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Dragon Hunters

Book One: Out of the Ashes

© 1999-2001 Draconus and Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Nine: The End of the Beginning

It was a good night, especially with the knowledge that Strato's remaining elite had been captured. Only Strato remained; however, the modus operandi, so to speak, of his capture, would have to be thought up in the morning. Hunter, Marcus, and Katra paid for a room at the Twilight Inn to get what remaining 5 or so hours of sleep they could before sunrise. Marcus was the last one to bed down, who spent about another half-hour of gazing at the stars.

Predictably, Vrynn once again found Katra's medallion most interesting, and Katra had to lift the wyvern off of him in the morning. By now, Katra was getting used to something sleeping on him, so Vrynn's presence did not come as a surprise. What did surprise him, though, was the fact that this morning, Katra was the first one to rise. Hunter and Marcus, and even Vrynn, were sleeping in. So, Katra decided for a walk on the top floor of the Inn to get some fresh air and clear his head.

The morning sun was just now beginning its rise from the forested eastern horizon; there was not a cloud in the sky (as is typical of desert climates), so the day in Border would be quite a warm one. According to local legends, a "temple" of sorts existed somewhere in the northern desert area; and if it indeed was a Catacombs site, Strato would not be far off.

Even at this time of sunrise, Border's beauty was beginning its daily show; the eastern sunlight was reflecting off a good many glass windows and frameworks, giving accent lighting to areas otherwise shadowed from the sun. Uninterrupted, Katra decided to take another reflection at his medallion, pulling it out of his uniform and holding it in his hand. It was his father's; yet there must be something about it that could provoke deep curiosity and interest from a wyvern. But aside from the dragon emblem embossed onto each side of it (and wyverns likely can't recognize emblems for what they represent), there seemed nothing special about it. No, correct that; the thing that made it special was the simple fact that it, like Katra's sword, are the only lasting memories that he has of his father. Although made out of a golden metal, it felt soft and warm to the touch; it could shine exceptionally bright when placed in the sun; and only Draconus, his father, knew what it meant. Draconus had never completely informed Katra of what the medallion was for; he only referred to it as a sign of heritage, and one that Katra should keep with him for all time.

Vrynn was the next one to wake up, followed by Marcus and Hunter; so in a while, Vrynn was seen climbing the stairs to the roof after Marcus. Marcus arrived on the roof, and spotted Katra. "So there you are. Hunter's taken off towards the Guards', to talk to the Chief about today. Anything up?"

Vrynn walked over to Katra; Katra looked back. "Just thinking.... about today. If we play our cards right, we may be able to bring Strato in."

Marcus nodded. "Perhaps. However, he's not the type to be taken quietly, like that elite last night. Strato might very well fight to the last man; we must be prepared for that."

"Well..." Katra recalled their overnight 'stay' in the previous Catacombs. "Just once; I would like to see him behind bars. For Dad's sake...."

Marcus nodded. "I guess I can understand. My father, back when he was around, served under king Leonardo as one of the royal military. He was an excellent cavalry-man in his day. He died honorably, in combat and in service to the king."

Katra looked up. "Was he also killed by the Dragon's Fist?"

Marcus shook his head. "No; he was killed about ten years before your father's death, during a conflict between our country and another. The Dragon's Fist didn't even appear until about twenty years ago; five after my father's death and five before your father's.

"At any rate.... Capturing Strato weighs on Hunter as well, so he's probably discussing some plans with the Chief. We should be there as well." Marcus led the way, with Katra and Vrynn following behind.

It took about five minutes to locate Border's Honor Guard building, but just as Marcus suggested, they found Hunter discussing some plans with the Chief. "So, do you think there is any manpower to spare for this?"

"I told you already, Hunter; we've already dispatched a number of guardsmen to patrol the area north of here, near the oasis. If they find anything, they'll send message. They haven't yet, so correspondingly, they haven't found anything...."

A courier walked in behind Katra and Marcus, opening a small letter publicly addressed to the Chief and reading it aloud. "A message just arrived, from your men. They say they have found a cave up in the desert, approximately two miles north of the oasis. They haven't seen any signs of Strato or that gryphon, but they are going to keep watch for awhile to see if Strato shows up. We've got the hawk at the Guild, ready for a reply. Anything to say?"

The Chief and Hunter talked for a bit, and then the Chief wrote out a return letter. "Hunter, take your comrades and head up north to the oasis, and then a bit further; you'll meet up with our men. They think they've found out where Strato went; they'll be expecting you."

Hunter nodded. "Thanks, Chief." He looked at Marcus and Katra. "Shall we be off?"

Marcus nodded in return. "Let's go."

There was a surprising cool breeze flowing across the desert as they travelled, giving them their only protection from the heat. It took about an hour of travel before they arrived at the oasis; by then, it was midday. Being a bit weary from the constant sun and heat, they well took their opportunity to get refreshed by the pure oasis's water. They also took the time for a bite to eat. Vrynn discovered a snake nearby, killed it, and then ate it for his lunch, while Marcus shared with Hunter and Katra some of his packed rations.

After the stop at the oasis, they continued their travel. About a few minutes past the oasis, they came to it--a large collection of large rocks strewn about this area of the desert. Five guardsmen were about the scene, waiting for their arrival. Hunter recognized one of them, and shouted out in greetings. "Hey, Swamp Rat, is that you!?"

The guardsman looked back in surprise. "Hunter Antare?" He ran over. "I haven't seen you in the longest!!"

Hunter introduced the man. "Katra, meet Mitchell Sanchez. Mitch, this is Katra de Nathos, from the Norset Guard."

Mitch shook Marcus's hand, and then greeted Katra. "Is it true to assume that you survived the Norset massacre?" Katra nodded.

Mitch filled them in, pointing to a recently-uncovered cave entrance between several of the boulders. "We spotted Strato from a distance last night, presumably in this area. But we haven't seen him since, so he's probably underground."

Hunter nodded. "Undoubtably searching for something. So, I never thought you'd be so far north. Didn't like the glades?"

Mitch smiled. "Well, when you spend most of your life down near the swamp, you'd be glad just to get out of it for awhile."

'The Swamp', as it is known further down south. During one of his assignments in years past, Hunter met Mitchell in a far-southern city named Vale. Hunter and 'Shane' had been called there on a special request, and it was quite a travel just to get to the city of Vale. Mitchell was a resident of the area, and the request made of them was an escort while they extracted a sizable artifact from some ruins beneath Vale's nearby swamp. Hunter took the job because, frankly, West Falls had been very quiet for a time. Shane--during one of his visits from Alexis to West Falls--had volunteered for it as well. The recovery of the artifact had proceeded well, almost without problem; however, their group was ambushed by some feared local bandits on the trip back to Vale. During that fight, Shane had saved Hunter's life, pulling him out of the way as a bandit nearly felled a tree on top of them both; Hunter made it unscathed, but Shane had suffered a broken leg from it.

Incidents like that one, five years back, made the truth about Strato's "birth name" even more hurtful. That Strato, as his character "Shane", could save one's life at one moment; while at another, ruthlessly trying to slay the same one in combat; that seemed to make little sense. Yet it was; Strato, much as he tried using his 'Shane' persona, very much had an honorable streak. Part of it was evident in the way Strato organized the Dragon's Fist; even he knew that lives were precious, so whenever they attacked an area, the mercenaries did their best to keep the death toll at a minimum. In a way, Hunter's group and Mitchell's group were now trying to return that favor, and take Strato alive.

Suddenly, a sound could be heard echoing from inside the cave. It was a type of sound unlike anything they had heard before; constant and steady, like rushing water, and growing louder at a quick pace. Hunter glimpsed something approaching from below. "Get back!!"

Almost without warning, it burst out of the cave entrance and shot off in the distance. Whatever it was, it travelled fast enough to create quite a wake; it blew the two groups to the side in the turbulence and cut a good set of fresh ripples through the desert sand.

"What on earth was THAT?!?" Mitchell exclaimed. Hunter tried to spot it, but no luck--it had disappeared in the sky almost as quickly as it had appeared from below.

Katra looked at the rut it had cut in the dunes. The groove was nearly a foot deep; such was the turbulence created. Katra was astonished. "Look at the trail it left in the sand!"

Marcus and Mitchell both looked at it, Mitchell making his own observation. "I've never seen anything like that... Hunter, Strato has got to be down there; find him! My group will stay up here in case he decides to come up."

Hunter nodded, and called after Marcus and Katra. Quickly, he led them down into the caverns to figure out what Strato had done. After about five minutes of spelunking, they found a lit passage leading to a large, obviously Ancestral, room. It was strangely lit from above, as if all necessary sunlight from above was somehow channeled into the area to make it look as if it was aboveground.

The area in this Catacombs seemed a bit less plain and ordinary than from the one near Lancaster; in fact, it seemed to be a bit decorative as well. The architechture of the room was stylish, in a gothic sense; it served up a clear indication of being manufactured by a different Ancestral country. In a way, this room looked as if it was intended to be a gallery, or museum. The walls were of a dim golden color, and the floor had a soft feel to it. The air, though, was not stale, but like the other Catacombs site, seemed as if it had some circulation, with fresh air flowing through. There were a few passageways leading through the walls into other rooms, and a staircase leading to a second floor.

Hunter picked one of the passageways on their level, and they travelled through it to another room further down. This next room was similarly large, as if to be a plaza of sorts; along the walls of two floors were several lines of alcove doors--perhaps being a barracks of sorts for the Ancestors. Or, considering the decorations of this Catacombs, perhaps 'residences' is a better word to use.

One of the doorways was lit, so Hunter led Marcus and Katra in that direction. They entered the room and discovered something. A large number of glass panes and consoles were spread across the room. However, everything except the lights was battered, scarred, damaged, and not possibly functional.

Strato was in the room with Talon, quite obviously waiting for them. Behind Strato seemed to be some sort of chamber; but it was empty. Strato looked up at them. "You've finally arrived...."

Hunter, Katra, and Marcus armed themselves in preparations for battle. "What are you up to, Strato?"

Strato pointed behind himself. "I found something most interesting. Unfortunately..."

Katra remarked back. "What was that thing that flew past us?"

Strato armed his sword. "That was ... not, what I was searching for."

Hunter readied his shield, along with his sword. "Then what was it?"

Strato chuckled. "It's not anything that you need concern yourselves with. Besides...." Without further response, Strato attacked. Talon stayed at a distance to watch. Similarly, to keep it a fair fight, Marcus stood at the back with Vrynn. Strato attacked Hunter, with a blow that Hunter blocked; Katra filled in, but failed to hit Strato as he evaded to the back. Strato countered with another attack, nearly harming Katra with his blade. In return, Hunter knocked Strato aside and straight through one of the glass panes of the room. It shattered, and Strato rolled out into the underground plaza. Talon was quick to follow, and Hunter's group gave chase.

Strato got back up and brushed the broken glass squares off of his armor. With Hunter and Katra at a distance, Strato quickly sheathed his sword, drew the Ancestral Shock Bow from his shoulder, and fired off a powerful shot. Hunter and Katra expected it, though, taking cover in the room. The blast from the bow hit the wall hard, shredding some of its outer structure. Hunter looked at Katra. "That weapon of Strato's can fire at least six shots; we must be careful...." Hunter drew his bow and, peering out over the edge, fired an arrow off at Strato. Strato evaded it, though, and fired a second shock from his weapon. This time, the wall they were hiding behind showed signs of crumbling, as cracks appeared on their side. A third shot, and the forceful blast from the Shock Bow crumbled the wall on top of Hunter and Katra. Marcus filled in as they uncovered themselves from the debris, firing his bow, knocking the Shock Bow out of Strato's hand, and to the side. "Gotcha!"

Strato drew his sword and ran towards Marcus. Marcus blocked Strato's first attack with his bow, then flipped Strato over him in a back-roll. Marcus grabbed the pieces of his lance, but before he could put them together into their single lance, he had to block against Strato's next attack.

Hunter finished brushing the debris off of himself, then stood back up and fired his bow. He hit Strato in the shoulder, but Strato's armor was too thick for it; it merely became stuck in his shoulderplate. Strato brushed it off with his sword, snapping the shaft. As Hunter and Katra drew nearer, Strato produced a small device from his pack. "I'd love to stay, but I'm afraid I have some prior engagement to keep...."

Strato threw the device towards the ground near them, and then turned and ran, with Talon in pursuit. The device detonated when it hit the ground, releasing a blinding flash all over the area. Marcus, having been facing away from it at the time, was un-affected by the flash. Hunter and Katra, though, and even Vrynn also, were seeing stars. Katra was blinking repeatedly, trying to recover from the flash. "What was that?!?"

Vrynn still couldn't see, but Hunter was starting to recover from it. "Where did Strato go?"

Marcus pointed to the doorway they had come through. "He went back to the surface. Next time, don't go looking directly at those things."

"What??" Hunter could see again, and Katra's vision was starting to recover, too. Marcus explained. "I've heard of that weapon before, in the historical records. The Ancestors would have called it a 'flash grenade'." Marcus looked down at Vrynn. "You okay, buddy?" Vrynn had stopped blinking now, so he must have recovered from its effect as well. Marcus pointed at the door. "We should follow!"

Hunter shook his head. "Assuming we can catch up, after a diversion like that...."

Nonetheless, they hurried back out to the previous rooms, and then through the caverns to the surface. They were quite surprised at what they discovered when they came out into the sunlight. Mitchell and his comrades had managed to capture both Talon and Strato!

Talon was laying on his side; his wings were sturdily tied to his torso in cords, he was muzzled, and a halter with several leashes was successfully placed on him. Strato was currently in custody; his weapons and pack removed and set aside, including his Shock Bow; his hands were bound behind his back, and a deadly expression was apparent on his face. Hunter was amazed. "How'd you do it, Mitch?"

Mitchell smiled. "It took all five of us to do it. First off, this gryphon was leading the way. Two of my men stretched a rope across the entrance, and the gryphon tripped right over it. Then, Strato fell on top of the gryphon, and rolled aside. We tied the gryphon up easily, and considering how it was already off of its feet, took only one man. Strato, though, took the other four of us to overpower. But we did. I can't believe we were so in luck...."

Hunter looked at Mitchell. "Neither can I; but anyway, send word to Border that he's in custody!"

Mitchell nodded and instructed one of his comrades to do so. "Also send word for the high judges from the capital city to arrive A.S.A.P. We have a court in Border; I'm sure they'll want to try Strato tonight for his crimes."

The two groups--Hunter's group taking Strato, and Mitchell's group taking Talon--began their walk, first towards the oasis and then towards Border. This first stop was primarily to refill their supply of water, and they offered both Strato and Talon a drink. Talon willingly tok a good, deep drink of the water, but Strato refused the offer. After that, they continued their trip back to Border.

The courier-hawk sent back to Border flew quickly. Once it arrived, the couriers discovered and spread the good news. They did not need to send a request to the capital city, though; for they had previously sent word of the elite's capture earlier the same morning and had posed the same request; the judge and escort were already at the city, having travelled by horse from the capital.

When the two groups arrived, it seemed to be a day of celebration, as if it was suddenly a national holiday. Many spectators were there to see Strato taken to the courthouse; Talon was put in the courthouse prison cells, next to the imprisoned elite; Hunter, Marcus, Katra, and the rest of the group simply endured the celebrations--being showered with praise is something that Honor Guardsmen are not well accustomed to.

It was about the third hour of afternoon when the trial was ready to start. The courthouse, not having enough room for all of the spectators, could not be used for the trial; so all the necessary fixtures, seats, and stands were set-up outside. A few lines were set down to designate spectator and participant areas, and the judge was escorted to the bench. Strato took his spot, guarded by Hunter, Katra, and Mitchell. Strato declined for presence of a defensive council; so the trial would be pretty short. Marcus and Vrynn kept at the sidelines, near the spectator areas. Then, as the judge pounded the gavel down on the tableau, Strato's trial began.

First off, the judge read Strato's list of crimes. "Strato Valkyros, for a period dating back nearly twenty years, you have been recorded of committing many crimes against civilization. They include:

"Murder in the highest degree of Norset Honor Guardsman and founder Draconus de Nathos;
Murder in the highest degree of the entire Norset Honor Guard, save one;
Grand theft of the Norset, Suthcross, Gallery;
Total destruction of Norset, Suthcross;
Destruction of the Lancaster Royal Military;
Destruction of the Namros military;
Besieging the Suthcross capital, Lancaster;
Assassination of king Leonardo Rutherford de Suthcross;
Assassination of the entire Namros government;
Impersonation of a fellow Honor Guardsman,
Three counts of banditry in the Norset Catacombs,
Four counts of banditry near the Lancaster Catacombs..."

The judge flipped a page on the list and examined the crimes. "Nearly half a dozen more counts of banditry, five of assault, and two more of destruction near assorted Catacombs sites..."

The judge flipped another page. "The list continues for awhile." He flipped to another page; followed by a fourth page, and even a fifth and sixth page. The judge looked up at the crowd. "Quite awhile..."

After flipping through the last page, the judge summarized the list. "In summation; you, Strato Valkyros, have been charged with 83 assorted crimes against civilization. What do you have to say?"

Strato looked up. "Those are all small-time and you should know it. I know what I did."

With that response, nearly everyone froze in astonishment. For Strato to refer to sieges, murder, and destruction as 'small-time' offenses, everyone was wondering what Strato had in mind for a 'major' offense.

The judge nodded. "Very well, then. Considering the weight of evidence against you, a plea equivalent to guilty, and the requested lack of a defensive council, there is no need for further trial. Strato Valkyros, it is the judgement of this court that--"

"Watch out, he's armed!" Somehow, Strato managed to procure a small dagger, and with it, he cut his bonds free. He knocked Katra aside, snatched Hunter's bow and arrows, and jumped away from his position to the side. He almost hit the judge with an arrow, and then took off, running, to the west. Marcus was quick to follow.

Hunter and Katra drew their weapons in preparations to give chase. The judge, however, stopped them and spoke up. "Hunter, Katra; before you go, this court requests that you give Strato a message...."