The following morning, as dawn breaks grey upon the canopy, Cang creeps into the village. He keeps low and quiet, moving through shadows.
The wide-mouthed grey creatures live in the trees, make their homes among the branches. He eyeballs each in turn, from the humble abodes of peasants to Old Mossy’s place, more secluded and well appointed than most. Cang makes mental notes on entrances and exits, then steals away, looking for the home of the princess.
He isn’t looking long when he comes upon a pair of ancient oak trees, twins, with broad reaches of foliage, within which sits a rather opulent palace — or opulent by the standards of the village. Cang moves closer when he spots a handful of guards watching over the place. A couple have injuries from where Shyan laid them low last night.
Shyan coughs and spits, wipes the perspiration from her brow. Fassn is heaving, his hands on his knees, bent double. He murmurs something to Old Ajralan. Abia appears more composed, but she too is coming down from her body’s stress response. After just a few moments of rest they each dart into the church to find the preacher with his broken arm. Cang’s loosening the fastenings that bind the grey princess to the dais.
“Hurry, hurry,” the princess says.
Shyan carefully kicks the preacher to roll him away from them, and scoops up his knife. “Nice to have steel in my hand again,” she says, before a wash of lightheadedness comes over her and she has to lean against a pillar.
“Looks like you need the antidote,” the princess says.
“Some more than others,” Cang says, as Fassn crawls down to the floor and lays out flat like a starfish.
And just like that, the princess is free.
Cang squares his stance as the preacher threatens him with the knife. The scowling preacher, chanting about his faith in a way that reminds Cang of Fassn’s most egregious excesses, puts himself between the princess and Cang. “You can help us, little man,” he says. “The ritual is all but over. We just need to plunge the knife.”
At that, the preacher springs from his toes and closes the distance between himself and Cang. Luckily for the latter, he’s the more experienced knife fighter, and his stature throws the preacher off. When the knife passes his ear, Cang strikes like a snake and pops the preacher’s forearm with his palm. A ghastly cracking erupts from the pressure point, followed by the preacher’s pained screams.
Outside, a few more peasants are in the dust, gripping their bruised and battered bodies. Shyan’s breathing hard, exhausted. When the remaining dozen or so folks hear their preacher’s scream, they share a brief, bewildered glance, and scatter.
Cang grabs up a length of branch and puts it through the window, shattering the glass. Clearing the sharp remains, he vaults through the opening and into the church. Beyond, he sees the sunny, dusty square, his companions, and the peasants moving toward them. Before him, though, a dais, with the grey princess atop it.
“Cretin,” rises a man’s voice. It’s the preacher, in his brocaded robes, his beard braided, twisted in helices like the fabric drapings about the building. “You dare interrupt our sacred rites?”
“Indeed,” says Cang. “I have not much experience with them, I shall freely admit, but they strike one as rather ghastly.”
The affront is written all over the preacher’s face. His surprise turns to a scowl.
“Please help me,” says the princess. Her eyes plead with Cang. Their sclera is grey, too, a milky, dirty-snow grey, with a curious luminosity beyond the irises.
From within his robes, the preacher draws a spindly knife.
The peasants’ faces are twisted in wrath. Three men in straw hats and coveralls charge Shyan but she delivers a spinning kick that knocks them back. They grunt hard as they hit the dusty ground.
“Old Ajralan has a taste for all things,” Fassn tells them in his most imperious, fatherly tone. He kicks them where they lay struggling to stand.
Many other peasants keep their distance, throwing stones at the gang, which Shyan deflects with her shield. The three of them crouched behind it, they press forward, the crowd breaking slowly before their advance.
Meanwhile, Cang peers through a window and spots the grey creatures’ princess on the dais. An elderly human intones above her, cutting the air with weird gestures and brandishing a golden knife.
Though only a few observers are left, whatever foul ritual is taking place doesn’t seem to have been dissuaded. Cang watches, transfixed, as the ritual continues, until the princess’ eyes happen to turn to meet his. They’re filled with pain and fear, and in that instant, Cang knows what he must do.
Birds chirp happily in the trees above the village square, flit between boughs and branches, window sills and eavestroughs. The sun flashes upon their feathers, as though blue, red, violet gems are tossed through the sky, tumbling and sparkling in their arcs.
The dusty ground of the square is rather different. Shaky on her feet, Shyan takes point with Fassn beside her and Abia behind. Shyan adopts the Lilting Puppet stance, bouncing gently on the balls of her feet as the church-going peasants’ mob moves towards her. Fassn chants something to Old Ajralan while Abia scans the environs for escape routes and opportunities. Cang, of course, has already run off behind the church — his companions hope and trust he’s on the ball.
When the first of the peasants enters her strike range, Shyan fells him with a single percussive blow. It sends him to the ground, and sends an unpleasant tingling needles sensation in Shyan’s fist, which she tries not to show.
The peasants are stunned at their companion’s collapse, but only for a moment, before their rage and confusion boils over and they fall upon the gang.