© 2001-2002 Draconus / Stratadrake of NEWST
Hunter, Marcus, Kindra, and Vrynn looked around at the cave they had passed through long ago. The portal was stil active, its shimmering surface showing an image of the other side, where Aurex was still standing. Aside from the light emitted from the portal, the rest of the cave was dark. The pedestal in the center of this cavern was still there, with the three Ancestral keys in their place. The air on this side felt familiar, yet somehow different.
Hunter led the way past the crumbled wall that once hid the entrance to this room. The path continued its winding way upwards, and after a few minutes, it gave way to the large, open cavern lined with crystal along each and every wall. It would be but a few more minutes to the surface.
The weather turned cold as they left the cave and walked back out into the open. The wind was howling from east to west, and snow was falling in flurries. Kindra looked around. "If I remember right, Glacier Village was just a little bit southeast...."
Hunter unfurled his mantle into its cloak to bundle up against the colder weather. Kindra was a bit chilled in this wind, but he would be all right for a bit of travel. Marcus was dressed for this weather already, and Vrynn couldn't care less. Hunter led the way southeast.
Though it was only three miles, the falling snow made it seem like ten. The snow limited visibility to about one hundred feet, and with the snowfallen white scenery surrounding them, it was difficult to see any further down the path than about fifty. Nevertheless, they forged their way back along the path they had once come, making a beeline for Glacier Village.
Something seemed to be up about two miles down the path, and in this weather it was difficult at best to determine even if they were on the same path they had first travelled. This path diverged south for a moment into a creek-bed, dry except for the snow, between two folds of snowy hill. Though the wind in this immediate location was slow, it gained exceptional chill as it rebounded off of the nearer, snowy surroundings.
On closer inspection, it was easy to see that a large rock had fallen from one of the sides into the creek-bed, blocking it. Hunter identified it for what it was, then they climbed up onto higher ground to traverse around it and continued east by southeast.
About thirty minutes later, as the snowstorm was quelling, they arrived at Glacier Village and stopped by at the Inn. The Inn seemed to be a bit busy today; Hunter could identify two distinct groups of clientèle -- one group was definitely locals, the other group was a number of travelling soldiers. They probably belonged to some military group. There was a small silence, a number of quick glances, and one longer glance in their direction as the three humans and one wyvern entered the Inn and took seats at a table near the counter.
The Innkeeper greeted them in another moment. "You're the ones who stopped by few weeks ago for a bite to eat, right? I rarely forget groups who bring their pets along for the ride. How's the trail been?"
Hunter folded back his hood and looked at the Innkeeper. "It's been a very long journey, indeed."
"So, where are you headed?" asked the Innkeeper.
"Have you heard anything about a monstrous creature called 'Andrake'?"
There was an unusual silence from one of the clientèle groups at the mention of Andrake's name. The Innkeeper scratched his head and thought. "I've heard stories that some wicked monster attacked the desert city across the ocean, and that it sank a cargo ship en route from there to this continent. But I haven't heard anything of it since; things are a bit ... different these days."
The group of travellers, having concluded their business, left the Inn quietly to continue their own journey. The Innkeeper turned to wish them a farewell before turning his attention back to Hunter. "Is there anything you'd like to get this day?"
Hunter thought about it and asked around. Marcus chose a small dish of meat for himself, as well as a small steak and feathers for Vrynn. Kindra declined the order, for he was not hungry. Hunter ordered a small dish of the soup du jour as well as a few sips of Merlot.
It was about five minutes until their lunch was served. Hunter and Marcus enjoyed their order, and Vrynn happily chowed down on his. Kindra sat thinking, staring off into space at no one in particular.
But then Kindra smelled something. It wasn't Vrynn, the fireplace, or anyone else in the room, but something closer. Kindra couldn't quite put his finger on what the dreadful smell was, but as he darted his eyes from one possibility to another, it was clear that the thought of it was immensely occupying his mind. As Kindra looked around, it seemed as if the peculiar odor was coming from somewhere close by. Somewhere about table-level; but Kindra had a hard time focusing on any one thing in that direction.
Kindra returned his gaze elsewhere, but the smell intensified. It was becoming a bit of an unnerving smell at that. Glancing at Hunter and Marcus, Kindra realized that they hadn't noticed it, not even remotely. Exactly what was it?
Kindra nearly went into a silent panic. The smell seemed quite strong now, and almost unconsciously Kindra's mind was narrowing down the possibilities of what it had to be. Kindra had not only lost his appetite, but the smell was beginning to turn his stomach as well. Kindra turned to one side and looked out the window, but that didn't help any. It seemed to be a smell of fear, a smell of death. but exactly what was it? What unnamed smell could harbor so much power over him?
Kindra felt a hand on his shoulder; Hunter had noticed Kindra's unquiet and tried to ask Kindra what was wrong. Kindra didn't hear anything as Hunter called Kindra's name quietly, but when he felt Hunter's grip on his shoulder, Kindra whirled completely around, hitting something with his arm and then taking a few harried steps away from the table.
Kindra was breathing a bit heavily as he looked around bewilderedly for the source of the smell. It was beginning to fade now, and as Kindra realized this, he began to calm down and breath easier. A moment later, Kindra could hardly detect the smell himself, and he could also hear Hunter saying his name.
"Hunter?" Kindra asked back.
"I, I...," Kindra stammered. "I don't know. Nothing," Kindra stated. It was an obvious fib at best.
Hunter looked back at the table. His glass of wine had been knocked over, the wine spilled onto the tablecloth and absorbing into the fibers. "What happened?"
Kindra walked back to the table and sat down. He had no sooner sat down in his seat than one of his hands had contacted a portion of the spilled wine. It felt like a sharp pain flowing through his hand to his head, a pure essence of that smell he had become unnerved with previously, and Kindra reflexively withdrew his hand in horrified recoil. "Hunter? It's that."
"What?" Hunter was puzzled. Hunter had ordered a glass of merlot wine the last time they were there, but Kindra never showed anything close to his latest reaction. Truly, there was nothing wrong with the wine itself -- it was merlot, pure and unadulterated. Given Kindra's reaction, Hunter thought it a good idea to take a step outside; Hunter had finished his meal anyway. Marcus was finished in another minute, and Vrynn was already done and ready to go.
They stood up and prepared to leave at that point. Marcus gathered the dishes and tablecloth, then put the whole bundle on the counter and told the Innkeeper that he would have to scrub the wine out of it. The Innkeeper smiled; this was evidently not the first time things had been spilled, and he knew quite well how to clean them. Regardless, Marcus paid an extra courtesy to the Innkeeper for the trouble.
Hunter and Kindra led Marcus and Vrynn outside. Hunter looked at Kindra seriously. "Exactly what happened in there?"
Kindra shook his head. "I'm not entirely sure. It smelled like fear, like death. I don't know why, either; but it was definitely the wine."
Hunter was still puzzled. "You've never reacted that way before. Could it be something new?"
Kindra thought of a possibility. "Falknyr stated that dragons often show fear of wine and ale. Could that be it?"
"You're asking me?" Hunter laughed. "You're the one with dragon traits, you should know."
Kindra shook his head again. "I don't know. Perhaps. Shall we be off?"
Hunter and Marcus both nodded. "Yes, we should."
They had hardly left Glacier Village but someone was pining for a fight. Four of the soldiers they had previously seen in the Inn blocked the road out as they approached.
Hunter prepared to draw his sword. "What is the meaning of this?"
"Halt right there!" One soldier stated loudly. "Do not provoke us, and there will be no trouble. Our scouts reported you emerging from the Portal Cavern close to here. Where did you come from, and why did you show up here?"
"What?" Hunter asked in surprise. Then, he introduced Marcus and Kindra. "I was born in West Falls, across the ocean. Marcus lived in Norset for awhile, and Kindra was born in Norset as well."
"Liar!" the soldier exclaimed back. "He is not from this world, is he?"
Kindra looked back. "Hunter speaks true; I was born in Norset."
"I don't believe you!" the soldier scoffed. "Stand down, and no harm shall come to you."
Hunter refused, and they readied their weapons.
It was unclear who struck the first blow, but in a heartbeat, a fight had erupted. Hunter and Marcus had soon beat two of the soldiers back, while Kindra was defending himself adequately against the other two soldiers. Hunter turned to help Kindra with his opponents, and they had fought the two back soon after.
Two more soldiers from the group approached to take the places of their defeated comrades. As Hunter's group sized the two up, another soldier struck from behind with one of his weapons. As the arrow plowed into the ground, it burst asunder and sent a large shower of snow onto Hunter, Marcus, and Kindra.
The three of them whirled around as that soldier, standing off in the distance, had strung and fired another arrow. The second one stopped short by about five feet and had similarly sent up a large plume of snow. The soldier, bow still armed, began walking forward. The soldier shouted something as he approached.
Hunter drew his shield. Almost instantly thereafter, the soldier fired an arrow directly into Hunter's shield. The arrow exploded as it impacted, throwing Hunter back and knocking Kindra and Marcus aside, where they found themselves cornered by the other soldiers in the group.
The soldier holstered his bow as he moved closer. "Well done, boys. Keep them in custody and notify the commander of our progress." The men then knocked Hunter, Kindra, Marcus and Vrynn unconscious with some form of powder.
There was no way to tell the location, the time, or even the date when Hunter came to. They were in a strange place; Kindra was leaning against one gray metal wall right next to Hunter, already revived. Judging from the decor, this must be a prison -- but where? Hunter's head was spinning; he had no knowledge of this location. Not that such knowledge could help him much, because there is after all much in their world that remains hidden, unknown.
Marcus and Vrynn were about twenty feet away in a different cell, still out. Hunter moved forward to the front of the cell until he hit what felt like an invisible wall. "Marcus!"
Marcus stirred. "ow, my head...." He then stood up on his feet and looked around. "Where are we now?"
"I have no idea," Hunter stated plainly. The colors of the cell walls were all black and dark gray metal. Pale white lights shone through the ceiling.
A minute later, a ray of light shone through the hall as a door opened. The shadow in the area indicated that someone was approaching, probably someone come to question them. The door shut, and then an inquisitor -- probably a high-ranking officer, judging from his armor and medals -- entered the hall. He appeared to be unarmed. He looked at Marcus's cell, then at Hunter's cell. Hunter looked back. "What have you done to us?"
"It is rather a question about what you have done," the inquisitor stated back. "Our scouts reported that you emerged from the Portal Cavern. Furthermore, it is understood that you re-activated the portal itself in order to do so. What do you want from us?"
"What are you talking about? I've said it to your men, we hail from this side of things."
"I don't believe you," the inquisitor said. "Your friend there, what race is he? We ran a few tests; he is most definitely not human. What is he?"
Kindra glared back at the insult.
"What is your interest in the portal?" Hunter asked.
"I am the one asking the questions, not you!" The inquisitor yelled back, the sound of it waking Vrynn. "Do you know what happened, long ago, when that accursed gate was opened?"
Hunter shook his head.
"I thought so. If you were really from this side of the world, you would know."
"Now wait one moment--!" Hunter objected. "That was not a fair question!"
The inquisitor snapped his fingers. "Guards!" Six men walked into the hall and opened the cells; they cuffed Hunter, Marcus, Kindra, and bound Vrynn, then proceeded to lead them elsewhere. "Take them to sector two," the inquisitor ordered. "You may kill them if they resist."
The soldiers led Hunter and his friends down one corridor after another. A higher-ranking soldier, wearing a cloak over his uniform, stopped them on way. "Where are you taking these prisoners?"
Hunter glanced at the higher-ranking officer -- there was something of a familiar glint in his eye.
"The major ordered them moved to sector block two."
"I've heard no such order. Leave, and I shall attend to them myself."
"Did I not give you an order? Stand back and I will take it from here."
The group of six officers stood back. The higher officer pointed at two of them. "You, and you -- bring the prisoners this way. The rest, leave."
The higher-ranking officer transferred them into an upper room. Interestingly, their confiscated weapons lay on a table in the middle of the room. He motioned the two other guards aside. "Return to your stations. I shall see things through from here."
One of the guards left. "With all due respect, commander -- what do you have planned?" Asked the other one.
The commander didn't answer. "Return to your station. Now!" The other guard gave a quick salute and left quickly.
The commander sighed as he closed the door. One by one, he freed Hunter, Marcus, Kindra, and Vrynn from their restraints. Hunter nearly punched him aside the moment his arms were free again. "What do you want with us?"
"Take your weapons," the commander ordered.
Hunter suspected a reason why, but still doubted the commander's motives. Either way, he grabbed his sword, bow, and shield, as Kindra took his sword back and Marcus reclaimed his bows and lance. Hunter looked back at the commander. "Why?"
"There will be time for explanations later. Come this direction!" The commander opened a door and led them out into another, darker hallway.
A guard in the hall noticed them and shouted in their direction. "Hey, what do you think y'--" the man started, but he was cut short as the commander pulled out a weapon -- similar in shape to the Shock Bow but of a different purpose -- and fired it at the guard. The guard fell down backwards, all but dead, as he was struck by the weapon's projectile.
The commander showed the rifle-like weapon to Hunter and Marcus. "Try to avoid getting hit by one of these. You'd rarely survive one hit, let alone two."
"Wait one minute--" Kindra interrupted. "Are you helping us? Whose side are you on?"
"As I said," the commander repeated, "there will be time for explanations later. Get down!" The commander shoved them back into the room as other guards rounded the corner, noticing their wounded comrade. No sooner had the commander jumped aside than the hallway was filled with a line of fire. Miniature fireballs -- for that is exactly what the projectiles looked like -- streaked across the hallway at speeds close to that of sound, and impacted against the wall.
"Damn," the commander said. He closed and barred the door, then rushed over to a weapons-locker. He hit several buttons on a small console and then opened the locker. He grabbed what looked like a bow and a set of arrowheads and tossed it to Marcus. To Hunter, he tossed a set of grenades. He looked at Kindra. "You have armor, right? Use it."
A shout of "they're in here!" echoed through the other side of the door, with sounds of many footsteps following. "Prepare for a fight," the commander advised.
As truth is, Hunter's suspicions were correct about this commander -- the officer was actually a double agent, appearing to work for the enemy while actually fighting against them. No other explanation, save for one, could prove true. The sounds of weapons being fired echoed through the door, and it was beginning to glow red. The commander drew a Shock bow and charged it up. "Wait for it...."
The door was now glowing redder as weapons were still being fired. The glow intensified to yellow, and it grew hotter.
"Wait for it..."
The door grew hotter, now turning to a white color. The sounds of firing stopped.
Then, the commander wasted no time as he fired the Shock bow into the molten-hot door. It burst from its hinges completely and flew out into the hall, levelling the soldiers who were planning to burn it down. Next, he switched back to the rifle-like weapon and fired a volley of several shots into the hallway to clear the way. He ran out into the hall and waved back. "Follow me, quickly!"
Hunter's group did as he said, and the commander led them down the hallway. He stopped immediately before the next intersection; more guards were coming. The commander grabbed one of the grenades he had given to Hunter. "Remove the pin, press down, then throw--" and the commander tossed the grenade around the corner. There was a bit of metallic clinking as it bounced off of two walls and rolled down the floor. "Grenade!" came a shout from around the corner, followed by the sound of a quick-paced retreat, then the grenade exploded.
The commander turned the corner and fired his rifle into the group of guards, killing three and severely wounding four more before they could react. He waved Hunter and everyone forward, and they rounded the corner after him.
This next passageway led up to a flight of stairs. Sounds of more guards coming could be heard from above. "You," Strato said to Marcus. "Fire a shot up there--"
Marcus drew the bow that the commander had given him and strung one of its arrows. He stood in the center chasm of the staircase -- for it circled around and up in a rectangular spiral -- and shot the arrow straight up. It flew for what must have been three or four floors before its momentum gave out, and it landed on a stair on its short way down, exploding. The explosion echoed throughout the staircase, and the commander led their way up, weapon drawn.
They were at the fourth landing on the staircase, about two floors up, when the commander decided to cover their tracks; he took his rifle and at point-blank shot each step below them at both ends, then kicked them loose to create a gap. He did this on his way up, removing about ten metal steps from the staircase, each step falling about twenty feet down to the bottom of the staircase with a clang.
A few guards rounded the above landing and took up firing positions. "Get back!" the commander ordered as a volley of red-hot projectiles slammed into the wall in front of Hunter, Marcus, and Kindra.
"What now?" Hunter asked. With the stairway below broken, and the stairway above guarded, there was nowhere to go.
Marcus returned fire with the bow and its exploding arrows, but to little effect. The commander heard sounds of another group taking up a position on the landing below them. The commander grabbed a second grenade, pulled the pin and threw the grenade down a level, where it exploded on impact.
The upper group fired another few shots down the stairs to their area, striking closer to them. It seemed that their hiding place was shrinking, fast. The commander soon had another idea, and he began firing his rifle in a spread pattern at the underside of the upper stairs. As they heated up, they began to bend and dip from the weight of soldiers on them, and a moment later they broke through, with two armored soldiers falling down for two complete floors and hitting the bottom. In that distraction, the commander rushed to the upstairs portion of the landing and opened fire on the other guards above them, clearing the way. "Come on!"
Hunter, Marcus, Kindra and Vrynn followed him quickly up to the next landing. They had a little bit of trouble climbing the next flight of stairs, as the commander had shot out several of those steps from below to provide a distraction. But from what remained, they were able to make it to the next landing, and continued racing upwards. There was another hallway, another corridor at the top of the staircases, and it led into a large open space of a room. The ceiling here was about fifty feet high; dim lights shone through the ceiling. Several doorways on two levels filled the nearest walls, and they were probably bunks or dorms. Come to think of it, judging by the quality of light and the concrete pillars holding up the catwalks on the upper level, this room looked a lot like the one in the Catacombs near Border where Strato had first unleashed Andrake. Indeed, the architecture was similar. A realization hit Hunter -- they must be underground! But something still felt odd. The Catacombs, as far as Hunter and even Marcus knew, were uninhabited, deserted. Yet this Catacombs-like area they were now in was inhabited by a fierce military group. Who were they? What did they want? Why were they here, underground? Where did they come from? And what-the-heck sort of power creates weapons that melt steel and kill in a single shot from tens or even hundreds of feet away?
The answer came to Hunter as clearly as the recognition of the room they were now in. This new enemy, they must be the very Ancestors themselves. And if not, then they must definitely be direct, loyal descendents of the Ancestors. And judging from their disdain of Hunter, Marcus, and Kindra, the enemy clearly believed the portal between worlds to be the cause of their trouble.
The commander fired his rifle at the nearest concrete pillar several times, weakening it. Making sure that everyone was out of the way, he then switched to the Shock bow and fired at the pillar from its other side, causing it to collapse and block the entrance. "That will slow them down for a little."
"Are we safe yet?" Hunter asked impatiently. The commander replied no, and then led them down one of the avenues in this room. Sure enough, they weren't out of the proverbial woods just yet, as a warning shot flew past them when they reached the center. Their enemies were behind them and coming through. Hunter and everyone took cover behind whatever they could -- pillars, walls, even what were once benches and other objects.
The commander stayed out in the open and fired his rifle in return. His accuracy was far greater than their opponents', as he killed five opponents in five shots at almost forty yards. Next, the commander led them out and upwards towards the main entrance to the Ancestral underground complex.
But they would first have to defeat the gargoyles, the stone guardians of Ancestral ruins.