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Dragon Hunters

Book Two: The Path of Honor

© 2001-2002 Draconus / Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Eleven: Enter The Rangers

Hunter couldn't get any sleep that night; even at two hours after midnight, Hunter was still awake and pacing around on the roof of the Inn at which they were staying. Something about Strato's battle just didn't add up. Was Strato a magic user, a spellcaster? How? And if so, why didn't Strato use those skills against them? Trying to think of exactly how one could command fire, lightning bolts, and even shooting stars was something gave Hunter a headache. The only answer he could come up with was one of dumbfoundedness -- after all his pacing and thinking, Hunter did decide that he should leave that subject alone for later, accepting to call such abilities "magic" in the meantime.

Hunter was about to head back downstairs when he heard something. Turning around, he saw that a bird land on the edge of the roof. It folded up its wings and sat down, looking at Hunter curiously. The bird was probably the size of a full-grown eagle. Yet it simply sat there as Hunter cautiously approached it. It wasn't afraid of him? Wild animals would flee when a larger creature (especially humans) draws too close, but this one simply sat and watched.

Hunter approached to within arm's reach of the bird, yet it still just sat there, looking at him. It even let Hunter touch its feathers. Perhaps it was someone's companion or pet? No, Hunter told himself, that prospect was qutie unlikely. Or was it, given evidence of the bird-like Aerissans?

The bird spoke a single note of 'kew' back at Hunter. Was it injured? No; as far as Hunter could tell, the bird was in fine health. Hunter muttered softly to himself, 'what did you come here for, friend?'

The bird looked back inquisitively at Hunter. Though it didn't say anything, Hunter had the impression that the bird was trying to ask him something. Hunter looked back up at the sky; the bird's eyes followed his own. When Hunter glanced back, the bird returned its gaze back to him as well. "What?" Hunter asked softly.

Hunter noticed a faint glimmer. The bird was holding something in one of its feet, the shine of it almost completely obscured by its feathers but still visible. Hunter stood back up and nudged the bird aside. It let him, and in another moment, Hunter could see what it was holding. It grasped some sort of medallion firmly between its talons -- in all hope Hunter wished that it would be a clue to Katra's whereabouts, but Hunter convinced himself otherwise, reasoning that it would be quite unlikely.

Hunter pointed at it. "May I see that?" The bird shook its head in response. Was that a shiver, or did the bird actually understand him?

Either way, Hunter tried grabbing the medallion, but in response the eagle firmly grabbed Hunter's hand with its beak as if to say "no". The bird wasn't trying to bite or attack him, it was simply holding him back, away from the golden medallion it held in its talons.

Hunter withdrew his arm and the bird let go of it. The bird looked back at Hunter inquisitively.

Hunter sighed and shook his head. "What do you want, anyway?"

The bird craned its head slightly closer to Hunter. Was it asking for something?

Hunter paused.

After another moment, Hunter had an idea. Hunter searched through his pack and found the medallion he had put in it. The one with the eagle embossed on it, the one that wasn't Katra's but certainly offered a clue to where he could be. Hunter grasped it firmly in his hand as he showed it to the bird. The bird looked down at it, its expression changing slightly, before looking back up at Hunter. It glanced down at the medallion and back up to Hunter.

Hunter lowered the medallion away from the bird. It shifted back in a huff. Hunter looked back at the medallion in the bird's grasp. It did so as well, then cast a quick glance toward the medallion Hunter was holding before returning its gaze to Hunter's eyes.

Hunter used to believe that most animals had rather limited intelligence, but Vrynn had long been convincing Hunter that there are indeed animal species out there with higher intelligence. Whether or not this bird was one of them was an open question. But either way, it was worth a shot. Hunter pointed at the medallion he held, then at the medallion the bird held. "Trade?"

The bird's eyes lit up at the mention of that word. Once more, Hunter had that odd feeling that the bird knew what he was saying; that it was somehow capable of understanding human speech. It looked at Hunter with a sort of smile on its face.

Hunter held out the one medallion in his left hand, showing it to the bird. Then, without a warning of any sort, the bird pounced quickly upon Hunter's hand and tore the medallion free of his grasp. Before Hunter could react, it jumped, spread its wings in a hurry, and flew off.

"Hey, what the--!" Hunter had nearly fallen over when the bird jumped onto him to grab the medallion, and he saw the bird flying off towards the west as he got back up onto his feet. "Come back!"

Within minutes, the bird was out of sight. Hunter sighed and looked down. Just then he noticed the other medallion, still lying there on the edge of the roof. Hunter picked it up and examined it. It was warm to the touch, orange in color, and had a slight hook in it as if it could be hung from something like a chain.

Hunter's heart leaped when he recognized the emblem on both sides of the medallion. It was Katra's medallion! Wherever did that bird find it? Or was it given the medallion as a message of sorts? Whatever the case, Hunter quickly put Katra's medallion away in his pack for safekeeping. The bird had flown off to the west, and the only answers to the questions Hunter had would possibly be there as well.

That made Hunter's day for sure, and he went back downstairs to their room so that he could catch up on some lost winks.

Despite that Hunter had only about five hours of sleep that night, come next morning, he was quick to rise after Marcus and Vrynn had awoken. Hunter got suited up and packed quicker than normal. Marcus looked back. "What's up?"

Hunter looked at Marcus. "This will sound strange, but..." Hunter withdrew Katra's medallion and showed it to Marcus. "--but late last night, some sort of bird gave this to me. It's Katra's!" Vrynn looked up at the sound of Katra's name with interest.

"Really...." Marcus was surprised to hear that as well. Hunter nodded. "I recognize it. Someone has to know where he is. Come on, bro -- Aurex said to stop by the Rangers' station when we arrive here, and if their reputation is the same as what we've heaed, they're bound to know something."

It was not difficult for Hunter and Marcus to locate the Rangers' headquarters -- theirs was the largest building in Sareille, almost a castle in terms of construction. Besides, given the Rangers' insignia carved into its entrance doors, it was impossible to miss. The insignia was that of a sword held blade down with a pair of feathery wings fully spread from the base of the hilt, all overlaid on the shape of a shield.

The entrance room was positively gigantic as Hunter and Marcus walked in. In fact, it was not so much of a room as it was more of a courtyard. Sunlight flooded through the open air, illuminating the grass, trees, flowers, pond, stream, and gravelbanks that filled the courtyard. The hallways ran left and right around the courtyard like a castle wall, leading to the various bunks and rooms that the Rangers use for their own. Though not visible from here, on the opposite side of the courtyard lay a sporting area, filled with various obstacles and constructions that not only the Rangers but also Sareille's mainstream population is allowed to play in and around.

Skylark greeted Hunter and Marcus almost as they were looking about, his brown feathers reflecting occasional sheens of gold from the sunlight. On the shoulder-strap of Skylark's harness was a pin carrying the Rangers' insignia on it. "We meet again, sirs. What brings you here today?"

Hunter looked back. "Hello, Skylark was it?"

Skylark nodded and performed a short, quick bow. "Correct. So for what have you come to us today?"

"We're looking for a friend," Hunter said. He withdrew Katra's medallion and showed it to Skylark. "This is his medallion. Can you help?"

Skylark examined it. "I can tell you it's a badge of the Nathians. Come," Skylark motioned across the courtyard with his right wing. "I know someone who can analyze it." He led the way, and Hunter followed. Marcus told Hunter that he was going to stay there and wait for his return.

Hunter pointed at the badge on Skylark's harness. "So you're one of these Rangers? We were told that--"

"Tiara told you, didn't she?" Skylark interrupted, smiling. "I've served as Ranger for five years. To serve the Rangers is to be a Ranger, yet Tiara still doesn't recognize that, thinking of us Rangers only as warriors and soldiers. I serve not with my fighting, but with my eyes and ears."

Hunter nodded. "If you don't mind me asking, what is your age?"

"Fifteen years since hatching," Skylark stated plainly.

"Fifteen?" Hunter was surprised. One would expect an individual of fifteen years to be smaller in size; Skylark stood a little over five feet high himself, so Hunter was under the impression of Skylark being much older.

"There are some even younger among us," Skylark responded. "They say I should mature in a few months. It'll probably happen sometime during the summer; our kind tends to mature during the warmer months anyway. I've come to know a few doves already, some of them-- oh," Skylark interrupted himself when he noticed Hunter's indifference to the subject. "--But that's not something I should be talking about, especially to a different species. There are more important things at hand. Right?"

Hunter nodded, but it was a few moments of walking before he had something else to say. "Tell me, what is a Phoenix Curse?"

"The Phoenix Curse?" Skylark asked, a slight shiver echoing in his response.

"Yes. The one that Strato had mentioned -- what is it?"

"The legend is several millenia old among our kind. Ah, here we are--" Skylark opened the door to the library as they finished their walk across the courtyard, and led the way in. Skylark noticed another Aerissan, perched halfway across the room and scribing something into a book or journal. "You should ask that one about it, she is more familiar with our history and legends than I."

Hunter looked around at the room. The library was quite spacious, books lining all the shelves on the first level. A few ladders and stairs led the way up to the second and third levels and even more books; the upper floors were hardly anything more than simple three-foot wide wooden catwalks with metal railings. Interestingly, the bookshelves on the second and third levels had windows in place of their bottom row to offer additional accent lighting. Six different-colored chandeliers hung in a circular pattern in the ceiling, with a white chandelier held precisely in the center of the pattern and library. The floor was a clean carpet, mostly red in color but with various patterns of other colors curling and etching from one end to the other. Various types of furniture lay about the library in various places for reading. The furniture included chairs and sofas designed primarily for human visitors, other sofas and mats for requato, perches and pillows for aerissans, hassocks and mats for dracans. Except for Hunter, Skylark, and the Aerissan across the room, there were no others in the library yet, and it was peacefully quiet.

The other Aerissan noticed that they were referring to her. She sounded out a short call to Skylark, and he responded with a different call -- it was obviously bird talk. Skylark motioned across the room. "You may see her now."

Hunter walked across the room. The Aerissan had finished writing in her journal (at least for now), and was waiting for him. She was apparently a bit older than Skylark, for she stood about six feet tall (not including her tailfeathers, measuring another three feet), and her wingspan could easily be fifteen to twenty feet wide. Her colors were striking -- every feather on her body was pure black, yet with sapphire and amethyst sorts of iridescence shining off of their tips in the sunlight. Underneath her cloak of feathers, her beak, claws, and legs were of a mild gray color. And on top of her feathers, she wore a light harness built from blackleather straps for carrying items from here and there, and the harness as well bore a Rangers insignia. Her eyes were a deep marine blue. She greeted him. "Welcome, human; you may call me Ravisse. What have you come here for today?"

Hunter presented Katra's medallion to her, setting it down on her desk. "This belongs to a friend of mine. Can you help?"

"Hmm..." Ravisse stood up and scanned across the shelves. She took a few steps to the side, her eyes still scanning the shelves for something in particular. "Ah, there it is" she said quietly to herself, then hopped forward and spread her wings for a short flight upstairs. She picked a book off of one of the upstairs shelves and placed it securely in her carrying harness, then hopped and glided back down. Once back at her desk, she removed the book from her harness and set it on the desk. She started flipping through it, page after page. "That medallion, or badge, is one belonging to the people of Nathia, named after their country and called Nathians. That is easy enough for any individual to recognize. However..."

Ravisse kept flipping through more pages. "...The Nathians also catalogued their families, and the decorations on each medallion that identified each family. Here we are, the family of the Dragon." Ravisse stopped at the next page; several illustrations of medallions -- each with slightly different colors and emblems -- filled the page. A few rows of small print accompanied each. "Nathian medallions bearing the emblem of the Dragon were used to identify the most powerful soldiers of their clan -- only a few families had them. Other soldiers had medallions bearing symbols of gryphon, wyvern, sometimes drake. Let me see--"

Ravisse examined Katra's medallion and then flipped a few more pages. After about six or seven pages, she stopped and spread the book out again. Illustrated plainly on the right-hand page, in its upper-right portion, was an illustration, an exact facsimile of Katra's medallion. "Here it is. This medallion was passed down through their most powerful warrior families. Nearly one-hundred years ago its owner, the Nathian soldier Draconus, sought and received a power of transformation, and that power was stored in the medallion. It along with Draconus had disappeared a little over twenty years ago, and has never been seen since.

"--Until now," Ravisse added. She eyed Hunter carefully for a moment. "Obviously, you aren't its owner. But the presence of the medallion itself is an important find. I shall make note of it." Ravisse grabbed a special pen from her desk and began modifying the entry in the book.

Hunter was taken aback by such an unusual action. "Are you sure that--"

"These books are reference, human sir," interrutped Ravisse. "I know what I am doing. The books are magically charged so that they may be freely updated with newer, true information, and they are magically linked to all other copies of the same, so that when one is updated they all are."

"What else can you tell me?" Hunter asked.

Ravisse examined the entry under the medallion's illustration. "That is all. Wait a minute..." Ravisse re-read the inscription up to the information she had written in. "You're in luck. There is a fairly recent update to this medallion before yours; it was found in the posession of a young Nathian, the son of Draconus, not too long ago, and all of its powers had been inherited properly." Ravisse erased the part that she had added and began revising her update again."

That information gave Hunter a sense of hope. "I have one more question. A little over two weeks ago I came by a different Nathian medallion. It had the image of an eagle on it. Could you--?"

Ravisse nodded and began flipping back a few pages. She stopped at the right section of the book and spread it out for Hunter to see; several medallions were illustrated on the page, each bearing an eagle. Hunter looked over the images; each illustration depicted medallions with eagles on them in various postures and shapes. One of them seemed out of the ordinary. It was, in fact, the same kind of shape that Hunter had remembered seeing on the other medallion, the one that the large bird last night had traded him. "That one. What is it?"

Ravisse began reading the information below it. "Ah. The symbol of an eagle was used to identify the magical workers and writers of the Nathian clan. There were seven different families, and numerous offspring. But this one in particular -- that is no eagle pictured on it, that is Phoenix. Its unique design was forged into being after an intermarriage between two different families in the clan, one family with Dragon medallions, the other family with Eagle medallions. It has been passed down for but a few generations. Its current owner is a Nathian named Falknyr Szandari... I believe he is a wizard and chemist."

"Is there anything else you can tell me about the medallion?"

"Only one," Ravisse stated. "Each medallion of such type is magically linked to its owner. As long as you keep that medallion in your posession, eventually, its owner will find you and want it back."

Hunter nodded. "Good. I think I'd be looking forward to that.... Thank you, uh, Ravisse?"

Ravisse nodded. "Yes, that is my name." Hunter turned around to leave, but Ravisse interrupted him. "Oh, you do have one more question, don't you?"

"What?" Hunter turned around again and looked back. "What question?"

"I overheard you and Skylark talking about it. I believe you asked what the 'Phoenix Curse' was, did you not?"

"Oh-- yes, I did. What is it?"

Ravisse stepped around the side of her desk so as to be in full view. "You see my feathers? Did you know that black was originally not one of our colors?"

Hunter shook his head. "Never would have guessed."

Ravisse nodded. "Back when the world was new, and the Guardians formed forth the races of our world and set us in our places, there was also a special creature of the air made. The name of the special bird was Phoenix. Phoenix was unique -- there truly never was another creature quite like Phoenix, nor could there ever be. Phoenix always lived for one thousand years, at the end of which Phoenix would make a nest and lay one egg, one offspring in that nest before Phoenix died. When that egg hatched, a new Phoenix was born and would live for another thousand years.

"However, in time, a few aeries of our kind left their service of our Guardian -- Aquilia -- and began serving Phoenix. Even worse, Phoenix came to rely on their care. Aquilia, ruler of our skies, was enraged. And so she brought about the Phoenix Curse.

"Aquilia cursed Phoenix so that Phoenix would die without offspring, without successor. That one, though Phoenix did make a nest for offspring, Phoenix died alone, the last Phoenix in the world. That is the Phoenix Curse.

"The story goes on farther, though. Aquilia also promised that as Phoenix died, those who served Phoenix would lose their beauty with Phoenix's death. Mere weeks after Phoenix died, those aeries that served Phoenix, their feathers changed from whatever color they were, to black. Pure, dark, accursed black; it was their punishment for their wrongs, for their falling.

"Yet things did not go well. Every time the Black Aerissans mated, and bore offspring, their offspring were the same black too. They mixed and intermated with all other colors of our kind back then, yet every one of their offspring was always black. With each generation, the number of Black Aerissans increased. The normal colors of our kind were suffering through the intermating. It was a scandal, yet there was hardly anything that our kind could do to end it -- our normal colors were being slowly replaced with the accursed color black.

"Finally, Aquilia saw what was happening. Though the original wrongdoers had died in their due time, and the offspring were proper and loyal, the marked color black was permeating every mated pair among our kind that it touched. Aquilia knew that it would not be right for our entire race to bear the shame for a crime done by just a few aeries.

"Aquilia set about quickly. She gathered several hundred aeries' worth of eagles about Mt. Phoenix, where the last Phoenix died, and in an explosion of fire she changed the entire race of eagles into the birds called phoenixes. At the same time, she sanctified the black among our kind, and their true colors were restored. And as an everlasting reminder of the history, that every once in a great while, one of two special colors would be born. The first color is black, like mine. Not an accursed and dark black, however, but black as radiant and beautiful as the night sky. The second special color is the color of Phoenix, the color of fire itself, beautiful beyond all others, and revealed only once in every great while. I have seen but one Phoenix-colored Aerissan in my entire life, and that one passed away twenty-five years ago. I doubt there will be another in my lifetime."

Ravisse looked around. "If there is anything else you would like to know, feel free to ask. Otherwise, I must tend back to my writing."

Hunter nodded and thanked her, then turned to leave.

"Wait one moment, sir--" Ravisse started, and Hunter stopped to turn his attention back towards her. "I almost forgot to ask. Your name wouldn't happen to be Hunter Antare, would it?"

"Why, yes it is," Hunter responded. "Why?"

Ravisse pulled out a scrolled letter and gave it to Hunter to read. "Aurex, dracan of the Council, wrote a letter of commendation for you. He believes that you would make a fine Ranger, if you wish to be one. And I believe him. Do you?"

Hunter thought about it. Somehow, Hunter felt that saying yes would be the right thing to do, so he agreed. Ravisse smiled. "Follow me, then...."

Ravisse led the way out one of the library's side doors, and Hunter followed. After climbing a few short flights of stairs, Ravisse led Hunter into a place that they called the Star Room. This room was quite dark--the walls seemed to be black except for a multitude of tiny pinholes that shone faint light through. It was as if Hunter had suddenly stepped out into a realm of starry night sky. Ravisse's black feathering rendered her nearly invisible here. Ravisse motioned around. "This is our Star Room. All across these walls are the stars that fill our night sky. Do you see them?"

Hunter looked around, but none of the constellations were recognizable. Hunter's eyes adjusted to the low light levels of the room, and soon Ravisse seemed only semi-invisible rather than nearly invisible. "Yes, but I don't recognize any of them."

Ravisse began speaking. "The stars shine their light, despite how far away in the darkness they are. We are called Rangers. Like the stars, we are sent to bring light into the darkness. The light of truth; the light of honor, the light of justice. Do you understand?"

Hunter nodded.

"We walk in the dark places that others fear to tread. We see the truth that the dark ones do not wish us to see. When we stand on the bridge, not one may pass. We speak out for those who have no voice. We protect those who have no defense. We live for the light and by the light. And when necessary, we die for it. Do you believe?"

Hunter responded affirmatively.

"We are the seekers and the finders. We are the learners, the teachers. The warriors, and the peacemakers. Our symbol is the shield of Truth, the wings of Hope, and the sword of Justice. We are Rangers. Do you accept?"

"I accept," Hunter said solemnly after a moment's pause.

"Therefore, who are you?"

"My name is Hunter, of the Antare family. I hail from a city... West Falls, in a country named Suthcross, a far distance away."

"I have not heard of such a place," Ravisse responded plainly. "But that is of lesser importance. What is your position?"

"I have served as a member of the city's Guardsman," Hunter stated.

"And why do you fight?"

Hunter thought of how best to phrase his answer. "To protect those who cannot fight against those who would destroy."

"Aurex, dracan of the Council, has already agreed to support your training. Do you accept? Would you have someone else support you, or would you walk the light alone?"

"Aurex," Hunter responded. "It is true that I hardly know anyone else in this world."

Hunter regretted using the phrase 'this world' immediately after having said it. Ravisse paid it no mind, however, as she asked him another question. "Who do you serve?'

That question caught Hunter completely off-guard. He felt that the question was deeper than simply asking for the name of his regional commander or comrades. Hunter thought about it, but he could only arrive at one answer, and responded "Honor" even though he felt he was answering the wrong question.

"It is indeed a noble calling to serve that Guardian -- Luminos."

The stars seemed to be shining brighter now.

"What is your truth, Hunter Antare?"

Hunter thought about it for a minute, then answered.