"I still don"t know why we had to allow him into our camp," Xaine said to Barrek.
"Xaine, when will you learn to trust those more experienced than yourself? You do it well in battle, but you can"t seem to understand that we know more than just how to fight. How did we find Nab in this forest Xaine?"
"We didn"t, he seems to have found us," Xaine replied uncertainly.
"Exactly, and we still don"t know how he snuck right into the middle of our company without anyone being the wiser. And what do we know about him thus far?"
"That he"s a thief," Xaine said disdainfully.
"So would you rather us outcast a potential thief from our camp that can walk right into a group of men unnoticed?" Barrek asked.
Xaine thought for a moment. "Does it make much of a difference?" He asked earnestly. " It seems like if we can"t track him he can steal what he wants whether he"s in our camp or not."
"Xaine you mustn"t let your view of him and your desire to disassociate yourself with his kind to blind you from making intelligent decisions. He was able to sneak up on us all, that much is true. But he was able to do so because we didn"t know he was there to begin with. If he"s in our camp then we know he"s in our camp and we only have to worry about it if we lose track of him. Had we outcast him it would have been easy for him to disappear from our sight and sneak back in unnoticed."
"I"m such a fool!" Xaine said, after a moment, red in the face. "How could I have not seen that?"
"No Xaine you"re not a fool you were simply foolish. Not unlike our new friend was when we saw him in town." Xaine gave Barrek an uncertain look and before he added hastily. "I"m saying that you made a mistake, and for all we know so did he. And aside from the perks of keeping an eye on him, he seems to know quite a bit about the darkgons. I think he may know even more than Ailee. He must have been tracking them for some time."
"Don"t tell her that," Xaine replied with mock fear on his face.
Barrek smiled, "I"m glad the two of you are getting along so well. With leaving your training group, I was worried that you may not have formed proper friendships."
"I think I"ve made some friends here as well," Xaine replied.
"True, but that is a little different. There"s usually a special bond between the training groups. You all fight together and learn together. You grow together really. And of course, they are around the same age as you so that usually makes it easier as well. I know you can"t be completely comfortable with the men in this company. Not like you would be."
"I guess that"s true, but I think I have made somewhat of a friend of Torin. We get along really well and he"s not too much older than I am."
"Good, it"s important to have people you can trust going into battle. I know you trust these men, but you have to be able to trust them with your life. You have to trust that those men would jump between you and a dragon if necessary."
"Well, you know what they say. Battle forges more than victory," replied Xaine, reciting a common phrase from their town.
"You"re right, Xaine going into battle together does form a kind of bond. But you want as strong of a bond as you can before the battle ever starts. You don"t want the bond that forged to be only that of the survivors."
Xaine didn"t know how to reply and so he didn"t. Xaine looked at his father who was busying himself with cleaning his metal plates. How had he ever missed that his father was so wise? He had always admired his father for his skill and determination but somehow he never saw how deeply wise the man was. It was yet another trait Xaine now hoped he could live up to. And then the words came to him.
"I"m sorry Dad. I should have listened and instead, I disobeyed. And when you first told me what I"d done wrong my first thought was of my own embarrassment. I"ll do better next time I promise."
Barrek smiled and patted Xaine on the shoulder and said, "It"s already forgotten." It was something he said often and yet Xaine was always surprised when he did. Of all the traits his father had shown him, he was always most impressed by his ability to forgive. Whenever Xaine did something wrong, no matter how bad it was or how much he thought he had done wrong, the very moment he sincerely apologized, his father would smile and say once more "It"s already forgotten."
Barrek then walked over to his gear and began loading it onto Geranium. Xaine followed suit and prepared Saber for the day. After everyone was ready to depart Barrek called them all to meet in the center of the camp.
"Alright, today we are to track the Darkgons once more. This time though, let"s not actually get noticed and scare them off. Our job right now is just to observe and learn as much as we can. Then we will report back to Kreila and they will decide if we need to destroy or let them be. Before we go, Nab, do you have any insight for us so we can better succeed."
"Glad you asked, yes I do." Xaine rolled his eyes but, this time, trusted his father"s judgment and did not interrupt. "They"ve recently gotten a new queen which is why they have been a little edgy. However, the swarm is getting pretty big so who knows how long she will even last. So let"s be extra careful when we approach I"ll let you know what I can."
For a moment, nobody spoke. Xaine was quite sure that everyone else was as speechless as he was for the same reasons. This was confirmed when Barrek spoke again.
"Queen? What do you mean about them having a queen?" Barrek asked.
"And did you call them a swarm?" Xaine added.
"Wait you didn"t even know they have a queen? How long have you all be tracking them?" Nab replied.
"It"s been a couple of months but we lost them for a little while. However, we have not had a lot of time to observe them," Barrek responded.
"Well, I guess I have a little more to tell you than I expected. First off, yes, they have a queen. Every single one of these things is extremely intelligent, but they are also controlled. The queen controls the rest of the darkgons until she"s too weak to fight anymore."
"And what happens then?" Said Barrek.
"They kill her. That"s also how they reproduce."
"They reproduce by killing each other? Xaine Said.
"No, they reproduce by killing the queen." Replied Nab.
"Well, how does the next queen take over?" Asked Torin. "I mean what makes one a queen and the others the regular darkgons."
"Well the orb does, I guess you don"t know about that either if you didn"t know about the queen. Well, there"s this black egglike orb thing that they fight over. You see, they swallow the orb and it seems to give them some sort of power over the other darkgons. When the queen gets too weak to keep control over the swarm they kill her and rip out the orb. During that process is also where the young are born. When they open up the queen the babies fall out."
They all stood speechless once again, and Xaine looked around the group of men until his eyes fell on the most shocking one of all. Ailee stood there, mouth partially open completely at a loss for words. Here they were talking about Darkgons and for once Ailee had nothing to say.
"If I may say, I would recommend you try to destroy them before they get out of hand. They might already have. You"ve seen the devastation these things can bring, each one is incredibly powerful, incredibly intelligent, and full of razor sharp teeth. Not to mention they have poisonous breath." Nab looked around. "Oh right, you don"t know anything. They breathe a kind of poison that kills everything around them. What"s worse, is they like the death it brings. It"s not just a defensive weapon, they use it to kill everything around their dens whenever they stop for longer periods."
"And it takes a great deal of work to grow anything back where they"ve breathed it and killed everything," Ailee spoke up.
"You knew about the poison?" Nab replied somewhat surprised.
"We knew about the poison but we didn"t know they breathe it. I"ve never seen them directly use it, I"ve just seen the effects," replied Ailee. " And for the record, I agree with him. I think we need to get reinforcements and destroy these things before it"s too late. What more evidence do we need now, he has been observing them for a long time and he agrees. We should take him back to Kreila and have him give his intel and convince them."
"When the time comes, we may very well ask you to do just that Nab. But for the time being, we need to gather intel on our own as well and see if we can confirm the things you"ve told us," replied Barrek. "Unless there is anything else you would like to tell us then we need to head out. I"d like you working with our tracker, to keep us well informed on what"s ahead and what"s going on."
Nab agreed and the company moved out following their guidance, Nab riding with the tracker as he did not have a horse. The darkgons had moved quite a bit farther into the thick forest and it took a long time before they were able to see fresh traces of the creatures. They were now in a part of the forest that was so thick it didn"t seem to get any brighter than early morning, even when the sun began to cross its zenith.
They began to see traces of the poison left behind by the darkgons in the forest and Nab insisted the company slow down their march and move more quietly.
"We"re getting close to them," he said and pointed around at the blackened and wilted plants. The path was becoming clearing and easier to travel now because most of the vines and moss were black and rotted and fallen to the forest floor.
Nab and the tracker halted everyone and gestured up front. Barrek split the men to form a wide half circle to sneak more quietly up to the location Nab had indicated. It was another few minutes before they could see what he was talking about. Xaine had followed Barrek closely and they came up level with Nab.
"Right through here about sixty feet that way. Can you see it?" Nab asked.
Barrek and Xaine looked and silently nodded. It was odd seeing the darkgon in the day time. It"s black scaly skin shone like metal. It seemed to be eating a large animal that had been killed. A moment later another large black figure pushed the first over and gnashed it"s teeth at it. It regained it"s footing and pushed back, the two fought and tore at each other leaving large gashes in their skin and one having it"s wing torn.
Then the two of them recoiled and crouched low and cowered as another came forward. She gnashed her teeth at them as well but neither fought back. Both sunk low and backed away shaking as if scared. But it looked different to Xaine somehow. These creatures didn"t look like they had much of a fear response at all but why were they shaking and cowering so much.
"That"s the queen," Nab said, sounding somewhat suspicious almost as if asking a question. And Xaine knew what it was that was different. They weren"t shaking out of fear, they were fighting. They didn"t want to back down, they wanted to attack her, they wanted to kill her, but they couldn"t- they were being forced to retreat. The queen bent down and began to eat.
"No," Said Nab. "No, no, no, this isn"t right. Something is wrong. Do you two see any others? Do you only see three? Ask the others as well but quietly!"
They could see the whisper being passed down and heads shaking. Some men held up the number three with their fingers.
"This is bad, Barrek I"m sorry we have to go now! We can"t stay here." Nab said quickly.
"What"s wrong, you don"t think they"ve noticed us do you?" Whispered Xaine. Nab started backing away and waving to the other men to call them back. Barrek followed suit.
"Oh they noticed us alright, and I"d say much sooner than we noticed them! We have to get out as fast and as quietly as we can." Nab Said.
A rumbling sort of noise started to fill the air. It grew steadily louder and became accompanied by loud sounds of brush and wood cracking and breaking.
"It"s too late! Run! We have to go now!" Nab Shouted. Some of the men paused and others mounted their horses. They all summoned their weapons. And barrek turned to the tracker while they ran back to where they had left their own horses.
"How did this happen? You were supposed to be tracking them the whole time!
"These were the first ones I-" he began but was cut off but Nab.
"It"s not his fault, they knew! I should have guessed it, I"m sorry. Last night they must have figured out his range of tracking and spread just out of it today as we approached. We"re most likely surrounded!"
They had reached their horses and were about to mount. "Are they that intelligent?!" Barrek asked.
"Yes, they"re cunning little devils." Nab quickly replied.
Just as Xaine mounted with Nab behind. he saw one of the men who had mounted their horse moments earlier who had gone a distance off already. Other men were beginning to mount and move in his direction. Just as they did a loud scream pierced the air. The man farthest out had been hit from the side. The darkgon knocked him and his horse sideways onto the ground. The screaming stopped.
Barrek shouted. "Southwest!" And all the men changed direction at once. Another darkgon jumped out to attack the man right next to Xaine. Saber reacted before Xaine did and reared up kicking the darkgon in mid-air. The Creature slammed into a tree and hit the ground. Everyone was once again redirected trying to find an open place to escape.
Darkgon after darkgon appeared at different times and they were forced to the edge of a wide open clearing. Everything in the middle was blackened and decaying. "They pushed us into the nest!" Xaine heard Nab shout over his shoulder. Looking at yet more darkgons waiting for them in the clearing. Another man was dismounted by a darkgon but his horse had turned and kicked it off of him.
"Dismount! Form a defense, we have to fight!" Shouted Barrek.
Xaine and Nab dismounted. Xaine saw Nab put a hand on the hilt of his weapon but did not draw it. Barrek came to stand by Xaine"s side. "Alright just like in training Xaine if the two of us work together with our push and pull we should be able to keep a good defense while the others attack."
The company formed a circle of men with one or two men between horses on either side of them. A large number of darkgons surrounded them on all sides inching forward trying to find a spot to attack.
"Ready Xaine?" Barrek shouted.
"Ready!" Xaine replied.
Barrek pointed the end of his sword to the darkgon directly in front of him. As it was moving forward already it seemed to gain momentum and stumble a little. Barrek pulled it closer than the other darkgons and as it began to resist. Xaine stepped forward and swung his blade hard. Barrek at the same time jerked backward pulling harder than ever. The darkgon tumbled forward then, hit by Xaine"s shockwave, slid to the side and in front of one of the other warriors.
The man took advantage of the prone position and struck at the creature with his morningstar. The spiked ball swung on its chain and connected just as the darkgon stood back up. Bang! As soon as the ball hit a loud noise and flames shot explosively from the ball in the direction it had swung. The creature was thrown hard into the line of its fellows, knocking another one down with it.
"Next one!" Shouted Barrek drawing back his attention. And he repeated the process, but this time with a darkgon to the other side of Xaine. Once it was off balance, Xaine stepped out and hit it with a hard shockwave knocking it to the other side in front of another warrior. Xaine realized that one had gone to Torin who immediately struck the creature with lightning speed before it had even touched the ground. Xaine could see the scales of the creature deform as the massive hammer struck it in the shoulder. A loud thud and crack and the creature was knocked back several feet.
The men cheered as the two darkgons were knocked back quickly and without any men getting attacked. Xaine was faintly aware that Nab was not among them anymore. Xaine hesitated in his position for a moment too long and the darkgon nearest him leaped in the air to strike at him. He turned to strike with his sword but immediately changed direction as Saber"s large back hooves connected with the creature and sent it flying back.
Man, I love this horse! Xaine thought as he took his place back in formation. There was a white flash in the shadows.
"Those devils learn quickly!" Torin shouted, drawing his attention back.
And even as he said it, the darkgons seemed to retreat back a few steps, leaving a larger space between them and the warriors, but keeping the circle around them to prevent escape. All the warriors waited for an opening, when Nab shouted from somewhere, "Hold your breath!" So he didn"t desert them. The creatures opened their mouths and a black mist shot out towards them. "Supports, cover the horse"s mouths with something!" Barrek shouted.
Several men turned inward and began fastening cloth around the horse's mouth and noses. Many of the other men, including Xaine, covered their faces and averted their eyes to protect themselves from the black mist.
Suddenly there was a rush of wind and men started screaming in the center of the circle and Xaine turned to see a darkgon had somehow made it right in the middle of the group and had grabbed a man"s arm and flung him aside.
"It glided in!" someone shouted.
Xaine saw a bright flash and flames and heard a loud explosion above the center of the group. Xaine felt the shock of it go through his chest."Knock back the mist!" Ailee shouted.
"Of course!" Xaine said as he looked back at the mist to see the shockwave from the explosion had pushed it back slightly.
"I"ll cover the mist on this side!" Xaine shouted back. And swung hard causing a shockwave to stop the mist completely. Another pushed it back even further. Barrek had turned to help fight the darkgon in the middle. The circle was forced to expand father to avoid the darkgon now in the middle of the group. Xaine was doing his best to stop the darkgons from advancing towards them and keep the poison at bay.
Another scream split the air from the center of the group that sent chills down Xaine"s spine. He was almost frozen with fear and Torin yelled "Captain!" As if in slow motion he turned around to see a darkgon with its mouth over the chest and abdomen of his father. "NO!" Xaine heard himself shout.
The creature released Barrek and he fell to the ground, dropping his weapon. With a sickening crunch, Torin"s hammer slammed into the creature's face. It reeled back and stumbled, cross-eyed, and Xaine hit it with a shockwave so hard it flew out of the group and back among the darkgons.
Xaine dropped to his knees next to his father. Barrek was covered in blood, there were large puncture marks all over his torso. "He"s bleeding out," someone said.
"NO! DAD," Xaine repeated. Xaine put his hands over a puncture wound that seemed to be over his heart. He could feel the pulsing beneath his hands and tried to stave the blood flow. Barrek looked up shocked. He coughed and more blood came out of his mouth. He moved his mouth trying to say something.
"No don"t speak you have to try to rest! Can"t we do something!?" Xaine shouted. He hoped the look Torin gave him was something other than pity as he turned to help fight again. Barrek"s mouth moved again and this time, Xaine heard him.
"Go," Barrek said and he drew a rattling breath.
"No Dad I can"t leave you I have to help you. We have to stop the bleeding!"
"It"s too late Xaine, there"s no healing this;" Barrek drew another labored breath but seemed to will himself to talk clearer. "Go, they need you."
"No Dad, you need me! I can"t! I can"t do much for them anyway!" Xaine replied frantically.
"No, Xaine you can"t do anything for me now;" he seemed to try to chuckle, but it turned into a cough "They need you to fight." His voice was faint.
Xaine closed his eyes tightly for a moment and tears streaked down his face. He spoke again and said what he really meant this time.
"No Dad, I need you! I can"t do this alone. Please, I"ve lost everyone else I can"t lose you too! I can"t carry on our line alone, I can"t! I.. I"m not good enough. I"m not strong enough to do this alone!"
"Yes, you can Xaine. You"re strong- more than you know. If there"s anyone who can carry on our line and make it great, it"s you. Xaine I could never ask for anything more than you. When we lost them I was only strong enough to bear it because I had you. You strengthened me. You made me remember that it was worth it to continue." He carried on desperately as if he has been holding on to the words for a while and was finally letting them go.
"Me too Dad please, I need you!" Xaine replied. Barrek didn"t seem to hear him but kept speaking, so faint Xaine was leaning into him to hear him now.
"Xaine this can"t be changed, but I"m not leaving you for good. I"m going to watch over you- just like your mother. We"ll be with you- I"ll be watching everything. Make me proud, live up to the man you want to become. If you want to do something for me then promise me that you will work your hardest to live up to your full potential."
"We"ve only scratched the surface Xaine. You have something special in you. This is my last request. Will you honor it?" There was some strength to his last words.
Xaine could do nothing more than nod. He could no longer speak. He watched as his father smiled through his pain, his face streaked with tears. "I"m proud of you son." Barrek then exhaled, and did not inhale again.
Xaine pulled his hands away and sobbed. He kept hearing shouting and felt his right hand become heavy again. "We need you, Xaine!" Xaine looked back up dazed barely remembering that they were in a battle. He had a vague sensation that his hand was going numb. He could see the dark mist coming closer. Ailee"s blasts alternating between the two sides trying to keep it back. The darkgons had moved in closer some men were fighting with them directly. The darkgons.
"We need you!" Xaine barely registered that it was Torin shouting again. A hate welling up inside him that he had never felt so strongly before. He hated them, they took the only person he had left and he was going to kill them. He was going to take every one of their lives by himself if he could. He hated them so much he was shaking. He looked down at his hand, thinking to summon his weapon and found it already there.
The sword was vibrating so quickly it was as if his hand was being jolted with energy and he realized it was the reason for numbing he felt. He didn"t know what to think at first but then it connected. The ancestor in his sword was his grandfather. Or in other words, his father's father. And he was angry too.
Xaine gripped the blade firmly and the shaking in his hand stopped. The darkgons and men all around Xaine became uneasy on their feet. They seemed to lose balance and move awkwardly. One darkgon snapped at the ground, irritated, flapping its torn wings for a moment.
"What"s happening!" One of them shouted. " An earthquake?! Now?!"
Xaine could feel the earth trembling as well, but it didn"t affect him. He held his balance perfectly. Ailee looked glanced at him between her attacks and shouted. "Xaine! Is this you!?"
The other men seemed confused at what she meant, but Xaine wasn't. He took a step forward and willed the shaking to stop and it did. Xaine screamed in rage and ran immediately to the front line of the darkgons. He could hear other warriors shouting at him but he didn"t care. He was going to kill as many of them as he could. He was going to repay them for what they did to him. For what they took.
Three darkgons advanced toward him and he swung his blade with more power than ever before. The shockwave sent dirt and dust into the air as it swept the distance between them and crashed into all three. The creatures were knocked off their feet and knocked almost 30 feet back. They slammed through the darkgons behind them and tumbled on the ground.
Another darkgon came from his side and, his sword vibrating very quickly again, he thrust upward into its chest. The blade went through its tough skin like it was nothing more than linen. Xaine didn"t know how far he had run but he appeared to be in the middle of the clearing. The other darkgons seemed to catch on and begun to surround him. He slashed in a semicircle sending another powerful wave into the darkgons knocking them back. He could hear some of the warriors shouting to get to him as he turned around and swung his sword at the darkgons in that direction as well. The whole circle of at least fifteen darkgons were knocked again off their feet. The first half he hit were beginning to stand again and he switched his sword grip to point the tip downward.
He grabbed the hilt with both hands and thrust the sword into the ground at his feet. A huge wave of dirt and rocks shot out in all directions. The shockwave uplifting earth in a massive circle all the way to the edge of the trees. Some of which now stood on the rim of the large crater-like hole crooked and half uprooted.
Darkgons were slammed into trees and into each other some with clearly broken limbs others completely motionless.
Xaine stood in the middle of the crater he had created. He pulled the sword out, panting as some of the darkgons stood and went to attack him. They seemed to be all focused on him now. One after another he struck at them knocking them back or slashing through their skin with his vibrating sword. However, they were getting up faster and faster. Each one getting closer and closer.
Three of them dashed at him at once and he stood ready for them. One leaped into the air and opened its huge wings gliding toward him. Just like the one that had killed his father. He swung up sending another shockwave forcefully at one of his wings. A loud crack and the wing bending backward the wrong way told him he had broken it.
The creature lurched in pain and twisted to the side with a roar, it dropped out of the sky like a stone and Xaine looked now to the two rushing him. It was too late, he couldn"t block both. His new found confidence and boldness seemed to be waning, he was coming back to himself. He moved his sword point in front of him just in time to catch one right in the chest. Before he could pull it out the other darkgon was there. Xaine yanked his blade from the other desperately, just as the mouth of the other darkgon closed on his arm.
He jerked his arm back at the shoulder, somehow managing to pull it from the sharp jaws right before they snapped shut, but a tooth caught his skin and cut a deep gash in his flesh. He was bleeding badly when the creature breathed a cloud of mist on his arm through its gnashed teeth. He knocked it back with a shockwave and felt his arm go weak. He looked at the cut and could already see the poison spreading up his arm like little black veins.
He could see more darkgons advancing on him now and looked back to see the black veins on his arm already up to his shoulder and going under his armor to his chest. He couldn"t stand anymore and fell to his knees. His throat became itchy and seemed to swell. He was faintly away of shouts behind him. It was getting harder to breathe. Everything then started to get dark and blurry. He tried to raise his sword again as another darkgon reached him. His arm barely moved and he felt like the sword was just too heavy to lift now.
The creature opened its mouth and he could only feel the pressure from its fangs sink deep into his skin. He could feel himself fall on his back but could no longer see anything.The world was dark. He couldn"t feel pain anymore either he noticed. Just pressure. He could feel different parts of his body being yanked from either side. He knew the darkgons were biting him. Tearing his flesh. But could hardly feel anything. And then he didn"t feel anything at all except that he was cold.
And then suddenly he was very warm. He still could not see but the world was no longer dark. Everything was bright white and seemed to flutter and flow. The warmth and the light were so familiar. Everything just felt so nice. And he was so tired.