The Hawk Hunts

by Astinus

The Hunt Begins

T he dying screams faded as Hawk kicked the still form of the vampire off his sword. Pitiful, he thought, as he silently strode toward the corner. You would think that undead bloodsuckers would be more powerful, instead of these weak little husks, he continued to himself. A strangely shaped amulet went cold inside his armor and he turned smoothly and extended his sword through the throat of the vampire behind him. But they don't stink like most undead and they can be very silent when they wish to be, he added, as he brought his sword down in a flashing arc to still the thrashing form on the dimly lit floor. He looked up and down the hallway of the abandoned inn that he was cleaning out, seeking more enemies attracted by the disturbance. Satisfied, he headed for the intersecting corridor ahead of him. He glanced down the corridor, casually dodged a bolt of flame and lunged toward the lich standing across the hall. When the lich crumpled to the floor a shattered ruin, he paused, listening for the telltale rustle that would betray its partner. When the sound of a robe brushing stone reached his ears, he threw himself back, rolling and twisting as another spell missed him by inches. He reached the lich before it could react and clove it in half with one stroke. He quickly looted the bodies and set off in search for the shoggoth that supposedly inhabited this ruin of a building. A voice at his side spoke in musical tones.

"Hawk, you have work to do. You can take five minutes to clean up and then the Wizard Legolas wants to see you."

Hawk sighed; it looked like he would not be able to test out the new coating on his sword that the smith in Minath Elion swore would resist any acid. He wiped his blade on a cloth from his belt and sheathed it, then started wiping the spatters of gore from his armor. When he finished he tapped a small badge attached to his armor.

"Beam me up, Tracy."
* * *

Hawk stepped from the teleporter and looked to the girl behind the desk.

"You're late, but at least you're clean," the human woman said, looking at him disparagingly, "I can still remember the time you came in here covered in dragon blood, I thought those stains would never come out of the carpet."

    "Tracy, lighten up, I had a report to make and I had no way to clean all the blood off in that cave in the mountains. Besides, that was three years ago, aren't you ever going to forget it?" Hawk asked as he moved toward the door at the other end of the plushly furnished waiting room.

    "Not likely", she answered,"And go in before he has to call for you."

    Hawk knocked on the heavy door. The polished wood bore the crest of the Wizard Legolas, as well as scenes of the lands and cities that he had discovered or founded.

    "Enter." The rich voice filled the air. Hawk stepped into the brightly lit office, facing the Wizard. Bookcases filled with manuscripts, parchments and other records in arcane and magical tongues lined the walls. Alcoves sheltered glittering artifacts from around the world. Weapons and armor gleamed next to rare tapestries, pottery, or statues, things of gold, silver, marble and gems. The being in front of him radiated power, patience and calm. He was dressed in a blue robe and wore a wizard's hat marked with constellations in silver. His eyes commanded Hawk and filled him with a sense of concealed power. Hawk could not name a race for the Wizard, for Legolas wore whatever form he chose. He'd heard rumors Legolas was an elf, but he knew the wizard's temper well enough not to pry.

    "Sir," Hawk said, coming to attention before the massive desk that appeared to have flowed into its shape.

    "I have a mission for you, Falcarion Tar'Drakal."

    "Sir, you know that I left that name behind me. I am simply Hawk now."

    "Men call you by that name, but it is not what you are," stated Legolas with finality, "But you are here to receive your orders. I am recalling your Hunter group to active duty; the other members are being informed as we speak. An adventurer has become a serial killer, and the Wizard Council has sentenced him to banishment. We have received reports of identical killings on the roads to Ocina, Lycegu, Alaria and New Verden. A single swordsman, probably a man judging by his boot prints, wielding a large broadsword enchanted with a vampire blade spell, ambushed all of them. They were robbed and left where they lay. The last body was found on the road from Alaria to New Verden. It appears that he was a merchant on his way to the auction house. The Alarian guards followed the tracks into the Wyvern Zoo but lost them there. I want you to take your Hunters and find the murderer and kill him. After that, you are to find his stash of loot and deliver it to the New Verden auction house. The goods will be sold and the proceeds will be divided among the victims' families." Legolas leaned back in his chair and sighed. He gestured and a slip of paper rose from his desk and hovered in front of Hawk, who took it. "Give that to Tracy and she will issue you a Talon, a credit chip for expenses and a list of the stolen goods. Take the teleporter, your Hunters will soon join you at the Wyvern Zoo. I do not want you to waste any time. Rumors are already flying around Wyvern. In fact, the people have already named this killer Wraith. Not even the most powerful resurrector was able to raise the spirits of the slain. We do not know how he managed that. We want his weapon brought back for testing. The Wizard Council does not need a panic. Rhialto wants this finished. Get the supplies you need together and get to work. Dismissed."

    Hawk made a short bow, and turned to leave the room.

    "Hawk," the voice behind him sounded tired, "don't underestimate the power of your opponent, we would appreciate it if you came back in one piece." Hawk sketched a salute and left the room. Legolas started on a new stack of reports, his concerns filed away for later.

* * *

    "Tracy, coudst thou..." Hawk stopped when a warning finger rose in his direction to point like a weapon at his heart.

    "Don't you pull that paladin jargon on me!" Tracy glared at him, and then looked outraged when he grinned back. She shook her head. "You let your sense humor out so rarely that I forget that you have one. But you're still not allowed to use that high and mighty language around me." The finger waved threateningly. "Now start over again."

    Hawk bowed and said, "Would you please fill this request?" He handed her the slip of paper and watched the green eyes grow serious as they scanned the paper and returned to him.

    "This," she stated clearly," is the fourth time in a year that you pulled this kind of mission. Are you asking for them now?" Her eyebrow rose mockingly.

    "No, I am just one of the best at this job, Tracy."

    "My, aren't we full of ourselves today." Tracy reached into a drawer and withdrew a credit chip and a sheet of paper covered in dense script, and then turned to a massive safe behind her desk. She ran her hand over a pad, and then inserted the paper in a slot. In seconds, a dead black object dropped out of a flap into a tray. Tracy handed the Talon to Hawk.

    Hawk considered the deadly little devise. It was shaped like a capital T, the cross bar six inches across, thin and about two inches wide. The body of the T was over a foot long, only an inch or so wide at the base and a wicked point on the other end. He drew his sword and laid the Talon on the blade near the cross guard, with the needlepoint in line with the tip of his blade. The Talon came alive and melted into his sword, the cross folding around the edges of the blade to meet in an unbroken band and the point flowing into the metal of the sword so that it could be seen from both sides. He considered his modified weapon sadly, knowing its terrible new powers. He had carried a Talon blade five times in the past, and killed five beings. The Talon utterly banished the soul of the slain, so that they could not be resurrected. It was used for execution; he was used for execution. Hawk noticed Tracy watching him with a considering look in her eyes and hastily sheathed his sword. He plucked the credit chip and paper from her desk and walked to the teleporter.

    "The Wyvern Zoo please," he said.

    Tracy reached over and pressed a button on a control panel at the side of her desk. When he was gone, she shook her head sadly and went back to work.

* * *

    The Wyvern Zoo stood deserted as the sun reached midmorning. The laughing crowds had been sent home today, and a deep peace settled over the cages. An elven form slipped through the shade, stopping to touch a tree, study the earth or to listen to sounds only the form could hear. As he approached the main gate, a second shadow detached itself from a tree and moved towards him.

    "What do those slanted eyes see, Dael?" spoke the shadow, materializing into a short, compact human sporting an oiled goatee. While the young elf carried a bow, a quiver and an impressive array of knives, the swarthy, darkly dressed human appeared unarmed.

    "A human male climbed the gate in the night, broke into the gryphon cage and flew south on its back. Ryatan and Dunak are searching for more clues there now. Any sign of the captain, Silk?"

    "Not a thing."

    As they spoke, a pillar of blue light coalesced off to their right. Hawk stepped out, and the blue light vanished. Silk and Dael moved to greet their friend. Hawk smiled warmly and reached to clasp their hands.

    "Greetings. Have the others arrived yet?" Hawk asked, glancing around.

    "Yes. We found the exit that the murderer used and they are searching it now," replied Dael, glad to see his friend again. "You should keep in closer touch, Hawk. We have not seen you in weeks."

    Hawk shrugged. "I have been training for a while; I plan to reach the top ranking at the Minath Arena."

    Silk shuddered. "You muscle brains are always trying to get yourselves killed, unlike intelligent beings."

    Dael grinned, "Had you not heard, Silk? We entered you to compete next month."

    Silk glared at Dael, and then gave up and laughed. "None of this is getting the job done sooner."

    The other two sobered and nodded, and then turned to head into the zoo, Dael leading. Soon two figures appeared ahead of them, one moving quickly, and the other slowly across the walkway. The leader was Dunak, a Rakshasan warrior in his prime, resembling a tiger in coloring and build. He bounded forward and clapped Hawk on the shoulder.

    "We hunt together again, my friend."

    Hawk smiled at the other's enthusiasm and returned the clasp, and then moved to face the cloaked figure approaching at a more sedate pace.

    "Ryatan, it is good to see you."

    "And you, Hawk."

    Ryatan considered the man before him. Hawk was tall, taller than any of them, and lean as a blade. He wore his hunting dress: light armor, no helmet and a pack on his back. Grey-blue eyes stared back at him. Hawk's dark hair was swept back across his skull, and the hilt of his sword rose from his shoulder. Ryatan thought, there are more lines in your face, Hawk, than when we last hunted together. Will this be the last such hunt? When will you tell them to find someone else? We hunt beside you, but none of us has to bear a Talon. What is your limit? Ryatan gave up his reverie as Dunak filled Hawk in on the details that they had discovered so far.

    "Dael is sure that the guy we are after is a human male, about 6 feet 4 and wide in the shoulders. We found some short, brown head hairs, and I got the person's scent off where he had to squeeze through some bars. He appears to be weighted down with loot and armor; his prints are deep in the softer areas. He can also work magic; he cast a modified charm monster spell on a gryphon and flew away on it, and he renewed the vampire blade spell on his sword. Ryatan is sure that he can follow the trace from those spells for no more than forty-eight hours so we need to move fast. The track leads dues south." Dunak wound down, waiting expectantly. Hawk looked at his companions.

    "We hunt."

The Chase

    The five companions moved south, following the road to Almien. Each had removed and worn from some pouch an amulet shaped like a bird of prey. On closer inspection, they greatly resembled falcons. As they ran, each companion grew lighter, until they no longer even touched the ground, and they flew south at a terrific speed. The five companions, though physically little alike, shared common attributes that bound them together and had been the reasons that they were chosen to become Hunters. All were skilled and dedicated at their individual calling. All were strong of will, courageous when courage was required, but none of them foolhardy. Those similarities were not visible on the outside, though.

    Hawk was a paladin, though in his light hunting dress he little resembled those mail-clad wardens of light and defenders of the people. He was a tall man, which emphasized his leanness and disguised his broad shoulders. That leanness was the leanness of a hunting wolf, the narrow profile of a striking hawk, and the deadly edge of a blade. Dunak also appeared other than what he was. His aggressive and overwhelming personality covered the soul of a warrior monk, whose meditation was in the arena of combat. He wore full battle array: ji, claws, cloth helm, and numerous pouches and sacks at his belt. He moved with the smooth stride of the long hunter, and looked alert to all around him, focusing for any sign of the quarry that they hunted. Dael slipped silently through the trees on the side of the road in the manner of woodland elves. He preferred forest to any altered terrain or city. His hunting leathers blended into the shadows, and his quick elvin eyes scanned the darkness, searching. Ryatan was dressed in a grey cloak covering his thin frame, concealing the numerous pouches that he wore at his waist. He carried a strangely carved staff in hand, and seemed to glide rather than walk. Silk was dressed in his usual black. For one who was most at home in large cities, he moved like a ghost. His dark eyes seemed to see everything.

    On the companions flew, quick as thought, following the road and the magic track left by their quarry. They flashed past the Temple of Life, the road to Tornaum castle, the Noir ruins and finally approached Almien.

    Hawk paused, "We have made good time, but we only have an hour or so of daylight left. Dael, could you go and learn what you can from the elves in Almien? We will wait here."

    Dael grinned. "It is always a pleasure to walk in the golden wood." With hardly a sound, he melted into the dimness and was gone.

    Hawk and the others set camp at the edge of the forest, ate and settled down to wait for Dael. Silk spoke. "Hawk, I have been wondering why you so rarely use the paladin accent."

    Hawk answered while staring off into the approaching dark. "I am not as formal as many of my brethren, and I know that our mode of speech can be irritating and hard to understand at times. I use it when around other paladins, or people who know how to understand the lingo."

    Silk nodded, and then spoke again, "We received only a bare-bones briefing, just that we are on a Talon mission, our quarry left the Wyvern zoo by means unknown, and that you would be with us shortly. Did you get anything more?"

    "Some. We are after a serial killer. After we find and kill him, we have to find his loot and deliver it to New Verden to be sold at auction. That money will go the victims' families. I was not told any more." Hawk leaned back against a tree and Silk returned to his contemplation of the darkness. Meanwhile Dunak and Ryatan played a fast-paced game of Slam. Slam consists of two or more players who slap a charmed ball back and forth, trying to get it past any opponent. The ball is usually ensorcelled with bounce and hover spells. Dunak had sheathed his claws and was using his trained reflexes and great strength to press his opponent hard, who was using magical spells to deflect the ball. Suddenly an arrow flew out of the trees and struck the ball, pinning it to a tree.

    Dunak turned and grinned at the shadows, "Dael, I was winning!" The slender elf stepped from the forest and returned an unrepentant shrug.

    "I could not resist, my friend."

    Hawk stood. "What did you learn?"

    Dael grew serious, "Elvin hunters report a figure in the sky that could have been a gryphon flying south. The creature appeared to be exhausted. Its wings were beating erratically. We may have caught up to our prey."

    Hawk gathered his pack, "We move out."

    The party quickly doused the fire, gathered its belongings and set out for the coast. They ran over the forest, and then over water, the far shore in sight. When they arrived, they found a sobering scene. The carcass of the gryphon was covered in flies, the head severed from the body by a sword stroke. The companions set their faces to the track and pushed on, following the scent of death. They traveled almost due south, skirting the shore of a great lake and moving east to a mountain range. The track became harder to follow, and the hills became mountains. The unfriendly slopes thwarted them, slowing their pursuit. When morning arrived, they had reached the eastern rim of the mountains, and there they found the cave. Ryatan was the first to notice. It brought his head up, eyes wide, he scented for what had brought his attention. Like a hound, he led the companions, following the faint trace of magic on the air. They found the cave sheltered by boulders in a small canyon, facing east over an inland sea. They entered cautiously, eyes alert, ears pricked. However, they found only a stripped habitation. The smoothed walls were bare, the living areas retaining their furniture but no valuables, and not a soul stirred the air. No living thing remained.

    Dunak looked around, excited. "This was where our quarry lived, I can smell him!"

    Hawk moved to the entrance, facing northeast. He looked into the distance, and then spoke. "Ryatan, did he use magic to pack?"

    "That is how I found this cave, Hawk."

    "Can you follow that trail till we get to a place that we can track him by normal means?" Hawk looked to Ryatan, waiting.

    "I followed him here; I will not stop till we find him."

    "Good, then we run, gentleman. I feel that time is running out on us. I fear the killer will strike again in Minath Elion." Hawk raised his arm and pointed, to where the rising sun shown on the towers of human capital.

    The hunters ran on, covering territory at speed, several feet above the rough terrain. Flying downhill is much faster than running up, and they soon reached the shore of the long bay that runs southwest from Minath Elion into the interior of the southern continent, dividing the east end of the contentment into two arms. Ryatan paused and cast about, searching. He followed his senses to a sheltered cove where a boat had lain for several seasons. Ryatan led the party over the water, following a trail none other could see. Their course led straight for Minath Elion. The Kill

    The companions stepped ashore south of the capital, in a small wood that grew near the water. A raft was tied carefully on the bank so that the tides would not reach it. Hawk noticed the height of the raft above the water, and found respect for their quarrie's strength. The hunters moved with care now, as they sensed an end to the chase. They entered the main road to the gates of the great city, and followed the scent along it. The guards at the beginning of the road eyed them closely, not wanting any trouble in the city. At that hour of midmorning, many travelers were moving in and out of the gates, and most looked askance at the party who appeared to be going to war. Past the turnoff for Coran, Dunak signaled a halt. He paced the roadway, staring at the bricks, and then started quickly towards a small copse of trees. The hunters followed him, silent as ghosts. Dunak stopped halfway into the thicket and sighed.

    "We are too late. He got another person here. It is hard to tell if it was elf or human, the body is cut up so bad. I should be able to follow him by the stench of blood alone." Dunak returned to the road, and the hunters moved into formation around him, faces grim at this failure to protect another citizen from tasting eternal death. Dunak led them across the road, toward the Minath Ruins. They ran quickly east, into a forest that grew darker and thicker around the road, unfriendly to all life. The wet, lifeless heat closed around the hunters like a blanket, trying to suffocate them. They passed a small stream and then entered an overgrown clearing. An eerie silence lay heavily on the ruined buildings and twisted growth. Dunak motioned towards a large complex to their right, lost in a tangle of matted jungle. They could see another area of building farther to the right of that. The echoes of Minotaur bellows rang through the clearing at irregular intervals, leaving the clearing in stunned watchfulness. The hunters approached the vast hulk, Dunak stalking ahead. All were on edge, weapons bared. Dunak studied the ground near the entrance to overgrown labyrinth and then nodded. He indicated that their quarry had entered here. The party quickly changed to battle garb under a spell of silence cast by Ryatan. Hawk removed from his pack a shimmering mail coat, appearing to be of closely woven metal at first glance. A closer look showed tiny scales worked into a flexible material. Hawk buckled his sword belt over the heavily enchanted grey dragon scale mail, added an assortment of enchanted items to his armor, and then removed a helm form his pack. Shining electrinum fitted closely around his head, and a crystal visor allowed him unblocked vision. When everyone was ready, Ryatan cast a second spell, dulling the shine of armor and weaponry till all appeared clad in unreflective gray.

    Hawk now lead, the Talon blade gripped in his right hand, tracking the killer to earth. They entered a maze of leaning walls and rubble, with the jungle fast reclaiming its own from the humans who had dared to place buildings here. The hunters slipped around walls, pillars and the remains of buildings, seeking some sign of the prey. Suddenly a cloud of smoke shot up off to their left, behind a mound of fallen stone. A shriek split the air, and crashing and stomping followed. The hunters crept to the edge of the mound and peered into the haze.

    An armor-clad figure danced around the enraged red dragon responsible for the clamor. Its opponent avoided the great sweeps of tail and claws, the darting teeth and the gouts of living flame that it tossed at its tormentor. The fighter's great sword rose and fell, drinking deeply of the dragon's blood. The human skillfully worked his way around the monster, ducking and dodging, and then stabbed the great beast in the belly, ripping open a gaping wound. The dragon loosed another shriek of fury and pain, and then launched its head, teeth bared, at its puny opponent. The man sidestepped the awesome rush, and hewed at the mighty neck, causing hot, corrosive blood to rain down on him. The warrior continued his attack, pressing the wounded dragon into a stumbling retreat, leaving pools of blood behind. The man landed a crippling blow to a wing joint, and when that wing collapsed to the ground, he vaulted onto it. He ran along the battered wing and leapt to the dragon's neck. He then plunged his blade into the spine of the monster and tensed as power and vitality rushed up the blade into him. The dragon gave one last disbelieving bellow and fell. When the hulk no longer stirred, the human drew out his bloodied blade. He dismounted the scaly neck, which now lay sprawled across the blood soaked ground.

    While the two combatants had fought, the hunters searched for the proof of the fighter's guilt. They found several magical packs that contained the unique set of loot mentioned on the list that Hawk carried. Dunak, Dael and Ryatan confirmed that the man in the clearing was the man that they had tracked from the murder site. Hawk looked to his companions and nodded, then motioned them into a circle to enclose the fighter below. By the time that the warrior below them had finished off the dragon, the others were in place.

    Hawk stood and strode down the heap of rubble, walking towards the panting, blood soaked man with sword in hand. As Hawk stepped down level with him, the man noticed his presence. The man wheeled, bringing up his blade and squaring himself to Hawk, eyes darting around for his opponent's backup. His eyes found the badge on Hawks armor, and his face went dead white behind his helm. The symbol of the Hunters peered balefully at him, and it seemed to swell to fill his vision. A dead black T with a sharpened point downward on a diamond of purest white adorned Hawk's armor. Terror rose in the killer's heart, and he looked for an escape. Hawk stopped about ten paces from the condemned.

    "You are under warrant of death, by order of the Wizard council. You have been identified and your guilt has been proven. If you surrender your death will be swift and painless." The ritual statement rolled of Hawk's tongue and hung in the damp, hot air. The warrior before him swallowed, and fled. "Now!" cried Hawk, bringing his sword up and charging forward. A wall of fire rose before the fleeing killer, who tried to dodge around it. Dael shot a bolt at the killer, catching the man in the left shoulder and spinning him like top. Cursing, the cornered fighter groped at his belt as he braced to meet Hawk's charge. His wounded arm came up holding a small gem, which he threw towards the other Hunters closing in on him from behind. The gem exploded on a stone and a magic portal opened, spewing out half a dozed huge minotaurs and several titans, one of them in heavy armor. Hawk closed with the enemy, trusting in his friends to deal with the added enemies.

    Dael coolly drew and fired an arrow into the eye of the minotaur facing him. As the beast spun away, clutching its mangled face, he placed three arrows at the base of its neck. The minotaur collapsed to its knees, choking on the arrow points in its throat. Dael gave a command and the arrows exploded into flame, blowing the minotaur's head off. He selected another arrow and drove it through the knee of one of the titans. Dael calmly sent arrow after arrow into the mass of bodies, supporting his friends.

    Ryatan sipped another potion and felt new life flow along his veins like a river of fire. He raised a finger and spoke the arcane phrases of a spell, and a narrow whip of flame snared a minotaur and dragged it to the ground, thrashing. He spoke the words of another spell and a massive bolt of lightning burst from a pointing finger and blasted into the unprotected head of the downed monster. The smell of roasted beef filled the air as he took his staff in hand and concentrated another strike, this one aimed at the armored titan.

    Silk plunged his dagger into the charging titan's calf and ripped upward as he contemptuously dodged its swing. He moved towards the heedless minotaurs, assured that the deadly poison on his enchanted dagger would do its work. Like a ghost, he slipped through the chaos, leaving crippled monsters in his wake.

    Dunak launched himself at the armored titan, gleaming metal claws unsheathed. As he reached it, a blast of lightning took it in the helm, stopping it from firing a spell at him. He shrugged off a blow from its mace and smashed several powerful blows to the weak places in its armor. As the monster reeled from this onslaught, he grabbed its dangling weapon and ripped it from its grasp. He then took hold of the helm of the titan by the nose guard and smashed it bodily to the ground. Dunak moved in for the kill, his muzzle split in what might charitably be considered a smile.

    Hawk focused his being, becoming one with his enemy, his sword and the dance of death. A cold detachment flowed over him, allowing him to ignore the bloody combat around him and notice every attack sent at him. His sword clashed with the sword of his opponent, both wielding their two-handed weapons with skill and strength. He battered his enemy back with crushing force, and then landed a blow that sent the man before him sailing to the ground. Dodging the spell from one of the beasts behind him only took a fraction of a second, but by the time that he reached his enemy the man had recovered and met him stroke for stroke. Through the melee the two opponents fought, blood now running from multiple wounds. The wounded man was beginning to tire, his left arm almost no help with an arrow through his shoulder blade. Hawk pressed on the man's left, forcing his opponent to turn and wheel on the broken terrain. Rocks littered the field and made footwork dangerous. With an overhand stroke that almost broke his opponents guard and head, Hawk leapt forward, bringing all the weight in his tall frame to bear. His rush tumbled his enemy, sending the man to his knees. With a sweeping stroke, Hawk sent his opponent's weapon flying. Stepping up to the fallen man, he brought his weapon around in a tight arc and plunged it through the breastplate of the man staring up at him, whose eyes widened in disbelief. The Talon shot down his sword and stole the light from the man's eyes, and the death rattle from his throat. This man would not trouble the people of Wyvern again.

    Hawk came back to awareness of reality to hear an unexpected silence. He looked around and took in the scattered bodies and his waiting companions. He removed his sword from the corpse at his feet, the Talon again in place above the cross guard, and started the cleanup. The bodies were ransacked, the loot from the condemned going in one sack and the rest in another sack, which would be sold for the group's profit. When all was ready, the companions looked to their leader, waiting for the next command.

    Hawk smiled grimy and said, "We did good work here. I am sure no one would mind if we went to the tavern in Minath and had a few drinks." He looked around the gore-spattered group, and thought of Tracy's parting comments. "Though we should probably clean up first," he amended.