wake. “Turn over the Solar Anathema, come to the Realm with us, and you three Dragon-blooded will be raised nobility. Not only that, bring along as many of your people as you wish. You have no need to fear us, and if the remainder wish to stay here and continue their heathen worship, they may. We ask only that you not stand in our way.”
Wake spat, and glared a tempest up at the older man. “Keep your offers, and your so-called honors. I am a Guardian of the valley of Three Oaks, and you are intruders bringing war. Get out of my valley, or be thrown out: it’s your call.”
The older man was silent for a long moment, his eyes analyzing Wake. Despite his imperious manner, there didn’t seem to be much arrogance to the man’s attitude; he simply viewed the three Terrestrials before him as as one might the victims of a terminal illness. At least, that was how he saw her and Wake. When his eyes scanned across Lilac, there was something different there: a strong sense of disapproval. The sort that you had to know someone well to feel. He said nothing to her comrade, though, and Lilac only looked back at him, his jaw set firmly.
Finally, the man raised one hand and gestured dismissively. “Dispose of all of them. This entire place has been too corrupted.” The command was followed by the remaining Dragon-blooded elites leaping into action and rushing in teams at Cinder, Wake, and Lilac, while the soldiers that had been hiding in the brush charged out to reinforce the other mortals.
Cinder cursed under her breath, and prepared for the onslaught, but noticed that the five in the air stayed put. Small favors, I suppose…
But just as she was about to draw her daiklave, there was a flash of light in the air across from the five invaders. When the momentary flash faded, she saw figures floating there. At the flanks were a dark-skinned woman with bells in her hair seated atop a gigantic crescent-moon blade, and a man with a tattooed torso, a wolf’s muzzle, and great snowy wings. Between them was Soaring Ibis, her bow already formed and her body awash in pure light, the image of a giant bird with a curved beak spreading its wings behind her, and Matsuri-Ono perched on her shoulder, one tiny fist raised menacingly. Cinder had felt the spike in Ibis’s emotions, but hadn’t felt her moving their way; she had really come full-tilt. And from the look on her face, she had come for blood.
The leader of the invaders turned back around slowly, and regarded Ibis with eyes that were suddenly very, very deadly. “Soaring Ibis, I presume?”
“You presume correctly. And who are you?”
“Cynis Inora Asalis. I’m glad you could show. Come to protect your pets?”
“I’ve come to stop your senseless violence. Will you not quit this battle and leave these people in peace?”
“While your kind exists,” Asalis said while pointing to her, “there can be no peace. You will die.”
Sparing a moment to lock eyes with Wake, then Lilac, and finally over to Cinder, Ibis looked back at the older man, and brought her hand to her bow. “Then let’s be about it.”