Nolan was lagging behind, nursing many bruises on his arms and back and a rather large welt on his leg. It was funny and not funny at the same time. Elthinor had been unforgiving with his stick the last few nights, and the poor Human boy was in agony. He did not complain though which impressed me. It was also a relief; Elthinor was now, teasingly, asking if Nolan needed to rest instead of harping at me about it, but I knew if Nolan really needed a rest, then we would stop.
We were on our fourth day from the town. Thunderclouds hid the sun from view, and a light drizzle of rain fell. Ember, who had been frolicking around us and playfully nipping at Gabrithon’s hind legs for the past hour, suddenly let out a barking growl and leaped to my side. I had my bow up and an arrow nocked before I thought about it. I heard Elthinor’s sword come out of its sheath, and I knew that Gabrithon was at the ready too. I could feel Nolan’s nervousness as we came to a halt.
“Where are they?” I asked, anger in my voice; I hoped that we had finally found those cursed Aswangs, so we could free my mother.
Ember’s fur was standing on end, his eyes glued on the sky. I looked up and felt an angry smile curl my lips at the sight of a single Aswang. Nolan whimpered behind me.
“W-what is that thing?” he asked in a hushed whisper.
“Aswang,” I replied. “They must have a camp made nearby. Ember.” The Kindle wolf looked up at me. “Find them.”
“We’re going after them?” Nolan asked incredulously. “But I don’t know how to fight yet!”
“Then stay here. Hope they don’t spot you,” I said, spinning around and speaking in an icy voice. “Ember, find!”
He took off at a dead run, and I followed, not caring if anybody else came with me. I was glad, however, when I heard footsteps running behind me. I glanced back, surprised to see not only Gabrithon and Elthinor, but Nolan. The boy looked frightened, but it seemed he was willing to work with us. Ember ran for a good while, then, just as the others were tiring, we slowed. Just over the next hill was my mother tied up, looking filthier and more ragged than before. I felt tears of anger and disgust well up in my eyes at the two creatures that had done this to her. She had been a vibrant woman before all of this. I suddenly felt a burning hatred, for whom I wasn’t sure. I just hated the situation I found myself in, with God pulling me in one direction, and the safety of my mother in another.
I pulled away from the edge of the hill, where Elthinor and Nolan were hunkered down watching with me, and began to cry in earnest. I felt that I had chosen incorrectly, that I should have picked the scroll, but that only made me angrier, which made the tears flow faster. I was suddenly hugged, rather stiffly, by Gabrithon, who had knelt down to lie on his belly. I smiled at him; I knew that he was still fighting his culture, and I appreciated it. My mind was still in chaos, though. I could not just leave my mother, but a part of me told me to leave and head back to the mission with the scroll. A more dominant part of me told me to save her.
I listened to the more dominant part.
“We need a plan,” I said sternly, forcefully wiping away my tears. I turned to look at Elthinor and Nolan, shrugging out of Gabrithon’s hold.
“So we are really doing this?” Nolan asked, his voice shaking.
“Yes,” I said firmly. “We are doing this.”
Elthinor looked thoughtful. “We have an advantage. We are on a hilltop. They are in a valley. Our bows will come in handy.”
“We need to get them away from your mother and into the air,” Gabrithon said, fingering his bow with excitement in his eyes. “We can shoot them down.”
Almost before the words had come out of his mouth, there was a brilliant flash of lightning and a crash of thunder. Seconds later, the sky opened up and rain poured from the sky. The range of vision immediately shrank, and I let out a moan of despair. How were we supposed to shoot at them if we could not see them? As soon as I thought that there was a screech above us. We all hit the ground; Gabrithon got as low as he could without falling over onto his side, and he looked terrified that he could not get lower.
The poor Centaur was suddenly struck, claws sinking into his arm. He let out a whinny as he was dragged backward down the hill. I yelled and was up and following before I knew it. I let loose an arrow, firing blindly into the rain. By some miracle, I hit flesh, and the Aswang dropped Gabrithon, shrieking as it flew higher. I got to my friend and helped him onto his belly. He held his arm close to his body, blood visible even through the torrential downpour. I slung my backpack off my back and gave it to him.
“Stay here,” I said loud enough to be heard over the rain and thunder. “Watch this. Can you use your bow?”
Gabrithon nodded slowly. “If I must. I don’t wish to die here so I will use it, no matter how much pain it causes me. Go get your mother.”
“Watch the skies,” I said, smiling at him.
“Be careful!” Gabrithon said, his voice full of pain.
I climbed back up the hill, faintly hearing the sounds of fighting above the rain. When I got to the top, I saw Elthinor facing both of the Aswangs at once. I fired at the one coming in on his right, making the creature shriek and face me. I hit the ground and it soared over me, landing heavily behind me. I leapt up, aiming an arrow at its head. I shivered when I saw it looking directly at me; its eerie yellow eyes were visible even through the rain. I fired and the arrow missed as the Aswang—Tikujar, I noticed as it moved closer to me—ducked and lunged forward.
“Come here, Strangeling!” she screamed as she grabbed for me.
I pulled my knife and side-stepped her, lashing out with the blade and catching her left side, slicing it open. She fell to the ground and stayed there for a moment. By the time she was up, I was hurrying down the other side of the hill toward my mother. Tikujar wasn’t happy with that and she leaped into the air, swooping down toward me. She was almost there when Ember slammed into her, worrying her flesh as he brought her to the ground; he might not have been able to catch fire in the rain, but his teeth were still hot, and I could see the steam rising up from her open wounds as he bit and gnawed her ferociously.
I tried to continue running down the hill but slipped in the mud and slid down to the bottom, hitting rocks on the way down. I ignored the undoubtedly bruised muscles and scrambled to my feet, running to where I had seen my mother. She wasn’t there. I began to panic, looking around on the ground for any footprints. When I saw none, I started running back and forth, looking harder.
“Mother! Mother, where are you?!” I screamed, trying desperately to see through the torrential downpour.
A yelp of pain sounded from Ember, and I looked back only to see sheets of rain. I did not need to see to know that Ember had let go, and Tikujar was looking for me again. I was frightened and confused, and I wanted nothing more than to find my mother.
“God, please help me!” I moaned, sinking to my knees.
A hand was suddenly placed on my shoulder. I jumped up and spun around, pulling my knife to hurt those horrible Aswangs. Instead of dark grey, ugly creatures, there stood Nolan, soaked to the bone, his hair plastered to his head, his eyes looking wild and scared. As soon as our eyes met, he relaxed a little bit.
“Filynora! I got your mother! This way! Hurry!”
He led me through the rain to a bunch of bushes. There she was huddled in the middle of them. I cried out in joy as I embraced her. She stroked my hair and kissed my forehead. I pulled back, but just as I was about to speak a scream of pain pierced through the rain.
“Elthinor!” I shouted, leaping up and nocking an arrow. “You two stay here. I’ll be right back!”
I shot off, ignoring my mother’s protests, and struggled up the hill. I saw both Rattuin and Tikujar standing above Elthinor when I got to the top and I let out a strangled cry of outrage. I launched arrow after arrow as they cried out, flying high to escape my fury then shot down to the valley. I counted to five before they wailed at the loss of their prize. I expected them to fly away without her, but they did not.
They came back to me. I reached back for an arrow, but, to my horror, I was out. I backed up, my eyes wide. Just as they grabbed my arms and were about to hoist me into the sky, an arrow fired out of nowhere, striking Rattuin in the eye. Her shriek was deafening, even with the rain, and she pawed at her eye even as she rose into the air, Tikujar at her side. To my relief, Gabrithon suddenly appeared, his blue eyes fierce as he nocked another arrow and aimed.
“Leave. Before I kill you both,” he demanded.
“You will pay for this, Centaur!” Tikujar bellowed. “I swear upon the Masters that you shall pay!”
They took off, disappearing into the torrents of rain still pouring from the heavens, and Gabrithon followed them with his bow as long as he could. He let his arms down and gripped his left arm with his right, pain etched in his features. Five sharp punctures were in his arm, not as deep as it had been with my shoulder, but deep enough for me to worry. In fact, they were still bleeding. Elthinor fared little better. His shirt was in tatters on the right side and claw marks marked his skin. Looking down, I noticed that they went right over his scars from the Aswangs’ attack in Ellavendir. I whimpered, suddenly feeling weak, and sank to my knees beside him.
“Where’s your mother?” Gabrithon asked tiredly.
“Down in the valley with Nolan,” I muttered.
“Come then. We must get down there. We will be safer from an air attack there. If I saw correctly, there is a small group of trees and bushes. That is where they are, yes?”
“Yes,” I said, forcing myself to stand up.
I looked down at Elthinor and, after a moment’s thought, knelt down to slip my arms under him. Closing my eyes, I began to lift with my knees, groaning as I felt his full weight with my sore back and legs, but I managed to pick him up to make my way with painstaking slowness down the hill. We got down, Gabrithon stumbling most of the way, and made it to the trees. By that time, the rain had thinned, and the canopy of the trees blocked most of it, only a sprinkle dripping down. Ember was already there, lying down and shivering beside my mother, who was tending to a nasty bite on his muzzle. I set Elthinor down, and my mother stared at him with curious eyes. Then she looked up at Gabrithon and let out a little scream, making Ember sit up and growl at the Centaur.
“Oh be quiet,” Gabrithon snapped at the wolf, settling onto his stomach and favoring his arm.
“What?” was all my mother could say, looking at me and gesturing at him.
“Mother, this,” I said, gesturing at my half-horse friend, “is Gabrithon. He is a Centaur and a good friend of mine. This,” I continued, gesturing at Elthinor, “is Elthinor. He’s an Elf and has been my friend longer than Gabrithon. You have already met Nolan. He is Human.”
She blinked suddenly and looked over at Nolan. Apparently she did not see what she thought she would because she turned and stared at Gabrithon for a little while longer before looking down at his arm. She stroked Ember gently before standing up and making her way over to the Centaur, who immediately looked distasteful and leaned away from her as she made to touch him. She paused and looked at me with unsure eyes.
“He is my friend,” I said. “He will not hurt you, will you Gabrithon?”
“No, but must she touch me?” he asked.
I frowned. “Do you want to bleed to death?”
“Then she must touch you. She is excellent at binding wounds. And I have more bandages in that bag. I got them in town.”
Gabrithon looked reluctant but allowed my mother to tend his wounds. I made the paste with the Raysiam I had purchased in town then started to wipe Elthinor’s wounds clean, having removed his backpack, which was miraculously intact, and the remains of his tattered shirt. I stopped and raised my eyebrows at him. He smiled, his eyes sparkling in amusement despite his pain.
“Yes I have those patterns all over my body, not just on my face and hands,” he said shakily.
I should have known that. I had seen Jesiah paint the designs all over the first Elves. The one on the front of his body was contoured to it like their facial designs were. It was if somebody had used him as the surface for a painting. A tree with a green trunk began on his stomach and stretched up, blooming into leaves with silver flowers that spanned his chest. When I asked him to sit up, I noticed a silver moon surrounded by stars set in the middle of his back with green waves that went across his lower back. Elthinor turned back to look at me, and I was stared at the tree again. A soft chuckle brought my attention up to Elthinor’s face, and I blushed when I realized I had been staring.
“Wow,” I said meekly as I finished cleaning his wounds, and he chuckled again.
My mother came over and took some of the paste to spread over Gabrithon’s wounds as I rubbed it gently onto Elthinor’s. When I was finished with that, I grabbed some of the new bandages and helped the Elf stand up. He winced at the movement but did not complain, and I started bind his stomach with the bandages. I looked back to see my mother doing the same for Gabrithon’s arm. He still looked quite uncomfortable at her touch. The rain finally stopped as we finished, and the sun peeked through the clouds. Even though the sun shone, everything still felt a little dark, but I did not know why.