Slashing Crane plodded across the lightly snowed-over plain with a determination born of desperation. It had been a week since he had left Nexus, and the further he traveled, the more he had been harassed and harangued at every turn. The Shikari - Harriers of the Wyld Hunt - had lived up to their name in the first day after he had escaped the city, assaulting him just long enough to prevent him from casting any more transportation spells, then disappearing into the surroundings as though they'd never existed at all.
He had slept only lightly and nowhere near enough - he'd been attacked twice in his sleep, and kept moving or hidden after that. Food had been nonexistant, any game scared off, any fruit either poisoned or guarded, and every last merchant warned well of him, and usually hiding an ambush. Even water had become hard to come by, the meltings of snow and ice he'd gotten as he went further into the northeast his only available source. His powers were even starting to falter, his limbs aching and every trick and charm he could muster feeling like an effort that the Unconquered Sun himself would strain under. His mind was addled and jumpy. His vision was blurry. His body was beaten, weary and thin. He had to keep moving.
Who would attack the next time, he wondered as he kept his grueling pace? There were five of them again, and they were much more experienced than the ones before. Smarter. Faster. Much faster. He hadn't even learned their names, they weren't so foolish as to give him, a vast, powerful, hungry and run-ragged Anathema, such leverage as to give him their names. They were Fire, Air, Wood, Water, and Earth. They were everything surrounding Crane. They turned the land and the world on him. And they were going to kill him. Not because of Arathea. Not even because they hated him, in fact, Crane was certain they really didn't. Because they believed, and that belief told them that Crane's death would make Creation safer.
He felt sick, and weary, and cold. The snow looked so inviting. Crane let a memory flash through his mind of picking up a wad of it in a ball and hurling it at the other children, so many years ago.
Crane kept walking.
A quarter mile behind him, the Immaculate Shikari followed.
Twenty-nine years before, there was a place. A place claimed by right of conquest. The weak villagers called it Amber Grove. They had settled on land taken for them, by the hated nemesis, Old Saffron. The Grand Lord of Malachite, Atma, fought battle after worthy battle with his nemesis, fighting the invaders from cold and lifeless Creation every step of the way. He knew his nemesis better than any other being. Were they allies, all would fall before their might, but such was never to be. A grand tragedy.
Twenty-nine years before, Lord Atma had spied the invaders upon Amber Grove, living their lives, exploiting and profiting from the amber HE had placed upon their lands. He saw their petty children grow and work and prosper, and to watch them do so upon his own grounds, it was unacceptable. But they were defended, by Old Saffron and his star-granted power. Atma would always be present to face his nemesis, but this insult went beyond their rivalry. He made certain Old Saffron was gone, and then, the grand host of Malachite marched forth.
The pathetic mortals gave such halfhearted resistance. Nothing worth his effort and time, not a single foe who could even stand against his hobgoblins and hounds, much less even a single blow from his grand amber-bladed sword. The needles of his pine and snow cloak ruffled irritably as he crushed their feeble men and gave their women and children to the chains. He returned to the Lodge of House Malachite unfulfilled and unsatisfied, yet richer in slaves.
And yet, he had finally urged his nemesis to the breaking point. Old Saffron confronted Atma upon the Fields of Frozen Honor with its gilt-ice pennants, after smashing aside the armies and freeing the three child-slaves who remained. Grinning with pride and satisfaction, Lord Atma met his nemesis in a battle that shook snow from the tallest pines, and songs were sung and tales were told, all of the valor of Lord Atma and the fury of Old Saffron in his protection of the invader survivors. But a horrid thing happened. A horrid, terrible thing. At the crux of the battle, Old Saffron merely smiled, and dropped his defenses. Lord Atma's nemesis died that day, died truly and irrevocably. More tales could have been told, a saga to last centuries and millennia. But it was not to be. Lord Atma withdrew into the Lodge of House Malachite that day, and has yet to emerge, in mourning for his lost nemesis, his lost glory, the joy of his battles in the past.
But the child-slaves lived, and became mighty. And now, they drew near...
"He is down. Move in." The group of immaculates all heard the whispered words of their air-aspected leader upon the wind, dropping from their hiding places and advancing towards Crane's form, which had collapsed into a snowdrift a few minutes prior. They did not relax, despite being well-fed and well-rested. They knew what they fought and they gave him no opportunity for surprises.
They advanced inward in a circular formation, each with weapons at the ready. Crane dimly percieved the wood aspect knocking an arrow to his powerbow as the Earth aspect's powerful feet planted themselves near him.
Then, he felt someone straddling his back, and saw red hair drifting down against his cheek as a woman's voice whispered sweetly in his ear. Crane heard the Immaculates tense and back away.
"You don't want to die, Crane. I know you. But we can talk later."
Crane felt a kiss on his neck, and let the world fall away into blackness.
The immaculates had been prepared for anything, except the appearance of an unforseen target. Her pale form seemed to materialize on top of the Anethema, the five monks stepping back as one as the black-metal chains hanging from her scandalously constructed armor jangled softly in the wind, sounds like the cries of children whispering along that breeze as though from far away. She murmured softly to the Anathema as he lay, shallowly breathing in the snow.
"Formation four." the air aspect commanded. Immediately, the Fire, Water and Earth aspects took up defensive positions, interposing themselves at the woman's sides with Earth before her - the areas she was most likely to attack. Wood and Air readied bow and chakram respectively from behind her.
"You are surrounded, demon. One of your ilk will die, and you will follow." The fire aspect said evenly, knowing he spoke the truth.
"Not a demon." the woman said with a grin, throwing her head back, letting her blood-red locks tumble back over her shoulders as her hands went to the fighting chains at her hips. "I am the Cold Robin of Forsaken Groves. I am a killer."
"Take him." Air said emotionlessly. Chakram and arrow loosed simultaneously at Crane's motionless form.
The soulsteel chains unfurled like the tendrils of a living thing, lashing behind the fallen solar just in time to smash the shaft of the arrow aside, then snatch up the chakram in their coils as the woman rolled forward, springing up directly at Earth. Bracing himself, the bulky dragon-blooded monk made an excellent springboard as Cold Robin pushed off his well-muscled sternum, the chains still flailing as she shot over the heads of air and earth, one fighting chain entwining around the neck of Fire, yanking him forward even as Cold Robin twisted in midair, her sculpted porcelain leg catching Wood's head in the crook of her knee. Twisting around with her backward momentum, she savored the popping sound of Wood's vertebrae dislocating as she whipped her fighting chains back towards her, the chakram still in their grasp suddenly raking across the off-balance Fire Aspect's skull with the finality of a headsman's axe. Releasing Wood's body to slump bonelessly to the ground as she landed with a handstand and flipped up, snapping her fighting chains back into her hands, she looked to the remaining three Shikari with a lustful smile, snapping Air's own chakram into her hand and tasting some of the blood that now dripped from the weapon, black ichor oozing from the ring-shaped brand upon her brow.
Air seemed shaken, but calm. A quick hand signal, one Cold Robin had seen them use stalking Crane. Fall Back.
"No, no." she smirked, the chains lashing out once again as she cast the chakram aside. "No banter? No quarter."
Air and Water rapidly moved to flee, Earth raising up his goremaul. She'd seen this maneuver before as well - the ground would swallow Crane, or perhaps her, and just as quickly they'd be gone. The chains siezed the big monk's arms before he could swing down, the deathknight leaping up to crash knees-first into the Earth Aspect's nose. As he collapsed into a heap with her atop him, Cold Robin looked to the other two monks as they ran. Giving a cruel laugh, she looked back down to the dazed Earth Aspect, licking her teeth as fangs appeared there.
"Oh now, look what your friends have given me." she smiled. "Don't worry. I won't let the dragons get your tasty little soul." She wouldn't forget the terror in the big monk's eyes as she descended on him, biting viciously into the dragon-blooded's nose and feasting on the blood that gushed from the wound.
She idly wondered if Crane could hear her satisfied moans over the screams of his dying hunter.