Chapter 1: Naidra
Miranda Crawford turned her head away from the bowl of cake mix she was stirring only to see her five year old daughter trying to sneak behind her, an ice cream cone clasped in each small hand.
“Melissa,” the woman asked in surprise, blue eyes widening slightly in curiosity, “Where in the world are you going with those?”
The little girl froze, her unusual golden-green eyes lowering guiltily to the kitchen floor.
“One’s for me.” she replied evasively, as if that would explain everything.
Miranda brushed aside a thick lock of curly auburn hair and gazed steadily down at her younger daughter, “And who is the other one for?” she pressed smoothly.
Melissa glanced quickly from one cone to the other, the chocolate ice cream beginning to melt slightly around the edges in the summer heat.
“For my friend.” the little girl answered quickly. Noticing the ice cream that was leaking down the sides of the cones, she deftly raised each one to her mouth and licked the excess from the smooth, sugary surfaces.
Instantly Miranda relaxed, “Oh, okay then, why didn’t you just say so before?” the woman scolded gently, once more returning her attention to the bowl of cake mix.
Relieved, Melissa didn’t respond, and promptly ran from the kitchen; awkwardly pushing the front door open with her elbow and going outside.
Crossing the yard, she headed confidently towards the towering old oak tree that stood on the very edge of the wide lawn, pausing when she had reached it.
Eyes wide, she looked around, extremely puzzled when she didn’t see anybody.
“Zakk?” she called out softly, becoming a little nervous. He’d just been there a few minutes ago, she fumed to herself, and he’d promised he was going to wait for her to come back!
Suddenly she shrieked as a pale shape fell out of the thick green branches of the old oak and landed in front of her, heart pounding in terror until she got a good look at her `attacker’, who was laughing merrily.
“Zakk!” she snapped in pure outrage, golden-green gaze furious, “I ought to kill you for that!”
Smoothly, the short Fae boy with the slender frame and the oddly delicate features straightened up, brushing the oak leaves off of his fine, blue silk clothes, his violet eyes shining in amusement.
“Awww, come on, `Lissa! It was only a joke,” he protested cheerfully, looking over at her, “My friend Aiden plays them on people all the time!”
Melissa glowered at her white-haired friend, “Well, you’re not Aiden, you’re Zakk!” she responded pointedly, her skinny fingers tightening against the ice cream cones she had managed to keep a hold of even during her sudden fright, “And after what you just did, I really shouldn’t share these with you, but since you’ve never had one before, I will anyway.”
Curious, the boy came closer, staring at the ice cream cones, “What are they?” he asked, gazing at her with a puzzled expression.
“It’s ice cream, silly! What I was telling you about yesterday!” she explained brightly, taking a seat on the soft grass beside the tree and motioning for the boy to do the same.
“Here.” she said, handing him one before starting eagerly on her own.
“Thanks.” he responded, watching her eat for a few moments before he cautiously followed her lead, licking gently at the ice cream cone he held in one hand.
Melissa giggled as he shivered in response to the first taste, “It’s cold!” he exclaimed in wonder.
“Of course it’s cold! That’s why they call it `ice’ cream!” Melissa said with the impatience of most children, “But what do you think of it?”
The boy grinned at her; “It’s great!” he answered cheerfully, attacking his ice cream with eager abandon in between words, “I wish we had something like this back home!”
Melissa simply chuckled, and the two children sat in companionable silence as they both finished their ice cream cones.
When they were done, Melissa looked over at her friend, and giggled, pointing at him.
“You should see your face! It has ice cream all over it!”
Reaching a delicate hand up to his face, Zakk looked at the sticky sweet fluid that covered his fingers and flushed in embarrassment before raising his head to look at her.
“Well,” he defended haughtily, pointing, “You can’t talk, `Lissa, you’ve got it all over your face too!”
Incredulous, she raised her hand up to her own face and was chagrined to discover that the Fae boy had been right; her face `was’ covered in chocolate ice cream!
Glancing back up at him, she didn’t say anything. Instead, after staring at each other’s young, ice cream covered faces; they had both started to laugh.
Her mind stirring at the memory, Melissa was at first dimly aware of a burning discomfort all throughout her body, a burning that gradually intensified until it became a fiery pain that forced a soft whimper from her throat.
“Shhhhhh.” a deep voice whispered soothingly, and a moment later a damp, warm cloth was pressed gently against her forehead, “You need to sleep, little one. It’ll help you get better.”
Relaxing once more, Melissa followed the softly spoken advice, and drifted in and out of a fitful sleep.
Through it all, the searing, fiery pain faded into mere warmth, and then finally, to cold, and she shivered violently against it.
Struggling back to half-wakefulness, Melissa tried to move, but found that she couldn’t. Fighting down her instinctive surge of panic, she held still for a moment and tried to focus on her surroundings without opening her eyes.
Something was covering most of her body; from the tips of her toes all the way up to her shoulders. Whatever it was, it was incredibly warm, much like the wings of a High Fae, but the texture was very different.
Not that it was unpleasant, quite the opposite in fact. It just felt considerably different than the velvety feel of Zakk’s or Aiden’s wings. The surface enveloping her was smooth, and amazingly soft in addition to the soothing heat that it seemed to give off from within.
But through the softness and the warmth was an unmistakable strength, and she knew without having to be told that she would not be able to break free of it unless whatever held her deigned to let her go. Oddly enough, in her current state of mind, she didn’t really care about that.
The fierce coldness of her skin that had emerged from the fiery burn of before was slowly dissipating, being driven away by the gentle force of the warmth she was now wrapped in.
Suddenly, the rim of a wooden bowl was being pressed against her lips, “Here little one,” the deep, soothing voice of before was saying again, “Drink this, it’ll make you stronger.”
Cautiously, Melissa opened her mouth, half-expecting to taste bitter medicine, but instead finding herself swallowing warm, rich broth that filled her empty stomach with comforting warmth.
Obediently draining the bowl, Melissa took a deep breath, and then slowly opened her eyes, blinking a moment before she was able to focus clearly on her surroundings.
She looked down, and couldn’t fully comprehend what she was seeing. She was wrapped in what appeared to be the coils of a ‘very’ large snake. The body was at least three and a half feet wide, and although she couldn’t truly gauge its length since it was currently coiled around her body, she did get the impression that it was impressively long. As for the scales themselves, they were large, and incredibly glossy; shining in the warm light that was being cast off by a torch that was ensconced in the walls of the cave she seemed to be now in, the silky-smooth surface gleaming a deep, bluish-black. As for the rest of the body, that was obscured by the thick shadows that the light of the single torch was unable to penetrate.
“Ahh, so you’ve finally decided to open your eyes, haven’t you little human?” the voice asked gently, abruptly causing Melissa to raise her head, searching for the source of the words.
“Human?” she repeated, startled by the weakness in her voice.
The voice gave a soft laugh, “Yes of course, don’t you know what you are, little one? I can tell you had a glamour on you, but it apparently faded when you were knocked unconscious.”
“When I was knocked-” Melissa murmured, gasping as her memory came rushing back to her, “Zakk! Aiden!” she cried out in alarm, “They must think I’m dead! I was crossing the bridge after them, but something happened, the bridge collapsed, and I fell into the river!”
“Of course you did, that’s where I found you.” the voice said in mild-mannered agreement, “Lucky for you I was out fishing, or you would’ve drowned. Even so, you nearly froze to death. There were several times that I was worried you weren’t going to make it, but you’re stronger than you look.” this last comment was said in obvious admiration.
Melissa inhaled deeply, “You-saved me?” she asked cautiously, trying to pull herself free from the coils that surrounded her, and having no success.
The voice chuckled, “Of course I did, why else would you be here in my cave?”
Getting a sudden, uneasy feeling, Melissa shifted, trying to peer into the shadows that lay just beyond the reach of the torchlight, “Who are you?”
“I’m glad you asked, I’ve been waiting rather impatiently to make introductions.” the voice responded cheerfully, “My name is Naidra.”
Suddenly, she detected movement, and a second later, the figure of a man appeared in front of her, her eyes level with his own. Well, half of a man, that is. Naidra was human-like in form from the waist up, his bare chest and shoulders strong, hairless, and nicely muscled, but it soon became apparent that from the waist down, the body of the powerful black serpent she was wrapped in was none other than his own.
Filled with panic, Melissa tried to struggle free, “Nagae!” she sputtered in horror, fighting to kick with her legs and flailing desperately with her arms.
Smoothly, Naidra tightened his coils around her in a firm, but certainly not painful grip, effectively holding her still. “Easy, little one.” he reproved gently, “I’m not going to hurt you. It really wouldn’t make much sense if I saved you from the river just to kill you, now would it?”
Forcing herself to calm down, Melissa thought his words through and decided they made sense. Why `would’ he save her life just to hurt her later? But still, remembering what Zakk and Aiden had said about the Nagae, she couldn’t help but feel at least a little skeptical.
“But-” she protested a bit shakily, “You’re a Nagae-”
“Naga.” Naidra interrupted smoothly, “Nagae is what we’re called as a people, `Naga’ is used to refer to just one of us.”
“Okay,” Melissa continued, “You’re a Naga. My friends told me that Nagae are vicious hunters that attack people for no reason, if that’s true, then why did you save me?”
Naidra laughed, “Oh, the High Fae are still spreading those rumors? I think they just don’t like us because we eat meat, and we’re not as pretty to look at as they are. But, as to the attacks,” he sighed, a flash of weariness entering his expression, “Some of my tribe are an unfriendly lot, and they have attacked High Fae travelers who have tried to pass through the Frozen Mountains. But I’m not part of them, I live alone.”
Startled, she raised her eyes and took a closer look at him. His skin was incredibly pale, even more so than Zakk’s, or at Crystalstar palace, than Gaelan’s had been; a smooth grayish-white. His arms were as strong looking as his shoulders and chest, and were bare as well, except for the leather armbands that he wore on them from wrist to just below his elbow.
His features were finely chiseled, not as delicate as the King’s foster son but not far from it, either, and like Gaelan, Naidra’s ears were sharply pointed. His hair was long and wavy, flowing down to the middle of his back in stunning, dark black waves.
But it was his eyes that demanded the most attention, at least initially. Although identical in shape to the eyes of a human or high Fae, they were a piercing, brilliant red, and the pupils were long slits, exactly like the eyes of a viper.
Casually, the Naga licked his lips in an absent gesture, and Melissa jumped against his restraining coils when she saw his forked tongue and, when he smiled in response to her startled reaction, the pair of slender, ivory-white fangs that looked incredibly sharp.
In spite of herself, she glanced down; dimly observing the way the smooth skin of his waist flowed perfectly into the expanse of silky black scales that made up the powerful frame of his serpent’s body.
“So, you’re different from the attackers?” she finally managed to find her voice again, feeling a little dazed by everything that had happened to her in such a short period of time.
Naidra grinned and nodded, “Yes indeed. You see, there are those in my clan that think our kind is better than everyone else just because we hunt for most of our food. They say that the High Fae are soft and weak because they won’t kill animals for their meat. I don’t think so, `different race, different taste’.” he responded lightly, “So some of them think they can just attack any non-Naga that comes into the Frozen Mountains; as if we owned the mountains anyway. It’s ridiculous, I didn’t agree with them doing that to other people, and the leader of our clan wasn’t doing anything to stop it because-” he sighed again, that same troubled look as before flickering across his expression before he continued, “Well, he just wasn’t. So I left our caves and made my own home here.”
“I see.” Melissa replied, relaxing, “Naidra, was it?” at his affirmative nod, she continued, “Thank you for saving me. I’m sorry if I freaked out, but, after what my friends told me about the Nagae-”
Naidra chuckled, raising a hand to gently wave off her apology, causing her to notice that instead of fingernails, each finger was tipped with a sharp claw, “Oh, don’t worry yourself about that.” he told her in a friendly voice, “It’s perfectly understandable, given the source. And as I said before, you’re lucky it was me who found you.” For a moment he paused, looking at her, “By the way, what’s your name?” he asked, “I like to know the name of the person that I’m speaking to.”
Melissa flushed, guilty that she had forgotten her manners, “It’s Melissa.” she responded, a bit sheepishly.
Naidra smiled, his fangs still a slightly disconcerting sight, “A lovely name.” he commented frankly, “For a lovely girl, I’ve never seen a human before, but if you’re any example, then it’s a sad thing indeed that our two worlds are separate.”
Melissa blushed; in spite of the utterly alien nature of his appearance, and despite his remark about his kind not being as `pretty’ as the High Fae, the Naga could not be called ugly by any means, and she was flattered by the compliment.
“Thanks.” she stammered, trying to shift position in his coils, “Though, since I’m fine now, could you please let me up?”
“Hmmmmmmm,” Naidra murmured, his upper body drawing closer before he put his hand lightly against her forehead. He allowed his fingers to rest against her skin for a moment before he lowered them to touch her cheek, and then her shoulders.
Wondering what he was doing, she nevertheless held still until he pulled his hand away, gazing at her with a thoughtful expression before speaking, “Your skin doesn’t feel cold anymore.” he answered finally, tilting his head, “I suppose it’d be safe to let you sit up by yourself.”
Slowly, he unwound her from his powerful coils, allowing the girl’s body to slip free from them. She landed on a pile of warm, thick furs, obviously what he had been laying on himself; and it was then she realized that she didn’t have any clothes on.
Instantly she shrieked, grabbing one of the furs and pulling it over her naked form, “Where the heck are my clothes?” she demanded in outrage, “You- you pervert!”
The Naga seemed both surprised and amused by her reaction, grinning broadly enough to display his fangs, “Don’t be so upset, little one.” he responded calmly, “I didn’t do it for my benefit, I did it for yours. When I got you back to the cave, your clothes were almost frozen to your body and you were half-dead from the cold water. I had to warm your body up or you would’ve died, and I couldn’t really get you warm if you were covered in thick, ice-covered clothes, now could I?”
Listening to the reasonable tone of his words, Melissa forced herself to relax, “I guess you’re right.” she admitted reluctantly, still clutching the fur against her chest, “But in any case, where are my clothes now? I’m not going to walk around here naked!”
Naidra laughed, “Humans are like the High Fae then?” he queried in amusement; “Both of your races are so modest! My people don’t wear any coverings, except for jewelry.”
“That’s different,” she argued quickly, “Because-” Why? She asked herself just as suddenly, because Nagae aren’t as human-looking as the High Fae?
“Why is it different?” Naidra asked the same question out loud, “Because our bodies are shaped differently? I assure you that makes no difference. It’s merely a matter of personal choice. For example,” he added, giving her a playful wink, “I think we’re actually very much alike, despite appearances. Your skin is as soft as any scale.”
Instantly, color flooded her cheeks, and she struggled to hide her embarrassment, “Anyway!” she repeated for the third time, “Where did you put my clothes?”
The Naga laughed at her expression, but obediently turned away, sliding across the smooth stone of the cavern floor with an incredible swiftness, his bluish-black serpent’s body making almost no noise at all as he vanished momentarily from sight, but soon returned, bearing the bundle of her clothes in his strong arms.
Handing them to her, Naidra politely turned his back as she quickly pulled the now-dry clothes back on. When she was dressed, she managed to stagger to her feet, taking several steps away from the pile of sleeping furs.
“There.” she said in satisfaction, relieved beyond measure to be clothed again in the presence of a strange male, non-human or not. “Thank you again for saving my life, Naidra, but I have to be going now, my friends are probably worried sick about me!”
Before he had a chance to argue, she had boldly moved to walk away, giving a soft cry of alarm when she abruptly lost her footing, stumbling forward.
With almost lightning reflexes, Naidra was suddenly there in front of her. He caught her in his arms, pulling her against his chest for support, and gently picked her up, carrying her back to the fur pile.
“You may be alive, and stronger than you were, little one.” he scolded softly, laying her on her back against the soft surface of the furs, curling his own warm, serpentine body around her in a protective circle a moment later, “But you’re still too weak to go anywhere on your own. Don’t worry about your friends, when you’ve regained enough strength, I’ll help you find them. It’s too dangerous for you to leave anyway,” he added, looking grim, “My cave is close by the lairs of the rogue Nagae I told you about, and I don’t like to think what might happen to you if you’re discovered by one of them.”
“But, Naidra-” she protested, trying to sit up, and gasping when he used his clawed hands to gently push her back down.
“No arguments.” he said firmly, reaching up to lightly brush back her hair with a careful touch, his claws tickling her skin, “Now, go to sleep, little one, or do I have to hold you again to make sure you listen to good advice?”
Realizing that the Naga meant that he would pin her in his coils if she didn’t do as he asked, Melissa’s shoulders slumped in defeat, and she obediently relaxed against the soft furs.
Gazing at her, Naidra smiled, “That’s a good girl.” he said in approval, lowering himself until his human-like half was curled beside her on the makeshift bed, “Now, let’s get some sleep, and we’ll talk some more in the morning.”
As she closed her eyes, Melissa thought over the recent events that had befallen her, and she couldn’t help but wonder, how are Zakk and the others? And how in the world am I going to get away from Naidra?
“We can’t go on.” Zakk said in a hollow voice, his violet eyes staring almost lifelessly down at the icy river below.
The young Fae Lord was still in the same position he had been in for over an hour, kneeling at the very edge of the precipice where the stone bridge had once stood.
Loquin wasn’t sure what she should do. Lord Zakkaerion had dropped to his knees during his soul-shattering cry as the bridge had collapsed, taking Melissa with it.
Aiden had not said a word, but had only stood there beside his pale-haired friend, tears streaming silently down his handsome face.
As for Loquin herself, she was, as she believed Lord Zakkaerion himself to be, in shock. Although she had known full well this journey to the Frozen Mountains was going to be dangerous, she had never in her worst nightmares imagined that anything like this was going to happen.
For one thing, it was all too sudden. One moment, Melissa had been making valiant progress crawling across the bridge, and the next, she was just...gone.
And Loquin knew without a shadow of a doubt, that Melissa’s final, terror-filled cry was going to haunt her for the rest of her life.
“We have to go on.” Loquin said suddenly, straightening her shoulders and raising her chin, “Melissa was part of our group. She accepted the risks of this mission just as we did. Even after this, we still have to make it to the summit and get the Dreamthorn of White from Alluenyah!”
The white-haired Fae Lord did not even turn his head in response. Instead, he gave a bitter, self-depreciating laugh that made him sound far older than he was, “How can you talk of missions when we’ve lost her?” he demanded in a low voice that was totally devoid of the vitality and life that characterized the gentle Fae, “She, who, by all rights, should’ve been safely back at her home working in her flower garden right now!”
Zakkaerion suddenly stood, his slender fists clenching at his sides, “This is my fault! I knew the danger! As a noble and as the Lord of Shimmercliff it’s my duty to protect those under my care! Melissa was exiled in this world, separated from everything she’d ever known; it was my responsibility to take care of her! When I first learned of the King’s request I should’ve insisted she remain at the manor where it was safe!”
Loquin gazed at him steadily, a stern expression on her lovely face, “Blaming yourself isn’t going to bring her back, Lord Zakkaerion.” she said in a calm, level voice, “And even though I’m sad about what’s happened, I know we have to go on; there’s too much at stake here. And I know Melissa would have wanted us to keep going on without her.”
Abruptly, Zakkaerion whirled around; sudden anger burning in his amethyst eyes, “What do you know of Melissa?” he demanded harshly, his normally gentle voice ragged, “`Lissa has been my friend since I was five years old, my best friend! Even though we were separated from each other for fourteen years, she’s been in my heart every single day of my life! We shared everything with each other, our hopes, our fears, our dreams, we completed each other! So don’t even claim to know what she would have wanted! I knew her; I knew her better than anyone else in either of our worlds!”
“And I promised her that I’d take care of her here, I promised her-” as quickly as a storm passing at sea, the anger drained from the Fae’s face, his violet eyes darkening visibly in grief as he broke off, tears spilling down his delicate, pale cheeks as he suddenly began to sob.
Although proud by her very nature as a noble, Loquin was still a kind person at heart, and she was gifted with a keen understanding of people’s emotions.
Had it been any other person who had snapped at her like that, she would have gotten angry, but now, seeing the young Lord’s composure wither like a flower under summer heat, she felt nothing but gentle pity towards him.
Another person might have been moved by his tears into an attempt to comfort him, but Loquin knew better.
Grief-stricken or not, Lord Zakkaerion was still a noble, the same as she; and most nobles preferred to deal with emotional matters on their own.
Any outward gesture of sympathy or comfort would probably only be met with a rebuff, and so the Fae girl did what she knew was the wisest thing; she stood where she was and left him alone to loudly sob out his grief.
As for Aiden, the red-headed Fae had long since run out of tears, he had already cried them all; starting from the moment he had been forced to watch, helpless, as the gentle, pretty human girl had fallen screaming into the rushing waters of the river far below.
And although he knew it was selfishly wrong, the fact that she had fallen screaming Zakk’s name, and not his, had cut straight to his heart.
He had only known her for a short period of time, but already he felt like she had won a special place in his heart that no one else had ever filled before.
It was more than just looks… Aiden knew dozens of lovely girls, and Oberon knew that he had flirted with over half of them, but Melissa was different, and it wasn’t just because she was human, either.
Oh, she was pretty, no one could deny that, Aiden especially, but there was so much more to her than that. Melissa was quite possibly the most caring, gentle person he had ever known in all of his twenty-three years. He had never known anyone who was as caring as she was, as friendly or as willing to help someone or listen to their problems.
Well, except perhaps Zakk, but Aiden’s feelings for the pale-haired Fae Lord were far different than the ones he held for the young human woman.
During the past few weeks he felt he had grown steadily closer to her, especially after the night that he had comforted her over the loss of her home.
At the memory of her slender, crying form in his arms, he was forced to bite back another wave of tears. He couldn’t believe she was gone, of all of them who could’ve fallen into the river, why did it have to be her?
Why? When he had just started to explore his true feelings for her? Why did it all have to be taken away?
Suddenly, his eyes widened as he sensed something, far in the distance… but still unmistakably there.
Lately, he’d slowly become aware of an emotional bond that somehow seemed to exist between Melissa and himself.
As distracted as they had all been with the murder of Zakk’s father and the journey to the capitol, he had not truly noticed it until that night he had gone to comfort her in her room. Even despite the considerable distance that his bedroom had been from her own; he had still felt a sharp pang of sorrow and despair, and he had known that those feelings had not been his, but hers.
And the other night, when he had been upset over Zara’s disappearance, she had come to him as if she had sensed his troubled emotions.
And now, just by having his thoughts focused on Melissa herself, and not with his grief over her assumed death, Aiden found that he felt something in the distance; a faint whisper of emotion that `felt’ like the human girl.
“Zakk!” Aiden said urgently; hope filling his voice, “Melissa isn’t dead!”
Slowly, the white-haired Fae raised his head, his eyes still glistening with tears, “That’s impossible, Aiden, you saw her fall, you saw her go under the water, and you saw the river sweep her away.”
Aiden shook his head impatiently, “I know, but that doesn’t mean she was killed!”
Loquin glanced over at them, her amber eyes unusually solemn, “Aiden,” she said quietly, for probably the first time calling him by his name, “Be realistic. Even if the fall didn’t kill her, and she didn’t drown, that water has to be freezing. The cold would have killed her in a matter of minutes.”
“You don’t understand!” he said desperately, clenching his fists, “I `know’ she’s alive! I can feel her!”
Bewildered, Zakk looked over at his childhood friend, “Feel her?” he asked hesitantly, “What do you mean?”
“I mean I can `feel’ her emotions.” Aiden responded quickly, “And if she’s still having emotions, then she can’t be dead!”
Loquin raised her eyebrow, “You can feel Melissa’s emotions?” she asked, clearly skeptical, “And how long have you been able to do this? I thought your power was fire.”
Aiden barely glanced at her; focusing his attention on Zakk, who was staring at him with an unbelieving expression, “It is, but this isn’t part of my personal power. It’s something that’s happened over these past few weeks. Ever since I used the Dreamthorn on her, I’ve felt a, I don’t know exactly how to put it into words, a connection with her. I can sense her feelings, and I think she can sense mine too.”
For the first time since Melissa had fallen off of the bridge, Aiden saw faint hope begin to blossom in the Fae Lord’s violet eyes, “And if that’s really true, you say you can sense something from her now?” he asked cautiously.
Aiden nodded, “Yes, I can. It feels like she’s…” he paused, tilting his fiery head to one side as he closed his eyes; focusing on the human girl and concentrating for a few moments, “It feels like she’s worried.”
“After falling down a ravine and into an icy river, I think I’d be worried too.” Loquin muttered under her breath.
Slowly, Zakk took a deep breath, gazing at his friend steadily, “If what you say is true,” he said thoughtfully, his wings twitching in agitation, “Then even if there’s only the slightest chance Melissa is still alive, we have to take it. We’re going to track the river and look for her.”
Aiden smiled broadly, and Loquin looked startled, “But, Lord Zakkaerion,” she protested, “What about Alluenyah and the Dreamthorn?”
The young Fae Lord barely glanced at her, “Lady Loquinakin, I know the importance of our mission as well as you do. But if given the choice between saving Melissa’s life or acquiring the Dreamthorn of White, then I’m afraid Alluenyah is going to have a very long wait.”
Yawning, Melissa stretched out her arms and legs, gasping in surprise when her hand brushed against warm, smooth scales.
Startled, she raised her head, only to see the outline of the Naga’s sleeping form in the dim light of the torch which had burnt down over a period of several hours.
Slowly, she remembered where she was and what had happened to her, and cautiously sat up.
For a few moments, she merely sat there on the pile of soft furs, considering her options.
She had to find the others, that much was obvious at least. They thought she was dead, and she couldn’t just let her friends go on believing that any longer than they had to.
But what exactly are you supposed to do? You don’t even know where you are! That river could have carried you anywhere!
Well, just use your brain, Melissa, she told herself in irritation. The Nagae live in the Frozen Mountains, right? So it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re still somewhere on them.
So, you’re just going to get up, walk out of the cave, and start climbing the mountain again? She asked herself. Pretty much, she answered almost cheerfully, you don’t really have much choice in the matter, and the others are probably still near the summit where you fell.
But Naidra warned you that it would be dangerous to go by yourself, and what about those other Nagae, he said they `had’ attacked people, she reminded herself, suddenly hesitant.
Instantly, she grit her teeth, annoyed at her own hesitation. Why are you just sitting here talking to yourself? She demanded inwardly, I don’t care if it’s dangerous or not, I have to find Zakk and the others and let them know I’m all right, and I can’t just sit around and wait for snake-man over there to wake up and escort me!
Cautiously, she glanced over at Naidra. He had apparently moved in his sleep, and his human-like torso was laying on his stomach only a foot or two away from her.
The serpentine lower half of his body had been coiled completely around her when he had fallen asleep, forming a circle of warm, scaly flesh, but now that he had shifted; he had left a small area of the sleeping furs open.
Slowly, Melissa rose to her feet, holding her breath until she had safely passed the Naga without waking him up. I feel sort of bad about sneaking off like this; she thought to herself as she cautiously followed a faint source of light towards the entrance of the cave.
It feels wrong to just run away without telling him anything; Naidra did save my life after all. But I can’t wait any longer; I have to get out of here and find Zakk. Aiden and Loquin too…
Filled with new resolve, Melissa continued to follow the light. A few minutes later, she emerged from the entrance of Naidra’s cave, finding herself standing on a small hillside, her feet ankle-deep in snow.
It appeared to be mid-morning, though it was hard to tell since there wasn’t a sun in the sky, she mused ironically.
Gazing around, she felt a surge of relief. Good, I am still on the Frozen Mountains, she thought. But the ground’s a lot more level than it was on the way up here; I must be on the other side of the summit then.
Hearing the rush and gurgle of running water, she saw the same river she had fallen into, now flowing peacefully near the cave. The current must have swept me downstream, she realized dimly.
Craning her neck, her gaze traveled steadily upward, coming to rest at last upon the tall pinnacle of stone gleaming in the distance.
That is the summit of the Frozen Mountains! She thought, her eyes shining, if I just head for that, then I should run into Zakk and the others in no time!
Eagerly, she started forward, her boots crunching through the snow with light, crisp sounds. On the edge of the hillside, she located a rugged path, and after seeing that it wound in the direction of the summit, she decided to follow it.
Walking on for several minutes, she stopped suddenly, staring in front of her with a newly bewildered expression.
The path she was on had unexpectedly forked into three different directions. The center one continued straight up; and the other two curved around the side of the mountain, disappearing into the unseen distance.
Hmmm, the logical thing to do would be to follow the path that goes up, she thought to herself intently. But if Alluenyah really doesn’t like people coming to visit her, then she wouldn’t have made it so easy.
But, if that’s true, which way should I go… left, or right? For a few moments, she merely stood there, thinking, and then she grinned. Well, if Avaelon is anything like back home, then most people here are right-handed.
And since a right-handed person would usually choose the right-hand path, it would make sense for the right path to be the left one instead! Without hesitating, Melissa started off on the left path, smiling to herself. It’s a good thing that I’m left-handed, she thought a bit smugly.
She had no sooner walked more than a few steps, when she heard a low chuckle of amusement come from behind her.
Whirling around, she caught sight of a large figure, and when she had gotten a closer look at it, her heart froze in her chest, instinctively making her take a step back.
It was another Naga, but this one was definitely not the one who had saved her life. Although she wasn’t sure how she could tell, she thought he seemed to be roughly the same age as Naidra; in his late twenties or somewhere around that figure. He was slightly smaller than Naidra as well; not as powerful looking, though he was still more than a match for her by any means.
His hair was short, with spiky bangs, and it was a pale blonde that contrasted sharply with the shimmering hue of his lavender-colored eyes which were her intently, the pupils slitted the same as Naidra’s had been.
Also like Naidra, his arms and chest were bare, although he wore shining silver armbands around each wrist. The scales of his slender, serpentine body glistened a beautiful, silvery-white.
Looking amused, the Naga tilted his head slightly, gazing at her with his flower-colored eyes that made him seem lovely and harmless, though Melissa knew with some inner sense that he was not.
“I’m impressed girl.” he said in a light, casual voice, “Most people who come to the mountains choose the wrong paths. You must be very clever to have picked the right trail.”
Cautiously, she took another step back, “I’m not that smart.” she replied evasively, inwardly wondering what she was supposed to do. The night before, she had seen how fast Naidra was capable of moving, and that had just been a casual pace. If she tried to run, he would probably be more than capable of catching her.
As if reading her thoughts, the Naga laughed, “I wouldn’t bother trying to run if I were you. You may think you’re pretty fast, but I can assure you that I’m much faster. Besides, you haven’t met my friends yet.”
Melissa swallowed, trying to contain her apprehension, “Friends?” she asked, unable to keep a tremor from her voice.
The Naga smiled, displaying slender white fangs, “Indeed.” he responded, “Well friends, why don’t you come out and say hello to the lovely girl?”
Melissa gasped as several more Nagae appeared; five in all, from behind the large boulders that seemed to abound on the mountainside. They were all young and male, like the first one, and all were looking at her with expressions that she didn’t like in the least.
With a sense of ease obviously acquired from long practice, they surrounded around her in a loose semi-circle, there was a slight space between each one, and one side of the semi-circle was open, but in order to make a break for it, she would have to bring herself within touching range of all of them, and she was sure doing that would be a bad idea.
“Well, look what you’ve caught for us today, something a little different.” one of the new Nagae commented smoothly, his slitted dark eyes gleaming as he studied her much in the same way a snake would observe a wounded bird, which was oddly accurate, Melissa thought with a nervous tremble entering her slight frame.
“Yes.” the first Naga responded, his pleasant voice drawn out slightly into a soft hiss, “Interesting, isn’t she?”
Suddenly, a clawed hand brushed exploringly against her back, “She’s not High Fae,” one of the other Nagae commented even as she jumped away from his curious touch, “she doesn’t have any wings.”
“No,” the blonde-haired Naga answered, gazing at her, “she’s not High Fae. She’s not any kind of Fae at all, are you girl? She’s Human.”
Melissa didn’t bother to answer him, trying to keep as far away from any of the Nagae as she could; though, with all of them surrounding her, it was a difficult task at best.
“A human?” the Naga who had touched her asked in amazement, and in spite of herself; Melissa turned around to look at him, “I didn’t know humans could get into Avaelon.”
He seemed to be the youngest of the group, about sixteen or seventeen at most. His hair was roughly shoulder-length, curly, and was a pale shade of chestnut brown. His eyes were a strange color, a pale hue that seemed to shift from blue to green at any given moment, like the ever-changing waters of the sea.
“No Jannus; humans aren’t supposed to be able to cross into our world on their own. She must have a friend among the High Fae.” the blonde Naga replied casually, “Not that it matters much anymore, she’s here now.” he added, sliding closer to her across the snow, smiling widely enough to show his fangs when she deliberately took a step back.
“Now now,” he scolded, “Where’s the fun if you won’t let any of us get close to you?”
Melissa scowled, beginning to become angry at him despite the obvious danger she was in. One thing she could honestly say about herself, she could only be scared for so long, and then she would get angry. And right now, the pale-haired Naga was about to make her cross that very thin line.
“That’s sort of the idea.” she replied in an even voice, glaring at him.
He laughed, “But it’s certainly not half as entertaining as it could be.” he said in a low voice that she didn’t like, though not as much as she didn’t like the look he was directing at her.
“She’s pretty.” The young Naga, Jannus, commented suddenly, reaching out to touch her lightly on the shoulder, “Strange-looking, but still pretty.”
One or two of the other Nagae hissed in response, and though she wasn’t sure, she had a distinct feeling that they had agreed with his opinion.
“Watch yourself, young one.” the blonde-haired Naga warned Jannus distinctly, his lavender eyes gleaming with a dangerous expression, “I found her, so she’s mine.”
Obediently, the young Naga pulled his hand away from her and backed away, his emerald-green scales shining against the whiteness of the snow.
Instantly, Melissa turned her head to glower at him, “I don’t belong to anyone, creep,” she couldn’t stop herself from snapping in defiance, “Least of all to you!”
The Naga chuckled in response, sounding deeply amused, “Well well,” he said in a pleasant tone, sliding closer to her, “A female with spirit.” he remarked, smiling at her and running his forked tongue slowly over his sharp fangs, “Good. That’s just the way I like them.”
As he came even closer, Melissa stepped away once again, “Don’t you even think about touching me, snake eyes, I mean it!” she snapped in warning, glaring at him.
The Naga threw back his head and laughed, making her shudder when she heard the strange, hissing quality it possessed.
“Oh, you are a darling, aren’t you?” he said in amusement, lowering his head and gazing at her as if to memorize every detail of her face, “And what exactly are you going to do to stop me, pretty one?”
Feeling queasy waves of fear begin to stab through her stomach; Melissa caught sight of a dead piece of tree branch lying on the snow only a few feet away.
Quickly, before any of the Nagae had a chance to react, she dove forward; catching hold of the jagged piece of wood and brandishing it in front of her like a makeshift sword.
The Naga’s lavender eyes gleamed in response, though he didn’t seem angry, and the other Nagae laughed, some of them in obvious delight, others in amusement.
“Brave too.” the Naga murmured in a soft, intimate whisper that still had that faint, hissing edge to it.
The next instant, his silver-white tail had swung forward in a flash of almost blinding speed, knocking her legs out from under her, leaving her gasping for breath as she landed on her back in the snow, the branch flying from her grasp.
For a moment, she lay there, stunned at first, then shaking in fear as the Naga glided over to her, smoothly reaching down and taking her hands in his own, smiling as he pulled her to her feet, deliberately holding her against his body.
Ignoring her frantic struggles, he caught both of her wrists firmly in the grip of one of his hands, using the other to clasp her chin and tilting her head back so she was forced to look into his eyes.
“Now, pretty one,” the Naga breathed huskily, his mouth hovering uncomfortably close to her lips, “What shall I do with you?”
“Nothing.” a familiar, darkly angry voice announced suddenly, a bare instant before a large fist connected with her captor’s face, forcing him to release her as he was knocked violently back by the sheer force of the blow.
Gasping, Melissa staggered back, looking up and feeling relief beyond measure when she saw Naidra beside her, an expression of outrage and fury on his face.
Quickly, the raven-haired Naga moved in front of her, protecting her with his own body.
“Back off Kall,” Naidra said in a clearly warning voice, addressing the Naga he had just knocked down, “If you ever touch her again, I swear I’ll make you regret that you were ever hatched!”
Slowly, the pale Naga Kall; righted himself once more, raising a hand to the side of his face where a vividly purple bruise had already started to form.
“Naidra…” Kall responded in a low, hissing voice that sounded very much like an angry snake, if a snake had suddenly been given the ability to speak, “What right do you have to interfere with me in this matter?”
Naidra’s red eyes narrowed, “What right have I? You attack an innocent girl, were going to assault her, and you dare question my right to interfere?”
One corner of Kall’s mouth twitched upwards into a cruel smile, “I found the girl on our paths; that makes her mine, to do with what I will.”
He gazed at her so intensely after saying this that she shuddered in response, stepping closer to the black-tailed Naga.
“I pulled her out of the river last night.” Naidra replied promptly, “Therefore, it appears that I have first claim on her, not you.”
Kall gave a scornful laugh, “So you say. But have you any witnesses to support your claim? My hunters watched me track her, and they were all here as my witnesses when I captured her as well.”
Naidra glowered at the smaller Naga, “I don’t need witnesses; I speak the truth.”
“Oh, come now, Naidra! You know as well as I do that your lofty claims won’t make Barak take your side in this matter! Face it; you have no proof to back up your claim on the girl, so she is mine. Give her to me now, or must I reclaim her by force?” Kall questioned in a pleasant, yet still clearly dangerous voice.
Naidra gave a soft, angry hiss, and it made her jump because she had never heard him hiss before.
“We shall see who she belongs to, Kall.” he said calmly, before turning abruptly around and catching her by the shoulders, deftly pulling her jacket from her and tossing it to the ground.
“Naidra?” she asked hesitantly, nervous, but not yet frightened, even when the Naga pulled her towards him until her back was pressed against his chest.
“Shhhhhh, little one.” he soothed, his clawed fingers gently pushing her thick hair away from the left side of her neck, clasping the collar of her shirt and pulling it back to expose the skin underneath.
Kall gave a sudden, startled hiss, “You wouldn’t dare!” he said, disbelief apparent in his voice.
“Wouldn’t I?” Naidra replied in a level tone, using one arm to hold her against his chest while his free hand gently tilted her head to the right, the delicately sharp points of his claws stroking the soft skin of her exposed neck.
A moment later, she shifted slightly when she felt the heat of his breath against her skin, and when his tongue gently caressed her neck, she gasped. “Naidra!” she demanded, beginning to become a little alarmed, “What are you doing?”
“It’s all right, little one.” Naidra responded softly, “I promise you I’m not going to harm you. Now, please be still, and it won’t hurt as much.”
“What won’t hurt as much?” she asked in a voice that was edged with panic, giving a sharp cry of pain as the next moment, Naidra quickly sank his fangs into the soft flesh of her neck.
Instinctively, Melissa struggled, but the Naga was easily twice as powerful as she was, and he held her effortlessly.
After a few moments, she forced herself to calm down; telling her frantic mind that panic wasn’t going to help her. And, she reasoned, it didn’t really hurt anymore; rather like giving blood, once the initial sharp sting of his teeth piercing her flesh was over, she felt only the warmth of his lips against her neck.
A moment later, Naidra raised his mouth from her skin, raising his hands to gently but firmly clasp her shoulders. “You all know our traditions.” he stated firmly, gazing at the other Nagae with an unyielding expression on his face, “She now bears my marks, my scent. All that I have is now hers to share, my clan is her clan; my kin are her kin, so says the law of our ancestors.”
It all sounded incredibly formal to Melissa, and she still wasn’t sure what was going on, only that her neck was throbbing slightly where Naidra had bitten her, and that Kall did not look very happy at the moment.
The blonde-haired Naga hissed in pure fury, his pale, flower-colored eyes narrowing, “I will not forget this, Naidra!” he spat, his silver-white tail lashing angrily against the snow.
Naidra smiled in grim amusement, “What’s done is done cousin.” he replied smoothly, turning his head to gaze at the other Nagae who were still gathered around, simply watching, “You all are my witnesses, are you not?”
One of the older Nagae, with short, reddish-gold hair, nodded solemnly, his pale gray eyes serious; “We are your witnesses, as our traditions decree.” Slowly, he slid forward, coming to rest in front of Melissa.
Instantly, she tried to pull away, uncertain, but Naidra gently held her shoulders, “It’s all right, little one, he won’t hurt you now, none of them will.”
The red-haired Naga reached out to gently clasp her face in his hands, “Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, you are clan, you are kin.” he said formally, releasing her and going back to the others.
One by one, the others did the same. Kall, still hissing angrily, was last, and when he clasped her face, he lightly ran his claws against her skin, ignoring Naidra’s warning scowl.
“Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, you are clan, you are kin.” Kall said softly, his slitted lavender eyes gazing intently into her own. Abruptly, he let go of her, moving towards his companions.
“Next time you won’t be so lucky, Naidra,” Kall hissed, glaring at the larger, more powerful Naga, “Mark my words, I will find a way to pay you back for this insult!”
Naidra nodded smoothly, “As you wish, cousin. Perhaps someday we shall see which of us is stronger.”
Giving a final, furious hiss, the blonde-haired Naga whirled around and slithered down the path until he was soon out of sight. Gradually, the others slowly followed, the young one, Jannus, actually giving her a friendly wave before he left, and the older, red-haired one parted with the final comment, “You and Kall always did have unique tastes, Naidra.”
When the other Nagae were gone, he released her, gazing down at her with a disapproving expression.
“Little one,” he demanded, “What in Avaelon’s name did you think you were doing? Do you even realize what would have happened to you if I hadn’t woken up when I did and found you gone?”
Melissa bit her lip, glancing down at the snow in guilt, “I had to leave,” she replied, a little stubbornly, “I have to find my friends, they’re somewhere near the top of the mountain, and they probably think I’m dead! I have to let them know I’m all right!”
Naidra sighed, running his fingers through his thick hair, “I understand, little one. You had good reason to worry, and I’m not angry at you, only my cousin.”
Cautiously, Melissa raised her hand to her neck, wincing when felt the two neat, slightly sore puncture wounds where Naidra had bitten her, “Anyway, what was that all about?” she demanded, a little annoyed, “What the heck did you bite me for?”
The Naga smoothly bent down, picking up her coat and handing it back to her. While she put it on, he gazed at her serenely.
“It was the only thing I could do to make them leave you alone.” he responded slowly, “And to dispute Kall’s claim on you. According to the traditions of our people, by biting you and marking you with my scent, I’ve made you my mate.”
“What?” Melissa shrieked, jumping away from him, her golden-green eyes wide with a mixture of horror and disbelief, “I am not your mate!”
Naidra looked at her, laughing softly, “Not in truth, only in title and custom.” he replied lightly, smiling as he reached up to casually wipe away the traces of blood that were still on his lips, `her’ blood, she realized with a jolt, shuddering a little.
“But,” he continued, “Because of what I’ve done, you no longer need to have any fear of my people. As my mate, you are now a member of my clan. My kin are your kin, and any Naga will be honor-bound to protect you.”
Slowly, Melissa nodded, “All right.” she said finally, calming down, “Then I guess I should thank you. Thank you for saving me again.”
Naidra smiled, “Think nothing of it, little one, it was my pleasure. Now,” he remarked, “You wish to find your friends?”
Melissa nodded again, “Yes, I have to find them right away, they think I’m dead!”
Naidra nodded in agreement, “All right then, we shall find them together. Climb onto my back, little one.”
Melissa blinked, “What?” she asked in disbelief.
Naidra tilted his head at her, “Climb onto my back,” he repeated, “It will be faster going if I carry you. It won’t hurt me, if that’s what you’re concerned about.” he assured smoothly; sliding over to her.
Gritting her teeth, she nervously swung her legs over the upper part of his serpentine back, inwardly marveling at the strength of the powerful body beneath her, clearly evident even through the glossy warmth of the bluish-black scales.
“Good, little one, now put your arms around my waist, and we’ll be off.”
Obediently, Melissa did as she was bid, and as they started up the trail together, she wondered in amusement what kind of impression this was going to make on her Fae friends when she finally found them again.
“Wow! It’s so pretty up here!” Zara exclaimed cheerfully, reaching down and molding a snowball into her small, blue-gloved hand.
Joanie glanced over at the little Fae girl in amusement, smiling, “Yeah,” she responded, looking around, “I guess it is pretty here.”
“Humph. Pretty, but cold!” Lushian commented, shivering even in spite of the warmth of his thick clothes, “The forest was never this cold, even in winter!”
Joanie laughed, “You’re just used to living in that nice warm cave of yours.” she chuckled, “How much have you ever been out in the open?”
Lushian gazed at her, his silver eyes shining brightly in contrast to the whiteness of the snow and the pale gray cloth of his new clothes.
“Not much.” he admitted, straightening up to momentarily admire the snow-filled clearing the three of them were standing in, “When it snowed back in the forest, it was far wiser for me to stay in the cave where it was warm and protected; I rarely ventured out.”
Joanie nodded, barely having enough time to move out of the way before a snowball whirled past her, striking Lushian directly in the face; the loose, wet snow dripping down his thick, sandy-brown bangs, an expression of pure shock on his handsome features.
Turning her head, Joanie saw Zara standing there with a sheepish look, hands held a bit guiltily behind her back, “Sorry!” she said quickly, “I wasn’t aiming at you, Lushian! I swear, I was trying to hit Joanie!”
Casually reaching up to wipe the snow from his face, the half-Fae’s normally serious expression altered slightly to a small smile of dangerous amusement, glancing at the little girl intently, “But Zara,” he said calmly, “ You forget, that as `Lady Joaniera’s’ guardian, it’s my duty not only to protect her with my own life, but also to avenge any insults or attacks against her as well.”
Zara gulped, her blue-green eyes wide, “What- what does that mean?” she asked, sounding nervous and puzzled at the same time.
“It means,” Lushian responded pleasantly, his expression turning positively mischievous as he shifted, half-kneeling towards the ground, “That you’ve just declared war.”
Without another word, the half-Fae had snatched up a snowball of his own; sending it flying through the air towards the fiery-haired little girl. Squealing, Zara ducked, her golden wings bright against the snow as she reached to the ground for another snowball, tossing it back at him and giving a small cry of triumph when it hit him on the shoulder.
Laughing, Joanie stood there, watching the two of them exchange determined `blows’ back and forth. Then suddenly, Lushian turned, giving her a wicked smile as he clasped a fresh snowball in his hand, “Oh, do you honestly think you’re going to be able to keep yourself out of this?” he asked her sweetly, beginning to take careful aim with his `weapon’.
Joanie raised a blonde eyebrow at him, giving him a smile of pure challenge, “You wouldn’t dare.” she said smugly.
Lushian’s smile became dangerous, “Really?” he asked innocently, right before he hurled the ball of snow directly at her, chuckling as she scrambled out of the way.
“Okay Buddy, this `does’ mean war!” Joanie exclaimed, seizing a frozen missile of her own and returning her friend’s attack with equal enthusiasm.
For at least half an hour, the three of them continued their snowball fight until they all were lying on their backs in the snow, for the moment, completely exhausted.
Content, Joanie gazed up at the sky, inwardly marveling at the beautiful scheme of colors she found there. They had finally reached the Frozen Mountains that morning, and it had been tough going up the rugged trails that led up the mountain.
They had reached the place where naked stone ended and snow-covered ground began more than an hour before, and this was the first clearing that they had encountered.
A moment later, Joanie glanced over at the little girl, smiling slightly. She and Lushian had just made their camp that first night after setting off for the mountains, when the bushes outside the clearing had rustled. Cautiously, Lushian had stood; ready to defend her if necessary.
But to their unending surprise, it was Zara who had entered the clearing with a short leap, still wearing the travel pack she had been given at Shimmercliff.
The girl had quickly and sheepishly explained that she had waited until her family had fallen asleep before leaving to find the two of them again.
“Don’t worry about it, I left them a note!” she had assured them lightly, blue-green eyes determined, “Father and Mother will know I’m all right as long as I’m with you two. Besides, you might need my help, and I want to see Melissa and my brother!”
Not having much choice in the matter, they had let her stay, Joanie with the warning that Zara would have to accept whatever punishment her parents decided to give her when they returned from the Frozen Mountains.
“Well,” Joanie said lightly, “The Mountains don’t seem nearly as dangerous as that Tobias made them sound. Except for the trails being a little rough, and it being cold, it hasn’t been hard at all.”
Lushian sat up, “Perhaps, but we’ve been lucky up until now.” he said matter-of-factly, “None of the Dryads have ever left the forest, but many years ago, before I was born, Dallvia’s uncle became friends with a High Fae that frequently traveled across Avaelon. He passed over the Frozen Mountains several times as well, and he reported that there was one occasion where he was very fortunate to have escaped with his life.”
Zara smirked suddenly, “Don’t worry, Joanie, as long as we don’t run into any snakes up here, we’ll be fine!”
Instantly, Joanie felt her cheeks flush a bright red.
A few evenings before, the three of them had been camping in a peaceful, forested clearing. It had still been light, and Joanie, much to her delight, had discovered a large patch of wild strawberries very close to the camp. She had quickly set about fetching a small basket from Lushian’s pack, and had begun to pick some for their dinner. A few minutes later, her fingers, reaching through the grass for what had appeared to be a large, unusually bright berry, had ended up clasping the end of something that was warm, smooth, and strangely hard to the touch.
She had, without really thinking about it, pulled on the object, and had given a shriek of terror when a strange, snake-like creature had shot up from the ground, wheeling around to give her a hiss of what sounded almost like outrage.
She’d leaped back, dropping her berry basket and shaking in fear, when Lushian and Zara had come running from the camp, concern evident on their faces as they caught up with her.
“What’s wrong?” Lushian had demanded, putting a hand on her shoulder. “That thing!” she’d cried out, pointing, “I was picking strawberries, and it attacked me!”
Lushian had turned his head, looking in the direction she was pointing, and when he had gotten a good look at the creature, he had laughed, much to her never-ending irritation.
“Joanie!” he’d exclaimed gently, smiling, “That’s a rainbow snake! They’re perfectly harmless! They feed off fruit and seeds. You grabbed his tail when you were picking berries, didn’t you? Poor thing, he was just sitting there getting himself something to eat and minding his own business, and you probably scared him half to death!”
Joanie had stared at the handsome half-Fae, glowering, “I scared him?” she’d demanded in outrage, “That little demon nearly gave me a heart attack!”
Blue eyes narrowing, she’d glared over at the little reptile, which was gazing at them with a wary expression as he calmly snapped a strawberry into his small, round mouth.
In all, he was only about two feet long from the end of his snout to the short, rounded knob of his tail, what Joanie had pulled on. As the name suggested, he was indeed the most colorful reptile that she had ever seen, with delicate scales that ranged from a deep red on the smooth surface of his back, to pale violet on the scales that were near his belly.
His slitted eyes were large and round, and were a bright, shining gold, oddly intelligent-looking for a snake. After eating a few more berries, the little beast had given an almost haughty lash of his tail, and had slithered away through the grass.
Her thoughts returning to the present, Joanie snorted, “Well,” she said primly, “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about snakes up here in these cold mountains!” she snapped in remembered embarrassment, rising to her feet, the others following her example.
As they once more started on their way up the mountain trail, Lushian glanced at her, looking distinctly amused, “By the way, Joanie,” he asked casually, “Why are you afraid of snakes, anyway?”
Joanie stared down at the snow, refusing to look at him, “I don’t really know why,” she responded evasively, not truly wanting to talk about it, “I just am. They give me the creeps; they have ever since I was a little girl. They’re just...creepy! No legs, slimy scales, forked tongues, fangs, those ugly slitted eyes, they look evil!”
Lushian laughed, his silver eyes shining, “I see.” he answered lightly, “Well, I suppose we all have things that we’re afraid of.”
Joanie nodded defensively, “That’s true… Melissa’s always been afraid of heights; I wonder how she’s handled hiking up these mountains.”
“I don’t know.” Lushian remarked lightly, “But you’re probably right, I sincerely doubt we’ll run into any snakes up here, so you shouldn’t have to worry about it.”
One or two hours passed, and the three of them continued their trek up the cold expanse of the mountains. Remembering their conversation about snakes, Joanie was just about to ask the half-Fae what he was afraid of, when, from up ahead, Zara gave a startled cry.
Concerned, they made their way to where the little girl was standing, “What’s wrong, Zara?” Joanie asked curiously.
“Look!” the Fae girl pointed, “How are we supposed to get by that?”
They were standing on the edge of a large gorge that dropped down into the fiercely flowing waters of a powerful river. And although it appeared as if there had once been a bridge connecting the two sides, it was no longer there.
“This does seem to pose a problem.” Lushian replied intently, gazing steadily down at the cold waters of the river far below.
Joanie bit her lip, “What are we going to do?” she asked worriedly, “We have to make it to the summit if we want to find Melissa and the others, don’t we? How are we going to do that if there’s no way to cross this gorge?”
The half-Fae looked thoughtful for a moment, “Well,” he replied softly, “Let’s be reasonable about this, your friends must have encountered this obstacle as well. Perhaps they chose to track it upstream. Since there appears to be no way across it, it would seem rational that they would have to search for another way. I suggest we follow the gorge upstream and look for an easier way across.”
Nodding their agreement, the two girls followed his advice, and the three of them continued on their way through the snow, all the while Joanie wondering when she would ever see her friend again, and if she was safe wherever she was.
The cavern was beyond ancient, formed countless ages before by both nature and magic.
The cavern itself was actually a series of several different caves, connected to each other by winding hallways.
The main room was gigantic, the ceiling as high and as vaulted as any cathedral on Earth, with masses of slender stalactites reaching down from the heights like frozen waterfalls of pale gray stone.
The room itself, with the exceptions of the pastel hues of the numerous rock formations that adorned the walls, was almost, but not completely empty.
At the far end of the cave was a simple stone chair that overlooked the rest of the cavern, set on a raised dais of stone that was reflected in the clear blue waters of the pool that dominated the center of the cavern.
The pool formed a perfect circle; the surface smooth and as shining as the finest mirror.
Kneeling beside the crystal blue pool; was a slender figure clad in a simple white robe.
Casually, the figure extended a slim, pale hand towards the surface of the still water, touching it ever so slightly with the very tip of a long finger.
Slowly, the waters began to shimmer, the reflections of the cave gradually becoming blurred and indistinct, until they had changed altogether.
Where once was an ordinary reflection, now was a silent scene of a group of people that were walking above the towering walls of a mountain gorge, below which a swift, icy river swept.
“Three High Fae.” the observer mused thoughtfully. The voice was a woman’s voice, pleasant; the smooth, flowing quality of the words making it difficult to discern her age, “If they’re coming to see me, then they’re going the wrong way.” For a moment, she continued to watch them through the slightly shifting surface of the pool, “You’re searching for something, aren’t you? But you’re not the only strangers on my mountain.”
Gently, her finger touched the water again, and the image below her changed, revealing a different part of the mountain, “one of the Nagae, and a Human, coming towards my cave?” she asked herself in surprise, “Interesting…”
Once more, the woman touched the surface of the pool, and once more, the image that the water reflected changed, “A young girl.” she said smoothly, observing the first member of a third group of people, before turning her attention to the others, “And a Halfling and another Human, both under glamour? Very interesting indeed…”
Deftly, she stood, her white robes rustling around her ankles as she gazed down into the pool for a moment, watching as the rippling surface went back to reflecting the vaulted cavern; becoming smooth and still once more.
Smiling slightly, the woman walked away from the pool and stepped up onto the raised dais, turning around and taking a seat upon the plain stone.
“Well,” she said pleasantly, her eyes shining in good humor as she calmly surveyed the massive room in front of her, “Since there are so many people who’ve gone to all the trouble of coming to meet me, I suppose I’ll have to oblige them.”
Thoughtfully, she paused for a moment, tilting her head, “But, I don’t want to deal with all of them at once, that would be too overwhelming, and boring besides. I know… I think I’ll spread them out a little; that should give me enough time to prepare myself.”
Decision made, the woman in white smiled again, and quickly snapped her fingers once, the sharp sound of it echoing across the vastness of the chamber.
“Are you absolutely certain you can sense Melissa, Aiden? We’ve been searching for hours, and we still haven’t found any sign of her!” Zakk’s voice was upset, and already beginning to take on that bitter, despairing edge it had held before when they’d stood beside the remnants of the stone bridge.
Briefly, Aiden glanced back at his white-haired friend, his silver-green eyes intent, “Of course I’m sure,” he responded a bit gruffly, his tone sounding slightly irritated, “I wouldn’t lie about something like this!”
Returning his somber gaze, Zakk slowly nodded, though his face still remained as drawn and almost as hopeless as it had been when Melissa had fallen into the river.
Loquin trailed at the back of the group, her amber eyes gazing silently at their surroundings. She had not spoken any since the three of them had begun their search several hours before, occupied by her own, troubled thoughts.
Poor Lord Zakkaerion, she thought to herself, I really feel bad for him. He finally gets to be reunited with Melissa after all these years, and now this happens!
He’s really taking it hard; I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look so sad in my entire life.
Even Flame-boy looks upset, she mused, gazing over at the tall, red-haired Fae.
I can understand why Lord Zakkaerion is so torn up by all of this; he and Melissa have been such close friends since they were both children. It’s obvious that he cares deeply for her… you can see it just by looking at his face, but Aiden looks almost as upset about it as he does.
I know he’s Melissa’s friend too, but the way he’s acted since she fell off the bridge… He didn’t scream like Lord Zakkaerion did, but he was still crying so hard.
Melissa is my friend too. She’s such a nice, caring person, and I owe her a lot. She was the one who talked Lord Zakkaerion and Aiden into letting me come with them to the capitol in the first place after all. And if it hadn’t been for her, I might still be wandering around with no place to go, instead of having a new home at Shimmercliff Manor like I do now.
I felt like crying myself when she fell into the river, but I’m a noble, and so I must have control over my emotions. Neither of them showed any restraint though, and they’re both men!
Oh, I’m not really surprised that Aiden couldn’t control himself; he `is’ a commoner after all. Though, I am shocked about the intensity of his reaction. He’s such an arrogant, egotistical oaf, that I didn’t think he was even capable of feeling, let alone displaying, so much emotion.
But Lord Zakkaerion, he’s the Lord of Shimmercliff; I would’ve thought that he’d have shown better control through all of this, even if Melissa is his close friend.
For a moment, Loquin looked extremely thoughtful, considering what she had learned in the short period of time that she had been traveling with the others.
She remembered the times she had watched the Fae Lord and the Human girl together, and the complete sense of tenderness and gentle affection that he had always seemed to show her.
I’ve never seen a man treat a woman like that in my life. My father, at best, always treated my stepmother the same as he would a well-behaved servant.
But the way Lord Zakkaerion treats Melissa… is incredible. It’s as if she’s the most important thing in the world to him.
I wonder, she mused, gazing curiously over at the young Fae Lord; could his feelings for her be more than just friendship?
Hmmm, it does seem possible… she admitted to herself, I’ve heard of a lot of friends who have fallen in love with each other.
If that’s true, I wonder how Melissa feels about him. From what I’ve seen, she seems to be as close to him as he is to her.
A Fae in love with a Human, I’ve never heard of anything like it, but then again, it’s really not surprising, since few if any Humans have ever been able to come to Avaelon before.
Oh, stop daydreaming Loquinakin! Especially at a time like this! Even if Lord Zakkaerion `does’ love Melissa as more than a friend, it’s certainly none of your business; and now isn’t the time to wonder about it. It’s the sort of thing kitchen maids gossip about!
Amber eyes intent, Loquin glanced over at Aiden, who was walking along the very edge of the gorge, staring down at the river below with a critical expression on his handsome face.
I sure hope Flame-boy’s right about Melissa, Loquin thought, pursing her lips. I don’t know how just using the Dreamthorn of Silver on her could create an emotional bond between the two of them, but I hope it’s true anyway.
I hope that Melissa’s alive, and all right, for her sake and Lord Zakkaerion’s.
The poor man’s already lost his father and his family’s treasure in less than a month; in Titania’s name, he can’t lose his best friend too!
Suddenly, Loquin halted, raising her head in surprise. Glancing around, she saw that the two Fae men had stopped walking as well, also looking curious as they all began to watch the air around them beginning to shimmer with a faint golden light.
Cautiously, she lifted her hands, gasping when she felt tingles of vibrant energy dance along the tips of her fingers even through her gloves.
Seeing the Fae girl’s reaction, Aiden also raised his hands, his eyes widening in surprise, “What in Oberon’s name is going on here?” the redhead asked in bewilderment.
Zakkaerion, his delicate face looking both despairing and now a little puzzled, tilted his head, “I do not know.” he replied in a soft, hollow voice, “I have never felt anything like it before.”
It was the only comment the young Fae Lord had a chance to make, however. Because mere moments later, the three High Fae were enveloped in a cloud of brilliant golden light, and when it faded, they had all disappeared from the side of the gorge.
“So, Kall’s your cousin?” Melissa asked quietly, gazing at the shining, snow-covered ground around them as Naidra smoothly and swiftly glided up the trail.
For several long moments, the Naga was silent; the smooth surface of his glossy, scaled flesh rippling over the snow.
“Yes,” he replied evenly, “Kall is my cousin, the only son of my father’s older brother.”
At the memory of the slender, handsome Naga, and the encounter that she’d had with him, Melissa shuddered, wrinkling her nose, “No offense Naidra, but what the heck went wrong with your family?”
Naidra laughed, “I don’t really know. You’ve heard the saying that every family has a member they’d rather not claim? Well, as you can probably guess, Kall is that member of my family.”
Melissa nodded in agreement, “I can see why.” she commented dourly, before becoming curious, “What about the rest of your family?” she asked, “What are they like?”
“The rest of my family is actually quite nice,” Naidra answered smoothly, “And as for my clan, Kall is the one who began the attacks on travelers passing through the mountains. He is very persuasive, and so it was easy for him to win several other young hunters in our cave over to his side.”
Thinking back to the encounter with the Nagae that had occurred a few hours before, Melissa took a deep breath, “But that young Naga… Jannus, I think Kall called him; he didn’t seem so bad, certainly not the type to follow someone as warped as Kall.”
Naidra nodded, “Yes, you’re right. Jannus was a fine boy when I still lived with the clan, if a little shy and withdrawn. I’m not sure how Kall managed to earn his loyalty; perhaps he used his considerable skill in manipulation on him. In any event, it makes me sad to see it. If left under my cousin’s `guidance’, I have a bad feeling about what Jannus will become.”
Melissa sighed, thinking about those beautiful, ever-changing eyes turning as cruel as Kall’s, and the innocent expression of his face becoming as haughty and mocking.
“But, you asked about the rest of my family.” Naidra continued, straightening his shoulders, the warm, smooth skin of his waist sliding slightly beneath her fingers where she was holding onto him, “Both my mother and father are still alive, and I have two younger siblings, a brother, Rakesh, and a sister, Nuala. All of them are ordinary members of my clan, and they have had no part in the attacks carried out by Kall’s band.”
“But,” Melissa asked, trying to understand, “If most of your tribe aren’t like Kall and his hunters, why `haven’t’ the rest of you tried to stop them? His attacks are giving all of your kind a horrible reputation among the High Fae. The way Zakk and Aiden talked about the Nagae on our way up here, they made you sound like monsters!”
Naidra sighed, “I know. And believe me, if I could stop it myself, I would. But, as I said before, Kall can be very persuasive; it’s one of his talents. And as much as I hate to admit it, my people, while not cruel, are isolationists, a result of our living in these mountains for so many centuries I imagine. While most Nagae hold no animosity towards the other races, neither do they have any particular concern for them either. I’m not sure if the rest of the clan even knows in full what Kall has done, and has driven his followers to do as well. Barak, our clan’s leader, is a good man, but he is blind to any true imperfections in Kall. He is, after all, his father, and so how can he be expected to take action against my cousin, his only son?”
Melissa gasped, her golden-green eyes widening in disbelief, “You mean- that Barak, the leader of the Nagae, is Kall’s father…and your uncle?”
Naidra nodded, “Yes, he is indeed. Barak is my father’s older brother.”
As she was struggling to absorb this information, Melissa gasped again, pointing, “Naidra!” she exclaimed in sudden alarm, “What is this?”
Pausing on the path, the Naga looked at where she was pointing, and gasped himself in surprise.
The air around them was rippling like water, shining with a dim, golden light, and before either of them had a chance to truly react, it had exploded in a burst of blinding brilliance, and the two of them were no longer on the mountain trail.
“What the heck just happened?” Joanie blurted out in disbelief, clinging to Lushian’s shoulder in spite of herself, Zara crowding close behind her.
The three of them had been following the river gorge upstream for several hours, determined to find a way across, when the air had suddenly started to glow, and they had been overwhelmed by a flash of brilliant golden light.
When it had at last faded, they had found themselves standing on the far end of a gigantic cavern.
“I don’t know.” the half-Fae responded, his silver eyes gazing around the vast cavern, his voice providing a welcoming source of calm to the two alarmed girls who were with him, “It seems as though all three of us were just teleported.”
Instantly, a light, pleasant laugh echoed across the huge chamber, causing the three friends to turn their heads in unison to search for the source of it. In the center of the room was an enormous pool of smooth, blue water, but just beyond it, on a raised dais of stone, was a simple stone chair, upon which sat a slender woman dressed in a plain, but elegant white robe.
“Very clever, my boy!” the woman laughed again, her cheerful voice carrying easily even across the considerable distance she was from them, “You figured it out right away! It’s true, I did teleport all of you here!”
“But why,” Joanie called out, stepping slightly away from Lushian, “Who are you?”
The woman in white laughed again, “A very good question, my girl. Why don’t all of you come over here, and I’ll tell you the answer.”
Hesitantly, Joanie began to walk forward, and Lushian instantly stopped her by placing a firm hand on her shoulder, “Joanie!” he protested in an urgent whisper, “Don’t be so reckless! We know nothing about this woman, only that she must be incredibly powerful if she’s able to teleport three people without even touching them! It could be dangerous to just walk up to her.”
Joanie shook her head, “I don’t think she’s dangerous, Lushian.” she responded calmly, “Think about it, if she was going to hurt us, then she would have done so already. And she hasn’t done anything bad to us, just brought us here.”
Zara nodded, “That’s right,” the little girl said cheerfully, her golden wings twitching, “She doesn’t sound dangerous to me either.”
Lushian sighed, shaking his head, “Very well then,” he said wearily, gently removing his hand from Joanie’s shoulder, “If you insist. But I’m going first.”
Slowly, the three of them approached the woman on her stone chair, trying to catch a good look at her as they drew closer and closer, crossing the vastness of the huge cavern.
Finally, when they stood in front of her, Joanie gasped, this time in amazement.
The woman seemed incredible ancient, although her face was unwrinkled. It was obvious that she was High Fae, due to the arching pair of ivory-colored wings that rose from her narrow shoulders. Her hair was also white, though Joanie got the impression that this was the result of great age, and not from birth. It curled around her shoulders in a snowy mass, and only served to accent the intensity of her shining blue eyes.
Her white robe was a simple affair, made from a soft fabric that resembled wool, the only decorations being an intricate web of silver threads stitched in the front of it. Her small feet were garbed in a pair of plain brown sandals.
“Well, children.” the Fae woman said gently when the three of them were standing directly before her, “You asked me who I am, did you not?”
When Joanie nodded, the woman smiled, “I’m Alluenyah, the so-called wise woman of the Frozen Mountains.”