Brannon Macer shrugged against the biting cold of outside as he exited the cozy warmth of the administration building's foyer. The typical bodily shock everyone in the city experiences during the bitter season, save those out on the streets with nowhere proper to hunker down. Probably huddling together in some corner of the municipal park, Brannon thought as he descended the worn granite steps onto the sidewalk amid powdery white flakes. Only natural in the name of keeping warm.
The meeting had been straightforward enough. Going over the month's patrol reports, it had been decided that the security detail for the city's holiday celebrations would be reduced. A surprise to some, but the lack of sightings of any Harmful Elements would make the usual requisite for manpower unnecessary, to which Brannon gruffly acknowledged. A little levity to ease everyone's spirits for the change, as the planning council put it.
This consequently would leave even less for the senior guardsman to do around the holidays. A concern that won't matter for another week; for now he needed to get back to his dorm and have his own brand of levity until tomorrow's shift, which meant braving the night's light blizzard. Luckily his black fur-lined government cap and shroud kept out the brunt of the wind and chill, but he maintained a brisk pace all the same. Passing the fronts of the government office buildings, he stayed within the light offered by the electric lamps standing sentry along the sidewalk or the ornate gas lamps fixed by the entryways.
While not the most frightful of snowfalls, the weather was enough to drive everyone else indoors, as evidenced by the lack of any other living soul on Brannon's homeward walk. A thin dusting had begun to form on the fringes of the cobbles, which would inevitably overtake the entire breadth of the road come morning. Brannon disrupted this coverage by stepping off the sidewalk and over the street, passing through darkness briefly as he crossed over onto the Central Thoroughfare.
By day the route was a-clamor with carriages and pedestrians alike, but on that night Brannon had it all to himself, allowing him to appreciate its layout. A stretch of wide cobble road connecting the governmental, residential and market sectors, lined on both sides by trees made bare by the season and the evenly-spaced arched electric lamp poles. It was the first public site to be fitted with these new fixtures, and casual night time wanderers couldn't have been more grateful.
Over the roadway, the sky was aglow in that peculiar milky hue of gray that's often seen in a city full of lights, both modern and antiquated. Even more illumination to stave off the dreary wintertime darkness, though it made no difference for Brannon. It's just one of several paths he has frequently walked to and from in the past seven years with nary a reason to dawdle. The occasional snowflake slipping onto his face did add incentive for hurrying home to have a quick hot bath, though.
He had made it up a third of the thoroughfare when he heard it: a metallic rattling that stopped, then rattled again, stopping at irregular intervals. Brannon stopped, picking up something apart from the noise: the smell of sweat and animal hide. Faint, but pungent. And very close.
Not twenty seconds later a tall figure strode out from the shadow of the trees and onto the lit road several yards ahead of Brannon. Clutched in one large muscular hand was a length of chain, the source of the noise. In the other was a long staff bearing a sinister-looking sickle blade, practically as long as the pole it was affixed to.
They wore threadbare brown trousers, a tattered red vest and equally tattered short cape. Ill-fitting wear for this weather, if their exposed body parts weren't covered in a layer of dark fur to compensate. Atop their head sat a large ram's skull that covered much of their face, except the yellow eyes shining through the eye holes and the furry elongated lower jaw that displayed a row of large, very sharp teeth.
The creature stopped directly in the guardsman's path, eying him hungrily, the falling snow adding a spectral touch to their look. Something that didn't impress Brannon in the slightest.
"The hour of reckoning has come for you this night, Hunter," the beast said in a menacing masculine growl, no doubt to send shivers down the old soldier's spine. But Brannon remained firm, if not mildly amused by the young man's theatrics.
"I haven't been a Hunter for over a decade, so you know," Brannon grunted. "Also a bit childish for dress-up, wouldn't you say?"
"Just keeping with the spirit of the season. It's only fitting for the Winter Harvester to come collect his forsaken crop, heh heh."
"So it's 'harvesting' you're looking to do." Glancing to either side, Brannon added, "I take it no one else came to help out?"
"It's much easier getting through the city alone. Besides, having others around would just spoil the moment."
"Certainly making a big deal out of meeting me. There's plenty of other Hunters you can harass, active and retired. Some I'm willing to bet are eager for a fight."
"I bet. But none with your reputation."
"Oh? And what kind of reputation would that be, young pup?"
The wolf-man snarled, his eyes narrowing. "It irks me the way you old people act superior to everyone else." The snarl became a sneer. "But there's no fooling me, Bloodhound. With all that you've done, the 'outlaws' you've taken out, everyone's scared of you. They shudder at the mention of your name like a monster from fairy tale. But you're just like any other man. A man that happens to be really good at killing."
"Again, something that's over a decade past," Brannon said. "If this is over some grievance I have done to you or your—"
"Oh, it's none of that. This isn't a vendetta. I'm here to show them that you're a legend that shouldn't be feared. That you're not safe, all snug in this cozy city. Like all men, you'll have to face the consequences of your actions, and inevitably become the hunted."
Brannon scratched his coarse chin. "And in the process, you end up becoming the monster everyone should be fearing."
A flash of those glistening canines. "Exactly."
The beast sprang forward with scythe raised in a flying dash. Brannon hopped back and grasped the hilt of his ceremonial short sword, drawing it out from his cloak to catch the curved blade as it bore down on him. A sharp ring emitted from intercepting metal as the striker leapt back, rattling his chain.
"Quick with your claws. That's how it should be!"
The would-be harvester launched forward again, bringing around the chain in his right hand instead. Brannon lurched back from the heavy links and slouched sideways to avoid the upward slash of the scythe, losing his cap as he drove his sword forward, only for his opponent to spin away from the blow with a hop. The chain came swinging again, this time catching Brannon on his extended arm, making him recoil but not lose the grip on his weapon.
He retaliated with a few quick slashes at his assailant to get some breathing room. These slashes were nimbly dodged by the beastman as he wrapped his chain back onto his arm, flexed his fingers and clawed at the guardsman. Brannon side-stepped in time so that only the side of his cloak got ravaged by the claws before warding off his foe with a wide slash. In doing so, he noticed the sudden layer of frost on the edges of the torn fabrics, different from the snow falling on his exposed head. Enchantments, he grumbled internally.
"Still swift on your feet despite being retired," his opponent taunted, swinging the chain. "But can you keep up with this?"
The beastman broke into a run off to the side, racing in a circle around his prey to get to Brannon's backside. Brannon hardly had time to turn about when the beast sprang at him with scythe brandished, and no sooner had he deflected the curved blade than his foe leapt and cartwheeled out of his view. He spun around to catch the wolfman backflipping several yards down the road, landing only to immediately spring and flip back forward. The furry acrobat landed half a foot before his quarry, baiting Brannon into swinging his sword just so he could jump clear up and over him.
Brannon turned right back around to find the troublemaker some ways off snapping his jaws in a derisive chuckle.
"Age catching up with you? Ra ha ha ha!"
The heckler sprang quickly to the side before pouncing at the guardsmen. But as he readied his scythe, Brannon grabbed his cloak and pulled it off, tossing it at his attacker. The covering hit him square in the face, making him yelp while Brannon stood aside to let him tumble ungracefully on the cobbles.
An inconvenience discarding his winter protection, but it was hindering his movement, and it gave him a ripe opportunity, which he took full advantage of by bringing a solid boot into the back of the floundering beast. He brought up his sword, unmindful of the chill falling on his hairy arm, and thrust downward. But his foe managed to twist about and whip around his chain, batting away the sword so it struck stone instead. With this afforded chance the Lycan pushed himself up on his feet and jumped high before Brannon could try again.
The fleeing predator landed atop a lamp post, keeping balance despite the heavy cloak fluttering on his head. He snatched and threw it aside, inadvertently removing his ram skull which had snagged on the fabric. Free of macabre headdress, he glared down at Brannon with a snarl, his facial hairs bristling for any to see.
"Playing dirty? Well…" He reached into his vest, pulling out a fistful of daggers. "So can I!"
A swipe of his arm and out flew the daggers downward. They stuck into the cobbles in a random array around Brannon, then as one they flashed red. Before Brannon could make a step the daggers detonated in bursts of fire, enveloping him in a cloud of hot smoke. He coughed and staggered a moment before a hard shoulder rammed into his chest, throwing him off his feet and onto the road.
His sword flew off with a clatter, and through the dissipating smoke the Lycan looked down on him. Hefting up his scythe, he approached his downed prey.
Brannon, teary-eyed from the smoke, didn't know exactly how far his sword was, and quite frankly it didn't look like it would matter. Hurrying to get himself upright at the very least, he saw something shine over to his right. He gave a quick glance at the approaching Lycan before committing himself to crawling off to the side. Now a smart enchanter would normally make their throwing weapons out of easily-breakable materials, such as glass or sharpened wood or clay. But this guy was either in a hurry or an amateur, Brannon surmised as he grabbed the warm handle of the metal dagger and flung it away.
The blade grazed the leering canine's side, making him curse as Brannon shot up to charge and tackle him to the ground. This victory proved momentary as a pair of very honed legs pressed into his chest and kicked him clear off.
The Lycan arose, clutching his scythe tight and ready to dole out some payback. However, Brannon was quicker in getting up this time around, having just run over to and retrieving his fallen sword. His prey rearmed and resuming a ready stance, the Lycan licked his chops.
"Wily kook," he huffed, rubbing his snout with his free hand before twirling his chain. "You just keep holding out. But, this is where it ends for you."
The chainlinks let out a ring, and suddenly the lamplights began to fade. Not just the lamp poles, but the lights of the outlying city, the odd grey hue above, his sneering foe, all evaporating into absolute darkness. Or so Brannon's eyes told him.
He could still feel the soft sting of cold from the falling snow, smell the frigid air and wet stones. An Optical Obscurance spell, one not requiring vocal recitation. Meant to disorient and leave a target or targets vulnerable. But still only a trick to the seasoned warrior.
Brannon eased his stance, calmed himself. He breathed deeply and slowly to enhance his focus, to move at a moment's notice. All was silent.
A rattling some yards ahead broke the silence, then seconds later it arose off to the left. Frantically jangling, as though in rapid motion. Chains dancing about with their handler.
Brannon followed the sound, bringing his sword closer to his chest. It was dead ahead and coming closer. Becoming louder, more wild. Eager to intercept. Closer, faster. Just one yard left.
Brannon's knees folded as he bent downward, ducking beneath the scything claw coming from behind his head, then immediately twisted his upper body to let his sword arm loose. His blade met and severed fur, flesh and bone in one vicious swipe, lopping off the attacking arm and making its owner howl in surprise and pain.
Light instantly returned to Brannon's world, putting him back onto snowy, blood-slicked cobbles. His enemy's scythe stood before him, blade planted into the road with chains dangling off the shaft. To his right, his assailant squirmed on the ground, clutching the spurting stump that had been his right elbow. Brannon turned to face him, casually flicking the blood from his sword.
"How… How could you have… You couldn't have heard me!" the Lycan snarled. The guardsmen, in return, only grinned and tapped the side of his nose.
"You should have bathed beforehand."
Still snarling and muttering curses, the Lycan clumsily got his feet beneath him and raised himself up. Breathing heavily and looking the worse for wear, he cast a hateful glare at the smug senior.
"Next time," he growled, before leaping backward into the trees and out of sight, abandoning his quarry to the company of the lamp posts and falling snow.
Probably should have killed him, Brannon thought. Could make for future trouble if he survived the blood loss and escaped the city. If he does live, he could consider that his Yuletime present.
Taking a deep breath of frigid air, he sheathed his sword and sought out his discarded clothes, beginning with the cap lying a foot away. His cloak lay by the side of the road, mildly damp from the snow and slightly torn. A quick inspection showed the inner pockets were intact. More importantly, so were his case of cigarettes and matchbook. A smoke would have to wait, though, as he threw on his coverings and proceeded to collect evidence.
The scythe and chain had no runes on them, but having been used in the assault of a guardsman made them important regardless. Hefting them up, Brannon's attention was inevitably drawn to the severed arm lying conspicuously some feet away, still furry and clawed. It should have reverted back to normal if it had been a transformation spell, meaning this was a natural-born Lycan. Quite the rarity.
Brannon reflected on the scuffle as he procured the limb. An arrogant and amateurish piece of work, but very nimble and decent with magic. Not everyone could pull off a light-sound nullifying spell. Unless someone had it set up for him.
That implication alone would make this incident more worrisome once the council learned of it. The arm would quell any doubters; holiday security would have to be restored, perhaps even doubled, in case of a pending attack. Meaning no meddlesome downtime for ol' Brannon.
In any case, the guardsmen took his trophies and began walking back in the direction of the administration buildings, humming a simple tune for the return trip. No warm baths for an hour or two yet, but an unharried stroll would do just nicely.