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Dragon Hunters

Book One: Out of the Ashes

© 1999-2001 Draconus and Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Five: The Discovery

Once the Royal Military had finished briefing for the attack, Shane joined up with Hunter, Marcus, Vrynn, and Katra, as they travelled north, then northwest out of town. Shane filled them in on where the Dragon's Fist was last sighted (a tidbit of info he had also mentioned to the Military), which was approximately fifteen miles northwest, located near Windfall River. An entrance to one Catacombs site also lay near the mercenaries' encampment, and it could easily be presumed that the Dragon's Fist was scouring through them for something.

Shane had requested of the Military that they attack from the southeast, while Hunter and his group circle around and strike from the north. Hopefully, the Royal Military's assault would distract most of the mercenaries, offering Hunter's group a clear shot at Strato. And as Marcus hoped, if they could either kill or capture Strato, King Leonardo would retract the declaration of war.

It was a long trip with few events to be seen, and after a few hours, Hunter and his group arrived at their position, a safe distance north of the Catacombs entrance and Dragon's Fist encampment. Now, they had to wait for the First and Second Divisions of Lancaster's Royal Military to arrive from the southeast. The two divisions of the Royal Military would engage the Dragon's Fist, while Hunter and his group ambush from behind to seek out the leader, Strato.

Time passed. Up in the sky, Marcus identified a gryphon shadowing them, and he reasoned that it was probably Strato's companion. However, it was well out of range; and if it indeed was Talon up there soaring above, then attacking him would only draw early attention from Strato and his mercenaries; therefore, it was best to leave the animal alone. On the other hand, though, it could be just any other gryphon; this particular area of Lancaster county tends to have a large populace of gryphons at this time of year, and despite that none have been caught (much less tamed), the Lancaster academics have been well-able to put together their complete and authoritative guide to the gryphon species.

It should be noted that, even though many Ancestral bestiaries have been recovered from times before the fall of the Ancestors, and their discoveries learned and made known, there are a number of species somehow left out of those documents. For some reason, the gryphon, wyvern, Norset airwolf, and other animals were never mentioned in Ancestral bestiaries or other documents, thus giving them the name of "lost species"; at about six hundred years ago, when the academic community discovered this, they set out to record all possible observations about the lost species of animals. It was a Restoration of a miniature scale, where brave persons and recorders were well paid for all accurate, written observations of the particular animals.

Gryphons generally prefer mountainous regions where they travel primarily by flight but hunt on land for extra stealth. They live in prides, and similar to the big tufted cats, male gryphons are responsible for the territory's defense, while females are responsible for hunting and well-being. Although humans aren't on their list of preferred foods, gryphon-populated areas are largely avoided to reduce contact with male--or especially alpha male--gryphons. If slain, gryphon meat is supposedly the tastiest, so if ever a guest says that a meal tastes like gryphon, it is a compliment of the highest order. Except for Strato's companion Talon, Gryphons have never been tamed--exactly how Strato went about taming his powerful companion is a total mystery, even to the best of the academics' finest.

Then unlike gryphons, who keep to their own species, Airwolves regularly live and travel with wolves. After several hundred recorded observations, the academics concluded that airwolves are a "young sister" species compared to the standard wolf. Not only do they mix with wolf packs, travelling and living together, but they are also capable of interbreeding--and whenever an airwolf is bred, the offspring are always of the airwolf species, regardless of which parent was an airwolf. While it is a rule of Nature that each species gives birth to its own kind; it would seem that Nature had granted the sole exception to wolves and airwolves, allowing them to interbreed. In fact, the first airwolves ever in history to be tamed were the offspring of a tamed mother wolf and a wild airwolf, and only from that particular lineage have airwolves since been bred in captivity. Scholars have often pondered that since even one airwolf parent always results in airwolf offspring, that the airwolves might eventually replace the wolves and thus make them an extinct species.

And then there are the wyverns. These two-legged firebreathing semi-dragon creatures were never mentioned by the Ancestors either, thus making it another one of the lost species. Aside from the dragons who only existed in legend, wyverns are the only creatures capable of breathing fire. This natural ability of theirs has made the wyvern species one of the most fearsome; and while not as powerful as the gryphon, their fire-breath well makes up for that lack. It has been observed that a fight between a wyvern and gryphon is largely determined by how they fight; if up close, the gryphon usually wins, while if fought at a distance, the wyvern almost never loses. Wyverns live in large communities in specific areas; and they often act together as a group. They hunt alone, but always fight as a group. And although they aren't sentient by human standards, they do understand a number of concepts such as friendship and loyalty. For example, Vrynn knows Marcus to be a friend, and thus forever remains loyal to his side.

There are bound to be yet more of the lost species in the world. True believers ponder that the Lake Nors Creature must be another one of these species; and there are (often exaggerated) accounts of small dragon creatures, nicknamed the drakes, in certain countries and locales.

More time had passed, and now Hunter could see the divisions of the Lancaster Military approaching the Dragon's Fist's encampment. The mercenaries saw them, and prepared to defend the area. They well knew why the Military was there. A trumpet call--the usual instigator for combat--was heard and the Military's two divisions charged in the direction of the mercenaries. The mercenaries loaded some of their bows and began their counterattack. Half a division stopped behind the rest of the lines to arm their own bows, while the rest of the Military and mercenaries met each other with their weapons. Swords, shields, spears, and even ninji daggers were used in combat. The odds were up in the air--there was no predicting which side would emerge triumphant.

Shane analyzed the mercenaries' composition. Strato was still nowhere to be seen in the midst of the fight. Shane suggested that Strato, as the leader of the mercenaries, would probably be staying in the Catacombs and watching the fight from a distance. Neither Hunter nor Katra agreed with Shane about this--they had themselves seen Strato in action. In a few minutes, Strato's fighting skills should prove evident and reveal where he is located.

As if a wish had come true, Shane could identify one mercenary fighting exceptionally well against the Military's soldiers. That must have been Strato, for he was wounding a great many enemies with his attacks. The Military was losing ground, but this was all part of the plan. If it takes two divisions of their forces to bait the Dragon's Fist for their destruction when they counterstrike towards Lancaster, King Leo considered that a suitable--even though still heavy--price to pay.

The leader backed off from the field as the Military was now beginning a retreat, and he entered the Catacombs. Hunter looked at his group. "This should be our chance!" Shane volunteered to lead the way as to draw minimal attention to their group as they snuck towards the cave entrance to search for the leader.

No mercenary saw them, nor did any try to stop them. With Shane leading the way, Hunter and his group made it to the cave entrance in complete safety. They went into the cave; and since it was fairly dark, Marcus lit a flare for illumination. Simple flares had proven to be useful, cheap, and easily portable torches in explorations past; and it was standard practice for a tracker like Marcus to carry a dozen or two.

After five minutes of descent, though, it proved to be bright enough in the cave to see without a torch. There was a torch-colored light at the end of the next room. As the group pressed further, and into the lit area, they discovered what they knew to be correct--they had entered the local Catacombs. Rock walls gave way to some highly reflective, Ancestral sort of metal panelling. There were even-spaced holes in the ceiling, where torches had been hung by the Dragon's Fist for steady illumination. Although they were underground, the air was nowhere near stale; it was as if there were still some ventilation holes connecting the site to the outside, recycling the air and keeping it safe.

Here, in the Catacombs, lay the clues to the world's Ancestral past. Countless colored lights, mounted on metal panels, were visible in a side room on the other side of a glass partition. The large room ahead had a large, circular shaft about twenty feet diameter in it; the center of this shaft was obstructed by some sort of metallic pillar. The floor in that area was netted from metal, allowing one to see about two floors downwards. As they proceeded further, into the large, shafted room, there was this overwhelming sense of power and wonder as they looked around. It could not be compared to anything on the outside world, because nothing like it even existed on the outside world. The Catacombs are, essentially, a world of their own; a world whose mysteries lie dormant and whose clues are few and far between.

Shane heard some distant voices off in a hall to the left, and he motioned the group to follow. He led them out of this large room and into another. This second room had several metal tableaus in it, almost untouched by three thousand years of decay. Here in this room were fashioned several bunks, apparently made by the Dragon's Fist mercenaries for temporary residence inside of this Catacombs site. The voices echoed from another room; closer this time, and after checking to make sure the hallway forward was clear, Shane motioned them to follow.

The next room was painted in a different color. A green floor, with white lines methodically painted upon it, dominated the area, while many torches from above provided illumination. The walls cut back at sharp angles, making the ceiling much wider than the floors. After a bit of observation, it would seem that they had stepped out into the grandstands of a Catacombs stadium.

Shane led the way down to the stadium's floor. The walls of the arena were painted over by a great many arcane words and symbols. A few ordinary words like "sprint" and "slice"; a few symbols like a red-and-blue sideways ying-yang, numbers like a large orange "4" and an arcane 18,007,463,767--these supposedly had some meaning to the Ancestors, but that meaning is now unknown. Nor could it even be guessed--the large words and symbols were spread across the arena's walls randomly, lacking any noticeable pattern.

The floor was soft. Was it grass? Indeed, it felt like a grassy meadow. It would be strange for plant life to survive 3,000 years in the Catacombs like this, and even without trimming. But it was not grass; upon closer inspection, it proved that the floor of the arena was coated in some form of Ancestor-made fiber mesh. Most of it was green, but on closer inspection, what appeared to be white lines painted on it was actually white-colored fiber. Large numbers were imprinted on the floor as well, the closest number being a large "40"; and two large square "Y"-shaped constructs were barely visible, one at each end of the stadium.

Suddenly, the door to the arena from whence they entered slammed shut. Hunter, Marcus, Shane, and Katra whirled around. Jumping down from the grandstands were two Dragon's Fist mercenaries, and hopping down with them was the gryphon, Talon. Neither mercenary looked any different from the other, but judging by the armor they wore, they were probably some of the Dragon Fist's elite soldiers.

Hunter and his group prepared for action, readying their weapons. One of the mercenaries spoke up. "If you're looking for Artifacts, you've come to the wrong place!"

The other mercenary filled in, drawing a greatsword from his shoulder-mouted sheath. "And if you came looking for a fight, we'd be glad to oblige you."

The first mercenary completed the speech. "You're obviously with the Lancaster Royal Military. Which means..." He drew two large Ninji daggers from his belt, one in each hand. "We're not letting you out of here!"

The fight began. Marcus backed off to arm his bow with Vrynn aside; Talon lunged at Hunter, while Katra and Shane took on the two mercenaries. However, Marcus couldn't find a single open shot in the melee, so he sheathed his bow and armed his lance. He ran in for a closer fight. The mercenaries were definitely elite material--especially the one with the Ninji daggers. Katra and Marcus had their hands full fighting that mercenary. Shane was handling himself well against the other's greatsword, while Hunter defended himself agaisnt Talon. Vrynn came to his aid--wyverns and gryphons being natural enemies--and spewed a large berth of fire all over Talon.

Talon quickly rolled off of Hunter and across many feet of arena to douse the fire, shake himself off, and resume attacking. One of the mercenaries faltered momentarily, and Shane knocked him to the ground. However, the other mercenary knocked him to the ground with a backwards kick whilst fighting Katra and Marcus.

Shane rolled back to his feet, sword ready. Talon jumped up and dove at Shane. Shane dodged it, sending Talon rolling far the other way. Shane pointed his sword at the melee as he got back up to continue his battle with the greatsword-wielding elite.

Hunter and Marcus switched places. Marcus armed his bow and shot Talon out of a glide with a well-placed arrow. However, even after landing, Talon seemed undaunted by the hit, snapping the arrow off of his wing with his beak. Vrynn spewed another breath of fire at the gryphon, but Talon expected this and jumped out of the way.

Hunter, Katra, and Shane now had the elites cornered. With the flat of his blade, Shane knocked one mercenary into the other, bringing them down together. However, at this time, Talon jumped at Shane, tackling him to the ground and threatening to kill him.

But then something strange happened. Talon paused, and Shane threw the large gryphon off of him. Talon quickly got back up, but refused to attack!

Marcus recognized that something was wrong. "Shane...! What on earth...?"

Shane stepped back, standing with the mercenaries. "So, it's finally come to this, has it..." The two mercenaries got back up and stood by him.

Shane began giving orders. "No more hiding. Take care of those two... but Hunter is mine!"

Hunter looked at Shane in shock, as the elites--now catching a second wind--engaged Marcus and Katra. Hunter was aghast. "Shane!?"

Shane ripped the Honor Guard badge off of his uniform and cast it aside. " 'Shane' was but a birth name. It looks like we're going to finish our battle, Hunter. Know me well...the true name is Strato Valkyros!!"

Shane--which is more proper to say Strato--removed the headband he had always worn and cast it aside, his hair falling down into the style that he called "dragon tails". Then, he engaged Hunter, sword to sword.

The horrible discovery was now made known. Hunter's dislike of Shane's tactics, and Vrynn's dislike of Shane's character, suddenly pointed to the fact that Shane was Strato. Hindsight is a real killer, as Hunter was enraged at not having pieced it together before. Now the battle was four on four; Hunter fighting Strato, Marcus and Katra against the two elite, Vrynn and Talon attacking each other; the battlefield felt even more level than before.

Little could be thought in the fierce battle that ensued. After two more bursts, Vrynn ran out of fire-breath with which to attack Talon. Although since Vrynn could still fly (unlike Talon whose wing was injured), his fight lasted awhile. At one point, Vrynn sank his own talons into Talon and tried to bite Talon in the neck. Talon, however, rolled over on top of Vrynn, turning the tables. Vrynn however hit Talon in a weak spot with his sharp, plated tail, causing Talon to let off a yelp of pain and jump aside. That was, however, not enough when Talon came pouncing back at Vrynn. Talon tackled Vrynn by the tail, neck, and wings, would have slain Vrynn had Strato not ordered him to stop.

Marcus lasted similarly as long up against the greatword-wielding elite. marcus blocked many blows and at two times, knocked the elite to the ground. The elite, however, still managed to outlast Marcus, snapping his lance into its two component pieces with a single powerful blow. After that, the elite knocked Marcus down to the ground and pinned him, his sword at Marcus's throat. "It is over."

Katra was forced to play defensive against the elite with the Ninji daggers. Two daggers against one sword is not exactly an equal battlefield, but Katra did manage to protect himself from taking a single blow. However, in that space, Katra wasn't able to get a single strike at the elite, and he was being pushed back towards the wall. When he was close enough, the elite threw his Ninji daggers, pinning Katra to the wall by his shoulders and knocking his sword out of his hand. The mercenary was quite pleased at the battle. "Hah... too easy!"

Hunter fought as best he could against Strato. Hunter took the offense, but Strato was a competent defender. After another minute, Strato went on the offense. As similar to Katra's battle, Strato's offense left no room at all for Hunter to strike back at his opponent. Strato managed to knock Hunter's sword out of his hand, but as Hunter saw where it landed, Hunter blocked Strato's attacks with his shield while he moved over to pick it up from the ground.

Strato looked at Hunter. "This is getting old already. Now be gone!" Strato withdrew that Ancestral device he had used in Norset. Hunter recognized it and rolled to the side, but when Strato fired it, it seemed that Hunter's evasive was not enough. The blast knocked Hunter ten feet further back. "What is that thing?"

Strato smiled with an evil grin. "Just a little toy I salvaged from one of these Catacombs. Ancestral weapon, model B.S.U. Shock Bow."

Hunter scrambled back onto his feet. "B.S.U. ...?"

Strato smiled again and fired it at Hunter. This time, Hunter managed to avoid its blast. However, as the blast impacted against the wall, it left a sizable 3-foot by 3-foot shattered dent in it. Strato responded. "As phrased in the Ancestral vernacular, 'Blow stuff up!' "

Strato fired again. Although Hunter was prepared for it and somehow managed to deflect the blast with his shield, the force of it still knocked Hunter's sword and shield out of hand. They landed a great distance--about fifty feet--away on the arena. Strato, with the Shock Bow still perfectly aimed at Hunter, walked forward victoriously.

Reflexively, Hunter drew his own bow to get a shot off at Strato. He was, however, too late as Strato fired the gun again, and its blast knocked Hunter into the wall with a substantial force.

Hunter fell to the ground from the impact, and struggled to get back up. However, the feel of Strato's foot on his backside confirmed the truth. Strato looked down on Hunter.

"The duel... is mine."