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Atzi grinned, giving her left arm a flex.

"Feeling jealous, Maira?" she winked. "Goes to show that you should've ate more cheese and veggies back when we were kiddos."

More serious matters put a bit of a damper on the otherwise beautiful situation though. Despite the threat that the larger critters created, the Sage's Lake really was a perfect place to relax in. Winter made it so that even the afternoon sun had no warmth in its rays, but the kaleidoscope of color cast by the reflection of light from the waters gave it a hue unmatched. It was beautiful enough, even, that Atzi scrubbed at her bloodstained skin with snow rather than water, unwilling to pollute the lake more than necessary. Perhaps, once all this was over and the village's short summer arrived, they could all go on a picnic here. Maira, Akando, Lazhira, Calra, Bolcha's boys, Nylah, heck, maybe even Vammy if she promised to behave herself, and Lissa, if that Raam stuck around long enough.

Sauces made from summer berries, goatmeat fattened from good grazing, maybe even a bottle of wine from Mie's stock. The village back on track, the forest's bounty rejuvenated, their days monotonous and content...

Atzi traced the scars on her body. Felt the burning ache of the arm she lost.

Those days weren't going to return. Those days, perhaps, had never come about to begin with. And the blood of the bear had tinged the Sage's Lake with a murky darkness, the fish flocking towards it in greedy schools.

She pulled it out, buried it in the deep snow, and picked up her studded club once more, her single-eyed gaze set on the ruins, the stone stairs that Maira had set out for and had not returned from. Breath escaped between clenched teeth in terse bursts. Paranoia made even the light of the afternoon noteworthy only for the length of the shadows cast.

The Storyteller held no direction for her, only an immature pity gracing the goddess's rounded mien.

So be it.

Atzi stalked off, following the footsteps of her friend.

Things, certainly, must have been happening all around Serenity. Her field of vision wasn't so hampered by her visor's slits, her sense of hearing wasn't so deafened by her helmet's steel, that she was completely numb to anything around her, after all. But they were perfunctory concerns, the flames and the chaos, the bloodshed and the Bandit King. She had decided already that his head was worthless, and the Iron Rose Knights numbered over one hundred, many of whom were veterans, some of whom were legends.

Their young Knight Captain would be well-protected. If she died even in this circumstance, then she was never meant for anything more. And as for Serenity herself?

The griffin's talons swept out, a cautionary swipe that did not suit the prideful proclamation that it had made, and yet even that did not meet its intended target; the young knight, her grip near the butt of the shaft, had simply flicked her wrist. The motion was magnified along the length of her spear, manifesting in the tip itself dancing beneath the griffin's swiping talons before righting itself once more to pierce for its chest.

Its advance may have become reserved within the seconds it took to realize just how many knights were headed towards it, but Serenity's own advance remained unchanged: stalwart, resolute, straightforwards.

"No need to destroy its arms," Ilena spoke, favoring the younger vampire with a sideways glance. "Removing its sword is enough, if it has lost its divine magics."

Past that point, a paladin would be nothing more than a brute of considerable strength, one packed in an unfitting frame. To some, it would have been impressive, but to the shadow-witch? It would be food to fit her belly. She exchanged a nod with Luna, the bewitching priestess's words carrying a weight that suited not their present circumstances, nor their present capabilities, but some would yet be emboldened, encouraged, by her flattery. Ilena herself stalked off, feeling yet the children that writhed beneath her flesh. It would be good to collect more. It would be good too, if she had the chance to consume that Est and her own hoard.

There was no true benefit, after all, in defeating an undead paladin. She would have to make up the loss elsewhere.

It was doubtful, of course, that any loss could be made up for at the gatehouse, not when more creatures of putrefied and dessicated flesh laid beyond, and shriek of the undying paladin sounded only to call forth even more of those ragged bones towards them. Her amethyst eyes flickered from one companion to another, before Ilena made her decision.

"Excuse me."

Dragan was a necromancer himself. Luna's wiles permeated through any obstructions. Akyasha's bloody flora could drain nothing from emptied veins. So it would be Giselle and the 'Rime-Winged Vermillion Angel', both of whom could feel Ilena's hand rest against the back of their necks. Could hear that once-inaudible whining grow louder and louder, before...

...two sets of translucent insectoid wings burst out from the shadow-witch's back, their crystalline veins almost beautiful if not for the black viscera still staining them. They twitched, flexed, shaking off the fluids of mutant-birth, and then buzzed at maximum speed, launching all three vampires up to the top of the gatehouse in mere seconds, where Ilena deposited them afterwards.

There was a vantage point now. The high ground, so to speak.

And from that high ground, the shadow-witch began to allow her shadow to seep downwards, a slow-crawling mud that was so much less picky than herself, a Black Tide that would be jubilant for even bones dry of marrow, after so many centuries of neglect. Down, down, down it crept, living darkness that pulled all into the witch's swamp.

Its response was swift, perhaps even instinctual, and in the face of that primal, desperate fury, the fury of a beast that wished only for revenge rather than survival, Atzi allowed her toothed club to fall out of her hand on the first swing. The heavy weapon disappeared into the brush, and in the same move, she met the bear head-on, her shoulder tucking against the underside of its jaw as her arms, one of flesh and one of bone, wrapped around its chest. In a contest of strength, even Atzi couldn’t expect to go up favorably against such a mountain of muscle, but if all she had to do was survive?

The Grove Bear’s jaws were powerful, but she was too close for it to bite down at her, not with her shoulder forcing it up. The Grove Bear’s claws were long, but she was too close for it to get a full swing off, and her cloak was thick enough that the blunted tips could only snag against the treated leather. The Grove Bear’s strength was tremendous, but she was clinging to its underside, and no matter where it charged, it could not reach her.

So all it could do was fall, the blood flowing ever faster out of its mortal wound, the bear collapsing over Atzi moments later. And that too, she was prepared for. In smothering silence, in fading warmth, the woman waited until the heartbeat she felt had stopped, until the weight she felt had deadened, before she slowly pushed herself off the great beast, caked from head to toe in blood.

Not her blood.

Slicking her hair out of her eye, she rubbed the back of her shoulder and sniffed the already-congealing gore on her skin. “Think I can take a quick dip in the lake, Maira? Maybe finish bleeding out the bear too?”


Bolts, steel, then arcane, pierced throats and eyes, well-placed shots by Sir Lein followed by an eruption of gale-force wind to scatter those who remained still. Dame Cecilia, her spellcraft creating the conditions for Dame Katerina’s firestorm to truly feast. The bandits may not have been felled completely by their efforts, but it mattered not. Their numbers have been evened enough that Serenity could run through the rest of them on momentum alone. She readjusted her grip, held her shield affront, and…

heard the thunk of steel through wood, a clean sound accompanied by the felling of a flaming tree, crashing dangerously close to the cage. It was an all-consuming sight through the slits of her visor, all fire and ash and sparks, the rush of the conflagration stalling her just enough to admire the beast that the bandits had somehow managed to corral into a cage much too small for such a majestic creature. A griffin, its size rivaling even the towering warhorses of the famed Velt Cavalry. Scholars have spoken of what musculature would be required for men to fly the way of birds; seeing it up close, Serenity could marvel at the fleshiness of the beast, the scornful disdain that it held to all present.

A prideful predator, burning with the shame of captivity, blinded by the smoke and firelight. But not a bandit. Would a knight skewer the enslaved for acting out of fear? Would a knight strike down a beast, panicked by circumstance?

The gale swept past, broken into eddies by shield and stance, the lady knight unmoved by a creature so fantastical as to be mythologized into the heraldry of Thaln’s knight-nobles. She recognized the challenge there, the cry of indignation mixed in with it, but not all duels ended in death, and this was no pitiful mongrel, dancing to the will of its miscreant master. So she advanced, steady paced at first, then charging forth, spearpoint at the ready, ready to attack, to defend, to take initiative and to draw its ire!

And within the thunder of her one-woman cavalry charge, so too came that paradoxical cry. “Give it a way out!”

If it wished to offer its heart to the tip of her spear, then so be it. But if all it took was the draining of some of its bad blood to get this beast to spread its wings and fly away? Then that too was good.

After all, House Arcedeen had its fair share of griffons already, mounted upon plaques above hearths and dining rooms.
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A mistress of rats? An ‘Est’, who warned of…

Ilena blinked, a sensation, a thought, re-entering her body. Even with the physicality destroyed, a morsel of her own essence returned to her in that moment, shooting into her shadows, deciphered by the demons that safeguarded her mind.

Ah.

It connected, like objects of differing polarities snapping into place.

“Rikard…and Rhea. Belonging to the Society. Returning to the Society, to report. A piece of me died at the orphanage, where they last were.” Ilena settled her gaze on Akyasha briefly, before turning to Luna and Dragan. “The gunfire was likely involved with their hunting of Est. Though whether they are enemies or merely cautious…” From within the cathedral now, the sound of buzzing Skeeters echoed, the gargantuan insectoids flying over to Ilena before touching down, their abdomens swollen once more with the results of their hunt.

She didn’t bother with excising the blood carefully now, and instead, her shadows swallowed the enthralled insects whole, assimilating their disparate parts into her own body.

“...it matters not. Nor does the gargantuan beast that we encountered on our path here, if it seeks not to disrupt our departure. Let us slay what remains of that Paladin and leave for more plentiful fields.”


For a split second, Atzi considered just waking it up and then distracting it while Maira did her thing. But that was a stupid idea. Not because she wasn’t confident in her ability to outrun one of those lumbering oafs, of course, but more because of how loud it would be. Grove Bears had voices like the storm; if they didn’t strike it down at once, its roar would be heard from leagues away, no matter the density of the foliage.

Still, Atzi wasn’t a hunter. She didn’t have any love for killing something in such a cold manner. So, at the very least.

“I’ll turn you into something beautiful.”

Just a quiet murmur, before Atzi hefted up her studded club. Against an unmoving target, even if using only one of her arms, she was confident she could cut deep into its flesh, slice past the fur and the fat to tear open its veins.

“Alright, Maira. I’ll go for the throat on the first, and see if I can break its neck on the second.”


Serenity nodded, once.

Bedridden for a few months; was that something this man could afford, now that the possessions of his profession had been damaged so? Unlikely. But that’s why this order existed, after all. What use was the wealth of the Church, if it could not soothe the suffering of survivors? Off in the distance, she too heard of what words the dying and the captured spoke. Beyond stories of a caged beast, one that shrieked and consumed rabbit meat, it was nothing particularly noteworthy, and all within the expectations of what deserters could come up with. The smell of tobacco tickled her nose, the invitation founded in an open case.

She closed the lid firmly, gently, expression hidden beneath the visor of her helmet.

“A kind gesture, Dame, but there’ll be plenty of smoke to inhale soon enough, if Alodia has any say in it.” A pause. “Save one for me for after our victory march.”



And now, there she was.

Shield up, spear in hand, sword at one hip, and hatchet on the another, Serenity drew in a deep breath, feeling the blood in her veins, the tautness of her sinew, the flexing of her muscle. Lungs expanding, mind sharpening, thoughts flattening. In front, Sir Villis stood, resplendent as always. Behind, her comrades, shadowed by the treeline, immersed in the darkness of dusk. Firelights flickered in the distance.

Soon, those flames would become conflagration.

But no flames could outshine the Moon.

Fanilly’s cry sounded, a girl’s high-pitched call into the night, and Serenity responded with her own, a throaty roar rushing out from the depths of her stomach. Her spearpoint set, her shield aligned, she lunged forth, a cavalry charge on human legs. To their credit, the bandits were armed. To greater credit, none of them had moved to take their prisoners as human shields.

Didn’t mean she’d give them the chance to, either way.

The first lunge caught a bandit in the chest, tempered steel puncturing through chainmail as if it were nothing more than cloth. She twisted the haft as she drew it out, letting him choke on his own blood, before the second thrust caught another mid-charge, slicing deep into his knee. He fell over, and Serenity herself advanced, a boot stomping down onto his neck. A glint of light caught her eye and on reflex, she deflected an arrow with her shield, the projectile skipping off the rounded top. An archer, further off from the rest. Couldn’t enjoy the advantage of reach against that one…but it was irrelevant anyways.

She had felt the force of that arrow against her shield. It was insufficient for punching through her armor, so Serenity turned her attention elsewhere.

A cage in the distance, covered. More bandits nearby.

A split second decision.

“Dame Cecilia, I’ll open up the lines! Clear out the ones around the cage!”

Two hands grasped the spearhaft. Veins bulged out beneath the cuirass. Her heart accelerated. Her emotions heightened. Her fangs bared.

A true knight was both might and majesty.

A true knight was a lion.

And with a broad swipe, the Arcedeen scion displaced the men before her, scattering them just long enough for an archer whose skill surpassed the bowmen of House Autmere to have her pick of the targets.

Westward, then, to claim blood more human, more satiating. And to seven more lords, resurrection to grant, the seven whose fall marked the vampires' end. The sanguine light faded, Ichor disappearing into the cosmos, and Ilena let out a breath, rising up from her position. Amethyst eyes flickered from one new arrival to another, faces indistinct but repute well-marked enough that unfamiliarity would still bring forth fragments of knowledge with regards to their pedigree. Two royals, and a true-blooded cleric of Ichor. Of the naturalborn aristocrats, Giselle de Farry was more tolerable of the two, an architect of crimson constructions compared to the more child-like pretensions of the Rime-Winged Vermillion Angel and her hedonistic pursuits. And as for that Blood-Lily Cleric...

...well, Luna may have found her a like-mind, but the two were incomparable in methodology and grace.

"If the Goddess desires it, then westward we depart." This city and its mysteries could be left to be uncovered at another time, for vampires truly had but an excess in time. As for her familiar, for the Skeeters she's sent out to hunt?

She can await their return on her own time.
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