There wasn’t enough time to recognize what exactly had come barreling towards us before it knocked me down on my back with the wind knocked out of my lungs. I remembered seeing a flash of something flesh-colored before the icy ground rushed up to meet me. Craning my neck back, I tried to catch a glimpse of what had come through, but it had already disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel. My head pounded from the collision with the ground and my ears were ringing, but I thought I heard the sharp sound of Quint’s bowstring. Coughing and forcing air back into my lungs, I picked up the torch resting on the ground and scrambled to my feet with my axe clutched tightly in my other hand.
“W-what was that,” I stammered, still trying to catch my breath. My hands started to shake and I readjusted my grip in an attempt to quiet them. I preferred to be able to see my enemy, but in the dim atlight we had, I wouldn’t be able to see them until they were right on top of us.
Focused, Quint readied another shot and pulling back on his bow string, another arrow materialized in the space. He let it fly, and it sailed out of sight, down the dark, icy tunnel. We didn’t have to wait long before we heard a dull thud, followed by an unearthly groan. Startled by the strange sound, I felt my heart skip a beat. I straightened myself and readied my stance before turning around to face the direction the attacker had disappeared, waiting to see if it would come back.
“Keep your eyes open,” Quint warned as he turned and stared down the tunnel where the attacking figure had come from. “There could be others.” Almost on cue, more shuffling sounds came in the direction where the creature had come from and the adviser readied his bow.
I took a few steps backward, keeping our backs close to each other as I watched the tunnel behind us. Heavy, dragging footsteps echoed off the icy surfaces ahead of me and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I readied my stance to face whatever was coming our way. I wasn’t going to let whatever was down there knock me on my back again. In the distance, I could make out the outline of a hulking mass that did not quite look human. As it neared, I started to recognize the lumbering body making its way towards us.
“It’s a golem,” I muttered, looking aside to Quint, who loosed another arrow down the dark tunnel behind me. The shuffling was growing louder and I could now slightly make out two forms moving in the distance.
A mighty roar rang out in the dark, followed by a shrill and tremulous voice. “Commander?”
“Alena?” Quint tentatively called out in reply as he partially lowered his bow.
I turned around, my attention pulled to the exchange behind me, and I forgot about the hulking golem heading our way until its heavy footsteps thudded directly behind me. I spun around and reflexively brought my axe up just in time to block a blow from one of the golem’s malformed claws. It’s twisted flesh and sinew glistened in the light from the torch, much like the ice covering the surfaces of the tunnel.
The hulking mass suddenly froze, then slowly lowered its arm, before sauntering between Quint and I to rejoin his mistress at her side.
“That was close,” I said, holstering my axe.
Alena gave her golem a reassuring pat on its arm as it lowered its head. Even bowed, the creature still towered over the asura by at least a foot. With a gentle word given by Alena, the large minion began to melt back into the ice until it was completely gone. The asura looked up at Quint and I, her crystalline eyes hardening. “What are you two doing here?”
“Looking for you, actually,” I said.
“Could do without the arrows though,” Clarkus growled as he pulled back a section of rough cloth from under his shoulder plate, revealing an elongated cut into his brown striped fur. Looking down his snout, he narrowed his eyes at Quint and huffed.
“My apologies,” Quint offered as he threaded his bow across from his chest, “didn’t know it was you.”
“You sent us away,” Alena said as her long, grey ears drooped. “Why are you here looking for us?” The hurt lacing her words was unmistakable and unfortunately, expected.
“I know I sent you away–,” I conceded, clapping my hands together in front of me, “but I was hoping we could go somewhere a little more comfortable to talk.” I casually gestured to the dead body off to the side.
“Oh no,” Alena murmured as she approached it. Kneeling down, she waved her hand over the body
“Another one,” Clarkus grumbled. He nudged the dead body with a thick hind paw. “Looks like it dragged him down here before killing him.”
“It?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
Clarkus and Alena exchanged an uncomfortable glance before the asura finally said, “uh, yeah let’s go somewhere else to talk.
We followed Clarkus and Alena as they lead us safely through the rest of the tunnel and back up to the snowy surface. The heavy clouds I saw earlier were now right above us and big, fluffy snowflakes had begun to flutter gracefully down. When we all had emerged from the tunnel, I stopped for a moment to listen to the soft sound of the snowfall. It was peaceful and for a moment, my thoughts only centered around how beautiful it was and nothing else.
In the distance, Michi came quickly waddling through the snow, her red scales sticking out like a sore thumb against the white of the snow. She quickly made her way towards us, her tail sweeping back and forth happily and kicking up snow behind her. As she rejoined Quint at his side, I put up my cloak’s hood, immediately feeling guilty for my harsh words earlier. A gust of wind picked up, blowing the heavy snowflakes about in the air and sending a chill through my torn cloak. I pulled it closer around me as we readied to complete our journey to Cragstead.
Thankfully, our journey was short and as we approached Cragstead, we were greeted by towering wooden gates with heavy iron fixtures. A flaming brazier stood upon each side, their smoke rising upwards into the clouds. Clarkus pounded on the gate and a moment later, they slowly opened, the old, heavy wood creaking from the motion. We started through, and I stopped for a moment to admire the norn architecture. In my many years as the blade’s warden, I hadn’t had much time to travel and take in the many cultures occupying Tyria. Maybe once this was all over, I could take some time to sight see.
We ascended the wooden stairs built into the hillside and entered into Cragstead proper. I was surprised to see not just norn, but also charr and humans occupying this location. Curious, I watched the inhabitants go about their day-to-day tasks as we passed by, but when their attention turned from their tasks to us, I immediately looked away and felt my jaw tightening. Not being one to welcome uninvited attention and having too many strange eyes on me made me want to crawl inside myself and hide. The sounds of the open-air tavern ahead of us caught my attention, making me forget about the unfamiliar eyes looking our way. It had no walls, just four structural posts holding up a towering arched roof. Inside, there were tables and chairs, a large bar with barrels of ale stacked behind it, and a large fire roaring in a stone fireplace. On the back wall above the bar, was a large stone sculpture in the shape of wolf’s head watching over the tavern’s patrons.
Passing the tavern, we made our way north up another hill, and passed through a wood and iron gateway guarded by two stone wolves. Rugnar’s steading was a large lodge house on our left, across from the smith’s. It wasn’t very tall, but what it lacked in height, it made up for in width. The steading took up more space than any of the other structures built in Cragstead. As Clarkus and Alena lead us into the building, the reason for its size became apparent. Beds and privacy screens lined each far side of the building. Some were occupied, some not. Tables and chairs were arranged in the center space of the homestead, a roaring fire made in the iron fireplace amongst the steading area. In the back, was what looked to be a typical bar that you’d find in a tavern, but instead of copious amounts of ale, there were empty crates, barrels of water, and of course, barrels of ale. A bald, broad-shouldered norn with a greying beard pleated into two short braids set a crate half full of root vegetables roughly on the bar top.
“Is this everything, Rugnar?” A norn woman with thick, silvery hair asked. She had it pulled back and secured with a silver clasp. Her youthful visage was betrayed by heavy creases at the corner of her eyes.
His heavy brow furrowed, Rugnar nodded. He suddenly brought a fist down hard on the wooden counter. “Damn creatures hit the last supply caravan. This is all they recovered.”
Firmly placing her hands on her wide hips, the norn woman shook her head. “These people are depending on those supplies to build their homes and rebuild their lives.”
“Don’t you think I know that, woman,” Rugnar spat, but his words were met with a steady glare from the norn woman and he quickly apologized.
As Clarkus and Alena approached the bar, Rugnar lifted his head. “Ah, the Vigil soldiers. Any luck tracking them down.”
“Afraid not,” Clarkus replied, “but we did find another tunnel and another body.”
“Merciful bear,” the norn woman muttered as she shook her head, but then her attention turned to me and Quint. “Who are they?”
“My name is Nienna Valar,” I introduced myself, and then motioned to Quint, “and this is Quint Blackwell, our–guild’s adviser.” It felt strange saying the word ‘guild’, despite it not really being true. It was gone, didn’t exist anymore, yet I couldn’t help but say it. It was like a habit that was hard to break.
“I am Brynhildr,” the norn woman said, “and this is Yngvi Rugnar, head of this steading.”
“It’s a marvelous place,” Quint noted as he looked around. “You’re taking in refugees here?”
Rugnar nodded. “We try our best to provide a refuge for those who have been displaced from their homes, but times are a little tough right now. Our supply caravans keep getting attacked.” He glared aside at the half empty crate on the bar.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I began as I approached Rugnar at the bar, “what exactly is attacking your caravans?” I went to rest my arms on the hard wood bar, but abruptly stopped when I saw the structure came up to my upper chest. It had been built for norn height, not human height.
Ignoring my awkward approach to the bar, Rugnar exchanged an uneasy glance with Brynhildr. It was obvious they knew but didn’t want to share that information with a couple of strangers. I couldn’t say I’d blame them.
“It’s okay,” Alena urged, “you can tell them.”
Steadying himself with both hands on the bar, Rugnar clenched his jaw. For a time, he stared at me with his dark brown eyes, and I immediately recognized the look in his eyes. He was considering his words and what to say.
“It’s the ice,” Rugnar finally said. “There’s something in the ice.”