True to his word, Nolan watched Valtrak, almost obsessively so, over the next day and a half. Valtrak noticed, but Nolan did not seem to care that he knew. I talked to my Human friend about it, but he just said the same thing about Valtrak being too quiet. I was pondering this as we walked in relative silence—Laetitia was grumbling under her breath—when I heard the soft hiss. I froze, my hand going to my new blade. Elthinor, Gabrithon, Valtrak, and Nolan tensed and palmed their weapons, too. Terryn and Pinnathir looked curious, but drew their weapons, standing defensively in front of their princess. Laetitia fumbled with her own sword and I immediately knew that if this was to be a real fight, she was going to be in trouble. She should not be here.
“What is it, Fily?” Elthinor asked quietly.
“I thought I heard…” I said when something large and cloaked lunged at me from seemingly out of nowhere. “Naga!”
Clouds were rolling in as I dove to the side, coming up with my blade drawn. I knew that when the clouds got here and blocked out the sun, then the Naga could come out of their cloaks and fight without hindrance. Or worse, they could get backup. Laetitia screamed and dropped her sword outright. Pinnathir and Terryn looked shocked and took a more immovable defensive stance as Laetitia cowered behind them. Three more Naga slithered from the cluster of dead trees and joined the first one as the clouds reached us.
Then they shed their hoods to reveal snake-like bodies, with long necks and scales covering them from head to foot. Their arms were long and their legs were short and they all had white bellies with green backs. Their fangs began to drip something that I suspected was very poisonous venom.
“Don’t let them bite you,” I said tensely.
“Come Strangeling,” the one closest to us hissed. “Stop this foolishness. Just come with us and we shall let your friends live.”
“You will. But who will come after you to kill us?” Valtrak asked tersely.
“The stone man is too perceptive,” a different Naga hissed, staring at us with his lidless eyes.
“Fine then. We shall kill them while you watch!” the first Naga snapped then lunged.
Elthinor shoved me back and his sword was met by a sword that the Naga had pulled from his discarded cloak. The Elf began fighting against the Naga, but the snake creature was just as talented as Elthinor was at swordplay. The other Naga split off and one went for Laetitia, while the other two went for me. I tried to keep my eyes on both of them, but they came at me from different directions. I did not know which one to keep my attention on and had just begun to panic when Gabrithon gave a horse-like shriek and reared, taking the one on the right down. I brought my sword up to counter the remaining Naga’s blade.
“You are a very annoying pest,” the Naga hissed, staring at me through our crossed blades.
“I could say the same about you,” I growled then heaved him away from me.
We launched ourselves into a deadly dance, our blades continuously coming together briefly before we spun away again. There were several close calls where he nearly got me, but miraculously I got away without a scratch each time. I finally shoved him down onto the ground and kicked his blade away. He slithered away from me, his body twisting strangely, and went after it and, I took in the rest of the battlefield.
Pinnathir and Terryn were fighting one of the Naga, and the Naga was actually a match for the two of them! Elthinor was struggling hand-to-hand with his Naga, their forgotten swords lying on the ground, and Gabrithon was being forced back as he avoided blow after blow. I saw a flash of movement from the corner of my eye and brought my sword up to deflect another blow from the Naga, who had retrieved his blade faster than I thought he would; for having such short legs, these snake-like beings were fast.
As I fought, I became afraid. The Naga were skilled swordsmen and they could take on me and my friends with ease. How in the world were we supposed to come up against that? Or, even worse, whatever was stronger than them, because by this time I was pretty sure that Naga were not the top of the hierarchy, and I did not like to think of what was. It was too terrifying.
A scream shattered the sound of the battle and I looked around to see Laetitia in the grips of one of the beasts, Elthinor unconscious on the ground. I shoved the Naga I was fighting away in a burst of strength, not bothering to look where he landed, and made a beeline for the struggling Faun. With nothing else coming to mind, I dropped my sword and tackled the snake monster. He released Laetitia with a hiss and his arms closed around me. I struggled in his iron grip and feared he would drive his fangs through my skull. As if he read my mind, he spoke.
“I would kill you, but the Master wants you alive,” he snarled into my ear.
I heard a horse’s angry roar and suddenly I was jerked violently and found myself on the ground. I flipped over onto my back to see what had happened. Gabrithon, who was still fighting his Naga, had kicked his back legs out and had knocked the Naga that held me to the ground. I jumped to my feet and dove for my sword. The Naga beat me to it, standing on the blade to keep me from it. I was kneeling and my right hand slipped over and wrapped around the hilt of my knife. I tried not to think about what I was about to do.
“What now, Strangeling?” he hissed.
“This,” I growled and pulled out my knife.
I plunged the blade into the right side of his belly then dragged it left until the knife came out of his skin. The knife went back in almost immediately, this time going into the middle and I dragged it down. Black blood gushed out and down and with it came his lower internal organs. The battlefield went dead silent as the Naga stood there, eyes glued on his innards. He slowly looked up at me then collapsed backwards. I grabbed my sword and reeled back. I heard retching and looked to see Laetitia doubled over.
The Naga looked angry and shocked, but they were smarter than Llugat and the Vampires—or maybe it was because there were fewer of them attacking—and began to run, snatching their cloaks up as they went. Gabrithon went after them and trampled the slowest one under his hooves. It struggled for a few seconds before falling dead. Just after Gabrithon got away from him, he and the other dead Naga burst into smoke and blood. The blood stained the ground black even after it disappeared, as it usually did, and the organs rotted away swiftly; it was actually fascinating to watch, though the smell was horrible.
“That was so disgusting,” Laetitia said shakily as she wiped her mouth.
I shrugged. “It was a little like gutting a deer,” I said calmly as I wiped my knife on the fresh green grass; it killed every plant it touched.
Laetitia just stared at me and she was soon joined by Terryn. I stared back at her then sighed and sheathed my knife and sword and walked over to Elthinor. I cradled his head in my lap and lightly slapped his cheeks. Elthinor let out a little moan then his eyes fluttered open. He looked confused and he sat up slowly, rubbing his head gingerly. His eyes landed on me and I smiled at him.
“Get me some water,” I said and I was handed a waterskin. I uncapped it and gave it to Elthinor. “Drink.”
Elthinor did so, swallowing several gulps before he sealed it back up and handed it back. I in turn handed it off to Valtrak then stood and helped my Elven friend to his feet.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Honestly? I do not remember,” Elthinor said with a wince as Pinnathir brushed his fingers over the back of Elthinor’s head, searching for a wound. “The last thing I remember was my sword being wrenched out of my hand.” He paused. “Any blood?” he asked the Satyr.
“No. Just seems to be tender, judging by the way you keep flinching,” Pinnathir said, moving around to face the Elf. “You seem to be fine.”
“Proves how hard-headed Elves are,” Terryn joked.
We all shared a good laugh, Laetitia’s standing out. I sobered up and stared at her. She seemed to sense my gaze and looked at me.
“What?” she asked, and the others’ laughter faded away.
“Laetitia, look,” I said in a gentle voice. “I do not think you really belong here in our group.”
She lowered her head, but did not sound shocked as she replied. “I know,” she sighed. “I knew it from the beginning.”
“Then why did you even come?” Valtrak asked, his low voice startling us all; he talked so rarely that it always surprised me.
“To please Mother,” Laetitia said immediately. “She did not just want any Satyr to be with you and make history. She wanted her very own daughter to go. I could not say no. But now I guess I have to go back and tell her the truth.”
“I am sorry, Laetitia,” I said gently. “I wish we could change it, but you just are not meant for this.”
“Are we heading back?” Pinnathir asked, sounding upset.
Laetitia looked at him thoughtfully. “Yes. Terryn and I are going back to Stonemere.”
Pinnathir looked confused and slightly hopeful. “And what am I to do?”
“You are going to stay with Filynora. You are going to represent the Satyrs,” Laetitia said, her voice full of authority; at that moment I could see the princess in her.
Pinnathir could not contain his excitement. He leaped up and gave a whoop of joy then suddenly looked a little shocked. He calmed and knelt down before his princess.
“Thank you, milady,” he said sincerely.
The Faun laughed. “Oh stand up,” she said. “I am not my father.”
Pinnathir leaped up with a smile on his face, looking so happy I thought he might burst. We all just stood there for a minute, unsure of what to do.
“I guess I should go,” Laetitia said. “Come Terryn.”
“No,” I said. “Stay with us for tonight. They might come back and I do not want you two to be attacked immediately.”
They both looked relieved. We decided not to walk any further that day, and we set up camp. I watched Laetitia and could tell that, despite her calm exterior, she was shaken by the attack. I managed to get her alone and I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Are you alright?” I asked gently.
Laetitia did not even bother trying to hide her feelings from me. “No. Those…things were horrible. And they were trying to kill us! And then the way you sliced that one open…” The Faun looked a little sick. “It is just too much. It is why I am not insisting I continue to go with you. How do you stand it?”
“I do not know. It just does not bother me that much. I have been pursued for almost a year now. I am used to being threatened by strange, disgusting creatures.”
Laetitia shook her head, tears welling in her eyes. I felt uncomfortable, but embraced her as she cried. The males pretended not to notice. When she finally calmed down, I released her and smiled at her.
“You would not be happy with us. Going home is the best option for you.”
“You are right,” the Faun replied, wiping her cheeks. “Thank you, Filynora.”
She walked back to the camp and I sighed. That was one less thing I had to worry about. Now, to get past the central hub of monsters and get the next scroll. Just the thought of it made me shiver. What new monster would we face next?