As they stared at the small blue dragon, they became increasingly aware that none of them were moving; or breathing for that matter. Every culture had dragons in their lore, but the histories of the daemon knights were a little more thorough in their explanations of these mythical beasts. They were daemons. Incredibly rare daemons, but daemons nonetheless. Sadly, the only one on the team who had bothered to read the histories was Marnie.
“I thought they were supposed to be myths.” Angel said in a tense whisper.
“I thought they were extinct,” came Prolier’s reply.
“Well it doesn’t matter what you thought,” Marnie said, “there is one standing in front of us. What do we do?”
They stood and thought for a moment, but they were interrupted by the sounds of clapping. Their eyes shot around and landed on a middle aged man walking from the trees.
“I’m impressed. You actually heard her through all the noise of your travels. She’s usually very quiet, but it seems that the idea of chasing first years has made her a bit complacent.”
The dragon shied her head away at the reprimand.
“The question I’m asking myself at this point is why first years were sent on an advanced third year mission.”
“How do you-” Prolier started before Lethen elbowed him in the ribs.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Lethen asked the mysterious individual.
“Ah, the half-breed. Who would’ve thought that you would be the one to lead the team? I certainly wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the fact that you have the coveted earth-swimming gift. That was a stroke of luck wasn’t it? Of all the people to end up with such a potent ability, it had to be the damned half-breed.”
Lethen stood tall against the insults. “That’s not an answer to my question. Who are you and what do you want with us. Clearly you know more about us than we know about you, so how about you fill us in.”
The man looked inconvenienced by Lethen’s words. “I’m terribly sorry. I cannot tell you who I am, but I can tell you that your presence has not gone unnoticed. I mean you no harm, I’m just here out of pure curiosity. You’d be surprised how fast word travels from Hikari. It may be one of the most prestigious daemon knight academies in the world, but it’s also the more porous. Anyone with an ear to the ground knows everything that goes on there within ten minutes of it happening. I know that you are the half-breed who has somehow gotten into Hikari, and that you have come by the earth-swimming ability. I also know that while untrained, you have been able to use it to your advantage in your trials. How am I doing so far?
Lethen bared his teeth at the man. “You seem to know a lot about me, but why have you followed us?”
“As I said, I’m here out of curiosity. Once I heard that you were planning a mission into Russia, I made sure I was at the most logical crossing point. As I expected, you entered Russia from Mongolia. What I didn’t expect is the amount of noise you made doing so. Perhaps Angus has lost his touch. Either way, you seem to have evaded the border guards, but what are you to do now? You are minus one sensei and I’m am far from the most dangerous thing you might meet out here. You do know where you’re headed don’t you?”
The time for pretense was long past. Lethen decided to be honest to the man that clearly knew more of their mission than even they did. “We’re going to investigate illegal daemon farming.”
“But do you know what that really means?”
Lethen was brought up short.
“Clearly not. You are planning to enter land that contains illegally raised daemons. I don’t know if you are aware, but livestock, especially of such a volatile nature, requires a great deal of land. This land surrounds their compound and stretches a fair distance in every direction. Are you starting to get the picture now?”
Renala grabbed Lethen’s arm. The look in her eyes meant she knew what he didn’t. “We are moving through lands filled with wild, unbound daemons.”
The man erupted in a hearty belly laugh. “Give that girl a cookie. I would’ve expected no less from a daughter of the Dunglass clan. Your family always were among the most astute of the Hikari regulars. You are absolutely right. You are soon to enter a daemon farm, which of course means there are daemons there. While these daemons may not be entirely loyal to their owners, they are very territorial. If you move into the wrong area, you may find yourself faced with something you’d rather not be fighting. I have no doubt of your martial prowess, but this will not be a fight between honorable daemon knights. This will be a fight for survival between barely trained younglings and vicious wild animals. Can you handle that?”
“Do we have a choice?” Lethen asked.
“There is always choice, though the options may not be as clear cut as you would like them to be. I, for example, can no longer be called a daemon knight. I am considered a rogue. Does that make me evil or a bad person? Who knows. But I will never regret my decision to leave that life and go out on my own. There are those who consider me a villain and those who consider me a hero. Either way I don’t care. All of my choices since I left that life have been my own. Perhaps you five should consider who makes your decisions for you.”
“If you mean us no harm,” Prolier said, “why are you stopping us? Why show your face at all?”
The man smiled. “I was impressed that you even detected me. That’s a good sign for your life expectancy. If you can hear us, you should be able to steer clear of most other problematic enemies. I cannot say whether it will help against wild daemons though, especially considering that the half-breed’s earth-swimming daemon came from here. Who knows what might be lurking around every corner, or perhaps under it. However you choose to look at this meeting just remember that you are in a precarious situation. Have you ever stopped to think why Angus might’ve brought you here?”
Lethen bristled. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“He has voluntarily led you into a foreign country full of wild daemons for the apparent purpose of making you stronger. Who will benefit more from this, you or him? If his 1C team becomes the next 2A team, he gets a bonus. He might even get an award. Can you imagine to kudos he’ll receive by turning a team of randoms into the most powerful second years? Right now there are murmurs of your potential power. If he proves that you’re the strongest, they will become shouts. Why do you think he is a first year teacher? He was offered a place as a fourth year sensei and he gave it up. Much more glory in training newbies to be cold blooded killers.”
“You are full of shit!” Renala shouted. The fact that she raised her voice about a whisper carried more force than her words. “Angus will do his best by us and we won’t let you lead us astray.”
The man bowed in deference to her words. “I apologize miss Dunglass. I didn’t mean to offend. I just wanted you to understand that there are politics involved rather than simply making you the best team you can be. That is one of the unfortunate side effects of being at such a prestigious school. Everyone is after results. They don’t care if you’re ready, they simply throw you in and watch. If you sink, you weren’t worthy. If you swim, you deserve to be there. The reason Hikari produces the best daemon knights is because they separate the wheat from the chaff as soon as possible. If you can survive Hikari, you can probably survive anything.”
Lethen stood tall as he responded. “Then I guess it’s good that we got in. We will be the survivors. We will be the ones to show that daemon knights truly can protect the world.”
“I have no doubt that you’ll try, but how many daemon knights come into Hikari with that same idea, and how many of them are dead? You’ll get no argument from me that daemon knights are a force of good in this world, but just like any positive institution, corruption slowly creeps in. In fact, I have it on good authority that there is someone in Hikari right now who is aligned with exactly the people you’re trying to find.” The man stood and watched the students before cocking his head to the side. “Ah, no reaction at all. It seems you are all aware of the situation, and yet you still side with them. You are a most illogical bunch.”
Lethen stood firm. “Just because there are a few bad apples doesn’t mean you need to discard the entire bunch. That’s like saying a few crooked cops are a good enough reason to disband all police forces.”
The man smiled. “You are smarter than I would’ve expected, and you are quite right. But you also have to consider that even those who aren’t evil may be taking orders from those who are. I heard about your epic defeat of Silva and his men, the very same people who run the farm you’re heading toward. Does it not bother you that the school you love so much just recently hired the same men for a test? Even if you don’t understand the irony of that, consider that these are men that your leaders are in contact with. Men who, very recently, your beloved academy was allied with. Do you really think that Hikari needs to send students out into the field to discover their habits?”
“Are you telling us that we are being given over to our enemies?” Renala asked.
“Not you perhaps. Remember that this mission was not intended for you. It was given to you on special request from the man who stands to gain the most if his team can complete a mission that’s out of their league, but he wasn’t the one who assigned it’s rank.” The man let this sink in for a moment and watched the students. “By the expressions on your face I think you’re starting to understand just how terrible this situation is. As I alluded to before, everyone has their own agendas. Someone, or perhaps multiple people, have plans that don’t see into the best interests of the daemon knights program. I would wager a kingly sum that whomever this mission was intended for was meant to meet a ghastly end during it. Don’t be surprised if this is an ambush.”
The man turned and walked to his daemon.
“Wait,” Prolier said. “You can’t just drop this kind of information on us and leave. If this mission was meant to kill third years, how are we meant to survive it?”
The stranger mounted the dragon. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and I truly hope that I’m wrong, but I don’t think you are meant to survive it.” He gave them a small salute before taking to the skies.
“What do we do now?” Renala asked.
Lethen turned to face her. “The only thing we can do. We meet back up with Angus and hope that he has some answers.”