© 1999-2001 Draconus and Stratadrake of NEWST
According to the books of history and legends, the world as it is now began approximately three thousand years ago. History tells of a war, a terrible war. A war so devastating, that it was as if God, and the universe itself, had pointed a finger at the world and said, "Die." And, succinctly put, the world did just that; almost nothing survived the ancient devastation. Only recently have the academics been able to guess at exactly how much was loss; they estimate the loss of life at 99 percent and higher. And if asked what could possibly be higher than 99 percent, the academics proudly point out that 99.9% and 99.99% are indeed higher.
Yet somehow, life had survived the devastation, and in the processes of time leading up to the present day, began rebuilding. According to records, human survival was attributed to the very dragons that are so often mentioned in myth and legend. Modern scholars doubt whether dragons could even exist in the world or not, but without any counter-theories of their own to offer, those dragons stand as an item of history rather than myth.
Rebirth was accompanied, naturally, by exploration. Compared to the wilderness and animal kingdom, cities and humans are a minority in the world. Powerful, predatory species such as lion, tiger, griffin, and wyvern, make travel from one city to another a risky prospect that was best countered by travelling in groups and/or enlisting the aid of the local city guards.
The legacy of the Ancestors remains, in the form of scattered, underground "Catacombs". When a group of explorers recovered valuable tools and artifacts from one of the Catacombs, the period now known as the Restoration began. Museums were built in the major cities to display the artifacts, and a high price was often paid for valuable items successfully recovered from underground. Many an intrepid explorer dared to venture into the uncharted wildernesses, in hopes of finding a segment of Catacombs that would contain something legendary.
It is now the 120th Year of the Restoration. A group of brigands, known as the Dragon's Fist, have begun searching through the Catacombs sites on with their own, militaristic goals in mind. People fear that the Dragon's Fist is searching for something specific; something even more legendary than the Catacombs itself. Whatever it may be, if they find it, the world will never be the same again . . .
As a January morning sun shone its first rays over the snow-capped eastern mountains, the weather in West Falls City was shaping up to be fantastic. There was but one small feathery cloud in the sky, and the wind was silent. A scenic place in the world, West Falls was constructed on a nexus of terrains--snow-capped mountains on the eastern border, a thick and dark forest to the north, arid canyons to the south, and a river flowing westward for a few miles to the nearest ocean. According to history, the snowy mountains were home to a segment of the Catacombs, and one of the Ancestor cities was supposedly built on the very grounds upon which West Falls now stands.
West Falls was a thriving port. The western river provided a good port to overseas merchants (also giving rise to a large local Docker's guild), while the southern canyons provided a solid travel route between West Falls and Susset. Norset lay one hundred miles on the other side of the forest, but as a thick and live forest, travelling through it made a difficult prospect, best attempted in groups and during daylight. Strangely, the courier's guild always deemed itself exempt from those precautions, often taking risks to bring the mail through. As their guild's slogan goes, neither forest, nor mountain, nor earthquake, or Judgement can stop a courier from delivering a message, and in their entire history, nothing indeed did stop them.
Airmail was another specialty of the Courier's Guild, and although marginally less reliable than normal couriers, it was a great deal faster. Falcons were the Guild's first choice of courier. Their large wingspan afforded them a great carrying ability, and despite being a bit more difficult to train than small birds, their being a lot less vulnerable to wild predators made them more viable for the Guild.
A falcon courier could be seen soaring above the forest towards West Falls with the day's first message. After landing at the Guild, a single message was removed from the bird's harness, evaluated, and sent toward its destination, the West Falls Honor Guard. Honor Guards were a sort of mercenary guild formed about four hundred years ago. Originally known as 'mercenaries of honor', the Guards were originally soldiers for hire who, unlike the usual mercenary or bounty hunter, accepted only the tasks they deemed honorable. As their reputation spread, they set up permanent residences in the larger cities, forming a group of regular, dependable guards with which to enforce the law.
The courier delivered the airmail letter to the Chief of the Guard. After examining the letter, he called for its recipient. One of West Falls's top officers, Hunter Antare, received the letter, opened it, and read it. It was from his brother, Marcus. He read it aloud:
Hope you'll be receiving my letter this time. It took a bit of training, but I think Vrynn has finally learned not to try hunting the Guild's falcons. They're still a bit steamed at how Vrynn actually killed one of their falcons the first time, but at least they're forgiving enough that I can still send letters.
It's been pretty quiet, lately. I've spotted the Dragon's Fist snooping around the wildernesses up here. They seem to be searching for some more Catacombs sites. They haven't started any fights, though; which means that they haven't found anything, either. They'll probably be moving on to another area in a week or so. On occasion, they've noticed me as well. However, they haven't tried to stop me. It's almost as if they want to be spied on...
My own adventures haven't turned up much of value, either. But at least I can get by with search & rescue. Vrynn makes a good tracker, and there always seems to be more foolish individuals getting lost. Another small Catacombs site has been discovered up here near the city. Although it's strange that the Dragon's Fist hasn't taken it over, I hope that your Chief can afford you some time off; Norset is absolutely beautiful this time of year.
Vrynn would like to see you, too.
~ Marcus Antare
Chief looked at Hunter. "A trip to Norset, right? That depends on what else is happening..." Chief began flipping through a few written schedules and other papers as Hunter waited for a response. "Anything, Chief?"
Chief pulled out one of the schedules and examined it. "Well... the Dockers Guild is expecting another merchant shipment in... the mail is always on time... nothing more dangerous than petty theft at the marketplace... and no requests for armed escorts across the forestry.... All schedules are clear. If you want to take a trip to Norset and work with their guards for awhile, I don't see any problems."
Hunter nodded. "Marcus's last letter said something similar, so in some ways, I'm already packed for the trip."
Chief looked at Hunter. "Just one thing before you go. Take Shane with you."
Hunter was aghast, having almost come to blows with the fellow officer many times in his experience. "What? Chief, you know how we don't get along..."
Chief shook his head. "Whatever it is between you two comrades, you'll have to settle it; I expect you two to work together. Besides, yesterday Shane informed me that he needed to go back home to Alexis. Your timing couldn't be any better--"
"And yours couldn't be any worse," Hunter jabbed back. "It's a miracle that we haven't actually come to blows against each other. It's as if it's in our blood to hate each other. I am not taking him along."
Chief shook his head again. "If you think this is optional, I'd better warn you, it isn't; I've already required that you take him along. The forest can be treacherous for anyone travelling alone, especially at night. You'll be safer with someone else."
Hunter looked away. "Yeah, right. I'd feel safer without having to bring him along."
Chief smiled. "You don't have the choice. Unlike your brother, you have no companion to protect you. And, Shane felt the same way; but I insist. You are not going alone, and neither is he. In fact, he should be here about now..."
As if on cue, Shane walked in the front door, wearing his usual fiery-brown scaleplate vest. He looked at Hunter and walked to the other side of the office. "This will be interesting."
Hunter didn't bother talking to Shane. Chief looked at them both. "As soon as you two get packed for the trip, you are cleared to leave. I would like to have a better report when you two get back."
Hunter nodded, albeit hesitantly. "I'm almost ready to go."
Hunter left the office and proceeded to walk back to his residence. When finished, Shane would find him around Mist Park's fountain, and from there they would take the road north then northeast, first to Alexis, and then further north and northwest to pay a visit to Norset.
Upon arrival at home, Hunter packed for the trip. He packed a thick vest, cloak, his sword, hunting bow, and a full quiver of arrows. After belting his sheath and slinging his bow and quiver over his back, he grabbed his combat shield and slung it on his back as well. Hunter didn't think that he'd need them, but with dangerous wildlife and the occasional bandits, he needed to be prepared for anything. Besides; having travelled to other cities before, Hunter naturally preferred his own arsenal in favor of other cities' armories.
When he finished packing, Hunter left his residence, locked it up, and walked off to the Mist Park at the northern end of West Falls. Mist Park draws its name from the waterfall flowing down from an edge on its east border, which casts a continuous spray of mist into the park. Mist Park, more like a pleasant meadow, had a sizable pond by the waterfall, several pathways throughout, and a pleasant fountain near its center. Most of its trees were cut down long ago and removed from the site to help differentiate it from the forest. The borders of Mist Park are designated as the brick sidewalks along its southern edge, and the waterfall-fed stream running along its northern contour from east to west. On the other side of the stream lay the northern forest. The total size of Mist Park could be estimated at little over one football-field; and with the mid-morning sun casting its light across the park, it gave the area a pure, ideal green.
As instructed, Shane was at the park fountain waiting for Hunter. To help speed the journey, Shane had brought a pair of horses from the Guard stables. Shane himself seemed to be packed rather light, with only a sheathed sword visible. "You finally made it."
Hunter looked at Shane. "I see you don't want to be spending any more time travelling than I do."
Shane nodded and climbed up into the saddle of his horse. "I'll go as far as Alexis. After that, you're on your own."
Hunter climbed up onto the other horse. "Fine by me. Shall we be off?"
Shane nodded, and then led the way on horseback, with Hunter following. Even after a few minutes of travel alone, their view of West Falls disappeared through the forestry through which they were travelling. Shane was silent, and Hunter had nothing to say to him. At one point, Shane could identify a courier falcon soaring above on its return trip back home to Norset. Although there were occasional animals identifiable from a distance, there were no encounters with wildlife.
After about an hour of travel, Hunter detected a sign of trouble when a bandit attacked. Aside from the Dragon's Fist, the world still contained its occasional number of small-time bandits and other muggers; and with Honor Guards in most major cities, banditry had taken to the roadways and highways. Fortunately, wildlife-filled areas like the forest were less susceptible to banditry. He struck with little warning, knocking Hunter's horse into Shane and knocking both riders to the ground. Shane made it to his feet sooner than Hunter did, and he instantly drew his sword to attack. Hunter moved the horses aside to safety before arming his sword. Within moments, Shane knocked the bandit to the ground. Hunter looked at him. "Shane...No!"
Shane was in a position ready to slay the bandit. He demanded. "What were you thinking; attacking a member of the guards?"
The bandit was obviously a small-time felon, and probably a rookie as well. "I... I didn't know..."
Hunter walked over. "Shane, stop it." Shane didn't respond, but kept staring at the bandit. "The price of banditry varies from place to place. You shouldn't have made that mistake."
Hunter grabbed Shane by the shoulder and tried to draw him aside. Shane instead shook Hunter off. "Shane, don't do this. Chief wants us to be civil on this trip. I can't go telling him that you've killed yet another small-time bandit. What kind of honor is there that lacks forgiveness?"
Shane seemed to flinch. He took his sword, blade down, and thrust it straight down--missing the bandit by an inch. Shane sighed, then pulled the bandit to his feet. "That was but a warning. Be on your way now, and don't bother us again." The bandit did just that and fled.
Shane sheathed his sword. Hunter looked at him disappointedly. "Shane... I didn't want you repeating last week's incident. You have quite a temper; you need to learn to keep it more in check."
Shane looked like a doused flame. "It's not that; it's what you said about honor. Perhaps I'm not made for this type of job after all."
Hunter smiled briefly. Shane had joined the Honor Guards about three months back. "You're still pretty new. I just hope to see some improvements..."
Shane looked back. "There will be. Shall we continue?" Shane hopped back up on his horse, and Hunter followed suit, climbing up on his own horse. This time, Hunter led the way as they continued down the road.
It was another hour until they entered the city of Alexis. Alexis was a small 'burg, about a third the size of West Falls. Standing at the eastern edge of the forest, Alexis was surrounded by greenery on three sides, and easily accessible only from the west and east. To the east was a highway through foothills towards the next available city; to the north was a large lake in the forest, and to the south were the Snowy Mountains. Fishing was a large industry in Alexis, and there was a larger-than-normal Sportsman Guild to help keep order in the activities of hunting and fishing. Alexis also sported a small museum filled with a few arcane Catacombs artifacts. Each artifact in the museum would assuredly be recognized 3 millennia ago, but by today's standards, all of the museum's artifacts are unrecognizable.
Hunter and Shane checked in at the Guard station first, stabling the horses. Shane proceeded to check out and return home. Hunter conferred with the Alexis Chief for any assignments, and similar to West Falls, there were none. No disturbances or any other dangerous activities. After that, Hunter decided to continue his journey to Norset. But first, for some rest and relaxing, Hunter decided to check in at the museum and browse.
The museum, as could be expected, had several rooms filled with exhibitions. One room displayed what was thought to be the dress and attire of the Ancestors, which had a great resemblance to the Honor Guard and military armors. The academics had determined that they indeed were military apparel used by the Ancestors. Some of them even sported medals, jewels, and other decorations and merits.
Another room was filled with unrecognizable objects. They were likely to be pieces or components either separated or broken off from pre-Judgement mechanisms. Only a scant few of them were even remotely recognizable. One of them bore a passing resemblance to the handbow (small, one-handed crossbow), and there were even a few recognizable--albeit merely decorative--swords in the mix.
The uppermost room in the museum contained books that were either obtained from the Catacombs or written soon after the Judgement by Ancestral survivors. It is by these books that history was written and foretold. Other books were compiled by the academics, including items such as a modern bestiary and many indecipherable manuals, which were probably written to instruct the Ancestors how to use their machines (rather than how to make them).
The main attraction of the Alexis museum, however, was the entrance room. The entrance room was lit through a skylight and several windows, and it was filled with whatever artifacts could be discerned as Ancestral art. It only had one artifact; a huge multifaceted sculpture recovered from the Catacombs and shaped roughly in the form of some dragon. It was a miracle that an exploration team recovered the sculpture intact, without damage; but it was verified by the academics as 100% authentic. The sculpture measured about 5 feet by 5 feet at its base, and stood an impressive 15 feet high. The rest of the entrance room was dedicated to modern art by artists both local and foreign.
Hunter spent about half an hour browsing through the museum. Afterwards, he stopped by the marketplace to purchase lunch. The fish were biting pretty well last night, which allowed Hunter to catch a good deal on the catch du jour. After finishing his lunch, Hunter took a walk down to Lake Nors.
There is a well-known rumor about Lake Nors; many have sighted what was reportedly some kind of aquatic creature in the waves. Many local artworks took inspiration from the rumor and drew their own concept sketches of what the 'Lake Nors Creature' could possibly look like. No one has been able to produce any authoritative reports on what could be living in the lake, though. But there was something down there. Lake Nors was perhaps fifty feet deep at its deepest; at that distance, anything could be hidden in the waters, and aside from reports by true-believers, there were several recorded occasions in which "something" was scaring the fish and preventing the fishing groups from catching anything.
Hunter was gazing out across the lake when he received a familiar message--an arrow, shot through the air, landed about three feet from him. Hunter knew what it meant, stood up, and called out. "Marcus!"
Marcus appeared from behind a tree. "Hunter! Glad to see you." Marcus approached Hunter. The two brothers greeted and shook hands. Marcus looked at him. "Did you get my message?" Hunter nodded.
Marcus continued. "That's great. I think Vrynn may have finally learned not to attack the courier falcons."
Hunter looked around. "Where's Vrynn? He's hardly away from you..."
Vrynn, who had been perched on a tree, jumped down and glided to the ground, landing on his two feet and folding his two wings up against his side like a bird would. Vrynn then walked up to Hunter and recognized him by both sight and smell. Vrynn, Marcus's companion, is a wyvern, standing about 3-4 feet tall and measuring about 6 foot 6 from head to tail. Aside from his varying-tan colored scales, Vrynn has two pure green eyes, and dragon-like decorative scales running from a nose horn, up his brow next to his pair of 1-foot long crest horns, flowing down his backside and terminating in a tailspade. His two wings give him an easy 14 foot wingspan and a great ability to fly and glide. At a first glance, Vrynn casts a formiddable impression upon a stranger; but in reality, he was actually kind and affectionate. Vrynn, having been abandoned by his parent wyverns, was found by Marcus at an early age of about six months. After that, Marcus raised Vrynn as his constant companion, and Vrynn regarded Marcus as a father of sorts.
Like all wyverns, Vrynn is a fire-breather, and developed his ability naturally, but with Marcus's training, Vrynn used his fire-breath only when necessary, for his talons alone are weapons suitable enough to find and kill an animal for dinner. In fact, the first time Marcus tried sending an airmail, Vrynn did indeed kill the courier falcon (and later devour it). That cost Marcus a bit of reputation at the Norset Courier Guild, and it was six months before they allowed Marcus to send any airmail again. Even then, Vrynn had been disciplined enough to not kill the courier falcons, but it took additional training before Vrynn would stop trying to scare them.
At one point, Marcus tried entering Vrynn in Norset's annual Trainer's League, where trainers/owners like Marcus can enter their animal companions into competition. Vrynn took second place at hunting and flying challenges apiece, and also won the novelty prize when he attacked one of the other competitors with his fire-breath and nearly killed it. After that, the Trainer's League adopted a new rule for the safety of everyone: no wyverns. Marcus still attended the League every time it convened; even if he could not participate, he still observed from the audience.
Hunter looked back at Marcus now. "Anything new?"
Marcus nodded. "Too bad it took half a day for the Courier Guild to process my letter. The Dragon's Fist seems to be moving south..."
Hunter looked across the lake. "Are they going to attack? Perhaps they may attack the museum..."
Marcus didn't agree. "No, that would be too obvious. Even they have some sense of respect for the items of history. I'm not sure what they're up to, but just in case, we should both be at Norset by tomorrow morning--if not tonight."