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Dragon Hunters

Book One: Out of the Ashes

© 1999-2001 Draconus and Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Eight: Mission Accomplished

Vrynn was the first to wake up when the morning sun shone through the window of their room at the Hamlet Inn, followed by Marcus and then Hunter. Katra was still sleeping in this time; the previous day's events and travel by night must have worn on him much more than on Hunter and Marcus, because it was another hour before he awoke. Vrynn was quite happy to see Katra wake up, and after looking at Vrynn, Katra asked Marcus a question of his own. "Marcus... why doesn't Vrynn leave me alone?"

Marcus shook his head. "Animals can sense kindness, you know. You're either exceptionally kind, or he thinks you have some food for him."

Katra blinked. He took out his medallion for a good look; Katra wouldn't find anything new on it, but looking at his medallion was one way of him to remember his father. Vrynn noticed the medallion, hopped up beside Katra, and sniffed it. Then, without warning, he snatched it from Katra's grip, hopped away, and proceeded to give it his own sort of examination--smelling it, clawing at it, and even biting it. Marcus was amused. "What is it, Vrynn?"

Vrynn looked back at Marcus, the curiosity quite obvious upon his face. Apparently, there was something in Katra's medallion that Vrynn found quite interesting. Katra stepped up and snatched his medallion back from Vrynn, placing it back in his uniform.

Vrynn looked sharply back at Katra with a glare, as if to demand why Katra was 'stealing' the medallion. Katra looked back at Vrynn, and as if Vrynn had sensed something, Vrynn backed down and returned to Marcus's side.

Hunter looked at Katra. "You slept a bit late this time. Anything happen?"

Katra thought. "I had another dream last night. It made even less sense than the last..."

Marcus prodded. "What was it?"

Katra thought harder. "Hard to was kinda fuzzy. There was this, um, a, ...metal monster, high in the sky, up with all the clouds.... It was aiming at some city on the ground with a weapon or something. When it fired, it unleashed like a huge blast of fire, and it destroyed the entire city in a single blast. Left a crater about a mile wide, I think...."

Hunter shuddered at the thought of an Ancestral or similar weapon that could cause mile-wide destruction. "Such power...?"

Katra nodded. "It was really wierd. The land it fired at; it was completely scrambled compared to what you see on the maps; no recognizable countries or anything. Just, a large monster, firing something, and wiping out an entire city."

Marcus nodded. "Were we there?"

Katra tried to recall; the dream was already fading from memory. "I think so.... I think I was there, too. But I couldn't recognize anything... it just felt like we were all there, witnessing some sort of disaster." Katra kept trying to remember the dream. "Oh, and there was something else.... One word... Orion, I believe."

"Orion," Marcus responded. "According to documents dating back to Ancestral times, there was a certain pattern of stars in the night sky called Orion."

Hunter nodded. "Probably doesn't mean much. Dreams have always been nonsensical or metaphorical. And unless it's a metaphor, it's definitely no vision."

Marcus looked at the timepiece on the wall. "Should we head down?"

Katra looked up. "Of course! I'm starved."

The morning entertainment was already underway as the group made it down to the first floor; this time they were telling a tale of a young prince commissioned to avenge his father's death. Hunter, Marcus, and Katra chose a table near the bar, and Vrynn sat down near Marcus. They ordered their meals, and Pierre, the Innkeeper was happy to fill their orders, despite last night's fight. Flour cakes for everyone, a few fruits, and some rare meat for Vrynn. After discussing it with Katra, Marcus ordered a few drinks. "Three lemon shakes, Pierre."

Breakfast was served without a hitch, and the group got a good watch of the morning entertainment while they waited. By now, in the play, the young prince had gone mad...or so he wanted everyone to believe; he had devised his plan of apprehending the murderer, and acting mad was the first step of that plan. When they were done with the meal, Hunter paid for it and Marcus left a good courtesy for the Innkeeper's time and patience.

After breakfast, they waited to see the rest of the morning's entertainment, even until its end, where the head guardsman gives the sweet prince a final goodnight. After all the actors took their bow before the audience, many of the other visitors left to get on with their business and travels. Hunter, Marcus, Katra, and Vrynn followed suit, setting their destination for Raos this time. It would be mid-day before they arrival in Raos.

Danverse is largely a forested country, similar to the western region of Suthcross; and although there is a lot of wildlife living in these forests, the wildlife stayed distant. No vicious predators like tigers, Norset airwolves, or wild gryphons were seen, much less encountered, and by mid-day, the group arrived at the village or Raos. Raos is itself a small village. It has but a small Courier's Guild, and no established Honor Guard. Its population could be estimated at ten families (including the Guild), so it was largely a bump in the east-west road that is Danverse's main avenue for commerce. Still, it has a large amount of open space throughout the village, and many passing merchants stop for a few days to offer their services to the locals and any possible tourists. Raos is a village that has never suffered the horrors of war or combat; and if all went well, it would stay that way. Raos's largest business is its smithy, run by a threesome of skilled weaponsmiths; followed by two Inns, and the local farmers. One would think that agriculture has no place in a forested place such as Raos, but the farmers do indeed grow a lot of fruits and other edibles for the village and the Inn. Apples in particular are the largest agricultural crop that the village offers.

Marcus led the way to the smithery, for the smiths to examine the Ninji dagger they recovered from the Dragon's Fist mercenary last night. One smithy, the master, was available to answer them as they came in; the other two were busy working on projects. He introduced himself and welcomed them. "Welcome to Matthew & James' smithy. What can I do for you?"

Hunter laid the Ninji dagger on the counter. "The name is Hunter of the Honor Guards. Do you recognize this blade?"

The smithy, Matthew, looked carefully at the blade and its design. "Quite so; we forged it ourselves. Of what interest is it?"

Knowing that smithies are always distraught when their products are used in dis-honorable practices such as terrorism, Hunter composed a false story to tell the man. "We found this lying near the Hamlet Inn, abandoned by its owner. Do you know where can we find the man?"

Matthew pulled out some record books and began flipping through them. "Ninji daggers have rarely been requested of us. In all our experience, only one man ever asked to have them made. Here it is..." Matthew pointed to a page in the records book. The sketches of the two Ninji daggers were a perfect match to the one Hunter was now showing him. "The owner lived westward in the desert, city of Border. 15th Milos Lane, second floor. Does this help?"

Hunter nodded. "Completely. Thanks for your assistance."

Matthew nodded in return. "Glad to help. Anything else?"

They had nothing else to do here, so after exchanging farewells, the group left the smithy. Katra was somewhat upset at Hunter telling Matthew a false story. "Shouldn't you have told him the truth?"

Hunter nodded. "It wouldn't have done much good. Weaponsmiths hate being told if their weapons get used in a crime. They'd rather not know what a weapon gets used for. Besides, we found what we came here for. Next clue is in Border...although I doubt we'd find the mercenary at 15th Milos Lane."

"And In that case, why head to Border in the first place if it'll be a dead end?"

Hunter stopped. "If you have any better ideas, I'd like to hear them. We don't know where to start searching for Strato; and unless we want to wait for a clue--say, another siege or assault--this is our only option. Besides, if Strato is heading into the desert, that gryphon of his won't be easy to hide, and Border's guilds will assuredly spot him. That can possibly offer us another clue.

"And even if it doesn't, the Couriers do a good job of coordinating with the Honor Guards. If a well-known enemy like Strato is sighted near any major cities, the Couriers will alert all the Guardsmen."

Marcus checked a map of the countryside. "It'll be sunset by the time we reach the desert. And after that, it'll probably be midnight by the time we reach Border."

Hunter nodded. "Good timing, as well. Deserts are nigh-impossible to safely traverse during daylight hours. It'll be better at night, as the sands cool off."

Katra looked westward. "A long shot, but I for one don't see any better options. Should we get some rest first?"

Trying to sleep during the day proved to be impossible, but they did manage to get some rest from their walk, and a bit to eat. Grain rations aren't the tastiest meal for any adventure, but they are sufficiently healthy to eat, very easy to pack for a trip, and the Sportsmans Guilds produce and sell them for good prices; as a tracker, Marcus carries a good number of supplies for his trips should he need them.

After this break, Marcus led the way westward, along the roadway. They travelled for many more miles, discussing what they should do if they are indeed on Strato's trail, and exactly what would be the best way to bring him in. And all the while, the sun continued its westward pace across the sky. Except for a few bridges over water, fallen trees, and other natural landmarks, there was nothing to differentiate each section of forest from the next. That is, until they arrived at the small cliffline that borders the desert. Aarid desert, as the scholars call it; it receives perhaps one-tenth of an inch in rain during any given year; daytime temperatures exceed 130, and nighttime temperatures drop to near freezing. It is said that Aarid Desert was not naturally so, for at about three thousand years ago, it was reduced to desert by the Ancestor's own obliteration. It is one of few areas in the world that have never recovered from the damage dealt three thousand years ago. There are few plants--even cacti--to dot the sandscapes in Aarid Desert, and if it wasn't for metal posts embedded in the sands to mark the road to Border, it would be very easy to get lost in the dunes. There was no wind today in the desert, something making the air feel hotter, but since the sun was already setting in the west, temperatures would be going down for the night.

Hunter and Marcus jumped down the small (about 3 foot high) precipice marking the edge of the desert, with Katra and Vrynn following. The sand was now firm, which would make walking through the desert a tad easier; soft sand is the worst for desert travel. The sun continued to set as they travelled across the sands, following the line of metal posts dotting its way towards Border. It would probably be midnight by the time they arrived at Border, which would mean that only the night guards would be around for information. Any other questions would have to wait until sunrise the next day. Fortunately, as the sunlight faded from the sky, a full moon and sky full of stars shone down from the sky, illuminating the sands of the desert in a dark bluish hue. The group continued westwards for many hours with little to talk about.

Aside from desert snakes, it is rare that one would spot a predator at night, especially since in this case, Marcus spotted a gryphon off in the nighttime distance. The only reason why it could be spotted with human eyes is due to the black silhouette it made against the illuminated sand, and a few glints of armor. Reason had it that this could be Talon, Strato's gryphon--their particular species is not exactly adaptable to a desert climate, so the gryphon definitely was not native to the region. However, at their distance, they would not be able to investigate the sighting, so they continued on the path westwards.

It was about the tenth hour of night before they could spot the city of Border, illuminated throughout the night by torches on its walls and in some windows. They had made quicker time than they anticipated, for they had arrived about one hour and a half before midnight. Border is a sizable city given its desert climate; with wood being a rare commodity in such a region, all of the buildings are made from clay with only a few pieces of imported wood and metal. Glass, though, easily made and purified from the surrounding sands, gave Border its beauty; virtually every building had windows and skylights by which to let light into buildings. All glass windows in Border are wrought in large, iron frames to discourage would-be thieves from breaking and entering, and the designs of some frames are quite remarkable. Add in a vigilant night guard, and Border has a low proportional crime rate--perhaps two to four percent.

Glass is Border's primary industry; and this fact makes Border one "Glass Capital" of the world. As a common and highly sought-after commodity, Border has several refineries by which to draw from the desert sand and produce the material. In return, Border receives due merchant taxes and other necessary metals like iron. As a city, Border also has a significant number of desert flora; palms, floral cacti, and other well-adapted plants dot the city, giving it an unusual amount of green for a desert establishment. This is possible due to a large underground reservior and the corresponding surface oases that Border is built upon; they do have a source of fresh water.

Hunter and Katra were recognized by Border's border guards as Honor Guardsman; Marcus and Vrynn were allowed in as friends of the Guard and city. The first stop was simple; since an Honor Guard is established in the city of Border, Hunter and Katra checked in there. They were surprised with the news; Strato had been spotted north of Border, in the larger area of Aarid Desert, and presumably, he was searching for something. As for what could possibly be found in the desert, a Catacombs site was probably the answer, for legends tell of an underground "temple" buried somewhere in Aarid Desert. And then, of course, whatever lay in the Catacombs is always a mystery.

After checking in, Hunter decided that checking around the town was in order. Though they should probably have gotten some rest first, Hunter led them around the city until he found the address that Matthew in Raos had told them. Right on Milos Lane, they found the 15th residences building, and checked upstairs. Had the door to this room been simply closed or locked, they would have turned around and left; but strangely, the door was broken down. The room inside was a total disaster; as observation could tell, there had been a fire in the building at some time past. The building as a whole endured the arson well, but everything inside had been lost for a long time now. Only the charred structure of the rooms could be seen; the windows were long melted and gone, including the skylights; under the illumination of a torch, the room was still a darkened black. For some reason, when the building had been set fire to about a year back, the damage had never been repaired.

Vrynn could sense something dangerous even before a Dragon's Fist mercenary stepped out into their view, with one Ninji dagger in hand. It was the same mercenary they had met earlier. He did not attack--at least not at first. Instead, he waved his arm in a circle about the room. "Like our handiwork?"

Hunter, Marcus, and Katra prepared for possible combat. "What are you doing here?"

The man kept talking. "Keeping a look out. I knew those daggers were traceable; they used to belong to the very resident of this building, you know. It's a pity that same man decided to tangle with Strato!"

The story was clear now. The mercenary's daggers did not belong to him, but rather were stolen from their true owner years ago in a Dragon's Fist attack. The resident had offended the Dragon's Fist somehow, and was killed in their counterattack by perhaps Strato, or the elite mercenary standing before them. Hunter looked back and demanded, "Where's Strato??"

The elite motioned outside. "He's out there, going to unearth the temple that, according to legends, sleeps in the sands. And, I wonder... where is that dagger I left behind?"

Without thinking, Hunter drew the dagger from his pack. "You mean this?--" In an instant, the elite threw a throwing dagger, knocking the Ninji dagger out of Hunter's grip and onto the floor. At that, their fight begun. The elite quickly evaded his way across the room to pick up his other dagger to begin fighting at his full ability. Marcus and Vrynn disappeared elsewhere (perhaps to locate reinforcements), leaving Hunter and Katra against the elite. As Katra blocked the elite's strike, Hunter knocked the opponent out of the room with his shield. The elite stumbled down the stairs, and then rolled to his feet outside. Marcus was waiting outside for the elite, and as soon as the man noticed him, Marcus smiled and attacked.

Hunter and Katra were soon on the scene outside as well, and Hunter backed up Marcus. With the sounds of a fight going on outside, where many can hear, it wasn't long before the night guardsmen heard the event and came running to the scene. With Hunter and Katra as known guardsmen, the night guards came to their aid, demanding first that the elite stand down, and then for an explanation. Seeing that he was now outnumbered six-to-one, the elite did so, standing down and sheathing his daggers.

Next, Hunter gave the explanation, and quickly. "This man identified himself as one of the Dragon's Fist, and was present at king Leonardo de Suthcross's assassination."

The guardsman looked at the elite. "Is that true?"

The elite glared back, but allowed himself to be captured. "Yes, that is true. Do what you will..." The guardsmen removed the daggers from the elite and took him into custody, cuffing his hands behind him.

Hunter looked back at Katra and Marcus, then spoke to one of the guardsmen. "I don't believe he's just giving himself up like this. Strato wouldn't...."

The elite shouted back in their direction as the guardsmen took him away. "You got that right--Strato can not be captured so easily!"