The Canvas

IV

"What do you mean, 'Lilianas'?"

"They all looked like Liliana."

"No faces?"

"I mean, after I had drawn a face for her…"

"What, exactly, made them look like Liliana?"

"The short ears, whiskers…"

"Cats!"

"Cats?" Rhapsody sighed, her eyes still closed.

"Yeah. You mean… a bunch of cats brought you here?" Willis scratched his head, "I've heard tales about the King of Strays and his gangs, but didn't know it was real."

"King of Strays?"

"He's supposedly a black and white cat who wears a cape and carries a crown. I've heard him called Cait Sidhe, but I'm not sure if he even has a real name. He's popular in bedtime stories, since he loves to play tricks on unsuspecting people."

"Does he have wings?"

"What? No!"

"But the cats I saw did…"

Willis thought, trying to connect the images. A cat with wings… it almost looked like a chatlagon. In fact, if he mentally extended the neck and made them bigger… "Ah, those are chibbuns, not cats. And before you ask, a chibbun is a baby chatlagon."

"I see."

"Though what in the world chibbuns would be doing around here without adult dragons?"

"Wasn't the one before…?"

"Namd? No, he lives in the Momijiian mountains." Willis sighed, "But he moves around, purging towns left and right. And before you ask!"

"Yes?"

"I won't tell you what that means."

"Oh…" She frowned a little, and then opened her eyes. "Where are the chibbuns?"
"No idea, but if I know them well enough… they're hiding until nightfall." He shrugged, "We might as well sleep now and avoid the trouble."

"Will my head hurt forever?"

"No. Thankfully they did a good job of wrapping you up."

"I see…"

"That's one of your favorite things to say, isn't it? My little sister used to say that all the time. She also asked questions a lot like you do."

Rhapsody listened in silence, not sure of what to say.

"She was about as tall as you when I last saw her, too." He let out a deep sigh. "Mm, but now I'm rambling. Well, like I said, best to try and sleep."

He moved to a corner of the room and sat, closing his eyes. With another sigh, he worked on getting a little rest.

"Sure this is going to work?" Kurl spoke in a whisper, just outside the cabin where Rhapsody and Willis slept. Above the three chibbuns, the moon watched in silence, providing them with somber light.

"It better! Zhil, do you have the bucket?"

"Yeth!" He struggled to stay airborne, carrying an old bucket that just barely held water. His teeth ground against the rusty handle, "Why can'd you carry thith, Tbbl? Your dhe bigger one!"

"Be quiet! Now get in there!"

He grumbled and then slipped in, trying to keep the bucket steady. He could see very clearly in the dark; Rhapsody was holding her brush close in her sleep. That was his first priority- to check the status of the girl. Having done that, he moved over to Willis, who was sound asleep. Struggling, Zhil rose up above Willis, and then unwisely grasped the edge of the bucket with his back feet. With a sharp kick, the bucket tipped, soaking both Zhil and Willis. The young man awoke with a start, only to look up and have the bucket dropped on his head.

"Goddess damn it!" He whipped the bucket off (which landed near Rhapsody, causing her to stir) and suddenly grabbed Zhil by the wing. Holding the chibbun, Willis growled, "What in the HELL are you doing?!?"

"Let me go!!"

"Where are the others?!?"

"I don't know!!"

"Toast him, Zhil!" Kurl shouted through the door.

With a sudden 'foomp', Willis found his eyebrows and hair singed, slight burns on his cheeks. With a cough of smoke, Zhil wriggled free, darting over to Rhapsody who was now sitting upright, trying to hold the loosened bandage over her eyes.

"Damn cat!"

"I'm not a cat!" Zhil hissed, arching his back.

Willis got upright, and then charged! "Rhapsody, don't move!"

"ATTACK!" Tybl and Kurl both shot in through the door before Zhil and Rhapsody, both blowing out light flames. Willis snarled, and then grabbed the two by the tails. "Retreat!!"

"Stop it!" Rhapsody commanded, causing everyone in the room to freeze. "It's giving me a headache…"

"The baby needs more medicine!" Kurl struggled, "Medicine for the baby!!"

"She's NOT a baby!" Willis continued to hold tightly to the two's tails.

"Then what is she?" Zhil scoffed, but ducked behind Rhapsody right after.

"She's a little kid."

"Same difference!" Kurl sighed. "You humans always have to be so specific…"

"Specific, yeah. But what's this nonsense about dropping a bucket on my head?"

"You're going to steal the baby!"

"The baby…" Rhapsody repeated, holding her head which had started pounding with pain. So far, this was the worst she had ever felt and was quietly wishing she could slip back into the endless and warm sleep she had been in for so long…

"I'm not stealing her, I'm helping her! And besides, she's not yours to begin with!"

"We only wanted to help her too!" Zhil hissed a bit, peering out behind Rhapsody. As the argument took off without him, he looked at the girl's expression of sheer pain. Zhil was a little startled by this, and started pawing at her back. "You okay?"

"My head aches…"

"Whatever! The baby needs medicine!!!"

"I told you already, she's NOT a baby!"

"Let us go or die!!" Tybl snarled.

"SHUT UP!" Zhil broke the argument with a long burst of flame. Coughing out a little smoke afterward, he continued, "She's not in good shape, and if we're both helping her…"

"Right…" Willis stared at the two chibbuns in his arms which gave him HUGE, innocent smiles. Dropping them, he grumbled, kneeling before Rhapsody. Digging around in his bag, he pulled out a small jar of medicine and some fresh bandages. "Now hold still…"

He started to unwrap the bandage around the girl's forehead. The crushed herbs stuck to the thick strips of fabric, and left a bit of ooze on her exposed skin. But as he pulled off the last loop, Willis jumped in shock.

"What is it?"

Rhapsody's forehead was torn nearly wide open- but that wasn't what shocked him. He was, somehow, instinctively awaiting the red color he had seen come from Liliana- slowly the blood on Rhapsody's head faded to an off-silver. Very slowly, the startled archer moved his finger and lightly touched the wound, causing the girl to wince.

"STOP HURTING THE BABY!"

"I'm NOT trying to!" Brushing his silver-coated finger off on his cloak, he had a new sense of urgency- "Besides arguing, can you guys tell me where the nearest human settlement is??"

"Uhm," The chibbuns looked at each other. Tybl finally looked back, "We've seen people at the west side of the woods…"

"How many?" Quickly, he had opened the jar and dipped the corner of the new bandage in it, and was trying to clean Rhapsody's gash.

"We- um- there's, um,"

"How MANY??"

"TWO!" Kurl shouted, "No, three! But they attack chatlagons!"

"Probably with reason," he growled, tightly wrapping the bandage. He then moved to pick up Rhapsody. "Listen, I know you don't like being picked up, but we need to hurry you to a doctor. That's a horrible cut that requires more attention than these cats can give you."

"We're NOT cats!"

"Shut up! One of you is going to lead me to where these humans are!"

"But they'll…"

"I don't CARE!"

The three growled, looking at each other. But Kurl and Tybl eventually started staring at Zhil, who was sitting in the middle. Realizing this, he looked between them, then placed a paw on his chest, "Me?"

"Yes you!" Tybl commanded, "Go with them!"

"…" Zhil grumbled. It wasn't worth going against Tybl- he was larger and much stronger than Zhil. With a jump and a flap, the white chibbun was airborne. "Come on, this way!"

Rhapsody had little idea about what was going on… but she didn't care much either way. Her head stung from the fresh application of medicines, and the pounding continued. It seemed to push her farther and farther away from reality, as if again being drawn into that warmth. The sky above, through the canopy, seemed as if it was a smear of lights and darkness. She could hear the sounds of branches snapping, Willis's shoes plodding through leaves, and the heavy flapping of Zhil at top speed. She could feel the breeze run past her face, but most of all… she could feel Willis's heart beat.

How warm were those arms…