"Men look good in skirts. Do you know who wore skirts? The ancient Greeks, and they were the biggest badasses of the ancient world. Also the Scottish, but they're not really as impressive." The lightly Italian accented voice drifts up from the midst of the dark forest in which a small group are making their trek.
"I think they prefer them to be called kilts, sir." Another of the group, tall and clean shaven says, clad in heavy armor and with a shield and sword slung on his back.
"A skirt is a skirt." The first voice insists, emanating from a pale young man who strides at the front of the group, archaically dressed and holding a long staff in one hand, a massive leather-bound grimoire hanging from straps over his shoulder. "My point is that men have nice legs, that deserve showing off."
"Women have nice legs too. Or at least, I do." Comes a voice nearer the back, a darker skinned woman walking along with them, a decided swagger in her steps and a shotgun casually rested on her shoulder.
"I have a skirt," Speaks the fourth member of the group quietly, a slender man with brown hair and a bow slung over his back, trying to keep a conversational tone. He's quick to clarify, "It's for rituals only, though. Not recreation."
"Yes yes yes, that's not my point." The leader, Raphael, states, "My point is tha-, lets take a reading here actually." He says, stopping abruptly and causing the group to cluster up behind him as they also are forced to a halt. The young man takes out a strangely modified silver sextant from the inside of his coat and brings it up to his eye, squinting through it as the rest of them split up slightly.
The sword and shield bearing man, Caul, takes a few steps away and scans the darkness as if for an attack, while the young woman, Veronica, crouches down slightly in the snow to wait. The last member of the group, Lyle, takes a few steps to lean his hand against a tree, his brow furrowed in some sort of concentration.
"Not quite right." Raphael informs them, tucking the sextant away and setting off once more through the snow that lines the ground in one of the many forests that surround Saint Petersburg. The group stands up to follow even as the sextant wielding man goes off on an entirely different conversational tangent. "Astromancy, that's the future." He tells them in a voice that brooks no disagreement, "No more of this inaccurate divination nonsense. You know of course that the earth moves, it spins around the sun, it tilts from side to side, the sun moves around the galaxy. Well other dimensions have their own movement, and if you study the stars and know what you're looking for, you can see when and where they'll be closest. This is cutting edge occultism you know." He says, clearly proud.
"You told us all this already, sir." Caul reminds placidly, at almost the same time that Veronica chimes in with, "Cutting edge occultism is using old school nautical tools from a couple of centuries ago?" With a little skepticism.
"Everyone's a critic." The staff wielder complains, "Lyle is the only one who truly appreciates mystical knowledge, philistines the rest of you." He scoffs before coming to another abrupt halt to raise the sextant to his eye. The other two look to Lyle but he just gives them a shrug in response.
"This is it!" Raphael calls triumphantly, "This is the spot, see, I told you we were close." He says, pulling out his pocket watch and checking the time before unslinging the grimoire and flicking open the clasps to open it to a yellowing page half way through.
"What's this going to do again?" Veronica asks, moseying up to peer over and put a hand to Raphael's shoulder, but it's Lyle that answers her.
"Realign a mystical conduit to send more energy towards our chapter house here, could manifest in any number of ways, wealth, luck, prosperity, supernatural strength. Like Feng Shui." He lists off, his gaze surveys the dark horizon before it returns to see Veronica and Caul studying him and he just gives them another shrug in response. "I listen." Is his explanation, accompanying a roll of his shoulders.
Raphael meanwhile is finally standing back up, brushing the snow from his knee and seeming entirely unaffected by the cold. "Just so Mr Berry, just so, all good things flow from the stars." He pauses for a moment, "Well from the weak points in dimensional walls that can be best found by using stars anyway, although that's a little lacking in poetry." He looks around at the group once more and then throws in a "Astromancy, way of the future." Just for good measure.
Whatever retorts they may have hand in mind, the group is interrupted by the arrival of a ruddy young man from behind a tree, shivering as he fastens up the front of his pants. They all look towards him but it's Raphael who speaks. "Ah Takoda, find anything interesting out there?"
"Hand group heading in from the north." The man replies, his teeth chattering a little, "About a half dozen with automatic rifles, leader looks to be a man with a pair of swords."
"Ah." Raphael replies, "And any sign of our potential werewolf friends?"
"Coming in from the south." The scout answers as he pulls on a heavy jacket over his bare torso, "Between four and seven I'd say, hard to get an accurate count, they're all in wolf form."
The pale young man frowns. "I don't suppose there's any chance they're going to you know, pass us by and kill each other then?"
Takoda shakes his head. "I don't think so sir no, I believe we're going to end up somewhat sandwiched between them."
"Lovely." Raphael states in a tone that seems to convey he thinks the news is anything but. "Alright, Takoda, Veronica, you handle the Hand, Caul, Lyle, hold back the storm wolves. We could probably use a little cover too Lyle if it's not too much trouble. Try not to kill anyone if you can help it everybody, but if you don't have a choice well, it's not like there's an understanding out here."
Almost as soon as he's finished speaking the group is splitting apart, making noises of agreement as they set about their tasks. Lyle jogging over to a strand of nearby trees and starting to speak under his voice, his hands reaching out to the branches as they begin to grow at a supernatural rate, winding together to form barriers of wood between them, he turns to some nearby underbrush and raises his upturned hand, the brush following his command and growing thicker and denser, blocking off all sight.
Caul moves a small way south of the group and starts to clear a little grove out for him to fight in, creating a small circle of trees free of any tripping hazards and pacing over and across it several times to imprint the memory of it's dimensions into his body.
Veronica and Takoda head off to the north, walking side by side. "If you can pin them down, get them to stop and try and engage you, I can get them from behind." Veronica suggests, her white teeth gleaming faintly in the darkness as she gives a wolfish grin at the thought. "Nothing more fun than fuckin' with the Hand, hmm."
"Yes ma'am" Takoda agrees to the former, finally dressed once more as he pulls a handgun from his side holster and quickly checks it over, the pair setting off at a jog towards the north.
Raphael is left alone where he stopped, tracks in the snow all around him as he studies his pocket watch intently, occasionally glancing down at his grimoire or back up to the sprawling night sky above. As the second hand on his watch slides past some particular point he tucks it away and switches the staff to his right hand, planting it firmly into the snow as he begins to chant, his voice deeper and more sonorous. "Secundum operationem, qua erat... Secundum operationem, qua est, Per quod potentia erit..." He begins, a wind picking up from nowhere and starting to stir through the trees, the bare winter branches stirring ominously as the stars glitter brightly overhead.
Takoda spots the oncoming Hand soldiers first and taps Veronica on the shoulder before dropping down into cover behind a nearby tree. The woman also moves behind a tree, but she sets down her shotgun takes a deep breath and then -is-.
She is the night, she is the predator, she is flashing claw and ripping tooth. The cheetah that was Veronica speeds through the darkness, circling around behind her prey. One of the men, starts to look towards her but then the sharp crack of weapons fire draws his attention away once more.
Takoda crouches down behind his tree, popping out to one side and then the other to fire off snap shots at the dark shapes up ahead, he can't afford to spend more than a few seconds firing however, each shot he takes is bought at the cost of a spray of automatic fire back in his direction and it doesn't take long before wood chips are flying from his tree and the snow not a foot from him is spraying. But just as long as Ronnie does her part...
Chilling howls echo through the forest and Caul glances up sharply, looking towards Lyle, "Best get your bow out, sir." The man suggests, drawing his own sword and shield and shrugging to settle them into place as he moves to take up a position in a combat ready crouch in the center of his little glade. Lyle nods in agreement and draws his bow and knocks a single arrow, moving into some of the cover he'd created and waiting.
They don't have to wait long, with a sudden snarl a grey wolf of impossible size leaps from the darkness towards Caul, the man ducks down onto one knee and shoves his shield up hard with both hands, taking the brunt of the leap on it and throwing the wolf over his body to regather itself in the snow beyond. Another wolf comes flying from the darkness at his side but its leap is thrown off when an arrow slams into its haunch mid spring and sends blood spraying over the crisp white snow.
The staccato flashes of weapons fire illuminate the forest like a strobe light, but it isn't enough for the man to see his predator, sharp claws slash through the backs of his legs, and sweet smelling fresh blood spurts out into the air as the cheetah strikes. He calls out for help, he swings his weapon around to try and track her but she's already gone, the two legged pink thing far too slow to ever catch her. She grins, fangs gleaming in the moonlight as she moves to find her next target.
The chanting grows louder and louder taking on an almost unearthly quality as the wind continues to pick up. Stars gleaming overhead brighter and brighter, too bright to be natural now. The wind centers in around Raphael, his face tilted upwards, staff lifted in one hand as he is engulfed in a swirling maelstrom, the pages of the grimoire flapping back and forth wildly, snow kicking up all around him until the young man was almost impossible to see in the center of it.
Caul faces off against a pair of werewolves, blood dripping down from his shoulder where one had landed a lucky blow, his sword glowing with pyrokinetic heat that made the wolves wary of approaching. Instead they try to get around behind him, circling one way and then the other and he keeps light on his feet, moving backwards and turning and turning to keep them both in his sight. Suddenly they leap and he moves forward into the attack, slamming his shield into the face of one before it could reach the apex of its leap and using the momentum of the collision to bounce away and deliver a boot into the stomach of the other, its fang scores a line of red along his calf before he drives it away and his sword hisses through the air, the smell of burnt hair filling his nostrils suddenly as it just barely misses.
The crack of a small twig behind Lyle is just enough to draw his attention and he spins around to find another of the large creatures closing in on him fast. He doesn't jump away however, instead raising his hand and whispering a word that carries preternaturally over the wind. The wolf comes to a sudden stop, looking up at Lyle in confusion as the man stands and very slowly, very carefully draws an arrow.
With a gasp of effort Caul skewers a wolf as it leaps on him, both of them bearing down to a ground as its skin hisses from the burning weapon shoved deep into its gullet. Its jaws continue to snap at him and he shoves it off with a grunt and rolls free, coming up onto his haunches and casting a forlorn look at his sword, still stuck inside the twitching creature.
A scream of pain from the trees up ahead let Takoda know the plan was working and in the confusion he dives and rolls into cover behind a different tree, giving him the time to line up a better shot and send a Hand soldier sprawling with a bullet wound in his shoulder. The return fire was near instantaneous but that didn't matter much and the man was grinning as he hunkered down behind his cover, wood chips spraying all around him.
Someone had bled her prey that wasn't her. The cheetah wasn't pleased by this but at least there was still plenty more of the pink weaklings for her to target. Her low fast shape positively blurs as she traverses the forest, snow flying up from where her paws strike as she rips into another soldier, crouched down behind some cover with a rifle to his shoulder, he screams and blood sprays and she was away again, the thrill of the hunt filling her. She spots another soldier and charges towards him, he spots her and starts to turn but it wouldn't matter, she was too fast, she was death, she was the night, she was suddenly a confused naked human girl flying through the air towards a well armed soldier.
Caul boxed with the wolves, there was no other word for it. He deflects leaps and gnashing jaws with his shield while fighting back the only way he could, with solid haymakers to the heads and bodies of whatever wolves came his way. There were three of them now though, circling and snarling as they tried to get behind him and he was forced to give ground constantly to stop them from doing so, the pristine snow having turned into a pink mush from all the fighting and blood that now mixed with it.
Quietly, so, so quietly Lyle drew back the arrow while the wolf looked at him as if trying to understand some great question of the universe and then with a whisper the arrow is loosed. The spell breaks as the arrow slides into the shoulder of the wolf at the junction of the neck and the beast howls in pain, scampering back away and into the darkness, trailing blood. Lyle gives a sigh of relief before he spots Caul's predicament and runs to help, arrows already nocked and firing before a large furry body is suddenly driving him to the snow and snarling in rage his bow flying from his grasp as the preternatural wind swirls ever higher, seeming to reach some kind of apex and the forest fills with the sounds of chanting sonorous Latin.
Veronica flies uncoordinated towards the Hand soldier, seeing now that he holds some device in his hand that he'd just used, the tip still glowing blue. She brings a fist back and is able to land a punch against his face as she landed but then he drives his knee up into her stomach with thunderous force and she staggers back away, gasping for breath. Veronica drops into a fighting stance as more and more soldiers move towards her, tasers sparking in their hands.
Takoda hears a scream, a human scream, a human female's scream, Ronnie's scream. He looks through the darkness and can just barely make out someone on the ground in the snow in the flickering light of blue sparking tasers, she is thrashing and fighting as the figures surrounding her lash out and the flashes of discharging tasers spark through the forest over and over. He brings out his pistol and starts to take aim before a burst of rifle fire forces him back into cover, two of the soldiers still seeming to be assigned to keeping him pinned. He makes a quick decision and breaks away from his tree in the next lapse in gunfire, sprinting back south towards the group, and saying a silent apology and prayer for Veronica in his mind.
Lyle struggled desperately under the weight of the larger and more powerful creature, using his arms to keep its teeth and claws from his throat and vital organs. He grunts in pain as one of the beast's back paws claws through his pants and rakes along the skin and then yells as its jaws clamp down around his forearm, the wolf shaking its head from side to side in an attempt to force the arm away enough to get at the exposed throat beneath. Suddenly there comes the crack of gunfire and the wolf releases his arm, letting out a whine as it backs off and the crack of gunfire comes again and again. Lyle suddenly realising that the wind and chanting have stopped just as he sees Raphael striding across the snow, an old fashioned peacemaker revolver in his hand as he fires shot after shot at the wolf, driving it back.
Lyle regains his feet, wincing and goes to collect his bow, nodding his wordless thanks to Raphael before grunting out a simple "Caul."
Takoda sprints back through the forest, heedless of the stinging branches and of the cold, pistol still held tight in one fist, the sounds of the sparking tasers and dull thumping impacts following him for what seems like far too long as he makes his way back towards the clearing.
Caul's desperate breath steams in front of his face his eyes flicking constantly to where his sword lies, if only he could... A snarl announced another oncoming attack and he dives to the side, rolling over and then up to his feet before the next attack comes and he drives forwards with his shield to meet it, tumbling down into the snow and then rolling over and over and over to avoid the next one's pounce. His hand finds a branch and he ignites the end with a burst of power before swinging it over his body blindly, feeling the impact and hearing the howl of pain that it causes. He rolls to his feet, branch in hand before another dark body leaps on him from behind and he sprawls into the cold bloody snow beneath it.
Lyle looks at his damaged arm and then his bow, drawing out an arrow and holding it in his good hand as if ready to use it as a dagger, his eyes narrow on one of the wolves and he starts to murmur, tapping into the earth. Roots suddenly spring up around the creature's legs, snaring it as it growls in frustration and turns to attack them with it's jaws. Raphael moves up next to Lyle and snarls out a word in Latin, his normally pretty face twisting into something ugly and cruel as his free hand is thrust out, fingers curled like talons. The wolf on top of Caul suddenly lets out a wail and staggers away from him, stumbling and twisting as if to try to find something to attack as the Maleific curse pushes its heart rate tachycardic.
In the window of opportunity created by the two sorcerers Caul springs back to his feet and rolls towards his sword, pulling it free from the body of the fallen wolf and then bringing it around in a mighty blow with a bellow of anger and effort that cleaves a leaping wolf entirely in half and showers the warrior in a spray of blood and gore. Sensing the shifting tide of the battle the remaining wolves disappear back into the darkness of the forest, although for who knows how long.
A tide of relief washes over the three men and their mood starts to visibly lift. "You really should learn to fight with more modern weaponry you know." Raphael chides Caul as the bloody warrior picks his way across the snow towards the other two men, the point of his sword trailing behind.
Their celebration however is cut short as Takoda bursts through the trees, panting out his story almost as soon as he arrives. "The Hand has Ronnie, tasers, somehow they, shifted her back to human..." He pants, hands going down to his knees as the other men exchange glances.
"The ritual's done..." Raphael mentions, "We could just cut our losses and pull out, Ronnie is a soldier, I'm sure that's what she'd want us to do." He says but the others give him a sharp look.
"We shouldn't leave behind Ronnie," Lyle argues with a shake of his head, jaw set firmly. "We need to try to save her. She's Order."
After a moment, Raphael gives a small nod of affirmation. "Yes, yes you're right of course, every life is sacred." He agrees, murmuring the last almost like a recollection. "So, what do we do? I could offer myself in exchange, they probably won't kill me, at least not for a while, they'd want to interrogate the leader of the Haven chapter, and try to get me to reverse the ritual if nothing else."
"I don't think we gain much by that sir." Caul says, "We just exchange one hostage for another. I think we should attempt a rescue."
"But Ronnie might die if we do that." Takoda points out. "All it takes is one of them putting a bullet in her when we attack and it's all for nothing." The frustration in his voice evident.
"We, uh... We could do both," Lyle begins hesitantly, "We exchange Rafe for Ronnie, and then double-cross them? He's a vampire. He's harder to kill. Just a bullet won't do it, so he has the best odds of surviving if they try to kill him off. We trade Rafe, then stab them in the back. Before they can stab us first."
The men all look at each other for a moment and then Raphael nods. "Alright, that seems like the best plan we have, get into cover while we wait for them to arrive, and see to your wounds if you can." The group all nod and set about creating a small dug out behind a tree, protecting them from assault from the north, Lyle splints his arm and tucks a wad of herbs into his mouth, chewing away to dull the pain. Caul claims he doesn't need any such things himself. Takoda dashes off and returns with Veronica's clothes and shotgun.
They only have to wait about a minute before a strong voice calls out from the trees ahead of them. "We have your operative! Put down your weapons or she dies!"
After a moment Raphael clears his throat and calls out back. "No deal, but we'll give you a hostage exchange, me for the girl! I did the ritual here tonight and I'm the leader of the Haven Order, I'll be a valuable prize to take back to your commanders. Then you leave with me, my team leaves with our agent." The men all huddle up together to wait.
"Why would you give yourself up for her? If you're so valuable?" The voice calls back in query.
Raphael looks to the other men but they all just look sort of blankly back at him and he calls out. "Because, well because we're the Order... And uh, and we do that sort of thing!"
There's a long period of silence as the huddled Order members all look back and forth between each other waiting and then the voice calls back. "Alright, you start walking this way, we'll have your operative start walking the other."
Raphael hands his staff, gun and grimoire off to the others, then unbuckles his sword belt before handing it over as well. "Don't let them get their hands on my book." He warns the others sternly before standing, straightening out his vest, smoothing down his hair and starting to stride over the snow towards the Hand group.
After another few moments Veronica appears, naked and bruised and looking half frozen to death. The girl hugs herself tightly as she shivers and stumbles across the ground in the opposite direction. When the two pass each other Raphael gives the worried looking woman a reassuring smile, "It's all going to be alright bella." He says and then they're past each other.
A brief sound of a scuffle comes from where the Hand group is clustered as Veronica arrives back with the others and gratefully accepts her clothes, pulling them back on with trembling fingers. Caul furrows his brow and the air around her grows noticeably warmer.
"We're not just going to leave him with them are we?" The newly arrived woman asks and the others shake their heads.
"We're going to rescue him, just needed to get you back and armed first ma'am." Takoda tells her, handing over her shotgun.
The Hand group trudges back through the snow, several of them nursing injuries and hobbling, Raphael in their center, a little battered, his previously carefully arranged hair and clothes mussed, and hands cuffed behind his back. One of the men has a submachine gun pointed directly at his back.
The group is silent, weary after the long battle and when an arrow suddenly appears in the side of one of the front members it takes everyone a moment to realise what's happening. "Attack!" One of them finally calls and the men all drop and raise their weapons. They do so just in time to see the most bizarre of sights, a solitary man clad in armor with a shield and sword charging at them out of the brushes bellowing some kind of war cry.
They all exchange puzzled looks before glancing back towards the charging figure and with a collective shrug, unsafety their weapons. Then all hell breaks loose, Raphael murmurs a word and twists his hand and one of the men drops his rifle to clutch at his eyes. "I can't see!" He complains, just as the jacket of another bursts into spontaneous flame and he drops to pat it out. Another man yells as the tree he was leaning against seems to suddenly come to life, it's branches growing in seconds to engulf and trap him inside it and then a shotgun blast takes another man full in the chest and drives him back into the snow.
The charging man hunkers down behind his shield as one of the soldiers who recovers more quickly opens fire and bullets splash off the surface of it. Nobody could really say where Takoda was ten seconds ago, but where he is now is thirty feet in the air directly above a Hand soldier and falling fast. With a crunch the soldier gets a lesson in gravity courtesy of a falling naked man and crumples under the impact. One of the soldiers jabs his submachine gun into Raphael's back, and calls out towards the charging man. "Stop, stop or I'll shoot!" He threatens but the man just keeps charging.
Raphael's eyes go wide, "Oh fu-" Is all he gets out before a spray of submachine fire rips through his torso in a spray of blood and he's toppling to the ground. Only a second later Caul barrels into the shooter shield first and sends him flying, then grabs ahold of Raphael by his collar and turns to start sprinting back the way he came. Takoda seizes up a fallen soldier's weapon and starts to run along side, firing wildly back over his shoulder as arrows and shotgun blasts fire into the Hand group from the trees.
The group just manages to make it back into the treeline before a coordinated burst of automatic weapons fire rakes into the cover behind them, Raphael still flopping around like a rag doll.
"Is he .... still alive?" Veronica asks, sounding overly concerned as she looks towards the bloody vampire.
"Not ash, ma'am," Caul observes, "so in a manner of speaking."
"Well that wasn't too bad." Takoda says as he quickly pulls his clothes back on, but then the air around them starts to strangely chill, the temperature dropping lower and lower and the trees nearby start to crack.
"They've got a cryokinetic..." Lyle hisses out through clenched teeth, backing away from one of the cracking trees just as the group hears a howl in the distance, and it's echoed again and again closer.
"And I think all the bloodshed has drawn the storm wolves back." Veronica adds on.
"Maybe run?" Takoda suggests and after a second the group all sets off at a dead sprint through the trees, just before one of the frozen trees behind them cracks and then explodes, showering ice and wood in all directions.
Caul continues to drag the barely conscious Raphael behind him, leaving a trail through the snow smeared with undead blood, and Ronnie and Takoda pause on occasion to fire off some shots behind them. The wave of cold chases them, trees snapping and exploding all around as it seeks to overcome them in debilitating frost. The howls are growing closer as well as faint gray shapes start to appear, dancing between the trunks nearby as they shadow the group and wait for the time they can close in around them.
"We can't outpace them, " Lyle warns the group with a grimace and a sharp intake of breath, "Not with Raphael wounded like that!"
"What else can we do though?" Veronica asks before the entire debate is cut off by the group suddenly coming to a skidding halt before a sharp precipice.
Takoda steps forward to peer over the edge. "It's about a thirty foot drop onto snow, then a sharp hill down to the bottom of the gully." He informs the others and they all look at each other as if uncertain what to do.
After another second the trees around them start to freeze, ice growing along their branches and one two dozen feet away explodes, showering the group with wood and ice, a jagged six inch needle of wood stabbing into Takoda's arm and making him gasp with the pain, as more and more trees start to freeze over closer and closer to the group Caul looks around for a second. "Meet back at the bridge site, jump jump jump!"
Without needing much more warning the group charges the edge of the precipice and hurl themselves over as exploding trees rain ice and wood all around them. There's a second of weightlessness then impact, and then spinning, spinning, spinning into cold and darkness...