Arathea stalked the corridors of the temple like a caged panther, giving an irritated scoff as she reached another dead end.
"Scalelord!" she thundered. After he had not appeared for a second, the magistrate stormed back towards the main room where Khalif and the other legionnaires had momentarily paused. "Scalelord Khalif, I was told you were a competent-" Arathea stopped short as she entered the room, a three-dimensional diagram of the temple formed of blue light now dominating the center. A spot of red light flashed along one of the further-off corridors, while Khalif stood with one foot on a panel that evidently was activating the device.
"This has been working before, and recently." the dark-skinned scalelord rumbled. "I can't understand the writings, but I imagine we are here," he indicated a room with a white light within it, "and your thief is over there." The red light, which had begun moving along its corridor.
"You're certain?" Arathea lied, reading the map's legend herself.
"Definitely." Khalif replied. "Though there is a more pressing concern."
"The thief is coming towards the central amphitheater here, indicating he entered on the other side of the temple. There is no way he could have been the one to activate this map before us. Someone else is in this temple, magistrate, and they are watching us all."
Arathea frowned thoughtfully, she had hoped the small size of their group would avoid her notice.
"Let them watch, then." she declared. "We can't allow him to escape."
Khalif nodded. "Fangs, move out!"
"HAH! First find of the day!" Crane said with a grin as he looked over the scrolls within the jade-chased case he had unlocked.
You should not dally here. Take what you can and leave this place.
"Normally I'd agree, but I'd like to figure out why I'm here - besides, I can't just snag a handful of these and go. I'd hate to think I passed up a First Age journal or technical manual for a cookbook."
The one in your hands now is the journal, the next three are continuations. The fourth one is not a cookbook per se but contains several recipes.
Something had the book-spirit rattled, Crane thought to himself. He'd never helped out in a search before.
"Hold on a second, lemme get a look at this." Crane said, cracking the seal on the first scroll and starting to read.
I have fled the palace.
I write this now from Bhaalamshir, Sikharam's furthest outpost and the hunting grounds he once granted me. The Terrestrials will not reach this place, not for some weeks at the very least. This gives me precious time, time to record what I know -
The Age has ended, and it is Sikharam's fault.
Crane's eyes were locked on the scroll. "Byblos, this is incredible. This might have information on how the Usurpation itself ha-"
Crane stopped as he felt cold metal against his neck.
"On your feet, Crane." Arathea said from behind the legionnaire whose gladius poked at Crane's collar. "You're finished running."
"This is turning into a trend, miss Arathea. Are we always going to go through introductions with you having a sword at my throat?" Crane set the scroll down, slowly rising.
"Still looking through things best unread, I see."
"Well, there's a great cookbook in the fourth scroll here, got what I think's an amazing recipe for mango salsa-"
"Quiet, thief!" the legionnaire growled, prodding Crane with his sword.
"Huh, you told them I'm a thief, original." Crane smirked. "You tell them what happened to the last group you sent after me?"
"I said shut it!" The legionnaire's sword pommel cracked across Crane's face, sending the scholar to one knee.
"Scalelord!" Arathea called to a massive dark-skinned legionnaire at the entrance of the room. "Take him to the amphitheater and restrain him for transport." The big man nodded, and Arathea stepped back into the hallway. "Burn the room."
Crane snarled through a bloody lip. "Burn these, and I swear on Sol you'll get yours, Arathea."
"Hold your tongue, criminal!" the big scalelord growled, kicking Crane solidly in the ribs, the scholar sprawling to the ground. Khalif looked to his men. "Get him up. We move for home now, the faster the better."
Crane was led from the room with a pair of legionnaires pointing spears at his back. Seeing another toss a lit torch into the document-filled room, the archaeologist felt his heart sink.
"Move it." one of the legionnaires muttered, prodding Crane with his spear.
"I'm not going to be caught here, you know." Crane said matter-of-factly.
"Really now?" the legionnaire said with a smirk, looking to his comrade. "Mind tellin' how you plan on doin' that?"
"Well, y'see, I've always heard how impotent the legion brats are these days-"
"Shut yer hole." The legionnaire moved to jab Crane in the back again, the scholar spinning on his heel to let the spear pass him by , grabbing the haft and pulliung hard, yanking the legionnair towards him. Acting fast, Crane smashed an elbow into the man's gut as he stumbled foreward, stealing his short sword with his free hand.
"Those spears aren't for close quarters, for one." Crane whispered to the man, shoving him back into the other Legionnaire and sprinting towards the open amphitheater. As the soldiers rushed to pursue, Crane pitched over and rolled to grab a stone from the floor, tossing it at a glyph on the wall next to the hallway. Three massive serrated blades immediately cleaved through the entrance to the amphitheater, expertly dismembering the two legionnaires.
"Knowing of how to use deathtraps to your advantage doesn't hurt either." Crane got to his feet quickly, smiling as the blades started to retract, and immediately turned to find Arathea standing in his way. Crane held his stance defensively as he heard the big scalelord roaring for his men to recapture the fugitive, the rushed footfalls as the legionnaires started to surround him and protect Arathea.
"So, what do you say, miss Arathea? Little game of Panic Monkey to see who drops what charade first?"
"It's your move, Crane. You can't beat me without your precious book."
"And you can't let drop your secrets, or you lose your backup. Test me. I dare you."
"HOLD!" came a roar from above. Crane, Arathea, and the legionnaires all looked skyward to the high lip of the amphitheater, where two figures watched. The first, a hulking male with head, fur and claws of a jaguar raised a massive stone axe and spoke in Old Realm.
"Weak sons of civilization," he snarled, "you have encroached on the lands of the Mother of Jaguars. You cut unwanted paths, defile our temple and destroy that which is not yours. Your lives are forefit!"
"Th'hell's it sayin'?" one of the legionnaires whispered.
"Die well," the beastman intoned. "and give us sport."
The second figure, shrouded in a thick cloak, said nothing.
From every entrance to the amphitheater, the hulking yet graceful pseudofeline forms of more jaguar-men emerged. Crane and the legionnaires alike backed towards the center of the amphitheater.
"I thought you usually came ready for anything, miss Arathea." Crane said quietly, eyes on the approaching beastmen. "No Dragon-Blooded with you?"
"I'd been hoping a small party wouldn't be worth noticing by anything, much less this." Arathea replied, realizing their new status as allies of convenience. "Game of Panic Monkey, you said?"
"Actually, I think I've got a better idea." Crane smirked, suddenly breaking from the group to run straight at a large cluster of beastmen blocking the main exit. The stolen short sword flew from Crane's hand, the lead jaguar-man falling back dead as it hit his skull with a dull *CHOK*, digging into his left eye. Crane vaulted into the air over another two jaguar-men as they swung at him, grabbing a third on either side of his head and using his momentum to smash the much larger creature headfirst onto the stone floor. The beastman's skull cracked like a melon as Crane landed perfectly behind the group, smiling devilishly.
"Here kitty kitty." Crane mocked them in Old Realm, running off down the hallway.
Arathea could see the robed figure tense. "Follow him." she heard the robed one say, obviously a woman, her voice low and angry. "Kill him, before he escapes." The beastman who had spoken earlier snarled, leaping down as he and five other jaguar-men rushed off after Crane.
"Then we should be allowing him to escape, magistrate?" Khalif grumbled as the legionnaires took up defensive position.
"As it stands, scalelord, we have bigger problems. He's done us a favor by splitting them up. Either we find him later or they do our job for us."
"Very well then." Khalif nodded, drawing his sword. "Stay behind me, magistrate."
"Scalelord, you need the help." Arathea said flatly, reaching behind her to the odd wing-like extensions to her robes. Khalif heard delicate cloth ripping, and then Arathea held in her hands a pair of exquisitely made hook-bladed swords, no thicker than wound copper wire in their blades, but gleaming with deadly effectiveness. As the remnants of the "wings" fell, all ornamentation seemed to drop from Arathea's robes in turn, leaving her in simple, pragmatic fighting attire. Her stance was that of a consumate and dedicated warrior. For a moment, Khalif wondered what had become of the demure, outraged little fop he'd brought to the temple in the middle of nowhere. It soon passed.
"Scalelord." Arathea the warrior said calmly. "By your order."
Khalif nodded, and the battle was joined.