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Dragon Hunters

Book One: Out of the Ashes

© 1999-2001 Draconus and Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Seven: On The Trail

Word of the king's death spread through the city faster than a lightning bolt. All remaining members of the Military and king's Guard arrived on the scene quickly, as did several men from the Lancaster Houses and the Courier's Guild. While there aren't any dedicated "Media Guilds" in the modern world, the Couriers do a good job of keeping the public informed of everything that is happening in the country, and similarly for important events abroad like negotiations, wars, and for this case, assassination. Some of the Couriers were questioning soldiers about the event, paying special attention to Marcus and Katra who were the only eyewitnesses of the king's death.

As the Couriers finished with their questions, Hunter was still standing at the castle wall, watching everything from a distance. Katra was still standing near the fallen king, even until the soldiers had brought in a ceremonial casket to place the king's body in. Marcus retrieved his arrow from the terrace. It was his prized Silver Arrow; his absolute, last resort that he used only in extreme situations. The particular arrow was made not from the average wooden shaft and feathers that normally are fired from a bow; it was made out of some light yet powerful metal Marcus had recovered from a Catacombs site and shaped into arrowshafts.

At one time previously, from years past, Marcus had a full quiver of arrows like this one, and he used all but one of them in a past battle against Dragon's Fist terrorists. Whatever metal they were made of, they never failed to strike an opponent; they flew through the air with an almost-magical accuracy towards any armored foe or foe's weapon. Now, Marcus had but one of the silver arrows remaining in his quiver; and he almost never used it. When trying to stop the assassin's dagger, Marcus had only that arrow remaining, and the situation--knocking a thrown dagger out of the air--justified its use. Marcus indeed managed to knock the dagger out of its flight, but even that extraordinary arrow couldn't have prevented Strato from picking up the dagger and finishing the job like he had done.

Strato himself had escaped with Talon; his remaining elite soldier had made an escape of his own, and was still at large. Marcus had slain the other elite with an arrow from behind. The only good news of this entire incident was the number of casualties. The Royal Military and the Dragon's Fist mercenaries had been equally matched during the siege. Only half a Division of Military soldiers, including their commanders, had survived--one might ask exactly what made this good news, but the truth was that since the two sides were so equally matched, a near-defeat of the Military corresponded with a near-defeat of the Dragon's Fist. Compared to the numbers reported by the Military's scout force, the Dragon's Fist lost virtually all of their four hundred soldiers. Strato and his one elite were the only mercenaries to escape from the siege; roughly fifty other Dragon's Fist mercenaries were being treated by the city doctors along with about one hundred injured members of the Royal Military; the other 350 Dragon's Fist mercenaries and 1,850 Military soldiers were slain. It is a strange logic that could justify--or even rationalize--such a loss of their armed forces, but according to the government's point of view, if they could cripple the Dragon's Fist, that group would probably never recover from it, even if they had to cripple their own Military in the process.

The Couriers finished asking Katra their questions, so he stepped back towards Hunter as the soldiers put the king's body in its casket. Covering it in the country's golden-striped flag, four of the highest-ranking Military officials picked up the casket, and proceeded off with it as their subordinates cleared a route through the castle and city for the procession. Many of the government representatives accompanied the procession, and so did the Couriers; this left Hunter, Marcus and Vrynn, and Katra out on the terrace.

Marcus was going over the events in his head. "Checkmate."

Hunter was puzzled. "What?"

Marcus walked over to the wall near Hunter. "Just thinking out loud, again. Given how things turned out, there's probably no way we could've saved Leonardo."

Chief Martaka of the Warrior's House appeared in the doorway and stepped out onto the terrace. "Are you three coming?"

All three shook their heads no in response, and Katra answered. "We fought at the Norset battle. After that, we personally buried all of the fallen Guardsmen and mercenaries. I believe I speak for us three, to say that we've seen enough dead for a few days."

Chief Martaka nodded. "Very well.... I should let you know; the Warrior's House is convening tonight to withdraw the declaration of war. I want to see you three there at the meeting."

Hunter looked up. "Why?"

"Find out when you arrive." Martaka nodded, and left the terrace.

Hunter looked at Marcus and Katra. "The king's funeral will take awhile, and the Warrior's House doesn't convene until tonight. What should we do in the meantime?"

Katra supplied the first answer. "How about a walk in the park?"

Marcus agreed, and Hunter led the way towards Lancaster Park. Lancaster Park was located approximately near the center of Lancaster itself, and was about twice the size of West Fall's park. A large, sculptured fountain was the park's main attraction, and somehow, it had been spared during the siege. Not even as much as a single bloodstain or stray arrow had stricken the park during the Dragon Fist's siege.

Among the facilities at the park are many wooden frameworks for the younger population to climb on, a few targets for archery, and other assorted constructs for combat practice. It is a regular occasion where Lancaster Park is actually used for Royal Military training; because of this, the practice targets are always well-kempt and maintained. The park is bordered by a ring of small trees, and has numerous other trees dotted throughout. Interestingly, unlike the park at West Falls, Lancaster Park was not formed from a level surface. During the construction of Lancaster Castle, the dirt and soil excavated from the castle site had been dumped here, at the center of the city, to form small hills and dips in the park. After the excavation, the park area was seeded with grasses, trees, and other plants; and now, two hundred years after its development, it is as much a fixture of Lancaster social life as anything else. Merchants regularly set up near the park for their everyday business; travellers often stop in the park for a good breather, and with Lancaster's population, there is always a number of people walking through and enjoying the park.

Hunter and Marcus made a challenge to see who had the best skill at archery, and they took turns aiming at the targets. Hunter's full quiver of arrows was used for this match. Katra and Vrynn sat together at the sidelines to watch. After twelve arrows apiece, they checked their score. Half-expectedly, Marcus won this challenge, but just barely. This meant that Hunter's archery skill was improving, since although Hunter never was able to beat his brother at the bow, Marcus's margin of victory was gradually shrinking.

After two matches between Marcus and Hunter, evening was beginning to arrive. Since they would be needed at the Warrior's House, the four of them left for the Castle to attend the Warrior House's session. As it turned out, they were right on time.

Chief Martaka introduced them the moment they arrived. "You are finally here; good. Where, by chance, is Shane?"

Hunter frowned. " 'Shane' won't be here, not any more. It may be a shock, but Shane is, more accurately, an alias for the mercenary leader, Strato Valkyros!"

There was a dull roar throughout the House. Martaka was shocked. "By the gods...your fellow man-at-arms is truly a dangerous soldier and mercenary?"

Hunter nodded. "Affirmative, Chief. And he's no longer a fellow man-at-arms, either."

Martaka responded. "Therefore, we can add another crime to Strato's already-large list for impersonating an officer of honor. Couriers, note that down, and spread it well."

The representatives of the Courier's Guild indeed took note. Martaka continued. "It is unfortunate that King Leonardo never took a bride in marriage. His only living relative was his cousin, who ruled over the fallen country Namros until his own assassination two years back. Without an heir to our throne, our country lacks leadership. To replace his loss, our House of government has decided to nominate a ruler for the position of Prime Minister. The nominations will be handled by the Resident's House convening tomorrow, and a vote drawn at the end of this week."

There were a few visitor questions asked of the Chief, and he responded those matters to their satisfaction; which was something that took nearly fifteen minutes. After this, the Chief again addressed the House with the next item on the agenda. "It was King Leonardo's final wish that our country not suffer the same fate as Namros, shattered two years ago during its war against the Dragon's Fist. We cannot both fight and repair this city at the same time. Therefore, we the Warrior's House have withdrawn that declaration; the war is over."

Hunter elbowed Marcus. "Shortest war in history; indeed..."

Chief Martaka continued. "Will Katra de Nathos, Hunter and Marcus Antare please stand."

They did so, and so did Vrynn, standing at Marcus's side.

Chief Martaka nodded. "You three fought valiantly to aid our soldiers. Marcus, without your assistance, our entire Military may have fallen against the Dragon Fist's snipers. And you all three kept the mercenaries away from the king, to the best of your ability. Although you weren't able to save the king himself, you still deserve congratulations for the endeavour. It is the wish of the House that your respective Guards be presented with a Recognition of Honor plaque."

Hunter nodded, trying to think of something appropriate to say. "... Thank you."

The visitors gave them a ringing applause. After that, Chief Martaka asked a request of them.

"The mercenary leader, Strato, left for our northern neighbor-country. He is no longer within our Military's direct jurisdiction. Furthermore, since we must re-build our capital city and repair the castle, we have no one able to track him. No one, that is, except for yourselves. It is our request that you track Strato down and bring him to justice for his crimes. As members of the Honor Guard, your authority sweeps far wider than our Military's, and you are hereby authorized to take Strato down."

"However, Wherever, and Whenever you are able to do so. It matters not in what city you apprehend this villain; his crimes are not solely against our country, and he is a wanted man no matter where he goes. All that we ask, is that you do apprehend him or slay him in the process of apprehension.

"We also suggest that you leave the capital city tonight and make your way north to the border. The moon is bright, and the weather is clear; with all luck, travelling by night should buy you some time with which to catch up with Strato and speed his capture. You will find Hamlet Inn near the border, where you can rest up and gain information as to Strato's whereabouts.

"Good luck and Godspeed. I hope that your journey will be well."

The House burst into a second applause; Chief Martaka adjourned the session immediately after. Marcus, Hunter, and Katra met in the park to discuss what to do next. They decided that the Chief's request of them--travelling by night in the same direction Strato went--did indeed make sense. Strato and the elite may likely have been injured during the siege, and they would need time to heal from those wounds as well. If that holds out, then travelling by night would indeed allow them to catch up and apprehend the mercenary.

Strato's list of crimes was growing; him now being charged with impersonating an Honor Guardsman, in addition to King Leo's assassination, Norset's destruction (and two thefts of its Gallery), the slaying of Katra's father, Draconus; and nearly a dozen other counts of invasion, siege, theft, and destruction, not including an additional handful of charges regarding the assassination of the Namros government, capital city, military, and country.

Marcus led the group northwards, first to the northern border of Lancaster, and then along the route leading northwards. The first few miles out of town cut through many agricultural fields and animal pastures, and the moon shone brightly from its place above in the sky. The moon was a full one tonight, and its light was bright enough that no torches or flares were necessary. There were a few small clouds in the sky, but these only added to the brightness of the atmosphere, with them catching some stray moonlight and reflecting it down to the ground.

After the farmlands, the ground split into a series of canyons that had existed since the times of the Ancestors. No one knows exactly how the canyons were formed; they were approximately 300 feet across, a half-mile deep, and ten miles long; and since no bridges have ever been constructed to cross it, it was a natural border between Suthcross country and its northern neighbor. At least, in place of bridges, there were a number of traversible pathways cutting down its edges towards the bottom. Crossing the canyon alone would require an hour to do so.

The path down the canyons was a safe one, but it still wasn't easy. The path was steep enough to discourage anything but a walking pace, and it had countless twists right and left. The rock formations near the bottom of the canyon were, however, beautiful. A sizable river cut through the canyon at this point. It was both wide and deep, and thus not possible to ford. Fortunately, though, there were a large number of rocks and stone formations sticking out of the river. In times past (about one hundred years), construction crews had built a sturdy stone bridge which spanned the river and made modern-day crossing much easier. Still, this was no commercial route. There were yet to be any pathways large or shallow enough to allow merchants to cross this canyon, and this fact alone keeps Lancaster cut off from northern commercial traffic.

At the upstream end of the canyon there is a large waterfall about one-third of a mile high. It is known as Dynamo Falls; this name dates back more than two thousand years, and may likely be the very same name the Ancestors themselves gave to it. The environment around it is astonishingly crisp and clear, despite the mist surrounding it. Rumors have it that there is a Catacombs site behind the waterfall, at its base; but so far, no one has discovered anything resembling a Catacombs in the area.

Marcus led their way up the path on the other side of the canyon, leading upwards into the northern country, Danverse. Danverse is a lot larger than Suthcross in area, but only a slight larger in population. It only has one major city; the rest of its population is spread all across its acreage in villages and hamlets. Danverse is a country gifted with natural borders; a ten-mile-wide canyon to the south; a harsh desert to the east and west, and snow-covered mountains further to its north. One-third of its northern territory was, in fact, acquired from the Namros War two years ago. It was a time when the Namros population, having lost virtually all of their government, had willingly allied with neighboring countries, and their territories were soon assimilated into the neighbor countries.

It was midnight by the time Hunter, Marcus, and Katra arrived at the Hamlet Inn. Run as a family business, the Hamlet Inn is well-known throughout Danverse (and even somewhat into Suthcross) for its entertainment. Tales of lore and legend, written even when the Ancestors themselves were young, are regularly presented each night. Tonight's tale was of two opposing warriors, Beth and Mac. Hunter, Marcus, and Katra entered the inn and sat at the back counter to rest, while many of the Inn's regular visitors were eyeing Vrynn carefully. Although it is a tradition of Hamlet Inn's owners that anyone is welcome, a wyvern like Vrynn is still an unusual sight.

A waitress came over to their table and asked if they could serve anything for Hunter's group. Marcus nodded, asking for a rare steak with which to give to Vrynn. Hunter and Katra both ordered something for themselves. Hunter even ordered a half-glass of merlot alongside his. Katra was a little surprised at Hunter's choice of drink, but Hunter put Katra's surprise to rest in saying how a small amount of wine can actually be healthy alongside a good meal.

It took a few minutes for the Inn's staff to prepare their order, and Hunter paid for the meal this time. The performance was now nearing its end, taking place with a battle between Mac and his adversaries. Mac was defeated in this act, but of course, like all plays and entertainment, no performers are physically hurt or injured. After an applause from the customers, many of them went to their rooms for the night. Similarly did the actors disappear to prepare for a night in. Hunter, Katra, and Marcus, though, still stood at their table. The Innkeeper asked them if they would like a room. Marcus agreed, and paid for a room that was large enough for the three of them and Vrynn. The Innkeeper gave Marcus the key to their room.

There was one other still remaining in the room, standing near the Inn's fireplace. Hunter thought of it as a fine time to grab some information, so he walked over, introduced himself to the man, and started a conversation.

This man proved to be quite silent, answering what questions Hunter asked but volunteering no additional information. As he answered, he mentioned that he had heard of Lancaster's siege and the king's assassination. He, however, did not know anything of where Strato would be at this time.

Hunter had a feeling that this man, dressed largely in black, was hiding something. Marcus decided to listen in on their conversation, so he walked over as well. Vrynn, having finished his steak, walked over with him. But after a good sniff, Vrynn reared back and hissed at the man.

The Innkeeper warned Marcus to watch over his companion, but already, Marcus picked up a clue. Hunter began asking a few deeper questions of the man, and the man was having a more difficult time providing satisfactory answers. Finally, the proverbial smoking gun was given them when the man mentioned exactly how he heard of the assassination.

The man drew two Ninji daggers from their sheaths, and in spite of the Innkeeper warning them, "Hey, No Fighting!", the man attacked Hunter. Hunter was quick to draw his shield, block the blow, and unsheathe his sword. Hunter was right of his suspicions--they had found Strato's remaining elite.

After a few minutes of feverish attacks from the elite against Hunter, Marcus stepped in. Marcus attacked the elite, but he jumped back from it. Katra came in from behind and knocked one of his daggers out of the elite's hand with his sword. The elite jumped back, over Katra, and towards the door. He did toss them one piece of information, though, before he left. "Strato will be pleased to know that his enemies haven't given up. Ta ta..." The man kicked the Inn's door behind him open, and quickly fled.

The Innkeeper was almost in a rage. He pointed at the three of them. "If you three want to stay the night here, fine; but no fighting!! Otherwise, you can just your three--and that companion, too--out of that door and be on your way! This is not a combat zone!"

Marcus nodded, separating his lance and putting it away. "We don't do that to just anyone. He was one of our sworn enemies..."

The Innkeeper was untouched. "You expect me to believe--"

Katra filled them in, presenting the badge on his uniform that identified him as an Honor Guardsman. "We're from the Suthcross Honor Guards. That man was a criminal from our country; we were attempting to have him arrested."

"On what grounds?"

Hunter retrieved the elite's dagger from the floor, and walked over. "The Dragon Fist's leader, Strato, is wanted in our country on multiple accounts, including an assassination of our king. That man was one of Strato's right-hand men. And if you'll notice, he struck the first blow."

The Innkeeper shook his head and thought about it. "Well...." The Innkeeper looked around at the room. "Well, seeing as how nothing was damaged, and no one was hurt, I can forgive you three; this time. But remember, no fighting!"

Marcus nodded, and after that, led Hunter and Katra to their room. The room was a large one, not unlike the top floor of the Starlight Inn in Lancaster; there were three bedmats positioned at the corners of the room. Hunter took the one by the door; Katra took the one nearest the shuttered window, and Marcus took the remaining one. Again, like the nights before, Vrynn chose to sleep near Katra. Although Katra still wasn't fully adjusted to Vrynn's presence, he was less surprised this time around than before.

If one thing was certain as they said goodnight, they were indeed on Strato's trail. The mercenary's dagger had a descriptive insignia on its hilt, indicating that it was made from one of the Danverse's smithies. Specifically, it was made from the smithy in Raos; a small village several miles northwards that Hunter's group would head tomorrow morning.