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Dragon Hunters

Book Two: The Path of Honor

© 2001-2002 Draconus / Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Sixteen: Legends Never Die

Built near the main entrance to most Ancestral ruins were two gargoyles, one on each side of the entrance. On the surface, Ancestral gargoyles are completely identical to their modern counterparts -- lifeless sculptures of stone. But something was definitely odd as the commander led Hunter, Marcus, Kindra and Vrynn to the main entrance of this Ancestral ruin. The commander stopped them at a distance of about twenty feet from the stone statues.

"Do you hear that?" The commander asked. "I hear nothing," Hunter replied.

The commander reloaded his rifle with a new cartridge of ammunition. "My point exactly. They're not following us anymore."

"Perhaps they let us go?" Hunter inquired.

"They never let enemies go away that easily," the commander huffed, "unless they have some other trick up their sleeve to use."

Those words were prophetic, and it became evident almost immediately thereafter.

The difference between Ancestral gargoyles and modern gargoyles, you see, lies not in the fact that they are sculptures of stone, but rather in the matter of fact that whereas modern gargoyles are lifeless sculptures, Ancestral gargoyles are not so. Through whatever sort of magic and technology that the Ancestors had back in their heyday, Ancestral gargoyles are actually alive. This point was quickly confirmed when the two eyes of each stone guardian began to glow in green color, and their heads turn slowly to meet them. Slowly, the two gargoyles awoke.

Both of these particular gargoyles were built in the shape of a gryphon -- a mythical creature back during Ancestral times but a fact of life in the modern day. Each one measured a monstrous size -- eight feet tall, sixteen feet long, and nearly a twenty-five foot stone wingspan. Dust shook off of the gargoyles as they came to life and cast the gaze from their greenish eyes down upon the group. The dust in the air transformed their shining eyes in searchlights, one focusing on the commander, and another focusing on Hunter. The two gargoyles stretched in a feline manner as if to shake off their long sleep, and they each in turn let out a loud, synthesized roar which sounded hardly anything like a real gryphon, but more like a dragon. They then stepped down from their concrete pedestals, landing each large foot on the ground.

"Don't get too close to them," the commander warned. He aimed his rifle and began shooting a constant stream of fiery bullets into the face of one of the stone gryphons. The projectiles absorbed into the rock armor of the gargoyle, producing little more than heat. The commander kept firing as the gryphon stepped closer. The rock armor on its face was heating up now, but still intact. Marcus grabbed the bow and fired an explosive arrow into the face of the gryphon. This shattered some of the rock, but only to reveal metal armor and structure underneath.

Either way, that gryphon was now ticked, and it charged toward Marcus while the other one spread its huge stone wings and jumped above and over them. The airborne gryphon dived forward, slamming into the ground in large force as Hunter, Kindra, and the commander scattered. It turned its attention to Hunter and Kindra. Hunter drew his bow and fired an arrow into the gryphon's face -- but its armor was simply too thick. Kindra charged up his sword with fire and waited for the creature to draw nearer.

Meanwhile, Marcus was now cornered against the wall with the other gryphon ready to bear down on him. The commander switched back to the Shock bow and fired a burst at that gryphon, shaing off another layer of dust. But the commander was too far away to be of any help. Marcus switched to his Fire bow and launched a flaming arrow into the gryphon's exposed metal face. It struck and the creature winced from it.

Hunter had an idea and grabbed one of the grenades that the commander had given him. Following the commander's instructions, Hunter pulled the pin off the grenade, armed it by pressing the thumb button down, and then threw it directly at the gryphon. Itexploded upon impact, cracking the gryphon's armor in several places along its torso and right wing. It seemed to feel this, and as it shook its stone "fur", segments and shards of rock fell off of its right side, revealing its metal skeleton and metallic wing feathers.

The commander switched back to his rifle and began firing at the exposed face of the other gryphon. Shot after shot impacted the gryphon's face, but the metal armor was highly resilient against this type of projectile. Seeing as it had little effect, the commander scowled and put his rifle away. He thought of what else he had to use, and withdrew a different type of projectile weapon that looked like a crossbow. He ran closer to assist Marcus.

The gryphon near Hunter moved even closer and at this, Kindra charged at the gryphon. Kindra grabbed ahold of the gryphon's rear leg and began climbing; fortunately, this gryphon was moving rather slow. Soon, Kindra was no the gryphon's torso. It hadn't noticed him, either, for stone is not exactly sensitive to the touch. Hunter drew another grenade and after arming it, tossed it into the gryphon's face. The creature anticipated this, and caught it with its stone mouth -- a rather dull maneuver, since the grenade promptly exploded, breaking off the gryphon's stone and metal beak. It, too, seemed to wince from the damage.

Meanwhile, the commander had come within range of the other gryphon and fired the crossbow. However, it became clear that this was no crossbow, for it did not fire an arrow, but rather a self-propelled projectile that streaked towards the gryphon's face and exploded upon impact. Marcus took the cue and switched back to the explosive arrows, firing another one into the gryphon's wing and shaking off a good chunk of armor around its right wing. The gryphon countered with a swipe from one of its paws. Marcus ducked and rolled aside as the huge stone paw swept overhead and crashed into one of the walls, leaving a considerable dent. The gryphon's paw seemed stuck for a moment, and Marcus used this opportunity to fire another explosive arrow into the gryphon, hitting its underside and shaking off some armor.

The other gryphon, meanwhile, took a few jumps back and readied one of its distance weapon systems. Still ignorant of Kindra riding on top, it shook the stone armor off of its shoulders, revealing some sort of explosive weaponry. Hunter ran to one of the lower-floor dorms and took cover behind a wall as it fired a flurry of sharp metal darts into the ground after him. It turned its attention to the dorm Hunter was hiding behind and fired several more darts into the wall, chipping away and reducing it to rubble. It then ran forward and shoved its damaged face into the broken wall. But fortunately for Hunter and Kindra, this gryphon became stuck in the opening as Hunter evacuated through another dorm and back out into the open.

Sensing an opportunity, Kindra slashed away at the gryphon's stone armor with his sword, and soon broke through. He then held his sword blade down and impaled it through the gryphon's back. He must have hit some system in the gryphon's body, for there was a sudden jolt as the gryphon pulled itself free from the wall.

Marcus, on the other end of the room, was starting to have better luck. By now he and the commander had shaken off most of the gryphon's stone armor with their explosive weaponry. But unfortunately, the gryphon became significantly faster now that it was deprived of its stony armor.

It also noticed that Kindra was hanging onto the other gryphon.

The gryphon near Marcus opened fire with a powerful weapons system, launching a large beam of light from a hidden cannon in its mouth towards the other gryphon and Kindra. But with the erratic movement of the faceless gryphon, it missed Kindra entirely, impacting straight into the damaged gryphon. As the beam hit, it knocked Kindra clear of the gryphon, and Kindra landed about ten feet away -- sword still in hand.

This gryphon, now severely damaged, collapsed as its internal systems failed, and ceased to move. It was now dead.

The other gryphon was still quite functional, however. It used its wings to fly into the air and soared nearer to Kindra, out of Marcus's firing range now. It was still in range of the commander's projectile weapon, and he fired another shot. But he missed, and the projectile exploded harmlessly into the wall.

The gryphon landed on the roof on one of the structures in this room and opened a different weapon system for use. It fired the weapon system, and a moment later, a shower of grenades hailed down and exploded in a large cumulative area of effect. Marcus was slightly injured in the explosions, whereas the commander was fine.

Hunter powered up his bow with the one magical skill he knew, and fired a glowing arrow straight at the remaining gryphon. It flew true, and exploded in a bright flash when it hit. This seemed to disorient its visual and thermal sensors, stunning it for a moment while the commander took a second shot, hitting the creature near its right wing.

The gryphon jumped down back onto the lower floor, near Kindra. Kindra attacked with his sword, and its sharp edge cut a sizable gash through the creature's metal armor. Kindra spun around and sliced again, the fire of his blade cleaving through the armor of the gryphon's leg and inflicting considerable damage to its mobility servos. In another slice, Kindra's sword sliced the gryphon's leg clear off.

The gryphon, though it was now limping, reacted soon after and grabbed Kindra with one of its forepaws. Hunter intervened with another arrow from his bow, and its impact stunned the gryphon again. Kindra managed to struggle free of its grasp at that time and countered by thrusting his sword through the creature's metal face. The damage he inflicted with that attack rendered the creature virtually blind, and it was nearly defeated by now, too.

The commander struck the damaged area of the creature with another shot from his explosive weapon. The gryphon tumbled to the ground from the hit, but with one broken leg it could not do so quickly, nor well. Kindra attacked again with his sword, slashing through the creature's damaged metal neck. This effectively decapitated the creature, and in another slash through its robotic heart, Kindra slew it as well.

The commander waved back towards the entrance. "Let's go while we still can, people!" Hunter and Kindra ran back towards the main entrance, flanked by two empty pedestals where the stone gryphons had rested.

"Vrynn!!" Marcus called out. Vrynn had disappeared somewhere during the battle. He soon appeared at the doorway to one of the dorms; the expression on his face indicated that he was afraid of the large stone creatures, and was now wondering if the coast was clear. Marcus greeted Vrynn, pat him a bit, and then ran off towards the commander with Vrynn following.

The commander led them out through the main entrance to the ruins and collapsed the tunnel using his explosive weaponry to prevent their being followed. The metallic and concrete underground gave way to stone and dirt of normal caverns, and the air became clearer as they approached the surface.

The commander pointed northeast. "You can reach Adgers to the northeast."

"And you?" Hunter asked.

"I'll return to my mission, and my foe."

"Not yet," Hunter said. The commander turned around so as to face away from Hunter. "Who are you?" Hunter asked.

The commander scoffed. "You haven't figured it out by now?"

Hunter recalled his suspicions from earlier and pieced together a name. "You wouldn't by chance be a 'Valkyros', would you?"

"The one and only," The commander, which is to say Strato, removed the cape that hid his armor and turned back to Hunter.

Kindra was surprised, and Marcus was absolutely shocked. "Why?" Kindra asked Strato. "How did you--"

"How did I become one of their commanding officers?" Strato asked. He laughed before giving an answer. "That is a long story -- but to sum it up, after I chased the two dragons through that ancient portal into this world, I was captured. But, after some convincing, they thought they could use me to accomplish their goals. One of those goals was finding Andrake.

"Their group is called the Fallen Star, and as you've probably guessed by now, they are descended directly from the Ancestors. They hold on to the few remaining elements of Ancestral power -- their weapons, mostly -- waiting for one day that they may emerge and reclaim what they believe they lost."

"Then why haven't we heard about them before?" Hunter asked.

"They are a secretive group, at least until recently. They believe that Andrake is the key to their world domination, and wish to capture him. But..." Strato sighed. "...Andrake serves no master. He cannot be controlled. Andrake can only fight and destroy, or be destroyed himself. Andrake cannot be used to dominate the world, only destroy it."

Strato looked back at Hunter. "Regardless what you may think of me, Hunter, I cannot sit by and allow an entire world to fall in destruction and chaos. The Fallen Star is my enemy for that reason, because Andrake is my enemy. So, like it or not, we are on the same side in this war."

"Someday, Hunter, we may finish the fight between us. Until then, adieu." Strato walked off to the southeast, cutting his own path through the forests.

Hunter let out a sigh. "Just when you think you have your opponent all figured out...."

Marcus nodded. "Right. Strato's loyalties mix in the most unusual of ways. Friend, foe, friend again, and foe someday."

"So then, where next?" Kindra asked.

Hunter scratched his head. "I wish I knew. If only there were a way to track Andrake, we'd know where to head next."

"How about Adgers?"

"Why not?" Hunter led the way along the roadway northeast, towards the city of Adgers. It was nightfall when they arrived, and they rented a room at one of Adger's Inns for the night.

The next morning rose nicely. The sky was clear, but foggy. Hunter woke everyone up bright and early to discuss plans for the day. They were still largely undecided on what to do. Kindra was hungry now, and he interrupted the conversation by asking that they go down and have breakfast. It was after breakfast that their plans for the day became set.

According to rumors being spoken between the townspeople, a group of Fallen Star soldiers had just docked a ship onshore, near the harbor, and were discussing plans. Allegedly, Andrake had been seen jetting across the ocean, and they were preparing a chase. So, quickly but cautiously, Hunter led Marcus, Kindra, and Vrynn closer to watch them.

They weren't the only ones watching -- Strato was too, from behind a sizable rock atop the embarkment leading up from the shore. "Strato?" Hunter called out.

Strato looked back silently. "I was wondering when you'd get here, Hunter. They say that Andrake was last seen flying a beeline towards an island called Atlantis. They're going to set off in that direction to grab him."

"Atlantis!?" Kindra asked in surprise. "The dragon...!"

"Dragon?" Strato responded. Kindra nodded and told Strato about the white dragon they had discovered long ago after washing up on shore of that island. Strato nodded. "It looks like Andrake is planning trouble after all. The stakes in this war are now higher; that dragon must not fall."

"All right then," Hunter said. "We need to get to Atlantis to stop Andrake, but how?"

"They're about to leave," Strato said. "Now to book our ship..." He withdrew the rifle he had used yesterday, took aim, and fired a shot down to the beach, hitting one of the Fallen Star soldiers in the chest and killing him. There was a shout from that direction, and no sooner had Strato crouched back down behind the rock than a volley of counter-fire arced overhead. "Now, we wait."

"For what?" Hunter asked.

About a minute later, they were surrounded by three soldiers of the Fallen Star. "Freeze!" One officer shouted. "Put your hands somewhere I can see them!" Everyone, even Strato, did so. Though the soldiers cuffed Hunter, Marcus, Kindra, Strato, and bound Vrynn, they did not bother removing any weapons. "Over here!" One soldier ordered, and they led their prisoners down the shore. "You're very lucky. On any other day we would have shot your kind dead; but today there are bigger fish to fry. In with it!" The soldiers motioned them to get into the ship. Not that they had much of a choice in the matter, but they did, and were then locked up in the ship's brig. The other soldiers got in the ship as well, and powered up its engines for travel.

Through small portholes in the side of the ship, Hunter could tell that they were travelling across the ocean at speeds faster than any normal merchant's ship -- a speed of perhaps fifty to sixty miles per hour. Remembering about how long it took the dragon Atlantis to fly them from the island to this continent that month ago, Hunter guessed it would be about two or three hours until the ship reached the island.

"Strato..." Marcus asked.


Marcus thought up one question that had been haunting his mind the past few days. "What was Talon to you?"

Strato sighed and shook his head. "More than you'd understand, even if I told you. He was no mere pet. He was a friend, and--" Strato stopped for a moment. "--in some ways, he was family."

Marcus knew there was more in Strato's answer than was given, but he did not ask further.

A little while later, a soldier walked in and looked them over, then walked back out again. A minute after that, he returned, bringing another officer -- a subcommander, judging from his uniform -- in to the room. "Hunter Antare?"

Hunter couldn't believe his eyes, nor his ears. "Mitch! You too?"

Confirmed, it was indeed Hunter's friend from Vale and Border, Mitchell Sanchez. Mitchell looked back at Hunter. "Sorry that we must meet under these circumstances, old friend."

"What happened to you? You've changed..." Hunter accused.

"As have you," Mitchell responded. Correct; Hunter had nearly forgotten that he wasn't wearing an Honor Guard uniform, he was wearing a Rangers uniform.

"What do you want with us?" Kindra asked.

"You've all changed," Mitchell said back plainly. "But so have the times. It is not always possible to evade the past...."

"So that's it," Strato laughed. "Imagine that. Another Honor Guardsman who is really, not an Honor Guardsman but someone else?"

"No, Strato," Mitchell rebuffed. He then looked back at Hunter. "Hunter, I hope you'll believe me when I say this: that we have always been on the same side."

"I don't know," Hunter said. "Aside from Kindra and Marcus, I don't know who my friends are anymore."

"Perhaps we can change that," Mitchell said. "We're currently en route to Atlantis island; they have tracked Andrake heading in this direction, and are hoping to intercept him."

"We figured as much," Hunter responded. "But what does that have to do with us?"

Mitchell gave his proposition. "We need you, Hunter. The Fallen Star may have a low opinion of modern folk, but we're going up against Andrake, and believe it or not, you're going to be our plan of attack. I hope you will agree."

"What?!?" Hunter replied back in a near-shout. "What are you talking about?"

"You've fought Andrake before and survived. That is a resource we can't afford to waste, especially since Andrake doesn't give our soldiers that courtesy. Andrake likes to match his fighting style to his opponents. If he believes that his opponents are incapable of harming him, he holds back to give them the appearance of a fighting chance. But if he believes they mean him harm, he withholds no punches or attacks. The Fallen Star has lost several squads to Andrake's fury already. Yet you have survived at least two battles with Andrake. That is why we need you."

Hunter practically agreed with Mitchell right there, but he had another doubt in his mind. "What do you want us to do?"

"Andrake was built with one weakness," Mitchell replied. He presented a pack of grenades. "These are called EST grenades. If you hit Andrake with one of them, it will sent a bolt of energy through his system and completely shut him down, knock him out. We want you to fight him; and in the process of that fight, hit him with one of these grenades. After that, we'll attend to the rest."

Strato was quietly shaking his head no to the request, but Hunter agreed that they would do it. At about the same time, they felt the ship slow, for they were nearing the fateful island of Atlantis.

After arriving onshore of the island, a few Fallen Star soldiers secured the area acording to their protocols, and one group of soldiers disembarked and took a position about twenty feet off. Mitchell had Hunter, Marcus, Strato, Kindra, and Vrynn unbound and enlisted for his group -- he gave each of them (except Vrynn, naturally) three of the EST grenades. Theirs would be the primary group; the soldiers already lined up on the beach would be the secondary group, the reinforcements. Mitchell led the way through the island.

Though the island itself was the same as before, something about being a captive made it seem dark and dreadful. It felt as if every creature in the jungle was watching the two groups with intrepidation, curiosity, and fear. They passed quietly by the one pride of gryphons, and even a few nests of drakes, and after a little while, they approached to the volcanic mountain of Atlantis.

Mitchell ordered the secondary group to stop there and wait for a signal. "Once for retreat, twice for success, three times for trouble," Mitchell had said to them. Mitchell then led Hunter, Marcus, Strato, Kindra and Vrynn into the hot caverns. They proceeded through turn after turn, past remnants of Ancestral metal walls and floors, flowing lava in small creeks underneath the floor, and then finally, into that large room in the center of the volcano where they had first met the dragon.

Andrake was there, in the center of the cavern, and turned around as they approached. "I've been waiting for you to arrive. The crystal says that there is a powerful dragon in this immediate area. Where is it?"

"Crystal?" Hunter asked in surprise. Andrake withdrew a medium-sized crystal from a compartment in his torso. "This little thing? I found it deep in the Shoshone Caverns. It seems to glow in the presence of any large energy. Now... tell me where the dragon is, and I might let you survive."

"Why bother?" Strato asked. "Today's a good day to die..." Everyone drew their weapons and prepared for a fight.

"Have it your way, then!" Andrake drew the Atom Blade and energized it.

Hunter fired the first shot with his bow, but it had little effect against Andrake's armor. "You call that an attack?" Andrake taunted, then charged.

Hunter drew his sword and shield as Andrake dashed forward. Andrake swung the Atom Blade as he neared, but Hunter jumped back to evade it, then dug his feet into the ground as Andrake slammed into his shield and over to the side. Quickly, Hunter armed and tossed one of the EST grenades. But he threw it too strong, and the grenade landed in a pool of lava with no effect.

Andrake countered, knocking Hunter down to the ground in another dash. Slashing with the Atom Blade, he nearly cleaved Hunter's shield in two. Though Hunter's shield was still intact, the heat of the Atom Blade made it impossible to hold, and Hunter had to toss it aside.

Strato intervened next, firing a shot from the Shock bow to get Andrake's attention. Andrake took the invitation and charged toward Strato. Strato switched to his rifle and fired a shot into Andrake's right shoulder. Andrake stopped suddenly with the hit. Strato fired two more shots, but Andrake saw them coming and took evasive action skywards, and Strato's shots missed by an inch.

Andrake decided Marcus would be his next target and flew down towards Marcus. Marcus saw this and fired one of his explosive arrows into Andrake. The explosion from the arrow knocked Andrake out of flight, the air, and onto the ground. Andrake got back up and rushed forward to strike Marcus. Andrake sliced that bow in half as Marcus was backing up. Similarly, when Marcus drew his normal bow, Andrake sliced that in two as well.

"Feeling helpless, soldier?" Andrake taunted again. But Kindra intervened, hitting Andrake from behind with his sword. Andrake swung around and countered, Kindra blocking it. "You--!" While Marcus took a few steps back, Kindra engaged Andrake. "I should finish you off this time," Andrake threatened.

Ducking another blow, Kindra countered not only with his own attack, but with his own remark as well. "We'll see about that."

Andrake attacked again, forcing Kindra back a few steps. As their blades clashed, the two of them progressed closer to the edge of the ground, nearing the lake of lava in the volcano's core. Kindra knew it, but kept fightin ganyway. Andrake swung again to attack, and Kindra countered after a quick parry. Andrake however countered the attack too -- it seemed he was getting faster.

The two of them had now exchanged places, Andrake being the one nearest to the lava. However, Andrake took a few steps back and activated his jets, hovering over the lava. Before anyone could think up the next move, Andrake fired his grapple and hit Kindra's armor with it. He reeled in the grapple to pull Kindra out over the lava. Surprisingly, it worked, and Kindra flew out about ten feet and then down in.

But then, a miracle happened. For the moment, it looked as if Kindra had fallen onto the lava rather than into it. It soon became apparent why. The lava began to ripple around him, and in a moment later it erupted in a plume of fire as the dragon, Atlantis, rose from it. Kindra had landed on the dragon's head, and was now keeping grip from Atlantis's two crest horns.

Andrake flew backwards over to the wall, watching the progression with amazement. Atlantis flew over to the ground and lowered his head a bit so that Kindra could hop off safely. Atlantis then turned to Andrake. "Finally! After all these years," Andrake said out loud. "You're mine, dragon!"

"If fate decrees it," Atlantis roared back. "We defeated you the last time!"

"A mistake I shan't do again!!" Andrake threatened.

Atlantis started their fight with a powerful burst of ice-breath as Andrake took evasive action. Andrake landed on the ground, nearer to the dragon and lunged forward. Atlantis saw this coming and spun around in a quick circle, whipping Andrake with his plated tail. Andrake fell sideway and rolled over several times from the blow, stopping himself right at the edge of the lava. Andrake rushed in again, fromthe sky this time, and plunged the Atom Blade right into the dragon's herat. Atlantis cringed but, to Andrake's surprise, was in no way harmed by this attack. He grabbed Andrake with his left forepaw and then smashed Andrake into the ground.

Andrake made quite a dent in the rocky floor, and Atlantis hit him with another burst of icy breath as he tried to stand back up. A layer of ice quickly formed, covering Andrake. But it wouldn't last for long, so Atlantis took a few of his steps forward and picked Andrake up with his teeth. He tossed Andrake far up into the air.

Andrake recovered about halfwy up, and activated his jets to avoid falling. But he was damaged, evident by the large teeth-shaped gashed in his armor, and his jets weren't operating at full capacity. Andrake landed on the ground some considerable distance away from the dragon.

Atlantis charged up another form of dragonbreath and, just as Andrake began moving, Atlantis let him have it. A large bolt of electricity leaped straight from the dragon, arced across the air, and slammed right into Andrake. Andrake fell down to the ground and was stunned for a little while.

Atlantis leaped over to Andrake's position. Just then, Andrake came to and charged forward, going clean under Atlantis and taking a slash at his plated tail. Atlantis cringed again as Andrake hit him and broke one spike from his tailspade clean off.

Andrake backed up a few feet and examined his small prize. "If you had seen my true fury back then, dragon, I would have been the victor!"

Andrake stood still for too long, though; Atlantis hit him with another electric bolt and stunned him. This time, Atlantis swung around in another circle and, with his tail, knocked Andrake completely across the room. Andrake slammed with great velocity into the rock wall, above the lava. Several small rocks broke loose from the wall and crumbled down. Andrake came to in a moment, and looked back at the dragon. He peeled himself from the wall and activated his jets. But his thrusters weren't functional now, and Andrake dropped clean into the lava.

There was a splashing sound as Andrake hit and sank like a stone.

"It would appear the day is won," Atlantis stated with relief. But Strato, and Kindra, were not convinced. Something felt wrong.

The ground began to tremble, and they could scarcely believe it when Andrake erupted forth from the lava.

"What the hell?" Mitchell sent a call for reinforcements right then.

It was unbelieable. Through some arcane, evil mix of Andrake, the dragon scale, lava, and Ancestral magic, Andrake had emerged from the lava even more powerful than before. He must have been about seven feet tall by now. Gone was his black-and-red color scheme of plated armor, replaced by shimmering armor of the fiery colors red and orange, offset in a few locations by powerful blue.

Andrake held out the Atom Blade. Not only he, but the Atom Blade too was strengthened through the quick transformation, now with a more pronounced firelike color, its blade measuring an extra half foot in length and power. Andrake now sported a large shield on his right arm, the only decorations on which were a row of flattened spikes pointing backwards. Andrake spread two large, metal wings that now replaced his old thrusters, each one being a fiery orange and blue in color and large enough to wrap himself up in. His eyes glowed a piercing green in color, a sharp contrast to the fiery red that they used to be.

Now, looking at the latest incarnation of their enemy, a wave of fear washed over Hunter, Marcus, and Kindra just as it had when they first met Andrake back in the city of Border -- it was now as if they were truly looking at a demon spawned from the fires of hell.

Mitchell's reinforcements -- six men plus their commander -- entered the area and, without even waiting for an order, opened fire on the new Andrake as soon as they could. Andrake presented his shield in front of him and blocked the shots. No, he wasn't just blocking them, the fiery bullets from Ancestral rifles were richochetting off of his shield as if they were made of rubber.

After a few volleys, the men noticed the richochet effect and stopped firing. Andrake charged the Atom Blade and flew towards their group. They fired a few more shots on his approach, but as Andrake twirled in flight, he deflected the projectiles with the Atom Blade, sending them right back into the group, killing two of the soldiers. Andrake folded his new wings up as he landed and whirled into action, slicing through several of the men. The commander of the group called a hasty retreat, hitting Andrake with an EST grenade on the way out. New shape or not, Andrake still proved vulnerable to the Fallen Star's secret weapon, and Andrake fell to the ground like a rock.

Hunter called out after Mitchell as the other remaining soldier, his commanding officer, practically dragged Mitchell out the way they had come. "Mitch!!"

"Sorry, Hunter!!" Mitchell cried out. "I'll see you again, count on it!"

Mitchell's commanding officer gave his final words to Hunter as well. "If you survive, you may consider yourself an honorary Fallen Star. But until then--"

The commanding officer hit a button on the remote, detonating several charges that had been placed into the ground. The walls around it cracked and, soon after, collapsed, burying the one entrance to the caverns in rock and rubble. They had been trapped in the cave.

Andrake came to in anothere moment, and stood back up.

"Let me handle this," Atlantis warned Hunter, Marcus, Kindra, and Strato, and even Vrynn. "It's my day to die, not yours." Atlantis stepped between them and Andrake.

"So you wish to die, do you?" Andrake threatened. "So be it!" Andrake prepared a new weapon system for use, hidden behind the shield on his right arm, took aim, and fired. A pair of self-propelled arrowlike projectiles launched and flew across the cavern, slamming into Atlantis's side. These projectiles exploded, and Atlantis cringed from their impacts. Atlantis counterattacked with a burst of electric dragon-breath. But Andrake blocked it with his shield, and the bolt of electricity soaked through him into the ground with no effect. Andrake lunged forward towards Atlantis and thrust at him with the Atom Blade. Still, it didn't leave anything more than a scratch on Atlantis.

What did it mean? Was this dragon immortal? Atlantis had been struck several times, yet the only real sign of injury was the spike that Andrake had broken off of Atlantis's tail. Andrake noticed this, too. He dashed around to Atlantis's front. Atlantis swiped at him with his claws, leaving scratches in Andrake's armor. The damage was superficial, however, and Andrake dashed forward again. Andrake aimed at the only discernable target in Atlantis he could find -- a large, sealed crystal that Atlantis wore on his chest like armor. Andrake thrust the Atom Blade into the crystal. Atlantis reeled from this impact, a noticeable change from when he had received similar blows just earlier. Andrake noticed this change as well, and with a thrust from his other arm, he cut the crystal free from Atlantis.

Atlantis backed off, breathing heavily from the injury and watching Andrake carefully. Andrake paused, taking step after step closer to them. He stopped at a distance of about fifteen feet from Atlantis and everyone else. "What is this... crystal?"

Andrake pointed the Atom Blade at Atlantis who, unusually, cowered slightly. "Beaten already? Very well, perhaps I should turn back to my other enemies...." Andrake turned his attention to Marcus. "Shall we begin again?"

Something strange happened just then. Vrynn, apparently thinking that Andrake was giong to harm Marcus, and without concern for his own safety, attacked Andrake. Obviously, he was no match for Andrake, who grabbed Vrynn around his neck tightly and held him out as Vrynn struggled in vain to get free. Andrake pointed the launchers on his right arm at Vrynn's head.

"See," Andrake began again. "Your problem is that you protect too much. What are you going to do, if you take one step forward and I slay this unfortunate creature?"

Andrake was using Vrynn as a living shield, but he was correct -- Marcus and Hunter didn't dare attack him. Nor did Strato. Only Kindra saw a way out. Without any warning, Kindra threw his sword straight at Andrake and Vrynn. His sword pierced through a portion of Vrynn's right wing, and Vrynn could be heard letting out a long yelp of sharp pain. But Vrynn wasn't the only one wailing -- Andrake was too, for Kindra's sword had pierced through into Andrake's left shoulder, and Andrake was yelling too from the damage.

Enraged, Andrake tore Vrynn off of him and threw Vrynn far aside. Vrynn was too weakened, too injured to help as he flipped and tossed in the air, coming to an end in the lava with a splish. "Vrynn --- ! !" Marcus shouted.

Andrake pulled Kindra's sword out of his shoulder and threw it down to the ground. But where was the crystal? It was nowhere in Andrake's grip. Then, the ground itself began to quake. Andrake retreated from the scene and flew straight out of the hole in the ceiling to elsewhere.

Atlantis felt the ground shaking too, more deeply than anyone else. He rushed over to Hunter, Marcus, Kindra, and Strato. "I may be finished, but you shall not die in here! Climb on!"

Atlantis didn't wait for a response; he himself tossed Hunter and Kindra onto his back, then grabbed Marcus and Strato with his two front paws. Sitting up on his two hind legs, he prepared for flight. He jumped powefully, with flaps from his wings, and carried the four of them out of the cavern, onto the top of the volcano.

Out on the top, Atlantis set Marcus and Strato down, then landed on the rocks so that Hunter and Marcus could climb down as well. However, just after doing so, he collapsed. "My... strength has left me. Leave... far and fast as you can!!"

"What's happening?" Hunter asked.

"The crystal..." Atlantis said, weakening. "It sustained me... three thousand years. But, when it breaks... so too shall I... pass..."

The ground began shaking more violently. Though it was not visible from below, the level of lava in the below cavern was rising. Several cracks formed in the ground surrounding Atlantis. In a moment later, the ground Atlantis lay on gave way to gravity, and the dragon fell back into the volcano, landing in the lava to die.

"We've got to get out of here!" Strato exclaimed, and took off running. This was the first, and probably the only time in their lives that anyone had seen Strato running for his life, and they decided to follow.

The path down the volcano was a shaky one, with the volcano's rumbling and all, but they managed to keep footing and pace as they fled down the side of the volcano. It took about two minutes to run, jog, and leap down the side before they were back on the jungle floor.

Something was definitely different about the jungle now. It was completely silent and felt empty. Suddenly, a large crack shook open in front of them, revealing a conduit of lava and steam. "That way!" Strato yelled, and they took off in a different direction.

Thie direction led to a waterfall. It was risky, but there was a good-sized lake at the bottom, so Strato ordered them to jump. It would be "the quickest way", according to him. He practically had to shove Hunter and Marcus down, however; Kindra was willing to dive himself.

A minute later they emerged from he lake and walked ashore. Above them, they could identify smoke; the jungle was catching fire. Hunter looked around. This was where they had previously spotted a pride of gryphons. This was definitely the same area, judging by a number of feathers lying along the ground and trees, but where were the gryphons? They weren't anywhere in sight. The pride was completely deserted -- except for about a dozen gryphon cubs too young to fly, and three mother gryphons who couldn't dare leave the pride without their young. These remaining gryphons were destined to die on the island either by fire or volcanic eruption.

The fire in the jungle was spreading quickly, accelerated by relatively dry weather. Another chasm in the ground shook open revealing a pool of underground lava, this time in the creek, and as the waterfall stopped flowing, all the water in the lake below drained into the lava, producing vast clouds of steam with the smoke.

Strato led the way running, out of the pride and along the now-dry creekbed. Another violent quake shook open another chasm with lava in it, and several trees nearby fell in. One tree was large enough that it fell completely across, from one side to the next. Strato ordered them across -- it would save them the time of having to cross around. Strato went first, Marcus next, followed by Kindra and then Hunter.

Strato made it across safely, Marcus next and then Kindra. However, a second quake shook the chasm open wider as Hunter was crossing, and the tree began to bend under the stress. "Hunter!" The top of the tree-trunk was breaking, and beginning to slide down the chasm. Hunter crossed the last part of the trunk as quickly as he safely could, but by then the tree had sunk about four feet below the edge. Kindra kneeled down and grabbed Hunter by the hand, then tried to pull him up.

Fires were starting all around them, as Marcus lent his hand to help as well. It took another moment to pull Hunter up to the surface, and by then the tree they had crossed swung further down into the chasm, then fell into the lava below it.

Hunter thanked Kindra for the help, then they continued running. A minute later, though the ground was still quaking and an eruption was imminent, who should fly in from above but Andrake, coming to finish an old grudge. He landed right in front of them, blocking their path.

"And now, we finish this!!" Andrake shouted.

"You're insane, Andrake!" Hunter shouted back. "That volcano is going to erupt!"

"How unfortunate. For you--!" Andrake opened fire with his rocket launcher as everyone scattered in two directions. Laughing as a maniac, Andrake switched to another tactic, and opened fire -- literally; Andrake shot several bursts of fire at various drier trees in the jungle, setting them alight.

Andrake turned the other way and cut several trees down with the Atom Blade, forming a barrier. No one except Andrake had the time for a fight. Andrake chased after them, starting fires with his weapons and felling other trees with the Atom Blade, trying to distract them as they kept running.

Suddenly, the quaking stopped, and as Hunter, Marcus, Strato, and Kindra regrouped further down their path, Andrake rushed ahead and chopped several trees down to block the way forward and set a trap. "Going somewhere?" Andrake threatened.

"There's no time for this, Andrake!" Strato exclaimed, and fired the Shock bow at Andrake, knocking him aside. Hunter hit Andrake with one of the EST grenades, stunning him. They used this opportunity to run, and managed to get a small lead on Andrake's position.

But Andrake quickly caught up with them after recovering from the grenade's stunning effect, landing on the path in front of them again, hoping for a final fight.

But even Andrake now realized that there was truly no time for it. The ground began shaking with unprecedented force, and everyone lost balance and fell to the ground. Several more chasms of lava shook open, behind and beside them. Moments later, the volcano, now one mile away, exploded. Everyone looked in fear as flaming pieces of rock flew like a meteor shower from the volcano, landing everywhere on the island, even around them. Furthermore, a heavy layer of smoke and ash was shot into the air for a horribly great distance skyward.

The ground still shaking and meteor-like rocks faling all around them, the smoke and ash from the volcano began to fall. Rolling off of the sides of the mountain and progressing down the island, it quenched the fires in the jungle and billowed out like a great black avalanche.

Andrake scrambled to his feet, for even he was knocked down by the force of the eruption, and took to the skies. Hunter, Marcus, Strato, and Kindra resumed their pace and continued to flee, though it was a considerable distance more to shore and the water that was the only possible protection from the volcanic eruption and black smoky ash it spewed forth.

Andrake was the last one to leave the island that day -- Hunter and his group never made it to the water.

* End of Book Two *

To Be Continued . . . .