"No. No, no, no, no no no no!"
Slashing Crane stormed out of the hut half-dressed, Loreheart haphazardly strapped across his back. "I am not going back there, I am not having anything to do with that place, or that thing!"
"Crane, stop!" Cold Robin called, pulling on her boots just in time to run after him with furs wrapped hastily around herself.
"Atma! You want to fight Atma, of all people? Here, of all places? You're nuts." He turned to face her, still buttoning up his buff jacket. "Look, I'm glad you're all right, even if you are working for some kind of undead head case that thinks he's a god. But don't think for a second that I'm here for any other reason than that I was chased here. From Nexus."
"Exactly, which is why you shouldn't just run out in the snow half-naked! Aren't you supposed to be the smart one?"
"Look who's talking!" Crane snapped back. "If I wasn't so focused on how much of you's on display in that armor you were wearing I'd be wondering how anything in that getup couldn't chafe!"
Robin gave a bitter smile. "Knew it. I fucking knew this wasn't worth trying."
"You wanna talk?" Crane fumed, snapping his buff jacket closed. "Fine. We can talk as we get further the hell away from him!"
"You act like I didn't go through everything you did!" Robin snapped. "Here we are, here we are both with the power to change things, and you're still that scared little kid!"
"You didn't go through everything I did." Crane hissed back. "You were tossed off on his servants, you worked in the damn kitchens! You have any idea where I was!?"
"Since this is such a big reunion, why don't you tell me."
Lift her head up a bit higher, boy, the lilting voice said in Crane's memories. Good.
"You had your chance!" Robin spat, turning to head back towards the hut, turning back at the door and pulling back the curtain from the hide entrance. "Now get in here and stop panicking."
"Oh, like I'm hanging around you any more."
The soulsteel chain was in Robin's hand before Crane could see the glint of metal, snapping around him before he could even draw his sword and holding him fast.
Crane pursed his lips, eyeballing the chain weapon, slightly impressed. "Very quick, I'll give you that."
"Will you get inside already?" Robin said with a short tug of the chain. "I don't want to waste any energy kicking your half-frozen ass around here."
A shiver of fear went through Crane as he considered the attention of other beings in the woods. "...Fine." he said with a petulant scowl. He could get away from her later. The chain unwound from about him, snapping back to Robin's grasp as Crane started trudging back to the hut.
"No sign of him, not yet anyway." Mirau said sadly as Ochen experimentally flexed the jade-alloy fingers of his new hand. "Are you sure we shouldn't stop for a while?"
"We've got to keep moving. He knows this area, he'll keep up." He lifted his flesh-and-blood hand to her chin, lifting her gaze to meet his. "Stop worrying all the time, please?"
"Ochen..." Mirau said nervously. "This Anathema's already done so much harm to us, and if he's killed Venerer Still Breath as well? We're outgunned here."
"We've got to keep going." Ochen said with a sad smile. "If we're not out here, doing right by the dragons, we're back home gearing up for civil war." He turned, starting on ahead, his expression turning darker. "I'd rather not watch that."
"You and me both." came a new voice. Ochen's goremaul and Mirau's chakram were in their hands in a split second, turning to face the sound. "Whoa, whoa, stop! Friendly!"
The younger man stood with his hands held before him defensively, his angular features and blonde hair marking him as from the Realm even without the bluish tinge to his skin. His sky-blue buff jacket bore the markings of House Tepet on its shoulders, his blue jade boots and blue-tinted glasses showing him as nothing less than Dragon-Blooded. "Sorry I was late?" he offered nervously.
Ochen breathed a sigh of relief, walking up with a smile, the goremaul rested against his shoulder. "Ledaal Mirau, my cousin Alenius." Ochen smirked. "Glad you found us at all, we've been trying to keep up with a rough deadline."
"You're telling me." Alenius frowned, looking over the barren landscape. "You're lucky I know my way around up here, I might not have otherwise. You have any idea what you're walking into?"
"Shoot." Ochen said, concern crossing his features.
"There used to be a settlement this far north, a place called Amber Grove. A few decades back, turns out some fair folk noble took the land for his. He hasn't been seen much since, but the ones that go this far are either mutants, crazy, or never seen again. Is what you're doing really worth it for that?"
"Ochen..." Mirau said worriedly.
"Leni, stop scaring her." Ochen said with a wry grin.
Alenius smirked, then broke into giggles. "I know, I know. I can't wait! A Raksha, an Anathema, AND whatever they're hiding? You send me all the best invitations."
Mirau frowned slightly. "You're both crazy."
"Ochen obviously didn't tell you what I do day-to-day, did he." Alenius said with a smile, giving a friendly slap on Ochen's shoulder. The spectacled air aspect frowned at the metallic solidity, rapping against it. "Wait a moment."
Ochen rolled up the sleeve of his jacket, revealing the jade alloy of his replacement arm. "Blame him, or not." he said, his voice free of anger. "I got careless."
"...Wow." Alenius said, taking the injury in. "I'm...wow, I'm sorry cousin."
"It'll do. The Dragons give us tests, this is no exception. Now, we should do something besides standing in the snow here."
"Right you are.." Alenius said, looking to Mirau. "I vote that way." he pointed further northeast. "You?"
Mirau glanced at the two Tepets, all doubt removed that they were related. "If that's what you think is best." Essence began to whistle into her hands as she invoked a spell.
"Wait!" Alenius shouted, running over to her.
"What?" Mirau paused, looking confused again. "It's the fastest way."
"It's also the most obvious, there aren't a lot of dust devils or flaming blue chariots in the northeast. Just trust me on this one - we want to walk." Alenius's tone went serious.
Mirau took a breath, halting her spell and looking to Ochen, arching a brow questioningly.
Ochen chuckled, starting to head off in the direction Alenius had given. "Let's just keep moving."
The two air aspects glanced at each other, shrugged, and followed Ochen into the woods.
Arathea trudged on through the snows as the sun began to set, muttering quietly to herself as she looked around for a suitable place to make camp. The sidereal hated the north, on reflection. Between the cold, the snow, the irritating weather patterns, the blandness of the terrain and the fact that wherever her quarry was, it would look identical to wherever the stars pointed her at, the list of destinations for her dubious free time was never going to include these lands.
"Almost as gods-awful as the south." she grumbled. Her first thing to do once she returned with Crane's death taken care of, she resolved, was to find a good spa complex in Yu-Shan and spend the largest part of her savings for a week's stay.
Her pursuit was ill-advised, her messenger spell had told her. She needed support, they said. "Should have given me what I asked for instead of this..." she grumbled aloud. Halfwit Dragon-Blooded nobles playing hunter and monks that thought their mantras were suitable answers for two-thirds of every question. If there was ever any actual concern shown by the Fellowship over the grave threat presented by Crane, Arathea felt quite sure she'd faint from surprise.
He remembered her. Every precaution, every destiny, every thought of stealth, and he remembered her. It didn't make any sense, and despite her reports, it just kept getting ignored. Her sifu had charged her with taking care of it, and thus, here she was.
A rabbit twitched its whiskers at her as she trudged another step in the knee-deep snow. She sneered at it, and the little rodent bounded a couple hops to her right. Here she was indeed.
"No backup left, no astronomy, no recourse, not even a damn Circle to fall back on...." she seethed. "I hate the fucking north!" Arathea yelled, snatching up a handful of snow and throwing it fecklessly at the rabbit. Giving an abrupt screech, the rabbit exploded into snow itself.
Arathea blinked. "Oh no. No." Realization settled in, and she started to pick up the pace, alert and active. Why, she thought, does it always get worse when I think it can't?
"More guests..." the voice was sibilant and strong, an antlered form emerging from the woods soundlessly, the snow not broken by his footfalls as other, furred attendant goblins emerged, some bearing an immense amber oval that contained a dimly visible human form. Atma sniffed the air, a sense of satisfaction in his expression. "A starchild. So like our lost nemesis, for whom I mourn. I must have your...company, dear heart."
Arathea mentally checked herself - if this was a wyld zone, she'd be bereft of a number of her abilities. She was at a significant disadvantage.
"....Rain check!" she called, and sprinted deeper into the woods.
Atma smiled, drawing his sword. "Then let it begin."