Naveen Mista stared at the wooden sign. It was a little crooked and the paint had dripped down the scarred wood before drying. He read, 'Basilisk Jungle: Humans Not Welcome.' How very reassuring.
He looked at the path leading into the jungle. It was overgrown now, because most would rather risk the wetlands than go into Basilisk Jungle.
"I'm not so sure this is a good idea," he told his commander with some misgivings.
Commander Abhay of Rivera's guard looked at the boy, who'd turned fifteen within the last lunar cycle. "It's this, or risk killing someone during your transformation."
Naveen scowled at the trees of Basilisk Jungle. The shadows beneath the branches seemed to dance, and he could have sworn that there were eyes watching him. Somewhere in those shadows lived the Jungle Witch, a figure that haunted the horror stories of his youth and scared children into behaving.
Fear bubbled into his throat, but Naveen swallowed it. "Let's get this over with."
Naveen reluctantly followed his commander into the jungle. Once under the trees, everything was eerily silent and absolutely nothing moved. Naveen found himself trying to look everywhere at once for anything that wanted to eat him. His heart thudded in his ears and his muscles were tied in knots. A bush shook, making him jump into the air. A rabbit hopped out from the leaves and scurried into a hole.
"It was only a rabbit," Abhay said with just a hint of scolding.
"The Jungle Witch could have given it fangs," Naveen pointed out sullenly.
Abhay shook his head but said nothing else. The boy really had to learn to quit being such a coward. Right now, there were more pressing matters to handle, such as the curse on Naveen's family.
A howl erupted into the air. Naveen jumped again and spun around towards the sound with a hand on his sword. Nothing was there.
"Keep calm, Naveen," Abhay ordered, careful to keep his own hands clasped behind his back, mostly to help keep Naveen calm.
Leaves rustled, and somewhere something growled. Another howl ripped through the silence. Above them, a tree branch moved as if new weight was added. Twigs and nuts began to pelt Naveen and Abhay from the trees.
"Ouch," Naveen shouted, rubbing at a new bruise as he searched the trees for their attackers. To his surprise, he saw squirrels. With more bravery than he felt, he said, "It's only squirrels."
The moment the words left his mouth, a low growl erupted from beneath the trees. A pack of wolves slinked out of the shadows. Their golden eyes were narrowed and their very impressive fangs were displayed for their prey to see.
Naveen stumbled back and grabbed his sword hilt again. "Commander?"
"Keep calm," Abhay ordered again. He placed a hand on his own sword and shifted into a fighting stance.
Hackles rose as the wolves prepared to pounce.
"Wait," a voiced hissed out of the shadows. "I want to hear what they have to say."
The wolves kept growling, but they didn't attack.
Naveen looked in the direction of the voice and saw someone stepping out from beneath the trees.
If not for all the dirt, she would have looked like a normal girl, except for her eyes. Those eyes were as dark as a panther's coat with absolutely no color. They seemed to absorb the light around them, and it made her appear inhuman.
She wasn't what he'd expected, although still quite terrifying. Instead of an old hag - which he should have known better than to expect - she was only about eighteen. Her slim frame would have came across as fragile, if not for the way she met his eyes. There wasn't even a flinch when a wolf brushed by her. This had to be the Jungle Witch. Naveen couldn't help but think they had been better off with the wolves.
"Humans," she said the word as if it were a curse.
He realized that her voice hadn't been the one that had ordered the wolves to stop their attack. There was someone else in the shadows.
Naveen swallowed around the lump of fear in his throat. Something moved near the witch's feet. He saw a small brown rabbit rub against her leg. The witch leaned down and picked it up. She cradled it in one arm and stroked it gently with the other.
Maybe she wasn't so bad, Naveen thought. The rabbit didn't seem afraid of her. The animal turned it's cute little head to him. Just when his shoulders relaxed, it bared vicious fangs. Naveen stumbled back with a yelp.
The witch chuckled a little as the rabbit's teeth returned to normal. She set it down so it could return to its burrow.
Ebony Desai examined the two humans with suspicion and irritation. She hated humans and had since she was nine years old. As far as she was concerned, they were a worthless species with an unreasonable fear of anything and everything. She was surprised these two braved the wilds of Basilisk Jungle. It made her wonder just what was so important to them.
"Are you Lady Ebony?" the younger of the two humans asked with a quiver to his voice. He seemed very pale and shaky, though he was doing his best to hide it.
She tilted her head slightly. He'd used her title, something she hadn't heard in years. Most of the time she forgot she had one. Hearing it now made her feel like she was being stuffed into a skin that didn't quite fit.
Her eyes scanned him up and down, taking his measure. He was about her height, which would be short for a man. Well, calling him a man might be generous. By the look of him, he was probably a few years younger than she was. Maybe around fifteen give or take a year, she estimated. The clothes he wore, while plain, were well made, which told her he came from wealth.
His wide, brown eyes held both awe and fear, something she received from most humans. His skin had a gray cast to it, as if he were a little ill. That was probably the fear. She got the impression he thought she'd turn him into a toad or something equally terrible. A thought process she didn't discourage because it kept the humans out of the jungle...most of the time.
She was never sure why humans always thought she wanted to turn them into toads. Not only would that be a waste of her time, it would insult toads everywhere. If she turned them into anything it would be something inanimate, like a rock. She was sure some bugs would enjoy having a new place to hide.
"What do you want?" She didn't bother hiding her hostility. Why should she? It was justified. The humans had chased her out of her home just days after her father's murder. Was she supposed to just ignore that?
The older man shifted at her tone into a defensive stance. Despite his stance, he seemed very calm. In fact, she'd almost swear he wasn't afraid of her at all. That was completely new to her and stirred curiosity and concern. Those who were afraid behaved themselves while here.
He was built like a bear, all muscle and enormous in size. Even his hair made her think of a bear's pelt in coloring. He was older than she was by at least a decade. The man wore the uniform of the soldiers from her home city of Rivera, which consisted of brown pants tucked into black boots and a white long sleeved shirt tied shut with a deep red sash. Judging from the patch of a black circle with a star in the center on his upper arm, he was a high ranking soldier. Something about his face triggered a memory that she couldn't quite bring to the surface.
"We...well you see..." the scared one stuttered out as his gray skin turned pale.
The soldier gave the boy a calm stare that sent some sort of message to him.
The scared one took a deep breath to calm himself, then tried again. "We need your help."
"That would never happen," the alpha of the wolves snarled, baring his fangs at the humans.
In full agreement Ebony simply stared at the humans for a long moment. Slowly she asked, "By which god's name would I want to help you?"
The boy shifted uncomfortably, keeping a wary eye on both her and the wolves. If he didn't know better, he'd swear they were talking to her.
"You know that Lord Bura was responsible for keeping a curse from taking hold of my family, right?"
She didn't even know what family he was talking about, though that didn't really matter. Her father hadn't been known for a good or generous heart. She shook her head, still glaring at them.
"Well, he did. In exchange for that, many of his..." He paused to come up with the right wording. "...shortcomings were ignored."
That makes much more sense, she thought. Holding things over someone's head like that had given Bura a thrill like no other.
"Without his magic to keep it at bay, someone in our family will turn into a bloodthirsty beast once every tenday." The boy was talking really fast now, as if saying it quickly would somehow make her agree. The content didn't quite make sense to her since she had no clue what he was talking about. "One of my younger sisters was almost killed once. My older brother has severe damage to his hip. I'm next, and I don't want to be the one to kill someone. You're our only hope."
"That doesn't answer my question." She wanted to walk away but didn't dare turn her back on them. Along with being worthless, humans were a traitorous and cruel species. "Why would I want to help you? Better question, why should I?"
"Because it's the right thing to do," the boy said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"Now you care about right and wrong? Now, after your city chased me out of my home just days after my father's death," she snapped. Her rising temper made her black eyes glitter like onyx. Unlike the two standing before her, she wasn't entirely human on either side of her family. "There is nothing that would convince me to help any human."
"What about permanent protection for this jungle and the creatures in it?" the soldier asked, his expression completely neutral and his muscles relaxed.
She whirled on him. "You won't touch this jungle."
The air seemed to gain weight as her magic filled it. There was a sudden drop in temperature, as if she was absorbing the heat around them.
"It wasn't a threat, merely a suggestion." The soldier kept his tone even as if talking to an angry animal, lest she decide to attack. "Every season you have hunters and travelers come through here. A great deal of your power is currently spent protecting this place. What if we ban any hunting or logging here in exchange for your help?"
She hesitated. What she wouldn't give to be able to pace. She thought better when moving, but both men were carrying swords. Her weight shifted from one foot to another, her eyes thoughtful.
"Sith, can I let the wolves have them now?" she asked the basilisk still hidden in the shadows.
"The proposal has merit," his whisper-like voice replied.
At the sound of Sith's voice, the soldier's muscles jerked slightly with surprise, but he kept himself under control. He clasped his hands behind his back to keep from touching his weapon.
The boy jumped three feet in the air and stared into the shadows. That was the same voice that had ordered the wolves to stop their attack earlier.
"Who's there?" the boy demanded.
Ignoring the boy, Ebony gave Sith an incredulous look.
She could just make out his lizard-like figure hidden within the shadows of the closest tree. Sith the Basilisk stood eight feet tall standing on his hind legs with a beaded hide and the eyes of a snake. Right now, he was being very careful to keep out of view.
"It does?" she asked him, her tone making it obvious she didn't believe him.
Sith, choosing to ignore her, answered the boy. "Forgive me for hiding, but I am shy."
Ebony snorted. Sith was not shy. He was what the Fae called a 'monster,' which simply meant a magic based creature. As a basilisk, Sith definitely qualified as a creature. The humans would also call him a monster, but with more sinister meaning. That was the real reason he stayed hidden.
"My name is Sith, and I am Ebony's guardian." He left off what he was for the same reason he stayed hidden.
"I want to see you," the boy said staring into the shadows with fear. There was no telling what kind of monster had raised the Jungle Witch.
"Well we don't always get what we want," Ebony informed him rather rudely.
"Ebony," Sith said in a warning tone. "They've come in peace."
She muttered a few oaths she'd learned from a bear right after he woke from hibernating. No one was more creative with curses than a grumpy bear still waking up from his winter's sleep.
"Ebony." This time it was said in a snap of disapproval. Sith had excellent hearing.
She winced. "Yes, sir."
To the human visitors, the basilisk said, "I apologize, but I cannot come out. My appearance may cause you discomfort."
"So you are a monster," the younger human snapped out, fear making him back up several steps.
Ebony's eyes blazed. She knew he didn't mean the elvish definition of the word. "Don't you dare call him that. He is the kindest person in the world. He's only taking your feelings into consideration and trying not to cause you fear." She sneered at the coward. "Something I wouldn't bother with."
"Leave the boy alone, Ebony," Sith reprimanded her, but there was a softening to his voice that said he was pleased she'd defended him.
She crossed her arms and merely glared at the boy. "Who are you two anyway?"
"Forgive our rudeness," the soldier said with a slight bow. "My name is Abhay Rajan." He gestured towards the boy. "This is the youngest son of Lord Devdan and my trainee, Naveen Mista."
Her eyebrows winged up at the name Mista. They were a very prominent and rich family of Rivera. In fact, Lord Devdan was the leader of the Western District. That made this young coward a noble.
Dismissing Naveen for the moment, she turned back to the soldier.
"Abhay? Why does that name sound familiar?" she said, more to herself than to the two men. Then it came to her. "You're Commander of Rivera's guard."
He nodded in agreement. "Yes."
She hesitated again. Everyone who'd ever lived in Rivera knew about Commander Abhay. He'd been the one to rid the city of its monster, her father. She witnessed the entire thing from her bedroom window and still had nightmares about it. Part of her didn't blame Abhay for what he'd done, the other part wanted to hate him in order to cover her own guilt.
"I think you should help them, if only to guarantee our safety," Sith advised her.
Ebony knew he was right, but the very idea of going to the human city again gave her the chills.
"What if they don't keep their end of the bargain?" she asked Sith, careful to keep her tone respectful.
There was no one she loved more than Sith. He'd been the one to save her from her own grief and guilt when she'd run into the jungle almost nine years ago. In a way, he'd become her second father. He'd taught her how to use the magic she'd been born with, soothed her when she cried, chased away her nightmares when she woke screaming, and had shown her how to live in the lush green jungle that often killed strangers.
"Then you'll simply curse them again," he replied with a cool logic most reptiles possessed.
Naveen opened his mouth, but Commander Abhay gave him a sharp look that clearly told the young man not to speak. Naveen closed his mouth but shot the still debating witch a glare. It irked his parents that this witch was the only one who could help them. Considering the stories he'd heard about Lord Bura, he couldn't blame them. She was that monster's daughter after all.
"I'll try to help," she agreed with obvious reluctance. "But I can't promise to lift the curse. I'm not sure I can."
"Fair enough," Abhay agreed, still as calm as ever. "In return, we promise to ban all human activity, with the exception of traveling, in this jungle."
"As long as the travelers stay on the road, that won't be a problem." Ebony gave the humans a very wicked grin. "But if they step off the beaten path we'll assume they're up to no good."
"Again, that's acceptable."
"You're awfully agreeable," she commented, examining him more closely.
He shrugged, seeming indifferent to her opinion.
"Take Raj with you," Sith hissed out of the shadows in the language of snakes. "For protection."
That made her feel better. Raj was a four hundred and fifty pound tiger with a very calm view of the world around him, mostly because there was very little that was a threat to him. But, that calm wouldn't stop him from ripping into anyone who threatened Ebony.
"I'm taking a friend with me for my own protection," she informed the humans, knowing they hadn't understood what Sith had said.
Naveen waved that off. "Our soldiers can protect you."
"And Raj will protect me from your soldiers," she replied dryly. "Need I remind you that the soldiers helped run me out of the city in the first place, so forgive me if I don't trust them with my life."
"Lead the way then," Naveen said, sounding reluctant.
She shook her head. "Uh, you better wait just outside the jungle. Raj is even less fond of humans than I am." A wicked grin spread across her face. "He'd rip you apart within seconds."
"I'm sure he wouldn't do that. I mean, we can all act like reasonable, intelligent human beings."
"Don't insult Raj by calling him human. You won't find any humans living in Basilisk Jungle." Ebony's smile showed her teeth. "But I'm sure Raj could probably act more reasonable and intelligent than any human. Then again, considering poachers killed his mother and would have skinned him, I wouldn't take the chance."
Naveen shook his head in quick agreement. "Maybe we will wait for you."
She paused. Maybe she shouldn't let them wander around this jungle alone. Raj wasn't the only creature in the jungle with reason to hate humans. Sith's presence made this place a sanctuary for those who wanted to live without human contact. If not for Sith's intervention, the wolves would have ripped the two humans apart.
"Claw, will you please see the two humans out of the jungle safely?" Sith asked the alpha of the wolf pack.
Naveen was surprised when one of the wolves glanced back at the shadows and let out a series of barks as if replying to the one called Sith.
"I don't know that I want to stay near these wolves," Naveen said apprehensively.
Ebony gave them an evil smile. "I would suggest going with the pack. It isn't safe for humans in this jungle."
"We noticed," Abhay said, his eyes trailing over the wolf pack that still surrounded them. He placed a hand on Naveen's shoulder. "We'll go now, with the wolves."
The wolves began leading the humans out of their territory, with only the occasional snap at Naveen's heels. Just for fun.
The moment they were gone, Sith stepped out into the light. He wore a brown cloak. His hands were clawed and his snake eyes had a piercing look to them. His long tail was draped over an arm. He tasted the air with his forked tongue.
Ebony relaxed for the first time since the humans entered the jungle. Despite the release of tension, she glared at Sith. "Why did you save them anyway?"
"Because I recognize the warrior." Sith voice was full of meaning. "Don't you?"
She stiffened. "Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?"
She sighed. He was right. Abhay was the man who'd killed her father. Whether she liked it or not, they were connected through both their actions that night so long ago. His action made in honor of his father, and hers made out of the need to do what was right.
"Let's go find Raj," Sith said turning to walk deeper into the jungle.
"It has been a long time since I've heard this kind of silence in the jungle," she commented as she fell into step behind Sith.
She looked up at the trees that glimmered in the bright sun. A feather flickered as it's owner hid behind the leaves. She saw a panther slink through the shadows.
She smiled a little. "Silent jungle, but not empty."
"Much like your first day in the jungle," he replied, reminding her that she too had once been scared of Basilisk Jungle.
Ebony frowned at the memory. She'd been nine years old then and hadn't been able to communicate with the animals at the time. The entire situation had terrified her. Her father had been murdered, then she'd been chased out of her home. The only place she could think to run from the humans had been Basilisk Jungle. It had always hated human interlopers, and she hoped they wouldn't follow her there.
Every crack of twigs under her feet and every movement just out of sight had made her scream or whimper. She'd been sad, scared, and alone with nowhere else to go. That's when Sith found her, curled into a ball of fear and covered with scratches from her dash through the trees. Since then, Basilisk Jungle had become both her sanctuary and her prison.
Something slithered through the grass. Ebony crouched and held out her arm. "Is that you, Venom?"
A small, lime green snake with two bright yellow stripes from nose to tail slithered up the offered arm to Ebony's shoulder. Venom was a rare species of snake that was only two feet long when fully grown, but her poison could kill a bear with one bite. She was proof that dangerous things came in the smallest packages.
"Hello, Ebony," the snake hissed. Her voice seemed empty of emotion, which was typical of reptiles. "I heard that there were humans in the jungle and came to see if it was true."
"Unfortunately it is. They're waiting at the edge of the jungle now," Ebony replied, standing. "They've come to ask for my help."
"Are you giving it to them?" Venom wondered.
"Yes." She still didn't sound happy about it. "Sith advised that I do, and I've always trusted him."
"Sith is very wise," Venom agreed. She looked over at Sith. "But I wonder what you are thinking this time."
"I think it will be best for everyone," he answered evasively.
"We're on our way to get Raj." Ebony informed her friend. "You wouldn't know where Raj is, would you?"
"He's at the Dream Pool," Venom replied, pointing the tip of her tail towards the east. "Why do you need Raj?"
"I have to go to Rivera to help them," Ebony replied with a glare towards the city.
Venom looked as horrified as a snake could. "You're going to the human city? You're leaving the jungle? You never leave the jungle."
"Like I said, Sith advised that I do."
The snake looked at the basilisk again then Ebony. "I will go with you to the human city. This way I'll be there if someone gets past Raj."
Ebony smiled for the first time since the humans' arrival. She could always count on Venom. "Thank you."
They began walking towards the Dream Pool. Ebony stroked Venom's smooth green skin. It was nice to be among friends again. She got so stressed out whenever humans came into the jungle. She always expected the worst from them, mostly because that was all she'd ever received.
The animals, on the other hand, had always been kind to her. The wolves had taught her how to hunt. Raj, the tiger, had protected her. The otters had taught her to swim. Sith had taught her everything else. Her fists clenched briefly. They'd been much more dependable than any human, and they don't blame the child for her father's crimes.
She heard the sound of the waterfall just before seeing it. In Ebony's opinion, the Dream Pool was the most beautiful spot in the entire jungle, even in the cold months. The cool and enormous pool was surrounded by lush green jungle. Just behind the pool was a tall bluff with a stair like waterfall.
Dream Pool was considered a safe zone of the jungle, because the creatures considered the pool sacred ground. Ebony didn't know why. She believed it had something to do with the animal spirits, but had thought it impolite to ask. The creatures were very closed when it came to their spirits, and she thought that it was rude to push them to talk about it. There were things she didn't wish to share with them.
She looked around and saw Raj swimming through the water with the ease of practice. He was a beautiful tiger that was a little longer than Sith was tall. She knew from nights of using him for a pillow that his fur was silk soft, and he was pure muscle beneath his skin. The only thing that marred his beauty was a scar that ran over his right eye, a gift from a poacher that tried to kill him when he'd been just a cub. An event that happened before she'd met him, but had given them a common enemy.
"Raj," she called out.
The tiger looked towards her then began swimming to the shore. He climbed out of the water and shook off. Water sprayed everywhere, and there was a glint of humor in his eyes as he got Ebony wet.
Ebony laughed as she covered her face to block the spray his shaking created. "Raj, you're getting me wet."
"Sorry," he said without really meaning it.
She chuckled. "You did it on purpose."
"Did you need something?" he asked her, not bothering to deny her accusation.
She explained the situation and why she'd come to retrieve him. He listened with an angry lash of his tail.
When she finished, he growled, "Of course I'll come with you. Someone will have to protect you from the humans."
Ebony smiled and knelt in front of him. Gently she raked fingers through his fur then rested her forehead on his. "Thank you, Raj."
"You should get moving, Ebony," Sith told her.
She nodded and sighed. "Let's go."