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Dragon Hunters

Book Two: The Path of Honor

© 2001-2002 Draconus / Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Six: So Close, yet So Far

Katra woke up early in the morning, refreshed. The past week had been a busy one; he had been training with Falknyr and trying to learn how to use his medallion's powers. By now, Katra had a rough idea how to emblazen his sword with the fire-power of his medallion, but he still needed time to refine that power. However, Katra couldn't figure out how to summon the medallion's magical armor, nor was Katra very confident or able to handle actual fire like Falknyr was. Regardless of the setbacks, Katra wasn't about to stop trying. Katra looked across the room. "Falknyr?"

Falknyr was still sleeping in his nest as a phoenix, his chosen animal form. Katra blinked. "Oh...." In the past week, Katra had become more adjusted to Falknyr's magical ability of transformation; by now, seeing Falknyr in his avian form was no longer such a surprise.

Falknyr stirred, shifting his wings and then slowly waking up. Falknyr looked at Katra through a pair of sleepy eyes. After what seemed to be a yawn, Falknyr stretched his wings, hopped out of the nest, and then summoning his powers, shifted back to his human form in a quick flash of magical energy. "Morning, young one. Had a good night's rest, I assume?"

Katra nodded. Falknyr picked up his coat and pack, slinging them over his shoulder and readying for the day. Although the specific nature of transformation assured that one like Falknyr would never have to worry about misplacing their clothing, whenever Falknyr was at home, he always removed his pack and coat before changing from his human shape into a phoenix. Falknyr had never fully explained the reason why; but Katra suspected that he did so so that he could carry his pack around even in his avian form.

Falknyr looked back across the room at Katra. "I'll have to stop by Calcutta sometime today to pick up some supplies. You should come along, and learn a bit. --That is, when you're ready to."

"Right," Katra responded, blinking a little bit. "What'll be for breakfast?"

Falknyr gave it but a moment of thought. "I can cook up some fish, if you'd like -- there are still a few left in the cold box. I'll start preparing them...." Falknyr walked out into the main room and then into his kitchen.

Katra hopped off the bed and stood up. He grabbed his sword and medallion from where they lay near the bed, followed by his vest of armor, and put them on. By the time Katra had made it out into the front room, Falknyr was nearly done cooking a pair of trout for breakfast. Thanks in part to his abilities over fire, the fish had cooked a lot faster than is typical, and breakfast was served shortly. It was delicious.

After breakfast was finished, Falknyr led the way as they progressed southwest towards Calcutta. It would be about an hour's walk to the city; Katra took the time to ask Falknyr a few more questions.

"Falknyr. Tell me again why you spend so much time as a phoenix. Every night when you bed down, you've always done so by first changing into that feathered form of yours; but why?"

Falknyr sighed. "There are many reasons. First, as I've said before, and as you could guess, animals never have to worry about temperatures. Feathers are fairly waterproof, too. With all the time I've travelled by air, sleeping in a nest rather than a bed comes more naturally."

"You know that's not everything, Falknyr. What else is there?"

Falknyr looked up towards the sky for a moment before answering. "I keep forgetting, there is not much use trying to fool you. Anyway....

"The ability of transformation has pervasive effects for the individual. When an individual gains the magical ability to change their shape into an animal, they--shall we say--'assimilate' a few qualities of that animal. Often, their personality is reformed to suit their newfound dual nature; sometimes, their physical senses are heightened; but in all, the first characteristic they acquire is the potential life energy of the particular animal."

The terminology was lost on Katra. "What?"

Falknyr thought of a different way to phrase it. "Look at it a different way. How old do I look to you?"

Katra stopped walking. "Say what?"

"How old do I look to you? It is a simple question," Falknyr responded.

Katra looked Falknyr over as they started walking again. For a man like Falknyr, he didn't look any more than forty years old. "I'm no good at guessing ages..., but I would take a guess and say that you're about as old as Hunter -- thirty years."

Falknyr smiled. "That is quite a conservative estimate, friend..."

"Why? How old are you, then?"

Falknyr thought about it. "It's hard to say; I stopped counting at 120...."

"WHAT?!?" Katra could sense that Falknyr's words were reasonably true, but something didn't add up.

Falknyr laughed a moment. "135, actually."

Katra was astonished. If Falknyr truly was 135 years old, he certainly didn't appear that way--his appearance would suggest an age of somewhere between thirty and forty years. Yet if he must have been indeed that old, then how? "I don't get it; then why do you still look so young?"

Falknyr smiled a bit. "It's part of what I was telling you. Phoenixes are a miraculous sort of bird; their typical lifespans last as long as -- perhaps even longer than -- dragons. Some believe that phoenixes live to 300 years old. Some others say 400, or even five hundred. And there are a few believers out in the world who think that phoenixes simply continue to live until something kills them. Only the Aerissans could know for sure; but they want us to figure it out ourselves, rather than just letting us know. Being a phoenix has become part of my research, that by measuring how quickly I age, I could arrive at a conclusive estimate on the average phoenix's lifespan. So far, if my calculations are correct, their average lifespan is somewhere between two hundred and 250 years.

"But that's not what you asked. What I was trying to say earlier, is that when an individual acquires the ability of transformation, they intrinsically adopt certain qualities of the chosen animal. And, the first quality to be adopted is the animal's lifespan. It's a magical conundrum spoken about only in circles of wizardry; that when transformation is given to an individual, it often increases their lifespan. In the case of your parents: when they acquired their ability to change into dragons, they also acquired the lifespan of the average dragon. The acquisition occurs almost regardless of how much time they spend as human or dragon.

"So, in my case, being able to change into a phoenix, I also live as long as a phoenix does. That is why I appear so 'young' to you."

Katra thought about it. "Right.... But my original question was, why do you always sleep as a phoenix?"

Falknyr thought about it. "It's based, in part, on that magical conundrum. The other part is as I told you -- it is more refreshing than sleeping as a human."

Although Falknyr's answer finally made an ounce of sense, Katra couldn't relate. After all, it was only natural that he had spent his entire life as a human; those like Falknyr with such a magical ability of shapechanging -- or transformation, as Falknyr always called it -- must see things a bit differently than the norm.

Falknyr brought up the next subject for discussion. "So, son; can you remember your name, or is it still lost in memory?"

Katra tried to recall, but his mind was still drawing a blank for what his name was; it still felt as if Katra never had a name to begin with. But of course, he was given a name, for Hunter and Marcus knew it! So why couldn't Katra recall his own name? "No; no luck. Sometimes, in fact, I'm not so sure I ever had a name in the first place."

"Coincidence it may seem, but have you heard of a 'birth name' before?"

"Birth name?" Katra thought about it. "Only once. Strato..., he said he had a 'birth name'. 'Shane', I believe. But apart from that, what does it mean?"

"It's a common tradition among our culture. In fact, it dates back several millenia even among the dragons, dracans, aerissans, and requato. Concidental though it may seem, you could benefit from it....

"Under the tradition, when a child is born, they are given a name by their parents to last... for a little while. Once they come of age, they adopt a new name, a new title, for themselves. Some adopt a name entirely different from what they were given at birth; others choose something similar. Still others adopt their birth name as their own and keep it for life. 'Strato', for example, was the name he chose when he came of age; his parents had given him the name 'Shane'.

"As for you...." Falknyr did indeed know Katra's name, but since Katra wouldn't recognize it, Falknyr skipped over it. "You're well of age, and descended from our culture. You should consider deciding upon a name for yourself."

"Hmmm..." Katra thought about it, and then thought some more. "That's... one decision I can't make quickly."

Falknyr nodded. "Indeed. You may -- and should -- take your time with a matter such as a name."

"Ah, now, here we are; this is Calcutta." Calcutta came into view as they left the edge of the forest. Calcutta is a small town set in the middle of a large plains. Agriculture and farming are its primary crop, and exports; one has to wonder why Calcutta remains so small for the produce it grows. It is a city roughly the size of Alexis; large enough for its inhabitants to have a school, a guard center, a number of small shops, and of course, a few cafés.

Falknyr led Katra into the town. The roadways of Calcutta are wide, perhaps twenty feet, giving the city a grand sense of balance and space. The architechture was mainly blue in color and painted-wooden construction, with buildings of almost all shapes and sizes.

Katra was surprised when he saw the mix of the local population; this was the first time Katra had ever seen non-human inhabitants. They were Requato, mostly; and comprised the majority, or about two-thirds, of Calcutta's population. Falknyr explained to Katra the reason why. Calcutta began as a "pride" of sorts belonging to the Requato; and even after humans began settling, the Requato natives banded together with the humans to build the city. Requato comprise roughly one half of Calcutta's legislature and nearly all of its soldier army.

But exactly what is a Requato? That would be a silly question for Katra to ask, for the answer was quite visible everywhere across the town. Requato, as Falknyr began telling Katra, are one of the original ruling species. According to their stories of world creation, seven different races were designated to rule over the various realms of the world: Fire dragons, Snow dragons, Sea dragons; Dracans, Aerissans, and Requato; and finally, but nowhere near leastly, the humans. Through the course of the world, humans became the most numerous of all the seven ruling races; yet even afterwards, each of the seven races has their place in society and the world.

Falknyr realized he was diverging off onto a tangent about history and legend, and recapped back to the subject of the Requato. Requato were appointed as rulers over the forests and plain, as well as the absolute masters of any species of feline animal. Whereas humans could train big cats (such as lions) only by force, Requato are more than able to tame the big cats without using force.

Katra got quite a good look at various Requato inhabitants as Falknyr led him through the town to his destination. Requato, not unlike the animals they rule, are distinctively feline in appearance. They tend to stand about five to six feet tall when fully grown (roughly the same size as humans and dracans). Their build is humanoid, but somewhat stockier than humans. Proportionally speaking, their legs are somewhat shorter than human legs and their bodies slightly more elongated. The different proportions enable them to walk on all four feet as well as upright on two; and in fact, they travel quite faster when on all fours. Their heads are perfect facsimilies of the normal big cats; reflective cat-eyes, pointed (sometimes tufted) ears. The hands on their forearms are a bit stubbier and more "paw"-like than human hands, complete with a set of five retractable claws per hand. Their back legs share the same proportions as a cat's hind legs, also complete with a set of fixed claws on each toe; and to finish their design comes a long, furry tail about three feet in length and nearly the same diameter as their wrists.

Requato fur comes in a dizzying array of color varieties, or "strains", such as orange with white stripes, black and orange striped, maize-yellow with brown spots, striped tan, and perhaps hundreds more. Similar to the dracans, Requato spurn made clothing because their bodies are fully coated -- head to tail -- in their moderately-thick coat of natural fur. Even so, Requatan warriors know the usefulness of armor, so while it was unusual to Katra for such a large portion of Calcutta's population to be furred like cats rather than clothed like humans, the armor-wearing Requatan guards were less imposing.

Katra couldn't shake his impression; he seriously felt as if he had walked into a city full of cats. More or less, he was correct; for Requato could best be described as looking astutely like large cats, and they were indeed the majority of Calcutta's population. Yet the apparent civilized qualities exhibited by the Requato -- their cultured manner, tame appearance, and armored soldiers -- struck at odds against their cat-like physiology. They weren't just cats, they were civilized -- felines of culture, cats of class.

Falknyr stopped at the market for some fresh food, purchasing a few items and then stowing them away in his pack. After that, he stopped by to talk to the weaponsmith -- a requato named 'Phaelix' -- and to purchase some metal ore for his experiments back home. After that, Falknyr stopped by the High Lands Inn for a bit of lunch.

Falknyr and Katra sat down at the table nearest the window. The air in this building was crisp and fresh, yet warm; and despite that just about every patron at this time was a Requato, the room didn't smell like a bunch of cats. Or perhaps it did, and Katra wasn't noticing. Katra was relieved, though, to find that the Innkeeper was human; at least something seemed familiar.

The room fell silent when the doors were opened once more and two figures --one armored, one feathered -- walked inside. As their silhouettes moved away from the door, Katra recognized that they were none other than Strato and Talon. Falknyr whispered a bit to Katra. "That's Strato! He hasn't changed too much since our world last saw him. He's legend out here, you should know."

Katra stifled a bit of rage and nodded silently. Although the other patrons in the room resumed their normal tones and conversations, Katra was watching Strato carefully, and trying to listen.

Strato walked up to the counter and sat on one of the barstools, while Talon laid down near Strato's feet for some rest. The Innkeeper nearly dropped a plate of food when he spotted Strato. "Sir Valkyros!! It's been too long a time since you showed yourself to the fair world. How have things been?"

Strato petted Talon for a few moments. "Nice to meet you too, Bragg. It's been quite a trip. Victories, losses, threats... the works. So, how's that family of yours?"

Bragg, the Innkeeper, nodded. "The kids adjust quite well to all the Calcuttan requato. Watching them at play, sometimes it's as if the kids wished they were born with fur and a tail as well. They've been told all about you, and they also wish they were old enough to have actually seen you twenty years ago. So, how's your journey progressed thus far?"

Evidently, Bragg must have been an old, friendly acquaintance of Strato's. It seems strange that a mercenary like Strato could actually have honest friends, but as Falknyr had told Katra, Strato wasn't a criminal at all in this world -- he was a hero and a living legend.

Strato looked back at Bragg. "I'm still searching. Found a few favorite items lately, though." Strato set the Shock Bow down on the counter, but otherwise never letting it beyond arm's reach. "This thing, for example, was a sort of weapon built by ancient civilizations. It's not made for killing the opponent in battle, but rather to destabilize his footing; it also works wonders on stone and rock."

Bragg looked at the bow. "Did it have a name?"

Strato shook his head. "Wish I knew. I call it the 'Shock Bow'. And this'll astound you the most: as far as I've been able to tell, it isn't a magical weapon, either."

Bragg was surprised. "Really?"

"Don't get me wrong; magical force was intended for use on the battlefield. But this bow doesn't operate using magical energies. It uses something else that I haven't been able to figure out yet."

"Fire to dragons and water to fish, perhaps?"

Strato slung the Shock Bow back over his shoulder. "Perhaps. And, Bragg, tell me; what's the most interesting piece of news you've heard of late?"

Bragg thought for a moment. "Ever been to the Shoshone Caverns?"

"The Caves of Hell?" Strato smirked.

"Two years ago, an expedition returned from a trip down into those caves. They are the first group to not only go into the Caves of Hell and return, but to also bring back a treasure with them!"

Strato's eyes lit up for a moment with interest. "What type of treasure?"

"It was a crystal unlike any other you've seen. They gave it to the Wizards for analysis, and the Wizards discovered the most interesting characterstic about it: the crystal glows when placed in the presence of any pure element. The Wizards called it a 'resonation crystal'. It's in their Museum Acedamia in Threshings."

Strato seemed unusually interested in the tale of the particular crystal. "From the Shoshone Caverns, ay? Hmmm...", Strato thought for a moment. "Perfect timing. I could use a crystal like that. Suppose there are any more left down there?"

Bragg shook his head bewilderdly. "Don't tell me you're planning on making a trip to those caverns, are you?"

Strato smiled. "You never know what you may find out in the underground. For example...." Strato withdrew the doused hilt of the Atom Blade. "This here is another ancient weapon."

Bragg examined it, puzzled. "If it's a sword, it looks quite broken. What is it?"

Strato put it away. "You know, Bragg, it seems there are too many people around to hear this." Strato turned around and looked across the room.

Katra realized that while he and Faklnyr were listening to Strato's chat with Bragg, all of the other patrons had left the building. Strato walked up to their table. "You two look rather out of place. Far from Anathia, are you--?"

Just then, Strato recognized Katra. "YOU ! ! !" Strato picked Katra up by the collar and threw him aside, then drew the Atom Blade, ready for action.

Bragg shouted across the room at Strato. "Strato, what do you think you're doing?!? There is to be NO fighting in my Inn!!!"

Strato grabbed Katra before he was back on his feet. "You heard Bragg; we should be taking this outside--" Strato threw Katra out of the window, damaging the wooden shutters but little else. "Sorry, Bragg, duty calls." Strato jumped out the window after Katra.

Talon quickly followed Strato outside, and after Falknyr paid a bit of reparations for Strato's damage to the Inn, Falknyr did so as well.

Katra and Strato were already ready for a fight. Strato's presence, as well as the lit Atom Blade he held in his hands, was attracting quite a crowd. Strato stared at Katra. "Remember this?"

Katra nodded silently. A number of Requatan city guards were proceeding through the crowd to the front lines.

Strato stopped them, speaking aloud to the onlookers and guards among them. "Do not interfere. This fight is my business and my concern; it is my concern alone. Do not make yourself my enemy as well...."

Katra tossed a quick taunt back at Strato. "With all your enemies, Strato, it's a wonder how you actually have a friend at all."

Strato glared back at Katra. "I guess I'll be cleaning up after the job that Andrake didn't finish, after all...."

Drawing on his week's worth of training with Falknyr, Katra focused on his sword and, by the power of his medallion, his sword shone brightly, then lit into flames. Strato noticed it and smiled. "Nathian, all right; pure in blood and heritage. Allow me to rejoin you with your father!"

Strato attacked with a high swing. It was an obvious move, which meant that Katra had an easy chance to evade, and he did. Katra tried swinging back, but Strato too saw it coming and jumped aside. Strato lunged next, Katra rolling to his side to evade. Strato whirled around and attacked again. Katra swung to block it; the energerial Atom Blade passing clean through Katra's sword but otherwise with no effect whatsoever. Katra used the opportunity to counterattack; Strato blocked it.

Something felt... off. Strato tackled Katra, knocking him down to the ground. Katra rolled aside as Strato plunged the Atom Blade down into the ground, gettingback up onto his feet for another go. Strato attacked once more; Katra blocked it. Again, something seemed amiss; but neither Katra nor Strato realized yet exactly what. Strato rushed Katra for another slice. Katra blocked it with his sword; and that is when the sensed anomoly manifested itself.

For a few seconds, it was as if time had stood still. As Katra's sword impacted against the Atom Blade's energy, it actually impacted against the Atom Blade. Not against the hilt, but against the energy blade itself. The clash of Katra's flaming sword against the Atom Blade's fire shone brightly like a star. And, as the seconds of combat progressed, Strato's swing rebounded as if he had just bounced a hammer off of a rock.

Strato took a few steps back, in sheer surprise. "What the...!?" Strato attacked again. Katra blocked the attack, and sure enough, it happened again. Katra's sword was actually blocking the Atom Blade...but how?

Strato took another step back. "That.... no; it is not possible. That is not the Dragon Buster.... How did you block the Atom Blade?!?"

Katra looked back in bewilderment; he was just as surprised at this discovery. Nevertheless, Katra responded to Strato in a brave manner. "You've underestimated your opponent, Strato...."

Strato doused the Atom Blade and put it away. "So it seems...." Strato called for Talon, who jumped over the crowd into the center. Strato climbed onto Talon and, after a few large flaps of Talon's wings, they were speeding off through the sky to safety elsewhere.

Falknyr made it through the crowd towards Katra. "Are you all right???"

Katra nodded, then doused the flame from his sword. "Falknyr; can you do an analysis on my sword and medallion, and soon?"

"Yes, but...", Falknyr started responding. "We'll have to head back home, but yes, I can do that. Exactly what do you want me to look for?"

Katra shook his head. "I don't know.... Honestly, I don't know. But something tells me that my father's blade is even more valuable than I thought. We should get back on the road."

Falknyr nodded. "Indeed, son. Let's go home." With that comment, Falknyr and Katra began their southward route home as the crowd of human and requato inhabitants of Calcutta was dispersing, each returning to their everyday business.

"And this, would be Calcutta, city of the Requato," Aurex pointed out to Hunter and Marcus from the north side of Calcutta. "The so-called 'cat folk', the Requato, comprise more than half of the population here. They may look strange to you, but inside that fur of theirs, they are as pure and as friendly as I."

Hunter and Marcus spent a few minutes looking over the city as well. Vrynn smelled a bit of requato in the air. Argent was also present, although at Aurex's request, Argent the apprentice was currently in his transformed state -- a drake, standing on all fours next to Vrynn.

After the sightseeing, Aurex led the four of them into the city. It had been a long week of travel. Aurex considered that the journey could serve Argent's training equally well as having trained back at his lodge in Aurelia; and besies, Argent wanted to travel with their new comrades too. To shave a fair amount of time off of their trip, Aurex had made arrangements for a ship to take them straight across the Magellan Sea, a 100-mile wide and 400-mile long stretch of water southeast of Calcutta. In doing so, Aurex had shaved about one hundred extra miles of walk --and five days -- off of the journey so far. However, Calcutta wasn't Aurex's destination; he wanted to proceed further across the countryside to Sareille, the capital city of Verdun. Even so, a good pit stop in Calcutta was quite in order.

As they walked through the city towards the High Lands Inn, they could hear all the talk. Strato, and his fight just minutes earlier, was currently the talk of the town. Aurex stopped at the museum to ask a comrade of his, a requato called Ravierre, what had happened.

Ravierre responded quickly to Aurex's question. "The legend, Strato, stopped by High Lands Inn to have a chat with Bragg. Seems he picked a fight with a Nathian, though. He didn't want our guards pulling him away from his opponent, so what would we to do? We let him. Not a very wanting solution, but he insisted. He and his opponent played for a bit. Then he steps back, talks about something called a Dragon Buster, calls for that gryph of his, and scrams, kitten kaboodle and all. If I hadn't seen it with my own two eyes, I'd still not be believing that it actually happened. You should've been here moments earlier; then you five could see it for yourself."

Hunter was amazed at the luck they encountered. "How long ago was that?"

"Not very long at all," Ravierre answered. "No more than five minutes ago. You should've seen it. A magic sword like what he called an Atom Blade. I've seen magic swords before, but nothing like what Strato had."

Even though Hunter knew a few more questions to ask, Aurex thanked Ravierre for the information, and then they proceeded onto the High Lands Inn. And Bragg would know the answer to at least one of them.