We walked for hours the next two days, our lack of wood forcing us to eat from our provisions instead of catching fresh meat, and early on the third day we reached another forest, this one looking thicker and darker than the other. Ember didn’t like the forest, or something in it. He kept growling with his hackles raised, but the river flowed through it and the man in white had said to follow the river. I did not want to go into that forest.
“Maybe we should take a day to rest?” Elthinor suggested, trying to hide the discomfort in his voice.
“Yes. We have been travelling for a while now,” I replied, avoiding his eyes.
We set up camp, moving in the now familiar rhythm, but this time there was no pleasant chatter, only strained silence. Finally we were missing only a fire, which we had gone without for two days. Elthinor entered the forest with a small ax. After only five minutes, he came nearly sprinting back. Shuddering, he dropped the few sticks he’d collected.
“What happened?” I asked, quite alarmed.
“There was…Well, it is a little silly now,” he muttered as he sat down, avoiding my eyes.
I knelt down beside him. “What?”
“I thought I saw something moving in the shadows,” he replied quietly.
“Aswangs?” I asked, my body tightening with fear
“I don’t know. I was too frightened to see what it was. I ran back here as fast as I could.”
“If it is Aswangs then we must have fire,” I said.
“But what if they get us while we gather wood?” he asked.
“They won’t, not if Ember is on fire beside us,” I replied confidently. “Come. We must get as much wood as we can before dark.”
Elthinor was reluctant but followed when he saw that I would not be persuaded otherwise. He didn’t seem to realize how bad it would be if they caught us without a fire. I didn’t really know myself, but I was sure I did not want to find out. We approached the forest, and even though he was visibly shaking, I pretended not to notice. I took the ax from him and approached a small tree. As soon as I reached it, something started moving in the shadows, about ten feet from us. It wasn’t the same kind of movement that the Aswangs had, but it was definitely not a natural movement, so I called Ember to my side. He came immediately.
“Flaren,” I commanded, and fire exploded across his body.
Elthinor gave a cry of shock, pulling back in surprise. It was then I remembered he had never seen Ember on fire. While he was staring at the Elemental, fascinated, I presumed, I noticed that whatever was in the shadows had fled the light, so I approached the tree to chop. Several swings in, I was stopped by a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see Elthinor looking at me disapprovingly. I blinked at him for a moment.
“Allow me,” Elthinor said, taking the ax and beginning where I stopped.
He still seemed shaken by the shadow creatures and Ember, but he resolutely chopped at the tree. He had such a determined, focused expression on his face. I knew he was trying to forget his fears and be brave in front of me. I didn’t dare tell him he didn’t have to because I was putting up a front, too. Since he was stronger than I was, he felled the tree faster than I would have. As he sectioned the fallen tree, I began carrying the firewood to our campsite. At first, Ember tried to follow me—Elthinor looked terrified at the prospect—but I told him to stay. My pet did not look happy, but he obeyed me without a growl or bark, though he did shake his head as if exasperated with me. I walked away wondering just how smart Ember was.
We gathered a substantial amount of wood before we stopped. As all three of us headed back to camp and I gestured for Ember to cool down, I felt eyes drilling into our backs. Elthinor was paler than usual as he began to look back. I stopped him by touching his hand. He jumped; his eyes met mine, questioning me.
“That is not a good idea. You will never be able to forget the eyes you will see.”
He stared at me before facing forward again. I had to force myself to keep my gaze from wandering back. I was sure that these were new creatures. I was also almost positive that they were worse. They had the same smell of age as the Aswangs, but there was also a coppery smell that clung to my tongue. It was cloying, and I scraped my teeth across the top of my tongue to try and get rid of it. I glanced at Elthinor when we got back and he looked sickened, too. That night we stoked the fire high and kept it that way. Around midnight Elthinor noticed that I had started to doze.
“Try to sleep. I will tend the fire,” he said with a reassuring smile.
I was too tired to argue and quickly tucked myself into my bedroll. I heard the Elf bid me a good night of rest then the crackling of the fire was all that was to be heard.
“Hello, my dearest one.”
I did not have to open my eyes to know who that voice belonged to. I did so anyway and found that I was right. I looked around as I sat up and was dazzled yet again. This time the forest was aglow with multicolored lights. Some of them came from fireflies, which did not just flash yellow, but green and blue and red and pink and many other colors. Then there were the crystal flowers. They put out lights too, each according to its own color. The rainbow affect was astounding, but then my focus came back to the man in white. He again seemed to be light contained, a soft light that held the promise of being brighter, even blinding, during the right circumstances. I brought my attention back to his face as I realized he was waiting for me to respond.
“Why do you call me that?” I finally asked.
“You are close to my heart,” the man replied.
“You shall learn why in time.”
I took the answer for what it was worth. “What am I doing here this time?”
“You are afraid to do as I said.”
I flinched, even though his tone lacked any kind of reproach or anger. “Yes,” I said meekly.
“There are dark things in the shadows. They want to harm us.”
“Yes,” the man in white replied. “What are you going to do?”
The question held a deep meaning. If we listened to this man, who seemed to know God in some way, there was a chance Elthinor and I would be harmed badly by the creatures in the forest. If we did not listen to him then our entire quest would be in vain. At least the searching for the scrolls part would be in vain. A thought made me look up at him.
“Is my mother in there?” I asked slowly. “If not, why should I go in there?”
I wasn’t surprised that I received no answer, though it did make me angry. Why did this man think he could just tell me to do something and expect me to do it? He did not even give me answers when I asked him the questions close to my heart! I leaped to my feet and glared at the man, resisting the urge to slap him.
“Answer me!” I shouted, tears gathering in the corner of my eyes as my anger built. I had no idea where this feeling was coming from. Maybe it was the darkness pressing in close? I did not know and was too angry to really care. When he just stared at me with those piercing eyes, I let out a scream of pain and rage. “Why should I listen to you? You start me off on a horrible journey away from my home, which led to me being a servant for Elves and being attacked by Aswangs! Now you expect me to go into a forest with dark creatures lurking in the shadows that are waiting to attack me without even telling me why? I can’t believe you! Stay away from me! You’re nothing but trouble!”
Nearly blinded by tears at this point, I wiped my eyes and looked around for Elthinor, for it was his voice I had heard. He was nowhere in sight, but the man in white was now looking at me with pain-filled, sad eyes, but there was no other reaction to my anger. Those eyes. I felt anger, now more like rage, burn inside of me for that look in those eyes. I lunged forward, my emotions driving me to attack the one that had caused the distress.
I sat up suddenly only to discover I was no longer in the dream. In fact, when I looked around it was more of a nightmare. Elthinor had his sword out, pointing into the darkness, his eyes wild. He looked at me and I saw raw fear in his eyes as I scrambled out of my bedroll.
“What is going on?” I demanded.
“There are so many of them, Fily! I-I fell asleep for just a moment and the fire went low! I am so sorry!”
“What are they?” I asked, grabbing my bow and quiver, the disturbing dream forgotten for the moment.
“I don’t know! They fled when I stoked the fire back up but not far! Look!”
He pointed one trembling finger to the edge of the firelight and I immediately saw the outline of what looked like a person, but the glowing blood red eyes assured me this was no Human or Elf.
“Come out, little pretty,” a low male voice hissed. “You will make a nice present for our Master. And we can make the boy a nice meal. For us, that is.”
“Ember,” I called, but the wolf did not come. I could barely see a lump on the ground just past the firelight. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“I am Lugat. I come by my Master’s orders to capture you, Strangeling, and bring you to them for…disposal.”
“What are you?” Elthinor asked, his voice trembling.
“We are known as Vampires,” another voice said, this one female. “I am Jiang Shi, and we are many. You will not get through this night, young ones.”
“We will. We must,” I said sternly.
“My grandfather told me that if your situation is bad to pray to God,” Elthinor whispered to me. “I still don’t know if I believe in Him, but you do. Pray to Him! Ask for help and protection.”
“I can’t,” I said after a moment, my voice cracking. “I just can’t.”
“I…I don’t want to talk about it,” I said, ashamed of myself.
“She was angry,” Jiang Shi hissed. “I could feel it. She must be angry with the Light One and his Son.”
I blushed and immediately lied. “No I-I am not!”
“Oh? But I believe you are,” Lugat crooned, his eyes gleaming; he had found my weak spot. “Did you curse him? Yell at him? Fight him?”
“No,” I croaked, lowering my bow, my face burning in shame.
“He shall never forgive you for that. You shall never be in His favor again!” Lugat laughed meanly, his voice low and sweet. “You make Him ashamed to have been so near to you, Strangeling. He wishes you had never been born. You are nothing to Him now!”
“Stop it!” I screamed, dropping my weapon to cover my ears.
I could still hear the Vampire laughing, telling me what a disappointment I was to the Light One, who could only be God. I began to moan, sinking to my knees as shame and humiliation overwhelmed me. There was a thud as Elthinor transferred his sword to one hand and knelt next to me, hugging me to his chest. He asked me what was wrong, speaking loud enough to drown out the Vampires.
I began to sob as the other Vampires joined in with taunts about how I would never be accepted again because of my moment of anger. It felt like they were digging into a hole of despair, making it deeper. I felt that the words they spoke were true. Things between the man in white and God and I were never to be the same again. I began to howl my misery out, well aware that the creatures were taking pleasure in my agony.
“Fily! They are lying! They are lying! I know it in my heart!” Elthinor exclaimed, rocking me gently. “Whatever it is that you did, you shall be forgiven for it! Grandfather told me so!”
“No!” I moaned. “He hates me! He hates me, I just know it! I did something horrible to the man in white, Elthinor! He shall never forgive me!”
“No little one, He will not. Come with us and we shall make the despair go away,” Lugat whispered.
His promise was the sweetest thing I had ever heard. I moved to get up, to go toward the promise of ending the pain, but Elthinor’s strong arms held me down. There was a shriek of anger followed by a gust of wind, putting out the fire. Hands grabbed me to tug me out of the Elf’s grip and he screamed, holding on to me tightly.
“Give her to us, boy!” a deep, evil voice bellowed while claws dug into my skin, drawing blood.
“Ember!” Elthinor screamed. “Please! Flaren! Flaren!”
There was a pause for a single second then fire exploded to life across Ember’s fur. He was pinned under a grey-skinned monster that immediately recoiled in pain with a scream as the flames licked at its skin. Ember leaped forward as soon as he saw I was being attacked and sank his white-hot, glowing teeth into an arm that held me. The Vampires had been stunned by the sudden light, but as the second one of their number cried out in pain, they shot back to run to the forest as fast as they could, shouting a promise to get me no matter what.
The deep silence that followed was only broken by Ember’s flames. By the Kindle Wolf’s light, Elthinor rekindled the fire. Once the fire was crackling merrily, he brought a blanket to wrap around my shoulders. I was still rocking and crying but without noise. He carried me closer to the fire and set me down gently. As he wrapped his arms around me and whispered gentle words to me, the first rays of sunlight began to pierce the darkness as morning broke on the horizon.