I pulled myself out of bed early the next morning and gave my back a good stretch. The beds in the rooms set aside for weary travelers at Twinspur Haven were not quite the same quality as my bed back at the hall. They were constructed as a simple wooden frame, but sturdy. The mattresses were thinly stuffed with straw, feathers, and other scraps of unidentifiable materials that I didn’t want to think about. However, the furs covering my mattress were soft and warm, and I managed to get a decent night’s sleep for once.
Quint was already down in the fort’s courtyard, feeding Michi a quick breakfast of roasted meat leftover from last night’s meal. The red drake devoured it in an instant and licked her thick chops with her reptilian tongue. I offered Quint a polite “good-morning” when I reached the bottom of the stairs and slung my pack over my shoulders.
We continued our long journey north through the Shiverpeak foothills to Clarkus and Alena’s location at Rugnar’s Steading in Cragstead, a norn steading in the northern foothills. During my quick trip to the Vigil before leaving, I found out that Clarkus and Alena had been stationed there to assist the locals with a recent problem. The Vigil declined to comment on exactly what the problem was, despite my incessant prying. It seemed they were getting as bad as the Order with their secrets.
Our journey was surprisingly uneventful, and was in fact, quite pleasant. The sky remained clear for us, and the road was mostly free from snow, as well as from the Sons of Svanir who liked to roam the lands here. If it weren’t for the nature of our journey, it would almost seem as if we were merely taking a hike in the mountains. Quint and I even enjoyed some friendly chatter, avoiding most topics surrounding the blade. I almost felt guilty, enjoying the break for once. However, the euphoria didn’t last long and the reminders of what was hanging over my head flooded back into my mind. I scolded myself immediately for not being able to enjoy the peace while I had it.
Thanks to our uninterrupted trek, Quint and I made excellent time, and we neared Cragstead later that day before the sun started sinking into the hills. A bank of heavy cloud cover had begun moving our way, and I was thankful to have shelter waiting for us nearby. When the clouds moved in here, they often brought with them a flurry of snow and high winds, washing the entire environment in white. It made it near impossible to travel.
The lull in our conversation was interrupted by a series of sharp hisses. “What is it, girl,” Quint asked Michi who was darting her head back and forth, obviously agitated by something. The great red drake began walking in circled around Quint and I, all the while hissing at the air, as if there was some unseen foe hiding somewhere nearby.
I rested my hand on my axe’s pommel and surveyed the area around us, only finding a sea of white, with the exception of a traveling ale merchant passing us on the road. I reached out with my senses, to root out any hiding enemies, but didn’t pick up anything beyond our own racing heartbeats. Despite Quint’s efforts, Michi would not settle down. Her hissing grew intense as her tail whipped violently back and forth.
“There’s nothing out there,” I reported, still sweeping my gaze all around us. “I don’t get it. What does she see?”
“I don’t know,” Quint replied with an edge to his tone. He tried holding the great drake down, but her scales were slick, and she slipped right out of his grasp. She ran a few feet away, turned back towards us, and continued hissing. “Could just be a rogue scent carried in on the wind.” Rising to his feet again, he looked back at me and shrugged.
Michi’s incessant hissing and uneasy movements were starting to put me on edge as well. Her behavior was dictating that we were in danger, yet there was nothing out there that we could see. I glowered at the drake and resisted the urge to stroll over and give her a forceful nudge with my boot. Instead, I began pacing.
“What is her –,” I started to growl, but my words were forcibly stalled as the snowy ground beneath me uttered a sickening crack and gave way. Reflexively, I pulled my axe from my belt and tried jamming it into the icy wall, but it didn’t completely catch, and I went tumbling down into the icy crevasse. I landed on the cold ground with an undignified grunt. Dull paint shot through my right side, where I landed, and ached as I tried to roll myself onto my back, which really wasn’t much better since I still had my pack on. I closed my eyes and sighed, wondering how many of its contents were broken. Even though I hadn’t been able to completely stop my fall, my axe had slowed me down enough to prevent my fall from being near fatal.
There was a thud and I heard a groan next to me. I slowly turned my head to find Quint on his back, tangled in his cloak, and holding his arm tight to his chest. His dagger lay on the ground next to him, the blade broken at the tip.
“Are you okay,” Quint inquired as he glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. He may have been trying to hide it, but I could tell by the way he massaged the arm he held close to his chest that he was in pain. With a few quiet words uttered in prayer to his patron goddess Melandru, Quint lowered his unhurt hand to the icy ground, and a well of pale green light emanated beneath him. The adviser let out a sigh of relief.
Grunting, I pushed myself up into a seated position. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I half-lied as I assessed my wounds. One by one, I moved my limbs. They weren’t happy, but they weren’t broken. I had a number of bumps, bruises, and irritated joints that were going to be screaming at me in the morning, though. Slowly, I got to my feet and gathered my axe that had fallen from my grasp when I hit the ground. With a quick wave of my hand, a dark mark appeared in the ice beneath me, and waves of dark, healing energy poured out from its center and washed over my pain ridden body. Relief washed over me. It would get me by, for now. “You?”
“I’ll survive,” Quint said as he got to his feet, picked up his longbow, and threaded himself through it to rest it across his shoulders. He looked up above us, at the opening we fell through and I followed his gaze. Michi was peering down at us through the gaping hole, circling it and trying to find a way down to us. She let out short, staccato, hisses as the edge of the opening started to crumble, so she backed up out of sight.
“I guess Michi was right,” I conceded as I holstered my axe and bit back a curse when I discovered tears in my cloak. “We’re going to need to find a way out of here.” I looked back up at the opening we fell through. The cavern walls were covered in rough patches of ice, dirt, and rock, but the surface smoothed closer to the opening. It was going to make climbing near impossible. “I don’t think we’re going back the way we came.”
Aside from the initial spot where we stood, everything was shrouded in shadow. “You by chance have a torch or something on you,” I asked, placing my hands on my hips. Quint pulled off his pack, tossed it on the ground, and started searching through it. He pulled out a wooden torch that had been sanded smooth and decorated with simple Norn carvings. “Planned for everything, I see.”
He flashed me a grin as he lit the torch with a pair of flint stones from his pocket. Soft, warm light spilled out all around us, making the dark around us even more murky, but as we started to explore, we found that one of the sides extended into a tunnel large enough for three people to walk through shoulder to shoulder. We were uncertain where it led, but we wouldn’t get anywhere just standing around, so we followed the tunnel, careful of the icy terrain and anything possibly hiding in the shadows. I pulled my axe from my holster and kept a white-knuckled grip on it.
An icy breeze howled through the tunnel, adding to the creepy ambiance in the small space. The sounds of our boots striking the ground echoed off of every surface with each step we took, and made it harder to decipher any enemies or creatures that might be coming our way. After a short while, the tunnel curved from its straight path and headed downwards. My stomach turned.
“I don’t like where this is heading,” Quint said. He looked behind us and then to the path ahead. “We should be heading up, not down.”
“I agree,” I said, tapping the flat side of my axe against my leg. “Where in Tyria do you think this goes?”
The adviser shrugged. “It’s hard to say,” he said while sweeping the torch along the wall. “Also, difficult to say what made this tunnel. The walls are rough though, like maybe something dug through.”
“I don’t know if I want to know what exactly,” I said, glancing along the rough walls that were softly illuminated with Quint’s torch. I could have sworn I saw the light catch the edge of a few deep claw marks and I shuddered. “Maybe we should pick up the pace.”
“Agreed,” Quint nodded and we both quickened our steps.
As the path descended downward, the air grew colder, and we were greeted by another soft breeze that softly howled through the tunnel and tousled the torch’s flame. It also brought with it the sharp, metallic scent of blood. The small hairs on the back of my neck stood up on end when I spied a strange, shadowed lump on the ground ahead.
I reached out and grabbed Quint’s arm. “Wait,” I said, stopping both of us. I flashed him a concerned glance.
“What is it?”
“There,” I said, pointing ahead. “Bring the light ahead of us.”
Quint swept the torch ahead of us, bringing light to the unidentified object. From where we stood, it looked like a body, large, like a norn’s. I stepped closer and motioned for Quint to follow. The scent of blood grew stronger as I neared, and as I reached out with my senses, I heard no heartbeat.
“It’s dead,” I said relaxing my tense shoulders a bit. “Shouldn’t give us too much trouble.”
“Looks norn,” Quint pointed out as he approached and nudged the large, stiff body with his boot, pushing it over onto its back. “Male, by the facial hair.”
A thick, dark beard covered the norn’s pale face and his eyes were milky white. A pool of browning blood had saturated the ice under the body. He had been dead for quite some time, but for exactly how long, I couldn’t be sure. However, my concern was more with how he died.
“Nienna, look at these,” Quint said as he lowered the torch to the ground. The soft light illuminated a strange set of tracks near the body and I crouched down to get a better look. “You can see the norn’s tracks here,” he said, pointing out one set, “and these here, they look like grawl prints, but,” he paused for a moment, scratching his head, “malformed.”
A scuffle echoed in the tunnel ahead and I froze where I was crouched, my eyes locked on the dark tunnel ahead of us as my heart leapt up into my throat. Slowly, Quint reached for his bow and handed the torch to me.
“Don’t make any sudden movements, just in case,” Quint warned me. He pulled back his bowstring and an energy materialized in the form of an arrow in the open space.
Rising from my crouching position, I took it with my free hand. In the darkness ahead I thought I saw something move, and I adjusted my grip on my axe, preparing for a fight.