The midmorning sun was pleasant as we gathered out in the cornfields a long way east from Greensage.
“What is the point of meeting all the way out here?” Kelvin asked, looking at me with sharp eyes.
Valtrak and I glanced at each other then back at the group in front of us. Jaiden was there, along with Kelvin and his group of boys, plus many girls from the town that I had only seen in passing. They were all staring expectantly at us now, waiting for one of us to speak. I felt nervous and was suddenly at a loss for what to say. Valtrak looked at me a moment then stepped forward and began to talk.
“We need people who will follow us and help us on our quest,” he said simply.
“What quest?” Kelvin asked, his eyebrows raised.
“The quest to get the scrolls,” Jaiden replied. “The ones I told you about after the battle the other day.”
“Fine,” Kelvin snapped, crossing his arms. “But that still does not answer the question of why we had to come so far outside of town to meet.”
“Because we do not believe the adults, your parents especially, will agree to what we are doing,” I replied, finding my voice. “Or at least planning to do.”
“And what makes you think we are going to want to join you?” a girl asked haughtily, flipping her long, dark brown hair over her shoulder.
I stared at her for a moment, knowing I had nothing to say. So I told her the truth. “You probably won't.” She looked surprised; it clearly was not the answer she was looking for. “Look…”
“Liliana,” Jaiden told me quickly.
“All right then. Liliana, I am not saying you have to join us. You probably will not want to. It is going to be a dangerous mission.”
“How dangerous?” Kelvin asked, sounding excited.
“As far as I can tell, we are going to have to sneak into a fortified Human city to get to the palace that is set against the mountain. Then we must somehow find where they are keeping my friends, free them, and get out of the city. All the while, we will be dodging, and probably fighting at times, horrible monsters like those Naga that came into town. Vampires and Aswangs, too. And whatever other monsters lie at the heart of the realm of the Dark Ones and their Master.”
Silence rang out after I finished. The boys were looking at each other with bright eyes while the girls were dumbstruck. Jaiden finally spoke, stepping forward and bowing formally; it reminded me of Elthinor.
“I would be pleased to join you,” he said solemnly.
“As would I,” Kelvin said, his eyes gleaming at the prospect.
There was a chorus of eager agreement from all of the boys, and I smiled, a little sadly, at their eagerness. They thought this was going to be one big adventure—just a game where no one would get hurt. I did not know how to tell them they were wrong.
“What about us?” Liliana asked, silencing the excited yammering of the boys. “We girls certainly are not expected to fight, are we?”
I smiled at her. “No, but we do not just need fighters. We need you to get the town ready for the new arrivals. Subtly, of course, which is why we need girls.”
“Are you saying boys are not subtle?” Kelvin demanded loudly.
“Most of the time, no, they are not,” I replied matter-of-factly.
“Well…I cannot argue with that,” he admitted, with a smile. “But how are we going to do this? They will be suspicious.”
“Simple. The Elves are back, and they had no luck on their hunting trip. So,” I said, smiling slyly, “we are going hunting.”
Jaiden smiled back. “Well, you are right. Our quarry will just not be what they expect.”
“Exactly,” I replied.
It was simple to get the adults to agree to let us hunt. The town was desperate for meat, so we all volunteered to go and 'retrieve some.' Aloron probably knew what we were going to do, but he let us go anyway. He had been impressed by the stories of the battle with the Naga, and I suspected he believed that I could take care of myself. I was not really sure though, as I had been busy making sure everybody knew the plan, passing the word through Jaiden and, occasionally, Kelvin.
Early one morning, we got up before the sun and headed out of Greensage, just in case there was anybody who had caught on that night and wanted to stop our leaving. We rode horses. They were all mounted on bays and roans from the town herd, but I took Flame, my beautiful orange, red, and yellow fire horse. Valtrak had taken one look at the flowing, flame-like mane and flat out refused to get on him. My other three Elemental horses were tailing us. They were Rainstorm, my water horse, Whirlwind, my wind horse, and Loam, my earth horse. They had quite thoroughly scared the boys the day before when I called them to me. They'd run to me, elements flashing.
I took point, leading them to the southeast, toward the mountain. We did not dare take the path that went to the south, then east to one of Shadowlyn’s three main gates. It would be easier to sneak in, we assumed, then take the path. How we would accomplish this, I had no idea. As we got closer to the hulking mass, clouds began to fill the sky. At first they were white and fluffy, but all too soon they began to darken. When we got to the mountain, the sky was heavily overcast, and the light was dim, oddly so for the time of day. We began our trek around it fairly quickly. Just out of view of the vast wall that surrounded the city, we stopped to make camp.
While most of us set up camp, Jaiden and Kelvin went to scout the city. I was left with many boys I did not know; besides myself, no girl dared to go with us. I ignored them. They were all staring at me, that much I knew, but I did not really care. I was thinking of how close I was to getting my friends back. Valtrak was the only one I talked to, and even then our words were few. He understood and helped me to gather wood from a group of dead trees. As I looked around, I noticed everything looked dead, even the grass. I shivered.
“It is quite disturbing,” Valtrak said quietly, noticing my discomfort. “Can you sense it?”
I nodded. The very air seemed charged with it—the sense of wrongness, of darkness, and of evil. It was, without a doubt, what had killed all of the vegetation around the city. It was probably why there were no animals around, too. They were smart enough to stay away. I smiled at that thought and chuckled softly. It had a ring of truth. In some ways, animals had more common sense than any of the races, even Centaurs and Satyrs. They avoided danger where we "intelligent races" plunged right in. The horses were also jumpy, confirming my intuition.
“I do not like this place,” one of the boys said nervously, settling down from the game of catch they were playing a short way away.
“Oh come now Asher,” another boy said as he jogged up, his laughter forced. “‘Tis not that bad.”
I turned. “It is that bad,” I said sternly. “And if we do not watch out, it can get much, much worse.”
They were all now watching me. Evidently they shared Kelvin and Jaiden's respect for me. I wondered what their reasons were. I knew Jaiden respected me because I brought the scrolls and Elves into his life and also because he was just that kind of boy. He reminded me slightly of Elthinor when I first met him. And Kelvin respected me because I beat him in a fight. Maybe that was the reason for their respect, too?
I shook off the thought and sat down on my bedroll. Valtrak came forward, and I moved to the side so that he could sit beside me. We sat quietly, watching the boys carrying on as they tried in vain to shake off the feeling of darkness. Permeating the whole atmosphere, it was thick and foreboding, and would only get worse in the city, no doubt.
“How can anybody live in this desolate place?” Valtrak asked with a sigh.
“I guess the Humans here have gotten used to it,” I replied with a shrug.
I turned to look at Asher, who had moved closer to us. His dark brown eyes were frightened, and his voice sounded small. I smiled kindly at him.
“They were born into it, no doubt. You just get used to such circumstances, I suppose. You are used to living in a town, yes? I was used to living outside my village. It is just a fact of life.”
“But the air is so heavy,” the human argued. “How could any babe breathe in such a place, let alone live?”
Valtrak replied before I could. “For some things, there are no answers. For others, there are answers, but they do not make sense. This is one of those times.”
Asher stared at him for a moment, then shrugged. Before he could do more, he was tackled from behind by one of the other boys. My Dwarven friend and I had to roll out of the way to avoid being caught by their roughhousing. I could not hold back a soft laugh, and the air seemed to tighten threateningly around us. Valtrak joined in my laughter anyway, and soon everybody was laughing. The darkness seemed to be pushed back briefly and we relaxed. All too soon, the heavy feeling was back, but we were not as bothered by it this time.
Jaiden and Kelvin returned just before nightfall, looking grim. We had waited until they got back to eat, and we all quickly got out our food. Supper consisted of bread and dried fruit. We ate quickly and silently, then turned to look expectantly at them. Jaiden grew bashful all of a sudden, and it was Kelvin who spoke.
“There is no way to get into that building. That wall over there? It is just the outer wall. There is another that surrounds the…” he trailed off, looking unsure.
“The boys we talked to called it a stronghold,” Jaiden said quietly.
“Ah, yes. Thank you. The second wall is not quite as thick, but it is taller and the gate is patrolled by those hooded figures. We think they are Naga, but they could be something else. The people we talked to are terrified of them and do not dare to go too near the gate. They said something about rumors of Elves living beyond it.”
“Elves? But Elves are—” Valtrak began.
“I know Valtrak,” I cut in. “But there are stories in Human culture about Elves being dark, evil creatures that eat children in the night.”
“Yes, they are said to have hypnotic eyes that paralyze you with a single glance!” Kelvin said jovially.
“And claws for fingers!” Asher exclaimed.
“And don’t forget their teeth, sharp and pointed and can cut through flesh with one bite!”
“Sounds like an Aswang, not an Elf,” Valtrak stated calmly.
I had a sudden idea. “Maybe it was. Maybe the Aswangs showed themselves to Humans and called themselves Elves.”
The idea fit the situation so well, and the descriptions of the creatures in the stories and rumors that I had always heard in Paxtonvale fit Aswangs, and maybe even Vampires, too.
“So that is how they deceived you,” Valtrak said thoughtfully. “But how did they tear Centaurs and Dwarves apart? We have records of actual Centaurs killing off our scouts.”
“I am not sure,” I replied with a shrug.
“Well, all that aside, we still have no way of getting in,” Jaiden said unhappily.
I felt anger and misery curl up inside of me as I sighed. “I suppose we can think of something tomorrow. I say we go to bed.”
Valtrak and Asher were the first watch of the night. For Valtrak it was nothing new, but Asher was nervous, though that was probably still from the atmosphere around Shadowlyn. I curled into my bedroll and listened to the boys talking quietly for a while before drifting off to sleep.
I was shaken out of a sound, dreamless sleep quite suddenly and found myself blearily looking up at Valtrak. He had a very pleased smile on his face.
“What?” I asked, my voice thick with sleep.
His pure violet eyes gleamed with triumph as he said, “You will not believe this Filynora! I found a way in!”