© 2001-2002 Draconus / Stratadrake of NEWST
With the falling snow, it was a trifle difficult to set up camp for the night. Hunter and Marcus fashioned a tent using a tarp that Marcus always brought along with him for his journeys, but it took two shots of Vrynn's firebreath to start a campfire. Dinner wasn't much, but on long journeys it never was anyway; even Vrynn had a tough time catching some game for dinner. Marcus bedded down first, while Vrynn snoozed near the fire and Hunter kept watch for a bit.
The air was getting cold again as the moon slowly made its way up from the horizon, visible only through a few holes in the otherwise overcast sky. The falling snow made for a very quiet atmosphere. Hunter looked off into the forest, thinking to himself. 'Katra..., where are you, friend?'
At about midnight that night, after catching a wink or two himself, Hunter noticed a light in the distance from a merchant making his way through the country by night. It took awhile, but eventually the merchant did gradually come nearer. The merchant stopped his cart and horses as he drew near to their campsite. Seeing that Hunter was awake, the man hopped down off out of the driving seat, his feet making a soft crunch sound in the snow. "Evening, gents," he said in a jovial but muted tone. "Would you mind if I share your fire for a bit?"
Hunter looked back. "Go ahead, I don't mind."
The merchant sat down on the other side of the fire. He was a bit short for a man, with a rather round build and wearing a thick coat for winter weather. His hair was thin, curly, and white; and he had a bit of a smile everytime he spoke up. "Was on my way to Sareille, just stopped in at 'Dragon Fort' on my way, you know the place... They call it 'Dracovera' now, but really, the name just means 'Dragon Fort' in the old tongue, you know...."
"Dracovera...", Hunter mused. "Did you hear anything about Strato, good sir?"
The man shook his head. "I've heard plenty, but about Strato, it's been rather quiet about him. I heard he came from the southern city Khatalus, but with the news that it was demolished, no real point in visiting it now, is there?"
Vrynn had awakened from the noise of this conversation, and moved over towards Marcus to wake him as well.
The merchant smiled. "A nice little animal you have for yourselves, it's usually the dragon people that tame creatures like the 'verns, not us humans...."
Hunter nodded. "May I ask what you are doing out so late?"
"Why not?" the man piped back. "Everyone asks Jack that question, now. Truth is, ...well, for me anyway, travelling by night is quite peaceful. Not too dangerous either, as long as you stay on the right trails. Wander off the path and you'd likely to get attacked by some forest creature thinking you'd make a jolly good meal. Nasty sorts they can be. But I knows how to fight them off, do get a few scrapes, but nothing serious...."
Marcus looked across the fire at the man. "Who is this fellow, Hunter?"
Hunter glanced back for a moment. "A travelling merchant, Marcus."
"And yes, I've travelled quite the bit around many parts. You should hear the stories I've heard sometime. Down south and west, just a bit off the road from Calcutta, there's a valley near there, used to be a graveyard some thousands of years back, until the attack of them legendary demons. Hardly no one ventures near that place since -- some even say it's cursed....
"And then there's the old place they called Nathos, they say it used to be the Nathian's home country until that unfortunate war with Catalonia, hardly few people go there recently because of it. They say that the remnants of the Nathians still go there from time to time, no real answer why though, nothing of value in the ruins, just memories and crumpled bits of stone where they used to be buildings--"
"--Excuse me, sir, did you say Nathos?" Hunter interrupted.
"Why yes, awful dreary place it can be, went there once myself when I was younger, not even the animals go near that place ... although they do say that there's a dragon who visits it occasionally, but no one questions the dragons 'xcept their own."
"Where is Nathos?" Hunter asked.
The merchant prattled on. "I don't know what interest it is to you, but that's not a question for Jack to be concerned with, anyway. Nathos's only a few days west of Sareille, problem is there's no roads to it anymore, they've been ripped up and planted over for years, makes the terrain a bit tougher to cross, and 'course the animals don't keep off what used to be the road...."
"Thank you sir," Hunter responded, slightly annoyed at exactly how talkative this guy was.
"So, where are you fellas from, anyway? You don't look like the type to be living all the way out here," the merchant asked.
"That's correct. We're on a journey, of sorts. A dear friend of ours is missing, and we're searching for him."
"Well," Jack started again. "That's a bloody poor thing to happen. You know what they say, ya hardly realize how important someone is until you lose them one day. Sometimes you get them back, others, well, at others they're lost for keeps, and...."
Marcus was falling back to sleep. Hunter sighed as he looked upwards at the falling snow.
"...And then one day he says to me, 'Jack, do you really think that?' I says back, 'If not, then who's out there with my name and thinking it??' " Jack laughed for a bit. "Oh..., yup, great bloke he was, he could liven up even the grave... But, I guess you had to be there, heh...." He paused for a moment and looked around. "Well...." The merchant stood up. "It's been nice talking to ya, mister, Hunter did you say?"
Hunter breathed a sigh of relief; for it seemed like the merchant was going to resume his trip soon. "That's right," Hunter said with a smile.
The man climbed back up onto his cart. "I've got to be getting on, myself; I'm sure you fellas need rest and all that, so Jack shouldn't keep you guys waiting on him or anything...." The man took ahold of the reins "Hiyaa!" Slapping the reins, the horses on his cart began trotting off along the snowy path. In another few minutes, he had turned a bend around the path, and was out of sight.
Marcus was sleeping calmly, if lightly. Vrynn, though, was still wide awake, looking around and listening intently.
Hunter listened as well. It was too quiet again.
Suddenly, Hunter heard a few cries for help off in the distance. Almost without thinking, Hunter armed himself and ran off along the path. Though it was dark, there was just enough light to see the path the merchant's wagon had carved out of the trail.
Hunter rounded the bend quickly, and he was surprised at what he saw. The merchant's wagon was knocked over, and a figure seemed to be rummaging through the cargo, looking for something. Hunter called out. "Stop right there!"
A familiar voice gave the response. "And what are you to do if I don't?"
Hunter stopped. "Strato?!"
Yes, it was Strato. Talon was nearby, and had the merchant pinned to the ground. Strato looked back. "Stay out of this, Hunter; this is my business, not yours."
"What are you doing, Strato?" Hunter slowed his pace as he drew nearer.
Strato stopped rummaging through the cargo for a moment. "I knew it! Merchant, who gave this cargo to you?"
"I've got nothing to be saying to you--!" cried the man back.
Strato kicked some of the cargo aside, revealing a fairly sizable chest, lying open. A lot of hay rest inside of it, and three elliptically round objects lay inside. Each was about one foot round by 18 inches diameter. The glow of the merchant's lantern reflected off of the uneven textures. Hunter paused. "What are those?"
Strato ignored Hunter, at least for now. He turned to the merchant. "Tell me, sir, who gave you this shipment?!"
"It -- the Guild gave it to me for transport --"
"Liar!" Strato shouted. Talon beared down on the merchant a bit, breathing down the man's neck. "The rules of the Merchant's Guild haven't changed in over forty years. Dragon-eggs are strictly on the contraband list, and for good reason. Tell me who gave them to you!"
"I'm telling you, I wasn't told his name or anything!" Jack cried back.
"Him...?" Strato jumped down and walked over to the man. "Listen, 'Jack'.... Someone gave these to you, and you are going to tell me what you know about him. Do you understand? For if you don't, I could right now turn you into gryphon food! What do you know?"
There was another distant sound, something like a roar. Talon turned his attention from the man to it. Strato looked down at the man. "Or you could become dragon food...."
Strato ordered Talon aside, and Talon did move aside. Strato grabbed the man by his shoulders, picked him up, and tossed him aside -- the man must have landed at least ten feet away from the road. Strato turned to Hunter. "You had better do the same, Hunter, if you don't want to become dragon fodder as well. Because there's one flying straight this way, and once she realizes what cargo this man was given, there'll be Hell to pay for whomever she finds near...."
Hunter got the message, and backed off of the road, then moved around to the backside of a tree. Strato backed off as well, but stood near the shoulder of the road, weapons drawn.
With little audible warning, the dragon came. It swooped down low, then spread its wings full, catching the air. It flapped its wings forward to slow down, creating a powerful breeze that blew snowflakes everywhere as it touched down. It looked around and, noticing the merchants cargo, walked over to the mess. It sniffed through the mess, then located the three eggs. The dragon sniffed over the rest of the cargo, and then as it looked around, it noticed Strato. It snarled, but Strato simply stood there and took it. Strato said something to the dragon. "I am not your enemy. Take what you came for, and be gone."
The dragon stared at Strato, but Strato simply stood there, staring right back. Neither of them moved for a minute. Then, the dragon huffed in a somehow miffed manner. It rolled the eggs back inside of the chest, closed the lid, and then grabbed the chest firmly in its forepaws. It flapped its wings down once, then upwards, and then on another downbeat, jumped into the air and flew off.
Hunter walked back out into the open. Talon did too, dragging the merchant by the scruff of his coat onto the road again. Talon seemed calmer now. The man stumbled onto his feet; shaken but uninjured. Strato looked back to the man. "Now tell me, sir; who put those eggs in your cargo? It doesn't matter why; just tell me who."
"I-- I--, he never told me his name," the man said, stuttering a little. "Was a d-d-dark fellow though, he did-di-didn't say much really, but he offered a handsome s-sum right on top for me to deliver th-that chest to Sareille, he never t-t-told me anything about what w-w-w-was inside, he j-just said t-t-to go there and drop them off..."
"Drop them off where?" Strato demanded.
"I-I-- ... memory's not too good at some points, I--"
"Talon?" Strato gave a command to the gryphon. Talon pounced upon the merchant, knocking him to the ground. Strato looked at him. "I'm sure Talon can refresh your memory.... Now, where were you told to drop them off?"
Hunter wasn't going to simply stand by any longer, so he redrew his weapon and walked over. "Strato! Let the man go--"
Strato snapped back rather quickly. "What did I tell you earlier, Hunter? On any other day you would be my enemy. But this time is different; you are not my enemy." That remark stopped Hunter in his tracks. "Shouldn't you keep it that way?"
"I--" the merchant tried speaking. "I, uh, I think he said he wanted them at the top of Sareille's Solar Tower, sometime at nightfall...."
Strato called off Talon. "Now that wasn't quite so bad, was it?" Strato turned away and left, soon venturing out of sight.
The man stood up. "Never had anything quite like this happen, not in all my years of shipping and transport... won't you help me get this mess back together, sir?"
"Certainly," Hunter replied. It was nearly another hour before Hunter had helped the merchant set his cart upright, and put all the cargo back. Fortunately, according to the merchant, nothing had been damaged or broken.
Interestingly, when Hunter made it back to camp, Marcus was still asleep, peculiar that he had slept through all the action. Vrynn was still awake and waiting for Hunter's return, soon curling up and going to sleep himself. Hunter decided that he, too, should get some sleep while he still could.
Marcus, having been the first one asleep that night, was the first one awake, nearly at the crack of dawn. The tarp Marcus set up had worked well, for it had protected them from about half a foot of snowfall. The morning air was cold, but still. The sky had cleared, but the temperatures were low enough that the snow would not melt any time soon. Vrynn woke up soon, although it was another hour before Hunter awoke. By then, Marcus had already cleared a spot in the ground for a small fire and Vrynn had lit it with his firebreath. Breakfast was served, and after that, Hunter and Marcus prepared to get on their way.
The trip to Sareille was a brisk one; the coat of snow made the scenery glow in white, and there were hardly any shadows to speak of anywhere. Except for one shadow that is, the same black figure as had attacked Strato and stole off with the Atom Blade, which was watching silently from considerable distance. The road kept winding right and left, artfully dodging around ravines, creeks, crags, and boulders, but otherwise held a straight course. The trees, being evergreens, were fairly dense; yet despite their cover, the forest floor was still quite bright. One would think that they couldn't see the foreset due to all the trees, but as the day grew later, it gradually became more apparent that they were leaving the forest; Sareille would not be much farther away.
Even at their pace, it was sunset by the time Hunter and Marcus arrived at the borders of Sareille. Such a large city it was, comparable to the famed Kanzas back in their world. The perimeter walls were built almost like a fortress, raising twelve feet high and measuring about five feet thick. Inside these walls lay the actual city. Despite its walled exterior, the interior of the city is actually quite spacious; the streets being an average of fifteen to twenty feet wide, and the windows on the buildings directed light into the alleys and smaller streets that would otherwise be overshadowed by the buildings.
Sareille's population measures at about one-half human, the other half a combination of requato, dracan, and even aerissan. Each race serves its own purpose in Sareille; requato protect the city and run the weapon-shops, dracans handle much of the legislation and additional guard duty, while aerissans perform intellectual and academic duties. Humans perform much of the merchant trade in Sareille, also running the restaurants, cafés, and Inns, as well as a bit of acedemic, legislative, and guard duties as well. Like Fort Dracovera back across the border, the different races of Sareille's population tend to live in their own segments of the city; but unlike Dracovera, the lines between each segment are blurry, almost indiscernable. Although the interiors of each residence are fashiond according to the tastes and preferences of whomever lives in them, the exteriors of the buildings tend to be quite similar assemblages of wood, stone, and various metals. As Hunter and Marcus walked down the avenue, it was quite apparent that this was indeed a capital city.
One landmark caught Hunter's eye, and that must assuredly be the Solar Tower in the western half of Sareille, rising significantly higher than the other structures in the city. Hunter quickly filled Marcus in on the happenings of late last night -- Strato attacking the merchant, discovering a small cargo of dragon-eggs, and a reference to Sareille's Solar Tower at nightfall. Considering how that information was of importance to Strato, and that nightfall would be soon, Hunter figured they should make the Tower their first stop.
They arrived at the tower within short order. The entrance to this tower being always open, Hunter and Marcus welcomed themselves inside. The inside of the tower was huge; the ground floor must have been at least a hundred feet diameter. Several merchants were busily taking down their shops for the night, both inside and outside of the ground floor, so it was evidently also a bazaar during the day. A set of large, wide spiral stairs led the way up to the top. The stairs were fairly easy to climb, and there were several landings on the way up where one could catch their breath. It was about sixty stairs up to the top of the tower, reaching an altitude of about forty feet, and even though night was falling, the view was incredible.
Only one more floor to go. However, Marcus could hear some voices coming from upstairs -- one of which was Strato's -- so they moved quietly to the final set of stairs and listened. Although there was a bit of echoing, the conversation heard was completely discernable.
"--And when we received word that our delivery had run into some unexpected delays, I thought we should take precautions, just in case a certain soldier should decide to show up. Knight Valkyros, you disrupted our plans by freeing that dragon. Do you know what we've decided to do, now that we don't have the materials we need for the research?"
There were sounds of weapons being drawn. Moments later, there were sounds of weapons striking one another, each metal clang resounding off of the walls with uncanny echoes. Then, there was the sound of a small explosion, followed by the sounds of two fatal blows being dished out. Then, it fell to silence.
"You fight well, knight Valkyros. It appears we have underestimated your training. But how long can you keep up such a fight?"
There were sounds of more weapons being drawn, and one put away. Moments later, an unmistakable sound echoed from downstairs, the sound of Strato's Shock Bow, followed by loud thuds of the opponents hitting the rail in great force. It fell to silence again.
"You certainly do have a way with toys, knight Valkyros. You may put them away for now, I have no interest in toying with you myself, at least not yet."
"Oh, really? Then what do you think you are doing here, sending six of your lackeys to slaughter before me?"
"Fighting is not the answer this time, knight Valkyros. Rather, perhaps there is sort of an understanding we can work out. You may, as they say in the markets, 'name your price'."
There was the sound of Strato laughing. "What... as if the first destruction of Khatalus wasn't enough? What about the second one, wasn't that a high enough price for a rogue like you to pay?"
A moment of silence followed.
"The research is still inconclusive. And if it weren't for you, our results may have turned out different!"
Strato laughed again. "You really think so?! Then you're an even bigger fool than you were twenty years ago! All that research, and all the hatchling dragons slain because of it, what good have they done?"
Another moment of silence followed Strato's question.
"If the dragons hadn't discovered our location so quickly, we wouldn't have to be starting over, now! The initial research yielded one perfect soldier--"
Strato's voice interrupted. "Ah, yes; your one 'perfect' soldier. Yet you refuse to accept the fact that your one prodigy has turned against you. The first time that the dragons attacked and destroyed Khatalus, I warned you. I warned you all! I decreed that I would discover the truth, and punish those responsible for the massacres. And do you know where that search led?
"I did find out the truth. Yes, the dragons had massacred Khatalus. That's why the survivors asked your group to leave; and when you didn't, when you insisted on jeapordizing that city for the sake of your atrocities, the city of Khatalus decided to leave you -- and they did!
"Yes, the dragons found you up to your old tricks and knocked you down once again. I heard about it. But the truth is, the lives slain by those dragons are but a grain of sand compared to the real massacres, the real atrocities!
"I discovered the truth, all right; your group was destroying dragon hatchlings for the sake of your so-called 'research'! Didn’t you learn? Never do you sacrifice the future for the sake of the present!"
"Enough!! I grow tired of hearing such prattle. Now you will kindly be gone, knight Valkyros, either by choice, or force!"
There was the sound of Strato drawing his sword. "I do not choose to leave; I came to finish what I started!"
There was a whirr in the air and a flash of light as Strato's opponent invoked some magic. Strato's next call was one of muted surprise.
"A Hydra...? No wonder you're insane! The scars of your defiance have now sealed your fate --"
There were a triplet of serpentine hisses in response. Strato's sword could be heard clanging to the floor, followed by the sounds of his Shock Bow in action. From the sounds, Strato had fired three shots, maybe four. More sounds echoed from the upper floor as Strato emptied the Shock Bow's power supply in about seven more shots. "You reptiles are more resilient than I thought -- had enough yet?"
There was another set of hisses in response, and the sound of slithering echoing from above.
Hunter looked at Marcus. "As ironic as it sounds, I actually agree with what Strato says, and this enemy of his constitutes an enemy of ours as well. Come on, Marcus!" Hunter ran up the final flight of stairs. Marcus agreed too, and followed.