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Dragon Hunters

Book Two: The Path of Honor

© 2001-2002 Draconus / Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Twelve: Intersections of Fate

And so it was that Hunter was adopted into the Rangers. Hunter was given a new uniform and amor to wear, each bearing the symbol of the Rangers. His new armor was a set of light chainmail, made of some fortified alloy stronger than steel. On top of this was a thick, folded mantle which hung from shoulder level down to waist level. The mantle itself was more than it appeared; it could actually be unfolded into a full-length cloak with hood for times when stealth is important. Hunter was given a new sword, bow, and arrows as well. The new bow was similarly as interesting as the mantle; it could be separated into three pieces for easy storage in a small space such as Hunter's pack. Hunter also traded in his shield for one slightly smaller, more lightweight, yet more fortified, and stored it on his pack.

At Hunter's request, he was allowed to keep the emblem that signified him as a member of the Honor Guards, though he had to affix it underneath his mantle. Afterwards, Hunter was trained how to use one basic skill. It hardly occured to Hunter that the skill they taught him was a magical one. It was a simple spell, really; as Ravisse demonstrated, it is one that energizes a weapon with the power of light and illumination. Hunter couldn't evaluate whether such power would be useful in combat or not, but nonetheless it would prove useful as a light in dark places.

Skylark accompanied Hunter as they walked back towards the front entrance, near the courtyard. Skylark began explaining what it was that Hunter would be expected to do. Since Hunter was a new recruit, it was only fitting that he be assigned a mentor, and Skylark had volunteed for the position. Therefore, Skylark would accompany Hunter for awhile to watch his progress and train Hunter to follow the code of Rangers.

Marcus could barely recognize Hunter when he spotted him and ran over. Sure enough, Marcus was surprised. "Hunter! Is that you?"

Hunter looked back. "Correct, bro." Hunter knelt down to pat Vrynn for a moment; Vrynn had no trouble recognizing Hunter whatsoever.

Skylark filled in the details. "Hunter has chosen to join our ranks. Does that surprise you?"

"No.... well, actually yes, it does. A little bit," Marcus stammered back. "So what happens now?"

"I shall come along with you and oversee his training. That is our way...."

"Training?" Marcus stated with interest.

Hunter stood back up. "According to their code, it is a Ranger's duty to explore, to learn, to know. To that end, Rangers are everywhere they need to be."

"Yes," Skylark nodded. "There are no limits to who can sign up as Ranger. It is their life that determines whether they really are Ranger or not, not what they say, repeat, or swear hold to. Hunter knows that there is always a need for service, for help, there are always dark places in need of light. Therefore it is his place to find them, and mine to watch."

Just then Hunter noticed that Marcus had done some shopping himself while they were gone. "Marcus, is that a new bow?"

Marcus nodded. "Indeed, Hunter. It was a tad pricey, but if what the shopkeeper said is true, it should be well worth the cost." Marcus had purchased not only a new bow, but also some new, stronger armor and other supplies for travelling.

"Shall we be off?" Skylark asked.

Hunter nodded. "Yes, we should. To Nathos," he said as he pointed west. Marcus agreed, and within moments, the four of them -- Hunter, Marcus, Vrynn, and Skylark -- were on the road again for travelling.

The forest grew denser as they left the city of Sareille and headed westward. Skylark kept pace with Hunter and Marcus well, although he clearly would have preferred flying over walking.

There were no landmarks in this forest, nor were there any signs of travel. The only clue that they could be on the right path was that an absence of large, thick trees cut through the white forest like a path. The path was also slightly rockier than the rest of the forest; at one time it must have been a gravel-paved road, but now it was just a snowy path through the woods.

When sunset approached, they decided to set up camp. A stream was nearby, offering a source of water. Skylark said that he would catch something for dinner, and then flew off and up. Marcus shared rations with Hunter and gave a bit of cured meat to Vrynn. After a few more minutes, Marcus set up a fire with Vrynn's help.

It was about fifteen minutes before Skylark returned. He had caught two medium-sized birds, probably ravens, on his flight. It seemed unusual that a feathered individual such as an Aerissan would themselves hunt and eat other birds of the air, but Skylark assured them that it was all right. Skylark laid one of the birds down near the fire to heat; the other one he ate rare. It was the type of sight that only Vrynn could appreciate. Skylark apparently noticed this, so he politely moved a few feet further from Hunter and Marcus to finish eating, a faint smile visible across his beak.

Hunter unfolded his mantle into a cloak for a bit of warmth as the sun faded from the sky, and Marcus set up a tarp to guard against rain or snow. Skylark soon finished eating, burying his leftovers in the snow for scavenging wildlife to find later. He wasn't so hungry for the second bird, so he shared it with Vrynn. Hunter looked back at Marcus, speaking quietly, "I don't know which is worse -- the masascre of Norset or watching just one of his kind eat something."

Marcus glanced back at Skylark as he and Vrynn finished off the other bird. "His kind must have been made for different reasons than ours," Marcus responded.

Skylark, after quickly cleaning himself up, walked over and sat down in the snow just outside the tent. "I heard that, you know."

Hunter was embarrassed to have said such a thing. Skylark smiled, however. "Did you ever hear the story about the Food Riots?"

Hunter and Marcus shook their heads.

"Well then," Skylark piped up. "You're going to hear it now. They say that, a long time ago in Calcutta's history, when humans first began moving into the country, that a number of human fanatics set out to prevent the native Requato from hunting in those lands. It was a silly quest doomed to failure, but they did so anyway. I do believe the particular humans were plant-eaters....

"That is one of the rare privileges your race has over the dracans, and requato. The only use Requato have for plants are for healing and alchemy. They don't eat plants, they eat meat. Dracans are the same way; they aren't designed for eating plants."

"And what about your kind?" Hunter asked inquisitively.

"We, as do you, have the choice of what we get to eat. But I digress. Anyway, you can only imagine the Requato's reactions to not being allowed to hunt in their very own home. They wouldn't stand it; they couldn't stand it. And so they fought back."

Skylark glanced up to the sky before continuing. "That's when the Food Riots began. First, those humans began disrupting Requato hunts. In turn, various Requato countered by demolishing human crops in the area. They even say that a certain Requato had some large cats -- tigers, I believe -- brought into the city to feed-- I mean, to attack those humans. It went on for months! Those humans never grasped that the Requato were never made for eating plants.

"Eventually, word of the Food Riots spread as far as the dragon shires. The bahamut of the White Dragon shire, an ancient and powerful dragon in his own right, stepped in and disbanded those humans. Exactly how they were disbanded has been lost throughout time. It is rumored that some form of transformation or enchantment was involved. The most specific tale claims that the group was transformed into -- of all the things they hated -- into wolves, tigers, drakes, almost every other meat-eating animal you can think of, rumor says they were changed into such. If true, it would be the single most interesting use of enchantment in all time. Even so, the magical community has not been able to offer even the slightest corroboration for that end to the Food Riots. Perhaps it is just rumor; only truth can tell."

Skylark looked intently at Hunter for a moment. "There is a lesson from that story, true or otherwise. If you mess with a Requato's dinner, you are messing with them. Not all races can eat the same things. It is something that must be understood and appreciated."

"Understand?" Skylark asked suddenly.

"Understood," Hunter responded. He then said goodnight.

Marcus and Vrynn were the first ones awake in the morning. No snow or rain had fallen the night before, and clouds covered several locations in the sky. The air was still, as morning air often is. The snow on the ground still remained, and the lack of footprints in it meant that no other creatures had come through their area last night.

Hunter awoke soon after, stretched, and stood up, rolling up his mantle from a cloak back into its usual, folded shape. After a few more minutes, Skylark gradually woke up as well. Skylark stood up, shook the snow off of his legs and stretched his wings, wide and high as they measured.

Skylark looked around. "After you three dropped off for the night, it was the strangest thing. There was an odd presence somewhere in the dark last night. Could I see the way requato and dracans do, I'd have been able to find out where. Nice weather today?"

Marcus looked around. "Yes, it is nicer weather. If this path goes any further south, it may dip back below the snow-line."

Skylark nodded. "Correct. Nathos is in a lower elevation and warmer climate than both Sareille and Calcutta."

Hunter finished folding up his cloak (having had to start over a few times to get the folds right), and Marcus took down the tarp that was their tent and shelter for the night. Hunter looked west. "Ready to go?"

Everyone nodded in response, even Vrynn who displayed a quick smile.

As they travelled further west, their path grew brighter; this was not just due to the rising sun but also because the path began sloping towards a lower elevation, and the climate was growing warmer.

At one point in mid-morning, Skylark volunteered to scout from the air, and upon returning he told them that Nathos was just a little more ways to go. By his term of "little more" he probably meant another few hours, since he was more accustomed to flying than the relatively slower pace of walking.

Even so, it was a little past noon by the time they reached the remains of Nathos. A bird could be seen flying overhead. Skylark examined the bird carefully, but decided that it was "definitely not" the kind of bird to be hunting.

The buildings -- what was left of them, anyway -- cluttered the ground. There were no more signs of snow in this ancient city; just rocks, moss, and other plants on the ground. The buildings were apparently made out of stone, for wooden buildings would not have survived nearly 100 years of decay and abandon. Ivy covered whatever stone surfaces still held up in shapes like walls; in many other places there were piles of rock, small carved rocks placed as memorials. The city itself was perhaps one-quarter of a square mile in size, but this was hard to tell because the many years of its ruin had blurred the border between it and the surrounding forestry. A river flowed by along the western edge of Nathos.

Hunter, Marcus, and Skylark split into groups. Skylark flew to the highest point in the ruins for a good glimpse of everything; Marcus and Vrynn explored off in one direction while Hunter went the other. Though quiet, there was something odd in the air.

Hunter stopped near the banks of the river, the river called Sargonan. It was perhaps one hundred feet across, though it was only about four to five feet deep and slow-flowing. Hunter picked up a rock from the river and flung it across, it skipping three times across the surface before splashing down and disappearing in the water.

Hunter turned around to continue exploring the place, and to his surprise he discovered that he was being watched. There was some soldier standing on a pile of rocks looking around that Hunter couldn't recognize. The man jumped down when Hunter approached. "Who are you, sir?"

The man shook his head slightly in response, saying only the word "Nathos".

"Yes, I understand this is Nathos," Hunter stated. "But I'm looking for a friend. His name is Katra. I don't suppose that name means anything to you?"

The man shook his head and said "No, nothing at all."

"Don't just stand there like a statue, I need information in order to find my friend. Can you help?"

"Look around you," the soldier said. "This was Nathos, our city. Funny -- I have never visited here before, yet it feels strangely familiar."

"What do you mean?"

The soldier began to walk around. "This was the city of our people, destroyed during the war against Catalonia. It has never recovered from the war that took place here."

"You have my sympathies, sir..." Hunter began. "but you did not answer my question. I came here looking for a friend. His name is Katra of Nathos. He was an Honor Guard for a city called Norset. And this--" Hunter withdrew Katra's medallion to show to the soldier.

The soldier gestured back. "Honor Guard, you say?"

"Yes. The Honor Guards," Hunter said. "Do you know anything that can help?"

"I have just one question, Hunter," the soldier said as he turned back around.

Hunter was about to ask how the man knew his name, but the man answered Hunter's question momentarily.

"May I have my medallion back?"

Hunter was nearly breathless in surprise. Upon a closer inspection, Hunter did indeed recognize who had just asked him that question. It was Katra! Hunter gladly returned Katra's medallion to him. If it wasn't for his new uniform and armor, Hunter would have recognized him at first glance. Katra filled Hunter in on the details of his absence, briefly mentioning what had happened to him, mentioning Falknyr who took care of him after his recovery, as well as tidbits of the discussions he had had with Falknyr about magic and energies.

"Katra--" Hunter began to say before Katra interrupted.

"Before that, Hunter, there is one thing you must know. Falknyr told me one of the traditions of our people. That old name no longer describes me. Therefore...

"Call me Kindra."

"Kindra?" Hunter stated back. "I think I can get used to that. So the eagle back in Sareille, was that--?"

"Yes," Kindra nodded. "It took a lot of debate, but I did eventually convince Falknyr to find you and trade my medallion for his. If anything, it would allow me to find you. I didn't expect to find you here, though...."

Marcus appeared from around one bend and then ran over. "Hunter?"

Hunter wasted no time reintroducing Katra -- that is to say, Kindra -- with Marcus. Vrynn recognized Kindra right away, and nearly tackled him with joy. Skylark, however, was still elsewhere.

Not for long, however. There was a loud "A-ha!" from behind as Skylark knocked a cloaked figure out of a thick tree and onto the ground. It was the same cloaked figure that had previously been spying on Hunter and Marcus. Kindra recognized the figure as well and ran over, sword in hand and emblazened with fire. "You've been shadowing us for quite a while, haven't you!? What do you want?"

The cloaked figure looked back with a silent, threatening gaze but said nothing.

Hunter and Marcus armed for a possible battle. Skylark kept his perch at a distance on a treelimb, but he too drew a pair of chakrams from his harness. He, too, was ready to do some fighting.

The cloaked figure examined his opposition and laughed. "This will be fun." He produced a blade in his left hand and energized it. Sure enough, it was the Atom Blade that he had stolen from Strato.

Kindra wasted no time, and attacked. The cloaked figure deflected his blow and countered, yet Katra blocked it too. The cloaked figure saw no surprise in Kindra's sword blocking the mighty Atom Blade, and their blades clashed two, three more times.

Suddenly, the cloaked figure was knocked aside by a powerful gust of air. Strato himself and Talon too were not far off, and Strato had fired the Shock Bow directly at the cloaked enemy. Strato ran in closer, Shock Bow still drawn, and made his presence known. "You are mine!"

The cloaked figure saw Strato, and smiled. He then tossed his cloak aside.

Everyone, save for Strato, was surprised when they recognized Andrake standing right in the field, ready for action. Skylark in particular was the most shocked. "No way! The demon has returned!"

Andrake looked them all over, taking a few steps back. "Who wants to be first?"

Kindra volunteered his skill and attacked first. Katra's blade clashed against and deflected Andrake's Atom Blade several more times as combat progressed, and neither scored a hit on the other. Andrake flew backwards about ten feet and then readied his grapple.

Strato saw it coming and knocked Andrake down with a powerful burst from the Shock Bow. Andrake soon found both Strato and Kindra against him as he got back up.

Kindra and Strato took turns attacking Andrake. However, neither landed any blows on Andrake. But in turn, Andrake hit neither Strato nor Kindra. Andrake began focusing his attacks on Kindra, and Strato saw his opportunity to attack. With a powerful hit from his sword, he knocked Andrake aside.

Andrake countered with the Atom Blade but missed. Andrake stood back up and focused his attacks on Strato this time. Strato ducked, jumped, and evaded the blows skillfully, yet found no opportunity to counter. Even so, Strato made his hit. Strato dropped a Flash Grenade to the ground during one jump, and its detonation seemed to blind Andrake. A little.

Strato then thrust his sword cleanly through Andrake's left shoulder, and the Atom Blade dropped from his grip. Andrake spun around blindly and knocked Strato down before picking up and energizing the Atom Blade in his other hand. Strato drew the Shock Bow and aimed it at Andrake carefully. It was a standoff.

Talon broke the moments of silence by tackling Andrake from his backside. Even before Strato could say otherwise, Andrake jumped backwards and broke free of Talon's grasp. The next thing anyone knew, Andrake had buried the Atom Blade deep into Talon's feathered torso.

Strato dropped the Atom Blade in shock as Talon let out a scream in pain; the wound was fatal. Andrake withdrew the Atom Blade and doused it.

"You monster...!" growled Strato. Strato prepared to draw another weapon.

Andrake jumped back in a huff, away from Strato. "You'll have to catch me first!" Andrake activated his thruster pack and then shot off into the sky and elsewhere.

Strato stood down and rushed over to the fallen Talon. At Talon's last breath, his gaze was fixated firmly on Strato. As Talon died, it seemed as though Strato was weeping, grieving his lost companion. Strato was also shouting out loud in a turmoil of anger and grief. "ANDRAKE ! ! By my family's honor you WILL PAY for this! ! You can't hide from ME!"

No one else could truly believe what had just happened. Talon was now dead, and Strato was shouting curses and threats for the whole world to hear.

"I'll get you for this, Andrake! I swear, I'll make you pay!!"