Althalos shivered. Sydney flew low to avoid the horrific downdrafts and bone-chilling cold of the upper clouds in the Wastes. The dragon under him was as warm as the stones of a fireplace, but from waist up, he was freezing under his light travelling armor and cloak.
I told you to wear something else. sniffed Sydney.
Excuse me for not growing scales.
Justify it how you will, little one.
She banked hard, floating over a mercenary encampment. The men shouted in rough tongues and shook spears, though none dared loose an arrow. Haze, Althalos' familiar, flowed from the hilt of the sword, Vrolmgang, into Althalos' armor. Wherever the creature touched, he felt a little warmer. Chittering happily, the familiar slicked out of his armor and back into the hellish-looking Runeblade.
He adjusted one of the straps on Sydney's side, making her snort as it tickled her underbelly. The strap carried a waterskin the size of Althalos' leg, and was essential for survival in the North.
After four more hours of grueling, frozen flight, Sydney squinted as she saw something in the mists.
Little one, she thought. I do not think that is natural.
Althalos looked up from a parchment map he was reading.
A towering, iron-clad fortress rose from the Wastes like an iceberg at sea, covered in engraved plates and snow-encrusted battlements. It was fully two miles wide and long, and a good four hundred feet high. A single, rune-covered gate stood against the Wastes. The entire fortress was completely covered in thick iron, with brass scrollwork decorating the outer reaches. A dockyard for dozens of skyships rose above the main tower, and lights glowed from fully six forges. The tower was crusted with icicles and snowbanks, giving it a chilled, ancient feel. A banner showed a black sword against a white backround, surrounded by black cogs and gears. A single yellow star shone at the sword's point, representing the North Star, Althalos guessed.
A glint of light warned him, and Sydney dove hard as a dozen bullets flew over the pair. A second volley fired from the fort, catching Sydney in three places and making her level out beneath the men's line of sight. She swept up the edge of the fort, landing on the parapet. A man with thick goggles and a long rifle stared in stupefied astonishment a second before he was consumed in ravening fire. Althalos leapt to the parapet, swinging. A half-dozen strokes saw three more men dead. A second sqaud of riflemen lined up shots over the barricaded tower to Sydney's left, and Althalos pulled the gold-chased pistol Kyyl had given him from his belt. A single seventy-caliber brass slug blew the majority of a guard's head from his shoulders. Two more shots rang out, and Althalos jumped back as the sharpshooters' fire spanked off the metal around him. Sydney swung around and more fire burst from her jaws, immolating the remaining men.
A dozen men with shorter, stubbier weapons exited a tower down the wall, accompanied by two men heaving a huge, multi-barreled weapon. The gun chattered as one man turned a crank. Sydney gasped as a half-dozen of the slugs chewed through her scaly hide and wounded her. Althalos roared in rage and shared pain, firing back with a burst of Death magic, the black bolt flying from his glove to strike the man turning the crank. Within seconds, the man was a blackened skeleton, to the horror of his partner, who dropped the gatling weapon and ran. The leader of the shotgunners shot the man point-blank, then glared at the body before resuming the charge. Althalos' pistol barked, downing the burly commander, but his fellows came on. Three more fell to accurate shots before Althalos drew Vrolmgang with a flourish, and leapt into the midst of the men. He swung left, then right, cleaving a man's body into three pieces. Sydney clawed her way back upright and snaked her head down, clamping her jaws onto a soldier and biting down. Blood fountained as the shorn legs fell to the ground. Two men leapt onto Althalos, pinning his sword arm. A shotgun entered his field of vision, and he closed his eyes.
"Stop!" roared a voice. The sound of Sydney chewing through a second team of men instantly ceased, and the men pinning Althalos looked up.
"Did ANYONE bother to find out who this traveller is BEFORE they opened fire?" bellowed the voice. The men stammered denials and stepped back, helping Althalos up. A man in a deep red cloak stood on the wall, in front of a dozen metal-clad soldiers. As Althalos looked closer, he realized the "men" were in fact machines, clockwork soldiers. Small steam pipes rose from their backs, and they clicked and whirred as their weapons whipped from target to target. Their leader, obvious by the gold paint on his head and shoulders, had a small mortar attached to his arm. The clockwork man held a torch over the fuse of the weapon.
Althalos' savior turned to the leader of the shotgunners. "You! Where is Delanus? He's supposed to be in charge of the garrison!"
The man looked at his feet. "I...I don't know, sir."
"Damned right you don't! Go get him! He's probably in one of the taverns below, wasting my goddamned time as usual!"
The man dropped his weapon and sprinted for the tower.
The red-robed warrior moved toward Althalos, looking at the shabby half-elven. Althalos' clothes were ragged by the week of travel, and he had scrapes and bruises from a dozen scuffles with the Northern Wastes' natives. Sydney was a little better, her scales had turned a light grey from the dust, and her eyes were red-rimmed from the pain of the gunshots. Althalos flinched in pain as they twinged.
"We don't get the likes of you here." said the man.
Althalos brushed off the comment. "She's hurt. She needs medicine."
The man looked behind Althalos, no doubt trying to spy a woman with a crucial ailment.
"Who?" asked the man, cocking an eyebrow.
"Her!" thundered Althalos, pointing Vrolmgang at Sydney.
A man wearing white robes hurried over to the mage, and he pointed at the dragon. The apothecary nodded and pulled a set of heavy forceps from his pocket. Althalos gritted his teeth in pain as the medicae pulled the heavy slugs out of Sydney's hide. Bandages were placed over the wounds, and a few near-misses were stitched with thick twine. Sydney licked the wounds with her long tongue, fussing over the medic's work.
"Now then," said the red-robed man. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Zacharias, of Icefang Keep and leader of the Clockwork Temple."
"Althalos Half-Elven, the Drakonire, and this is Sydney Darkscales." said Althalos, indicating himself, then Sydney. She growled at the man as her name was mentioned.
"I apologize for the guards. The Icefang Sharpshooters are trained to fire on anything out in the Wastes. Most of it isn't friendly, and none of it has any business in Icefang. So, my friend, what bringa you to the Wastes?"
"I was told by a dying man that I belonged out here."
"A dying man? Hmpf! Everyone's a seer nowadays. That's why I became a master of Clockwork. No changes, no mystic rites, just you, your tools, and a pile of metal."
"As fascinating as that is, can we go inside? May we stay here for the night?"
"You can stay here forever, should you choose, lad! I've never seen better aim with a revolver in my life! Long rifles, sure, but Icefang is famous for those. Handguns are something of a rarity here. Come, the keep is below. It will come with, no?"
Sydney started at the mention of it.
"She will come with, yes." growled Althalos. Zacharias nodded and led them through a huge, winding starcase down into the keep's depths. Althalos expected the warren of stone tunnels that populated most keeps, but Icefang was evidently just a facade. Inside the walls and the massive ceiling, a sprawling, multi-tiered city was built. Stone and iron huts hung over each other, while cables spanned the keep's walls, suspending fat cars full of people or supplies. A single metal ziggurat emblazoned with the sword-and-cog insignia rose above everything else, soaring out of sight into the keep's ceiling and out the top.
"Behold, Icefang." said Zacharias with a sweeping gesture. "We don't get many travelers, this north in the Wastes, but when they do come, it's a big thing. Don't be shocked if you recieve gifts, or marriage proposals, depending on who you talk to. Now come!"
Althalos looked over the city with amazement, Sydney with something like respect. The dragon leaned down and nudged Althalos forward, following Zacharias down the long steps to the city plaza. A stone statue of a robed man holding a blacksmith's hammer stood in the center of the square, which was bustling with people of all shapes and colors. Althalos saw people from the Empire, Brettonia, Araby, and a dozen others all crammed into the far north. The mass of people and the numerous fires raised the temperature to comfortably warm, and Althalos removed his cloak. Suddenly, as Sydney stepped into the square, every pair of eyes swung to face Dragon and Rider.
An awkward silence decended on the square, Althalos, Sydney, and Zacharias on one side, and hundreds people of Icefang on the other. A small child broke the lines, walking up to Sydney. The boy's mother made a futile grab for him before she started at the sight of Sydney's teeth and stopped.
The boy looked up at the dragon, who cocked her head at the sight. Sydney reached down, and the mother gave a startled yelp. Sydney touched the boy on the head, and sniffed at his hair. She snorted as she smelled him, making the child giggle and squirm. The boy ran back to his mother with a broad smile, and the entirety of the crowd cheered. Althalos managed a sheepish wave before sprinting after Zacahrias down a sidestreet. The building the tech-mage had led them to was large, with a single spiral stair leading to a wide second floor, with a huge hole in the side, apparently for ventilation, but would serve perfectly for Sydney to get in and out of the dwelling. Althalos looked at the man.
Zacharias bowed slightly. "Not at all, traveler! Tomorrow, I'll take you to visit Lord Icefang himself, and then you will be free to stay or leave!"
Sydney snorted and flapped her wings once, rising into the house and settling down on the wide, padded floor.
Get some sleep, little one. We shall put this puzzle together tomorrow.
You'll forgive me, but you must be mistaken. I've met your makers, and they don't even know your name...
GIVING CHASE- ORDO HERETICUS FIC (Updated Mar. 19)
Hat in the Ring