I"m on my first mission! Well, actually, I"m only heading there but I think it counts. Dad says we are most of the way there so we should arrive today. See, yesterday we got an urgent message requesting an investigation team to the town of Clearig. I wasn"t sure if I should go or not, as they permitted a trainee to go with them, but dad said that it would probably not be too dangerous for me- if it"s dangerous at all. He said usually in these instances, they are just a little investigation and report. He thinks it was only listed as urgent because Clearig paid extra. We are going to keep training as we go whenever we set camp.
I still haven"t figured any powers out. So I still have no idea what I am supposed to be able to do, but I love using this sword. It is so well made! I guess I should have expected it since it"s the one I will use the rest of my life. Well I have to go, we are getting ready to head for the town again.
Xaine closed his record and packed it back in his sack. His father and the captain did the same. As they were in a hurry, they did not set up tents for the night but simply slept in their bed rolls, so breaking down camp was easy. Once the horses were fully loaded, they climbed up and headed out again. They had eaten a small breakfast while writing in their records but Xaine"s stomach still protested. He knew the next time he would get a full meal would be when they reached the town. His father said that it would most likely be just before night fall.
The day seemed to linger longer than usual. There were multiple long silences that seemed to last hours and Xaine shortly found himself actually missing Isaac and his inability to remain silent. The boredom he experienced did little to distract him from thoughts of an empty stomach. When they finally reached Clearig, however, Xaine was disappointed again. It was nearing sunset and Xaine had expected to find an inn and something to eat but duty required them to answer their summons first.
The town was somewhat smaller than Kreila, having only the essential business buildings grouped together and then houses and homesteads stretched out in all directions. They moved through the middle of the town following a cobbled street which lead to probably the largest building in the area. Xaine knew it must be the town hall where leaders could typically be found about their business. It looked almost like a shrunken version of the one he was used to at home except for a few decorations built into the structure. He assumed these had some sort of history for the town representing something of respected leaders or founders.
They tied their horses outside and Xaine followed the captain and his father inside the building. The inside the building seemed old and smelled of dust. The walls were lined with old paintings of leaders or town servants each in a dignified pose Xaine was used to seeing in these types of places. They reached a small area where someone had directed them to the correct chamber of who had sent the request for help.
Upon entering the room the man who directed them in introduced the captain and the captain in turn introduced Barrek and Xaine. The man behind the desk introduced himself as Kegler and shook their hands. Xaine was not sure if this was the man"s first or last name as he had not specified any more. He was a tall and thin man. He looked somewhat older than the veterans Xaine had come with. He wore simple clothes and was mostly bald. The sides and back of his head were covered in dark brown hair. Though the man had not given his whole name, a usual token of friendliness, he had an air of kindness about him.
"Well I"ll get right to it. We have had several reports of attacks in the nearby forest that separates us from the travel route on the other side. Of course there are always rumors of things in the woods but this had been different. We are also worried as a couple of messengers and a merchant had ventured through the wood but we have yet to hear back from them. We have also had several animal attacks on the farther edges of town. Some very recent. So we do believe something is going on but we just do not know what."
"How recent were any of these attacks?" The captain inquired.
"Within the last few days actually."
"Would it be possible for us to see any of the bodies of the animals attacked?"
"Well I"m afraid not." Seeing the question on the Captain"s face the Kegler continued. "You see, the attacks have happened rather early or late at night. But whatever has attacked them has either carried them away or somehow scared them off before they die and we have yet to be able to locate any of them."
"Have their been any witnesses?"
"To the animal attacks they just hear the animals in distress and sometimes fighting with something and then they"re gone. There was one witness. But unfortunately he"s no longer with us."
Seeing the grieved look on their faces his hurried on.
"No, I mean he left the town, he"s not dead. He"s a merchant, he was just passing through. I normally wouldn"t bring up a story from a merchant as evidence, but it seems there was at least some truth to what he said. He spoke of these black monsters that made terrible noise, a scream. And since we have had a number of reports of those terrible screams coming from the forest. In fact, they can sometimes be heard faintly here at night. But whether this is someone trying to "˜haunt" our wood or bunch of predators we just need to find out. The town is getting very nervous and we need to know if there is real danger."
Xaine had the distinct impression that he had experienced something like this before. Something about Kegler"s information had felt familiar to him but he couldn"t remember what it was. The man was eying the three of them, lingering slightly longer on Xaine. He thought it was probably how young and inexperienced he looked compared to the others. He knew if he were Kegler that is exactly what he would be thinking.
"Are there any questions or any accommodations we can provide to assist you?"
"What do you think Barrek? Anything you can think of before we go?"The captain said, looking at Barrek.
"Well not much, considering there aren"t any real witnesses to anything. Are there any predators that are more active this time of year around here? Or has anyone noticed any new animals in the area?"
"None that we know of."
"Well that"s all I have," Barrek gave a look back to the captain.
"Well I guess that"s all we have to go on for now. We will investigate and report with you as soon as we find something."
Now finally finished with the briefing, Xaine was able to get a good meal. The town provided it for their service. Unfortunately, the captain said it had to be yet another quick meal as they planned on heading to the forest before dark to camp there for the night. Xaine inquired as to the reason and his father responded that as most of the attacks happened near or at night, it was possible it was a nocturnal or crepuscular predator. Xaine wasn"t quite sure what the latter word meant, but felt odd asking and left it at that. The captain simply nodded his agreement with Barrek.
Xaine threw back as much food as possible before they left again. He wondered if he were ever going to have a proper meal before going back home. They followed a large dirt road out of town that continued on seemingly the whole way to the forest. It was fairly straight except for the occasional bend around a hill or large boulder. The sun was beginning to set making the sky a dark purplish red. The sight through the plains was quite pleasant until they began to approach the forest.
The forest loomed in the distance, the trees were thick and cast darkness throughout making it difficult to see past the treeline. As they approached, Xaine was vaguely aware that his father and the captain kept peering into the woods. It wasn"t long before Xaine had understood why. He began to feel an eerie feeling that someone or something was watching them.
"Do you see anything?" Barrek had spoken up.
At first Xaine had thought the question was directed at him though his father never looked away from the woods. Xaine opened his mouth but the Captain spoke first.
"No, nothing yet but there"s a lot of cover in there for something to hide in."
Their tone was completely different than Xaine was used to. They seemed quite serious and talked as if they had not even realized Xaine was still with them. It was that tone that made Xaine really believe the investigation had actually begun. As he watched the captain he saw him remove his hand from the hilt of his sword that swung at is hip. This almost seemed normal to Xaine until he remembered that he nor his father or anyone he had seen so far with an ancestral weapon carried a sheath.
"Captain, I wonder if I may ask you a question?"
"Yes, Xaine that would be fine."
"I just wonder why you carry your sword in a sheath. I thought all ancestral weapons would return to; Wherever it is they go when you weren"t using them anymore."
"Well, Xaine there are some powers that are better used without summoning your blade first. For instance, I have been given powers to track things. I need my sword handy to be able to use them, but often times stealth is required in tracking and we do not want to call attention to ourselves with the glow from our runes. Therefore, if I have it sheathed at my side, I may use the power by simply touching the hilt."
"Oh, I see."
Xaine did not feel comfortable asking what exactly his powers of tracking were and left the conversation there. The three of them were almost on the edge of the woods when Saber began to slow down.
"Come on boy, let"s go," Xaine kicked.
The horse came to a full stop and began to resist and turn away from the forest, blowing loudly with flared nostrils. The two veteran"s horses had now halted as well, turning their ears forward.
"Something"s spooked em," Barrek added.
And again, the captain put his hand on his hilt and examined the tree line. After several moments, Xaine was able to regain control of Saber and the captain removed his hand from his hilt again.
"Nothing," he muttered to the other two.
The horses calmed down enough to get them to follow the path into the forest. The animals were nevertheless still jittery, forcing their riders to keep checking them. The captain suggested they make camp near the road just in case. The three dismounted at a clearing not far into the woods. Barrek showed Xaine how to tie the horse in a way that he could quickly untie them but still keep the horse there.
After they were finished tying the horses, Xaine moved to remove the gear from his horse to make him more comfortable, but the captain stopped him. He said to keep the horses in full tack incase they needed to leave quickly. The air of unease in the two veterans was almost palpable. Xaine was wondering if the situation had become more dangerous than they had expected. But the only thing Xaine could truly sense was the creepy feeling of being watched.
The two veterans gathered firewood from the immediate vicinity not want to move out of range of sight which was becoming shorter by the minute. They had told Xaine to stay near the fire pit and organize what he could to maximise the fire. He thought this was not the real reason they didn"t want him to move from the spot, but did as he was told.
Finally they had a fire lit and Xaine, who was expected the mood to lighten, was disappointed by the seriousness of the other two. They all sat around the flames the captain sat opposite Xaine and Barrek to to his left making a sort of triangle.
"So do we have any more information yet, captain?" Xaine asked hoping to be enlightened to what they seemed to know and he didn"t.
"Nothing yet, if there"s anything out there it"s very good at hiding." He lowered his voice a little and addressed Barrek. "In fact I"m beginning to think that maybe it"s a someone we are looking for, though I don"t know how they would be getting away with livestock in the middle of the night."
Barrek nodded his agreement. Xaine looked into the fire and tried to think of something else than the eerie feeling they all seemed to be sharing. He remembered the times by the fire back home listening to stories from the merchants who would pass through. It was that that tied all the familiarity of the situation together. He was now more scared than he"d been before.
"Darkgons;" Xaine said under his breath without entirely meaning to. The other two turned to him.
"What did you-; " The captain trailed off leaving his sentence unfinished. He now stared at Xaine with a look of concentration as if he were having trouble seeing him.
"Sorry, it was a story the merchant told us about creatures that kept cropping up lately that sound like whatever is happening out here. Though I suppose that just a fairy ta-"
"XAINE!" The captain yelled before Xaine could finish his sentence and reached an arm out for him around the fire. Just before the captain"s hand had reached his arm he was jerked backward with incredible force. Something had grabbed hold of his pack and was dragging him away from the others. He saw a flash of light and heard the scraping sound of metal on metal.
Xaine removed his arms from his pack to free himself. He hit the ground as he was apparently higher in the air than he had expected. Once on his back, he caught a glimpse of the creature who held on to his pack. It could have been the size of a horse but was crouched low to the ground. It had it"s long massive jaws clenched on his pack not realizing for a brief moment it had lost it"s prey. The creature was hard to make out as if it were entirely made of shadow.
Xaine realized that it was completely black. It was covered in black shiny scales and spines ran down it"s back. Terrified, Xaine scrambled to his feet and ran back towards the fire seeing his father and the captain running toward him, swords drawn. Catching up with them, he turned back to face the same direction as his companions. The creature seemed to have stumbled for a moment but quickly regained its composure. It dropped Xaine"s pack and quickly disappeared into the woods.
"You got him?" Barrek said to the captain.
"Oh yes, he"s not getting away from me now. I can see him clearly. Xaine, summon your weapon and watch our backs."
Xaine felt stupid for not already having his weapon at hand. He summoned it and the familiar itching barely phased him as fear far overwhelmed it.
"Oh these are stealthy little demons," the captain spoke again.
"These?" Barrek replied.
"There"s at least four more that I can sense. Who knows how many more are out there outside my range. Xaine, on your left!"
Xaine looked and saw an open mouth full of razor sharp black teeth and dodged closer to the fire separating himself from the other two. Having leapt to pursue Xaine, the creature now stood between him and his father. The features of the beast were made more clear by the dancing flames. If it weren"t for the firelight shining off of the creatures scaled body, it would look as if a shade stood in three dimensions. There were not whites to its eyes or the usual pink flesh of soft tissue in it"s mouth. Every inch of it was overwhelmingly black.
The creature was now crouched low, silently threatening to pounce at any moment, at any misstep. Everything that happened then was like slow motion. The Darkgon rocked backward then leapt in the air towards Xaine, claws outstretched. He could see metal flash as his father's blade glanced off the creatures back leg, not even leaving a mark. He saw his father quickly redirect the point of his blade to aim it at the beast. And grabbing his sword hilt with both hands, gave an enormous pull backward. The Darkgon seemed to jerk backward from an invisible tether and landed back where it had started in a snarling heap.
As soon as it hit the ground, the captain had yelled something Xaine didn"t make out. Barrek turned in time to face a second Darkgon leaping from the dense woods. The creature collided with Barrek before he could reposition his sword. The sword was knocked from his hand and Barrek desummoned it before it hit the ground. Barrek lay on his back the giant dark figure of the creature on top of him. Xaine could see him place an open fist up towards the darkgon"s underside and attempt to resummon his blade. But the blade did not come.
From the moment the first darkgon appeared, Xaine was terrified. He could not think clearly, he did not know how he could have wound up in this situation. He had always thought himself capable and trained himself very hard to earn his place. Yet he never imagined he would be thrust into something like this so quickly. He was not finished training yet, he had not even learned his power but now he was in real danger.
And though all of those thoughts and feeling coursed through him, a new and much more terrifying fear had gripped him. The fear of being alone. It was no longer his life that he feared for, but his father"s who now lay scrambling for his survival under this unknown creature. It was for this reason that Xaine had become what he was. He wanted to protect those important to him and even those important to others. He would not feel the pain of loss again. He had to save his father, even if it cost him his life, he had to try.
The fear that froze him was gone. Xaine gripped the hilt of his sword hard and rushed forward. The darkgon that had originally leapt at him was now back on its feet. He had no time to stop. He swung the sword back and slashed at the creature with all his strength. He could hear a yell from the captain and saw over the two darkgons between him that the captain had lept into the air, both hands on the hilt of his blade which pointed down towards the darkgon on top of Barrek. Xaine"s sword struck the darkgon in front of him in the side and hit with a force Xaine did not know he had. The creature was knocked back and into the other pushing it towards the captain just as his blow landed.
Xaine could see the captain"s blade sink all the way down to the hilt. The instant it happened the creature opened its massive jaws and let out a horrible, torturous sound. The sound was met mid scream by numerous others from around the woods.. Then Xaine"s mind was flooded with an image of dead darkgons, the center of which ripped open and then an image of a pulsing veined orb. He forced the images out of his mind and he knew it before the captain shouted.
"They"re coming! All of them! We have to;"
He was cut short as the darkgon he had stabbed had reached its head around and clamped its jaws around his center. Another gurgling scream issued, this time, from the captain. He seemed to muster all the strength he had left to talk again.
"Barrek; Get Xaine out of here!"
Before the creature fully released him, the darkgon that was between Xaine and his father tackled the other to the ground- the warriors seemingly forgotten. The Captain underneath them lay motionless, his face blank. More tortured screams issued from the forest as two more darkgons rushed out of the wood to attack the injured one on the ground. Barrek, already back on his feet, grabbed Xaine by the arm and began to rush back to the horses. As they turned, three more darkgons came out of the darkness and ran passed them, apparently to join the fray.
Xaine and Barrek mounted their terrified horses and released them. Just as Barrek released Geranium he re-summoned his sword and cut the ropes tying the captain"s horse. The horse darted up the path, Barrek and Xaine followed close behind. They were out of the forest in a matter of seconds heading toward the town.