Since rising that morning from bed, Xaine knew they would arrive back in town. It did not stop the knot that formed in his stomach when the scenery began to be familiar. He loved his hometown, but he always imagined when he returned it would be a happy occasion. He would have his training completed and be ready for real work. Instead he was returning with barely any knowledge of his power and news of death and tragedy.
The next few words made the knot in his stomach twist uncomfortably. It was Ailee who spoke, looking forward and pointing in the distance.
"Is that yer home town?"
"Yes, that"s Kreila, alright. Should be only hours before we arrive now," Barrek replied.
Xaine had already seen the outline of the city in the distance, but the others seeing it now meant they were even closer. For Xaine the next few hours passed much too quickly and much too uncomfortably. It seemed like no time at all before they were crossing the town boundaries. There were people out and about as it was still early afternoon. Some who knew Barrek would smile or wave and occasionally vocalize a greeting. Soon after however their eyes fell on Cinnamon tied to Geranium and their expressions changed to those of worry, sadness, or grief.
They all knew what it meant to bring back a riderless horse, yet some would still try to deny the truth. One such man actually approached Barrek and voiced his concerns.
"That isn"t what I think it is, is it?" Barrek nodded. "Who?" The man asked.
"Captain Grell. His family has not yet been informed so please say nothing until then." The man nodded his agreement, then went back to tend to his business, shaking his head. The brief conversation made Xaine realize how little he really knew about the captain. He had not even known his name. He simply knew him by "˜captain", and only knew him the few weeks he spent in training.
He didn"t even know what family the captain had. But he did know that he did not want to be there when they were told. Xaine knew firsthand how it felt to be brought news of a lost loved one. It was something burned in his memory that he would never forget. He remembered in great detail the night his father sat him down. The hard look he had on his face and the struggle he could see in his eyes.
Xaine shook the thought from his mind. It was something he would never forget but something he often wished he could. They made their way farther into the town closer to the town center.
"Xaine, Ailee will likely need a place to stay while she is here. Show her to the inn and anywhere else she might need to know," Barrek said.
Ailee looked up at Barrek, a somewhat confused look on her face. Xaine thought he might know what she was worried about and asked.
"I thought she was going to help with the report. Aren"t we headed to report now?"
"Yes but this will just be a brief summary of the events that occurred. I need to notify the captain's family and then later today we will give our full formal report. When we do that all three of us will be needed at the report. Where I"m heading now is nearly just setting up a meeting to give the report."
Xaine looked at Ailee, who seemed content with Barrek"s response. He then pulled on Saber"s reins, leading him off the path. "This way," He said to Ailee and she followed. He led her through the various roads in town leading over to the inn. They passed several people that knew and greeted Xaine. The most familiar voice to Xaine wasn"t heard until they were standing in front of the inn and dismounting.
"Xaine! Long time no see!"
Xaine turned to look. He was both happy and nervous to greet his best friend again. He had come back and was still unable to fully use his powers. He wondered if he would be disappointed.
"Hey Maez, just a moment." Xaine turned to Ailee. "Do you want me to introduce you to the innkeepers?"
"No I"m fine, thanks been to a few inns in my life," she smiled as she said it and Xaine caught that she was joking with him. She then turned and walked into the inn leaving Xaine and Maez.
As soon as she was inside the building, Maez whistled.
"Wow, keeping good company I see. Who is she?" He asked Xaine.
"Her name"s Ailee we met her in Clearig. She came back with us to help with the report."
"Does she need to?"
"Yeah, I"ll tell you about it later. How have you been around here? How has it been being a blacksmith!?" Xaine asked.
"Apprentice blacksmith," Maez corrected him. "I still can"t forge anything on my own. I did get to observe and help a little with your group"s weapons. That was interesting. Yours especially."
"What do you mean?" Xaine asked.
"Well when we were making all the weapons the blacksmith just knew what to do I asked him how he decided what designs to use so quickly, and he said he is guided when making them. The ancestors that are sealed to them help in the process of forming the weapon first. They tell the blacksmith making them what to do essentially. Or something like that.
"With yours though we were already in the process of making it. One morning though the smith just stood there staring at it. I asked him when we were going to continue and he didn"t answer me for a few moments. When he finally did he said something was different. I told him I hadn"t touched anything but he was talking about the instructions. It was like over night your ancestor decided on a different way to handle it but at the same time didn"t."
"Well that"s very vague," Xaine interjected.
"Hey I"m just telling you what he told me. Doesn"t make much sense to me either but we had to rework a bit of what we had done with your blade. We had to add more materials to it as well. That blade of yours was tricky. But hey, could you expect anything less for the man of prophecy?" Maez smiled.
Xaine was a little shocked by his words. It had seemed so long ago now that he almost forgotten about it.
"You"ve already heard about that, hu? The elder told me it would get around. I was hoping he was wrong."
"Why? It sounds pretty exciting to me. And seeing as I"m your best friend maybe I will get a mention in the history books." Maez smiled wider.
Xaine chuckled, "Well I"m glad it doesn"t bother you at all, but the elder said some people might not be too happy about it. And they might blame me for things."
"Well there have been people who think whoever this person is isn"t good but I don"t know if anyone of them really believe it"s you. Either way though everyone in this town loves your family, I can"t imagine they would really turn on you so easily. Besides, it"s not like you"re running around with a phoenix friend."
"So you heard about that too?" Xaine sighed. "How did that one get back here so fast did the training camp send back a messenger?"
"What are you talking about?" Maez looked curiously at Xaine.
"I thought you were talking about the one that almost killed me during training." Xaine returned his confused look.
"You actually saw a phoenix?! I was only kidding about the prophecy."
"What does that have to do with the prophecy?" Xaine Asked.
"I"m not entirely sure myself I"ve just overheard some of the townspeople talking. Apparently there"s supposed to be some sort of connection between the first ancestor and this person in the prophecy. And some people think that connection has something to do with the phoenix.
"But were you really almost killed by a phoenix? Seems like you would be in a lot worse shape." Maez looked Xaine up and down.
"Yeah I can"t explain that part really. It came and almost killed all the trainees including myself. The others got out safely but I thought I was dead. All I know is I woke up in the ashes and I was perfectly fine." Xaine opened his mouth to speak more but Ailee had rejoined them.
"Hey Maez do me a favor and don"t spread that around. I"m sure it will come out when the training parties come back, but it would be nice to avoid it for a while."
Maez agreed and joined the other two as Xaine showed Ailee where the important buildings were. They wandered from place to place and Xaine became increasingly uncomfortable. It wasn"t Maez"s advances on Ailee or her not so subtle way of ignoring them each time. But the fact that Xaine kept feeling like he had left his father with a task that he didn"t need to handle alone.
Xaine remembered how much it hurt when he received the news that his father was giving. And it was his father that gave it then as well. But until now Xaine hadn"t thought much about what that must have felt like for his father. Barrek didn"t have the comfort that he gave Xaine. And Xaine was able to fully let his emotions out. He did not have to hide his tears like Barrek did. Xaine knew that his father was just as, if not more, crushed than he was. And yet he hid how truly broken he was from his son. Not because he felt any less of a man. Xaine knew his father was not like that. He hid his sadness so that Xaine never thought he was too overwhelmed for him.
It had worked of course. Even with the few times Xaine had his father silently sobbing when he thought he was alone, Xaine never thought his father did not have time for him. He always knew that when the burden of loss became too heavy to carry alone, his father would carry it with him. Xaine was almost to tears when he made his decision. He was not going to run from this. If he wanted to honor his line and the man he so admired he could not be a coward.
"Hey Ailee," he said barely keeping his voice from shaking. "Would it be alright if Maez showed you to the town hall? My father needs help with something."
"Better yet why don"t I just come and get you when it"s time for the report," he added seeing Ailee"s apprehension at being left alone with Maez.
"That"s fine," she replied.
They bade farewell and Xaine saw her turn around and silently panic at which direction to go to get back to inn. Maez opened his mouth to assist but it seemed she just picked a direction and started walking so as not to seem like she needed the help.
Xaine had never personally been to the captain"s house before and wasn"t sure where to go. After asking a few people where he lived and if they had seen his father today he figured out the general area he needed to go to. He eventually came to the right place as he noticed his father standing on a street with the reins of cinnamon in his hand.
For a moment Xaine was wondering if his father knew where he was going either. He soon realized his father had no doubt stopped to steel himself before the difficult conversation he was about to have. Xaine rode up next to him and dismounted saber.
"Geranium already back at the house?" He said, more to announce his presence than anything.
"Xaine what are you doing here?"
"I thought you could use some company."
"Xaine you don"t.." He began but Xaine cut him off.
"I know I don"t have to. But you raised me to responsible. This is our duty and I"m not leaving you to do it alone."
Barrek nodded. The next hour or so seemed to drag on forever and pass very quickly at the same time. Barrek knocked, a kind looking woman and her son answered the door. The son was a little younger than Xane and had yet to come of age. But they both knew what the empty horse meant. Xaine saw the looks of concern on their faces when they first saw it and then looked to the two warriors in front them.
Xaine tried very hard to keep himself from tears as Barrek delivered the news. Xaine and his father spent time trying to help console them to the point where they could be left to mourn in peace. Xaine knew this would be another day he would not soon forget. The pain that he could see on their faces was reflected in himself. He felt for them more than he knew he would.
The two of them finally left and Xaine walked Saber alongside them. At first neither of them said anything but just walked on together.
"I"m sorry you had to be there for that Xaine. But I"m also glad you were. You were right, I did need the company."
"You"ve always supported me dad. I thought it was about time I returned the favor. I hope you haven"t had to do this too much."
"I"ve been lucky enough to only have experienced it a few times in my life. And each time I pray it"s the last."
The two were silent again for a few more moments and deeming it the right time for change of conversation Xaine spoke up.
"So when are we due to report?" Xaine asked.
"Should be soon, they"ll ring the town bell when they are ready for us. Did you show Ailee where to meet?"
"We didn"t quite get there. But I told her I would go get her when it was time. I think she went back to the inn to wait," said Xaine.
"Good, that should do. I think we need to head back home for now. Let"s get Saber out of his tack in the pasture with Geranium so he can rest. He"s done his part today as well."
Xaine patted Sabers thick neck and they continued home. They had barely fed him and filled his water trough, when the bell rang. The two finished up and headed toward the inn to get Ailee. She was already outside the inn having heard the bell.
"Is that for us?" She asked as the two walked up. It was common to call meetings in this method in human towns and seemed the isles must have done something similar.
"Yes it"s time for the report. The town hall is over this way," Xaine replied.
They arrived at town hall and Xaine saw a familiar scene. The three of them were set in the middle of a large room. The elders and several high ranking warriors were in seats on the opposite end of room from the entrance.
The meeting was called together by the high elder and Barrek began the report. The process as a whole moved quickly and little was needed from Xaine. Occasionally they would ask him to reiterate his father"s words from his point of view on what had happened. They went over the arrival at the town and investigation of the forest. The captain"s death and the newly discovered creatures. It was at this point that the meeting took the longest.
The elders and warriors all wanted to know what these creatures were and what they were capable of. They wanted to know every detail gleaned from the encounter and just how dangerous the darkgons could be. Barrek and Xaine told as much information about them as they had with Ailee speaking up and filling in missing holes. She seemed to know a lot more about them then Xaine realized. As she was speaking Xaine wondered just how long she had been following them.
"These creatures aren"t just brutes. They are very smart and cunning and have more than just sharp teeth and claws," She was saying.
"What do you mean they have more? Please elaborate," One of the elders replied.
"They have an ability to kill things with something else. It"s like a poison, I haven"t seen how they use it yet but I"ve seen trails of it where they"ve been. Their nests are filled with dead and rotted plant life."
"Could this not be just from trampling it underfoot and where they rest?" Another elder asked.
"No, these demons don"t stay in one place for long enough to cause the extent of decay that I"ve seen. They move frequently."
"Very well, I believe that is what we need for now. Barrek you will be leading a small recon force. You are to track and observe the creatures and see how much of a threat they pose to our civilizations. Once you are satisfied that there is nothing left to gather you will report your findings."
"And what about Xaine? He is still in training. We have however begun to bring out his powers but it"s still too early to see what they really are," Barrek asked.
"Do you believe he is skilled enough to continue with your party and train further?" One of the warriors asked.
"In the last encounter Xaine saved my life and protected a great number of Clearig"s people. I believe he can be asset to our company if we hone his skills on the way."
"You are permitted then to bring him with your team. Anything else?"
"If she agrees, I would like to bring Ailee along with me as well. She knows more than we do about the Darkgons and would be valuable in tracking them."
"Granted," replied one of the warriors after a nod from one of the elders.
"A message has already been sent to recall the training parties. They should arrive for the burial ceremony. Barrek, you will need to have your team ready and will depart the morning after the ceremony is completed. If there is nothing else this report is at an end."
"I"m sorry for interrupting, but I feel I must speak up," Said Ailee. "One team is not enough for these creatures. Now is not the time for recon it is the time for action. These demons are dangerous not just to us but to everyone. They could pose a danger to the other races as well. We need to exterminate them. They are too powerful and breed quickly and all they do is kill. They bring nothing but death wherever they show up."
"We cannot afford to send any more men unless we know it is necessary. We must learn more about these creature first. We appreciate your concern but we cannot do more right now."
Ailee seemed furious but she said no more. Over the next few days she seemed just as agitated and antsy to get moving to find the darkgons again. At one point she was actually planning to leave and track them on her own but Barrek stopped her. He told her that if she really wanted to get a bigger force invested in killing those creatures her best bet was to join them and prove to them how dangerous they were instead of working on her own.
Xaine couldn"t blame her, he was feeling antsy as well and wanted to get back to training but he knew how important the ceremony was and as a member of the town that was performing it he had to be there if possible. They had tried to do some training while they waited for the parties to return but Barrek was mostly enveloped in forming the team that would be investigating the darkgons.
Having little success developing his powers on his own Xaine spent most of his free time with Ailee and Maez. Becoming her outlet for frustrations when others weren"t around, Xaine wasn"t entirely surprised by her exclamation when the training parties returned on the third morning.
"Four days! Those creatures are getting a four day head start! I mean I know this ceremony is important I know what it means but four days!"
"Look at it this way Ailee, the ceremony is tonight and we leave tomorrow morning. So this is your last day to wait. Well, our last day to wait."
"I know Xaine but these creatures are vile. They won"t stop killing and wait for us to catch up." She sat and fumed in silence for moment until a thought seemed to hit her. "Do you want to train some more? Maybe we can get something to work this time." Ailee asked.
"No that"s fine I think we should just take it easy today. We will be training a lot along the way and today is not the day anyway," Xaine replied.
Xaine didn"t want to disrupt the day of mourning but more so whenever she had tried to help him train it just turned into her taking her frustrations out physically instead of verbally. This of course did not help his training very much at all. But Xaine thought it better not phrase it that way.
Later in the day Xaine was able to greet his training mates. They seemed to have all progressed farther than he did in their powers. And though it wasn"t an incredible difference between where he was and where they were, he still felt far behind. Corey seemed to be the closest to Xaine because he still hadn"t figured out how to use the powers in his sword. He had however figured out how to work his shield.
"You remember how terrible I was when I left?" He told Xaine. "That was because I was using my shield wrong. It protects me. It moves with the attacks coming at me so that I can fight easier. I just had to stop fighting it."
"Wow that"s great!" Xaine replied and wondered if it sounded sincere enough.
Though Ailee had complained most of the day to Xaine, it seemed like no time at all before Xaine found himself standing at the burial grounds with the rest of the town. Everyone was surrounding the gravestone that was meant for the captain. Xaine knew of course that no body was in it as they were unable to acquire the body under their circumstances. It was another source of grief for him. He felt bad not being able to return more than just the horse.
But today was the day to let all that go. It was the day to mourn. As Xaine reflected on the captain and how he knew him and what the captain had done for him he was pulled from his thoughts as the captain's family arrived. The enormous crowd parted leaving a path to the grave stone.
The captain's son and wife led the riderless horse in full tack up to the grave. A respectful silence filled the air during their walk. The only sounds were footsteps and slow hoofbeats. All eyes were on the family who had felt the loss more fully than any. Xaine could see the pain on their faces even though the son at least tried to hide it.
They reached the grave, and the son and his mother had their private but public moment. They spoke to the captain and told him how much they would miss him and that they would live to honor his memory. Xaine couldn"t hear the exact words, he only caught what was said loud enough. Though he didn"t need to hear every word to know.
The mother seemed finished and her son continued for a brief moment longer. Xaine could hear his voice shaking as he said the things he"d never hoped he would have to. Then he stood up and looked towards his mother. She smiled at him and gestured to the grave stone. The boy looked shocked and more tears fell down his face as he asked her if she was sure.
She had given him the opportunity to be the first to touch the stone. It was always the spouse or parent"s right to be the first to touch the grave and make the request but she had given it to him. The son turned and reached out his right hand and touched the stone. His mother then moved forward and touched it as well and the two held hands behind it.
Everyone now looked at the ornate grave stone. Xaine was lucky enough to be positioned in front of it and could clearly see all the runic markings that made up the captain"s family line leading to his own runes in the center and his son"s beneath it. They all waited for the call to be answered.
It took several moments and Xaine was beginning to think it wouldn"t happen. Then slowly the runes began to glow from top to bottom on the stone. The same bright blue shone out of the runes on the stone that Xaine had seen on all the trainees during their acceptance ceremony. The captain would help his people again.
The moment the stone was fully lit the mood completely changed. The son and his mother smiled broadly to the thunderous cheers and whistles from the townspeople. The mourning was over.