The Circle’s journey to Parapet is interrupted by a dangerous foe.
The next morning, Tian, Youko, and Oset left the capital, disguised as performers traveling with a band of merchants and diplomats from the Varang Confederation.
After traveling for three days, the party arrived at a farming community outside of the city of Parapet. The caravan settled for the night in the emptied grounds of the Solstice Festival, and the group appropriated the stage for the traditional Jiaran sword dance that had been promised to them.
Behind the stage, Talim and Laman coached the Circle in the sword dance routine one last time, even though the two rebels disagreed over some of the traditional dance’s nuances based on what their families had taught them.
Lagis’s flute playing and Dozo on the drums called the rest of the group up to the stage. Talim and Laman started, followed by Tian and Oset. Oset fumbled with his ceremonial straight sword, but Tian’s command of the sword arts and his natural charisma helped the pair put on a dazzling display.
It was a different story for Youko and Efi. Despite the days of practice, the ceremonial sword was still a twig in Youko’s hand, and swinging it with grace and precision was counter to how she instinctively wields her hammer. Efi also proved uncomfortable wielding a sword and was overly cautious about accidentally striking her beloved. The two women flailed their weapons and Youko decided to deviate from the routine, lifting Efi onto her shoulders and becoming a facsimile of the Unconquered Sun.
Talim and Laman returned to the front of the stage to distract the audience from this display, finishing off the routine with a compromise. Talim performed the final flourish the way her parents taught her, and Laman did as their nana, but their conflicting moves were performed to compliment each other.
The audience of Varangese merchants and their caravan workers erupted into cheering. But as the applause died down, a yeddim gave out a death moan and the horrifying screech of a claw strider rang out through the fair grounds.
The people of the caravan ducked into their wagons for safety, with Talim, Laman, Dozo, and Lagis escorting them. Meanwhile, Youko, Tian, and Oset grabbed their weapons and rushed around the wagons to the stabled beasts of burden. A claw strider attacked the neck of a large yeddim, one of the large cow-like beasts that pulls the caravan’s wagons. Oset ducked into the tall grass that surrounded the fair grounds and threw a knife cleanly into the strider’s heart, killing it before it was even aware of his presence. Youko identified another claw strider in the grass and charged at it before it had a chance to attack Oset. With his teammates in the field, Tian took it upon himself to defend the caravan’s treasured and terrified alpacas from any remaining claw striders. A strider leapt down from on top of the wagon to feed on the vulnerable alpacas, but Tian intercepted it.
Back in the grass, Youko viciously clubbed her claw strider and attempted to grapple it into submission, hoping to make a new mount out of it. Out of danger, Oset returned to the fairgrounds as Tian disappeared around a corner, scaring off a strider.
Just when Tian thought he had driven the claw strider away, another attacked from the grass. With Tian flanked by claw striders and caught off guard, the stealthy claw strider’s toe claw cut through Tian’s arm. Oset charged across the grounds, running up the side of one of the wagons to gain a clear shot, and launched another knife while in mid-air. The blade entered the back of the strider’s neck, bringing it down.
Youko knocked her claw strider out and delighted herself with the idea of Efi riding the claw strider into battle alongside Youko’s moose.
Yet another claw strider appeared around Tian, but it and its partner were struck by a blue bolt traveling through the air. A figure leapt into the air and seemed to ride the wind down to the maimed claw strider: it was Tepet Piao, Tian’s uncle and retainer, and a former Air Aspected general of House Tepet’s legions.