© 1999-2001 Draconus and Stratadrake of NEWST
Hunter nodded to Marcus. "We'll have to leave town immediately. Norset is still quite a distance if we walk." Marcus agreed--with Vrynn at his side, trying to rent horses for the trip simply wasn't an option.
After a few more minutes of resting by the lakeside, Hunter and Marcus decided to leave Alexis and travel further north. The sun was now above them and slightly to the west, giving them about five more hours of daylight before nightfall. And with a walking pace, they'd be lucky to arrive before midnight, if not by next morning.
The city of Alexis disappeared through the trees after about a mile of travel northwards. Slowly, the scenery was changing, as the path to Norset was slightly uphill. At this time of year, Norset was typically covered in one or two feet of snowfall, painting the town white. It was named by the Ancestors to mean "North City", and if not the northernmost city 3,000 years ago, today its name was closer to the truth.
Hunter decided to catch up on events with Marcus as they walked. "So... what has been happening in Norset?"
Marcus thought for a moment as Vrynn walked alongside them. Vrynn would have been more comfortable flying, but a walking pace was too slow for that. "There was a new Catacombs site discovered last week. It was but a few days after its discovery that the Dragon's Fist invaded that area. They've warded off all potential explorers; yet strangely, they haven't harmed a single person. Nor have they tried to keep me from watching their activities. From what I can gather, they're still looking through the site for ... something."
Hunter watched through the trees; a few small birds could be spotted flying about in the distance. "What about the museum in Alexis?"
"Shane should know more about that then you. After all, he lives there." Marcus glanced down at Vrynn for a moment. "By the way, how are you two getting along? You weren't exactly pleased with him the last time you wrote..."
Hunter shook his head. "He nearly killed another petty bandit, just today. I don't know why he reacts that strongly; it puts me on edge. Sometimes I think he knows that, too."
"Not again. For a new member of the Honor Guards, he is a bit too combative. Even Vrynn can't stand him." They crossed a plank bridge over a stream in the forest, while the sun continued its westward march across the sky.
Hunter responded back. "Chief keeps hoping that we'll settle it, eventually. Although, sometimes I fear that the only way we'll settle it is against each other's sword. Did you, by chance, spot him in Alexis earlier?"
Marcus nodded. "Only for a moment; I spotted him walking around the east side of Lake Nors. He left on the northeast trail."
Hunter sighed. "Quite a relief. I hope the Alexis Chief gave him an assignment to do on his own."
Marcus looked ahead, as the sun was beginning to set and the forest was beginning to darken. They approached a small clearing after awhile. "It'll be dark soon; we should stay here for the night." Hunter nodded, and began searching around for wood with which to start a fire. Marcus sat down for a moment with Vrynn at his side. Vrynn looked around as Hunter returned with an armload of branches and limbs. Hunter dropped them in the center. "Now for something thicker..." Hunter glanced at Marcus. Marcus looked back. "You really should start carrying a handax." Marcus withdrew a handax of his own and, placing a set of spiked cleats on his shoes, proceeded to a tree so that he could limb it. Marcus tossed a rope up and around one of the tree's limbs, then used it to climb upwards. He found Vrynn waiting for him on one of the limbs.
"Below...!" Marcus called, and in a few strikes, knocked a sizable limb from the tree. It fell to the ground with a clash. Hunter chopped it up into firewood. After chopping down another limb from the tree, Marcus climbed down, then diced it up. After Hunter put a few logs onto the pile, Marcus motioned to Vrynn at the pile. Vrynn looked at Marcus expectedly. "That's right..." Marcus withdrew a few hawk feathers from his pack and fed them to Vrynn. Vrynn crunched the feathers between his teeth, then after inhaling, breathed a burst of fire onto the pile and set it alight.
The sunlight was now fading and the sky was darkening. Hunter kneeled down near the fire as it began to heat up. "I'm still caught by surprise every time Vrynn does that...."
Vrynn seemed content and sat down at Marcus's side, curling up for the night. Marcus looked at the stars, which were now emerging from the dusk sky. "There's nothing quite comparable to the sky at night."
"Right." Hunter listened. "Marcus, do you hear anything...?"
Marcus listened well. Other than the crackling fire, almost nothing could be heard in the forest. No owls, no small birds, not even a breeze blowing between the trees. Marcus didn't like it, either. "No, I don't hear anything but dead silence." Marcus shook Vrynn slightly, who opened his eyes and stood back up. Even Vrynn noticed the silence and became alert.
Hunter kept listening. "What could it be this time?"
Marcus reflected on it for a moment. Any wilderness was usually full of life, at any time of day or night, so whenever there is a dead silence, it meant that a predator was nearby. Similarly, the size or numbers of predator could be estimated by the size of silence surrounding it. Judging from a silence this quiet, it was either a large predator, or a sizable number of predators. "It's either a wolf pack, or something large."
Wolves are a native species in almost any country, but their usual numbers can not be compared to the Norset wolves. The mountains north of Norset boast a unique and unusual breed of predatory, gryphon-like airwolves. Although winged and partially feathered, airwolves are still largely wolf, and otherwise clad entirely in their typical fur. Wings folded aside, they look like wolves; they also act like wolves, and even smell like them, too. On regular occasions, Norset airwolves have mingled with regular wolf packs, often becoming the pack leader. Unlike regular wolves, who are still relatively shy of mankind, airwolves are not. On a few previous occasions, they have attacked travellers at night with other wolves in their pack.
This time, Marcus's guess was correct as a shrill howl was heard throughout the air. Marcus drew his bow and strung it. "They must either be desperate or think we'll make an easy meal. Watch your back!" Marcus saw some movement. He fired off an arrow. A sharp yelp was heard as his arrow struck its target. Hunter drew his bow as well.
The wolf pack came into the firelight. Hunter fired off an arrow and injured a wolf; it promptly fled from the scene. The rest, five in number, came upon them in a rush. One of them pounced on Hunter; however, Marcus's steady aim shot it through the heart, knocking it off of Hunter and killing it. Another wolf attacked Vrynn and tackled it. Vrynn responded by sinking his talons into the wolf's fur, grabbing hold, and biting the wolf sharply in the neck.
Marcus killed a second wolf with deadly-accurate aim. Hunter stood up quickly, and drew his sword. The next wolf that attacked him was promptly skewered, then shunted aside. Vrynn finished killing his wolf and torched another with a large burst of fire, before pouncing upon it himself and killing it with his talons. Marcus fired a shot at the last one--the pack leader--upon which it let out a shrill yell and spread its wings in pain. Indeed, this pack leader was a Norset airwolf. Instead of slaying it through the heart, Marcus had merely hit it in the wing. Unable to fly due to a shattered wing-bone, the airwolf folded its wings, backed off, and fled.
The forest was still quiet, but it wasn't as quiet as previously, so that was a good sign. Vrynn looked happily at the wolf he torched and began to devour it. Hunter cringed at the display. "So much for my appetite..." Marcus consoled him as Vrynn kept eating. "If Vrynn catches it, he eats it alone. Besides, wolf meat isn't suitable for us humans." Marcus lay down by the fire. "I don't think we'll be having any more troubles tonight. The smell of dead animal has a tendency to ward off others."
Hunter cleaned his sword. "Just how often do Norset wolves attack?"
Marcus looked up at the sky. "Quite often; our local guard gets a report like this almost once every day. After a long winter, airwolves get quite aggressive towards humans. At least they haven't actually killed anyone."
Hunter nodded, and said good night.
By morning, the three dead wolves were starting to attract their first flies. Vrynn had devoured virtually everything from his wolf during the night, leaving only a few unidentifiable portions of organs and bones on the ground. True to Marcus's statement, there was no other trouble. Their fire had burned down through the night; only a few smoking embers were left. Despite a clear sky at night, the morning was already warm. When Hunter awoke, he found Marcus preparing more arrows for his bow. "Have a good night's sleep?"
Hunter nodded. "Nice and refreshed. Now, how far away is Norset, still?"
Marcus looked around. "Hard to say; we're anywhere between one and four hours of walking-distance away from Norset."
Vrynn woke up and uncurled from his crouched sleeping position. He stood up, spread his wings, and let out a large yawn. Vrynn noticed something and stood alert.
Marcus noticed a silence as well. It was similar to last night's silence, although in the morning sun, it was easy to see that no predators were anywhere nearby. "It can't be another wolf pack. The forest isn't their natural habitat, so they wouldn't attack during the day."
For a moment, Hunter thought he saw something through the trees. It was fleeting, though, which means that it could have been anything. Hunter looked northward. "We should get going again." Marcus nodded, and they resumed their journey to Norset.
An hour and a half passed with almost nothing of notice. The morning silence broke quickly and the forest filled once again with its normal sounds of life. They passed another two streams and a small river on the way. The trees kept up their gradual change from deciduous to evergreen as they proceeded north. The air became brisker as the elevation increased with their trip. After a second hour, they reached the snowline, where even the noonday sun could not melt the snowfall; and the scenery made a quick change from its darker green to white at this point. Marcus identified that they were getting close to Norset. After rounding another few bends, they would arrive at the city or Norset.
As Alexis was surrounded on many sides by forest, Norset was a similar city located in the mountains. The only commercial routes to or from Norset were the southern route through the forest and an eastern route through the snow-capped mountains. The other sides of Norset were surrounded by the mountains. Two mountain peaks in particular were much higher and steeper than the others, giving rise to the name Twin Spires. Snowfall melted by pressure frequently seeps down the spires, forming beautiful and large crystal icicles and stalagmites. Sometimes, the melted water would be enough to create solid pillars of clear ice from the top of each Spire to the base near the city. It was the icicles in particular that give Norset its winter beauty. Even in the summertime, the snow and ice never melted from the top of the Spires, giving them a perennial white coat and dripping ice stalactites. The reflective nature of the ice gave the Twin Spires a mirror-like quality, coloring them whatever tint the sky was, and reflecting starlight in a beautiful display every night.
Hunter looked ahead at one of the Twin Spires. "Is that it?" Marcus nodded with a smile. "Absolutely. This is what makes Norset so beautiful."
Hunter pointed at a layer of smoke rising from behind the spire. "And that...?"
Marcus looked at it intently. "What the...?" Marcus sprinted ahead with Vrynn gliding along behind. He had hardly rounded the bend when he shouted back at Hunter. "Hunter...Come quickly!"
Hunter saw something he couldn't believe when he rounded the bend with Marcus. A few hundred feet past the bend was the city of Norset, but it was burning; someone was besieging the city! Marcus identified the enemies. "It can't be...the Dragon's Fist is here!!" Marcus strung an arrow on his bow and delivered the shot with unfailing accuracy into a mercenary.
Civilians could be seen escaping by the east highway. Marcus ran closer to the town. Hunter drew his sword and shield and followed.
The smell of smoke was everywhere. Buildings were ablaze and the Dragon's Fist mercenaries could be heard combatting the Norset guards. One mercenary, most likely their leader, could be seen overpowering his opponents and slaying them. The Norset Guard was falling at the hands of the mercenaries, and so was their city.
Marcus kept at a distance, wounding the mercenaries with his arrows. Hunter rushed into the action as one of the mercenaries finished off another Norset guard, and engaged him. Hunter blocked the mercenaries blows, countered with his sword, and slew his opponent. Marcus kept striking from a distance at the mercenaries who were helping to set additional buildings ablaze.
One of the Norset guard members was doing significantly better than the others, slaying a few mercenaries of his own without falling. Hunter joined in the fray. A few mercenaries attacked Marcus near the entrance; Vrynn aided Marcus in his defense as he tossed his bow aside and quickly slung together the two halves of his lance. Though a superb archer, Marcus was also capable in close combat, using his lance to keep his opponents out of sword's reach.
By now, the mercenaries were beginning to quickly outnumber the guard members--Hunter included. Fortunately, Marcus and Vrynn dispatched their attackers. Marcus retrieved his bow, threw it over his shoulder, and ran into the city to help defend it. Marcus found a good number of opponents waiting for him, and he engaged them carefully at a lance's range. Marcus fought especially well with the knowledge that he was defending his home city.
After a few rounds, only a foursome of mercenaries--including their presumed leader--were left fighting; the other mercenaries had finished their damage and were retreating with shouts of success. Besides Marcus, only one other member of the Norset guard was still standing. Marcus wounded three of the mercenaries with careful shots, leaving only the leader.
At a closer view, the leader was a bit more identifiable from the other mercenaries--wearing a combination of silver plate and golden scale armor, a two-tailed cape, and fighting with a larger-than-average sword. Despite being outnumbered two-to-one, he fought exceptionally well. Neither Hunter nor the Norset guard could score a hit on him. At their close range, Marcus couldn't aid them with arrows due to a risk of hitting an ally. So instead, he stood at a distance and watched.
The leader knocked the Norset guardsman to the ground. Although leaving him open to a side attack, when Hunter swung, the leader retreated back a step, evading the blow. With an unexpected furor, the leader engaged Hunter. Hunter blocked each blow with his shield, but the leader gave him no opportunities to counterattack. The guardsman stood back up to engage the leader once again, and still, the leader couldn't be touched, blocking every blow.
The leader knocked the guardsman's sword out of his hand, and it landed several feet back. The man retreated quickly to pick it up back from the ground while Hunter kept fighting. The leader stepped back for a moment to taunt. "Do you even know who you are up against?"
Hunter drew back a few feet to regain his stance. "You're pretty strong, whomever you are..."
The leader gave him one name. "My name... is Strato!" With that, he pulled out a small, yet arcane-looking item from his pack. It was, evidently, some sort of Ancestral weapon, as he gripped it in his hand and fired it at Hunter. Hunter was un-injured from its blast, but the sheer force of whatever-it-was knocked Hunter clear away, him landing a distance of 30 feet away and rolling an additional ten.
Strato turned to the knocked-down guardsman, sword drawn. The man swung his sword, but Strato knocked it aside, free from the man's grip, and into the air. Strato caught it by the handle on its way down. Strato looked at the man's sword, examining it. "This is an interesting blade you have. Quite familiar...where did you get it?"
The man did not answer. Strato pressed closer, threatening to slay the man if he did not answer. "Where? I have seen few swords like this one... who gave it to you?"
The man shouted back. "The sword was my father's--you cannot have it!"
"Stealing family relics, are you...?" Hunter surprised Strato, attacking from behind. Although Strato blocked it, Hunter did succeed in knocking the guard's sword out of his hands and to the side. Strato knocked Hunter aside with a blow, and in a flash, fired a second burst from his Ancestral weapon, knocking Hunter even further away. Hunter landed with a thump and rolled to a stop. "...not again..."
Strato turned to the guardsman again. The man had retrieved his sword, and they began fighting again. Strato still managed to block or evade every blow sent in his direction, and after a minute of dueling, he knocked the guardsman to the ground again and pinned him.
Strato noticed something on the man--a golden medallion about 5 inches diameter. He grabbed it. "What is this?!?"
The man, somehow, managed to flip Strato over and regain his ground. "That...is mine!"
Strato, however, still had the golden medallion. He looked it over--it was inscribed with the symbol of a dragon on both sides. Strato demanded of the man, "Where did you get this?!? Who gave it to you??"
The man gave Strato the same answer as before. "My father...!"
Strato threatened at him. "And what type of a man was he to have carried around such a possession?"
The man responded back with a name. "Draconus de Nathos...and you cannot have it!"
Strato seemed surprised. "Draconus...? I knew that man once...shortly before slaying him! If you want to share his fate, then by all means, keep fighting! I could end you just as easily..."
Not today, though, as Marcus fired a careful shot towards Strato, hitting him in the arm and stunning him. Strato's grip on the man's medallion was broken, and he dropped it. To their surprise, though, he (painfully) pulled the arrow free of his arm and tossed it aside.
Marcus was closing in on Strato quickly, and Hunter was back on his feet as well. Strato apparently knew his limit, and began to back off slightly. However, rather than trying to retreat, he called out one name: "Talon!!"
No one saw it coming. A large gryphon, about three feet height, eight feet long, and boasting a twenty-foot wingspan, hit them from behind and knocked them down. When it landed, Strato nodded at the gryphon and jumped on top of it in a rider's position. Strato motioned elsewhere and gave the gryphon an order. "Away, Talon!" Despite having to carry Strato, the gryphon managed to lift off from the ground, and it subsequently flew away.
Marcus was the first to get back up. "Did you catch that guy's license number?"
Hunter got back onto his feet as well. "He called himself Strato, I think..."
The guardsman picked up his medallion from the ground and stood back up. "Strato all right. I thank you for your help..."
Hunter shook the man's hand. "It was an honor. I'm Hunter Antare of West Falls Guard. Who are you?"
"Katra de Nathos", he responded. "Senior Norset Guard member."
Hunter glanced in Katra's direction, in surprise. "Senior? You're pretty young..."
Katra looked at Hunter seriously. "I'm not joking. I've been enlisted in the Guard almost all my life."
Marcus looked at Katra. "Son of Draconus, right?"
Katra nodded. "How did you know?"
Marcus identified himself. "Marcus Antare, local Tracker's Guild. Your father founded the Norset Honor Guards, did he not?"
Katra lit up. "Yes!"
Marcus looked at what buildings were left of Norset. There were none, except for burning foundations and crumbling frameworks. In the mercenaries' attack, they had reduced the city to ashes. "What on earth happened?"
Katra filled them in. "They struck at sunrise; there was no warning. Obviously, our guard defended right away. However, their leader Strato was highly skilled..."
Hunter sheathed his sword and shield. "I can see that by now. What were they after?"
Katra shook his head. "I wish I knew...but they did mention something about a 'key' of sorts. They also attacked the Gallery, taking its artifacts before burning it down. And given our resistance, Strato made the decision to burn the entire place down. Our guardsmen were falling; and we were getting quickly outnumbered; we couldn't stop them. It's a miracle you showed up when you did..."
Hunter looked at Katra. "Did you catch that device he hit me with?"
Katra shook his head again. "Not at all. However, it's obviously Ancestral... he could've taken it from the Gallery. I didn't even know those things could still be functional...let alone him knowing exactly how to use it..."
Marcus looked at Hunter. "Whatever that device Strato had, it packed quite a punch."
Hunter nodded. "Obviously..."
Marcus looked at the burned foundation that had previously been the Gallery. "Attacking the Gallery...this is a new low for the Dragon's Fist. Normally, they don't dare attack anything historical. Did they kill any civilians?"
Katra looked back. "That's the only bright spot there is in this whole dang mess. They killed our entire guard save myself, but otherwise, they didn't harm a single soul. They allowed them to escape the city in total safety..."
Marcus nodded. "At least they haven't changed in that respect; they still prefer clean strikes. Attacking the Gallery, though..." Marcus glanced at the Gallery's rubble. Norset's Gallery was a building similar to Alexis's museum, but a bit on the smaller scale. It had comparably unidentified Ancestral artifacts foraged from the Catacombs in the nearby mountains. However, with the Dragon Fist's strike against it, only its foundation remained--every artifact it previously had inside was stolen by the Dragon's Fist.
Hunter looked at Katra. "What did Strato want with your sword and that medallion?"
Katra produced his sword, showing it to Marcus and Hunter. "This was my father's sword. Strato recognized it, somehow. He claims of killing father in combat. That's more than likely; after all, he did die in combat against the Dragon's Fist."
Hunter examined it. "A finer blade, I've never seen...."
Katra nodded. "Apparently, where my father moved in from, their swords are very well-crafted. Against its blade, lesser swords break clean in two."
"What about the medallion?"
Katra sheathed his sword and drew his medallion. "This was my father's before he died. He gave it to me when I was young; he said to keep it with me for as long as I live. Call it a family heirloom, or something...that's all I know."
Hunter examined the medallion. "I don't recognize anything like it. Any idea where your father--?"
"No...", Katra interrupted. "My father wasn't native to these mountains; nor was my mother. They were both from a city called Nathos."
Marcus shook his head, and with Hunter, they said almost in unison, "Never heard of it."
Katra nodded. "Neither have any of the academics, here or abroad. But I know that city exists--or existed, whichever the case may be. Someday, I'll find it."
Marcus nodded. The smoke from the burning buildings was beginning to thin as the fires began to run out of material to burn. "There are many places left in the world that have yet to be connected. To say that it doesn't exist...would be naive."
Hunter remembered something. "Earlier, you said that they were looking for some Ancestral 'key'. What do you know?"
Katra shook his head. "Not much, I'm afraid. They were looking for a specific artifact, which is why they hit the Gallery so hard. They believed that they could find it...whatever it is."
Marcus thought for a moment, looking at Vrynn. "I see Strato has a companion of his own; a gryphon named Talon. That will complicate matters, quite a bit...because if he can do this much damage on his own, how much more could he do with the full power of the Ancestors behind him?"
Hunter and Katra looked at Marcus in shock.
Marcus continued. "The population fled eastwards, right? About a half-day's travel east and we can reach Lancaster. With any luck, we can find our city's populace there. They might hold some information."
Hunter nodded. Katra spoke up. "But first, to bury all the bodies. I lost all of my comrades today..."
Hunter glanced back at Katra, putting his hand on Katra's shoulder and smiling. "Not all of them..."