This is a collaboration story between @MantaRey and myself describing events on the night of 09-10. Few things compared to the heaviness a post-rain humidity could bring to the forests. Entrapped by the canopies, clustered in the brush and low-hanging branches and their leaves, such an atmosphere made for its own world. Yet even in these dense conditions Maiyusa knew her way around this bend of forest by now. Though not renowned, she herself understood her own talent for navigation. What were these animal ploughed paths, marked by hooves and paws alike, that she couldn’t now wander on her own two feet? Every veering left and right brought her to a straight and narrow she memorized. Back-of-her-hand recall. Perhaps it was the clouds breaking overhead, but the sky seemed more lit than even hours before. The moon, roosted high above, looked down upon her very form and brought light down the path. What it guided her to was not a question she at first pondered. What visibility she did have was a blessing–more than usual–and nothing to contest. Not even with curiosity of what may come. Deer, rabbits, squirrels. Tiny vermin and otherwise persistent creatures no bigger than a stag could live out here in the overhunted forests. No bears to bump into. Not in these wilds. The confidence in that thought alone soothed most people. Though rumors and scary stories flooded the poorer parts of town, one could only wonder how much truth there could be in them. Maiyusa didn’t fear or wonder about them at all. Not in the presence of the night sky, not under a blanket of stars curtaining her nocturnal ventures beyond city life and lights. So few people truly ventured at all like she did. Not to the point of knowing the paths as she did. Though not everything needed to. As pleasant as the dense humidity could be when desired, something in the very air pricked with an edge. Tense. Strangely dark, even musky. Maiyusa could sense it. She could smell it. It was animal-like, prominent enough for sensitive noses and–in her case–trained guardians that can detect disordinance in a beat. The first thought was to create distance. Welcome distance - the solace brought by having open spaces around her. So she veered off in a direction unexpected, and passing swiftly by the knotted boughs of oaken branches, changed paths. This one brought her up a hill rather than across the lower end of its crest, aiming directly for a hidden clearing. Suddenly, she began to piece together the alarming absence of the usual animals. Owls, for example. Usually a staple of the forests around the Crown City, but on that night, nowhere to be seen. Maiyusa always considered clearings beautiful. The way moonlight danced through the sparse foliage was a reminder of more pleasant times, and the many festivals of the Sihai - thrown in celebration of the nighttime celestial body. But also of footwork, the patterns of sword-strikes repeated again and again late into the night, and sweat drenching her brow well before dawn, driving her to be stronger, and to strike harder. It was not long before she passed into it, and made her way to the center. Crack - crack - crash. Whatever she had noticed earlier drew closer with the moments. She used the precious time to ground her posture, leveling her sword at her waist. This was a defensive stance: in Huo-Chang swordsmanship, there are no blocks, as the folk tales might recount - but she was not only a Huo-Chang swordsman, and her natural boldness subsided at the call of the telltale shivers on the back of her neck. Try as she might, she could not shake off the faint hints of fear. It arrived with the splintering of tree branches and the pounding of loose dirt being clawed from the earth. An infernal wolf-shaped creature, two men tall and streaked with bolts of white across its black-furred chest, made its entrance to the hilltop not one minute after she had first passed onto it. It was a blur of motion – gaping jaws snapping shut around air, the rustle of shifting feet and paws, the adjustment of two ferociously quick opponents building space. They were able to close the distance between their sudden entrance and her in a matter of one and a half bounds, monstrous stride nigh to a bear’s in length when they were on all fours. The Marken was indeed quick. Perhaps quicker than Maiyusa - if it had a keen enough sense of aim. But it was that lacking sense of aim which saved her from falling in the first moments. She did not bear her sword against it, not yet, keeping the great weapon hugged tight to her chest. For she knew from the years spent warring against Daemonkind that this was the first mistake made by many who fight beasts. While a swordsman is strongest at an arm’s length, so too are the mighty creatures of the wild, and far greater are they than any man. A hunter may strike many times, but it takes only one blow to fell him, while a beast is far more durable. In the brief interludes riding on the highs of adrenaline–that of a predator’s, that of prey’s–the Marken’s unfortunate individual of choice invigorated its feral, red mind. As the two weighed the odds, leapt and bound, an uncanny thrum warbled out from the cursed. A sound which found the deepest part of Maiyusa’s chest cavity and punctured it with its growling tenor. A sound which resonated to the bones. Was it excitement? A laugh? Waves of adrenaline pounded through her skull, blinding her to sense and reason. Maiyusa could ponder it later. The two of them danced around one another, shifting in slipping circles: Maiyusa trying to keep herself at their back as tightly as possible, ducking and sweeping out of their enraged paw-swipes, while holding her sword close to her body. Still left without the room to swing. The claws came in diagonal patterns from above, smashing head-sized pits in the ground when they missed, while her rolling kept her out of their range for just long enough for their relative postures to change. Each successful escape, some so by only a finger-breadth or two, built space between her and the Marken. Distance. The moment Maiyusa created it, only the length of her body laying down, she began to work with the space she had. Now it was her going on the offensive against them. Not a dumb beast, the Marken was equally capable of an evader - though they did not roll gracefully against the hill’s slope, they did know how to crudely duck their head when confronted with the approaching edge of a blade. Back and forth they paced, trading blows in air with one another, before the Marken was the first to connect. Not with their fatal bite; but with the sweeping edge of a clawed hand, sending their prey flying back into a tree some distance away. The thud of her contact with the trunk sent apples clattering to the ground around her, and the blow itself left a neat row of angry red wounds across her hip, scored in even lines. Again they leaped - but the sword’s tip was waiting for them this time. Maiyusa leaned into it beneath them, like a winter hunter spearing a bear from underneath, and fished the blade around, looking for their heart. The Marken lashed out, enraged- branches and rocks scattered through the air around them, as they spasmed in a futile struggle to escape. And then they had it–their purple eyes gleamed, and a paw slammed against the ground, lifting them away. Then on, they kept their distance. Long enough, at least, for Maiyusa to push herself to her feet and clutch her side wound. The River Guard drew on Draconic spellcraft. Her eyes sang a purplish color as she took on the form of the Là Wolf, canines sharpening and height growing. Not quite as towering as a God-cursed, not built from the same profane strength: but shaped like a wolf all the same, and with claws and a bite of its own. This gave them enough pause to cause them to circle, stepping right and right, too frozen with anticipation to strike again. Incapable of rational thought or complicated action, the Marken knew this much: prey didn’t do this. It didn’t become wolf-shaped. The sheer concept of a duel on even terms brought drool past its teeth, made it curl its lip. Its heart sought violence; pain and death. But to win now, it considered, might be difficult. But the notion of further fighting drew to a halt by a noise that prompted the Marken’s ears to flick to the source’s far off direction. Weakness. A simpler creature than this, some distance away, cried out in pain. One mile, two miles; it mattered not. There was easier prey to be found –time to leave. With a jerk of its head and a stampede into the distance, the Marken snapped through the brush in the same unceremonious way it had entered it, barreling off towards the source of its next meal. And Maiyusa relaxed her posture, slumping her back against the tree. Leaning her head against the bark, and pondering those purple eyes. What a fortune, what a fate.