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Dragon Hunters

Book One: Out of the Ashes

© 1999-2001 Draconus and Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Ten: Like Father, Like Son

Although it took an hour and a half to catch up, Hunter and Katra arrived just in time to aid Marcus. Strato had used up half of the arrows he had, while Marcus was almost out on his own. Given the cluster of boulders Strato had been chased into, not one arrow fired by either had hit its mark. Hunter and Katra ran up to the boulder Marcus was behind.

Marcus looked at them. "What kept you?" He caught a glimpse of Strato, and fired an arrow. It hit Strato's armor, but still failed to penetrate. Strato countered with another arrow. Fortunately, Marcus ducked behind his boulder and evaded it. Marcus looked at Hunter. "You two should go around the sides. I can keep him busy."

Hunter nodded. "Katra, you circle right and I circle left." They did so, moving about the area from its outskirts in order to surround Strato.

Strato saw them coming, and fired a few shots off at Hunter when he could. Hunter, though, had his shield drawn, and blocked the arrows. "Strato; you can't keep this up forever!"

Strato shouted back. "I do not need to! Only until the time is right...."

Marcus fired another shot at Strato, this time from behind; and it hit Strato in the back. That hurt him, but only a little. Katra was still moving about the other side of the area, looking for a way in. Strato nearly hit Katra with an arrow as Katra came into view between a few boulders.

Hunter approached closer; Strato was running out of arrows. Strato took aim and fired off a quick succession of arrows, forcing Hunter to step aside and take refuge behind a boulder. Hunter looked back in Strato's direction. "And what time might that be?"

Strato, by now, had run out of arrows. He rushed towards Hunter, and Hunter prepared to engage. A bow may not be the best hand-to-hand weapon, but in hands of a dangerous man like Strato, he wielded it much like one would a lance. In a minute, Strato had knocked Hunter aside. However, Marcus had moved over to the same area to intercept Strato. Seeing as he couldn't escape that direction, Strato turned around--and found himself staring right at Katra.

Strato attacked, using the bow as a melee weapon, but fortunately, Katra blocked it. When Katra countered, the blade of his sword completely snapped the bow in half. Strato quickly cast it aside; but he wasn't defeated just yet. In an astonishing acrobatic maneuver, Strato jumped towards one of the boulders, rebounded up and off of it, and landed on top of a larger one. "The time... is now!" Strato pulled out a small, hand-held Ancestral device of sorts--it must not have been a weapon, or Mitchell's group must have failed to take it from him. Strato was about to hit one of the buttons on it when Katra stopped him. "And what about your allies?"

Strato paused. "Allies? You mean that elite? He knew what this job entails. Sometimes, you eat the gryphon, and at others, they eat you."

Hunter responded. "A most interesting choice of words, Strato. What about your companion, Talon?"

Strato blinked. "Talon..." He remembered now, that Talon was still in Border's court jail. "Of what use is he?"

Hunter shook his head. "Absolutely none; he's your companion, after all. However... the court considers him an accomplice to your crimes. If you are not back in custody by midnight, the court will execute that gryphon and the elite."

Strato took the message in stride. "Oh? Has the Honor Guard stooped so low as to make a threat? Not a very honorable thing to do...!" Strato pressed a button on the device, but nothing happened. Strato put the device away. He jumped down, though, and grabbed the two halves of the broken bow for use as weapons, holding them as if they were Ninji daggers. He attacked Hunter. Hunter played defense against Strato's blows, and when he saw an opening, hit Strato with the hilt of his own sword, knocking Strato to the ground.

Strato was quick to get back up, rolling to the side. Marcus, however, was waiting for him, lance first. Strato backed off slightly. "Well?"

Hunter looked at Strato. "We did not come here to deliver a threat; we came to deliver a message. The court has ordered that if you are not back in our custody by midnight, they will slay the elite and your gryphon."

Marcus looked coldly at Strato. "Think carefully about what you are going to do next...."

Strato blinked; Marcus continued. "If you flee further, you will be losing not just your elite, but also your companion as well. Is that what you want?"

Strato thought about it. "Talon...."

Marcus kept talking. "Talon is your companion; the one true friend you have in this world. Are you going to simply throw his life away??"

Strato cringed at those words. He stood down, casting the broken halves of Hunter's bow far aside. "No... Not Talon. He has no place in my sentencing." Strato looked up at Hunter and Marcus. "Fine. Take me in... but only so they will not harm a single one of Talon's feathers!"

Hunter bound Strato's hands together with cord, and with him once again in custody, they made their trek back to Border. It took two hours before they returned to the city, and by then the time was the eleventh hour of night. One more hour, and it would not have made any difference whether Strato surrendered or not; the judge's ultimatum would stand firm.

Strato breathed a sigh of relief to see that Talon was still alive and well, even if bound. Talon and the other elite had been moved outside in preparations for possible execution, and were under guard. Hunter and Katra sat Strato down at his stand, and after a quick search, withdrew the Ancestral device he was about to use out in the desert. "We found this on him, out there. It's Ancestral; but there's no telling if it's a weapon, or if it's something else." They handed it to the judge.

The small device had no labels, no text, nor any form of writing on it. There was but one small button on it. However, there was nothing else to indicate what it was. No lights, no sounds, no instructions. Whatever it was, only Strato could know--and then perhaps even Strato himself didn't know what it was for. The judge shook it slightly, but it made no sounds, either. The judge tossed it back. "I've assessed artifacts before; this one doesn't do anything. It probably doesn't work, for that matter." Hunter put it back in Strato's pack.

The judge turned to Strato. "This evening's display can not possibly change your sentence, better or worse. It is the decision of this court that you are to be executed sunset tomorrow."

Strato did not flinch at the sentence he was given. The judge continued the sentence. "Your fellow accomplice has shared in many of your crimes, and his execution will follow yours, tomorrow at dusk. And....

"It is also the judgement of this court that your comanion, the gryphon, be slain tomorrow morning."

Strato was shocked. "What did you say!?"

The judge pronounced the sentence again. "Tomorrow morning, the gryphon will be slain. Your execution will follow tomorrow evening, and so will your fellow mercenary's execution follow yours, at dusk."

Strato was becoming upset. "No; you wouldn't...."

The judge pounded his gavel down upon the table. "Court is adjourned." The guards began taking the elite and Talon away, to the cells.

Strato still could not believe the sentence. "You couldn't...."

The judge pointed at Hunter and Katra. "Take Strato away and lock him up."

Hunter and Katra had to drag Strato away from the court. Strato shouted back at the judge. "Noooooo ! ! !"

Strato was soon locked up in his cell, hands still bound. Hunter and Marcus were assigned to guard over him for the night, while Katra was assigned to watch over Talon and the elite. Strangely, Vrynn took a lot of interest in seeing Talon bound and caged; so Vrynn was sitting near Katra as well.

Hunter looked at Strato. "After all this time, I can scarcely believe that you would have a soft spot for that companion of yours...."

Strato glared back, but was silent.

Hunter commented again. "But still; come morning, the gyrphon will be no more. Perhaps you should--"

Strato slammed against the bars with all of his might. "Will you shut up...?!"

Hunter looked back. "If you keep acting like that, perhaps they should execute you first and let the gryphon mourn...."

Marcus pulled Hunter aside. "You're not helping anything. Go and watch the gryphon for a change. It's seven hours until morning; there will be plenty of time to chat later."

Hunter shrugged, and then walked around the corner to where Talon was held. Marcus called Vrynn back to him, while Katra stayed at the cell holding Talon captive. Unlike Strato, Talon had little idea of what was going to happen; Talon was resting peacefully, unaware of what was scheduled for him in the morning.

Hunter walked over to Katra. "So, how are things on this end?"

Katra looked back at Hunter. "It's almost over. Morning, and then sunset; and then he'll be but a bad memory. I'm relieved...."

Hunter nodded. "Strato isn't taking the news very well at all. At least he's bound; he's not going to cause any more trouble."

Katra took another glance at his medallion. "Dad would've wanted that; to see him brought to justice and executed."

"The judge thinks it would be better to slay Strato's companion first, so that Strato would be given time to think about his actions before his own execution," Hunter said. Talon stirred at the sound of Strato's name. The elite, standing in the neighboring cell, was looking at them. "You think you've won, haven't you?"

Hunter walked over. "Do you have anything to add?"

The elite nodded. "Strato's Shock Bow isn't the only Ancestral weapon in his arsenal. He's looking for something bigger, you know. If he had found it, you wouldn't have been able to bring him in like that."

Hunter looked back. "Is that so? Strato said he was looking for some Ancestral keys. I suppose you know something about them?"

The elite shook his head. "I only know what Strato knows about them, and perhaps even less. He's not from around here, you know...."

"Oh?" Hunter listened, as the elite gave some information. "Strato wasn't around until about twenty years ago. Pretty interesting, too. No recorded family, no history, nothing to protect and nothing to lose. That makes him a perfect warrior."

"How so?"

"About twenty years ago, Strato showed up. Even I don't know where he came from; he simply appeared out of nowhere. Under his leadership, he consolidated many groups of bandits and brigands, and trained them to be warriors. It was quite a feat; considering how many soldiers he raised."

Hunter stepped back. "An interesting tale. Anything else?"

The elite shook his head, and stepped back from the cell bars. Hunter looked at Katra. "So, what are you thinking about?"

Katra looked up. "About Dad. Once Strato's gone, I would like to go on a search for his hometown, Nathos. It's out there, somewhere...."

Hunter looked at the medallion. "A town that isn't anywhere on the map. Have you checked through the academics' records to see if it existed in Ancestral times?"

Katra smiled. "No; I have looked, but Nathos isn't mentioned anywhere, past or present."

Hunter thought about it. "But you're positive it's out there, true?"

Katra nodded. "Yes. I've been thinking... even Strato knows about the city. Perhaps he's from there?"

Hunter leaned against the wall. "That would be a surprise. Perhaps you should ask him?"

Katra got an idea. "Well, considering how he's locked up, that wouldn't hurt. Who knows, but he could know something!"

Katra walked over to Strato's cell for a few answers. "Strato."

Strato looked up at Katra. "I have nothing to say to you."

Katra looked back. "Perhaps; but then again, perhaps you do. Where is the city of Nathos?"

Strato answered. "You mean, where was that city. The Regency of Catalonia destroyed it nearly one hundred years ago... or didn't you know?"

That was a satisfactory answer for Katra, but not Marcus. "What nonsense are you talking about, Strato?"

Strato looked at Marcus. "Oh, I guess you wouldn't know anything about it. But you, young one; I'm surprised you don't know. Your father was, after all, from that country!"

Katra showed the medallion to Strato. "Okay, then. I suppose you also know what a medallion like my father's is good for?"

Strato looked back. "Yes, I do know. Don't you?" Katra shrugged, and Strato looked aside. "I guess you don't...."

Katra looked back at Strato. "Well then, what is it good for?"

Strato did not answer. Marcus looked at Katra. "It's sad, but true; when Strato is executed, it seems that all knowledge of Nathos, and that medallion, will die with him."

Katra nodded. "Unfortunately.... Well, I will head back to my post." Katra walked back over to Hunter.

Hunter looked at the timepiece on the wall. It was now the first hour past midnight. "I hate having to be on guard like this. To be frank, it gets pretty slow down here at the cells."

Katra resumed his place, on guard next to Hunter. "True. But just once, I would like to have a night where nothing happens. There's Norset's destruction, burying their Guard, Strato's revelation, the seige, that fight at the Hamlet Inn, and last night's capture of the elite. Just once... I would like to have a simple, inactive night. Like the one in Lancaster, at the Starlight Inn."

Hunter smiled. "I know what you mean. If it wasn't for a few days like that in the past, I would have never met Mitch in the city of Vale. In a way, I guess it all works out after all."

Marcus walked over to them. "Vrynn's fallen asleep right now. How is everything on your end?"

Hunter looked back. "Quiet as a grave; not a single person stirring right now." The elite had fallen asleep by now; Strato, though, was still awake in his cell around the corner. Talon was similarly asleep for the night; and Katra was trying to get some shut-eye himself.

Marcus nodded. "Indeed. It's almost too quiet. But, anyway; I'll go back to guarding Strato with Vrynn."

Hunter stayed awake as Marcus walked back to his post. No matter how much a good, quiet night would be pleasant and refreshing, Marcus's comment was a bit disturbing. Hunter never liked to take chances, so with Marcus's comment about the night being 'too' quiet, Hunter was now on full alert. Just in case, he kept his weapon armed, watching and waiting for morning.

It was about the third hour after midnight when it happened. A series of large, loud explosive sounds was heard from the direction of Strato's cell, and Marcus shouted a call for help. However, before Hunter could answer, something threw Marcus clear across the hall. Marcus scrambled to stand back up, as Vrynn glided over to his side. "Hunter, Katra; look out!"

Also suddenly, the wall behind the elite's cell began to glow in a spot, as if a candle had been lit. The glow travelled up from the floor to about six foot high, then cut across the wall about four feet, and then back down to the ground. In its place, a large, black, doorway-shaped cut had been seared through the brick wall. Cracks appeared in that section of the wall, quickly spread through it, and in a few seconds, an armored fist could be seen breaking through the wall, reducing it to rubble. In the smoke and torchlight, a large, dark shape could be seen. It cut the bonds off of the elite, and the man left quickly.

The figure shot some sort of weapon at the divider separating Talon's cell from the elite's. The weapon pierced through the brick, and the figure soon slammed through the cell wall with astonishing force, breaking all of its bricks from their place in the wall and creating another cloud of smoke. It broke the bonds restraining Talon's wings, removed his halter and muzzle, and broke a third hole in the brick wall that led outside. Talon quickly escaped through the hole in the wall.

Hunter had never seen anything remotely like it. "WHAT IS IT?!?"

The figure turned towards them; two orange eyes could be seen glowing through the dust. After the dust cleared, they could see what stood before them. It looked like a large soldier, wearing a complete suit of exceptionally strong metal armor. It stood about five foot six; its armor plating was of alternating black and blood-red colors. It had some sort of pack on its back; a grapple on its right arm, and now, as it turned towards them, it drew its weapon and held it in its other arm, as preparation for attack. Its weapon was a sword unlike any other. As it held the weapon in its hand, a large, blood-red-color glowing blade of fire sprouted from the hilt of it. It stood before them, in Talon's cell, ready for a fight, and it looked as if it had come straight from Hell.

The enemy slashed its blade across the top of the barred door of Talon's cage. It swung another slice, cutting through the bars at the bottom. With this second cut, the bars to Talon's cage all fell with a clang to the floor. It approached. Hunter drew his sword and shield, preparing for it to attack. Similarly, Katra drew his sword. Marcus prepared his bow and arrows for use against it.

It attacked in Hunter's direction in a lunge; Hunter quickly evaded it in a roll, and it slammed into and through the wall, rolling outside into the courtyard. Hunter, and Katra followed it outside, while Marcus remained at the broken wall to attack from a distance. Marcus shot an arrow at it. However, it held up its blade for defense, and the wood-shafted arrow disintegrated as it shot through the enemy's blade. Marcus was stunned. It swung at Hunter, and reflexively, Hunter blocked it with his shield--or so he thought. The sheer power of the enemy's blade cut Hunter's steel-bound shield like a hot knife through butter, and singed Hunter's arm in the process. Hunter threw the remnants of his shield to the side; it was useless now. Marcus shot another arrow at the enemy. It hit the enemy's armor, but broke clean off at the shaft; it could not damage the foe.

Katra tried attacking the enemy, but his sword failed to do anything more than scratch the opponent's armor. It counterattacked, and nearly hit Katra with its blade. Katra managed to counter the attack with his sword, but it was to little avail, as the opponent's blade swung clean through Katra's sword. Unlike Hunter's shield, Katra's sword was still intact. The enemy struck again at Katra, and Katra stepped aside and tried to block the blow. When Katra's sword cut through the enemy's blade, the blade shrank for a mere moment, in an effect similar to waving one's hand over a candle and letting it lick their palm.

The opponent came on the attack again, at Hunter. Hunter saw it coming, and managed to evade the enemy's blade. Marcus, seeing as how normal arrows did not do any good, strung his Silver Arrow and fired it at the enemy. It struck the enemy in its right arm joint, but no damage or injury could be seen. Temporarily putting its blade away, it removed the Silver Arrow from its arm and threw it back at Marcus. Marcus evaded, but the Silver Arrow's unfailing accuracy snapped Marcus's bow clean in half. Marcus put his lance together to continue the fight a little closer.

The enemy redrew its fiery blade and charged at Hunter. Hunter managed to evade the blow and counterattacked. The enemy, though, stopped Hunter's sword with its blade. The fury of its blade seared through Hunter's sword and cut it in two. Hunter retreated to the building for his own safety; with his bow previously stolen, and now this, he was weaponless.

Marcus saw this, and stood aside, knowing that trying to fight this opponent would serve little purpose other than snapping his own weapon in two. Katra, though, continued his fight, going on the offensive since he couldn't adequately block the enemy's blade. The opponent countered each and every one of Katra's attacks with its blade. But for some reason, the power of the enemy's blade had no effect on Katra's sword. Whereas it easily cut Hunter's sword and shield in two, it merely licked around the edges of Katra's sword, leaving it unharmed.

This fact seemed to surprise the opponent, who now went on the aggressive. Katra had to step back repeatedly to avoid the blows. By now, the night guardsmen had heard all the commotion and come running. They stopped short, though, when they noticed the enemy whom Katra was fighting. Hunter warned them not to get too close, showing them his broken sword and shield pieces to serve as a warning. One of the guardsman readied a bow and tried shooting the opponent, but its metal armor was too thick for simple arrows to pierce, and they merely bounced off of its armor plates.

The enemy turned away from Katra. It raised its right arm and fired its grapple. The grapple lodged on a building above the guardsmen. With unprecedented force, the opponent retracted the grapple, shattering the upper wall of the building and literally bringing the house down on the guardsmen. The guardsmen were seriously injured in the damage. The enemy turned towards Katra again, right in time to receive a blow to its arm plating. Katra's sword left a visible cut in the opponent's armor. That got its attention, and it decided to stop toying with Katra.

It jumped over Katra and landed behind him. Katra whirled around and managed to counter one of its blows with his sword. Katra jumped back to evade its next swing, and countered again with his sword. This time, he managed to knock the blade out of the opponent's hand somehow; the blade doused as it fell to the ground, leaving only the hilt.

Somehow, the enemy soldier knew where its weapon had landed even without seeing it, and as Katra was about to strike him again, it rolled to the side, grabbed and charged up its blade for use. Katra's swing missed, and the soldier countered with an attack of its own. It missed, though, as Katra ducked the blow and tripped it backwards with his sword. It rolled backwards and back onto its feet.

Katra was getting tired by now, but the enemy was far from quitting. Katra kept fighting as best he could, but the enemy's moves prevented him from inflicting any more hits. But as long as Katra was on the offensive, the enemy would not get a chance to strike back. After a little while, though, this changed when the enemy knocked Katra to the ground. It bore down upon Katra with its blade, but fortunately, Katra managed to get out of the way. As Katra stood up, it retreated a few paces back.

Katra decided that what he needed was a clear shot at this enemy for a pierce. The enemy offered an opportunity soon, and Katra struck at the foe--and hit it. However, his thrusting attack failed to pierce the foe's body armor, and Katra's blade merely scratched across the foe's armor, causing Katra to slip and fall. As Katra regained his footing, the foe knocked Katra aside. Katra rolled back onto his feet, though, and prepared for a counterattack.

Katra was too late.

Before Katra could attack further, the enemy ran Katra through with its blade. The flames from its blade licked and washed all over Katra's front side. Katra dropped his sword in pain. After about two seconds, the enemy withdrew its blade from Katra. Katra collapsed onto the ground.

Seeing the damage it had done, the enemy doused and put its sword away. Looking to the northwest direction, it jumped into the air. Mid-air, it activated a set of pack-mounted thrusters, and for a few moments, stood there, hovering about eight feet in the air. It then charged up its thrusters, and sped off into the air, quickly putting distance between it and Border, until it looked like but a shooting star in the distance.

Hunter and Marcus were speechless with amazement at its power. However, Hunter's next reaction was one of being horrified. He ran over to Katra on the ground, and shook him. Several times, yet no response. "Katra!! Say something! You can't be leaving just yet...! Katra!!"

Marcus disappeared to find a medic, and quickly. Hunter kept trying for a response from Katra.

"KATRA ! ! !"