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Dragon Hunters

Book One: Out of the Ashes

© 1999-2001 Draconus and Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Six: The Siege of Lancaster

Hunter landed with a thump as Strato's two elites tossed him into an Ancestral cell with Katra, Hunter, and Vrynn. Vrynn was resting to recover from his injuries, while Marcus was looking around at the area for possible ways out and Katra leaning up against a wall, deep in thought. After that, Strato pressed on some control panel, and the door to the cell snapped shut. That is, if you could call it a door...whatever it was made out of, it looked a lot more like a window. Strato stood by his two men. Hunter stood back up and looked back in disdain. "I can't believe this. After all the time, Shane was but a joke!?"

Strato shook his head. "Not a joke at all; I did take that day-job seriously. 'Shane', though, was but a birth name. You, call me Strato."

"What are you talking about?"

Strato pointed at Katra. "Ask him; he should know. At least his father did..."

Katra looked up. "Don't you even dare mention my father! Not after all you've done, now or back then..."

Hunter demanded back. "What have you got planned, Strato?"

Strato withdrew an artifact from his pack, and showed it to the group. "Why not? You can't do anything right now. And don't try breaking out..." Strato rapped on the glass border. "Your bows are on this side, out of reach. And even if you had them, you wouldn't be able to break this barrier. You can't melt it, either; this Ancestor-made material is quite durable. So...

Strato tossed the artifact from one hand to the other. "This is what I recovered from the Gallery at Norset. The Ancestors would call it a key. According to legend, something great was sealed inside of the Catacombs, somewhere in this world. This thing is one of three keys to that seal."

Katra looked back. "Is that the same seal of legend that I've read about?"

Strato looked back. "Long ago, the Ancestors lost some of their most powerful weapons to whatever they sealed behind the three keys. This is one of those keys, and..."

Hunter punched the barrier, but expectedly, it held firm. "And so you're going to recover and use those weapons, right?"

Strato laughed. "No....those weapons would be but a bonus; I'm looking for something else."

Hunter asked of Strato, "Like what??"

Once again, Strato pointed at Katra. "Why don't you ask him?"

Katra suddenly had an idea. "Strato, what happened to the city of Nathos?"

"Nathos, right?" Strato answered. "It's all but ruins now; you couldn't miss it. Don't worry, though; I'm not at fault for its destruction. It was destroyed nearly one hundred years back."

Hunter was surprised. "Strange that you should know about a city that isn't even on any map..."

Strato responded back. "But yes, it was on the map. Now, where were we...?

"I guess I should commend Chief Martaka's tactics. He gave us the perfect strategy for our counterattack. Attacking us with a mere contingent of their entire forces.... Well, unfortunate for him, we mirrored that tactic, and merely defended this area with a contingent of ours! Two divisions of their twenty, a mere ten percent; and we forced them into a retreat with but ten percent of our own men. When we strike, I expect the outcome to be no different."

Strato looked at Hunter sternly. "We'll be heading out, tonight. We finished our search through this Catacombs site and found almost nothing of what I'm looking for. By morning, you will find the barrier retracted, and you'll be free to leave as well. After all, we can't go letting such 'honored guests' simply rot in here, can we?"

Strato let out a short laugh, and with his two elite, he walked off. At least he left the torches lit, giving them a source of light and not leaving them in total underground darkness. A timepiece left on the wall told the time--it was now about the ninth hour of evening as its pendulum ticked back and forth with each second. However, it was dead quiet in the cell; the ticking of the timepiece was too quiet to penetrate the cell's barrier.

Hunter looked at Katra. "Any idea why Strato kept referring to you?"

Katra shook his head. "Must be my father. Strato's the only other one to know of the city Nathos. It exists, somewhere...."

Marcus looked up. "Katra, what is a 'birth name'?"

Katra frowned. "No clue. Dad used that term only a few times, and he never told me what it meant."

Marcus nodded. "I see..."

Hunter paced back and forth between the cell walls. "I... I still can't believe it. After all our disagreements, I could always count on Shane to give a hand during battle. He even saved my life in occasions past. And all that, it was just a facade...? I can't believe I'd be so stupid...."

Marcus looked at Vrynn, who was obviously trying to get some rest, but instead stirring. "In all likelihood, Hunter, I should've been the first to piece it together." Marcus knelt down beside Vrynn, who looked back with a sad glint in his eye. Marcus sifted through his pack, and after a few seconds, withdrew a handful of feathers from one of the pouches. He set the feathers down by Vrynn, and Vrynn slowly ate them. "It was a tough fight, Vrynn...but you did your best. As always...."

Katra looked out into the hall. Marcus's bow, as well as Hunter's beside it, were set down on the other side of the hall. "Do you really think Strato's just going to let us go?"

Hunter stopped pacing, nodded, and looked around. "Yes; I believe he is going to do just that. You heard him say it; he's found everything he wants in this Catacombs site. You can always count on a mercenary like him to do what is in his own best interest--he'll be moving on elsewhere like he says. And this cell design...."

Everyone got a good look at the cell they were in. There were no apparent windows, and only a few vents for fresh air to flow through. There were no bunks, but the floor was covered in some mat-like material, giving it a soft yet firm feel. Nor were there any apparent facilities like the sinks and water-closets found in both Ancestral and modern prisons. Modern plumbing what it is, the most reliable method for waterpower (besides hand pumping) is to shaft it in from higher-elevation sources like waterfalls. Of course, the Ancestors must have had some systems better than this, but still, the cell they were now in had a definite impression as not being a long-term construct. Logically, then, it must have been a short-term brig; something to place rebels in for only a few hours at a time, rather than days or more.

Hunter continued. "This doesn't look anything like a normal cell. If Strato says he's going to let us go, I for one can trust that word."

Marcus apparently was surprised, so Hunter explained. "Look; facade or not, whenever he was on the job as an Honor Guard, Strato never broke his word, nor made a promise he couldn't keep. If he said that he'd do something, he did it. If he agreed to rendezvous somewhere at a specific time, he'd be there and not one second late. And if you asked him for help, he gave it. And if you were in mortal danger, he'd come to the rescue. Not exactly grudgingly, either. We may not have tolerated each other very well, but otherwise, Strato was as noble as any other guardsman."

Katra shook his head. "Quite an odd mix for a mercenary like him, right? Something doesn't make a whole lot of sense about it."

Marcus lied down on the floor, close to where Vrynn was again curled up. "I'm going to get some rest. Regardless of what happens tomorrow, we're as safe to rest here as anywhere else."

Hunter looked back at Katra. "Is there anything?"

Katra nodded. "People like Strato. On one side, a perfectly noble officer of the Honor Guard. And on the other, a bully, terrorist, and mercenary."

Hunter spoke back. "And on both sides, an unmatched swordsman. He fights as though he has had more years of experience than can be possible."

Katra thought for a minute, while Hunter brought to mind another question. "Katra, you mentioned something about reading a legend. What was it??"

Katra nodded. "Well, Strato says that there's a legend regarding that Ancestral Key he has. But it's not the same one I've read about, it's something almost completely different.

"The legend I've heard about dates back about 3,000 years. According to it, after Judgement rained down on the Ancestors, those few who survived--even they would have perished in the ruined world. But according to legend, eight noble dragons of light brought the remaining peoples together; helped them rebuild, taught them how to survive, and when their work was done, they vanished, leaving only the legend in their place...and a prophecy."

Hunter smiled. "It's pretty hard to imagine the Ancestors being so helpless that they needed help, just to survive."

Katra nodded. "Absolutely. Especially with the abilities that legends speak of. But anyway, the prophecy of legend says that the dragons carried with them a seal of some sort. And according to that legend, the dragons are still out there. The forbidding part is that if the eight dragons are slain, that very same legend says that the very forces of the world will themselves fall apart, and everything die."

Hunter pondered. "And Strato..."

Katra showed a sign of relief. "For a moment, I thought Strato was eventually trying to find and slay the dragons of legend. But fortunately, he's following a different legend--one that I have never even heard of."

Hunter glanced at the ceiling. "And given how much you've read up about legends, that says a lot?"

Katra nodded. "Indeed. Strato's legend is the only one that I haven't heard of."

Hunter heard the timepiece outside of their cell strike the tenth hour, making ten audible chimes. "It's getting late, Katra. If the Dragon's Fist is setting sail tonight, we'll need our strength to give chase in the morning."

Katra nodded. "Where do you think they're headed?"

Hunter didn't need to think up an answer. "Simple, actually. King Leo declared war against them, and thus they now think of Lancaster as an enemy. They're going to attack the city."

Katra was surprised. "And that you can say that with such a calm attitude...?"

Hunter nodded. "I can't forgive Strato for playing along as a guardsman like he did. However, there's no way for us to get out of here until morning. Retaliation can wait."

Katra lied down on the floor at one other end of the cell. Hunter decided to get some sleep as well.

In the morning (if you could call it that, considering that they were underground), when the timepiece struck the eighth hour and made its eight chimes, Hunter and Marcus were already awake. Like last morning, Vrynn had crawled on top of Katra during the night, and Katra again awoke to having Vrynn in his face. Katra wasn't as surprised this time, but he still reacted quickly and shoved Vrynn on top of him. "No, Vrynn..."

Vrynn looked back with a puzzled expression as Katra stood up. "Marcus...?"

Marcus smiled. "Not to worry. Vrynn has simply taken a liking to you. He'll get used to you, eventually; you should get used to him as well."

"Did Vrynn ever do this to you?" Katra responded. Marcus nodded. "Even more so. Vrynn's always thought of me as one of his parents, and their kind prefers to keep each other warm during the night. Vrynn..." Marcus called Vrynn who, upon hearing his name, promptly righted himself and walked over to Marcus's side.

Hunter probed at the entrance to the cell, trying to find the glass barrier. True to Strato's words, it was removed, and they were free to leave. Hunter walked outside, into the hall, and picked up the bows. He slung his own over his shoulder for later use, and tossed Marcus's bow to him.

Hunter looked down the hall in both directions. "There's no telling if we can arrive soon enough to defend Lancaster, so we had better leave quickly. Heck, the Dragon's Fist is probably already there by now."

Marcus nodded. Katra spoke up. "We can't let the capital suffer the same fate as Norset. That would be quite disastrous."

And so their group hurried through the hallways of this Catacombs. Marcus led the way in approximately the same direction the mercenaries had dragged them when they were captured. They travelled up two flights of stairs, around additional corners, and then arrived at the arena. Marcus pointed the way forward, as they moved up into the stands of it and through the hallway leading out. Two more rooms, and they arrived near the entrance to this Catacombs--the large, three-floors-high room with netted floor and pillars in the middle. After one last turn, the metal floors and walls gave way once again to the familiar rock cave walls of the underground. Marcus lit a flare, and thanks to a draft in the cave, led the group upwind towards the surface in record time.

A dawning sunlight greeted them as they walked out of the cave. They looked around. Previously, there had been several Dragon's Fist emplacements--tents, racks and barracks, portable smithies, and other tools--all about the area with the mercenaries; but now, aside from grass that was blood-stained from yesterday's battle, and excluding the smell of a few slain mercenaries and Military soldiers, there was no sign of the mercenaries anywhere.

Marcus led the way as they made a quick beeline for Lancaster along the shortest route possible. Yesterday's sidestepping around the Dragon Fist's encampment had added about an extra hour to travel time, so in all essence, getting to Lancaster would be a good twenty-five percent faster. It was the type of quick travel that one would ink out on a map in bold, blue dotted lines, and even though they were still travelling at foot speed, the trip was a relatively short one. And while there were a few sightings of the local gryphon populace, there were no encounters.

Still, Hunter knew that they might be too late. And it could be easily conferred from columns of black smoke seen rising from the city of Lancaster. Hunter and Katra armed their swords, while Marcus drew his bow and strung it for battle. There were several char marks on the stone-brick city walls, and many slain mercenaries lying about on the ground. Even more so, there were slain Military soldiers strewn about the battlefield, especially near the shattered gate. The sounds of combat were already underway inside, and the group rushed into the city for action.

Unlike Norset, which was half-burned to the ground when they arrived, only a few structures had been set fire to. Namely, the buildings for the Lancaster Honor Guard had been set ablaze. The Lancaster Guard was busy fighting with their mercenaries alongside the Military. Still, somehow, the sheer number of mercenaries in this battle was surprising. Each division of Lancaster's Royal Military contains about one hundred soldiers, and for an entire twenty divisions, the Lancaster Military numbers a vast two thousand. The similar numbers of mercenaries, though, was the real surprise; it could be estimated at a group of about five hundred. Although this gave the Military a 4-to-1 advantage in numbers, it was quite apparent that the mercenaries knew how to perform an outmatched fight. Sniping with their archers, for one, was one of the mercenaries tactics with which to overcome their lack of numbers.

Hunter and Katra rushed into the thick of a skirmish between mercenary and Military to lend a hand, while Marcus went about the sidelines, looking for the snipers. Marcus was able to take out many of the enemy snipers with his own arrows; this would assuredly turn the tables towards Lancaster's favor. Hunter and Katra, meanwhile, fought against their opponents, and brought them down. They, however, had but finished off of their group when the Military filled them in about the situation--as with Norset, the Dragon's Fist had struck just before dawn against the Military. Their sniping methods proved especially effective, allowing them to equalize much of the Military. The mercenary soldiers, similarly, had fought back much of the Military towards a stalemate of sorts. However, it seemed that the Dragon's Fist mercenaries had a greater stamina than the Military officers, and they were wearing them down.

Hunter and Katra were ordered to make way to the castle and protect the King, while the officers proceeded elsewhere to take down the rest of the Dragon's Fist in the city. Hunter and Katra found few mercenaries to stop them as they made their way to the castle. When they arrived, a shattered hole in the main door indicated one thing--the King was in danger.

Hunter and Katra ran into the castle. As it turned out, they arrived not one moment too soon. Two of the elite Dragon's Fist mercenaries were battling against the King's personal guards as they arrived on the second floor at the entrance to the throne room. Strangely, Strato was nowhere to be seen or found.

Hunter grabbed the elite's attention as they dropped the King's guards to the ground. "Halt right there!!" The pair turned around; and they were indeed the same two elite that Hunter, Katra, and Marcus had fought in the arena. This time, Hunter engaged the dagger-wielding elite, while Katra fought the other. It was a familiar sight; although this time around, Hunter--with his shield--was in a better position to defend and counter against his opponent. Katra, meanwhile, was able to launch a few strikes at his opponent.

They battled like this for a noticeable ten minutes. Eventually, Hunter managed to knock the daggers out of his opponent's hands, while Katra pinned his opponent's greatsword against the ground. Hunter looked at his opponent. "Looks like it's different this time..."

A familiar voice boomed across from the hall. "Don't count on it!" Strato dropped in from one of the skylights, landing like a cat. Strato withdrew his Shock Bow, and no sooner had the two elites evacuated from the hall had Strato fired. Its blast ripped a hole through the second-floor railings, and knocked both Hunter and Katra into the wall against the throne room door. Hunter sheathed his sword and shield and drew his bow to get a few distance shots off at Strato. Katra took cover behind a stone pillar, and Hunter moved aside, as Strato fired another burst from his weapon and drew closer.

The upper portion of the stone pillar Hunter was hiding behind shattered from the blast, sending a significant amount of stone debris into the area. Hunter fired off an arrow, but Strato evaded it. Even the best of aim can not prevent one's opponent from physically evading a blow. As Strato drew nearer, he fired off another burst from his weapon, this time in Hunter's direction. Similarly, when it hit the stone pillar near Hunter, the pillar shattered and rained even more stone debris into the hallway.

Strato burst open the door to King Leo's throne room with another shot, shattering it. As he ran into the throne room, he put his Shock Bow away. Of course, Hunter and Katra were not about to let Strato succeed with his plot, so they came in to attack Strato. Strato turned around and similarly drew his sword to fight back.

Similar to the battle at Norset, Strato was equally enough for both Hunter and Katra. They fought very well, much like their previous battle. This time, though, Katra was better at defending himself against Strato's attacks, and remained on his feet for the entire battle. Hunter, meanwhile, was receiving the worse of Strato's offensives, and was forced to play defense.

The two elite mercenaries were silently moving in from behind to retrieve their weapons. That they did, and they began to run towards the throne room to strike from behind. However, as an arrow shot clear across the floor and pierced one of the elites in a mortal wound, it was evident that they would have to go through Marcus first, as he stood at the other end of the hallway near the stairs with bow strung. The dagger-wielding elite whirled around and decided to change his strategy. That elite charged in Marcus's direction, and Marcus readied his lance as the elite drew close.

Strato rolled aside to dodge some of the blows swung at him by Hunter, and in that roll, he momentarily cast his sword aside and withdrew his Shock Bow. Hunter saw it coming and prepared to defend. Strato fired, but somehow, Hunter was able to divert its blast with his shield, and sent its force straight into one of the stained-glass windows. The illumination in the throne room brightened as the glass fell to the floor.

For his own safety, the last of King Leonardo's bodyguards had him evacuated through the emergency-exit behind the throne room to safety. However, as Talon was soon visible jumping through the window, they may have other things to worry about. As Talon grabbed Hunter and Katra's attention, Strato made chase after the King. Hunter fought against the gryphon, while Katra ran after Strato.

Even though gryphons aren't an armored species, striking at one is a tough prospect when it is already bearing down upon one's self, as it was against Hunter's shield. Although Talon wasn't able to get through Hunter's shield, much less his sword, Hunter wasn't strong enough to lift Talon off of him or strike back, and Talon kept trying.

Katra caught up to Strato at the rear terrace of the castle. This part of the castle was built directly into a hillside, and in the event of a war or other emergency, was available as one of three emergency escape routes for the King. Strato fought off the last remaining King's bodyguard, knocking him aside. Katra made it outside and shouted at Strato. "Stop right there!"

King Leonardo is no warrior, and with Hunter and Marcus busy against their opponents, Katra was the King's last and final line of defense. Strato whirled around to face him. " you would fight me again, would you? This will be fun!"

Strato produced his Shock Bow and took a shot at Katra, knocking him back ten feet. Katra slid to a stop and rolled aside, evading another shot from Strato. And again, as Strato fired a third and fourth shot. However, the Shock Bow failed to fire when Strato tried. "It must be depleted by now..." Strato slung it over his shoulder and drew his sword. He ran towards Katra and engaged him in combat, sword to sword.

After a minute of feverish blocking and evasives, Strato knocked Katra to the ground. The remaining elite ran out onto the terrace. He took a dagger--a smaller, balanced throwing dagger--and threw it at the King.

But in a miracle of precise aim, Marcus managed to knock the dagger out of the air with an arrow, as both landed in the middle of the terrace. Marcus and Vrynn were visible on the roof above the terrace. The elite saw him and took cover for his own safety. Marcus strung his bow and aimed at Strato. "Give it up, Strato."

Strato looked back up at Marcus and, expecting Marcus to fire, took a few steps back as Katra regained his ground and stood up. Strato eyed Marcus standing on the castle roof, bow strung. Marcus fired, but as if Strato was reading his moves, Strato jumped to the side and dodged the incoming arrow. Katra swung at Strato, but as Strato evaded it in a roll, he reflexively grabbed the throwing-dagger from the terrace and threw it straight at the King.

Strato's aim was uncanny, and he had hit the King right in the chest. King Leonardo faltered, stumbled back, and collapsed. Marcus and Katra were both in shock. Strato blew a shrill whistle, and in a few moments, Talon charged out onto the terrace. Strato motioned at Talon, who quickly flew over to him, picked Strato up, and managed to fly off. The elite quickly disappeared from the area, as Hunter ran out onto the terrace. Hunter gasped at the sight. "No..."

Hunter ran over to the King, as Katra was already there and trying to lend a hand. King Leonardo managed to gasp a few last words in their direction. "Remember... history.... Namros..."

And right there, hit by an assassin's dagger, King Leonardo Rutherford de Suthcross died.