Matt saw an enemy command tent about a half mile away and said to Steve, Hey, Steve, help me out here. See that tent over there. He pointed. Let’s give them a scare. Steve nodded. He took the stump he had been using, grabbed it by the trunk, and swung it around and around like the hammer in the Olympics. When he let it fly, Matt guided it to its target. Direct hit! The tent was crushed in a cloud of dirt. I hope the evil King Tyrus was there, Matt thought. Steve and Matt saw the last Eaglecrone and the last dragon spewing fire over the Kaiman army. Steve nodded to Matt and picked up two spears. One at a time, he hurled them toward the targets. Matt successfully guided them to their prey. Both of the flying menaces were hit and fell out of the sky. Matt and Steve gave each other high fives and walked back to where Jesse was sitting. We need to get moving, Jeremy said. Clinging to Oliver’s arm, Jesse resisted. We’ve done enough today. Oliver held her close, perfectly satisfied to stay there. Walking past them, Matt said to General Hammon, We need to get to King Aagaard. The general rounded up his crew and announced, Let’s move out! Jesse reluctantly moved with the others. Every time they came upon a wounded soldier, she stopped to heal him. Jeremy took her arm. We can’t keep stopping. We must get to Aagaard as soon as possible. No, I won’t leave them. Jesse pulled away from his grasp. No! Steve got right in her face. Look at me! She ignored him, concentrating on her patient. I said, look at me! He grabbed her arm. Oliver jumped in to defend her, but Steve brushed him aside with his forearm, knocking him about ten feet away. Jesse came to Oliver’s defense. You leave him alone! She grabbed Steve’s hand and, in her anger, started sucking the life out of him. The color drained from his skin, his lips cracked, and his eyes became bloodshot. Matt hit Jesse with a shoulder block, knocking them apart. Jesse, what are you doing? You know we need to move quickly. We don’t have time for any of this. Matt looked at Steve, who was now half dead. He looked back at Jesse and demanded, Fix him. Fix him now, and let’s get out of here! I want to help these soldiers, Jesse pleaded. You can help them later, Jeremy said. It’s more important to stop the war altogether. We need to move out now! With Jeremy’s help, Jesse brought Steve back. Their relationship would never be quite the same. Steve glared at Jesse and walked to the front of the group, as far from her as he could get.
General Hammon saw the situation and ordered the men to close ranks. They pulled back into a tight circle around Oliver, Jeremy, and Jesse. Jeremy sat on the ground and pulled Jesse into his arms, trying to make her more comfortable. Her power had been diminished, and the wound hurt so badly, she wasn’t sure she would make it. Having Jeremy there helped, but she didn’t think it would be enough. Then Oliver joined in on the group hug. Although his presence didn’t add to her power, it did inspire her to reach deep down and get every ounce of healing magic to heal herself. Jeremy and Oliver helped her stand, and after a few steps, she was feeling like her old self again. The tight circle was not ideal for fighting, and several soldiers were wounded and brought to Jesse. As she worked on them, the circle expanded, and the Band of Twenty began to move forward again. Jeremy was encouraged. He could see only a few enemy soldiers between them and the river, about a hundred yards away. But his face fell as reinforcements arrived and they closed the path to the river. He heard screeching from above as the Eaglecrone made its first dive. The enemy soldiers backed off so the Eaglecrone could be effective. Without any orders, the Band of Twenty knew exactly what to do and closed ranks. They put their shields over their heads and created a canopy of protection. The spray of fire hit the canopy and some of the enemy soldiers who didn’t move fast enough. The Band moved back out to continue their fight, but then they saw the oncoming dragon and covered up again. Jesse heard the screeching dragon as it swooped down to attack. But instead of flying by, it hovered in the air over the Band. The beating of the giant wings was deafening. The dragon spewed fire and continued to hover, attacking over and over again. The fiery dragon saliva dripped through the canopy and created small puddles on the ground inside the circle. Jeremy, Oliver, and Jesse kept busy throwing dirt on the flames to put them out. This could be the end. The fire was intense and continuous. Jesse, Jeremy, and Oliver began taking care of the burn victims. One had sticky, burning saliva covering half his body.
I can spare one of the Pagandorfs. Okay, okay, four hundred of Torron’s soldiers, the Eaglecrone, and one Pagandorf—now! Within minutes, Tyrus had a smile on his face. This will end today. I will capture the Alliance and the Symbol. I will hand them over to Torron, and I will rule with great power. He smiled and watched as the reinforcements headed toward the Alliance. The two winged fire devils screeched loudly as they flew to their new target. We’re really doing well, Jesse thought. We’re fighting like a well-oiled machine. She had been able to put the emotions aside and work side-by-side with Jeremy and Oliver to care for all the wounded. Oliver had taken a liking to Jesse. He always seemed to be close by if any of the enemy soldiers broke through the perimeter. Matt was very efficient with his arrows, and Steve had no problem hacking away at the demon enemy. Jesse was working on one soldier’s wounds when a Humonger’s head rolled toward her. She jumped into the air, and the head rolled under her feet. She lost her concentration for a couple of seconds, and the soldier’s neck began to bleed badly again. Jeremy yelled, Jesse, focus! She took a deep breath. Oliver saw what had happened. He came up behind her, put his arms around her shoulders, and hugged her from behind. He said, You’re doing great. Without you, we would all be dead. She healed the soldier, and he picked up his weapon and returned to the fight. A Horrintine was cut in half and flopped into the center of the ring. Jeremy watched as the two halves morphed into two completely new warriors. The Horrintines were fighting each other over their only weapon. Oliver skillfully wielded his sword and took the heads off both Horrintines at the same time. They fell to the ground, squirming around as they died. Jeremy noticed that Oliver spent most of his time fighting the enemy on the outside of the ring. But he moved in and out of the ring, helping Jesse as much as he could. Oliver was wounded in the leg just as a Marker broke through the perimeter and attacked Jesse. Jeremy was quick enough to kill the Marker, but Jesse suffered a serious wound to the stomach. Jeremy yelled to the general, Hammon, close ranks!
He wanted to know everything that was going on. He’ll be back in about fifteen or twenty minutes, General Hammon said to Jeremy after he sent someone to scout the path. To their surprise, he was back in less than a minute. The handgun safes soldier reported to the general, handgun safes There are several hundred enemy soldiers just over the hill between us and the river. I don’t think they know we’re here. They’re just waking up. Jeremy went to Matt, Steve, and Jesse and said, The plans have changed. Several hundred of Torron’s soldiers are right over the hill. We’ll have to attack. Attack? We’re going to attack? Jesse asked as fear crossed her face. It’s about time we got into this, Steve said. He put his hand over his shoulder, grasping his sword. As the Alliance approached the general, Jeremy said quietly under his breath, I knew it; we’re gonna die. The general knew exactly what to do. He immediately ordered his men to get ready to move. Now, without any time to think, they were climbing the banks of a wash. They would be facing an army only a few yards away. Not just any ordinary army, but the evil army of Torron. This is crazy. Jeremy realized his worst nightmare as they came out of the wash. The Alliance and the Band of Twenty faced a daunting gauntlet. The enemy had camped for the night right between them and their goal. There was no way around, so a direct confrontation was necessary. The Band formed a circle around the Alliance. Jeremy stayed by Jesse’s side to protect and assist her. Matt was on the right with Steve handgun safes on the left. General Hammon led in the front. The plan was to attack the center and try to break through before the enemy could react. The wounded would be brought to Jesse. They would move only as fast as Jesse and Jeremy could get their work done. As the initial confrontation handgun safes began, Jeremy was surprised by two things. First, they were able to take the enemy by surprise. Second, there were no men in the army they faced. Only Torron’s monsters fought them. Although he was relieved they would not be killing men, he dreaded facing these hideous monsters. The initial charge was quite effective against the unprepared creatures. The Band of Twenty lunged into a wall of Torron’s soldiers and almost made it completely through on the handgun safes first thrust. As they fought, the wounded were brought to Jesse and Jeremy.
Once armored, the only place an arrow can penetrate to kill the creature is a small slit in the armor behind the head, at the point where the head and neck come together—an impossible shot, considering this creature is always moving forward. In most cases, you can’t get behind it to take the shot. All five of these monsters are also ravenous carnivores, and when time permits, they take every opportunity to feast on the prey they have killed. They are very territorial and at times will turn on each other if they feel threatened. Wow! Your knowledge of these creatures is extensive, Jeremy said. Well, most of the information about them comes from myths, stories told over the years. But watching them and fighting them over the last few days has confirmed the myths. They are very tough. You must be careful. Jesse and the Alliance continued the discussion. Eventually the talk turned into battle plans for the morning. The plan had them starting before the sun came up, so they quickly found a place to sleep and settled in for a short nap. Jesse’s mind was racing too fast for her to sleep right away, despite being tired. I saved these men. I really saved them, she thought. They gave themselves a name: the Band of Twenty. Is this my destiny? Is this what I’m here for? I also killed a tree. I’m having a hard time controlling this new power, the power to kill. Which is it? Am I a healer, or am I a killer? Jesse began to fall asleep. She smiled at the thought of the Band of Twenty. Good Plan, Wrong Day One of the soldiers woke Jesse, and she woke the others of the Alliance. She was apprehensive about the plan. It seemed too simple. There were only a few enemy soldiers between them and the river. The Band of Twenty would take care of them easily, and once across the river, there would be no delay in getting to King Aagaard. It was almost too easy, given the intense battle of the day before. If it worked, the Alliance would retrieve its first Symbol. They would end the fighting and be back in the Safe Haven before dusk.
They are quite hairy, almost furry. They look like little fuzz balls and appear to be harmless. A closer look reveals sharp fangs and talons. They carry no weapons, depending solely on close-contact fighting. In close quarters, there are no better warriors. They are quick and deadly. If they have time, they will eat their prey on the spot. Well, ‘eat their prey’ is not quite right. They are only interested in the brain. Jesse wasn’t the only one who grimaced at that. Eaglecrones are sometimes referred to as Firebirds. These creatures are a cross between a giant eagle and a dragon. They have a wingspan of more than twenty feet. You have to watch out for their long talons; they are deadly. They are quick in the sky and can breathe fire like a dragon. Even though their fiery breath does not come out as wide as a dragon’s, they have pinpoint accuracy. Their biggest advantage is their quickness. Their ability to maneuver through the air makes them a difficult target. Killing them is nearly impossible. They have a keen sense of hearing and use this skill much like a bat uses it. They can dodge arrows by hearing them approach and then by making swift changes in direction, avoiding the shot. There is no need for armor. Their feathers are literally layers of impenetrable armor. The only two vulnerable places are the eyes and mouth. They lost two of those a couple of hours ago, Steve said. Really? You killed two Eaglecrones? Hammon was incredulous. Well, Matt did. He pointed at Matt, who actually blushed. He can tell you about it later. What’s the last monster you can tell us about? Last but not least are the Pagandorfs. They are dragons. There are no friendly Pagandorfs. They are pure evil. Their only goal in life is to serve Torron. They will never, ever yield to her enemies. For them, it is either victory or death. There is no trusting them, no taming them, and no training them. Any good or decent creature is by nature their enemy. They do not need to be told who is good or who is virtuous. They can sense the virtue in any living creature, and when recognized, that creature instantly becomes a mortal enemy. However, this fire-breathing monster is vulnerable. They are outfitted with armor to protect their chest, neck, and head.
There is no other explanation. Tears spilled out of his weary eyes. Thank you. Jesse gave a kind smile to the old man and turned away. I wish Zach were here. I shouldn’t have brought him. I promised Anna he would be fine. She grew angry with herself. Jesse felt a hand on her other shoulder. Did you mention Anna and Zach? Jesse turned to find that the hand on her shoulder belonged to her last patient. She looked into those deep blue eyes, and her rage melted immediately. Yes, she answered. Zach was the boy who showed us a shortcut through the swamp so we could save a few days. That’s my brother! You brought him here? He slumped to the ground. Jeremy helped him to sit against a wall next to his father and explained the whole story to them. Jesse listened from across the cave. She couldn’t bring herself to be near Paul and Oliver while Jeremy told of her failure. He talked of Zach’s bravery and the help he had given. More important, Jeremy emphasized the valuable time saved because of Zach’s help. Oliver looked around the cave. Jesse knew he was thinking that all those men would have died if not for Zach’s time-saving shortcut. Jeremy added at the end, He is a true hero. I know he’s still alive. If they wanted him dead, they wouldn’t have carried him away; they would have killed him on the spot. Jesse knew that was meant as much for her as it was for Oliver and Paul. Then Jeremy turned to Jesse. You can’t blame yourself or Steve or anyone else. We’re going to go on the assumption that he’s alive. We will find him and return him to his mother, as we promised. Who are you? Paul asked. We’re just kids, Jeremy replied, on an adventure. Paul grabbed Jeremy by the shirt and pushed him hard against the dirt wall of the cave. Don’t try to play with me. Who are you? She has some kind of magic. He jerked his head in Jesse’s direction. Is she a witch? Is she good or evil? She healed us, but she also says it’s her fault my boy was taken. Matt tried to calm him down. Paul, she healed you and the others. Isn’t that a sign of someone who is good? Letting go of Jeremy, Paul turned his attention to Matt.
A couple of patrols will do. We have a major battle tomorrow, and we will need all of our strength to win the day. Tyrus stared down Tornek. If you don’t capture the Alliance tomorrow morning first thing, we could lose the day no matter how the battle for Kaiman goes. Capture them! The general accepted the challenge and saluted his king. Tomorrow will be a great day for victory, my lord. He turned and walked out of the tent. Steve regained consciousness just as Matt approached. Oh, man, what happened? A firebird got him. Matt slumped on the ground with his face in his hands. No! No, no, no. Oh, man, I can’t believe we lost him. Steve pulled himself free of Paul and tried to stand up, but he fell back to his knees. That little hanger-on is going to haunt me until the day I die, Steve thought. We should have left him home with his mother. That’s it! It’s all her fault. She let him come with us. She’s the mom, and moms know better, right? Jesse and Jeremy ran up, looking around. What happened? they said together. Where is Zach? Jesse added. Steve looked up at Jesse standing over him. That thing came out of nowhere. I didn’t even see it! His eyes pleaded with Jesse for understanding. We didn’t have a chance! She blew up at him. You lost him? You let him get killed? You never had your heart in this, and you never will. You’re a loser! Wait, wait, wait. Steve stood up. We don’t know that he’s dead. Jesse got right up in Steve’s face, nose to nose. Really? What? You think they’re playing pool in some local bar? Do you think this is just a game, that we’re not really here? They’re probably torturing him right now just to find us. Jesse, back off! Matt said as he stepped between them. Back off? Back off? He just killed Zach. She pushed past Matt to get back in Steve’s face. I told you to keep him with you! Steve could see her eyes changing color from blue to deep green, the orange center beginning to form. Steve backed away and held up his hands to block Jesse’s wrath.
He knocked his head hard on a large rock and lay still. When he fell, Paul rolled over on top of him. Zach got back to his feet and tried to get Steve freed from beneath his father. Just as it looked as if he would get him free, all three Eaglecrones swooped down again. One grabbed Zach by the shoulder with its talons and started to carry him off, but Zach worked his way free and fell to the ground, landing on a large boulder. He got up and limped back toward Steve. He must have hurt his leg in the fall. Matt was almost there. All three Eaglecrones were taking turns trying to grab Zach, who was dodging them as best he could. Where is my bow? Matt looked around. Oh, crap! I left it with the wounded soldiers. It had gotten tangled in one of the soldiers’ armor, so he had taken it off and left it there. He was not without a weapon, though. Matt quickly pulled out his sling and dumped the contents of the leather pouch onto a flat rock nearby. The red, blue, green, and purple stones spread out over the surface of the rock. He looked up to see Zach disappearing into the night sky. The other two Eaglecrones were going after Steve again. Without looking, Matt grabbed the closest two stones, blue and red, put them both into the sling together, and whirled the weapon over his head as the Eaglecrones made their final dive. The stones screamed through the air. Matt directed them to the targets flying toward Steve. Each left a glowing trail the color of the stone. The red stone hit first. The Eaglecrone burst into flame with a deafening sound, and the deep red fireball lit up the sky for several seconds. Only a second later, the blue stone hit its target. A second booming explosion erupted into a deep blue shock wave that spread out in all directions. The first bird fell out of the sky in a ball of flames. The second was instantly frozen solid. It hit the ground hard and shattered into a million pieces. This feeling is stronger than ever. They must be close. Tyrus walked to the opening in his tent. Remember, General Tornek, the Alliance is very, very close. You need to remain vigilant. They are likely to be in this very valley. They heard a great explosion from across the valley. Tyrus and Tornek looked in the direction of the explosion and saw a fireball falling from the sky, followed by a bright blue flash. A couple of minutes later, an Eaglecrone flew into the camp and dropped a young boy at the door of King Tyrus’s tent. The guards tied the boy’s hands, put a rope around his neck, and led him into the king’s tent. Tyrus examined the boy. He limped, and his left shoulder drooped. Blood streamed down his left arm and dripped from his fingertips. Who are you, boy? The boy didn’t move a muscle. Who are you, boy? Tyrus repeated.
My father is Paul Farthington, and my brother is Oliver. Do you know if they are dead or alive? No, but they were fighting with General Hammond’s brigade. We were hit hard in the afternoon, and most of us were killed. You didn’t die, Zach said. No, but I should have. Zach headed out of the cave again and said over his shoulder, Until I see their dead bodies, they’re alive. Jesse watched the determined boy as he disappeared into the night. She motioned to Steve and Matt and said, You go with him. Keep him safe. This kid never stops, Matt thought as he and Steve caught up with Zach. Jesse made an impossible promise to his mother. I fear we can no longer guarantee his safety. Let’s split up. We can cover more ground, Matt suggested. Zach, you’re in the middle, and we need to keep you in sight. They soon found many wounded and dying men left in the grassy fields of the Kaiman Valley. Even though they continued their initial mission to find Zach’s dad and brother, they began dragging the wounded back to the cave, where Jesse and Jeremy worked to heal them. Matt asked Jesse, How are you doing? Is everything okay? Yeah, Jesse answered. When Jeremy puts his arms around me, my healing powers get stronger. The healing goes much faster, and I’m not dizzy anymore. That’s good. There will be more coming, Matt said as he left. They widened the search, and they were soon too far away from the cave to keep dragging people back there. Let’s move them under those trees, Matt said. We can get Jesse and Jeremy to come out here. Matt and Steve were bringing another soldier to the trees when they heard Zach in the distance. I found them! I found them! They’re alive! Matt and Steve saw Zach about twenty yards away. They went over there and pulled Zach’s brother, Oliver, to the trees. Steve said to Matt, You go and get Jesse and Jeremy and bring them here. Jesse can do her thing. Matt agreed and left. Steve and Zach went back to get Zach’s father, Paul. Matt looked back and saw Steve and Zach about fifty yards away, picking up Paul. Steve picked him up by his shoulders, and Zach picked up his legs. With his super strength, Steve didn’t really need Zach’s help, but he knew it made the boy feel better. Matt was about to turn toward the cave again when an Eaglecrone swooped in for an attack. He yelled out to Steve, but he was too far away, and they didn’t hear him. He ran back to help them, but he couldn’t get there in time. The initial hit came as a surprise and knocked Steve to the ground.