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A sad wail awoke Nera from her sleep. Lifting her head, she blinked away the last of her sleep while she tried to locate the noise. It was not coming from within her home but it had to be close for it to be so distinct and clear.

Lifting herself away from her coiled body that had served as her bed, she slowly moved towards the noise. Because this cave was an ancestral home of the Naga people, the ground was smooth from many scaly bodies sliding over it. It allowed her to move with no noise and keep from waking the others. How they continued to sleep through this racket was beyond her.

As she came to the entrance, she slowed down in order to listen to what was going on. It was a fight against her serpent instincts to have come this far. That part of her was telling her to return to bed, that this wasn’t a problem she should worry about. But when the wailing was suddenly cut off, she couldn’t find it in herself to return just yet.

“Finally, that brat was going to wake the whole region before you got the gag on.” The anger in the first voice made Nera recoil and hiss under her breath. She could feel the malice in those words and was concerned for this ‘brat’ that had been gagged. It must have been the creature that woke her with its wails.

“Shut up. She never would have started crying if we had gone with my plan.” The second voice growled in return. Several thumping noises and muffled cries followed his words and Nera moved as close as she dared in hopes of actually seeing what was going on.

“Her parents would have come after her if we went with your plan. Killing them was easier.” Pushing up the woven layer of branches and leaves that covered the entrance to the cave, Nera poked her head up only high enough to see what was going on. Her hand came up to stifle her gasp when her eyes landed on the two still bodies.

A man and a woman lay across one another, both with various wounds that still had blood oozing from them. The fatal wounds looked to be slit throats but Nera couldn’t be sure if that was just to keep their moans of death quiet or to kill them. As she studied them, she realized that she recognized the pair. They were a couple who often visited the forest temple to leave offerings to the Naga King of their stories.

As she tore her eyes from the sad sight, her gaze moved to the right where they locked with another pair of eyes, these ones very much alive. It was the couple’s young daughter, bound and gagged while the two killers argued over why they should or shouldn’t have killed the parents.

The poor girl was splattered in blood and Nera had no doubt that the wails from before had come from this tiny human. It had been a sound of absolute pain and suffering, something that would come from a situation like this.

What kept Nera from returning to the darkness of her home was the image she saw mirrored in those watery brown eyes. It was just a cry for help that she saw there. She saw herself, a hybrid woman of the gods, with hair the color of the sun and the same slit-pupil eyes of the snakes that ate rats and other creatures. This hybrid would go on living even if she did nothing and yet, Nera just knew that it would haunt her to leave any child in this situation.

“At least the girl is pretty enough. She’ll fetch a good price.” Those words snapped Nera out of the staring contest with the girl to turn her gaze back upon them men. Why had been the question dancing in her thoughts since she had seen the dead bodies and now it clicked.

She had heard whispers of the humans selling children into slavery but had never put any stock into those whispers. How could anyone do that to a child was beyond her. Of course, the Naga had their own slaves but they were war prisoners and had the chance to regain their freedom. Never, ever, did they use a child as a slave.

Knowing that this was going to be the fate of the poor girl spurred her into action. Moving with a speed that she rarely used, she pushed the two men aside and scooped up the girl. Their cries of surprise and anger were lost as she coiled the snake half of her body around the girl and made quick work of the ropes that bound her.

“You’re safe now little one,” She cooed as she took out the gag and ran her fingers through the girl’s dark hair. Nera wasn’t sure how she was going to keep the child safe though. Looking up, the men were gathering their bearings far quicker than she expected and she couldn’t flee with the girl. She just wasn’t strong enough.

She was still too young for her poisons to have come in yet and with her body protecting the girl; she couldn’t use that in defense.  Instead, she had to hope that her appearance was enough to scare them away.

Pulling herself up and maneuvering her body to keep the girl hidden, she narrowed her eyes at the two men and tried to make herself look as big as possible. It was a move she had seen the warriors use to intimidate and it was all she had to go with. “You cannot have this child.”

Her voice seemed to shock them out of whatever stupor they were in and immediately she regretted it. They both brandished long and very sharp looking knives. Sharing what Nera could only call a greedy look, she moved again so that she could shield the girl from any blows.

“How much do you think that someone would pay for a Naga? Even a dead one?” The one circling to her right sneered and Nera tried to keep her own fear from showing. This was the path she had chosen and she would stick to it, even if it meant losing her life for this child.

“I think we’d be sitting pretty for many years. I wonder if those jewels she’s wearing are real.” The second one was walking to her right and she was having a difficult time keeping an eye on both of them.

Closing her eyes, she wrapped her arms around the girl’s head protectively and waited for the first slashes. From the dark glee that danced in their eyes, she knew that they’d take their time and make it as painful as possible. These were despicable humans and she would’ve killed them if she could.

The sharp sting of pain on the left side of her body made her cry out before she could bite her lip to keep it in. Nera felt her own eyes beginning to water behind their lids but she forced herself to hold them back.

Trying to breathe through the pain, she reassured the little girl that everything was going to be alright even as the second slice came across where her back turned to scales. She felt as if she was trying to convince herself that all would be okay just as much as she was trying to convince the child.

The combination of her murmured words and attempt to breathe through the pain was nearly enough noise to mask a familiar hiss. Looking up, a smile blossomed across her face even as one male dropped with a scream as the poison ate away his eyes and the other dropped cold with a well-placed blow to the head.

“Thame,” She sighed in relief, moving gingerly to hold out one arm to the much larger male. Thame had been her friend since they were no more than hatchlings and she had never been more glad that males came of age must faster than females before now.

“Are you a fool?! Why did you not flee?” His dark eyes glittered in rage as he took in the wounds that the humans had inflicted. “Why are you out here in the first place?”

“A cry awoke me. Once I found out what was going on, I couldn’t just leave her.” She murmured, gripping Thame’s hand tightly as he ran his fingers around the two wounds. The humans had cut deep and she could see the rage continue to fuel Thame’s mood.

“Her?” The one word was clipped and Nera wanted to smack him for being so inconsiderate. He of all people had no room to lecture her for rash actions. In a silent answer, she slowly uncoiled herself and forced herself to straighten with a whimper of pain.

Running a hand over the girl’s hair, she smiled in hopes of alleviating the fear she saw in the child’s gaze. Murmuring that all was fine now, she looked up at her friend and was relieved to see the compassion that she adored replacing the rage. “They were going to sell her into slavery Thame, I couldn’t let that happen.”

“Where are her parents?” He asked quietly, moving slowly to help Nera into a better position. While he didn’t sound angry anymore, she could still hear the lingering rage as he began to care for her wounds.

Pointing with one hand towards the limp bodies, she made sure to keep the girl from looking over there again. There was no need for her to revisit that horror. While she wiped the blood from the child’s skin with one hand, they spoke softly about the couple and what to do now.

Letting out an agonized hiss when he poured water over the cut on her back, she dug both hands into the dirt and tried to fight back the tears again. Thame was being as gentle as he could but it only did so much.

Tiny hands patted her cheeks and her eyes snapped open in surprise. Without the resistance of her eyelids, the tears fell without a second thought but Nera wasn’t thinking about them. She was thinking about the tiny child that was patting her cheek and repeating the words of reassurance that only minutes ago she was saying to the child.

Smiling through the tears, she thanked the child before looking over her shoulder at her friend. Feeling her stare, Thame looked up and immediately froze. He glanced between her and the child before shaking his head.

“You cannot keep her.”

“But Tha-..”

“No.”

____________________________

I went overboard again. Oh well. 😀

Tomorrow’s creature: Vila

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