Shyan senses the poison is the same one she’d been hit with before. Its changes to her nerve endings are almost familiar, tickling as they do the painful memories and regrets centre of the brain. The darts themselves are mere pricks, like the bites of mosquitos. With an open palm she brushes many from her skin and they fall with soft clicks to the ground. She glares at the princess and her many retainers, each of whom is frantically trying to load another bone dart into its blowpipe. Shyan launches at them like a cat sprung from hiding. Her superior height and weight advantage bowls several over, eliciting cries of surprise. Old Mossy and the princess bark orders and fall back as Shyan starts swinging.
Facing off outside the caves, a dozen short grey humanoids, wide mouths full of sharp teeth, and bright, staring eyes, vs our four intrepid travellers, staggering from their painful memories and crude illusions. Shyan, in front, has her fists up and jaw set. Fassn flanks her, with Cang and Abia behind. “Well?” she asks.
The princess smirks. “Would Davit have approved of your haste?”
“Master Davit is dead,” Shyan says, her voice flat. “It was I who killed him. If you wish to kill me, know you won’t be the first to try.”
“Certainly not,” says the princess. “But we shall be the last.” She flicks her wrist and her retainers draw blowpipes and loose a wave of darts cut of splintered bone. Many reach Shyan’s skin, and she soon feels their poison coursing through her blood.
“I knew the moment I saw you fight in the square,” the princess says. “A village full of tall folk, and you, a young woman, striking with the Silent Mantis. Sliding into Hooking Crow. Techniques only Davit knew.”
Shyan perks up at the name. She stands steadily, rising from the floor, silent and intense.
“Of all people,” Old Mossy says. “I’m glad we finally found you.”
“The killer of Davit,” the princess says, a note of wonder in her voice.
“You are some of many,” Shyan replies. She pivots a foot into a defensive stance as her compatriots gather around her. Her eyes blaze. “Come,” she says, raising her fists. “You may have it.”
Heads swivel toward the noise. Timid in the light of the fire, several grey faces, low to the ground. At the centre of the clutch of humanoids, the princess the gang had rescued, and with her, Old Mossy, explorer extraordinaire. When the gang recognizes them, they let their guards down — just a fraction.
“Any luck in there?” Old Mossy says.
Sardonically, Cang says, “I found some gems.”
Old Mossy gives a start of surprise. “Really?”
“No, not really,” Cang replies with a huff.
“What brings you?” Abia asks the group.
A creepy grin worms its way across Old Mossy’s face.
“Is there anything you do not wish to smell?” Cang asks.
Fassn cocks his head thoughtfully, then shakes it. “Nope. I wanna smell it all. If they’re coming now, I might get my chance.”
“They’re always coming,” Shyan says. “Master Davit was feared and beloved. I’ve put a price on my head — a price to be paid in honour and blood.” She seems to be speaking mostly to herself. “A day will come soon when it’s spilled.”
Just then, from outside the circle of the gang’s meagre camp fire, the crack of a twig underfoot.
Fassn perks up. “Wait, now?”
Fassn scrabbles at the ground, lifts himself up. “Then we’d better get out of here!”
“Why?” Cang asks. “They’re coming for her, not us.”
“But we’re her-adjacent,” Fassn rejoins. “Plus, she’s our friend.”
Cang appears to weigh this fact between two open hands. “This is true,” he says slowly.
“Of course, you beat them all before, right?” Fassn asks Shyan. “The bitter breezers?”
Shyan nods again, short and soft, revealing little.
Fassn relaxes a little. “I think I’d like to smell this bitter breeze myself.”
“When I was in the deserts, eyes rose from the sands. When I moved through the jungles, hands rose out of the brush. In the mountains, blades swung down from the sky.” Shyan shifts in her seat, her eyes cold and focused somewhere deep in the past. “I pushed them all off, but still they came. Pretenders, mourners, opportunists. Master Davit’s fists — my fists — drove them off, one by one. I had killed him. I was all that was left of him. A cruel wind followed me. Still follows me.” She lifts her head, her eyes narrow. “I taste the bitter breeze.”