The chamber was circular, walls covered in pictograms and Old Realm glyphs that illustrated the history of the temple. Once upon a time, this had been a grand testing ground, one among many controlled by the chosen of the sun. Its owner had selected it to be remote, the furthest into the threshhold of all his holdings, and purchased it from the Dragon Kings before they began their long slumber.
It became his preserve, a vast laboratory in which he crafted idealized and perfected beings, automatons and whole species of lifeforms, pitting them against each other and any champions or fellow chosen who wished to test their skill. He was renowned for his sense of aesthetics in form, though many could produce deadlier creatures or had larger such sites, it was his own engineered ecosystem, and he was proud of it.
The owner's name was clawed from each of its depictions with a savage hand. No one would know who had worked here from this room.
It was filled to the brim with history, however.
And for once, Crane didn't even pay it heed.
Dominating the center of the room was a large stonework pillar, the upper third of it composed of what looked like solid crystal. The object within was obscured, but Crane already knew it was what he'd come for. Advancing in slowly, cautious for any traps, the scholar paused as he heard a rumble from the upper levels. Whatever was going on up there must've been huge, Crane was glad for once the biggest conflagration of battle didn't involve him.
"Right then...just get this thing open, grab the goodie, get out. No problem." Crane assured himself, taking a breath and continuing his pace. As he circled around the pillar, his eyes went to two large dials within reach of each other, just below the crystal section of the pillar. Each was composed of a knob surrounded by three concentric rings, each one bearing symbols in Old Realm.
"Oh, come ON!" the archaeologist whined, the noise almost blasphemous as the tension in Crane's mind melted.
There weren't any traps in here, the cruder kind that was still active simply wasn't needed. Anyone who got this far would never open the lock before some kind of security group found him.
Granted, First Age locking mechanisms weren't something Crane couldn't handle, but Sun Above if they weren't frustrating.
"It just had to be a time-active system, didn't it..." Crane muttered as he started to examine the dials carefully.
A lock of time-active make had a specific combination in several steps. Each step had to be entered within a given timeframe, usually around ten seconds to a setting or potentially less, and the entire combination had to be entered before a time limit was reached. Each ring surrounding the dial moved independently, the smallest having six settings, the next eight, and the final one ten. This meant that each dial had to be placed in one of trillions of possible combinations, ten different times, each within ten seconds of the last.
Crane sighed. This was going to take a while.
Arathea skidded back nearly 30 feet, her hook-swords raised protectively as they threatened to vibrate out of her hands from the sheer force of Bhalaam's blow. The Lunar hadn't been holding anything back, each one of her attacks could have shattered mountains and slain armies if Arathea hadn't managed to avoid or deflect them. Her essence reserves were running low regardless, and Arathea had in a way known she could never survive this fight.
Regardless, it simply wasn't her way to give up like this. She wasn't going to die, she kept thinking. She was fated to kill Crane. Kejak had said so, and her sifu had never lied to her before. She wasn't going to die.
The titanic jaguar-woman gave a feline laugh, her moonsilver claws now with fresh blood upon them from the glancing blows she had already scored on the Sidereal. "I always enjoy killing you Maiden-touched." Bhalaam snarled, her tattoos ablaze with silver light, anima flaring so bright one could have difficulty trying to see. The beastmen had already fled, too fearful to watch their goddess at her predatory height. "Those swords will look very nice in my collection. Maybe your head as well, if there's any left."
Arathea resteadied herself and regained her stance, hoping she could hold out longer. The Lunar was overwhelming, it would take someone like her sifu to fight her on anything resembling even ground. The temple was already losing what structural integrity remained in it from the force of Bhalaam's attacks, and Arathea couldn't stop herself from being very, very afraid.
But if she could get Bhalaam to collapse the building on herself, it would give her time to escape.
Arathea took a breath, and scowled. "The hides of your brood look about as good on Dynastic walls."
"Let's not delude ourselves, little girl." Bhalaam rumbled, her posture relaxed. "You'll die like Sidereals always do, once they find out they can't run and hide any more."
"Running and hiding?" Arathea jibed. "I thought that was what your kind did, all those years ago. Running off to the Wyld while your lords, your masters and lovers all stood and died."
Bhalaam's expression, such as it could be read, became very unamused.
The ancient Lunar barreled foreward on all fours, leaping for the Sidereal and whirling in midair, her arm dividing into a dozen limbs formed of moonsilver, each one bearing claws sheathed in venom.
"BREAKING THE UNWORTHY!" Bhalaam shouted in Old Realm as her anima blazed around her, the image of a jaguar totemic behind her in silver-white light.
Arathea forced herself not to hesitate and let essence shine green around her, fueling her as she willed Bhalaam's strike less sure, the purple-haired girl diving and rolling beneath the Lunar as though she had never even been the attack's target.
The blow struck the stone of the temple twelve times, one for each arm, the sheer force of impact atomizing the immediate area as the venom spread, melting stone like hot wax, the wall and floor suddenly vanishing along with a six hundred yard stretch straight into the forest. Arathea saw sections of the temple falling in on itself. She was on the right track.
Now all she had to do was live through the Lunar AND her ire.
Crane took a deep breath, grumbling loudly as he tried to keep himself from punching the column. All that would result in would be a broken hand, no matter how good it would feel just hitting the damn thing as hard as he could manage and enough times to exhaust his frustration.
It was a sixty-combination key. Despite everything else he adored about history, Crane truly hated the sadism that was evidently a job requirement for First Age locksmiths. Even his curiosity was beginning to consider this something better left a mystery.
Turning from the column to gather his thoughts, Crane started to pace back and forth near the edge of the chamber. "Okay. It's not impossible. It's highly, highly improbable, but it's not impossible. It got put IN there, it can get taken OUT. I just have to keep calm, remember what I know...and spend the next sixty or so years trying to figure out a combination no one still living has even heard of. Motherfucker."
The entire chamber abruptly shuddered like a paper lantern hit with a brick, Crane flailing wildly for a moment just to keep his balance as the entire room seemed to sunder itself in twain, the column disappearing under a tide of debris, thick clouds of dust thrown up as Crane shielded his face with his arms reflexively.
Something gave a resonant metallic ring as it skidded across the floor, coming to a stop at Crane's boot.
Crane coughed slightly, but didn't lower his hands. "No way." he said flatly. "No way in all Malfeas am I that lucky."
The scholar gingerly knelt, still not looking, then closed his eyes and felt along what had landed at his feet.
It was around four feet long, a single piece of metal, a deathly sharp single-edged blade, curving gently back. Opening his eyes as the dust cleared, Crane saw it was Orichalcum. Reverently taking hold of the daiklaive, he rose back up and knew this was why he had come.
"Loreheart..." Crane whispered in awe, knowing its name before he even looked at the glyph at the base of the blade. It was indeed a single piece of exquisitely crafted Orichalcum, the hilt nothing more than a simple yet elegant and smooth irregular bulge at the base of the blade. A single socket Crane presumed would hold a hearthstone was empty in the side of the hilt. The handle was wrapped in some manner of material Crane couldn't identify, save that it was soft and yet easy to grasp as sharkskin. The handle curved back on itself into a gentle S-shape, more than long enough for both hands before ending in a blunt pommel engraved with the symbol of the Twilight Caste.
It was his sword, his sword he had never liked using, his sword he held as a ceremonial item. But he'd wanted it back. Needed it back. Why, Crane wondered, when he didn't even really...
But he didn't know. Crane was Crane again, the memories of his past self fading as he went through motions he only barely knew before performing them, practiced sweeping cuts, quick and elegant, ending as he hurled the blade at the curved wall, the sword whirling as though with a life of its own, spinning end-over-end and curving around the chamber's remaining wall before whipping back to Crane's waiting hand.
It was Crane's sword, and he liked having it.
Whatever had caused that tremor had been particularly helpful for him, Crane mused as he looked up the gentle slope of rubble towards the giant fissure overhead, where daylight now filtered down. All he had to do was get up to the surface and get out of this jungle, then catch the fast boat to Nexus and he'd never have to see this place again.
When the earsplitting scream echoed from overhead, Crane's eyes widened.
The voice was Arathea's.
Crane felt a twinge of satisfaction, then revulsion at feeling happy for her death. Then, for reasons he couldn't explain, fear. Fear for her. Loreheart felt warm in his hand as he stood transfixed.
She had ruined his life.
She'd tried to kill him.
She'd declared him a thief and an arsonist, hunted him as a demon, killed people and destroyed the hopes and dreams of others, just to stop him from gathering knowledge to make peoples' lives better.
And he couldn't just leave her to die.
Not knowing why he felt the way he did, Crane haphazardly strapped Loreheart across his back, starting to climb towards the light.
Arathea struggled underneath Bhalaam's grasp as the massive Lunar pinned her to the cracked stone of the amphitheater's floor, one giant paw on her throat while the other dug its claws deeply into her arm. She hadn't been fast enough, hadn't had the essence, she was so tired, she had failed, failed, failed...Bhalaam had caught on to her plan, what a stupid plan, as if a thousands-of-years-old warrior couldn't tell when she was being played. Her arm hurt so much...the jaguar-woman had snapped it aside like a toy, her elbow bent the wrong way, her sword was already across the amphitheater, dug a full foot into the stone from the force of the blow, and then her claws were in it, gripping and crunching and oh Maidens it hurt it hurt it hurt...
Bhalaam looked down on the Sidereal as her scream faded, savoring the sound as the demure girl started to sob. "Soft little bureaucratic lapdog." the Lunar mocked.
Arathea couldn't blink away the tears of agony as she tried to do anything, anything to fight back and finding there was nothing left. She let out another weak cry of pain as the Lunar's claws dug a little harder into her maimed limb.
"Does it hurt? Your poor little arm...let me kiss it and make it better." Her jaws opened, fangs long and sharp, wrapping around Arathea's shattered limb, starting to bite down into the soft, pale flesh, the taste of her blood thick with essence. She was a pretty little thing, Bhalaam thought gleefully. Once she'd feasted on the tramp's heart's blood, she'd have a shape even that self-absorbed little slut Raksi would envy.
Pain lancing through her all over again as she felt the claws leave and the fangs begin to press, Arathea cried out again, her mind giving a terrified thought of what it would feel like being eaten.
A gold-and-blue glow suddenly flared from the corner of Bhalaam's eye, and the Lunar's blood ran utterly cold.
"General!" Crane yelled from the opposite end of the amphitheater, levelling Loreheart at the jaguar-woman and assuming his stance. He didn't even know what the title meant, but something in him was sure that it meant her. "Let. Her. Go."
Bhalaam rose from her position over Arathea, the Sidereal girl drawing her mangled arm to herself and trying feebly to cradle the injury, rolling into a ball. Bhalaam's eyes were wide, turning slowly, her breath short and tense, as she faced Crane, his anima ablaze and the sword in his hands. The sword had claimed him. The sword. His sword. Her title. He'd used it. Defending the Sidereal. It was him. Him. The Traitor.
Crane started to feel a little nervous as silence seemed to stretch to uncomfortable levels. "Well?" He said forcefully. "Fuck off!"
Bhalaam's eyes flared brilliant silver, her anima once again blazing into full iconic majesty as she barrelled at Crane like a silvery comet, roaring in purest hatred.
"Shit!" Crane courageously meeped, and dove out of the Lunar's path as she arced past him to land feet-first on the wall, springing off it to come flying back at Crane as he rolled to his feet. Crane immediately raised a desperate defense, the sword interceding before each of the frenzied Lunar's strikes, a solid blow finally impacting against the blade hard enough to send the scholar flying back through the stone wall into an adjacent room.
Rolling with the impact as he landed, Crane twisted aside as Bhalaam leapt after him, her arm again splitting into the dozen clawed moonsilver hands. "BREAKING THE UNWORTHY!" she howled, Crane twisting aside just before the attack blew out the entire wall and most of the rooms behind where he had stood, another swath of destruction cut to the jungle. Crane forced himself to flip up on one hand, pushing off to send him upright as he spun behind the enraged Bhalaam, slicing open her exposed lower back. Blood seemed to pour down the Lunar's fur, and Bhalaam paid it no heed, roaring in fury.
The Lunar twisted as Crane cut her, a leg flashing around and striking Crane square in the midsection, sending the scholar flying through another crumbling wall. Flipping in midair to land on his feet, Crane momentarily gawked at the pursuing avatar of Luna's rage and started running down a hallway to his right, Bhalaam stopping and rising to her feet as Crane ran.
"You can't run from me!" Bhalaam fumed. "You'll pay for it all! I'll kill you here and now!!" Bracing her stance, Bhalaam threw her head back. "SCREAMS OF THE HUNT!" the jaguar-woman cried in Old Realm, then threw her head foreward towards Crane and roared.
The roar carried with unbelievable force, the stone of the hallway shattering to dust foot-by-foot as it pursued the fleeing scholar. Crane's caste mark flared as he moved faster than the eye could follow, barely beating the sonic force to the first intersection in the hall and diving to the left to avoid it. Gasping for breath as he got back to his feet, Crane put his back to the wall and waited to hear the Lunar moving.
"You wanna kill me, huh? Get in line, I get enough death threats these days!" Crane shouted back, moments before Bhalaam's claw exploded from the stone just above his shoulder.
Murmuring a quick "Fuck!" Crane reacted as quickly as possible, Loreheart's golden blade whipping around in a full cut to slice the protruding limb clean off, the moonsilver-clawed digits still grasping at the air as Crane started running again, the Lunar practically exploding forth from the wall heartbeats later.
"GET BACK HERE!" Bhalaam raged, anima flaring all over again as she bounded after him, her lost limb ignored utterly. Fleeing without any thought to where he was going, Crane reached a dead-end chamber quickly, turning just in time to save himself from the impact of one of Bhalaam's blows, the Lunar's single-handed attack still sending him crashing back through the wall of the chamber into the amphitheater again.
Crane finally skidded to a halt and got back to his feet. The archaeologist took a deep breath and stood his ground, his anima coalescing into a firey blue-and-gold mandala, a crane formed of essence spreading its wings over him. Crane steadied his stance and waited as the Lunar growled, emerging from the hole he had left and stalking foreward, blood pouring from wounds that didn't even seem to matter.
"I've been waiting so long for this, Traitor." Bhalaam snarled, her one remaining paw curled up in tense, barely-leashed rage.
"I'd love to say the same," Crane replied, "if I knew at all what the fuck you're going on about."
"Give my regards to your allies." Bhalaam spat. "I'll leave your corpse to bleed out in the mud with the other terrestrial chaff."
Crane tensed and readied himself. She wasn't even getting slowed down by these middling hits, and if he couldn't come up with something bigger he was done for. Sorcery would be the only recourse, but he'd never have time to cast before...
Bhalaam readied to spring, and in that split second a lithe, purple-haired girl appeared behind her. Raising her one good arm, the Sidereal rammed her hook-bladed daiklave through the Lunar's leg and into the ground beneath, anchoring the jaguar-woman where she stood.
Arathea slumped back away from Bhalaam, hand going back to protecting her mangled arm. "Crane!" she shouted, voice raw from pain. "Cast!"
Crane dropped Loreheart in an instant, Old Realm words echoing with essence on his lips as his hands went through arcane motions and his anima blazed, the wings of the blue-golden crane closing around Crane as a sphere formed in his hands, a sphere flattened into a circle, a circle formed into a gateway, and a gateway showed the eternal fires of the deepest south by the Elemental Pole.
Bhalaam looked into that blaze and moved to free herself, ripping the hook-sword out with ease and stumbling ever so slightly as her shattered leg muscles fought to regenerate, too much essence gone in her frenzied pursuit of Crane. She looked into the gateway in Crane's hands and saw defeat.
"BRILLIANT RAPTOR'S FLIGHT!" Crane intoned in Old Realm, a massive bird of pure flames shrieking out of the gateway and keening as it soared directly into Bhalaam. Flame exploded outward, Arathea turning away to shield herself as best she could. As the fire faded, Bhalaam still stood, charred, bleeding, slowed, staggering...her one remaining eye still showed fury. Her claw still twitched with hunger for death.
Loreheart flew into Crane's hands, the scholar grabbing hold of the S-curved handle and hurling it end-over end at the Lunar. The blade landed in Bhalaam's chest with a dull thunk, and the ancient Exalt slumped to her knees. Crane extended a hand, and the sword ripped itself from Bhalaam's chest, ringing in the air as it returned to him.
Crane approached the Lunar slowly as she rasped the bubbling noises of the dying.
"You're the only person who can tell me." Crane said slowly, staying out of arm's reach and watching her for any movement. "Who is Sikharam?"
Bhalaam managed a gurgle as she spat forth a gout of blood. "S...sik...haram...t-traitor...."
Crane took a tentative step closer, curiosity starting to once more assert dominance. "How? Traitor to whom?"
"k-killyou..." Bhalaam murmured. "Sikhhh-" the Lunar's body fell to the stone floor on its side. "Sikharam....L-last...Sstarrrs...."
"Last Stars?" Crane asked, kneeling but still not daring to go too close. "What last stars? What's last stars?"
"Kkhill...youboth..." Bhalaam retched, her body twitching. "I'll...haunt...you..."
The Lunar breathed one last ragged breath and went still.
Crane took a deep breath, rising again just as a sickening POP and a strangled cry came from the other side of the shattered amphitheater. Crane walked over towards Arathea, Loreheart still in hand.
"If I were smart," Crane said coldly, "I would kill you right now."
"If you were smart, Crane," Arathea muttered, eyes squeezed shut in pain, "you would've left me to die."
"I did say if I was smart." Crane replied with a smirk. "But I'm betting you're smarter than I am."
"I have backup coming." Arathea said, holding up a small jade bauble. A single light flashed on it in a symbol Crane had never seen before. "If you were the dunce you usually are..." she forced herself to open her eyes, looking up at him. "You should get out of here before they arrive."
Crane regarded her skeptically. "I'm supposed to believe that? How do I know they won't just follow me?"
"They will follow you, but not before they take me to where I can...nngh, where I can get medical attention." The demure girl winced a little, rising to her feet with her back propped against the stone wall. "You came back and saved my life. I will hunt you down and kill you, Crane. But I'll give you a headstart for this."
Crane re-secured Loreheart in its makeshift strap and narrowed his eyes. "You were always a good person before I found out you were lying to me, Arathea. Sometimes you make me want to believe that lie all over again." The scholar backed away, towards a rent in the temple that led to the open jungle. "I won't stop, even after this. I'm gonna find out who Sikharam and this 'Last Stars' were, I'm gonna find out what your people are hiding, and I'm going to make sure the world knows."
"Crane, I'm sick of arguing and I hurt all over." Arathea scowled. "You need to figure out why knowledge gets forbidden."
Crane turned, heading for the jungle and towards escape. "Only when people aren't responsible enough for it, Arathea. And I'm going to make sure people are."
Crane vanished into the rubble and sprawl of the forest, and Arathea slumped back down to the floor with a sigh. They'd be here soon enough, Arathea thought. Soon enough to rest.
Further into the ruined temple, blood pooled around the bodies of three jaguar-men and a single human.
Khalif coughed blood as he tried to rise, his arms aching, his legs unresponsive. The scalelord bled from a dozen slashes and cuts, and he knew in his heart he was dying. Dying alone, lost with two fangs and a magistrate on a mission into a temple no one would ever go to again.
"Well now, this is interesting." The voice was melodious but tinted with malice, and the woman that appeared before Khalif looked as death personified with beauty. Long blood-red hair was a striking contrast to bone-white skin, wearing revealing light armor with evocative imagery of souls screaming in torment. The woman held a ghost by the throat in her right hand, the wailing and helpless shade that had once been the same as the dark-skinned woman who had killed his men and ruled over this wretched ruin. At her side was a long chain of black steel, and she looked over Khalif with amusement and hunger.
"And what are you..." Khalif groaned with a cough, "come to mock a corpse?"
"Not necessarily, little mortal." the woman said with a smile. "I'm here on a mission from my master, he told me to come get this." She shook the ghost, and Khalif could now see the chains that bound the spirit's neck, wrists and ankles. "He told me that I might meet someone with potential. And, well, killing all these..." she indicated the beastmen. "That's potential. I think he might want to talk to you."
Indeed I do, my Cold Robin.
The woman froze in a look of dread mixed with excitement, and turned. Khalif saw it materialize in a phantom shape behind her, a gargantuan figure in soulsteel armor, his face obscured in the shadows of his helm.
"What do you wish of me, Master?" Cold Robin said as she dropped to her knees, offering up the ghost that still strained against her chains.
Khalif realized the terrifying apparition was speaking to him.
You will die soon. Unmourned and pathetic as any mortal's death. My Cold Robin can save you from death, but only for a time. Only if you accept my hand, only if you serve my legions, and join me at the Thousand, will you be saved. You will taste power beyond your mortal skill and glory beyond a thousand mortal lifetimes. I will give you all of these things, and most of all, I will give you revenge.
Khalif's broken body cried for respite. His heart burned for what the vision offered.
I ask only once. Do you accept?
Khalif took a ragged breath, then another. He thought of his dead men, thought of the families without fathers and brothers, thought of all of this wasted for one foolish thief and a fop of a magistrate. He thought of the Dragon-Blooded who he knew he was better than.
"Yes." he said. "Grant me revenge."
The apparition vanished.
Cold Robin smiled to him as she rose, picking up the much larger Khalif and tossing him over her shoulder with ease. "Right then, we'd better hurry. The Master hates it when I'm late, and I really don't want to be late if you end up dead because of it."
Khalif only vaguely thought about what he might have agreed to when he slipped into blissful unconsciousness.