© 1999-2001 Draconus and Stratadrake of NEWST
Burying the fallen members of the Norset Honor Guard took the remainder of the day to do. Marcus and Vrynn teamed up to dig gravesites for each of the bodies--twelve guards and twenty mercenaries--while Hunter and their new friend, Katra, helped to organize the mess. For each of the guardsmen they buried, Marcus constructed memorial crosses out of some wooden boards that somehow had escaped the blaze. The mercenaries received no such honor for their graves--such is the tradition given to mercenaries and other criminals.
By the time they had finished burying the 32 casualties, it was already sunset. Although all of Norset's buildings had now burned to the ground, they were still alight and smoldering, throwing smoke up into the air and casting a faint glow from their embers. In addition, the moon was bright in the unclouded sky, so although it was night, it was not anywhere near dark. The Twin Spires were absolutely spectacular with the starlight and moonlight reflecting off of their surfaces and onto the area below.
Hunter built a smaller fire for their own, and Marcus shared some of the rations he had packed. Vrynn was momentarily gone to hunt up a meal of his own, and afterwards he returned with a killed hawk in his grasp. As the three sat down by the fire, Marcus sat silently, trying to think about what to do next.
Hunter turned to Katra. "You're pretty young for the Honor Guards. When were you enlisted?"
Katra nodded. "Entrusted is more like it. Mother died when I was four years old; and when I was six, Strato killed father in an attack on Norset. The Honor Guards took me in after that." Katra thought for a moment; being about twenty years of age himself, those events were but fifteen and ten years back in time.
Marcus spoke up. "Fifteen years ago, I heard that the Dragon's Fist struck Norset, breaking into the Gallery and robbing it of a few Artifacts."
Hunter turned to Katra. "Do you remember that?"
"How could I not?" Katra looked back. "Father identified Strato for whom he was and came to arrest him. Strato, of course, fought back while his comrades made it safely out of Norset.
"That was father's final battle. It was amazing; and if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I probably still wouldn't believe that it actually took place. Strato fought with some sort of Ancestral weapon--a sword with a blade made completely out of fire. I'd bet anything that it was an Ancestral weapon of sorts taken from the Gallery.
"Father fought back with this sword." Katra pulled out his sword from its sheath. "I don't know how he did it, but somehow, when father wielded this sword against Strato, it glowed with the same kind of bright flame as well. The civilians often referred to it as a dark angel battling against an angel of light.
"After about an hour of duelling with no signs of tiring, Strato faltered long enough, and father ran him through. Strato fell to the ground, and should have died. But as if by some evil miracle, he didn't. Right as father was about to sheath his sword and declare victory, Strato managed to get back up. Strato dealt him a lethal wound, piercing him straight through the heart with that evil blade.
"You could hear a pin drop as father fell, dead, to the ground. With his wound, Strato couldn't leave the city on his own, so he called out for that gryphon of his. He was able to escape in complete safety; no one else even dared think about challenging him."
Hunter looked at him. "I'm sorry."
Katra looked back. "Don't worry; there was nothing you, me, or any of us could have done back then. It took weeks before I could even get the image of that fight out of my head."
"And after that...?" Hunter asked.
Katra nodded. "Father's last wish was that I keep his sword, and the golden medallion I showed you previously. Naturally, I wanted to do something about father's death. After that, the Norset honor guard took me in and trained me how to serve, and how to fight."
Marcus tossed another piece into the fire. "Even after all these years, the townsfolk have never forgotten such a battle. In fact, the few of Norset with artistic flair memorialized that battle through art. If the Gallery still stood, you could have seen what the battle was like. It was as if two Ancestors themselves were fighting against each other."
Hunter looked back. "Any clues about Strato's blade? Or your father's...?"
Katra shook his head. "None at all...and I researched it better than anyone. There were only two such blades made by the Ancestors. One was called the Atom Blade. And the other was called the Dragon Buster. Unfortunately, there's nothing else mentioned in history or legends about them.
"As for father's blade..." Katra withdrew his blade and held it flat, in both hands. "What you see here is what it is. Well-crafted and strong, but it's hardly a weapon of legend, like Strato's blade."
Katra re-sheathed the sword. "And now that I think of it..." Katra looked up at the stars. "Today reminds me of a dream I had. About a week ago. I dreamt that a large, black dragon attacked Norset. It set fire to all of the buildings and devoured all of the guard. Except me; two shining warriors rode in and scared it off."
Hunter looked at Marcus. "I guess we can call that a prophecy. Norset's completely destroyed, all of the guardsmen gone, save you, and us coming to your rescue."
Marcus was star-gazing. "Perhaps..."
Katra looked at Marcus. "See anything interesting?"
Marcus looked back. "Just counting the stars.... According to legend, when Judgement Day arrived for the Ancestors, the very stars themselves fell from the sky, like rocks."
Katra looked at Marcus. "And yet we still have a sky full of stars, too? Pretty interesting."
Hunter responded. "Many an academic has tried to count the stars at night. Even today, they've never figured out just how many are up there."
Marcus nodded. "The night will be a peaceful one. No wild animal dares to approach a scene of destruction like this town. When daylight comes, we should hit the road eastwards towards Lancaster."
Hunter and Katra agreed, saying good night.
Once again, when morning arose, Marcus was the first one awake. Hunter was the second, and Katra slept in, almost until midday. Marcus was forging some more arrowheads from the charred rocks surrounding the campfire and Vrynn was stretching after the night's rest. Katra was very refreshed after the night, and Hunter was ready to go.
"Everyone ready to leave?" Hunter asked. Katra nodded, and Marcus packed his arrowheads for later work. They left Norset as a group, heading east on the route to Lancaster.
The route east out of Norset was a nice, sunny route. Trees had long been cut down and cleared aside to make a highway suitable for large merchants and some caravans; the route cut through a mild, green forest as would a river. Though mostly downhill, travel to Lancaster would still take many hours by foot. At their speed, it would be nightfall in Lancaster by the time they would arrive.
After about three hours of travel, the group arrived at a junction between their route and another route travelling further north. The northern route would take them out of the country and into another; the dividing line was placed at a large earthen bridge across Windfall river, twenty miles north of the junction. Windfall River got its name from its waterfall-like structure. On one side of the bridge, Windfall River is but fifteen feet below the roadway. One the other side, however, Windfall River is a whopping one hundred feet below the roadway. Right at the bridge, Windfall River forms a waterfall of sorts between the high and low ends. Although water falls freely down the falls, it does not fall straight down. Instead, its waterfall flows along at a steep elevation of perhaps sixty degrees. A deep pool is immediately at the low end, and many a thrill-seeker has opted to raft down the waterfall for a ride. Fortunately, none of such riders has ever been killed while going downstream at that point in the river. It is unknown by what means Windfall River should hit a sudden slope like it does; or by what means it can simultaneously be covered by an earthen bridge, but plain observation mandates that it is indeed so.
Now the cities of West Falls, Alexis, Norset, and Lancaster are all in the same legal country, known as Suthcross. Lancaster is the capital city of Suthcross, and expectedly, is somewhat even larger in size than West Falls. The ruling government of the country is headed by kind king Leonardo Rutherford de Suthcross. From him, the country's government is split up into three parliaments: the Merchant's, Warrior's, and Resident's House. Each one, given separate and yet overlapping jurisdictions by the king, makes country-wide laws for Suthcross's four (now three) cities. Aside from the king, declarations and rulings regarding conflict and war are settled by the Warrior's House; negotiations and trade are settled by the Merchant's House, while other legal matters are handled by the Resident's house and passed to the individual cities. Although ruled from the top, Suthcross's government is largely representative in the sense that it is up to the local city authorities to enforce the countrywide laws, and that each city's government attends a bi-annual meeting in Lancaster as the Resident's House to discuss local issues.
Lately, the Dragon's Fist has become one of those issues. While they legally remain within the jurisdiction of the Resident's House, many have called that the Warrior's House settle the matter and decide whether to formally attack the Dragon's Fist. Deemed as a threat to commercial interests and not a threat to national security, the Dragon's Fist is still viewed simply as a band of organized brigands, rather than the terrorists they are. The Dragon's Fist has always been a group of mercenaries, but it was not until thirty-five years ago that they came to their full power under Strato's leadership. Before then, the Dragon's Fist's activities were generally small-time threats and banditry, but now, their activities have become more openly hostile to their enemies, and their methods of banditry have become a grave-robbing of sorts. Fortunately, the Dragon's Fist never kills indiscriminately. As evident from their attack on Norset, they kill only those who would dare stand in their way. Civilians, and for those others who would prefer to submit rather than fight back, the Dragon's Fist allows them to live, and does not harm them in any way, shape, or form.
About two years ago, Namros, a country far north of Suthcross, declared war against the Dragon's Fist. After but one battle, the Dragon's Fist retaliated and skillfully assassinated their king. Still, Namros kept its declaration, and after another battle, the Dragon's Fist countered with a full assault on Namros's military, and wiped almost all of them out. Even still, when the country kept its war declaration and fought back, the Dragon's Fist intensified their own assaults. Within four months of that war, the Dragon's Fist had besieged Namros's capital city, obliterated their military, assassinated their government, and left Namros a shattered country, whose remnants were soon assimilated by other countries. Namros itself was soon forgotten from the public minds, to be remembered only in historical documents and records.
After much more travel, Hunter and group arrived at Windfall Bridge. Unlike the earthen bridge at Suthcross's northern border, Windfall Bridge is a man-made, metal-and-wood construct that spans Windfall River. At this intersection, Lancaster city is five more miles eastward. However, it would not be visible until within two miles distance due to the forest and a small hill. Katra stopped at the rail of the bridge for a moment. Hunter looked back. "Anything the matter?"
Katra sighed. "Norset."
Hunter walked up to Katra and leaned on the rail with him. "I see... it must be tough to lose one's home."
Katra nodded, silently. "I keep thinking back to yesterday. Maybe... if only I..."
Hunter stopped him. "If only it could have been different? We all wish that everything can turn out to the best." Marcus stopped at the end of the bridge, looking back; Hunter gazed out along the river. "However, remember that it could always have been worse."
Katra looked back. "What do you mean...?"
Hunter smiled. "If we had arrived sooner, things could have turned out for the better. But if we hadn't arrived when we did... Strato could have killed you. So, in its own way, perhaps things turned out for the best anyway."
Katra thought about it. "I never thought of it that way. I guess you're right."
Hunter nodded. "Every time a battle ends, both sides go home thinking of ways they could have fought better. Hindsight can be a real danger in itself. But no matter what we think up, we still can't go back and change the outcome of it. We have to continue onwards, no matter what cost is paid."
Katra looked at Hunter. "How long have you been in your guard, anyway??"
"About fifteen years, give or take a few." Hunter was about thirty years of age himself--three years older than Marcus and ten years older than Katra. "Right now, I'm the most experienced guard member in West Falls."
Katra laughed for a moment, and pushed Hunter back, smiling. "Get out of here...! I've been in the Guard for about fifteen years myself, you know. So don't go acting like a superior around me."
Hunter laughed back. "My apologies." He looked back at Marcus. "Anything else, Katra?"
Katra nodded. "Last night, I had a dream...or maybe you could call it a nightmare. I was fighting a dragon..."
Marcus stopped at the end of the bridge and looked back. Katra continued. "It was like my fight against Strato. He was overpowering, and I was the one falling. Except that in my dream, we were fighting almost as my father did against Strato--blades of fire clashing against each other."
Marcus called back. "Excuse me, but even if they existed, how could any dragon wield a sword?"
Katra smiled and shook his head. "That's the thing that doesn't make any sense. But in light of Norset's destruction and Strato, it got me to thinking." Katra pulled out his medallion. "Strato recognized my medallion on sight. He must know something about it."
Hunter nodded. "At the very least, he'd recognize it as your father's."
"I know that... Father called it a sign of heritage; perhaps some symbol of allegiance, like a flag or uniform. But for Strato to recognize it so easily, he must know something about where my father came from."
"Draconus of Nathos...." Hunter pondered. "No one knows of such a city."
Katra looked back. "Except Strato."
Katra suggested an idea. "I'd bet just about anything that Strato knows where to find Nathos. For that matter, the Dragon's Fist could possibly have wiped it off of the map. Either way, the next time we must fight against Strato, I will ask him about Nathos."
Hunter smiled. "Considering how well he fights, that may not be an easy thing to ask."
Marcus called back. "Are you two going to talk all night? The sun is beginning to set. If we don't make it to Lancaster before long, we might have to camp out here and head there in the morning."
Hunter looked at Katra. "We've spent enough time talking. It's but a few more miles to Lancaster; we're almost there."
Katra nodded. Hunter walked across the rest of the bridge to where Marcus was waiting, and Katra followed. Marcus led the way as they travelled the last leg of the road to Lancaster.
Night had already fallen by the time they reached Lancaster. The nightservants were busy lighting the last of the city's lamps and streetlights, giving Lancaster a slight orange glow in the star-filled night. Lancaster is the only city besides West Falls to be lit at night, due to the expenses associated with streetlights and oil. As such, some of Lancaster's more public structures--including the guard, outer castle, and court--are open all hours of the day and night. In most other cities, only their local inns are open all hours; almost all shops and even the museums shut at nightfall.
While Hunter and Katra checked in with the night officers at the guardhouse, Marcus went to rent a few rooms at one of Lancaster's inns. Two of the inns had room for them to stay, but with Vrynn at Marcus's side, only the Starlight Inn would allow him to rent. Fortunately, they had a large group room vacant, so Marcus checked them in there. After succeeding in renting a room, Marcus headed back to the guardhouse to find Hunter and Katra. There was a guest at the guardhouse besides Hunter and Katra.
It was Shane.
Vrynn hissed yet again when he saw Shane, and promptly hid behind Marcus. Shane looked back in question. "Marcus Antare, that companion of yours still doesn't like me."
Marcus nodded. "As much as I can try, he just doesn't abide by some people, Shane. What brings you here to Lancaster?"
Shane looked back. "I don't think you've heard. As I just told those two, King Leo put out a public request for all available guardsmen from our cities. The Alexis Chief told me to head this way as our representative for whatever the occasion is."
Hunter nodded. "The Courier's Guild received an airmessage from West Falls earlier today; they want me to represent the West Falls Guard."
Katra smiled. "And, as if I had a choice, I'm going to represent the Norset guard."
Marcus looked back. "Right; you are the Norset guard."
Hunter reprimanded Shane. "And speaking of Norset, you should've been there for the Dragon's Fist strike. You could have helped us defend their guard."
Shane shook his head. "We received word yesterday. I'm sorry to hear about Norset."
Hunter still looked back with stern. "Indeed; you don't like to miss a fight. It's dang unfortunate, your Chief's timing. As much as I don't work well with you, Shane, we could have used your help yesterday."
Shane apologized. "Indeed; I don't like working with you either. However, that will not happen again."
Marcus stepped in. "You two back off from each other. There are better ways to pass the time than to argue with each other. We should get some rest for tomorrow."
Shane looked at them. "I'll be staying here for the night. King Leo wants all the guardsmen to be at the courthouse tomorrow, midday; the Warrior's House will be delivering a message from King Leo. As for you, you'll want to find a place to stay yourselves."
Marcus nodded. "Already have. The Starlight Inn is holding a room for us three on their top floor."
Marcus left the guardhouse first, followed first by Vrynn, then Katra and Hunter. They headed back through Lancaster towards the Starlight Inn and checked into the room Marcus had rented for them. As it turns out, when Marcus rented a room on the "top floor" of the Inn, the Innkeeper meant just that; the top floor--in other words, the roof. Ironically, it was perhaps the only place in the Inn large enough for three soldiers and one wyvern. Fortunately, Marcus was well-acquainted with sleeping outdoors; aside from the occasions in Norset where he would spend a night at his own residence, few Innkeepers would allow Vrynn inside their inns. At least the roof area was partially enclosed by a few awnings and tarps, which serve to provide shelter from harsh weather. Even so, the Innkeeper allowed customers to rent the roof only during warm, clear weather.
Hunter set up a bed with some of the blankets and paddings that the Innkeeper had set near the stairway for their use. Katra did so as well, setting up across from the stairs, and Marcus took the rest of the paddings for both him and Vrynn, setting up two beds in the center of the area. Vrynn curled up on his bed for some rest. Marcus sat down on his, as did Katra. Hunter remained standing. Marcus looked back. "Anything before I say goodnight?"
Hunter looked at the skyline of Lancaster. Lancaster Castle was easily visible at its distance from their height. "I sure hope that the Warrior's House will bring good news tomorrow. Personally, I'd rather not see King Leonardo start another war."
Katra nodded. "You said it. I, for one, have seen enough fighting in the last few days."