Slashing Crane staggered back from the door, fighting off shock as he went into a defensive stance. Arathea, smiling sweetly, stepped through into the flat. Turning her head to look at the main room, her prayer-scribed earrings gave a serene chime, her ornamented robes leaving her ostentatiously out-of-place in the Nexus squalor.
"You've certainly made yourself a lovely little hole to hide in, Crane." Arathea said with a satisfied smirk. "This city really is a lovely place to hide, isn't it? Took me a full year to track you down, and it wasn't easy in the slightest...but don't worry. Your head's worth that much."
"I'd be flattered if I cared, bitch." Crane snapped back, his voice hushed and low. "But right here, right now? This isn't the time or the place."
"Oh?" Arathea's expression was mockingly surprised. "Whyever would that be?"
"Mister Sikh?" Cray's voice called in from the hallway as the boy emerged, holding open one of Crane's First Age books. "I was having some trouble with a passage, could ya help me ou-"
The boy stoppd in mid-sentence as he looked up to Crane and Arathea, whose eyes remained locked on each other.
"...Or maybe I'll just leave the room for a bit..." Cray adroitly reconsidered, taking a step back towards the study.
"Cray." Crane said, never turning from the Sidereal. "Go gather whatever books you think you'll need. Study up for next time, I'll have a test ready for you."
"Um...Are you sure, mister Sikh? I mean, what's it gonna be on?"
"Just take whatever you think you need to study. We'll see how it turns out next time."
A glimmer of realization came across Cray's features, the boy turning back towards the study at last. "Right..."
Arathea held a continually wry grin. "I knew you'd make a decent teacher."
Crane's expression was far more stern. "Touch him and die where you stand." he hissed.
Cray emerged a moment later bearing a stack of books. Taking a sideways glance at Arathea, the boy came up alongside Crane to whisper to the older man.
"First off, thanks for never telling me you got hitched." Cray said sarcastically. "She's hot, mister Sikh - looks rich, too."
"...Thanks." Crane whispered back, just as sarcastic while continuing to watch the purple-haired assassin.
"Second...my folks get in these kind of fights all the time. Only way my dad's ever come out all right is to just let her win."
"I don't know if that's gonna be an option, boyo." Crane said, taking a breath. "Better head home."
"Right." Cray said with a nod, looking back to Arathea. "Sorry to interrupt you two."
"Hey." Crane added as the boy reached the door. "Take the shortcuts."
Cray's eyes widened as he took in the meaning of Crane's advice, but the boy quickly nodded, darting off with books in-hand.
Arathea rose from her position leaning against the wall. "Smart boy, I take it?"
"My best." Crane replied, reaching out a hand. A scroll case against the wall abruptly popped open, a flash of gold and a pristine ring sounding across the room as Loreheart, Crane's daiklaive, leapt into the Solar's grasp. The archaeologist leveled the blade at Arathea, calm and determined.
"Corrupting the young." she smirked, moving to block Crane's path to the door again. "Another little sin, Anethema."
"All I taught him was languages." Crane countered. "Unless you're declaring spoken word as forbidden on top of written ones."
"My troops will find him soon enough. I've got them surrounding the whole area."
Crane allowed himself a chuckle. "His own parents can't find him unless he wants to be found. Your men won't fare any better."
"My men are more capable than you think, Crane. Since being revealed as Anathema, I've managed to gather quite a retinue."
"Cute." Crane scoffed. "How many?"
"Two sworn brotherhoods. You're lucky, one of them is across town investigating other leads." Arathea sat down in one of the chairs near the door, crossing her legs and leaning back so she still had a perfect position to stop the archaeologist if she needed to. "They're very skilled, you see. Since getting the assets of the Wyld Hunt, I know everything about you. I know your haunts, I know your habits, I know your associates. There's no detail that's escaped me."
"Oh, I can think of a few." Crane said with a defiant smirk.
"Well, for starters, I've got more than one way out of my apartment."
Crane abruptly dashed to his right, ducking his head and launching himself through the flat's small wood-shuttered window, the sun-weathered slats cracking like kindling as he emerged...and immediately fell. Tearing through one awning, then another, the archaeologist crashed in an unceremonious heap amidst a gathering of clay pottery at street level.
"...Ow." Crane muttered, getting to his feet and shaking off some of the dust of the streets. "Maybe not my best idea, least it worked..."
The sound of readied weapons and clanking armor at the mouth of the alleyway interrupted Crane as he turned. "Okay, so maybe it didn't."
Two dragon-blooded women stood in his path, wearing sky-blue and deep black armor respectively - Air and Water, Crane judged. The Water aspect brandished a long-hafted jade spear, while the Air stood meekly behind, fear evident on her fair features.
"<Daughters of the Realm,>" Crane began in his best High Realm dialect. "<I wish you no ill, but I would pass by you.>"
"Shove it up your ass!" the Water Aspect hissed in Riverspeak, her short, slicked-back hair shifting like ripples on a pool. "<Mirau, cover me!>" she shouted in High Realm, charging at the Archaeologist.
"Dammit, I said I don't wanna hurt you!" Crane swore, his caste mark flaring on his brow as he raised Loreheart. He needed to make this quick.
Dipping to the side of the initial thrust of the Water Aspect's spear, Crane smacked the spearhead away with the flat of Loreheart's blade, then advancing inside the polearm's reach, flipping the daiklaive around in his hands and delivering a solid strike at the Dynast's collarbone with the blunt edge. He felt the bone snap, the Water Aspect crumpling to the ground with a scream as Crane reassumed his stance, staring down the Air Aspect, who looked all the more terrified as she clutched a jade chakram to her chest like a shield.
"<I say again.>" Crane intoned in High Realm, blue-gold light wisping about his brow. "<Move aside.>"
The Air Aspect - Mirau, evidently - dropped her chakram and ran to the Water Aspect's side, trying to move her and treat her injury. Crane nodded, and took off running, reaching the open street and breaking into a sprint.
Shoving aside passers-by with a lack of courtesy he only ever employed when being chased, Crane tried to gather his thoughts. His best chance would be to cross the river - if anything, their group would be big, and they'd have to wait in order for all of it to cross, to say nothing of the wounded he'd just given them. All this thought held up for nothing, however, as a group of heavilly-armored Realm legionnaires fenced off the end of the street shoulder-to-shoulder, spears leveled as the Nexus citizenry scattered before them in a panic. All knew the seal of the Wyld Hunt.
The archaeologist never slowed as he reached the line, leaping up onto one leveled spear and running along its length to the man's shield, jumping onto it with both feet planted before vaulting backwards at an upward angle, landing along a low-hanging clothesline before springing up to a higher one. Running and leaping between the common lines crisscrossing the residential district, Crane made it to the end of the street before a blast of fire lanced out before him, shooting skyward and incinerating his next intended perch. Quickly readjusting his balance and looking around, Crane turned about to face his latest opponent, the Dragon-Blooded's red jade lamellar gleaming as a heat-haze rippled around him.
"And you are?" Crane said, giving a slight bow, his balance holding perfectly.
"Cathak Ailesh." the Dragon-blooded smiled, bowing smugly in return as he perched along an adjacent clothesline, his balance similarly nonplussed. "You hurt my Cyrille."
"The Water Aspect, right?" Crane offered, slightly wondering if she was his daughter, sister, lover or all three. "Sorry about that. She wouldn't get out of the way."
"Sounds like her." Ailesh smirked, drawing his own straight-bladed daiklaive. "You should see when she's had a few."
"Should you really be telling me this?" Crane questioned, puzzled as the two of them began to gauge their position along and above the street. "I mean, I am a baby-eating monster by what they tell you, right?"
"Won't matter much." he pointed down, where a new fang of legionnaires brandished their spears upward towards Crane. Any fall would likely mean Crane would get himself impaled. "But I do love good conversation."
"Not a bad thing, really." Crane nodded, and leapt for the Dragon-Blooded. They met in mid-air, blades contacting before each planted a foot on the other, pushing off to reach the opposing walls of the buildings. Immediately, they sprang at each other again, Crane only barely deflecting one blow before sliding past him. Slipping as he landed, Crane managed to grasp hold of a clothesline, using his momentum to swing back up and balance himself atop it, pointing back up at Ailesh with Loreheart, the Dynast leering down at him from a point where he had grasped the support of an awning.
"You're a lot more given to talking than most of the people who wanna kill me, I'll give you that." Crane said, artfully twisting as he stepped along the clothesline to meet Ailesh once again at the street's relative middle, the Fire-Aspect perched along an opposing clothesline.
"Seems kind of a shame really." Ailesh nodded. "If you're going to kill someone you may as well make sure they know why."
"Good thing I already know that then." Crane stated, pirouetting with a leap before releasing Loreheart, the curved blade spinning end-over-end and missing Ailesh by a scant few inches as the Fire Aspect swung underneath the clothesline, flipping himself back up to a perfect perch by the time the blade sang back to Crane's hand.
"Bad aim, Anathema." Ailesh smirked.
"Better than you think." Crane smiled back, moments before a mass of wet laundry crashed down on top of the Dragon-Blooded from the newly severed clothesline overhead. Faltering under the sudden weight, Ailesh slipped and tumbled to the streets below, Crane springing up onto the rooftops even as steam started to rise from the Fire aspect's anima, the legionnaires rushing to his aid.
Breaking into a sprint again as he leapt from rooftop to rooftop, Crane stopped abruptly when a green-shafted arrow split the clay-brick where his foot had been a moment ago. Ducking and rolling as three more arrows followed, Crane quickly got to his feet, smacking aside another arrow with Loreheart as he looked to face what appeared to be the wood aspect of the group. Losing time and patience in equal amounts, the scholar rushed towards the jade-armored woman, her powerbow launching arrow after arrow. Crane twisted out of the way of one shot, a second sliced in half by Loreheart as he finished his pirouette. Continuing to rush foreward and deflecting another arrow with his blade, Crane reached the as-yet silent archer just in time for her to draw a short blade of green jade, swinging at him defensively with no sound or ceremony.
Realizing he was dealing with someone who took this seriously at last, Crane twisted out of the way of the first slash, the woman sweeping out with her powerbow like a club. Feinting backward, Crane took a few steps back to dodge the return slash with her daiklaive, his free hand pulled back before ramming it open-palm into her sternum, the armor stinging his hand but staggering the Wood Aspect ever-so-slightly. Smacking her extended arm holding the powerbow with the flat of Loreheart's blade, Crane snatched up the jade weapon and, surprised by its weight, was forced to deflect another stab as the Dynast lunged for him with her daiklaive. Snagging the girl's bowstring over her own head and planting a foot on her chest as her own strike overextended itself, Crane shoved her back roughly, letting the bowstring pull taught before releasing the powerbow to spring directly into her face. The loud CRACK and the blood that spurted from her nose told Crane it was likely broken, the Wood Aspect's eyes rolling back in her head as she collapsed unconsious to the ground.
"Not bad at all." Crane paused, taking a breath. Tucking Loreheart behind him and starting to speak in the language of the Old Realm, Crane's anima flared brightly around him before a cyclone of air and dust surrounded him.
"<Stormwind Rider!>" Crane shouted as the dust devil lifted him, the cyclone shooting off at blistering speed across the rooftops of Nexus.
Given time to think amidst concentrating on the spell, Crane tried to figure out where he would even go from here. Getting out across the river meant going north...and Crane shut his eyes a moment to shiver as memories washed over him, scant seconds before a white jade maul suddenly imposed itself into Crane's midsection.
Ripping the scholar from the heart of the dust devil and carrying him back into an adjacent wall as the swing completed, a figure with marble-white skin and hair with noble features wielded the goremaul to powerful effect, the mud-brick cracking under Crane hitting it. The scholar coughed a bit of blood onto the ground as he slumped to his knees, the Earth Aspect emerging from where he had waited.
"<Good call, Mirau.>" the Earth Aspect said in High Realm, a sort of nobility to his tone. The Air Aspect from earlier emerged, Chakram back in her hands as she seemed to almost blush from the Earth Aspect's words. Her anima still billowed a bit around her, the fresh breeze swirling about her not unlike the spell Crane had just cast. Following her was Ailesh, his daiklaive resting confidently over one shoulder.
Crane groaned into the dust of the rooftop, spitting out a bit more blood. "Should've figured you for a sorcerer, miss." Crane muttered as he started to stand. "Knew your group would need at least one."
"Cheeky son of a bitch, aren't you." Ailesh said with a smirk. "You're cornered, wounded, and outnumbered."
"Very true." Crane said as he got to his feet, shaking off the blow the Earth Aspect had given him. "Your friend here's got a hell of an arm."
The white-haired dynast sneered, falling into a measured stance. "I don't banter with Anathema."
"Oh, c'mon Ochen." Ailesh smiled, readying his daiklaive again. "He's not anything we can't handle."
"Actually," Crane offered, Loreheart singing back into his hand. "I wanted to avoid killing any of you before. Now, I really don't have another option."
"Quit posturing." Ailesh smirked, as Crane's caste mark flared and Loreheart snapped like a living thing across the Dynast's throat. The Fire Aspect collapsed with his head hanging from a thread of flesh still attached to his neck.
The Earth Aspect roared and attacked, his style calculated and wary. Crane sidestepped the blow with a burst of golden-blue light, Loreheart flashing across his right arm and severing it at the shoulder. Crying out in pain, the Shikari swung the goremaul back up at Crane with his remaining arm, the archaeologist effortlessly ducking the awkward blow as Loreheart swept low, the blade carving through his left leg at mid-calf. The Earth Aspect collapsed with teeth gritted in agony. Bringing Loreheart behind his back and flicking the blood from the blade with a downward sweep, Crane then turned the point to the again-petrified Air Aspect, who looked with horrified worry at the still-straining Earth Aspect before turning her teary eyes to Crane.
"You never wanted to be in this mission, is that what you're wanting to tell me?" Crane asked, his anima still radiating light across the Dragon-Blooded's features. "That they made you come here, they said they needed you, so on so forth." Crane scoffed. "You're a piece of work. Here you are, a Dragon-Blooded scion of the Scarlet Dynasty, cowering like a mouse in front of the enemy you knew you would be sent to fight!"
Crane let the girl squirm a bit in the face of his indignation. "You're the hope for these people. Every time I talk to someone, they look at you like heroes. Then you get ones like him," he glanced to Ailesh's corpse, "who chat and joke and fuck all day because they're rich and bored. Then there's some like him," a point of the daiklaive to the Earth Aspect, "who do a damn good job making sure those people believe in you as heroes. But then, there's ones like you."
Crane scowled at the Air Aspect. "Ones who think that because they never wanted power, that they shouldn't have to act like they have it. How many people looked up to you with eyes full of admiration when you marched through their villages? I can tell you the truth, for every one of me there is that's trying to do good, I know there's others who make your little hunts worth continuing. You're the saviors for these people! Their champions! They don't know who you are, and they don't care! They still love you, automatically!" The Air Aspect stumbled back a step, wincing her eyes shut. "You have the power. You're a sorcerer. And yet, you look at someone like me, and you do nothing. So, because I am not the kind of monster your hunts normally look for, I'm not going to hurt you."
Mirau's eyes looked confused as she opened them, tears trailing down her face.
"You're not worth my killing you. Because I don't think you're a person that warrants it, for one, and because your friend here needs medical attention, and I wouldn't be happy with him dead either. But you're the only one of this little crew that isn't going back hurt." Crane said with a scowl. "And you're going to tell your little magistrate friend, it's because I took pity on you."
Mirau whimpered, nodding frantically.
"Now go help your friend. I'm leaving." Speaking the words of the spell again, Crane vanished in another swirl of dust, wind and essence.
Arathea swept the tent-flap back with a disgusted sneer as the sound of Ledaal Mirau's sobs wracked the interior. Some attack dogs, she mused to herself as she approached the camp's main fire. Pymander gave them too much credit.
"Honored Amercers, and Venerer." she greeted the five assembled Shikari, bowing with imperceptibly mock respect. "The Anathema Slashing Crane has gone north, according to Shikari Mirau's report. However, there are many wounded. What would you wish of the Hunt?"
"The hunt continues, magistrate." said one monk as he leaned in, his fellows following suit. "We travel light, and ahead. We will run him to ground and await the remainder of the train."
"We act on your will, Immaculate Ones." Arathea said as she bowed, hiding her smile.