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A keen pair of eyes under a black fedora gazed out upon the approaching land mass. The temperature had fallen drastically since the trip began. The crew was bustling about eagerly, making preparations for the forthcoming arrival. The sun was out, but its warming touch could barely be felt through the chilly veil that seemed to surround the continent.
The continent itself, Boreas, was largely unpopulated. However, in a low area near sea level on the south-eastern side, a mid-sized city thrived amidst the snow. The rest of the continent sloped upward slightly into an awkwardly stunted peak. From afar, one could notice several long, thin depressions almost like scars. Snow-crested trees dotted the otherwise white landscape. As the ship drew closer, the town, also known as Boreas, came into view. From sea one could notice well-built homes and other hardy, snow-covered buildings reasonably arranged, creating a peaceful, homely atmosphere. The port on the outskirts of the city bustled eagerly with life. Young kids frolicked merrily in the snow under the watchful eyes of their parents. The keen eyes of the man with the black fedora took in this scene from the approaching ship. He turned to his partner in the black flat cap and followed his gaze to a group of bundled figures at the bow of the ship.
“So this is Boreas, huh,” Giacomo said.
“It looks so homely!” marveled Amy.
“Oh yes,” Captain Avery spoke up, “This is your first time here. You may not be able to tell from its appearance, but the town of Boreas mainly thrives on tourism. There's a guild of mountain guides based here in town. They give tours of the more passable areas of the icefields.”
“Oh, so we've just gotta hire a guide?” Kylie asked.
“I doubt it.” Avery said, “It'll probably cost us extra, though. What we're looking for is supposedly deep in the icefields. I doubt anyone would take us that far willingly.”
From nearby a horn sounding, signifying the ship's arrival at the port. Ropes were tossed, tied off at both ends by eager, bustling workers, securing the vessel for a well-deserved rest. Meanwhile the passengers, sparsely scattered about the deck, began to disembark. The man in the black flat cap turned to his partner and nodded slightly. The two men slid off toward the crowd without a sound.
A short time later, in the town of Boreas
A familiar foursome shuffled through the shallow snow coating the streets. A light snowfall sprinkled the surroundings and tickled the senses. A homely inn, one of several in town, radiated with warmth and comfort from a distance. However, the destination in mind was a fairly small, shabby-looking building near the northern edge of the town. A fairly nondescript sign hung out front, which read, “Ice Climbers Guild. Inquire Inside”.
“Don't mind if we do!” Avery quipped.
“So this is it, huh,” Kylie said, “Not exactly what I was expecting...”
“What were you expecting?” Amy thought out loud, “No. I don't think I want to know...”
They entered, only to find the building surprisingly empty. The group found themselves staring at a tavern, complete with a bar occupying the northwest corner of the room. Several tables were spread out in the remaining space, chairs scattered lazily around them. Regardless, the tavern was still well-kept. The tables were clean and well-maintained, and the floor was recently swept. A portly, middle-aged woman behind the bar looked up in a fleeting greeting and went back to her work wiping glasses.
“Sorry, no guides around today,” she spoke without looking up.
Suddenly, the fireplace crackled, startling the visitors. The middle-aged man sitting in the corner looked up from the paper he was reading and chuckled to himself. The lady at the bar stopped her work and gave the visitors a welcoming smile.
“Sorry for the rude welcome.” she said, “The name's Gertrude. I run the tavern here.”
“I don't mean to be rude, but we are in the right place, right?” Giacomo spoke up.
“Of course you are, young man!” she smiled, “You're just here on the wrong day. You see, there was an accident recently, so we've closed down for now until we can plot a safer route.”
“An accident?” gasped Kylie.
“Oh, nothing too serious.” Gertrude scoffed, “A portion of our old route collapsed, and we nearly lost someone with it. But no worries, we're just changing the route as a security precaution.”
“Do you know how long that will take? We'd like to hire a guide as soon as possible.” Avery asked.
“Oh, I wish I knew.” said Gertrude, “It all depends on the weather. There have been some bad snowstorms recently. If another one hits, it will definitely cause problems. I'd say at best a couple of days, dears.”
Avery's face tensed, hiding his disappointment. “That's...unfortunate. Is there anything we can do in the meantime?”
Gertrude laughed merrily. “Oh, dears, I do appreciate the offer, but I'm afraid not. Until the route is open, you all are more than welcome in here!” She gestured vaguely toward the still unpopulated tavern, save for the man in the corner. “Oh, do excuse me! I have some business to attend to!” With that she shuffled off into the back room.
With Gertrude's departure, the man in the corner put down his paper, choosing instead to peruse the visitors. He himself was a middle-aged man in his late forties, fairly tan and well-built. He sported a full goatee and a head of short, brown hair. His deep, mysterious brown eyes passed over each of the four visitors in turn. Upon meeting the dark green eyes of Amy, something triggered in his mind, and his gaze softened.
“You know...” he spoke up. Avery, Giacomo, Kylie, and Amy all turned in surprise. “If you're really so eager to get out there, I might be able to help. You see, the guide who's plotting the new route just left about an hour ago. If you hurry, you could probably catch up to him.”
“Really?” Kylie asked. Avery's gaze softened a tad.
“Of course.” the man replied, “It shouldn't be a problem for Imperial Knights.”
The visitors were struck speechless.
“Don't worry,” he smirked, a twinkle in his eye, “Your secret is safe with me!”
“Just how do we know we can trust you?” Avery sternly spoke.
“Ah, you don't trust me? Then here.” The man handed Avery a bright red signal flag. “He will be using these to mark the new route. You should be able to follow them easily to catch up with him. Make sure you keep them in sight. If visibility gets bad, get out. It's too dangerous during whiteouts.”
Avery stared into his eyes, trying to get a read on this mysterious man's personality.
“Still don't believe me?” he gasped mockingly, “I have every reason to keep you safe! What would the dear old Empire do if four of their finest disappeared on our continent?” His expression suddenly turned serious. “But honestly, pick up anything you need in town first. This is serious business, after all. I don't think you knights train much in cold weather, right?”
Avery turned to his companions. “He's right. We have to be careful out there. Let's go.”
As they turned to leave, the man spoke up once more. “Just so you know, he knows the fields like the back of his hand. You get close enough, and he'll probably find you first. Tell him I sent you and he'll take you wherever you need to go. The name's Max, by the way.”
“We do appreciate the help, Max” Avery hesitated in his reply.
“Oh, and one more thing.” Max quickly added, “I'd trust him with my life if it came to that. The hard part will be getting to him.”
With that, they took their leave. As the travelers began their trek along the marked path, two pairs of eyes watched them heading north into the icefields. The man in the black flat cap turned to his partner in the black fedora and spoke aloud. “What now, brother?”
“We wait.” replied the man in the fedora, “Our Imperial friends will lead us right to it.”
“And then?” his brother inquired.
He smiled a grisly smile. “We collect the corpses.”