TWO

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STARLIGHT SHIMMERED through the thin canopy of tangled branches and dead leaves above Ravenna's head

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STARLIGHT SHIMMERED through the thin canopy of tangled branches and dead leaves above Ravenna's head. The mountains loomed close, obstructing her view of the moon. Beneath her feet, dry grass crackled. Patches of frost covered the tree trunks as Ravenna passed, her hand outstretched to brush the bark.

As she walked, she listened.

Although it seemed dead, the ghastly forest was very much alive. Gentle crunches as small animals scurried across the ground. Dead leaves swayed in the wind, brushing against each other. A twig snapped, a bird chirped, and a wolf howled.

A soft sigh escaped her. As it turned out, finding a mythical creature was a lot harder than it seemed. There were no thundering footsteps, no flapping wings, no monstrous roars.

Her legs ached. Her movements were sluggish. Her heart thrummed behind her ears. She felt foolish. Four days spent wandering the slopping mountains were enough to destroy all hopes of finding the rumored dragon. At first she had started closer to Khal, where the rumors originated. After a day of roaming the farm fields, she even stopped to talk to merchants and townsfolk. All seemed to point her toward the forest that encased the base of the northern mountains.

A small part of her had always known that it would have been impossible. Dragons were almost extinct and, therefore, very rarely seen creatures. Plus, it had just been a rumor that she'd followed, not an actual report.

The forest around her thinned. The sounds of rushing water chorused through the air as she approached a small stream. Light twinkled against its surface. Ravenna crouched down beside it and lowered a hand. The moment her skin brushed the water, it froze. Ice spread across the surface of the water like a plague. She withdrew her hand and watched as the frost seeped downstream, and the gushing sounds fell silent. A strangled yelp sounded, as the ice stretched upward, engulfing a small fawn and her mother. Her jaw clenched as she stood. The icy plague stopped.

She walked across the stream with her hands curled into tight fists at her sides. Tears pooled at the corners of her eyes, and she kept her gaze skyward. At least it was only an animal this time and, since it didn't directly touch her, she knew the deer would be thawed within minutes. It still hurt however. The sharp reminder that she was cursed, that she could never escape. As long as she wasn't in control, she was destined to leave a path of frozen pain behind her.

The forest enveloped her again. Its wispy branches reached out to welcome her.

This time she kept her hands hidden within her shawl. For some odd reason, the fabric of her clothes hindered her skin's ability to freeze her surroundings. At first, when she'd first woken up, she had been convinced that only the clothes she'd been frozen in harbored that ability. Several weeks were spent roaming Khal in the same tattered dress, the same blood-stained slippers. It wasn't until one of her slippers had ripped apart at the sole that she became brave enough to purchase new ones. It was around that time that she realized that she never grew hungry or parched. Her stomach never yearned to be filled. Her throat never ran dry. Since she'd woken, she hadn't been inclined to eat or drink. It had worried her at first. Physicians had always said that the human body could only go so long without food and water. That bodies needed the sustenance from foods in order to create energy. Yet she'd gone several weeks now without any of it. Now eating and drinking were more of a passing memory.

As she wandered, she searched. Not for the dragon, but for some form of shelter. The night crept onward and her movements became languid. The one human thing that she still needed was sleep. At least a solid eight hours of sleep every couple of days seemed to revitalize her. Sleep had evolved into her own version of food and water.

It didn't take long to find shelter. A cave burrowed deep within the side of the mountain appeared. Its entrance was shielded by entangled tree branches and it was hard to make out at first. The cave was a mere shadow darker than the rest. But her eyes had grown accustomed to the minimal amount of light around her and she recognized the signs.

Her gaze scanned the entrance. Bears and other mountain creatures tended to sleep within deep cave openings across the mountains. The last thing that she needed was to anger one.

The cave seemed barren. There were no discarded bones, animal feces, or any other signs of life. Ravenna stepped within the opening cautiously, her hands prepared. Nothing jumped out at her. No bears rushed forward to maul her face. No grumpy trolls appeared to stab her. No lions ran to claw her to shreds.

A sigh escaped her, and echoed throughout the cave. She plopped down and leaned against the wall. It was hard and rugged against her back. From where she sat, she could still see the night sky, dotted with stars and churning clouds. The dead leaves still clinging to their branches swayed in the breeze.

It was enough to lull her to sleep.

The next morning brought a symphony of singing birds and buzzing bugs. Ravenna's eyes fluttered open, and she looked around, vaguely confused. Sunlight poured through the mouth of the cave, casting a ray of brightness across her face. She grimaced and stood, rubbing her eyes. After a few moments, her senses returned, as did her memories.

A scowl erupted across her face. Now it was the fifth day she'd been roaming the forest in search of that blasted dragon. She had wasted too much time in this silly forest. "That's it," she grumbled under her breath. "I've given up."

As she exited the cave, a shadow passed over head. Her heart stopped inside her chest, clenched with fear and hope. She looked up and watched a bird soar across the clouds. She cursed both it and her rotten heart.

Grumbling incoherently under her breath, Ravenna marched back toward where she thought civilization existed. Her hands dangled at her sides, curled into tight fists. Twigs and grass alike snapped beneath her heavy stomps.

A startled cry dragged her to a stop.

Ravenna looked around, startled, her hands poised in defense. A thunderous bumble of curses pulled her attention downward toward the forest floor, where a small snake-like creature writhed in pain.

"Oh goodness," she gasped and crouched down beside it. The snake was a startling ice-blue color, with scales that rippled different shades of white in the sunlight. She was hesitant to touch it, terrified to increase its pain with her ice.

The snake glared up at her with coal-like eyes. "Wretched mortal," it growled at her. "Learn to watch your steps. You lot have the gait of a lumbering giant."

Ravenna's mood soured. She stood and wiped the dirt from her skirts. "I've been told that I walk with the grace of a princess," she snapped. Granted, that particular compliment had come from a drunkard –but the lizard didn't need to know that.

"Whomever told you that is a liar," the lizard retorted. It climbed to its feet, four sets of claws digging into the earth.

She scowled. "You are just bitter because I stepped on you."

"For which you still have yet to apologize for."

A tightness formed in her stomach, and anger burned through her veins. Shards of ice protruded from her fingertips. She clenched her fists shut and glared at the lizard. "Why would I do that? You've done nothing but insult me."

It stared at her defiantly. "Watch yourself mortal."

Ravenna let out a ragged breath. Her anger grew stronger and, out of fear of killing again, she turned her back to the lizard. She kept her hardened gaze focused on the horizon. Her breaths came out leveled, forcibly constrained in hopes that her anger would fade. "You assume that you are dealing with a mere mortal, scrawny lizard. But you are wrong."

"And you assume that you are dealing with a mere enchanted reptile," the creature behind her rumbled.

A chill raced up and down Ravenna's spine. The lizard's voice had grown deeper, louder, and resonated with power. Her head turned and she glanced over her shoulder. Her eyes widened in disbelief at the sight of a blue-scaled kneecap. She craned her head back and met the dark eyes of a towering dragon.

The dragon watched her from that impossible height, and growled lowly. "But you are wrong." 

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