The Inciting Incident

(joint post between Rosemary and I)

- The Dalen Alps, 6 DSTR -

In the quiet stillness of the night, two bone-weary figures and a horse trudged through the desolate wilderness of the Dalen Alps, the wooded and mountainous terrain becoming more treacherous the higher they got. For the last several kilometres they had slowly negotiated loose shale, scree, boulders, dense, gnarled foliage and jumbles of forest debris that had eroded down from the rocky, undulating slopes. Lafayette Le Renard, with his left arm secured in a makeshift sling, looked around as a huge mountain valley opened before them in all directions, limned by a luminescent half-moon. To the north lay a seemingly endless series of snowy peaks, whilst a high forested plateau expanded southward. The royal capital of Dalen was about twenty kilometres beyond the latter, a sprawling city nestled at the bottom of the Alps on a flat, fertile plain watered by the glacial streams of the mountains.

Lafayette stretched, trying to get the kinks out of his back from hiking all day. "Would you like to stop and rest for a few hours?" a refined voice at his elbow asked.

He turned to the speaker and said, "I would like to, but we really shouldn't. If these woods are not already crawling with werebears, they soon will be. If we keep moving and stay ahead of any pursuit we might not have to fight any more before we reach civilization."

Kalena Valade agreed with a determined nod of her head as she carefully led her beloved horse along the uneven ground. The midnight black mare, Enyo, was astonishingly tough, and Lafayette saw it was handling the rigorous trek fairly well. Which was good, because Kalena had estimated it would take them at least another full day to pick their way to the other side of the immense plateau, after that perhaps no more than an hour to reach an outlying village on the outskirts of the capital. It was difficult to really judge for certain since it depended on how challenging the terrain ahead turned out to be. Kalena had hunted in the mountains with Queen Thalia, but had never been through this way before, and was not all that well-acquainted with the seldom-trod passages and trails hidden within the forbidding landscape. If Baron Kline Lowson was with them perhaps he would know the region far better from his years of service in the Dalen army—but he was not here, and it was questionable if the man was still alive following the disastrous battle against the Timber Crag earlier that day.

"Even the Timber Crag could not move through these mountains, not in any large numbers," Lafayette said, wincing as he adjusted his sling.

"You're quite right about that. This area will be very easy to defend, and very difficult to assault," Kalena replied, surveying the very rugged terrain around them. "The only way to successfully invade Dalen will be from either the ocean, or through Verden. The Timber Crag are not a sea-going people, so that leaves Verden, and even with as much bad blood as there is between the Two kingdoms, King Asgurt would never permit an army of were-beasts to enter Verden under any circumstances."

"This must have been a probe then," Lafayette mused, "a test to see whether they could insert a sizable force through the forest that straddles Dalen's border with Verden."

"It obviously worked," Kalena said, scowling. "But whether it will work a second time is another story. We will not be caught unprepared like that again, I assure you. The Queen will heavily reinforce the area with troops and a battalion of war-mages, and Verden will undoubtedly also strengthen its border defences with Dalen, and along the Skeldergate forest as well."

"Let's hope that will be enough," Lafayette said, not feeling too confident. Red-haired and possessing intelligent, unusually coloured amber eyes that held a twinkle of grim humour, he was raffishly dressed like the adventurous merchant trader he was, and there was a certain foreignness to his travel-worn garments that had seen him through his more than thousand mile journey to Dalen. In contrast, Kalena appeared every bit the image of a local noblewoman—thick dark brunette hair cascading over her shoulders, exquisite grey-green eyes, sculpted cheekbones and fair, slightly olive skin whose smooth flawlessness spoke of diligent beauty care and plush, luxurious living.

Lafayette glanced at Kalena admiringly in the moonlight. She was statuesque and long-legged, and in her heeled riding boots nearly as tall as his own medium five foot nine. The pair had struck up a fast friendship, and he was secretly pleased to be rid of their third wheel, Kline. It was not that he wished Kline any ill, he really didn't; it was just that their stridently different personalities tended to clash. Lafayette was also pretty sure the dour baron had more than a few screws loose in the head, and that he was psychotic. Kline had that look; the look of a mentally unhinged killer. Lafayette had encountered his share of mad men over the years, and from their first meeting could feel Kline's barely restrained animosity, and all the jealous looks at the affection between he and Kalena.

"There is an animal trail here," Kalena said from slightly on ahead, her sleek, athletic legs easily mounting the steep path.

Half way up, a cloud passed across the moon, blanketing her in darkness. Lafayette risked lighting his small chemical lantern for a moment and held it out with his good arm in order to illuminate their way. When he reached the top behind Kalena and her horse, he found himself standing at the edge of a level meadow dotted here and there with outcroppings of rocks and tangled undergrowth. Kalena let go of Enyo's bridle and the big mare trotted forward and began munching hungrily on the wild strawberries and other edible vegetation.

"A good place to make camp for a short time," Kalena commented, perching herself on a rock.

"What? You're not getting tired already?" Lafayette said with weary mirth.

Kalena flashed him a tired smile. "After only a mere twelve hours of non-stop walking? No, of course not. Don't be ridiculous. But I think Enyo might need a spot of rest. You don't mind terribly, do you? The poor thing is getting a little on in years, and there has been no signs of pursuit since you sent that werebear flying off the side of the cliff, so we could break for a few minutes, surely?"

"A few minutes," Lafayette conceded, as if in reluctance. In truth, he had been hiding just how out of breath he felt and that he was nearly on the verge off collapse. His shoulder had been dislocated a few days earlier and was throbbing dully, and his feet were so numb that he could hardly feel them. Extinguishing the lantern, he eased himself down on a log by the edge of the slope that overlooked the sprawling alpine valley below.

He watched Kalena out of the corner of his eye whilst he tried to restore feeling back into his feet. Her enchanting features were partially obscured in shadow as she tipped her face to the sky and drew in a deep lungful of the mountain air, then exhaled it slowly in a plume of glistening fog. Though late summer, it was quite cold at night in these parts due to the high elevation, and Kalena pulled her fine cloak tighter around her to ward off the chill.

"I imagine the scenery here is quite lovely in the daytime when we could actually see it," she remarked as she got up and moved to join him, but her smile slipped from her face as she twisted around upon hearing the soft snap of a twig. Her keen gaze immediately bored into the shadow haunted trees surrounding the meadow. Perhaps it had been simply some of the local wildlife, the same animals that had made the trail they followed? Lafayette noticed Enyo was sniffing the air, having caught the scent of something.

"It seems we're not alone." He rose at once, his exhaustion forgotten. "A mountain cat?" he suggested in a whisper.

Kalena shook her head. "No, they prefer to attack from a high vantage point."

Lafayette nodded in understanding, seeing that Enyo was staring into the thick undergrowth that grew in abundance on the forest floor. Kalena slid her powerful recurve bow off her back and notched a shaft to the string as her own sharp gaze moved from shadow to shadow in the general direction the experienced war horse indicated. From between a cluster of hawthorn bushes and a squat pine tree Lafayette glimpsed something extremely peculiar, and Kalena spotted it too: a thin beam of faint red light that was tracing a path towards them.

In an instant, she let fly the arrow from her bow and it sped through the trees at the source of the beam. There was a pained cry and a figure suddenly lurched into view, the arrow skewering his arm. The man screamed out a series of curses in an unknown language. Then came a shouted command and a hail of white-blue energy bolts erupted from amidst the trees rather unpleasantly in their direction.

Lafayette darted toward Kalena, ducking beneath the eldritch-looking blasts that peppered the air like miniature lightening. "Mes dieux! Are we being attacked by wizards?!"

"Oh, I hate magic!" Kalena shouted vehemently as one of their unknown assailants appeared all of a sudden from her left.

The man was not dressed like any mage Lafayette had ever seen, and carried some type of weapon in his hand that vaguely resembled a crossbow. The man's gaze focused on Kalena, but by the time it did she already had an arrow flying straight at him. The shaft hit him dead centre in the chest... and promptly disintegrated into a spray of burning embers as if having struck some kind of magical shield.

The man returned fire and her cloak flapping, Kalena nimbly dived and rolled to the side as a flurry of energy bolts seared into the spot that she had been standing. The man rushed forward and tracked her with his long-barrelled weapon's mounted eye-scope, whilst unleashing another rapid volley of white-blue bolts that disturbed the ground and undergrowth all around her.

Concealed in the bushes, Lafayette waited for the man to pass by and then surprised him from the side, tackling him to ground. The impact served to knock the seemingly magical weapon from the man's grasp so that it clattered away across the moss-slick rocks, vanishing into the nearby vegetation.

Lafayette wrapped his good arm around the man's neck in a tight choke-hold. He saw that the man wore some type of lightweight armour of a strange material he did not recognize, along with a similarly unusual set of tinted eyewear. The man grabbed at Lafayette's arm, and clawing and unable to dislodge it, rolled over on his back so that Lafayette was beneath him. Grunting, Lafayette used his legs to try to immobilize the man's and quell his struggles, fighting down the urge to just end the man's life and be done with it, but then questions couldn't be answered.

"Merde," Lafayette gasped as the other man's crushing weight shifted and strained his injured shoulder, causing his grip to inadvertently loosen as crippling pain sizzled through his bones.

The man started to break free when the steel toe of Kalena's boot slammed hard into his temple. He slumped over Lafayette unconscious, head lolling to the side.

Lafayette gingerly pushed out from under the man's limp form and rose unsteadily on his knees beside his formidable companion, who now, half-crouched, was fitting another arrow to her bow. Just above them jittery red dots of light flitted back and forth through the darkness, seeking them out.

"It must be something that helps them aim," Kalena said, keeping her head low.

"We don't have much cover," Lafayette observed. "We should get out of here before they pin us down."

"And here I was about to suggest that we take the offensive," Kalena replied with a feral smile.

"Or we could do that," Lafayette said, ever flexible and adaptable. "But we don't know who we are dealing with or their full capabilities. Are you sure these are not Dalen soldiers with magical weapons?"

"No. They're certainly not ours. I've an ear for languages, and I never heard that one spoken before in my life. They must be from one of the more obscure Timber Crag nations."

"An elite unit scouting the Dalen Alps? Makes sense. Just our bad luck to run into them."

"No, their bad luck. I know you're not at your fighting best, but I don't think there is hardly more than half a dozen," Kalena said cockily, tossing her dark curls back from her face. "Between the two us we can take them all out."

Lafayette gave her a smile of a man willing to battle his way to the end's of the earth and beyond with her, and he pulled his arm free of the sling. The pain was high, but tolerable, and it would be too hard to fight with it bouncing around against his chest.

"Seems we have them at an unfair advantage that they don't outnumber us more. And I have one fire bomb left," he said, but before he could reach into his gear bag a sphere-shaped object landed next to him that looked suspiciously like another grenade of some kind. "Kalena!" he yelled, diving to push her away, but his warning was lost as it instantly detonated with a terrific bang and brilliant flash of light.

His ears ringing, Lafayette stumbled incoherently. Kalena's bow fell from her hands and her dazed senses reeled as she and Lafayette were both left momentarily blinded.

By the time their vision returned to some degree, the two became aware they were completely surrounded by their unknown assailants, whose strange weapons were levelled at them now at point blank range. Lafayette blinked his watering eyes, trying to focus through the dizziness he felt from the stun blast and try to think what to do. He was not sure there was any other option except to surrender. The prospect did not seem to sit well with Kalena, for she drew a dagger and staggered drunkenly to her feet, her legs unsteady beneath her. She looked, Lafayette thought, absolutely livid, but whether it was at being defeated so easily or the unwinnable situation they were in, he could not tell.

The black-clad men moved swiftly to disarm them and bound them securely with odd sets of wrist and ankle restraints, then shoved them before the man who seemed to be in charge.


ooc: Nim thought this would read better if written entirely from Lafayette's point of view, so Kalena's thoughts and point of view were edited out.

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