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 sloping 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, who 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 and withdrew her hand. 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 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.