Quint was right; the hillside wasn’t that steep. However, the ice and loose rocks made for a tricky descent. I let the others go first, helping them over the edge and making sure they made their way down safely before I started over. Despite slipping and unintentionally sliding down the last few feet of the hillside when it was my turn, I managed to land on my feet without injury but also without any grace. I brushed myself off, hoping no one saw my clumsy fall. If they had, no one was saying anything and that suited me just fine.
“Are you sure the voices are human, Clarkus?” I asked.
The charr nodded. “Human-like at least. Didn’t sound like a charr, not deep like a norn.”
Sylvari or Asura perhaps,” Quint added, but Clarkus shook his head and lifted his head to listen for the voices again.
“The pitch is all wrong for an asura and not nearly as flowery as a sylvari,” he said.
“Huh, good ears,” I commented with a smile. The voices were faint but they were still there, calling out for anyone to hear. “Where do you think they’re coming from?”
A thoughtful rumble thundered in the charr’s throat as he looked around, and his long ears twitched when the voices rose again, louder this time. There was no mistaking their distress. Suddenly, he began walking around as he tracked the sound and Alena motioned for us to follow. I nodded and we quickly set off, in hopes of finding a way to the voices.
We tracked the calls for help to an opening in the hillside that looked to be big enough for all of us, including Clarkus, to get through. While Quint dug through his pack for a torch or supplies to make one, I stood in front of the breach, peering into the darkness. Staring at the unknown made me uneasy. We had no idea what waited for us inside the crevasse and my worst fears began to creep into my thoughts. I balled my hands, trying to hide the chill and shaking that had started to overcome them. Frowning, I clutched them to my chest, trying to warm them and praying to Grenth that the ice would stay away, but my prayers were in vain. I looked down to find ice crystals forming along the edge of my fingers. I swallowed hard. There was no denying that something was indeed wrong with me, but it would have to wait.
I took in a deep breath and let it out, calming my agitated nerves. As they began to recede, I watched the ice crystals melt away and I breathed a sigh of relief. Shifting my focus to my senses, I reached out and searched for evidence of the individuals in trouble. The only life signs I could sense were my companions’, as well as my own. That didn’t mean there wasn’t anyone or anything inside hiding somewhere inside. My senses could only stretch so far.
Soft golden torch-light spilled into the entrance as Quint joined me at the passage’s opening. He stretched his arm out in front of him, revealing a rugged pathway with a number of rocks jutting out from the walls. It would make for slow going, but was still doable. Hopefully whomever was in trouble could hold on for a little longer.
“Let’s get moving,” I urged.
Quint took the lead and Alena headed up the rear with another torch in hand. The extra light was useful in helping traverse the rocky terrain, though some distance in, the rocks disappeared, giving way to a clear path. Hearing the voices again, I pressed us to move faster. We were practically running by the time we found the cavern.
Distracted by a sudden change of scent in the air, I collided with my former adviser, nearly knocking him over, as he stopped in his tracks. Grabbing his longcoat, I managed to prevent him from falling forward as Clarkus grabbed my pack so I didn’t fall with him. As we steadied ourselves, I noticed a metallic odor in the air, and it, along with the bitter chill in the air told me there was death ahead. Glancing down, I spied small river of blood crossing our path, illuminated by our torch-light. I followed its trail to a misshapen mound of a dolyak, or at least what was left of one, off to the side of the cavern. It was still seeping blood into the icy ground, surrounding the carcass with a large pool of dark red.
“Poor thing,” Alena said as we all carefully crossed over the blood trail. Her long ears drooped. “He’s been torn up pretty bad. Those claws and teeth marks–looks like it could be our creature.”
“I don’t think there’s any need to poke it,” I said to the asura with a smirk. “I think we can be sure it’s dead.”
She rolled her eyes and mumbled something about taking the fun out of her investigation.
“It didn’t eat any of it by the way,” I pointed out as I slowly circled the dolyak’s body.
“How’s that important?” Clarkus asked.
“If it was killing out of necessity,” I said, gesturing to the carcass, “it would have eaten the dolyak. It’s only been torn up and left to bleed out.”
Alena planted her staff in the frozen ground and leaned against it. “It’s killing for fun?” she asked.
“Possibly, or maybe out of fear or anger,” I replied. “Whatever the reason, my guess is that it didn’t wander here looking for food.”
“Why did it wander here then?” Clarkus asked.
“Good question,” Quint said as he knelt next to the carcass. “These claw marks look like they could possibly be from a wolf, but they’re too large.”
“You think this thing was somehow brought here from somewhere else?” I asked.
Slowly moving the torch over the bloodied mass, he continued to examine the wounds. “Possibly, but can’t be sure.”
“Well, we can’t help this dolyak, but we can help whomever is calling for help,” Alena said as she looked for a way out of the cavern. “Ah, here.” She pointed her torch at a dark crevasse in the wall, opposite the one we entered from.
Clarkus snorted and wrinkled his shout. “Looks a little small.”
Alena trotted over to the apprehensive charr and patted his arm. “Don’t worry, you’ll fit,” she assured him.
With her torch held in front of her, Alena led the way with Clarkus following close behind her, his armor often scraping against the sides of the small corridor. Walking behind the large charr, I had to watch my footing, careful not to step on his large hind-paws. While the passageway was at least large enough for three of me to walk side by side at the shoulders, he was near that size already. Because of his towering height, he was forced to crouch slightly as he made his way through, or else the pommel of his greatsword would scrape along the top of the passage. His pauldrons were already scraping occasionally against the walls as they narrowed in some areas. This part of the journey couldn’t have been enjoyable for him in the least.
Thankfully, the way widened and the charr was able to walk comfortably and give his scratched armor a break. The calls for help grew louder and clearer and we quickened our pace. By now, I could tell it was a man and woman, and their voices sounded oddly familiar.
“Isn’t there anyone out there in this wretched place to come help us,” a man’s voice complained sharply.
We entered into an open space much larger than the previous cavern, nearly rivaling the size of Rugnar’s steading. As we came into the center, our torch-light revealed Lord and Lady Byrne sitting huddled against the far wall. From the appearance of their torn clothing and superficial wounds, it seemed they had been attacked.
“Oh gods,” I mumbled under my breath.
“Look, it’s the bait,” Clarkus growled under his breath as he tipped his head toward the highborns.
As soon as Lady Eira saw us, her eyes grew wide and she flashed us a relieved smile, wrinkling the fresh scratches on her cheek. She scrambled to her feet to address us. “Lady Nienna, Quint. You’ve brought your friends to help us.” The long, violet silk panels of her dress were torn and some of her golden ringlets had come unpinned from the golden comb nestled in her tresses.
Rushing ahead, Alena went straight to their side. “Did you see what did this to you? Can you describe it?”
“I’m sorry we can’t provide you a detailed report,” Lord Aedan spat. “We were too busy staying alive.” He frowned deeply at Alena and she recoiled and took a few steps back.
“We can discuss this later,” I said. “Lets just get them out safe and then we can resume our hunt.”
A deep growl resonated throughout the cavern.
“Please tell me that was your stomach, big guy,” Alena said as she looked over her shoulder at Clarkus.
The charr slowly shook his head as he reached for his greatsword holstered on his back and we all did the same. Even Lord Aedan took his sword in hand. Lady Eira stood next to him, clutching a dagger tightly and looking quite focused on her survival. With our backs to one another, we grouped together, keeping a close watch on our dim surroundings for signs of the approaching creature.
Something scraped the ice just out of reach of our torch-light and all our attention turned toward the sound. Quint passed his torch to me and readied his bow, a bright arrow of energy materializing in between the shaft and string. Before aiming at the source of the sound, he swept the tip of the arrow into the torch’s flame, igniting it, and loosed it across the small cavern. It struck the creature, briefly illuminating a large, malformed limb towering above us and ending in a long-clawed paw about a foot or so long. They cut into the ice as the creature clenched and let out a terrifying howl. It shook its great limb before stomping it back down on the icy ground.
“Is that-,” Quint began as he readied another arrow.
“What?” Alena asked. Shadows grew around her, and I recognized the shape of her golem form at her side.
A growl erupted throughout the cavern and I felt it rumble deep in my chest. In the dim light, I spied movement, and not liking having my enemy shrouded in shadow, I tossed the torch towards it. The light illuminated the limb again, but then a large snout lowered into the light and bared two rows of sharp, deadly teeth.
“By the Alchemy, look at those teeth,” Alena exclaimed as she clutched her staff. “They almost look like—.”
The enormous form moved forward, revealing its luminous blue eyes set in a canine-shaped head. Its fur was pale and matted with ice all along its chin and along its forehead and neck, where it grew into a thick crown of sharp spikes of frozen fur. Its lips quivered and pulled further upwards as it elicited a threatening growl, revealing the full length of it’s fangs as saliva dripped from its muzzle. As we stood face to face with it, I couldn’t help but feel like a cornered animal.
“Wolf’s teeth,” Quint said, finishing her thought.
I guess Clarkus had been right about the Byrnes’. They ended up being bait after all, just not for the creature.