One morning, Elthinor decided to come along, and we walked to the market in silence; every time we were together in public, he would not talk or look at me. I didn’t mind. I understood all too well the pain of being different. The morning was cool thanks to the thick grey clouds covering the sun, and the village wasn’t buzzing with activity like it usually was. I was glad for the lack of crowds but uneasy. Something doesn’t feel right, I thought as we walked down the now familiar path to the marketplace.
We got to the market, and I was looking at some blueberries, trying to remember whether or not we needed some, when I smelled a musty scent, like that of great age, and I shuddered. Fear filled my heart, and I stopped breathing as I slowly turned. There was a shadow beside a house that was too deep. As soon as I directly looked at it, two pairs of sickly yellow eyes appeared, staring at me. The memory of the first time I saw those eyes overwhelmed me, and I screamed, dropping the basket and backing into the trader’s booth. All the Elves around us glared at me. Elthinor was by my side in an instant, grabbing my arm.
“What is it, Filynora? What’s wrong?” he demanded, his eyes staring into mine.
I did not have the chance to answer as a screech went up that made all the Elves cry out and look toward the noise. For the first time in my life, I saw the creatures that haunted some of my darkest nightmares. Their hair was pure black and stringy, framing narrow, dark grey faces twisted in anger that seemed permanent. They had fangs that were covered in green saliva that oozed down their chins. Their bodies were abnormally thin, like their bones were about to pop out of their skin. They were proved female by the look of their chests, which were covered by tattered black cloth that also wrapped around their waists. Giant bat-like wings sprouted menacingly from their backs and they flexed their claw-like fingers. Their presence caused an odd chill to fall, making the morning even cooler, and the smell of a decaying animal filled the air as they drew closer. But their most disturbing feature was their revolting yellow eyes, which glowed with a disturbing light. I saw fire burning behind those eyes. And they looked right at me.
“Come here, Strangeling!” the taller one hissed.
Elthinor’s eyes were wide and he grabbed my arm and began dragging me back to the house, raising a call: Enemies! Darkness! Fight! I ran beside him, and he practically threw me into the house. He was breathing heavily, his eyes wild with fright.
“Father! Grandfather!” he called. “Aswangs in the village!”
There was a scream of fear from Melanari as she and Selaniam, Elthinor’s mother, hurried into the room. The two Elf-men hurried in with swords. Aloron placed a hand on Elthinor’s shoulder when the lad came back in with his own sword.
“You three stay here,” Gilronin told us then they rushed out.
I ran to the window while the other two huddled back. Many Elves were out there, shouting at each other, trying to drive the creatures back. The Aswangs, as Elthinor had called them, were steadily making their way toward this house. Toward me. I looked back at the two Elf-lasses behind me and knew that they could not fight. I might not have ever had the chance to fight before, but I knew I could if I had to. I also knew I could not put these two Elves in danger just so I could pretend it wasn’t me they were after.
I turned and ran into Elthinor’s room, heading for his bow and arrows. The bow was heavier than I was used to and the quiver didn’t fit right, but I had no time to find my own; my new one had been confiscated, despite my intense objections. I was still displeased about it. As soon as the quiver was situated, I ran to the front door, but I was stopped by a pair of pale, delicate hands.
“Let go of me!” I exclaimed, turning to look at Melanari.
“You can’t go out there!” she said, her voice high with fear and her pink and purple eyes wide with terror. “We just need to stay in here. The males will take care of it! Females are not trained to fight! They are!”
“I have to go!” I growled and tore out of her grasp. “You are in danger and it is because of me.”
I ran outside and was immediately assaulted by somebody yelling for me to go back inside. I ignored him and ran through the village, away from our house. As soon as that thought ran through my head, I realized that my time in the Elven village made me feel like I had a home, but the thought quickly disappeared as I climbed into a tree then skittered up on top of one of the bigger houses. I took a deep breath and whistled.
“Oy!” I shouted. “Here I am!”
All eyes suddenly turned to me, including the Aswangs’. The Elves were dismayed; I guess they were used to me and were ready to defend me. The Aswangs were pleased to see me. As they took off into the air, I quickly nocked an arrow, aimed, and fired. They were faster than I had anticipated. I struck the shorter one in her right shoulder and she shrieked in pain, but they kept coming. I slid off the roof of the house and ran, not having any idea what I was going to do. Along the outskirts of one side of Ellavendir that I had never been to before, I dove behind a boulder, quieting my breathing as much as I was able. I turned and peeked through a small slit in the boulder, watching the two creatures fly over the last house and pause.
“We know you are there, Strangeling,” one said in her scratchy voice.
“Yes, we can smell you!” the other Aswang laughed.
“Now come out like a good little Strangeling—”
“—so we may take you to our Masters for disposal.”
I shook my head. “No!”
“Then we shall—”
“—take you by force!”
I heard them shriek and watched them dive toward me. I closed my eyes, braced myself, stood, turned, and swiftly fired an arrow. They were higher in the air than I thought they would be, but I got the taller one through the foot; it froze and clawed at the arrow, crying out as it removed it. I ran again during their distraction, ducking back into the village. I turned a corner and nearly slammed into Elthinor. He grabbed me immediately even as recognition dawned on his face.
“What do you think you are doing?” he hissed as he pulled me against the house, and the roof overhang hid us as the Aswangs flew over us, searching for me.
“Protecting your mother and sister,” I whispered back. “They’re after me!”
“What?” he asked, his brow wrinkled in confusion. “Why would they be after you?”
Looking into his eyes and trying desperately to convince him of what I knew to be true, my voice trembled as I spoke. “I don’t know, but they are, Elthinor! They must be.”
Something in my demeanor seemed to convince him and he hurried me out to where I had been before. We went past the boulder, stopping in a small shadowed area surrounded by bushes and trees on three sides and a small, lonely building on the fourth. Above us was another overhung roof to shield us from the sky. He pulled me down and we crouched there breathing heavily.
“Now, why do you think they are after you?” he asked.
“I think they come to our farm every year. I-I have never actually seen them entirely before now, but those eyes…I saw them twice, and I would never forget those eyes. I think they are the creatures that dragged off my father years ago, and they may have taken my mother, too!”
Elthinor looked thoughtful for a moment. “All right. How did you keep them away all these years?”
“A bonfire,” I explained hurriedly. “They don’t like heat and light. That’s why they’re here today: the clouds are covering the sun.”
“Bonfire?” he asked. “I don’t see how we could…Wait a moment! The center of town! The marketplace! We can set the booths on fire!”
“How are we supposed to get there?” I asked. “They are watching for us from the sky!”
“We will have to run,” he said, sounding excited as his cheeks flushed. “We have to beat them. We can sneak through the Nature Beings’ enclosure! Follow me. Swiftly!”
He took off faster than I had ever seen any Human run and I followed. All of a sudden I got the rush I felt when hunting, and I felt a smile curl my lips even as I heard the shriek of the Aswangs spotting us. Elthinor leaped a tall wooden fence, much like the ones that had fenced in our Elementals, and I scrambled up and over, hitting the ground with a grunt. Elthinor pulled me to my feet and began leading me through a hilly area with sparse trees and a stream.
A familiar snippet of song stopped me in my tracks and I looked toward a tree to see Inferno chained to it. I stared at him as I realized that he must have followed me when I was on Rainstorm. Elthinor hurried back to grab my arm, but I shoved him away and took his sword out of the sheath. It was heavier than I had expected, but I ignored that and shattered the chain around the Phoenix’s leg. He squawked as he took off. Elthinor took his sword back and sheathed it again.
“What do you think you are doing?” he demanded, but I had no chance to answer.
The Aswangs dove down, but I screamed as I took off at a dead run with Elthinor beside me. We ducked through bushes and over a small stream then we both leapt the fence on the other side of the enclosure in one bound and kept moving as they swooped down at us. They tried to catch us with their claws but kept missing. There were voices coming closer to us as the rest of the Elves finally caught up, but they weren’t going to be fast enough.
Elthinor and I sprinted into the marketplace and ran for the booths. Without thinking I dove into one and Elthinor followed. Or at least he tried to. The smaller Aswang grabbed his ankle while he was in midair, lifting him up. The taller one grabbed his wrists, turned him right side up and hugged him to her body. He struggled desperately in her grip, but it was to no avail. The smaller one placed her claws against his throat and he froze, looking down at me fearfully. I saw small droplets of red start to ooze down his neck as both the horrible creatures glared at me.
“Give it up, Strangeling or else—”
“—we shall kill this Elfling!”
I decided that I could not let Elthinor die, not for me. I wasn’t worth it. I slowly stood and climbed out of the stall. Immediately the smaller one lunged forward and grabbed me, laughing victoriously. She held my arms so that I could not even use the bow, and I realized firsthand why Elthinor’s struggles had been fruitless. The Elves were gathering below us, but it was too late, just as I knew it would be.
“We always win!”
“Elthinor!” Aloron shouted as he came into our view, staring up in horror. “Filynora!”
How could I have gotten Elthinor involved in this? As the Elves began to fumble with their arrows, I noticed a streak of red and gold out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look at it. My Phoenix sat on one of the booths. The Aswang had not bothered to cover my mouth, so I uttered the only word that I could think of to save us both.
“Flaren!” I bellowed.
The Phoenix caught fire, the flames spreading to the cloth of the booth. The Aswang holding me, who happened to be right beside the fire, shrieked and dropped me, flying away from the scalding heat of the fire. I landed hard on my belly then hopped up to my feet, slinging the bow off my back and grabbing an arrow. The two creatures were leaving so I only had one shot to stop them from taking Elthinor with them. The Elves were shooting at the creatures, but the creatures were too fast. I nocked my arrow and fired, ignoring the raw heat blazing behind me.
I hit my target if not my mark, the arrow sinking into the taller one’s shoulder. She yowled and dropped Elthinor, who let out a scream of pain as he fell. I gestured for Inferno to catch him. Inferno let out a dulcet tone and put his flames out before speeding over to catch my Elven friend. He lowered the Elf gently to the ground before flitting over to sit in the middle of the fire to watch us. I immediately saw the cause of Elthinor’s cry of pain: four long gouges running across his right side. I glared up at the Aswangs who were circling me high above the fire. I pulled another arrow and fired. Then I repeated the action again and again.
“Don’t you think you’re safe!” the taller one shouted angrily as they dodged my arrows.
“We will be back!” the other one yelled. “But first—”
They both began talking at once. “If you come after us, child, you shall surely die. If you don’t, she will die!”
They threw something at me then flew off, the beating of their wings getting louder as they got farther away. I picked up the dusty object and froze, my eyes widening when I realized what it was. I bit my bottom lip and just stared at it, unable to look away and unwilling to accept what it meant. Elthinor reached up with his right hand as if to comfort me; his left hand was covered in blood from holding his wounded side
“You’re crying,” he stated softly as Aloron and Gilronin rushed over to see us. “Why?”
I held out the object that the creatures had thrown, revealing a dusty bracelet. It was turquoise and in the shape of a group of vines curled together with flowers blooming around it. It had been a gift from my father to my mother. She had never, ever taken it off except to bathe, and she always put it in a special spot where she knew she would not lose it. I wiped my tears away as the Elves surrounded us and answered Elthinor in a whisper, my voice sounding broken with my sorrow.
“They did take my mother. They are going to kill her if I don’t follow them.”
“But they will kill you if you do follow them!” he whispered desperately. “They said so themselves!”
I did not answer him as the Elves swarmed around us. Gilronin pointedly ignored me, but Aloron carefully looked at my own cuts, which I hadn’t noticed in my rush to save Elthinor, while Gilronin thoroughly examined his son. We were taken back to the house and seen to by a kind Elven doctor with designs of orange and yellow. Melanari and Selaniam were frantic and kept bringing water for me to drink. I had a feeling Elthinor was getting the same treatment I was. He was in Aloron’s room, and I was still in his room. I had hidden the bracelet before anybody could ask about it. It was the only item I had left of my mother, the rest having burned in the fire. I missed her terribly. When the excitement had died down and I was left alone to rest, I lay back against the soft pillows, hoping desperately that she was well.