By Jaydee LaFaye
"Vinzien, behind you!"
Vinzien whirled around just in time to see an enormous snakelike creature with greenish brown scales bare its ivory white fangs dripping with venom and saliva. Before it could strike, Vinzien unsheathed his sword and leapt high into the air. The monster, commonly known as a Naris, blinked and looked around, thinking its prey had disappeared.
"I'm up here, you slimy cretin!" shouted Vinzien. The Naris raised its head and, with perfect timing, Vinzien drove his blade straight into its heart. Dark green blood gushed out of the wound. With an agonized roar, the creature fell to the ground, writhing until its fiery scarlet eyes closed and the life drained from its body.
A serene expression on his handsome face, Vinzien drew a piece of cloth from his pocket and wiped off the blood from his sword before sliding it back into its sheath. "Thanks for the warning, Lucrees."
"Anytime," said the burly man with a grin.
Andalo sighed, running a hand through his long black hair. "Can't a person walk through the forest without battling ferocious beasts these days?"
"Well, what did you expect?" said Miasir. "This is the Tamari Woodland. It's famous for its monsters."
"Enough chitchat," Vinzien commanded. "We better get a move on if we want to get out of here before nightfall."
The rays of the late afternoon sun filtered through the treetops, bathing everything in red-orange light. The sound of brittle leaves crunching under the feet of the travelers mingled with the chirping of crickets and the hooting of owls.
"Hey, Vinz, how long will it take until we reach the Diamond Cavern?" asked Lucrees.
"Probably three weeks," Vinzien replied after doing a mental calculation.
There were mournful groans from the rest of the group.
"Cheer up, men," said Vinzien lightheartedly. "Just think--- after we bring the Flame of Pereldos to Maia, we'll be rich enough to never have to work a single day in our lives again!"
"That is true," Miasir conceded, already contemplating how to spend his future wealth.
Andalo stopped in his tracks, frowning.
"What's the matter?" questioned Lucrees.
"Someone's coming," said Andalo quietly, fitting an arrow to his bow. Vinzien could hear the snapping of twigs, the rustling of leaves, and hurried footsteps not so far away. He grasped the hilt of his sword while a golden spear materialized in Miasir's hand and Lucrees cracked his knuckles. They waited in tense silence, poised to attack, scanning the surrounding area with watchful eyes.
Suddenly a slight figure dressed in a hooded cloak charged through a bush near Vinzien, knocking him to the ground.
Kaliya Ravenoak had been running from a Goblin whose thick, callused skin made it impervious to her firepower. The next thing she knew, she was sprawled out on top of a boy who looked to be no older than seventeen, with straight brown hair and smoldering gray eyes. Her hands involuntarily clutched his arms, feeling the warm skin and well-defined muscles underneath the long-sleeved shirt he wore, and her heart beat erratically against his.
Oh, my! Blushing furiously when she realized she was gawking at him and remembered the compromising position she was in, Kaliya scrambled to her feet. "I apologize," she said hurriedly. "A Goblin was chasing me and, in my haste to get away from him, I did not look where I was going. Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine," he answered, standing up and wiping his hands on his fawn-colored breeches. He was several inches taller than her, lean yet muscular and intimidating. A wave of panic swept over Kaliya when she spotted the sword at his side and the three men staring at her as if she possessed an extra head. What if they were ruthless bandits?
She was wondering whether to give them all her money or incinerate them or run for it when a savage snarl made her turn around. The Goblin sprang out from the bushes, stretching its long hands with their spindly fingers and sharp nails towards her. Before she could react, an arrow shot through the air and hit the monster squarely in the chest, causing it to stagger backwards. Lightning erupted from the point where the arrow was lodged. The Goblin crumpled to the ground, charred and lifeless.
Kaliya raised amazed green eyes to the archer, a tall man with shoulder-length black hair and a smug expression on his face. "How did you…?"
"Andalo is a Thunder Bowman, lass," explained another man who was heavily built and had a bandanna tied around his bald head. "His arrows and the blood that flows in his veins are endowed with the power of thunder and lightning."
Kaliya was all too familiar with elemental magic, but she hadn't known that it could also be applied to weapons. "Thank you for saving my life," she said to Andalo.
Instead of bowing and murmuring something gallant as she expected him to, he grinned and scratched his head. "It was nothing. Goblins aren't so tough."
"Someone should have told it that a while ago when I couldn't kill it no matter what I did," Kaliya joked with a smile.
Her gaze wandered to a lanky blonde wielding a spear and she almost fell over in shock when the weapon disappeared. "You're a Conjurer?"
"Aye, that I am," he said, amused. "Miasir, at your service. I can conjure tents, a spear, cloaks… Well, that's about it." His companions laughed, except for the boy who was studying Kaliya intently.
"My name is Lucrees," said the bald man, "endowed by the gods with superhuman strength. This is Vinzien." He gestured to the boy.
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance." Unable to meet Vinzien's eyes and bewildered by his intense scrutiny, Kaliya directed her statement to Andalo, Miasir, and Lucrees. They were obviously waiting for her to introduce herself, but she couldn't tell them her real identity and what her mission was. Not yet! With the exception of Vinzien, they seemed like good people. However, it would be foolish to trust them so soon.
"I am Kaliya." With those three simple words came a surprisingly exhilarating sense of liberation. To this group of travelers, at least, she was just Kaliya, one of the common folk, not Kaliya Anesiel Ravenoak, Lady of Fire and crown princess of the kingdom of Airelin.