Renard awoke with a start. He found himself face down in something soft and slightly prickly. He groaned and pushed himself up, his fingertips sinking into the soft stuff below.
It was dark. Evidently, there weren't any streetlights or really any form of light near where he was, so the night had full domain. Renard couldn't see more than a foot or two in front of him. Confused, he stooped down and felt the soft stuff. He pinched it between his fingers and tore some of it out. It smelled earthy, and he realized then that it was moss.
Moss in the middle of a street?
Renard took a look around and realized his whole world had changed. There were dark, ominous shapes looming tall and high all around him. When he got close to them, he realized they were trees unlike any he'd seen before. Their branches were twisted and barbed, their trunks gnarled and plated with bark as solid as steel.
Confusion set in. Renard remembered getting sucked into that orb thing, but everything after was a mystery. Honestly, that orb incident was also a mystery. Nothing made sense.
A breeze snaked through the trees, chilling Renard. He realized then that it was cold. Extremely so. He had dressed for the winter with long pants, sweater, and overcoat, but it evidently wasn't enough. With a shiver, he crossed his arms, pressing them to his core to try and keep his warmth. As it stood right now, he didn't have time to wonder whether anything made sense or not.
If he didn't find some kind of shelter soon, he wouldn't make it through the night. But where could he go?
Renard considered the idea of climbing one of the trees to get a higher vantage point, but all of them had thorns as large as knives protruding from their branches. And that was just about the only idea he had other than walking around aimlessly.
Renard remembered something he read about how to orient yourself by looking at the stars, but the trees and their leaves covered the sky. On top of that, he had no idea where safety was. What good was knowing where North, East, South, or West was if none of those directions promised warmth?
Without much else useful knowledge to rely on, he picked a direction to go and started walking, hoping something would pop up. It was better than standing around and freezing to death.
As Renard made that decision, a light, the same shade of blue that orb had shone, burst in front of him, briefly illuminating his surroundings in a flash. That was when Renard realized there were eyes watching him. Curious, blood-red eyes that spied on him from the bushes, the treetops, inspecting his each and every move.
They weren't human eyes. And they weren't friendly either. Renard felt a chill crawl up his spine. Not one of cold, but of instinct, the same chill that a rabbit feels when it gazes into the eyes of a wolf.
Before he started to break out into a mad sprint, he realized the light had dropped something.
Something familiar. Almost comforting. A rapier. A real one, much unlike the ones he used for fencing. It looked much prettier, with a decorated hand-guard and leather handle. Perhaps most usefully, its blade was sharp on both edges, made to slash as well as it could thrust.
Renard picked the blade up and started up on his run. The blade felt familiar to his touch, its weight just right and its length similar to the rapiers he'd used. However, he didn't try to test his strength. He might be a fencing champion, but he didn't put his odds against any sort of wild creature very high.
Responding to his escape, the creatures chased. The leaves in the treetops and bushes rustled, and as Renard ran, swerving his way through trees, he could hear the heavy footsteps of creatures on the ground and in the treetops.
Panic pumped through Renard's veins, but he swallowed it down and focused on running. He didn't look back or up, knowing it would slow him down. But all the same, he knew he couldn't outrun these creatures. They were at home in the dark. Where Renard stumbled over roots and clumsily snapped twigs, they glided over the forest floor with an impressive stealth, only their ominous footsteps audible as a staccato of impending death.
Renard lasted about twenty seconds before one of the creatures popped out of the darkness, lunging from a bush in front of him and slamming into him. He fell back hard, rapier flung out his arm and rolling away from him. Thankfully, the mossy forest floor cushioned the impact, but that creature packed some serious mass and strength on it. The tackle had left his arm broken and knocked the wind right out of him, leaving him gasping for breath.
He saw the creature looming over him. It was reptilian in appearance, looking like a massively over-sized gecko. Far more intimidating than one, too. It's midnight black scales were thick and solid like armor plating. It wasn't very tall, maybe the height of a small man, but it was twice as wide, with powerful, sinewy muscles padding its legs and arms. Sickle-shaped claws clicked as they protruded from its fingertips, ready to make mince-meat out of him.
Adrenaline pushed away Renard's fear, and he tried to crawl back and reach his rapier. Sensing the movement, the lizard creature hissed and lunged. Renard fully expected to feel those terrible claws sinking into his back, but instead, he felt something warm spatter all over him.
Confused, Renard turned around and saw the lizard-creature, its eyes wide as it stared at the metal of a curved blade protruding from its sternum. The owner of that blade pushed a furred boot into the lizard's back and pulled his sword out. The creature let out a weak death croak before it slumped forwards, a pool of its bright blood spilling out and soaking into the moss beneath it.
The other lizards in the area hissed and fled, their midnight black bodies disappearing into the depths of the forest.
"What in Phoenix's name are you doing!?" the man shouted.
Renard cringed. The man's voice was hoarse but extremely loud, used to shouting and ordering.
"It is far past curfew." The man stepped closer, wiping the blood off his blade on his cloak. The pungent smell of iron wafted in the air. "You should thank the gods above that we were on watch duty. Hmm?"
The man raised his blade towards Renard and it lighted up in a blaze, fire wreathing its silver steel. It made for an adequate torch, and for the first time, the two could see each other clearly.
Renard stared with slack jaw. The man looked…ancient. Not that he was old, he actually didn't seem much older than Renard. It was his dress – he looked like he'd come out of an old Chinese fantasy movie. He had on a fur-skin cap, dirty tunic, and loose brown pants tightened with a bright green sash at the waist.
"A foreigner?" The man furrowed a pair of bushy brows. "What business have you come here on, sneaking around our village like a rat?"
Renard couldn't give a response. He had no idea where he was, who this man was, or what he was doing.
"Hmph. A Western spy, no doubt." The man raised his blade overhead. "Your head will give me fine compensation. Perhaps even a promotion out of this boring village."
Renard raised his rapier in some futile semblance of defense, but the man never raised his blade. He was frozen there, unable to move a muscle. His eyes strained to look behind him, at whatever had stopped him.
And the culprit stepped out.
A woman, young and yet with wisdom gracing her gray eyes. She moved forwards with a quiet grace, much like that of the lizard's, but more refined. Noble. Her flower-patterned robes shone red under the light from the man's flaming sword.
"Foolishness," she said, her voice resonant and clear. She pressed a pale palm to the man's chest, and he fell back, breathing in hard as he regained control over his body. "Learn to set your greed aside and have some compassion, Li."
Li scrambled to his feet, the flames on his sword dimming. He held an annoyed expression, but his voice was respectful. "Lady Zhou, with all due respect, we are at war with these Westerners. We may show mercy to this man, but the emperor will not show any to us."
Lady Zhou ignored Li and bent down, extending an open hand to Renard.
Renard dropped the rapier out of his one good arm and took Lady Zhou's hand, and she helped him up with surprising strength.
"Tell me, foreigner, why are you here?" said Lady Zhou with a pleasant smile. "You have no need to fear us. Under my authority as village chief, Li here cannot harm you, I swear at least that much upon the four cardinal deities."
Renard tried to stammer something out, but so much was hitting him at once. He had almost been killed, adrenaline was still rushing through his head, his broken arm hurt like hell, and he still had zero clue what was going on.
"You are confused and hurt." Lady Zhou nodded, looking at Renard's broken and bent arm. She pressed a palm to Renard's chest. "We will talk later, when you are of right mind and body. Sleep."
Cold leaked from her hand into Renard's chest. Tendrils of strange energy flowered from within, leeching away his body heat, numbing his brain. His eyelids felt heavy, and before he knew it, he once more fell into unconsciousness.