Valla helps one of Shadowforth's youngest children, before the elves and Gray have to leave the village for a couple of days.
Valla kept changing her mind. It seemed like I’d wake up and she’d be telling me that it wasn’t a big deal if I wanted to watch her reach out to her family. It wasn’t our problem if they didn’t like her wanting to be with me. And then the next time I woke up she’d be uneasy again, back to wanting me to hang back and not watch it. I knew what the other elves thought of it; none of them wanted me to see it. Even though they didn’t openly tell me I couldn’t come with.
For a few days beforehand, I left to go hunting with Storm a little more than normal. He was worried about me. And I’d be lying if I claimed to not be worried about him.
The morning that we were going to leave, I woke up to the sound of one of my younger siblings crying. Storm immediately stood up, and walked over.
“What is it, Lily?”
“Ma… Where’s Ma…”
Storm looked around. I also sat up, and looked around. Neither she nor Scout were anywhere inside.
“She’s probably on the porch,” Storm said. “What’s wrong, though?”
At this point, our other siblings were beginning to wake up, some of them glaring at Lily, others starting to cry too. His twin sister, Kitty, crawled to his side and tried to hug him, but he yelped and shifted away from her. She leaned back and looked up at Storm, confused and about to start crying herself.
Storm looked over to me with a deep sigh, before walking to the porch. “Mom? …Mom?” He looked around, and came back in, looking at me. “She’s not there.”
I took a deep breath, and stood up. “Not even Scout is there…? Or Valla?”
“No. Valla’s probably upstairs, getting ready to leave.”
“Maybe she’s up there too, then.” I started to walk out of the room.
“Wait. I’ll go up. You’ve got enough walking to do today as it is…” Storm walked past me, glancing briefly at me over his shoulder and brushing his wing against my arm. But I could tell he was still nervous…
I took a deep breath and went to where Lilly was still sobbing. Kitty had curled up next to him without touching him. I put my hand on Lilly’s knee.
“Where does it hurt, Lilly?”
“Your back hurts?” He nodded. “How long has it hurt for?”
“When I woke up…”
I furrowed my brow. Pains like that weren’t unusual, but they were concerning. “Could you let me see your back where it hurts?”
“No! It hurts!”
“I won’t touch it unless you tell me I can.”
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Then we’ll find her as soon as we can. But if she’s not around you might have to let me or Storm, or the elf Mom has been teaching, look at it in her place so that we can figure out what’s going on, okay?”
Lilly shook his head, and flopped onto his side, facing away from his sister but somehow managing to kick her leg in the process. She flinched and immediately rolled away, crying.
I closed my eyes and turned my face up to the ceiling. It was moments like this that I just wanted to get away from my siblings for a while… and I’d get that chance… but sometimes, moments like this were when my mom needed my help the most.
I heard Storm’s footsteps, with another person’s. I turned around, hoping that it was our mom… but no. It was Valla. As much as I hated to admit it, I had never been more disappointed to see her.
“He’s not even letting me look at his back,” I growled. “Does anyone know where Mom is?”
“Talking to Harold and Sentinel,” Valla said softly, glancing around at the grumpy faces of my siblings as they watched her. Lilly was still sobbing, gasping for breath between sobs.
“Damn it.” I said it under my breath, and shook my head. “Lilly refused to let me look at his back. I don’t know what to do.”
Valla knelt beside me, staring at Lilly’s back. “...Lilly?” He looked up, glaring at her. “If I promise that I can help you, will you let me look at your back?”
Lilly narrowed his eyes. “Promise…?”
“Yes. I promise.” He nodded, and turned over, lifting his shirt over his head. Valla took a close look at his back, and lifted her hand. “Does it hurt near your shoulders, or lower?”
Valla put her hands gently on his back… and then stopped moving. She pressed a little bit on one of his shoulder blades. Storm and I anxiously watched as her hands started glowing, and she pressed a little harder on his back. She opened her mouth, then closed it. With her hand still on his back, she leaned over to me, her cheek almost touching my shoulder.
“I… don’t know how to describe this… but there’s something that doesn’t feel right under his skin. It’s almost like… like he’s growing more bones, but… I don’t know.”
Storm narrowed his eyes, and looked at Lilly’s back. “I can kind of see lumps,” he whispered. “Maybe he’s growing wings…?”
Valla looked at him, and then looked at me, as if trying to tell if he was joking. When she determined that he wasn’t, I saw her start to panic.
“I don’t know what to do,” Valla said. “I promised I’d help but I don’t know how to if that’s… if that’s what it is. I’ve never heard of it before…”
“I’ll tell Mom when she gets back,” Storm said.
“And in the meantime…?” Valla said, before shaking her head. “I can’t just sit here using my healing magic until I’m too tired to continue, and if I stop, he’ll realize I can’t follow through with my promise!”
I put my hand on Valla’s shoulder. “The potions you made. Are there any of those left?”
“Would they help with relieving some of his pain?”
“Yeah. But they’re powerful. Maybe… maybe if they were diluted, in water or in a tea, they would be better for it, and last longer…”
I nodded, and smiled. “There you go. That can be it for the moment, until mom gets back.” I turned to Storm, who nodded.
“Where are they?”
“I’ll show you. They’re on the porch.”
Valla pulled back, and Lilly looked at her with wide eyes.
“Why did you stop?”
“I know. But you felt better for a while?”
“Then I know something that can help you. Storm will be giving it to you while we wait for your mom, okay?”
Lilly nodded, and then buried his face in a fur blanket again. Valla, Storm, and I all walked out of the room. As Valla bent over to get one of the potions, I turned to Storm.
“Storm, are you sure you’re going to be okay here? You, Mom, and Scout?”
Storm smiled at me, but shook his head.
“Gray, I’m going to be worried sick about you. The elves too, but mostly you.”
“I’m more than capable of helping defend people.”
“I know, I know.” Storm stopped for a second, and sighed. “I know you’re not going to be alone. Not technically. But… at the same time… you’re going to be the only one who has been living with the dust for a long time…”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, trying to smile for Storm’s sake. I glanced at Valla. She was holding one of the potions, and standing a few feet away from us.
“We’re not going to let Gray get hurt,” Valla said, tilting her head a little bit and closing her eyes. “None of us know the signs of dust storms and dust as well as she does. Our survival depends on hers. We’re not going to let anything happen to her if we have any say in it at all. That doesn’t mean your concern is unwarranted, though…”
“I don’t need your permission to be worried,” Storm said, looking at the ground. I could tell he was tense, but not trying to be hostile. Valla nodded.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it in that way. I’m just… trying to get across that we’ll all be back in a few days, and with any luck, we’ll have the confidence of our king’s blessing behind us, however much… or little… that might be worth.”
“I hope you’re right,” Storm said. He grabbed my shoulders into a hug, and wrapped his wings around me. “Keep everyone safe, okay, Gray?”
“I will,” I said, returning his hug as tightly as I could. “You keep everyone safe here, yeah?”
The elves decided that the best place for the ritual would be the shore that the elves and Chimeras first met on. The significance of that location to our species helped, though it was far from the main reason they chose it. What was more important, according to Valla, was that it was a place with a clear view of the sky and especially the sun. It was also important that it had a safe place to shelter; while the shelter that we had built for Rune had been destroyed when the battle had been cleaned up, there was a shallow cave nearby that we could shelter in.
As soon as we arrived, we set up the shelter, using cloths to make what the elves called a tent. They made sure the framework was sturdy and that it was possible to pull the cloths so that it was completely enclosed in the event of a dust storm. I helped them with that. As soon as it was over, we were supposed to have the ritual start.
Valla looked pale, as if she was about to pass out. As soon as she caught me looking at her, however, she straightened up, and took a deep breath, before turning to Harold.
“Has anyone… actually explained anything about this to Gray?”
“I haven’t. I felt it was your place, not ours, to do so.”
Valla nodded. Then, she turned to me.
“Gray, there’s something I need to warn you about with this ritual.”
I slowly nodded. “Go on, then.”
The other elves were all around us. Fayne looked at Valla, and then at me, and then back at Valla, before seeming to realize what she was talking about. Safiena and Nayila both looked pale, and Harold was looking away.
“...This ritual is extremely draining for me. Especially over a long distance.”
“You’re going to be okay, right?”
“Of course. I’ll survive. But… I’ll probably… well, I’ll probably pass out pretty quickly afterwards. Most likely, before I can get to the shelter. That’s… part of why I can’t do it alone. Because I need people to be there to catch me in case I collapse. But…” Valla glanced at the other elves. Safiena narrowed her eyes.
“Fayne can do it. He’s the man of the group.” Safiena’s voice was firm. Then, I caught Fayne lifting his lip in what almost seemed like a snarl. Before he could say anything, however, Valla shook her head.
“No. My parents won’t see who catches me, even if they know that Gray is there.” She turned back to me. “Do you… do you think you’d be able to… you know… do that for me…?”
I nodded. “I’ll do it.”
I looked around, and caught Fayne smiling as his sister took a step forward.
“Princess, this is going a step too far.”