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.
We’ll never make a difference. It’ll take about one minute for them to kill this Alliance. They said we could die. Why push it? Well, we’ll get as close as we can, Steve said. Matt looked at Jesse. Are you okay to move forward? Are you kidding? I’m not going anywhere! Jesse stood up and moved back toward the trees. Jeremy followed and put a hand on her shoulder. We don’t really have a choice. No! No! You’re wrong; we have a choice. I have a choice, and I’m not going. I’m going back to the Safe Haven. Remember what they said? We could die! Steve walked up to Jesse. You’ve got to get your act together, he said, poking a finger into her chest every time he said you.We’re going, and you’re going with us. I want to get back home, and the only way home is to get that Symbol and move on. No, I’m not going! With that, she wrapped her arms around the trunk of a beautiful oak tree and held on tightly. Steve grabbed her arm and tried to pry her loose. Let go! Jesse thought that Steve’s superior strength would easily pull her arms free, but to her surprise, she was able to hold on even tighter. He tugged again on her arm. She scrunched her eyebrows together. She was determined to hang on to that tree. Steve stepped back as he noticed her demeanor change. She got a determined, almost evil look on her face, and her eyes began to change. Her blue eyes turned green, then orange. She is a witch, Steve thought. She is really a witch. The orange glow continued to intensify. Jesse looked straight at Steve and said, I told you! I . . . am . . . not . . . going! With that, she tightened her grip on the tree. Steve looked up at the oak as it shuddered and shook. In a span of about five seconds, the leaves turned black and dropped off. Trails of smoke seeped slowly from the ends of every dead branch. As another sunset shone on the field of battle, King Tyrus felt disappointment about his lack of victory. He met with his generals to plan the next day’s battle. In the middle of a sentence, Tyrus stopped and stood erect. Ah, what is that I feel? The Alliance is close, and they are using their power. Torron told me about this feeling. I must end this tomorrow. General Tornek asked, What is it? They are here. They are finally here. The king moved to the entrance to the tent and gazed into the distance. This is very good news, because if they are here, there is no doubt that the Symbol is here. They are out there somewhere, probably in that direction. He pointed. Who is out there? Is another army coming to help the Kaimanites? General Tornek sounded a little annoyed that he did not already know about this new danger. No, no, not an army. The Alliance is here. We must keep them away from Kaiman Castle. General Tornek asked, What is this Alliance? Why was I not informed of this danger? The king turned on Tornek, annoyance showing on his face. I was not sure they would even be here, but now that they are close, we must guard against them.