Arathea caught a jaguar-man's neck between the hooks of her paired daiklaives, the cable-thin blades snipping off the feline head like a dandelion bloom. The legionnaires and Khalif had been aquitting themselves well, the demure Sidereal mused as she punched one hooked blade into a beastman's chest, catching the hook in her target's ribcage before whipping around, using her momentum to spin the wounded beastman into one of his fellows. Despite seriously disconcerting odds, Khalif evidently hadn't been exaggerating about the quality of his men.
Arathea linked the hooked daiklaives together, whirling them overhead like a flail and brandishing another beastman back before a legionnaire swept in from behind, his gladius sinking deep into the god-blooded's kidney. Arathea caught her other daiklaive with a smile and started to fight her way towards Khalif.
The large dark-skinned Scalelord snarled as he rammed his gladius up under a beastman's chin, pulling the blade free and kicking the body aside before hunkering down to face any new challengers. The fight had devolved quickly, he noted as he retrieved his shield from the floor. As the beastmen had rushed in, they had been forced to break into a skirmish formation or be overwhelmed, with only the ten of them. Like this, even though the beastmen could take far worse of a hit, Khalif's men were smaller and faster.
The fighting hadn't been without cost - four of the legionnaires were already dead, one of them a Fanglord. Khalif would have to commend the man's family when they returned, he thought before bracing his shield to bull-rush into another jaguar-man. The god-blood staggered a step, about to swing its axe at Khalif's head before two thin metal hooks emerged from over its shoulders, sinking into the beastman's throat and pulling it apart into a second toothless smile as Arathea catapulted herself over the body. Khalif briefly wondered if the magistrate was some kind of agent for the All-Seeing Eye, some special operative with Immaculate training. The thought faded quickly. Questions could wait until Death had its fill.
"Casualties, Scalelord?" Arathea asked, forming up back-to-back with the larger man.
"I count seven of theirs, but four of mine are gone as well." Khalif rumbled in response, assuming a low defensive posture. More of the beastmen started to circle around them, snarling and brandishing their crude weaponry.
"Your men are as good as you claimed." Arathea said, a note of apology in her voice alone. "I shouldn't have questioned that."
"Considering four of our seven kills were your doing, magistrate, I take no compliments for them, yet." Khalif flicked the gladius off to his side, shaking off some of the blood that had coated it.
"Then we should start evening out the score, shouldn't we?" The purple-haired girl smirked ever so slightly.
Khalif gave his own wry grin, eyes on the enemy. "Empress and Realm!" he cried before charging back into the fray.
Crane groaned painfully as he shoved his way out from a pile of rubble, a flare of his anima banishing the darkness that surrounded him. Evidently he was in one of the deeper hallways of the temple, he noticed upon looking around. One of the exits had already been rather heavilly closed off by the debris he'd just extricated himself from.
"...Knew that trap couldn't have aged well." Crane muttered with a cough, starting to stumble down the hallway towards the one exit left. Something so complicated, sealing off the hallway above before dropping its contents into the abyss, its mechanisms likely would not have survived the turning of the age in good condition, especially given infrequent use and lack of maintenance.
Still, Crane had been expecting to die then and there. When all one could percieve was falling-dark-dark-dark-crash-rumble-ow-ow-thud, there wasn't really time to think of some kind of escape plan.
The wounded beastman's body was nowhere to be seen. Crane had been lucky, nothing more, nothing less, all over again. The scholar was reminded of his muttering about field work the day before, and he managed a laughing cough as he regained his bearings, shaking off the wooziness in his head and continuing down the hallway.
Reaching a section where the blue-green emergency lighting was still active, Crane started examining the Old Realm glyphs and pictograms. He could guess that this was some kind of service access, and hopefully that meant some kind of directions or map. If he was lucky, he could get back to the upper levels instead of being trapped down here.
Crane's fingers casually brushed across a pictogram shaped like a long, gently curved golden S when memory rushed through him like a thunderbolt.
General, those are your orders.
It's madness to stay! They've killed more than half the Deliberative in one night, you aren't safe here!
There is a plan in place. Take this. Hide it. I'll be back for it after the situation cools.
Lord, don't use this as some excuse to send me away! I won't-
I know what's happening. Leave before it's too late, General.
Crane blinked off the shock, drawing a slow breath as he looked back at the pictogram he had touched. Suddenly re-energized, the archaeologist sprinted down the hall, following the sign's directions.
It was here.
Arathea struck fast as a beastman gutted one of the legionnaires, leaving the god-blooded gurgling on its own blood as she hooked and ripped a ragged piece from its esophagus. She had managed not to use any of her essence reserves, which was a good thing for now. The real fight hadn't even started.
Khalif had been seperated from her in the fray, and now fought back with two of his remaining legionnaires. They and another legionnaire with Arathea were all that remained of the two fangs Khalif had brought with them, and despite herself the Sidereal regretted their deaths. After all, dealing with Bhalaam had never been part of the plan.
The faint hope Arathea had clung to died before she could cry out as a sudden force flashed past her, the legionnaire next to her dropping in two pieces before she could even notice he had been attacked. Arathea finally spotted the woman as she squeezed the head from one of Khalif's men's shoulders like a grape, tossing it to the startled second legionnaire before ramming her claws through his chest.
Khalif, shouting in alarm, tried to strike back a moment too late. The Lunar's hand grasped his sword arm, snapping bone before twisting around to hurl the brawny scalelord, armor and all, directly through the nearby stone wall. Three jaguar-men leapt into the hole in the wall after Khalif, and Arathea gave a silent prayer he would die quickly.
Bhalaam, free of her cloak, stood before Arathea as a savage goddess. The beastmen surrounding Arathea backed away from the Lunar reverently, the ebony-skinned and elaborately tattooed woman flexing her long, athletically toned limbs and flicking some of the blood from her long, silvery fingernails. Her eyes were all predator, Arathea could almost swear the pupils were slitted like the jaguars she emulated.
"You fight very well, little girl." Bhalaam studied Arathea like she were some manner of prize steer, and as Arathea thought, to a being so ancient she might well be one. "Your talent could be useful, and you've cost me a few passable warriors." The Lunar advanced slowly and sinuously. Arathea noted the tension in her muscles, Bhalaam was ready to pounce in a second if she didn't hear what she wanted.
"Passable is a good word." Arathea said with a scowl. "Your children could use some better instructors."
"Hm. I agree, little girl. I give you a chance - you can join my tribe. If you survive the trials I might just get to liking you. Maybe the one who can train them better will be you?"
Arathea raised her daiklaives again, setting her defense. "I'm not about to serve an Anethema like you."
Bhalaam sighed, almost sounding genuinely disappointed. "Then that's a shame. You would've given me strong grandchildren. You might yet."
"Shove it up your ass, demon." Arathea snapped. "Your freakshow beastmen aren't my type."
Bhalaam paused a moment, before throwing her head back in laughter, her long dreadlocks shaking a bit as the majestic woman took a moment to breathe. "Oh, I like you, little girl. Poor, poor little thing, no one left to defend her honor."
Arathea's anger sparked a bit. "Wrong." Her eyes blazed green, the girl adopting the form of the Mantis, legs bent, swords ready, gazing on Bhalaam with unfeeling disregard. "All alone with no witnesses for chance."
Bhalaam's posture changed slightly, the woman breaking into a feral grin as she recognized the familiar signs. "Sidereal, then. It makes no difference. Greater essences than yours have died at my feet, little girl."
"Then come over here and try, old coward."
Bhalaam's too-white teeth snarled, growing in length into fangs as her tattoos began to glow with silvery-white light. The shifting of flesh and bone was audible as her muscle mass doubled, thick yellow and black spotted fur sprouting all over her. Her eyes were distinctly feline now, pronouncedly so, her face shifting to a muzzle, hands becoming paws with deadly-sharp moonsilver claws at their tips. As the Lunar roared her fury to the sky above, the transformation was complete. She was graceful. Savage. Powerful. Perfect.
Arathea steadied herself, trying not to be afraid. "As the Maidens will it." she whispered as the first age survivor charged.