Just as Gabrithon had described, there was only a narrow path beside the river that led into the tunnel. The water was flowing faster now that we were at the source, and I was worried about falling in. I could not swim, and the current was so fast that I knew I would drown unless they caught me quickly. Elthinor was much less nervous than I was. In fact, he seemed excited. On the other hand, Gabrithon was obviously extremely uncomfortable about being so close to the forbidden place he had grown up hearing about. His tail was swishing and he was shuffling his front feet, stomping the ground, one after the other. He finally looked away from the rocky structure and leveled his eyes on me and Elthinor.
“This is where we shall part. I shall wait for you here,” Gabrithon said, backing up a little. “Or maybe back at the camp. Yes, back at camp.” He nodded his head a little too hard, obviously eager to get as far from this place as possible.
Elthinor nodded, and when he spoke, his voice was full of sympathy. “We shall see you there.”
The Centaur turned, quickly trotting away, looking back over his shoulder at the half-circle of rocks with a frightened expression. He disappeared into the forest, and I swallowed hard as we turned back to look at the tunnel. My eyes were immediately drawn to the water rushing out of the tunnel. The bottom of the riverbed couldn’t be seen; the river was simply too deep. Elthinor placed a hand on my shoulder and I jumped, my gaze leaping from the water to his face.
“You look scared,” he commented, trying to sound casual.
“Yes, well, I can’t swim,” I mumbled quietly, embarrassed at the admission. “I mean, we had a stream by our house, but it was too shallow to learn how to swim in.”
Elthinor looked surprised. “Is that all? Well, when we get the chance, I shall teach you how, but for now, be wary of every step. If you like, I shall go first to show you the slick spots.”
I smiled, relieved he had not laughed at my inexperience. “That would be perfect,” I replied.
“Very well then, on we go!” Elthinor said dramatically.
He set out, each step filled with purpose. I followed, placing my feet exactly where Elthinor’s had been but still getting more and more frightened of falling in the water. The light quickly became dimmer, and the echoing sound of the rushing river assaulted my ears. There was no question about my fear when I started to panic. My breathing became shallow, and I grabbed the wall for support as my legs grew weak. The place where I set my hand was slippery, not helping my state of mind. I was sinking to my knees when strong hands grabbed me.
“Fily!” Elthinor exclaimed in a low voice, sounding alarmed.
“I don’t want to drown!” I moaned, looking into his eyes, hoping to find purchase on reality again.
“Hush, you shan’t drown. Hold my hand and we will be out soon. See the light? We are almost there.”
I clutched his hand desperately, afraid that if I let go, I would fall. I forced myself to focus on each step individually and began to pray mentally that I would not fall in. Before I knew it, light leaped up into my eyes and I looked up to see one of the most beautiful sights that had ever graced my eyes. My first impression was that it was bigger than it looked from the outside. Next, I noticed the wide grassy sweep of land with a few trees here and there. Many flowers of all colors bloomed around the edges where the grass met the bottom of the rock formation. In the middle, next to the cliff edge was a lake, shining blue in the sun, fed by a waterfall that tumbled from a hole on the cliff side. Something moved beside the lake just as the sun went behind a cloud, and I reached instinctively for my bow.
I inched closer. It was certainly alive, whatever it was. The sun decided to show herself again, and I gasped. It was a Human with sleek black hair down to her shoulders and naturally olive toned skin, darker than mine by a few shades. I would know that form anywhere.
My mother looked up and made an unhappy muffled sound. I hurried to her, embracing her before I did anything else. Wiping my tears of joy from my eyes, I pulled my knife to slice the cloth gag away. She gasped and shook her head as if trying to discourage me.
“Filynora! What are you doing here?” she asked, her blue eyes searching mine for answers.
“I came after you,” I replied with a smile, cutting the ropes binding her hands and feet.
“You must leave before they come back!”
“Who? The Aswangs?” I asked, trying to pull her to her feet.
She balked, refusing to stand. “You know their names?”
“Tikujar and Rattuin? Yes.”
“Hush child. You must go. You and your Elf friend. They want to capture you!”
“I know that, but why?” I asked, exasperated at her unwillingness to cooperate.
“It is because of your father. He is—”
There was an ear-shattering shriek of fear that sounded more animal than Human, and the clatter of hooves as Gabrithon suddenly came charging out of the tunnel into the clearing, his newly finished bow out with an arrow nocked. I brought my bow around and pulled out an arrow, aiming at the tunnel. The sun disappeared behind suddenly thick clouds again, and the temperature dropped sharply as the two aforementioned creatures flew through it. They stopped for a single moment to look around then flew straight at me, claws outstretched, teeth flashing.
I dove to the side, so they missed me by a narrow margin. I rolled, stopping on my stomach, and shoved myself up with my elbows, firing an arrow as they turned to face me in the air. Gabrithon loosed his own arrow, and we watched as they both cried out in shock as the arrows struck them, even though they were nonlethal hits. They tore the arrows out of their flesh and flung them back at us. I dodged and scowled at them, unease rushing through me at the black substance that dripped from the fresh wounds. It looked unnatural.
“Elthinor!” I shouted, turning to look at him for help as the Aswangs shrieked again.
“My bow is at the camp! Bring them to the ground if you can!” he called as he drew his sword, his eyes locked on the creatures.
As they began to descend again, I sprinted toward the Elf, ducking beneath the gleaming sword. The two creatures shrieked and pulled up, but not before the shorter Aswang, Rattuin, was slashed by the blade, but it was another nonlethal hit; they were just too fast. She wailed in anger and pain and flew high above the reach of Elthinor, Tikujar following. As they glanced down, I suddenly realized that I had left my mother alone. I whistled sharply and pointed at her. The two creatures were heading at her, and Ember rushed from where he had been crouching as he followed my command. He got to her just in time and burst into flames, growling at the now cowering creatures as they flew up again. Gabrithon pulled out another arrow and aimed it at them and stood at the ready even as one of the Aswangs started speaking.
“Come, Strangeling! Come with us, and we shall leave your friends alone,” Tikujar said.
“No! Whoever your Masters are, I don’t wish to meet them!” I shouted, keeping a steady hand.
“Come now, girl. You can’t hope to escape the forces our Masters shall send to capture you,” Rattuin growled.
“Yes, they will be too numerous for you and much too powerful, especially for a mere girl to beat by herself!” Tikujar said.
“Not if she is backed by Jesiah and the Father!” my mother said sternly, her eyes gleaming.
I frowned for a few moments, confused about who Jesiah was before it hit me. Could the man in white be this Jesiah? Was that his name? I had never asked if he had a name before. It had not seemed necessary. Then a more important question popped into my head. How did my mother know him, and why had she never shared it with me? I could tell my expression showed my thoughts when Rattuin and Tikujar laughed.
“Oh, Estelle,” Tikujar said in a jovial tone. “It seems as if you have kept much of your life away from your Strangeling daughter. You haven’t even told her the truth, have you?”
“What truth? And why do you keep calling me Strangeling?” I snapped, glaring at the Aswang.
They simply laughed again, and my mother actually looked a little ashamed. I watched in shock as my own mother turned her face away from me, moving away. I began walking toward her, ready to demand she explain whatever they were talking about even in the midst of battle, when Tikujar dove for me yet again. I ducked and fired an arrow up at her. She dodged it, changing angles so suddenly that I could not react fast enough. I cried out as I was suddenly scooped up in her talons and carried up effortlessly. Ember charged for me, and Rattuin grabbed my now unprotected mother, who let out a shout of pain. I noticed blood welling up on her face from fierce-looking scratches.
“Mother!” I gasped, moving to fire an arrow.
My shoulder was pierced by four sharp talons in the front and one in the back. They sunk in deep and I screamed, doing what they wanted, dropping my bow, which fell with a splash into the lake. I heard three voices simultaneously call my name, so I forced my eyes open, gritting my teeth, fighting off the pain. I looked at my mother with tears in my eyes, knowing I could get away, and she could not. She nodded at me, and I knew that she knew, too. I reached down to my hip and jerked my knife out before digging it into Tikujar’s shriveled flesh between her ribs. The horrid creature shrieked and dropped me. I fell farther than I thought I would, slamming hard into the lake’s surface.
The impact took my breath away, squeezing it out of me into little bubbles that floated up to the surface. I sank like a stone, deeper and deeper into the chilly waters, my knife still in my hand; I had pulled it down and out of Tikujar when she had dropped me. I moved slowly through the water and put it back in my sheath, out of habit more than anything, as I reached the bottom. I was starting to see blackness on the edge of my vision when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I reached forward and grabbed the floating leather strap, wrapping it tightly around my wrist. Just as my vision went completely black, I felt strong hands grab my wounded shoulder and I used the last air in my lungs to scream in pain.
As I sat up gasping for air, I saw the strange trees and the man in white standing beside me. I looked into his intense caramel brown eyes and the name my mother had uttered came unbidden to my lips.
“Jesiah,” I said, and I knew immediately that was his name. It just so naturally fit him.
“Yes, precious one?” he asked, his lips curving into a smile.
“I’m drowning. Is it all over for me?” I asked, so calm that it surprised me. I had expected to be much more panicked.
“No, child. Not yet. You have much to do still,” he said warmly. “Now rest your weary mind and body. I shall speak with you again soon.”
“Wait! Does prayer work? Am I doing it right?” I asked, insecurity coloring my tone.
“The Father hears you, Filynora. He hears and knows all. He loves it when His children talk to Him. It is only sad that so few do in these dark days. As for your second question, yes, you are doing it right. God wishes for you to talk to him as you would anybody else but to also keep in mind that he is holy and perfect.” The background began melting, and I felt my mind being sucked into a deeper sleep. Before I left, Jesiah smiled at me, kissed my forehead, and whispered softly into my ear. “I love you, child.”