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Dragon Hunters

Book Two: The Path of Honor

© 2001-2002 Draconus / Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Nine: A Baptism of Fire

"Back off, Hunter, this isn't your fight..." Strato shouted towards Hunter and Marcus as they came up the stairs.

The top of Solar Tower was fairly large, perhaps twenty or thirty feet in diameter. A set of three-foot-high railings skirting the perimeter of this area was the only insurance against falling. Though the sky was clear, an odd energy was in the air, as if a storm was brewing and it was only moments away from lightning striking the top of Solar Tower. A large metallic spire, rising about ten feet high in the center of the tower, served as its core, foundation, and protection against thunderstorms and lightning. Numbers were etched into the platform in a half-circle pattern, counting up from 6 to 12, and then from one to six again. Constellations of stars were also etched into the platform's floor in several precise locations, with several lines drawn between them. Evidently, Sareille's academia must also use the tower for studying the night sky.

Strato stood, his sword in hand and Shock bow strapped over his shoulder, halfway between the spiral staircase in the center and the railing in line with the '4' mark of the platform. The opponent was poised upon the '10' mark, measuring about eight feet high and nearly twenty feet from heads to tail. Hunter nearly froze for fear when he saw the creature -- he could not believe his eyes!

They say that everyone has a fear of snakes -- but even the most devout snake-lover may confess to a fear of hydras. Elevated to a status of mythological proportions, hydras are awarded a Ludwig Monster Ferocity rating of 8.0, making them more dangerous than even the gryphons, who on the same scale measure in at 7.0 . The only other animals known to be fiercer than hydras are the dragons, who have earned a 9.5 rating time and time again.

Hydras are infamous as the only creature in the entire world to have more than one head. They are also the only creature in the world to have three genders (male , female , and neuter ). Female hydras are the smallest and most docile of their species (being given a 4.0 ferocity rating), growing only to about ten or twelve feet long and weighing about 30-40 pounds. They resemble regular snakes except for a row of ridged scales flowing down their spine, two large hood-like flaps runing back from their heads, and a set of upward-pointing spines located halfway down their length. Male hydras are significantly larger and a bit more aggressive (having a 6.0 ferocity rating), measuring anywhere from twenty to thirty feet long and weighing from 70-90 pounds. The male hydra looks like a larger version of the female, except that his decorative spines are longer, he has a larger, segmented "hood" of scales running down the side of his neck, and has reinforced plates of scales on the tip of his tail.

The neuter hydra, such as the one standing at the 10 o'clock mark on the platform, is borne by the combination of one male and two female hydras during their breeding season, and is effectively a combination of the male and females. It can grow to be nearly forty feet long and weigh up to two hundred pounds, and the plates on its tail grow into a tailspade reminiscent of dragons. By far the most aggressive gender of the hydra species, the neuter hydra makes a truly formiddable opponent in combat.

Hydras have two subspecies: poisonous and non-poisonous. Poisonous hydras are distinctive because their color schemes always include a fair amount of yellow and orange. Though colors are difficult to see at night, the moonlight was enough that one could identify the hydra standing on the tower as a member of the non-poisonous subspecies. Each subspecies of hydra hunts in a different manner: poisonous hydras hunt by biting their prey once and then chasing it down as it succumbs to the poison, while non-poisonous hydras generally rely on constriction and suffocation to kill their prey. Neuter hydras (of either subspecies) hunt in a different manner, by catching and holding their prey in the mouths of its two smaller heads, while the main head of the hydra feasts upon the hapless victim.

After a quick glance at Hunter and Marcus with one of its heads, the hydra slithered quickly in Strato's direction. It lunged with its left head as Strato rolled underneath. Strato countered with his sword, slicing across some of the hydra's scales. It hissed in response and spun around very quickly. Strato leaped over as its plated tail came slicing across the ground, then landed on the other side and slashed at the hydra again.

Hunter stood back for a moment to watch the hydra's movements, while Marcus armed his bow and fired a shot straight into the hydra's right neck. The hydra let out a shrill hiss at the pain, then quickly bit off the arrow with its left head. Strato came down upon the main head as Marcus strang another arrow and prepared to fire. The main head of the hydra crashed into the ground, but then the left head picked Strato off of its back and cast him aside. Strato hit the platform at the 3 o'clock mark, and rolled back onto his feet.

Marcus fired another shot, this time aimed at the hydra's main head -- but missed. Strato charged again, and with great fury, he swung the large sword of his into the hydra's main neck. He left quite a scar at the base of the hydra's necks, and it reeled back in pain. A bit of purplish blood was visible from the wound and on Strato's blade. The hydra attacked with its right head; Strato blocked the attack, and the hydra's right mouth came clamping down on Strato's blade. With his other hand, Strato drew a small dagger and thrust it upwards through the hydra's right jaw. After that, Strato withdrew his sword sharply from the hydra's right mouth, breaking several of its teeth in the process. With that momentum, Strato swung around with his blade and, upon the return swing, he slashed upwards, decapitating the hydra's left head. The head came down onto the platform and the hydra let out a shrieking wail with its other two heads, for few living creatures can bear the acute pain of dismemberment.

Strato whirled back a few paces and held still. He hadn't even broken a sweat. The hydra slithered to a distance, holding its left neck close to its body and examining the wound with its right head. It closed all four of its eyes and concentrated. Its body began to glow, and soon, the form disappeared in a flash of white, replaced but moments later with the wizard's human form. The wizard was dressed in medium leather armor reinforced by metal studs, and wore a two-tailed violet cape that stretched down to his ankles and was adorned with teeth and claws from other reptiles. The wizard cringed as he looked back at Strato, clamping his left wrist with his right hand. It became evident that the wizard's left arm was completely paralyzed; he couldn't use it. "You're ... quite accurate, knight Valkyros ...."

Strato pointed his blade straight back at the wizard, the purplish bloodstains reflecting in the moonlight. "You wouldn't say that if you knew which head I was aiming for," he stated plainly.

Strato motioned to Hunter and Marcus. "This foe is beyond your abilities to handle; I'll take care of him."

Marcus fired his next arrow anyway. To his surprise, however, the wizard caught the arrow in his right hand, then tossed it aside with but a single remark to Marcus. "Listen to your friend if you wish to live a little longer." The wizard produced a sizable, part-metal part-wooden staff and held it in his right hand.

Strato watched and waited for the wizard to move first, and the wizard did. he spun his staff upwards. Strato saw it, jumped and rolled to the side as a blast of lightning came thundering down just a moment away. Strato waved his arm aside in another gesture, and moments later, a second lightning bolt struck straight from the sky, missing the wizard by mere inches and the impact of it knocking him aside.

The wizard pointed his staff upwards at an angle, and then swung it in Strato's direction. Its swing etched out a path of fire that soon arced through the air, heading straight for Strato. Strato gestured his sword to the side. As he did, the arc of fire suddenly deflected sideways, coming no closer than about a foot.

The wizard spun around and aimed his staff at Strato. A gust of air rushed forward; Strato plunged his dagger into a crevice of the platform and braced his foot against it as the wind's speed increased. After a moment, Strato drew the Shock Bow and countered with a partially-charged burst. The Shock Bow neutralized and overpowered the wizard's own attack, and he fell backward as the shockwave of air hit him. The wizard stumbled as he tried to get back up; his left arm simply would not cooperate. His second attempt worked better, and as he stood up, he summoned forth a huge gust of wind. Strato waved his left arm downward, and although a huge cloud of dust quickly lifted off of the ground around him and spun upwards in a fast, tornado-like fashion, Strato was unfazed. Strato got up to speed and rushed forward at the wizard, and then knocked the wizard aside. The wizard flew about four feet and crash-landed near one of the railings. The wizard clambered back up quickly.

Hunter and Marcus couldn't help but watch. What sort of powers were these two combatants using? Either way, Strato knew how to counter the wizard's bag of tricks. The wizard arced out another fireball with his staff, aimed low. Strato intercepted it, however, and it deflected off of him at just a few feet distance. This time, the fireball flew back and hit the wizard in short order. The wizard rolled back and nearly fell off the tower, saving himself only by grabbing on to the railing with his good arm. However, the wizard thrust himself upwards to get back on the platform. The wizard, in fact, soared quite far above the platform for a moment, before descending in a powerful lunge. Strato jumped up and aside as the wizard plunged down. The platform shook heartily with his impact, but to no real effect. Strato drew his sword and spun it around in a circle, as if carving out some letter in the air. The wizard held his staff up to the sky for a moment, then whirled it towards Strato. A bolt of electricity thundered forth from the staff. Strato caught it on the tip of his sword, and the bolt arced elsewhere, contacting the central spire of the platform and absorbing into it. Strato whirled around and arced an electrical bolt from his own sword. The wizard let out a small "hmph" as he whirled his staff around and struck the incoming bolt of electricity with his own staff, deflecting it down into the ground of the platform.

Next, the wizard struck the platform with his staff. Immediately, a large circle of fire appeared around him. The circle of fire spun higher and coalesced into three globes of fire. As the wizard pointed his staff once more at Strato, the three globes of fire sharpened into conical shapes and flew directly at Strato. Strato slammed his sword into the platform, vertically and blade down. Two of the fire darts evaporated and disappeared upon making contact with Strato's blade; the third one slammed into the ground in front of Strato and burst asunder in a large shockwave of flame. The flames washed over Strato's armor quickly but did little more than singe him.

Strato counterattacked with the same globes of fire that the wizard had used. Strato's counterattack, though, was faster, sharper, and more precisely aimed. Each of the three fire darts Strato launched impacted exactly two and a half feet away from the wizard; one in front, and one to each side. The explosions created by their impacts buffeted the wizard on three sides, and he fell back. Even so, he stood his ground. The wizard carved out a different type of projectile and fired it at Strato. It looked like a globe of fire, except it was a light, icy blue in color. Strato seemed oddly pleased as he grabbed his sword and slashed at the ice bullet, deflecting it straight back towards the wizard. The wizard caught it on the end of his staff, whirled it around in a half circle and launched it back to Strato at a higher speed. Strato deflected the bullet with his own sword and sent it flying back. The wizard caught it again and sent it back. This projectile continued to fly back and forth for another five rebounds, picking up more speed along each time. Ultimately, though, one of the combatants failed to block it, and it struck the wizard right in the torso of his armor at an impressive speed and force. The wizard slid backwards, clear across the platform, and slammed into a railing as the shattered ice projectile began to melt into water.

"I haven't played that game in quite awhile," Strato smirked back. "Glad I haven't lost my touch."

The wizard huffed. "I think I taught you too well, knight Valkyros...."

"Your first mistake," Strato taunted back.

The wizard thudded his staff against the ground, then thrust it straight up into the air and whirled it around in a circle. Suddenly, a huge lightning bolt came searing down from the sky. As Strato blocked it with his sword, the bolt split into several directions and came crashing down all around him. The energy released by the bolt showered around Strato in all directions, but with no effect -- Strato's spell of defense still held firm. Strato swung his sword aside. It was glowing with a white energy. Strato swung it around, then stopped suddenly, pointing directly at the central spire. A similar bolt of lightning arced to the pole, and then arced in several directions to the edges of the platform. The bolts nearly hit everyone on the platform -- Strato, Talon, the wizard, Hunter, Marcus, and Vrynn.

Hunter mused at what a spectacle Strato's fight must be to the people of Sareille, below. He kept his distance, as per Strato's warning and the observation of exactly how this fight was proceeding. Strato was right -- against the forces of magical power, neither Hunter nor Marcus had any defense. So, they kept watching, waiting for a victor.

The wizard must have been growing tired of the combat, so he brought forth a new attack. Swirling his staff in a few circles and then cutting it to the side, it gathered a strange energy and began glowing, pure red. The wizard rushed forth, staff in hand, and attacked Strato. A trail of flame followed every swing the wizard cut through the air with his staff. Strato blocked the first volley of attacks before activating some magical tactic of his own. Strato blocked the next attack, and in a quick flash, the flames eminating from the wizard's staff ceased to be. The wizard backed off a few steps. "What the...!?"

Strato smiled. "I've been studying that skill for quite a while. Comes in handy on many an occasion," he stated back.

Nevertheless, the wizard tried again, and lit up his staff with fiery energy once more. Still, upon the first hit against Strato's weapon, the fiery energy left the staff and dissipated.

Strato came down with an overhead swing onto the wizard. The wizard blocked it with his staff, though inefficiently -- had his left arm not been paralyzed he would have blocked it far better. The wizard fell onto one side and rolled over a few times before he could get back up to his feet.

The wizard powered up another technique. A shroud of dark energy encircled him, then the cloud burst apart into several pieces. In unison, the shattered cloud of darkness particles flew towards Strato. Strato took the blow directly, without bothering to defend. The energy from the attack knocked Strato back a few steps.

The wizard was getting annoyed. "Does nothing work against you?"

"Unlike you, I don't need to worry about attacking my foe with foolish spells. You should have listened them when they said 'it is better to lack power, than to lose it' !" Strato swung his sword in a few ceremonial circles, accumulating the same type of dark energy around himself and then launching it straight at the wizard. The wizard guarded somewhat against the attack, but it still hit him.

Almost instantly, Strato pulled out a Flash Grenade and tossed it at the wizard. It exploded in front of him, its bright flash blinding the man for a number of seconds. By the time the wizard could see again, Strato had hit him from behind, snapping the wizard's part-metal staff in two.

The wizard spun around as Strato withdrew the Shock Bow again and fired a partial shot at the man. The wizard flew across the platform from the shockwave it produced, but landed on his feet and waved the remaining portion of his staff in front of him. The other half of the staff flew over and connected, the two pieces of his staff being quickly re-forged back into one. The wizard spun in two clockwise circles, whipping up a terrific force of wind. Strato skidded from the 7 o'clock mark clear to the 9 o'clock mark on the platform before his feet lost contact and he spun airborne in a circle with the wind. Before long, Strato had dropped over the railing and down below.

Where was Talon?

A few moments later, Talon appeared, carrying Strato back up. Strato was unharmed from that last attack. Once at a safe altitude again, Strato jumped out of Talon's grip and back onto the platform. One could swear that Strato's eyes were somehow glowing as he looked back at his opponent the wizard. Strato stood up, sword redrawn, and waited for the next move.

Angrily, the wizard raised his staff up into the sky. Moments later, a meteorite -- burned to a projectile no larger than an apple -- crashed into the platform near Strato's location and unleashed an explosion. the force knocked Strato over and backwards. He stood up, if a little shaken from that impact. "Don't you ever learn?"

Strato mimicked that gesture, and another moment later, a similar meteor but of a larger size -- about the size of a watermelon -- crashed into the platform near the wizard's location. The larger explosion from this second, larger meteorite knocked the wizard aside in force.

"Enough!!" The wizard stood back up, buffeted and starting to wear down, and cast a different sort of spell. He began glowing, and then in another flash of magic, his form was replaced by that of the hydra. Its left head still lay decapitated near the center of the platform, but by now, all of the hydra's previous wounds had been cauterized.

The hydra moved in quickly towards Strato. Strato swung at the hydra, but it ducked and knocked Strato over with its tail. Before Strato could react, however, the hydra had him in its grip and coiled around him.

Strato would not stay bound for very long; he managed to withdraw a small dagger from his armor and sliced across several of the hydra's coils with it. That wasn't enough to free him, though, so he buried the dagger into the skull of the hydra's right head. Still, the hydra would not release its grip on Strato.

Talon intervened at this point, sinking all sixteen of his claws into the hydra's necks and biting down on the hood of its main head with his beak. The hydra relented, and Strato was freed. Strato grabbed his sword and swung itdown powerfully upon the hydra, dismembering its tailspade. Talon beat his wings to try lifting the hydra up off the ground, and to a limited extent, it worked -- by the time Talon let go, the main body of the hydra fell down upon Strato's blade. Strato's blade comlpetely pierced through the neck of the hydra's right head. It shrieked in pain as Strato carved off the hydra's right head. Strato whistled to Talon, and Talon tossed down a small item of sorts. Strato caught it and held it in plain view of everyone. The hydra cowered back when it saw the item Strato was holding; though neither Hunter nor Marcus could recognize it, apparently Talon had swiped it from the hydra.

Strato held the small item next to his dagger. "Tell me, would you rather die as a man, or as the monster you really are?"

The hydra gave a single quiet hiss in response and, after a moment of intense concentration, its form was soon replaced by that of the wizard's own. His injuries must have been more serious this time; he could barely move his right arm, and as he dropped to a kneeling position, it was clear that his left leg was giving him trouble, as well. The wizard spoke softly in defeat. "If you are going to end me, just make it quick and be done about it...."

Strato did make it quick, and the wizard's body fell to the ground like a piece of meat removed from its shish-ka-bob, leaving only a few words in his place: "To think... I would... be beaten... by... both... Valkyroses...."

Now that the battle was over, Hunter and Marcus felt it was safe, at least for a moment, to approach Strato. "What did he say?"

"Nothing," said Strato, abruptly brushing the question aside. "Nothing important." Strato put the small item down next to the wizard's fallen body.

An Aerissan was seen flying towards the tower, and as he touched down, he was mortified at the mess. "What the...!"

Hunter thought he recognized the bird; it was Skylark, whom they had seen at the Inn near Calcutta just a few days ago. Skylark looked at Strato in shock. "Strato, what have you done?!"

Strato withdrew the wizard's bloodstained cape and tossed it aside. He also withdrew other items of value to the wizard; two small hidden daggers, about four or five recovery items, and a pouch containing what sounded like a significant sum of gold. Strato also withdrew a curious crystal-like item from the wizard's body. Strato completely removed all items, jewelry, and everything from the wizard's body, but he pocketed none of it, instead leaving it right there. Strato pointed to Skylark. "Recognize this wizard?"

Skylark walked over to examine the body. "No, I don't. Why? Why have you done this to him?"

"He is-- well, was-- one of the infamous Rogues that operated in Khatalus."

"Really?" Skylark asked, a touch of disbelief evident in his voice.

Even Talon nodded when Strato responded. "I knew that two of them escaped the destruction of Khatalus. I already took care of one just last week; this man was the other."

"How do I know I can believe you when you say this?" Skylark asked.

Strato produced a strange, box-shaped device and hit a small button on it. Echoes of a past conversation eminated from it and filled the air. It was a recording.

"So, we meet again...." echoed Strato's voice.

"Knight Valkyros? What are you doing here?"

"I took the liberty of relieving that poor merchant of your cargo. Seems he was instructed to bring it here...."

"So it was you! I should've known. First you attack our stations and destroy our city, and now you disrupt our efforts to recover what was lost?"

"Hah! I warned you that your day of reckoning was coming, and you ignored it. So I made sure that no one would miss the point this time. Your comrades have already fallen, and like the Phoenix's Curse, you are the last of a dying breed."

"You have ruined our research once again. We were going to simply move out and rebuild elsewhere. But even so, we needed supplies for the research. But there was trouble; restraining the dragon, recruiting a suitable carrier for the cargo... and when we received word that our delivery had run into some unexpected delays, I thought we should take precautions, just in case a certain soldier should decide to show up. Knight Valkyros, you disrupted our plans by freeing that dragon. Do you know what we've decided to do, now that we don't have the materials we need for the research?"

The echoes of weapons being drawn and combat soon followed.

"You fight well, knight Valkyros. It appears we have underestimated your training. But how long can you keep up such a fight?"

More sounds of weaponry echoed from the device.

"You certainly do have a way with toys, knight Valkyros. You may put them away for now, I have no interest in toying with you myself, at least not yet."

"Oh, really? Then what do you think you are doing here, sending six of your lackeys to slaughter before me?"

"Fighting is not the answer this time, knight Valkyros. Rather, perhaps there is sort of an understanding we can work out. You may, as they say in the markets, 'name your price'."

"What... as if the first destruction of Khatalus wasn't enough? What about the second one, wasn't that a high enough price for a rogue like you to pay?"

Echoes of a moment of silence came next.

"The research is still inconclusive. And if it weren't for you, our results may have turned out different!"

"You really think so?! Then you're an even bigger fool than you were twenty years ago! All that research, and all the hatchling dragons slain because of it, what good have they done?"

Another quiet moment echoed from the device.

"If the dragons hadn't discovered our location so quickly, we wouldn't have to be starting over, now! The initial research yielded one perfect soldier--"

"--Ah, yes; your one 'perfect' soldier. Yet you refuse to accept the fact that your one prodigy has turned against you. The first time that the dragons attacked and destroyed Khatalus, I warned you. I warned you all! I decreed that I would discover the truth, and punish those responsible for the massacres. And do you know where that search led?

"I did find out the truth. Yes, the dragons had massacred Khatalus. That's why the survivors asked your group to leave; and when you didn't, when you insisted on jeapordizing that city for the sake of your atrocities, the city of Khatalus decided to leave you -- and they did!

"Yes, the dragons found you up to your old tricks and knocked you down once again. I heard about it. But the truth is, the lives slain by those dragons are but a grain of sand compared to the real massacres, the real atrocities!

"I discovered the truth, all right; your group was destroying dragon hatchlings for the sake of your so-called 'research'! Didnít you learn? Never do you sacrifice the future for the sake of the present!"

"Enough!! I grow tired of hearing such prattle. Now you will kindly be gone, knight Valkyros, either by choice, or force!"

"I do not choose to leave; I came to finish what I started!"

Strato switched the device off. Skylark, as well as Hunter and Marcus too, was amazed. "That... how did you... what is that device, anyway? It's not a Voice Crystal, that's for sure. Where did you find it?"

Strato handed a small crystal to Skylark. "I did bring along a Voice Crystal, though; here it is -- the whole thing is on it as well. Take it; you'll need it for proper identification. As for the body..."

Strato turned to the wizard's body. "...He never was quite so human, anyway...." Strato smashed the small item that he laid down next to the wizard's body with his sword. It released a cloud of energy as it shattered. The cloud quickly washed over the wizard's body, and as it was absorbed, the form of a slain hydra replaced that of a slain wizard. The wounds dished to it were all cauterized; the two necks where Strato had chopped off both of the hydra's smaller heads, as well as Talon's claw marks and the various other cuts and gouges Strato had given it.

Skylark was horrified at the revelation. "By the wings, it's true! There have always been rumors of a few wizards who chose the form of a hydra for their transformative skill. Yet I have never actually seen one myself. They are, truly an ugly and vicious creature...."

Strato shoved aside all the items that he had previously removed from the wizard's body. "These will help its identification. Be sure to let the Council know that Strato no longer hails from the place called Khatalus--!" Talon perked up. Strato clibmed onto Talon's back, and then Talon flew off into the distance.

Skylark began gathering up all the items into a cloth bag he was carrying in his shoulder pack. "So the rumors were true, after all...."

Hunter stepped up. "What rumors?"

Skylark looked back and paused for a moment. "Well, where to begin? Hydras are the ugliest creature ever created. During their mating season, they are said to form small groups, three hydras undergoing a sort of metamorphasis into a single hydra with three heads.

"The Council forbade the use of hydras for magical transformation centuries ago because of the hydra's nature. Their ban was unconditional, yet they did not bother to enforce it in the slightest. Truth is, they didn't need to enforce the ban; Nature herself enforced it. History proved, time and time again, that for every wizard who sought out a hydra for transformation, such wizards eventually succumbed to madness and insanity. Some lost their minds quickly, others decayed away slowly. But none were spared Nature's anger for their actions."

Skylark looked back at Hunter. "Stay here while I fetch some assistance--"

Hunter and Marcus did remain there, watching and waiting. Skylark flew off of the tower with the bag of the wizard's posessions, but he was back within ten minutes. A few minutes later, a few soldiers from the city had traversed up the stairs to help put the hydra's body in a bag for shipment to the cemetery.

After the hydra- and wizard- blood had been wiped clear from the platform, and even after Hunter and Marcus checked in at one of Sareille's Inns for a room to stay, Hunter couldn't sleep. Though Marcus and Vrynn both slept like a log, Hunter kept going over the whole incident in his mind; there was something that just didn't feel right about it.