The last group of Dwarves had arrived two days ago. Droves of the stone-looking creatures swarmed the city of Crystalmoor, the streets packed all the time. The morning we were to depart (I knew it was morning because I had spent the night outside with Gabrithon), I packed my bag then sat and waited. Gabrithon folded up the tarp that he had made into a sort of tent then set it up in the branches of a tree along with the ropes. He looked eager to set out, but he kept stomping his feet, one after the other, like he was nervous. I frowned.
"Is it that there will be many Dwarves traveling with us?" I asked quietly.
He started, turning to look at me then relaxed and offered me a small smile. "You know me too well. Yes. The only one besides Valtrak that I would trust, if I absolutely had to, would be the king. There are going to be what, three thousand Dwarves coming with us?"
"That was the count four days ago. The king did the count yesterday and had seven thousand six hundred twenty-three."
"And all of them hostile towards Centaurs," Gabrithon said, looking down.
"If anyone hurts you, I'll hurt them back," I said, patting the sheathed sword in my lap and shifting the quiver strap on my shoulder.
That made him smile. "Oh Fily," he laughed. "Thank you."
"You're most welcome. You're my friend, Gabrithon. I don't want you to get hurt. But if you do get hurt, they'll regret it for the rest of their natural life, which won't be very long if I have a say in it."
Gabrithon laughed again and shook his head, but I could tell he was grateful. He lay down on his belly beside me and we talked for a little while until there was a loud noise. Gabrithon surged to his feet, and Dwarves started pouring out of the tunnel. My Centaurian friend and I began backing up, and we didn't stop for a long while. There was an enormous crowd of Dwarves; I realized just how many were coming with us. I had a feeling Greensage was going to grow exponentially.
Every Dwarf had a pack on his back above some strange looking clothing, and the male Dwarves were armed for battle. I did a double take and found that there were, indeed, some females spattered here and there in the crowd. Petra came up to me, smiling brightly. She greeted me, and I offered her a smile, but I was too busy scanning the crowd for Korvict. I noticed Elthinor, Pinnathir, and Jaiden making their way through the crowd. I thought I saw Valtrak, but I wasn't sure. My friends were easy to see, and I was too, because even the tallest Dwarf was shorter than all of us. They were easy to see save Valtrak, of course. They got to me, including my closest Dwarf friend, and they were looking more rested than they had been in a while. Even though the verdict had been reached, the council still convened every day to discuss the plan and how they were going to handle the journey and the roughness of war. I still wasn't allowed in, so Elthinor was in charge of making the decisions—in all likelihood, he would have been anyway as he had studied the Satyr-Elf wars—but he told me everything that he decided, and I agreed with all of it.
Korvict got to me, so we were able to greet each other warmly. He looked excited as he greeted each of my friends. The Dwarves had all stopped talking and were looking towards their king, most of them straining to see. They were all watching and listening as the Dwarven king bowed to Gabrithon.
"And greetings to you, my Centaurian friend," he said loudly.
There was immediate whispering amongst the assembled Dwarves, but no angry calls or jeers. All of the faces I could see, however, were twisted into anger and distrust as the stonemen eyed the Centaur. Gabrithon's princely nature showed in that he appeared perfectly composed, though I knew he had to be scared.
"Greetings to you, your majesty," Gabrithon replied, putting an arm across his chest with his fist clenched and bowing his torso as low as he could go.
"Well, now that that's out of the way, I have one announcement before we leave," Korvict said then stood on a boulder (not a Dwarf) and spread his arms wide. When he spoke, it was more of a yell. "Any Dwarf, male or female, who harms the Centaur or plans to harm him shall be punished severely. And I'm certain he will have to deal with an angry Filynora. Even I would not like that, so please behave. If this goes as planned, we will be working with Centaurs soon. Now, let's move out!"
We began heading towards Greensage. Nothing important happened for two days. But, on the third day, I saw Ember, down low in a valley to the left of our trajectory. I gasped in joy and ran down to him. He was facing away from me and I threw my arms around his neck, kissing it. Then he did something he had never down in his entire existence except in play. He growled at me. I hesitated then released him, and he turned his head slowly. His eyes, instead of the wonderful orange I was used to, were blood red. Something was terribly wrong, and I had a feeling I knew what it was. I had been trailing at the back of the group of the Dwarves, and I don’t think anybody had noticed me slipping off. They were moving at a swift pace, and I couldn't see them anymore. As far as I knew, they had no idea I was gone. I began backing away, holding out my hands.
"Ember," I began, but got no further as he gave a bark and lunged at me. I screamed and turned to run, but Blaze, my old Tindre Tiger, was in my way, his eyes as red as Ember’s. There was a whistle; I turned to see none other than Nolan standing there beside a grove of trees, leaning against one of the trunks.
"Hello, sister," he said leisurely.
"What have you done to my Ember?" I demanded; I might have been scared of my Elementals because of their deadly qualities, but I was not afraid of Nolan.
"Me? I've done nothing. It was one of the Dark Ones. You know something? I want you to meet him. Oh Mngwa!"
Out of the trees came the biggest looking tiger I had ever seen. It was grey with black stripes and two and a half times the size of Blaze. Its eyes were red like my two beloved pets. It opened its mouth and roared at me, revealing enormous teeth that could bite my arm off with no problem. But the scariest part of all was the feeling that surrounded the beast. It was the darkest thing I had ever felt, worse than the Aswangs, the Vampires, and the Naga combined. Nolan grinned.
"Mngwa, this is the beastly girl that's against our Master. She's the headache that our minions have been facing," he said, acting like he was talking about the weather.
"Foolish girl," the Mngwa growled, his voice grating. "I shall put an end to that. And what better way to do that than with your own pets? They shall love you to death."
When I turned to look at Ember, I realized this Mngwa must be skilled in illusion, because almost every single pet I had owned had appeared behind me in a half circle. Every eye was red. They were all under the control of this Dark One. With a growl from their controller, they all began advancing on me.
"Filynora!" Elthinor shouted. I looked up at the hill and saw a crowd of Dwarves with my friends. The latter began racing down the hill, weapons drawn, which were mostly bows and arrows.
"Kill them while she watches," the Mngwa commanded and the Elementals surged towards them. My protectors stopped, grouping together.
"Stop!" I bellowed as the animals were closing in on my friends, knowing that it would do no good.
But it did.
They listened to me. They stopped running. I stared in surprise but decided to see if it was a fluke. I yelled for them to sit. They did. I told them to lie down, and they obeyed. I had more control over them than the Mngwa. I didn't know why or how, but I did. I turned to look at Nolan and the giant cat. I narrowed my eyes at them, ignoring the shocked looks on their faces. Then I gave my command.
"Kill the Mngwa!" I shouted.
I heard them coming, and they suddenly rushed past me. Ember was the first one to attack, leaping on the creature's back and worrying his scruff. The rest of the creatures followed suit. I turned towards Nolan, who looked angry.
"You're a bigger freak than I thought. You shouldn't be able to do that," he growled, drawing his sword.
I drew mine, and we stood there, poised to strike. I moved first, bringing my blade towards his head. He blocked and countered. The dance that we had done together with sticks so many times became deadly. We struck and dodged. I slashed his right arm, and he got my leg but no other strikes hit their marks. I brought my sword down from up high, and as he moved to block it, I kicked his chest. He dropped his sword, tumbling backwards.
Just as I was going to go in for the kill, I heard a whine. My Ember's whine. I spun towards the noise and saw the Mngwa pinning my Kindle Wolf down. I saw the beast's jaws open. I screamed in anger, rushing him and slashing him in the face. He backed up two steps, which was enough for Ember to leap up. He and Icicle, my Glacier-bear, pushed the great monster and held him by his neck on his back. I wasted no time and plunged my sword into his chest where his heart would be. He gave a deafening roar and spasmed so that Ember and Icicle were thrown loose, but he did not get up and attack me. I had hit my mark. He struggled weakly and spoke his final words.
"Even if the Dark Ones die, you must deal with our Dark Master. If no one else does, he will end you."
"Not with God on my side," I said with a nod of confidence and withdrew my blade.
My friends reached me as the twitching ceased. The Dark One was dead. We just stared at the carcass, and Elthinor put his hands on my shoulders.
"Are you all right Fily?" he asked gently.
I nodded. "Yes. He's dead."
"Indeed he is," Valtrak said.
Ember staggered over to me, looking as if he was having trouble staying on his feet. He sat down at my feet and looked up at me. His eyes were orange again. I dropped to my knees and embraced him. He licked my face, nudging me with his big head, and I drew back, kissing his nose before standing. Ember suddenly barked and lunged for the spot that Nolan had been standing. He was gone, but when he’d fled, I wasn’t sure. Ember sniffed the ground then sat and snorted, shaking his head.
I cursed right there in front of my friends, but I only got the first half of the word out of my mouth because I was bowled over by my Elementals. The only ones not there were my horses, and they were down in Greensage. I was being licked and nuzzled all over, and despite the anger that made my face burn and tingle, I laughed. I had missed them. They were all here, even Misty, floating on her cloud. My friends laughed with me. Elthinor moved to help me up, but Blaze bit at him. He yelped in surprise, drawing his hand back as he and the others backed up a few paces. Blaze walked around me and I tried to get the others off of me to stop him, but they were too excited. Before anything bad could happen, Ember gave a bark and stood in front Elthinor. All my pets stopped touching me and looked at Ember. It looked as if he were communicating with them, telling my other pets that my traveling companions were friends. Indeed, once Ember stopped growling, they pounced on my friends and began licking them. Gabrithon was the only one not rolling around on the ground, though Misty was rubbing against his head along with Raine. I noticed belatedly my Muddmoles were missing, but they couldn't have helped Nolan's purposes.
"Fily! M-make them stop!" Pinnathir gasped.
I whistled, and my Elementals came running. I heard a throat clear in behind me, and I turned to see Korvict. The only other Dwarf anywhere near him was Valtrak. I looked up at the Dwarfs that were watching.
"Where are your guards?" Valtrak asked as he stood, voicing my thoughts.
"They were too afraid of the strange creatures and the great beast you slew. The air was charged with darkness, literally paralyzing us all. I am the first to move," Korvict replied with a shudder.
Ember growled at him, so I placed my hand on the Kindle Wolf's head. "Behave Ember. This is Korvict. He's my friend," I said gently. "Korvict, please hold out your hand."
Korvict looked hesitant, glancing at me before doing as I asked. I pointed at it, and Ember faithfully sniffed it. He considered it, then placed his head under it and bumped it, telling Korvict what he wanted. The king looked fascinated and scratched his head.
"Oh, come on!" Elthinor exclaimed.
"What?" I asked, looking up at him.
"He's more excited about him than he was about me!" he complained unhappily.
"But you're the first one he ever trusted besides my mother or me," I said, smiling.
He looked thoughtful. "Well, I guess I can live with that."
"He is so soft," Korvict said, petting Ember's ears.
"He's my Ember," I said tenderly then looked back up at the Dwarves. They were starting to shift around, and they were no doubt talking about what had happened. "We should go. We need to get to Greensage."
Korvict took his hand off Ember's head. "Very well. Let's—"
He stopped and looked behind us, his eyes widening as his mouth dropped open. I turned to see what he was gaping at and tensed immediately. The carcass of the Mngwa was bubbling beneath its skin. I grabbed Korvict's hand and began dragging him up the hill, my friends shooting ahead of me. The king was surprised and took a moment to get his feet under him, but we got up the hill and turned around just as the entire body exploded, smoke permeating the air around. A fountain of thick, black blood shot high into the air before falling to the ground. Some of it missed us by a mere three feet. The grass it touched didn't just die, it disintegrated, along with some of the dirt on the ground, leaving streaks of ditches and patches of holes. The grove of trees was no more, everything having been utterly destroyed. It was nothing short of devastation.
"Oh, my," Korvict whispered.
"The darker the creature, the more potent the blood," I said quietly.
There was no noise until the king composed himself, and he spoke. "Time to go."
Everybody turned slowly, and we began heading to Greensage, shocked by what had happened. One question came to my mind. What could possibly be worse than the Mngwa?