© 2001-2002 Draconus / Stratadrake of NEWST
It was mid-afternoon when Hunter and Marcus reached the border of Verdun country. The cliffsides rose to about one hundred fifty feet, and the slope of the embankment was very steep -- even straight up in spots, making it a wonder that a road could be carved through here at all.
Tiara's statements were correct, for a large number of trees and timbers had clogged the winding, twisting roadway up the cliff. The roadway followed a path that had long been etched into the cliff from past rivers and streams , but as things stood right now, the road could not be traversed.
A large pile of timbers had already been carved up and extracted from the mess; these were given to merchants for sale as firewood. Still, despite that this amount came to about four cords of wood, there was still at least thirty times that much remaining. Something had clear-cut all the trees within two hundred feet of the roadway and used them to cover it.
A Requato was visible near one of the piles, resting from the day's work. It was Raqui, Tiara's mate. He stood up as Hunter and Marcus approached. "Afternoon, humans. Planning on going to Sareille, are you?"
Hunter gave an affirmative response as he examined the extent of the damage. "We were planning on reaching Sareille, but it looks like the weather has something else in mind."
"How I wish we could accommodate you. But as you clearly see, we've got a long job ahead of us. The bordering people of Verdun are working on the other side, trying to help clear away all this mess. But there is a lot to do, so the going is slow. Even at our fastest, it would require us about five days to clear this mess, from the looks of things."
"Is there any other way to reach Sareille?"
Raqui laughed at the question. "Of course there is! It all depends on how much time you are willing to spend on such a journey. Could you fly, you'd be there in a blink. Or you could wait for us to clear up this mess. Otherwise, your best bet is to travel westward around the cliffside; you can take a shortcut through the upper levels of the Shoshone Caverns."
Something about that name was definitely familiar. Raqui continued directions. "Or, you could make a day's journey eastward across the cliffside, where you can reach Fort Dracovera and find another highway leading up. It's up to you."
"Shoshone Caverns...? Aren't those what they call, the 'Caves of Hell'?"
Raqui smiled at the response. "Ah, yes, you've heard about them, haven't you? Their upper levels are almost fit for travel, but their lower levels run miles underground. Many a party has tried to explore the lower depths and become lost. Only one expedition, set out to reach the lower depths, has ever returned other than empty-handed. There are a lot of stories about crystals and treasure, but the Caves are a dark place; a dark place indeed."
Hunter and Marcus conferred for a minute, before deciding to take the eastern route to Fort Dracovera. They could hear Raqui calling out to his cubs as they made their way eastward and slightly north, alongside the cliff. It would be sunset soon.
"I have completed my tests," Falknyr said as he walked outside towards Katra. "Anything new?"
Katra shook his head. "Well, then, there is something you have to see. Come inside." Falknyr invited Katra back inside.
Once inside, Falknyr lay Katra's medallion down on the table. He pointed at a number of crystals that had been magically energized; each was glowing with a different amount and intensity of color. Then, Falknyr picked up one crystal -- glowing with a bright, fire-red color -- and showed it to Katra. "Most of the samplings came out exactly as I had expected them to. There are much the same energies and powers in your medallion as were invested for Draconus: the Sword, armor, and use of fire. But this one, it is different."
Falknyr handed the crystal to Katra. The color of glow was familiar, but he couldn't place exactly what from. "It ... feels familiar; but I can't identify it."
Falknyr began looking through his journal entries. "Expectedly, the analysis of your sword revealed the same trace of energy. It's an unfamiliar type of magical energy. Do you have any idea where it came from?"
Katra was not paying attention as he held the crystal in his hands. Something about it was familiar, indeed. But exactly what?
Falknyr found one of his recent entries. "When I saved you, I had to withdraw a significant amount of energy from your medallion. I thought that your ordeal sprouted from resisting the transformative energies in the medallion. I sent an inquiry to the experts in the Council, asking if my suspicions were correct. Just a few days ago, I received their reply. Their answer was a 'no'."
Katra looked back. "If the answer is 'no', what was the question?"
"I asked them," Falknyr began, "if resistance to the transformation energy could cause actual, physical harm. The answer was 'no'."
Katra returned his attention to the crystal he held, trying to remember where he had seen and felt that type of energy before.
Falknyr continued. "It is a common assumption that the ritual of transformation, since it requires questing for the necessary ingredients, is exempt from the limitations placed on transformative magics. But according to the experts in the Council, that is a mis-conception. It still uses transformative energy, after all, and is therefore still subject to those limits. They reminded me of the fourth and final stage of the transformation ritual -- the actual receiving of the transformative energy. Even that can be resisted, and if so, the transformative energy dissipates harmlessly, and the preparations of the ritual come to naught.
"Ah, here it is." Falknyr examined a number of equations written down on one page of his journal. He compared them to a page with other handwritten equations scribbled down recently. "All magical energy has its composition. By analyzing that composition, a signature formula for that specific energy is produced. It is like a fingerprint -- no two are alike." Falknyr compared notes, and soon was surprised at the results. "By the stars...!"
Falknyr put his hand on Katra's shoulder to get his attention. Startled, Katra whirled back and threw the crystal entirely across the room in a rage, missing Falknyr by but a few inches. The crystal shattered when it hit the wall, and the energy stored inside burnt a sharp hole through it in less than a fraction of a second. A faint odor remained hanging in the air.
Falknyr was surprised. "What the--?"
Katra walked over to the hole in the wall. The color, the smell, it definitely did feel familiar. "I.... I don't know how, much less why, but I remember this. I've seen this energy before...." Katra searched through his memories. Something about the smell of burnt crystal and fiery-energy spurred his memory. "The desert! Border...."
Falknyr looked at Katra with interest. Katra tried recalling his memories of Border. "We had just finished putting Strato on trial, and we were assigned to guard over him until his execution. After that..., it was sometime during the night, but a metal monster named Andrake broke in, through the walls, released Strato, and then came after us. And me.
"That's it!!" Katra looked back at Falknyr. "That's why I recognize this energy. Andrake used his sword, the Atom Blade, to slice through the metal bars in the jail. That peculiar smell of burning, the fiery color -- I didn't realize it until now. That is the same energy as in the Atom Blade!"
"You mean the weapon that Strato was using the other day, correct?" Falknyr asked. Katra nodded.
"Well...", Falknyr said, "You probably weren't listening to what I said. I've compared the signature trace of that energy to the signature trace of energy I had to dispel from your medallion when I saved you. They are the same. Signature traces are the fingerprints of magic -- identical signature traces can only happen when two magical energies being compared are one and the same."
Katra looked back. "What does that mean?"
Falknyr nodded. "When I last wrote to the Council, I also included the signature trace of that energy. They couldn't identify it exactly. Even more strangely, they couldn't determine what element to classify it in. All they could determine was that it was a hostile type of energy. Son, remember what I first said about what happened to you?"
Katra nodded. "You said that resisting the energy had caused me harm."
"Right. But according to the magical experts, that was but a half-truth. Resistance to transformative energy does not, and reportedly can not, cause such physical harm such as what came to you. This second, deeper analysis offers a second perspective." Falknyr pointed at the hole in the wall where Katra had thrown the crystal earlier. "There may have been another energy involved: a hostile energy. As I said, when a medallion's energies are transferred to a new owner, they are transferred in their entirety. And wherever that hostile energy came from, its release may have been what caused your pain and ordeal. The question becomes this, then: That hostile energy is not natural to any medallion, or any known magic, otherwise the experts would have been able to identify it. Where did it come from?"
"I'm not sure yet," Katra replied. "It's Atom Blade energy, that much is for sure. But...." One of Katra's most painful memories resurfaced for a moment, and Katra flinched from the feel of it. "Wait a minute. The desert city, Border. We fought against the monster Andrake, but he was too strong. The last thing I remember that night was Andrake attacking me with the Atom Blade...."
Katra fell silent for a moment as he sifted through the memories of Border. "Next thing I remember, a week had passed, I was lying in the bed of a clinic while Marcus and Hunter were watching, and talking about my sword, and my medallion. According to Hunter, Andrake had... he had tried to...." The memory of Andrake's near-fatal strike was still too painful, and it was impeding Katra's ability to speak it out. "...to, run me through, with the Atom Blade. And the doctor said... that if it weren't for my medallion, I'd have ended up dead.
"My medallion, Falknyr. Andrake must have hit the medallion with his Atom Blade. Could that...?"
"... transfer hostile energy into the medallion?" Falknyr completed Katra's question. "I've never heard of it happening, but technically it is possible to forcibly imbue magical items with other, non-natural forms of energy. If that's what happened -- if the Atom Blade did somehow transfer a hostile energy into your medallion, then the release of that hostile energy could cause great physical harm, or even death. So, yes.
"That is what the evidence from my latest analysis implies. That pain, the ordeal you went through; it couldn't have been caused by any normal energies within the medallion; it had to come from an outside source -- like perhaps the Atom Blade you refer!"
Falknyr's explanation answered a lot of Katra's mental questions, except for one. "But then, Falknyr, that still doesn't explain why I was able to deflect the Atom Blade yesterday at Calcutta. How did that happen?"
Falknyr put his journal away. "The theory of magical fields makes a possible answer. By this theory, every energy of magic exerts a field of magical force around it. This causes reactions in other magical fields. But, while magical fields come in innumerable varieties and signatures, one characteristic of the field theory remains constant. If two individual, but identical, magical fields try to pass through each other, they collide, and stop each other." Falknyr withdrew a rather large volume -- one inch in diameter -- from his bookshelf. It was labelled The Mordecai Field Theory -- concepts and explanations. Falknyr pointed at it after setting it down upon his desk. "As you can imply from the size of this volume, the magical field theory is quite large and complex. Few wizards have been able to comprehend the type of genius that produced such concepts and theory as this."
"Falknyr, you haven't answered my question yet."
Falknyr smiled. "As I said, multiple instances of identical magical fields do not pass through each other. They collide, deflect, and repel.
"Now as for your medallion and sword: Both of them now contain the same type of energy as is in the Atom Blade. An identical sort of energy. And when a field of that energy encounters another field of the same type of energy, the two fields collide, and deflect."
"Could you say that in ordinary terms?"
Falknyr gave a short laugh. "In ordinary terms: Apparently, your medallion acquired a noticeable portion of the Atom Blade's magical energy field. You could say that it was 'energized' by the Atom Blade. First and foremost, the release of that absorbed energy would've killed you, had I not been there. But, also because of that stored energy, your sword acquires similar characteristics to the Atom Blade.
"So what you're saying is," Katra started, "that now, my sword has become--"
"--A kindred soul to that Atom Blade itself, as well as your armor, too -- so the Field Theory dictates," Falknyr finished. "Does that answer your question?"
Katra nodded. "Yes. If Andrake returns to fight with us, I think the odds will be more in our favor than the first time we fought him.
"But I have one last question. The release of that energy, it... if it could have killed me, and that energy is still stored inside, then could it happen again?"
Falknyr thought about it. "That, unfortunately, is beyond my powers of analysis. It could either be yes or no -- only time can tell."
Falknyr stood up and walked over to his bird's nest. "Son, there is one more thing I should show you."
"What is it?"
"Get some rest while you can. Tomorrow morning, we're leaving for Nathos." And with that, Falknyr swiftly transformed into his phoenix form and bedded down in his nest for the night. Katra agreed to get some rest as well. The next day would be quite a memorable one.
The stars shone brightly above the forest where Hunter and Marcus had set up camp for the night. The fire was burning quite warmly, despite the cold weather and snow that was still on the ground. Vrynn was already asleep, curled up near the fire. Marcus kept an eye and ear out for any creatures of the night who may draw near. Hunter was at the other end of the fire, catching some rest. They were quite off of the forest's roads and trodden paths, but considering that the quickest route to Sareille was impassable, they had few other options. No dangerous animals or other creatures had drawn near during this night in the forest; not even a cloaked, shadowy figure observing from about three hundred feet off and fifty feet up a tree.
The morning air was crisp and cold, but that was to be expected considering the remaining snow. The sky was clear and the sun was rising from the east. Hunter was the first one awake; Marcus was resting a bit himself, and Vrynn was still asleep. Hunter doused the remains of the fire in snow and dirt. It didn't do any real good considering that the fire had already burnt out during the night. But doing so did awaken Vrynn. Vrynn slowly got up and uncurled, giving his wings a deep stretch before trotting over to Marcus and waking him up with a few nudges.
"How was the night watch?" Hunter asked. Marcus looked back. "It was quiet last night. I hate it when it's quiet."
Hunter nodded. "Snow muffles the sounds of footprints, after all."
Marcus shook his head. "No; not that kind of silence; the other kind."
"Oh...." Hunter knew exactly what 'other kind' of silence Marcus was referring to. "Shall we be going, then?"
"Indeed, we should." In a few more minutes, Marcus was ready to go.
The only landmark they passed as they continued along the cliffside was a frozen waterfall. The winter sun glistened off of its icicles with crystal clarity, reflecting its light in all directions, creating and eliminating virtually all shadows and casting a plethora of miniature rainbows across the river. Fort Dracovera was only a few more miles distant from the waterfall.
This city, as things turn out, is a bit of a historic site. According to history and legends, it was in ancient times a military base of operations, right next to the battlefield where the White Dragons defeated the five ancient demons and sealed them away. Since then, the meadow that was the battlefield has been kept clear to serve as its own memorial. This particular field has an air of sanctity about it. No crops are grown on it, no roads progress through it, and nothing is built upon it. Right at the edge of this field is where the fort lay.
Dracovera lies in two halves. The eastern half is popularly called the "human sector" of town, and is where the human portion of the population lives. The museum, shops, and even the Inn are set up in this area. The western half of Dracovera is partially built into the slopes marking the border of Verdun, and is called the "dracan sector" for good reason. Although the eastern half of Dracovera is larger in size, it is the dracans who make up the majority of the population, over two-thirds. The western half of Dracovera has a very "dragonesque" feel to it, evident by the number of small caverns carved into the side which are used as lairs for the local dracans. Indeed, the western half of Dracovera is universally considered a shire in its own right, and while the other races (especially humans) are not forbidden from entering that half, few non-dracan individuals even stop by on their way from one place to another.
Nowhere could the unusual mix of population be more evident than at Dracovera's Inn. Inside was a virtual zoo of clientèle -- humans, requato, dracans; even the aerissans, who were talking among themselves in one end of the room. In addition, there was a notable, although small, number of animals in the Inn as well, each staying close to their master. Despite the crowd, the main room was not crowded -- it was evidently a public restaurant as much as it was an Inn. Three families -- one each of human, requato, and dracan -- are responsible for its operation and the caretaking of its guests.
One figure seemed out of place as Hunter and Marcus stepped up to the counter for some service -- and Hunter nearly fell over his feathers. It was Talon, and Strato wasn't too far off either. Talon backed off with a small growl as they took their place at the counter.
Apparently, Strato was ignoring them; Hunter felt it best that they do the same for now. A few glasses of water were given to them free of charge by one of the innkeepers. "So, travellers, what can I do for you?"
To Hunter's relief, this innkeeper was human. "We're on our way to the city of Sareille, and stopped by for a rest. I wonder... are things always this busy?"
"It's only because of the trees blocking the roads to Verdun country to the southwest. Most travellers don't like trekking through even the upper regions of the Caves of Hell, so they take the other detour and stop here on the way through. 'Tis good for business, but it's a lot more traffic than the locals are used to seeing; we've got the town guard on primary alert status so that we don't get any troublemakers."
"Any interesting stories to tell?" asked Hunter.
"There are many; far too many to be saying them all in such a short time. Some say they've spotted a strange figure out on the plateau of Verdun, having no idea of exactly who or what it is."
"--Any idea where that one is going, sir?" interrupted Strato.
Hunter and Marcus stood up, being taken slightly aback at that statement. Hunter was ready for a fight if Strato was. "This isn't your conversation, Strato...."
Strato stood up and looked back. "But it is my concern, and I'm making it my conversation."
"And why is it of concern to you?" asked Hunter, ready to draw his sword at a moment's warning.
"Stand down, Hunter. I did not come here this time to pick a fight."
"I can't accept that, Strato."
Strato nodded sternly. "If I wanted to spar with you, why haven't I done so already? On any other day I would have. But today, you are not my enemy." Strato looked back at the Innkeeper. "So what have you heard about this shadow figure? Where is it going?"
The Innkeeper shook his head. "I'm sorry, sir Strato, but there have been only two confirmed sightings so far. That's not enough to establish a pattern of movement. I don't know."
The other clientèle were slowly clearing out of the room. Hunter looked back. "What concern is that 'shadow' to you?"
"It's no shadow, none whatsoever. I don't care how, or why, but two nights ago it got the drop on me. An irony that I myself could be ambushed! It remained only a second or two, but in that time, it stole off with the Atom Blade. I don't think it even knows how to use it, but none the less, I will get it back. Now stand aside, Hunter--"
Strato shoved Hunter aside with one arm, and marched out the door of the Inn, Talon following him.
Hunter chased Strato out the door. "Strato!" But Strato was already out of sight, presumably having used Talon's wings to fly off in some direction.
Marcus followed a minute later with Vrynn. "Let him go, Hunter. Besides, what could we do? This isn't our world, let alone our country. You've heard what all the locals have said about Strato. His reputation on this side is spotless; we do not have anything to charge him with."
Hunter sighed. "As much as I hate to admit it, you're correct yet again. I guess I am still angered over Strato deceiving the Honor Guard."
"And besides, we have higher priorities right now: Katra."
Hunter nodded. For a moment, he had nearly forgotten about their missing comrade. "Right -- let's move out."
Hunter and Marcus made their way west, first through the dracan sector of the city and then on the roadway leading up the hill to the plateau of Verdun country. The air was clean, and the forest was pleasantly quiet, and Sareille was but a day or two's journey still off. The sky, having been clear earlier, was now clouding over, and it was starting to snow again. So forth proceeded Hunter, Marcus, and Vrynn down the road travelling west. And although they could not see it, the black-cloaked assailant was watching them as well.