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Dragon Hunters

Book One: Out of the Ashes

© 1999-2001 Draconus and Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Thirteen: The Keys of Legend

Assuredly enough, the Courier's Guild in Adgers went relatively berserk with the sightings of the dragon, and they were quick to record it in reports and send word to the other Guilds. Hunter, Katra, and Marcus, reportedly lost at sea and presumedly dead, were able to check in at Adger's Guard station without notice. The Guardsman at the station heard of the reports about the Titanic's sinking, and was thus a bit pleasantly surprised at their arrival; but instead of drawing more attention from the Couriers, he checked them in quickly and quietly, deciding to inform the Courier's Guild the next day.

Strato had been sighted near a Catacombs site to the southwest, through the forest; the Guardsman asked that Hunter and Katra check it out and report anything unusual. It was at about this time when Hunter informed the Guardsman of Andrake, the Ancestral monster/soldier unearthed by Strato. The Guardsman asked that they leave early, both to check out Strato's whereabouts and to avoid attention from the Couriers. Hunter agreed; it would be a pleasure for them to hunt down Strato; especially with Andrake's Atom Blade in their possession.

Hunter arranged for one extra stop before they left Adgers; the museum. It was a long shot, but since they knew what the Atom Blade looked like, there was at least a chance of locating its fellow blade, the Dragon Buster. Hunter set the Atom Blade down on the desk next to the curator. "Excuse me, sir, but have you ever seen anything like this?"

The curator examined it carefully. "What is it?" Hunter thought about his answer, and then gave it to the curator. "We found it in a Catacombs site out on an oceanic island. Have you seen anything like it before?"

The curator nodded. "Not in my lifetime. It's apparently Ancestral; look at these marks along its side..." The curator ran his finger across the handle, then pointed at it. "It looks like this was used to hold it with. However, it seems to be no more than a handle of some sort." The curator examined it again, noticing the burnt coloring where the Atom Blade's fiery blade had sprouted from. "It looks as though it's been through a fire. Could be damaged, for that matter."

Hunter nodded. "Anyway. Could you send word--and its description--to the other museums, to see if they have anything like it?"

"Indeed, I could do that...", the curator responded. He withdrew a few pieces of paper and sketched the Atom Blade from various angles, then using paints to give the drawing some color. "But it will take a long time to send word out to every museum and receive their responses; I would estimate one month before I could give you a full answer."

Hunter was only half-surprised at the time estimate, nodding silently. "Okay then. We'll return in one month to ask."

"May I have your names, sirs?"

Hunter nodded. "Hunter Antare. My brother here is Marcus Antare, and his companion Vrynn. And my comrade here is Katra Nathos." The curator recorded their names and descriptions in a book, and then put the book away. He called one of his apprentices over, handing him the sketches of the Atom Blade. "Copy this several times, then send it to the Courier's Guild for delivery to all other museums. Get started; I'll give help as soon as I'm finished here." The apprentice nodded and walked back into the back room to begin copying. Hunter picked up the Atom Blade and put it back in his pack, and then said farewell to the curator.

Katra was, once again, somewhat upset at Hunter's making up a story to tell the curator. "Why didn't you tell him it was the Atom Blade?"

Hunter smiled. "Why not? Hah! The curator would have never believed me if I had. Besides, unless we can figure out how it works, we'd never be able to prove its identity anyway. And also, if I had told him and he believed, he probably wouldn't have honored our request. There is a certain fear that surrounds the Atom Blade; if someone walked in with the Atom Blade and asked you to find another just like it, what would you think?"

Katra thought about it. "I guess you're right; I wouldn't follow such a request either."

They were now leaving the city of Adgers and proceeding southwest towards Strato's last-known location; the sun was setting already and it was beginning to get dark. After a distance of five miles, it was also starting to get late, so they decided to set up camp. They chose a good location to camp for the night; it was slightly off the path, and with a brook on one side. Hunter cleared the area while Marcus gathered ingredients for a fire. Vrynn, naturally, lit the campfire with his fire-breath. Marcus then shared some rations with Hunter and Katra, and Vrynn left momentarily to hunt down his own meal. The forest was full of noise, and remained that way throughout the night as they slept.

Katra had another dream that night. Unlike the ones before it, which were pretty fuzzy, this one was clearer. Katra was standing at the edge of forestry, near a cliff. The cliff seemed to be two miles high. Below it lay a city that, although Katra had never seen it before, somehow felt familiar. Hunter and Marcus were not in it; nor were Vrynn, Strato, Talon, or Andrake. Not even Draconus, Katra's father, was present. It would be strange for Katra to see and talk to his father, who is 15 years deceased, but dreams can be like that.

Katra was not, however, alone. In his dream, beside him stood a dragon. It was slightly smaller than the one they met on Atlantis Isle, and of a more-fiery-orange color. Katra looked up at the dragon, and it looked back. It sat down near him, lowering its height to about six or seven feet, and seemed to be waiting for something.

Katra looked at the dragon. "Why are you here?"

The dragon responded in a way that seemed to speak directly into Katra's own mind. Because you are here....

The response was undoubtably a symbolic one. "Where is here?"

The dragon pointed down at the city below without answering. Katra looked down upon it. "What city is that? I've never seen it before..."

The dragon nodded. But your father has....

Katra had an idea. "Is that what the city Nathos looks like?" The dragon, however, shook its head, indicating a no. Katra was puzzled. "If that isn't what Nathos looks like, then by all means, what is it?"

The dragon looked out over the cliff. That is what the city Nathos looked like....

"You mean...?"

The city Nathos was destroyed one hundred years past....

Katra remembered what Strato had said. "Destroyed... by a 'Regency of Catalonia' ? "

The dragon nodded. Katra was still puzzled about one thing, though. "If this city, Nathos, did exist, then why was it never on any maps?"

But yes, it was..., the dragon responded. A different sort of map appeared before Katra, laying on the ground. Katra examined it, but other than the city Nathos and Catalonia, nothing was readable. Not that it would be anyway, considering how this was yet a dream, but looking at the map, the only places Katra could find on it were Nathos and Catalonia. The continents were all out of order as well, in different sizes, locations, and shapes than usual. "I don't recognize any of this..."

Katra looked back at the dragon. "Where--or how--can I find the city Nathos?"

The dragon reminded Katra of its history. You cannot find the city Nathos, for it was destroyed. Only its ruins remain.

"Right." Katra re-phrased the question. "Then how could I find what's left of the city Nathos?"

The dragon opened one of its paws, revealing some sort of artifact. It held the artifact out in the moonlight. It was roughly squarish, with a few Ancestral symbols on its sides and the numeral "2" on its front. Katra looked at it. "What is it?"

It is a key....

"What kind of key?"

The dragon waved its other paw out over the cliffside. A key to the Ancestor's greatest achievement. One... in a set of three.

"You mean, a key like the one Strato has?" Katra was beginning to realize something.

Yes. This is one key. Your foes have another. The third... remains placed in its lock. Under the earth. Catacombs....

"What good will this key do?" Katra still wanted to know exactly what they were used for.

The dragon gave him a different sort of answer. Two, held in the same possession, will illuminate the path to the third....

"And then...?"

The dragon looked up at the sky. The moon was now near the horizon, and the black sky was fading into a sea-blue. The dragon handed the key to Katra, then flapped its wings upward, jumped out over the cliffside, and soared off.

And the next thing Katra new, morning had come.

Katra woke up finding Vrynn still and asleep right next to him. Katra blinked several times, looking up at the early sunrise. He was the first one awake. Katra stood up, stretched, and looked around. The fire had burnt out during the night, leaving only a small burnt pile of ashes. A heavy fog had drifted in throughout the night, keeping the ground area warm yet also making for a colder day. Visibility was limited to perhaps fifty paces dis-regarding trees.

Katra sat back down, thinking about his dream. It made sense, yet at the same time, it didn't make sense. Katra looked at Vrynn, and examined his own medallion another time. Nothing different, as he expected; he examined it as if asking for answers to his questions. However, no inspiration or intuition struck him, so after a minute, Katra placed his medallion back in his uniform. He picked up and examined the key--

The key.

Somehow, although Katra clearly received the key only in his dreams, he was now holding it. And he was definitely wide awake. Something, or perhaps someone, had given the key to him in the night, and was now elsewhere. Although dumbfounded as to how one of the legendary keys suddenly wound up in his possession, Katra was also excited, remembering the phrase from his dreams regarding the Ancestor's crowning achievement. Katra ran over to Hunter and shook him awake. "Hunter! You're not going to believe this...!"

Hunter awoke, but he was still a bit tired. "Katra...what time is it?"

Katra nodded. "Sunrise. You aren't going to believe this, but it happened. I had a dream last night; there was this city, and I was talking to a dragon, and it gave me this key!" Katra showed it to Hunter.

Hunter nodded, still fuzzy and not fully comprehending what Katra was saying. "How nice..." Hunter laid back down for some more rest.

Katra shook his head. "Not like that. Hunter, will you wake up already?"

Vrynn was now waking up, and Marcus stirred. Hunter looked back at Katra again. "Hunter; in my dream, a dragon gave this key to me. And now, the key is still here! Look!"

Hunter put two and two together, and suddenly snapped to attention, sitting up. "What did you say?"

Vrynn walked over and woke Marcus up while Katra filled Hunter in. "I don't know how, or why. But I dreamt of receiving a key from some dragon, and when I woke up, here was this key on the ground. The same key as what I dreamt of. Look at it...."

Hunter examined it. The same Ancestral symbols wereetched into its sides and the same numeral "2" was etched into its face. "This reminds me of the key Strato has...."

Katra nodded. "Completely and totally true. Strato said his key was one of three, right? This is the second one!"

Marcus stood up. "What are you two talking about?"

Katra showed the key to Marcus. "Marcus, don't ask how; but we now have one of the three legendary keys!" Vrynn examined the key with a few good sniffs.

Marcus looked at Katra. "One of the three...? Strato must have one, too."

Katra filled them in. "Hunter, Marcus; the three keys, brought together, are said to unlock the Ancestor's greatest achievement. I'd bet almost anything that Strato's after that same thing...!"

Hunter had an idea. "We have the Atom Blade and one key. Strato has Andrake and another key. Who has the third key?"

"No one," Katra responded. "The third key is supposed to be buried within the Catacombs still. Furthermore, two keys brought together are supposed to reveal the location of the third key. If Strato finds that third key, guaranteed they'll lead him to us. If we find that third key, they'll lead us to him...."

Hunter gave them his idea. "But what if we acquired the second key from Strato?"

Katra realized the idea. "Then... the two keys would lead us to the third!!"

Hunter nodded. "And with the Atom Blade in our possession, we have one bargaining chip we could use to get that second key."

Katra liked that idea, except for the implication of giving the Atom Blade back to Strato. "Couldn't we just get the key from Strato?"

Hunter shook his head. "Not without a fight. With both Andrake and Talon at his side, I don't think we can take all three of them on. Strato's highly skilled, and we can't risk underestimating Andrake again."

Marcus agreed, and Katra, remembering what happened to him the first time they met Andrake, agreed too. "I guess you're right about making a trade, then. Now, where can we find Strato?"

Hunter pointed down the path to the southwest. "If we're in luck, Strato may still be near the Catacombs entrance at the end of the road. We should get going." Hunter led the way.

The road was another three miles until the site. A large hole dug into the ground marked the entrance to the underground caverns. It had been reinforced with planks (as to prevent its collapsing) since its dicsovery as a Catacombs site almost fifty years ago, and its location was no secret. They were also in luck; Strato's elite was standing at the entrance, waiting for them. "You finally made it. Now can we finish the job?"

Hunter looked back. "So soon? Are you sure you want to fight?"

The man nodded and drew his Ninjis for combat. "Why not? Strato said to prevent you from finding him down there. And personally, just between us warriors, ever since Strato found Andrake, he doesn't treat me the same anymore. He has his 'perfect' warrior, and I'm not needed. So why don't we finish this; right here and now?"

Hunter and Katra drew their swords, and Marcus prepared his lance. Hunter looked at the elite. "There should be another way to do this..."

The elite shook his head in a negative response.

Hunter tried again. "Our quarrel is with Strato. If you will stand aside and let us find him, we can avoid a fight--"

The elite shouted back. "Death first!!!" He approached and attacked. Hunter blocked the blows and took a step back, as Katra engaged the man. Katra's sword swung powerfully, knocking the elite aside even though the elite blocked it with his daggers. He whirled around right in time to spot Marcus on attack. He blocked Marcus's lance and used his other dagger to attack. Marcus saw it coming and took a hit to his shoulder armor, dropping his lance temporarily and backing off. The elite turned back to Hunter.

Hunter attacked carefully, although the elite blocked Hunter's sword with one dagger and countered with the other. Hunter blocked the counter with his shield and stepped forward to knock the elite off-balance. The elite remained standing, and tried to counter again. Hunter defended sufficiently and took a few more steps forward. The elite was cornered between Hunter and the cave entrance, and as he backed up, nearly fell down in. Sensing it, though, he jumped back onto the other side.

Marcus shot at the elite with an arrow, nearly hitting him, but still missing. The elite responded with a throwing dagger, throwing it at Marcus and hitting him in the arm. Marcus retreated further back, taking the dagger out of his arm and preparing to bandage up his injury. Hunter and Katra remained on the attack. Katra swung at the elite, and although the elite blocked the blows with his daggers, Katra still knocked him off-balance and backward. Hunter was waiting for him, and struck when he found a good opening. He hit he elite in the armor with the edge of his sword. "You were wide open--"

The elite responded quickly, attacking at Hunter. "And so are YOU!!!" The elite lunged at Hunter, daggers first. Hunter quickly evaded to the side, avoiding what could have been a skewering. The elite rolled over and back to his feet. Katra struck again, breaking one of the elite's daggers into two peices and knocking the other to the ground. Frustrated, the elite drew a last-resort pair of smaller, knife-sized daggers. As Katra attacked again, the elite kept backing away, as smaller daggers don't offer as much defense as the larger Ninjis do. Spotting an opening, the elite counterattacked, putting two good slashes into Katra's armored uniform.

Hunter stepped back into action against the elite and struck. The elite kept stepping back, evading the blows, but with Hunter's shield, couldn't spot an opening. The elite lunged into Hunter, knocking him to the ground and rolling over onto his feet behind Hunter. Hunter rolled aside as the elite buried the daggers into the ground near him, then quickly got back up.

Suddenly, the elite was hit from behind, droped his two daggers, and fell to the ground. His final words were a weak 'thank you' before he died. Hunter looked at Marcus. "Good shot, Marcus...."

Marcus shook his head. "Um... that shot wasn't mine."

Someone was clapping. Slowly. Strato and Andrake approached from the north, with Talon following behind them. Andrake was holding a small projectile device of sorts in his grip, and Strato had his Shock Bow slung over his shoulder yet ready for action. Strato looked at them. "Well done, Hunter!"

Hunter sheathed his sword, but kept his shield armed. Marcus walked back to their group, and Katra was ready to fight if necessary. Hunter called out to Strato. "Strato; we have been looking for you."

Strato laughed. "Indeed, and I you. You have something I want. The Atom Blade...where is it?"

"Safe," Hunter responded. "You also have something we want."

Strato stopped. "Oh?"

"The key you stole from the Norset Gallery. Where is it?"

Strato nodded. "It's safe in my possession. Of what interest is it to you?"

Hunter looked back. "We didn't come here for a fight this time..."

"Am I to believe that? The courts aren't exactly going to forgive my past...." Strato drew the Shock Bow and aimed it at them.

"That may be true...", Hunter responded. "I as much as anyone want to see you dealt with. Andrake, though, is another matter; one whom we simply cannot deal with."

Katra interrupted, completing their story. "We are looking for the Dragon Buster. Without it, fights like these are never going to end."

Strato laughed. "Hah! Why waste your time looking for that silly legend when you'll never find it?"

Hunter nodded. "With a response like that, Strato, you yourself have affirmed its existence...."

Strato nodded. "Now you will surrender to me the Atom Blade, or face the consequences!"

Hunter told him their own demands. "And we will not give you the Atom Blade unless you similarly surrender the Ancestral key to us!"

Strato was surprised, and he put the Shock Bow down for a minute. "Trying to bargain, are we? What kind of position are you in to even think of doing so?"

Hunter re-stated their demands. "If you give us that key, I will give you the Atom Blade, and we can continue on our ways...until next time."

Strato thought about it. "Oh...?" Strato chuckled for a bit. "And I say to myself, what harm can you possibly do?" Strato produced the key from his pack and held it in his hand. "This is that key you are looking for. Now fulfill your part of the bargain, and show me the Atom Blade!"

Hunter withdrew the Atom Blade and held it in his hand. Strato motioned to Andrake, and Andrake walked over, took the Atom Blade, and walked back. Andrake ignited the Atom Blade, its signature fire-red color blade glowing with energy. "It is indeed Atom Blade."

"Now, Strato...", Hunter responded back. "How do we know that you'll keep your word?"

Strato laughed. "Have I ever betrayed that word?" He threw the key in their direction; Marcus caught it and put it away. Strato began walking off. Andrake looked at him. "What are you doing? I should destroy them!"

Strato motioned after Andrake. "Negative, Andrake! A deal, is a deal... (and besides, once I find the other two keys, I'll find them and take the third key back...) . We have other plans. Follow!"

Strato, Talon, and Andrake were soon out of sight and, for the time being, out of mind. Katra sighed. "Glad to see that that went so well...."

With Vrynn accompanying, Marcus walked over to Katra and showed him the key. Its design was similar to the one Katra had, except for a numeral "1" etched on it rather than the numeral "2" on Katra's key. Katra produced his key, and held them both. "Now, according to what I've heard, if these two keys are put together, they'll point the way to the third...." Katra fumbled them about until he found two matching sides. Carefully, he pushed the two keys together. They clicked into place. Their two designs, put end-to-end, formed what looked like a dial. Moreover, a magnetic needle of sorts was now visible in this dial, and it pointed north like a compass. A second magnetic needle, buried in the other half of the dial, was visible and pointed west. "Is this it?"

Marcus and Hunter both examined the two keys. Put together, they had formed an Ancestral compass of sorts, and according to its readout, the third key was buried somewhere to the west. Katra volunteered to lead the way this time, as they digressed off of the southwest-heading road to travel straight west. Due west would lead them to the Constantine Mountains; although snow-capped this time of year, the place was rumored of harboring a Catacombs site. With the sizable city of Greendale at the foot of the range and edge of the forest, then with all luck they would be able to explore the Mountains sometime the next morning.

Travelling to the city of Greendale took the remainder of the day to do; it was approaching sunset by the time they arrived and there was nothing of else to note as they travelled through the forest. Greendale, a city much like Alexis in terms of size, area, and economy, is home to several native businesses and specializes in their Sportsmans Guild. Checking in at Greendale's Guard station was done quickly, and considering the early dusk (as is typical of a city on the eastern foot of a mountain range), they checked in at one of Greendale's Inns. Top floor.