© 2001-2002 Draconus / Stratadrake of NEWST
"The Caves of Hell?"
Bragg nodded. "Yes. Strato lit up as soon as I told them about the resonating crystal they had found in it. I'd guess that Strato is seeking such a gem for his own uses, if there is indeed one other at all in there."
Hunter nodded. "I wonder one more thing, though. Do you remember the two men Strato picked a fight against?"
Bragg looked elsewhere for a moment. "They were both Nathians.... I've seen one of them before, he's a regular traveller around here, but the other one, no; I've never seen the other one before. Strato didn't mention any names, either. What are they to you?"
"A bit over a week ago, a dear friend of mine was abducted. We have reason to believe the Nathians were responsible for it. And if you have any more information, we'd be most grateful."
"Aha; so it's not just Strato you're searching for, then. I've given you the information that I have; from his reaction, I do believe Strato is going to try spelunking the Shoshone Caverns."
Hunter nodded again. "Thanks anyway, sir. We'll find more information on the way."
Hunter, Marcus, Aurex, and Vrynn and Argent, then exited outside. Hunter stopped Aurex for a moment. "Tell me one thing, Aurex. What were you talking about when you referred to us as 'rangers'?"
Aurex smiled. "It's a ... compliment. What was the name of the force you work with on your side of things?"
"The Honor Guards?"
Aurex nodded. "Yes, that. When you described exactly what it is that such a profession entails, I thought to myself, 'you know, you sound just like the Rangers'. Especially when you mentioned the ranger, Draconus of Nathos. Everything you described about those honor-guards you are with is a near-perfect mirror for the Rangers. When we get to Sareille, you'll be able to meet a few of them."
"Right. I also wonder -- how far is it to Sareille?"
Aurex pointed northwest. "Only about an hour's travel to the border, and then only a few hours after that to the capital of Verdun. However, it'd be best that we stay here for the night. The road travels through a bit of swamp, and the weres can be particularly dangerous at night."
Aurex took them to Calcutta's library to dig up a local bestiary. He flipped through chapter after chapter of encyclopedia, past the listings of animal species that Hunter and Marcus had never seen before, and eventually reached the chapter on swamp-dwelling animals. One of the last sections in the chapter dealt with the weres.
The techincal name for such creatures is were wolf. As Aurex described them, weres are one of the most dangerous animals that can be found in swampy climates. The overall shape of a were is best described as the canine equivalent to a cheetah. Creatures such as weres are built primarily for speed: their legs are noticeably longer than other canines, their torso longer and slender than normal canines, and their claws somewhat shorter. The maximum running speed of a were can be estimated at about 45 to fifty miles per hour, although they can overheat from sustaining such speeds for more than a few minutes.
Weres prefer cool, moist climates because when they need to cool off, nothing beats having a quick bath in the water. They are also strictly nocturnal, and because they strike almost without warning, a large number of rumors exist. The most fantastic, and (not surprisingly) most easily disproved rumor is that an injury dealt by a were either kills the victim, or transforms it into another were. Truth be told, weres prefer biting their prey because their claws are short, and often dulled from travelling; but their bite is no more or less dangerous than any other -- although, admittedly, anyone gaining the magical ability of transformation and choosing a were could abuse such ability to further that rumor. Yet another rumor is that the only way to slay a were is with some implement of silver. While weres can be killed by any number of weapons or attacks, it has been proven that weapons plated with silver do indeed stand the best chance of slaying a were, for the element of silver reacts strangely (which is to say poisonously) with the weres' body chemistry.
Because of the local were population, citizens of Calcutta strongly caution visitors against leaving the city at night. Even so, a well-armored group of hunters can easily take down weres, for their greatest defense is their speed and agility. Requato in particular have proven to be the most reliable hunters for taking on weres, and in another room in Calcutta's library, a stuffed were was on display as a trophy from some hunt long ago.
There was one other dracan in the library at this time of day, and when he noticed Aurex, he came over quickly and greeted him. "Aurex of the Council, are you not?"
Aurex turned his attention to the other dracan. "Ah, Lark. What brings you to this place and time?"
Lark bowed quickly in front of Aurex. "I was given a message from the Council to you." Lark unstrapped a scrolled letter from his belt and handed it to Aurex. Aurex broke its seal, opened it, and read as Lark filled Hunter and Marcus in on some of its details. "The Council sends their thanks, first and foremost, for your apprentice's report of Khatalus. However, they do not accept the conclusion of dragons destroying the city. Our delegations have talked to the dragon shires, and none claims any knowledge of or responsibility for the city's fall. You know the dragons; they don't lie except to save another, so the Council has all reason to believe that the dragons were not responsible."
Aurex rolled up the letter. "It is a dilemma, all right. Khatalus has been levelled, and the responsibility falls somewhere in the world. The question becomes, if the dragons are not responsible, who else could cause such a pattern of destruction?"
Aurex turned to Hunter and Marcus. "I'm sorry to leave you, but this is a matter I must tend to myself. The Council is always skeptical of secondhand information; had I not been training an apprentice I would've investigated it myself. You should make your way to Sareille; you can find the Rangers there and they can assuredly help you locate your missing friend. Argent...?" Aurex gave out a dragon call to Argent, and Argent followed him out.
Lark looked at Hunter and Marcus. "You must be the strangers that Aurex's report was talking about. What do you think of Calcutta?"
Hunter looked back. "It's, certainly ... different. We're still adjusting to seeing other races, like yours and the cats."
"Enjoy your stay while you can. Aurex feels there is a bit of war in the air, signalled by your arrival. All of us hope it to be fear and rumor, but with recent conflicts like Nathos and Catalonia, and now this at Khatalus, many are worried that it could happen again."
Hunter nodded as Lark gave a farewell and left the building. Marcus looked around. "It's getting late outside, Hunter. They say it's too dangerous to venture out at night around here, so we'd best stay in town, and get going tomorrow morning."
After leaving the library, a short walk around town was in order. Then, they checked in at the High Land's Inn and arranged for a stay at one of the top rooms. Dinner was served as part of the price paid for the room, and it was delicious -- even Vrynn enjoyed his meal.
There was only one bed in the room they had rented, and it was settled that Hunter would have it. Marcus gathered a few mats from the other end of the room -- which, preumably were for the other species, since they did smell a bit like reptile and cat -- and used them to make a matress of sorts. The night sky was clouded over, and a hint of cold was in the outside air.
Hunter had a dream that night.
Marcus looked back at Hunter. "It's about time you awoke, Hunter. Sleep well?"
Hunter blinked a few times. "Marcus? Oh. Must've been a dream...."
Marcus looked back with a little bit of interest; sharing dreams was one hobby that the Antare family had pride in.
"I know this may sound crazy, but that dream was quite something else. There was you, myself, and Katra. I don't remember what, but we were running from some force or something. It was underground, and fairly dark. Then, suddenly, you stop and tell us two to go ahead without you, that you would hold off the enemy and catch up later."
Marcus smiled. "That hardly sounds like me at all. The best way to fight a foe is in numbers, after all. ...Was Vrynn there, too?"
Hunter shook his head. "Not at all. And that's not the only thing that was strange. Katra and I both had different uniforms over our armor. I couldn't identify the symbol on them, not even on a bet. And you... this is going to sound very strange, but you were dressed in similar armor as Strato."
Indeed, it did sound strange to Marcus. "Anything else?"
"Only one other thing, Marcus. I was holding the Atom Blade itself in that dream, and you were holding something like Strato's Shock Bow. You had said something like, 'this isn't a conversation; now go!', and Katra had said something like, 'he's made his decision, Hunter, we have to respect it'."
Marcus nodded silently. "A most interesting dream, at that. What it means, or whether it means anything at all, is something that no one can predict. But..." Marcus stood up to stretch his legs, and then shook Vrynn gently to wake him up. "If we're to be in Sareille sometime today, it'd be best for us to leave early, after breakfast."
Hunter nodded, and after Vrynn finished his morning stretch, they went downstairs.
Apparently, breakfast was also included in the fare they paid for the room. Pan-cakes were on the menu; except for Vrynn, naturally, to whom Bragg served some smoked fish. "So, Rangers, what have you on tap for this day?"
"We're heading toward Sareille. Aurex said that we can gather some information there about my missing friend. The sooner we find him, the sooner we can resume our search for Strato."
The room fell silent for a minute at the mention of Strato's name. Suddenly, all ears were on Hunter and Marcus, if not all eyes. Bragg leaned forward and spoke to Hunter quietly. "Do be careful of what you mention around parts like these. Strato's one powerful man at that. If he thinks of you like he did those two Nathians just yesterday, you're in for a fight. And Strato rarely loses his fights."
Bragg leaned back. "But aside from that, you best be careful when you head out. It's snowing out there since last night, measuring about ten to thirteen inches all over. Winter's set in a bit early this year, and it's quite nippy out there. And there also be some reports of a strange monster sighted near Sareille."
"Aye. Mostly rumor so far, only a few blackened areas of dirt and bark lying along the road to Sareille. It's just started occuring recently. A bit here, and a bit there. The news spreads fast, but the facts behind them do not."
"Thanks for your concern; we'll watch out for anything suspicious." Hunter and Marcus had finished their breakfast by now, and Vrynn was already ready to leave.
Hunter and Marcus received a similar, but much shorter, warning from the town guard as they left through the north gate. The road to Sareille would be a few hours long. Thankfully, according to the map, there would be a small hamlet about halfway there that Hunter and Marcus could stop at to rest.
The roadway to Sareille was the only snow-free surface in the entire swampy forest as Hunter and Marcus made their way northwest. There was a bit of wildlife noticeable every now and then, but nothing large and/or foolish enough to attack this group of two humans and one wyvern.
The only punctuating aspect of the trip so far was a few trees that were down and blocking the road. The trees weren't a fresh fall, though; there was snow lying on their trunks as if they had been felled for at least a few hours. Of particular interest was the exact way in which the trees had fallen. Something had cut them down. Neither Hunter nor Marcus knew what, but the peculiar thing about the cut-marks is that they did not have any saw- or axe- marks on them; it was as if something had burned them down.
Hunter and Marcus climbed over the fallen trees to continue their journey, oblivious to a black-cloaked figure, about two hundred feet off, watching for a moment before turning and walking away.
It was not too long after that where Hunter and Marcus arrived at the small hamlet. It was a somewhat eccentric-looking house in the midst of these woods. Hunter and Marcus decided to break for lunch at this place, so after seeing the sign on the door saying "Visitors welcome -- please come inside", they entered the house.
As things turned out, this house was also a bit of a small inn for weary travelers, run by a capable family of six, largely hunters but also part farmers and traders. But it wasn't the shape, color, size, or anything else about the Inn that seemed odd. It was the patron standing near the counter that looked most out of place. It seemed to be some sort of bird that Hunter had never seen before, standing roughly as high as a human, its -- or one should say, his -- wings folded against his side, his tailfeathers tucked neatly together, chatting with the owner. The owning family wasn't human either, but Requato. The dazzled expressions on both Hunter and Marcus's faces right then were worth a fortune in sterling. This must be the reason for the inn's eccentric appearance.
From the reprimand Hunter had received from the way he had first greeted Aurex, Hunter knew better than to ask a stupid question like exactly what kind of creature was standing at the counter; he picked a more general greeting to give. "Afternoon..., sirs."
The owner greeted them with a smile. "And a glorious white afternoon to you humans as well." The other, bird-like creature merely cast a single glance at them and a somewhat strained "Hello", before turning back to finish his conversation with the owner.
"So, you've heard the latest news, yes? First that dragon-slayer is spotted in Requato's Calcutta, and now they fear something's out there in the forest causing trouble."
"Correct. Raqui's been asked to help clean up the fallen trees, he's taken the cubs with him to help out as well. Merchants can't exactly get through when trees block the path."
The other creature nodded. "That be not my business, you know. Flying is easy, walking... now that is tiring. ...Wouldn't you agree, humans?" He directed that last comment towards Hunter and Marcus.
Hunter looked back. "I don't think we've been properly introduced, sir..." Hunter gestured at the creature, hoping for a name.
"My parents named my Skylark after I hatched. And that kitty is a friend of our families, you may call her Tiara."
Skylark was an individual of yet another race that Hunter and Marcus had never seen before; such large, bird-like creatures are called Aerissans. Although Skylark's wings were folded,those wings could easily measure ten, twelve, or even up to fifteen feet of total span. The shape of an Aerissan is so extremely bird-like that a single, first glance at them failed to identify them as anything other than an unusually large bird. The distinguishing physical characteristics of an Aerissan can be difficult to spot at first, but they are there. Aerissans have noticebly longer legs than other soaring birds (like eagles); each leg can easily measure about four feet in length from toes to hip. Their tailfeathers are also arranged in a forked, "swallow-tail" shape, rather than the rounded "fan" of feathers that most other birds have for a tail. Even their wings carry a distinguishing feature. Although not entirely visible at the moment, all Aerissans have a three-fingered claw at the wrist (similar to the dracans' arm structure) that is easily used for carrying objects. Much like the dracans and requato, Aerissans are clothed in so many feathers that they do not need anything else to wear (especially armor, which would be too heavy to fly with). Such a race was crafted to be the master and ruler of the lesser birds, and the seeming 'sparkle' in their eye gives the very same sign of intelligence as do human eyes.
Aerissans are a fairly devout race, and until but recently, they had kept strictly to their own kind, away from humans, requato, dracans, dragons, all the other most intelligent races. Even the recent socialization of their race was initially not of their choosing, but due to outside influence such as the dracan shires. Since then, a number of Aerissans have formed structures reminiscent of cities; but due to their flying nature, their cities and villas are often built in forests on the very trees themselves, so while visitors of gounded races like humans and requato are hestitantly welcomed, one visiting an Aerissan nestshire has to be careful that not to fall off. The Aerissan's increasing contact with other races like human and requato make their bird-like physiology even more odd in comparison. But even by now, in cooperation with dracans, aerissans have been able to fashion a number of harnesses that they can carry small items in without disrupting their ability to fly.
After that brief introduction, Skylark seemed a bit more at ease. "Sometimes, we keep forgetting that we have to share the earth with you humans as much as we have to share our skies with the dracans. If you'll excuse me, but I must wing it back home, or my mate will get worried." Skylark walked to the door and pushed it open, then pointed back with his other wing/arm at the owner. "You may want to watch out, yourself. Those trees weren't felled naturally, so there is something out there these days -- the only question is exactly what. It may be just a human playing tricks, but times like these you never can be sure of even that much."
Skylark then walked outside and took to the skies as the door shut behind him. Tiara sighed and thought for a minute to herself. "His kind is still a bit indignant in matters that involve both our societies. But down inside, he does care about us. He fears that the rumored monster somehow poses a threat to families like ours, and by threatening us that monster is threatening him as well."
Hunter looked back at Tiara. "Has anyone actually seen the so-called 'monster', or is it just speculation?"
"Speculation, mostly. The humans say it they have seen it a few times, but all their stories took place at night, when it is dark -- and you humans don't have the type of night-vision that we do. Our kind hasn't seen it what so ever, and neither has any of the dracans. If we had , we'd have been able to give a positive identification of exactly what it is."
Tiara changed the subject. "So then, travellers... if I may ask, where are you headed today?"
"To the capital city, Sareille, and then to find the 'Rangers'...."
"The Rangers--?", Tiara asked with an amount of surprise. "Why, then, you should've told that to Skylark. He works for the Rangers, gathering information and helping them however and whenever he can -- it's a surprise that he hasn't enlisted to be a Ranger himself."
Hunter was a bit surprised at the news, but nodded anyway. "We saw a few of those felled trees on the way here from Calcutta. Nothing could've caused it naturally, not even a lightning bolt. Something burned a clear cut-line through them to make them fall and block the road."
"On the way here, correct?" Tiara asked. "That's nothing compared to what lies on the road ahead. There's a sharp cliffside that marks the border to the plateau of Verdun country. It's nigh impassible unless you can fly over it. The road through there has been clogged shut with an unimaginable lot of felled trees; Raqui and the cubs are helping out the other humans to clean it up, but even so it'll take about a week, maybe two. Whatever or whomever blocked the road to Sareille, it did a thorough job of it."
"Is there any other way to reach Sareille?" Hunter asked.
"You'd need to ask Raqui that question. He's the hunter in our family, goes out training the cubs as well, and he knows the wilderness around here like the back of his paw. Just head northwest along the road and you'll find him at the border."
Hunter nodded. "Thank you for your information, madame."
"No," Tiara responded, "Just call me Tiara, like everyone else does. And you three take care, yourself. Something's amiss out there, and if it can block the road so well in just one night, it has to be dangerous."
Hunter and Marcus nodded as they left. Hunter looked at Marcus once they were outside and said softly, "I don't know if 'll ever truly get used to seeing quite so many, well, non-human races as these."
Marcus nodded, looking at Vrynn for a moment. With a wyvern for his companion, Marcus was better at adjusting to such sights and creatures. "I wouldn't worry about it, Hunter. After all, this is a different world from our own -- there are bound to be things different about it, elements that appear strange. But in the end, we're as strange to this world as it is to us, and it's as normal to them as ours is to us.
"There was one traveller back in Norset that filled me in on one of his secrets about avoiding culture shock. He said that whenever you find yourself lost, immersed in a country or culture that is truly different, the first step is to establish what he calls an 'anchor'. Instead of worrying about all the differences, find one thing that is constant between there and your home: that thing becomes your anchor, and then you aren't so lost or different anymore.
"Look at Vrynn, Hunter. He can't tell the difference between our world and this. This world and everything in it, including all those different races -- for all Vrynn cares, he thinks it still is our world. Every thing that may be strange to us, it is all normal to him, just like it is to everyone else. He is constant between one town and the next, one country to another, even between our world and this one. So, ultimately, he is my anchor in this world, and has been that way almost as long as he's been with me to begin with."
Hunter looked at Vrynn. Somehow, the inquisitive look Vrynn returned to him, as well as Marcus's statements, had an oddly therapeutic effect -- perhaps this world wasn't so strange after all.