Aerie flapped her wings to gain height, then allowed herself to glide a while, Thalion and Nellas flanking her to either side, making sure she didn't get lost again. It was a lot of fuss over nothing, as far as Aerie was concerned; she could have easily found her own way home. But, she did like being with the hunters. They had explored much more of the mountains and surrounding valleys than most other avariel, and so could answer questions.
First, though, as the cool air washed around her, she straightened her neck so that she was looking straight down, watching the landscape rolling and changing. Snow covered fields, little clumps of frosted trees, stony white capped peaks… a gaping hole in the side of one the hills, bigger, deeper and darker than any other cave entrance she'd seen. Like a great black hole in the white landscape, slowly sucking everything else in. Her wide eyes were certainly drawn into it, anyway.
"What's that?" She chirped.
The brother, Thalion, followed her gaze, then slowly turned back his head. "Old dwarven mine," he explained, "abandoned centuries ago."
"Have you ever looked inside?"
"I don't know," Aerie said, sticking her tongue in the side of her cheek for a moment. "The dwarves might have hidden away secrets… or treasure…"
"Yes. Or, the place might be overrun with monsters, with huge teeth and jaws, and enormous slashing claws…"
None of which dissuaded Aerie. "And treasure?!" She insisted, beaming.
Nellas gently laughed. "You're only encouraging her, you know."
Thal sighed, a little bit resigned. He spoke again, firmly but without seeming harsh. "Look… caves, and places like that, just aren't a place for us avariel. You can easily become lost down there, or trapped, and it'll be a long time before anyone can find you. So save us some trouble and just stay out, okay?"
Aerie put a little finger to her lip, and 'hmmed'.
The girl grinned. "Okay!" She proclaimed with a sloppy salute.
It wasn't clear that Thal was put at ease at all by that. But as he shook his head, his expression turned from one of mild concern and bemusement, to fierce. "Hold a moment," he said. He then dipped his right wing and fell and turned away from, before quickly climbing. Confused, Aerie tried to turn as well, if only to see why he'd suddenly shot off. But Nella took her hand, guiding her down to a safe landing place on a rock ahead of them.
The girl turned around, squinting, her eyes coming to rest on two dots high above, falling fast. She focused on them, making the image come closer… other avariel. Two young men, wings back and arms and legs straight out so that they were falling straight toward the ground like arrows. But what was strange was, they didn't look scared. They were laughing.
Aerie was dumbfounded. "What are they doing?" She asked.
Nel answered bitterly, "being damned fools…"
"Why would anyone let themselves fall? Don't they know they could die doing that?"
"They do," the woman sighed, sadly, "but you see, sometimes people want to fall." Nellas opened her eyes and looked down on the girl with her head tilted confusedly. "I'm sorry. It's a game, you see. A stupid and very dangerous game, played by people trying to prove how brave, or rather, foolhardy, they are. They each climb as high up as they can, and then, simply make themselves fall as fast as possible toward the ground. First one to start to fly, loses… but I'm afraid quite often they all lose."
It still made no sense to Aerie. There were other games you could play, like running on water; that was fun. Surely more fun than this, and the only danger was that you might sink in. Why would anyone even invent a game that could get them killed? It made no sense. And yet, she kept looking, watching them fall while her heart beat faster and her chest grew more heavy… what must it be like to feel the air rushing past and the ground rushing toward you like that? Scary…
Thalion was nearly on them now, and they spotted his approach. Each of the falling fools spread out their wings and scattered away, although he kept chasing them for a while, yelling various expletives, she was sure.
Aerie was still watching, when Nellas knelt beside her, gently turning the girl's eyes toward her by the chin. "Listen, Aerie; it's never brave to risk your life just to prove something idiotic and pointless like this. If you ever need to risk your life for something, make sure it's something worthwhile, okay?"
The girl nodded, "okay."
Shortly after, the trio continued on, flying deeper into the mountains. The sky was warm and golden as the peaks grew higher and steeper. Nothing confined to just walking on legs or rolling on wheels could ever make it up here. And it was up here, on the highest plateau, that the avariel had built the city of Faenya-Dail.
They had to fly across most of it to reach Aerie's home. The school, with its smooth stone columns and walls and marble pillars, the open baths kept magically warm, the amphitheatre, where Aerie had seen her mother and many others perform. In the distance, carved into a rock face, were tombs of those who had fallen, just beyond the temples with their domed roofs and a large statue of the goddess herself, Aerdrie Faenya, her arms and wings stretched out over the entire city. Near to her was a second amphitheatre, where the council members met every day with judges and priests and other officials.
Avariel all voted for who to lead them, at least in Faenya-Dail. There were ten elves on the council, and a new one was elected each year. Aerie had heard that there were other avariel cities, far away, and that they had a king. But she'd never seen him.
By this time, fairy lights on top of pillars and in the sky had started to glow, lighting up the ways for the hundreds of avariel to float and flutter across between platforms, and rocky islands suspended in the sky, hanging more like clouds than like rocks. Magic, of course. And of course, if it wasn't for magic, the avariel themselves wouldn't be able to fly. Aerie was always amazed by how lucky she was to live in such an amazing world.
But now, the inevitable had to happen. They crossed the city and reached a huge, sheer rock face that had grown arms all across it. These were actually landing pads, that the avariel had drawn out and moulded from the rock; one for each of the homes there. And standing on one of them was a woman, fair haired and blue eyed and wearing a gold and yellow tunic, pacing up and down with her hands clasped tightly as she fretted.
She looked up as the three approached, all her anxiety escaping in one very long breath. "… Aerie…" she ran as the girl's feet gently touched down on the pad, the two other adults just behind her. Aerie yelped, slightly, as the woman threw her arms around her and pulled her tight. But then the woman demanded, "where have you been?"
Nellas answered for her. "Out over the foothills, again."
Aerie had, for a moment, forgotten about the hunters, and the tough hardy lives they led, training and learning to use weapons to defend the avariel from any dangers… not that there was much. Maybe the odd dragon came by, but not in Aerie's life time… but in any case, what would they think seeing her being coddled like this!
The girl whispered between her teeth, "momma… you're embarrassing me…"
"Never mind that," her mother gasped, "what were you doing over the foothills? How many times must you be told? Stay in the mountains where it's safe!"
"It was fine. I was careful," Aerie insisted, but remembering the little incident when she was almost bitten, added, "mostly…"
Her mother cupped her face, turning it up toward her, so the girl could see the fear and worry and anguish in her shimmering eyes. "That is not the point," she explained. "The point is that anything could have happened, and we'd have had no idea where you were. And you have no idea how dangerous it can be out there…"
Aerie had heard all this, a hundred times, from every adult. It cause her heart to tighten every time her mother was sad and worried like this, but… the fact remained; she had explored by herself, many times, and nothing bad had ever happened to her. When were they going to learn that she could take care of herself? She was up to her mother's shoulder now, after all; soon she'd be just as big.
She put her hand up on her mother's wrist and, to the woman's dismay, pushed it away. "And you do?" Aerie grumbled. "You never leave the city… you barely even leave the house…" that wasn't true; her mother did leave the house, sometimes, to get food or go to perform at the theatre. But that was about it.
Her mother gasped, as Aerie took a few steps away from her and turned her back. The two hunters evidently decided at that point that they had outstayed their welcome.
"Ah, well… duty calls, I'm afraid," Thalion explained. "Good bye, Fayanna," he winked, "see you next time, I expect…"
Aerie's mother, Fayanna, startled, shaking her head. She turned and waved enthusiastically as the hunters left. "Thank you! Thank you for bringing her home to me," she remembered to say. Then she turned back to her daughter and hissed, "you just get inside…"
Fayanna took a moment to gather herself, and brush away some of the snow, before following her daughter through the arch.
The inside of avariel homes were always spacious, of course. And bright, due to the light stone walls and fairy lamps. Since they were lucky enough to have a home at the top of the cliff, a large circular opening in the roof, three storeys above, allowed them to look up and see the stars twinkling in the night sky. A round rail ran around each floor below that, beyond which were doors and archways that led into each of the bedrooms, bathrooms, studies and kitchen. Tapestries and paintings, some of a religious nature, some devoted simply to the wonder of nature, adorned the walls, while statues and potted plants with deep green leaves and flowers of bright and luminous colours stood in every corner and crevice.
Aerie was stood on a stool, leaning over a stand on which Fayanna had laid out some scrolls. She looked back as her mother entered, sighing deeply before hanging her head.
"I'm… I'm sorry, momma," she said, "but, you really shouldn't worry so much all the time…"
Fayanna shook her head. "It's my duty to worry. I just wish you would make it easier not to."
"But you can see I'm fine, can't you? I just want to be able to tell you about the things I've seen."
The woman sighed. She made her way over to her daughter, leaning slightly beside her before raising a hand to gently ruffle her hair. "What did you see?" She asked.
Aerie. "I… I saw some humans. They were using these big, four legged animals to pull their houses along… isn't that amazing?!"
"Caravans," Fayanna informed her. "I saw them, once. The humans didn't see you, did they?"
"No!" Aerie lied. But by now she'd worked out that her mother could always tell. "Well… most of them didn't. Just some children, playing… they wouldn't have hurt me, I don't think…"
Fayanna took a deep breath. "You can't know that, Aerie. What if their parents had been bad? Or you might have frightened them and they'd have lashed out… they're not used to seeing our kind."
"But… if we talked to them more, then they would know about us and wouldn't get frightened…"
"It's not that simple," the woman sighed.
"Why not? I've seen lots of humans, and none of them look like they want to hurt anyone."
"Maybe most of them don't; I think probably, most of them are good people. But, you have to remember, there are many, many more of them than there are of us, and they're not all the same. Some of them would try to hunt us and hurt us."
"Because we're different from them. We can fly; they can't. And as such, our perspectives and the way we think about the world and the way we live are very different. And sometimes, being different makes people afraid, and makes them hate."
Fayanna could see Aerie repeating all this in her head, turning it over, considering it from every angle; it made her mother smile. Finally, the girl said, "but, still, if we talked, we would find out which ones were good and which were bad…"
"We have all we need, here, don't we? We have food, our home, and each other. Where's the sense in taking any risks like that?"
"I don't know," Aerie admitted. Her daughter wasn't satisfied, but Fayanna was confident she would start to understand when she was a bit older.
"Now," Fayanna smiled more widely, "I have to think about how I'm going to punish you, don't I?"
"I suppose," the girl nodded in agreement, sighing. "By the way," she said, then suddenly picked up the scroll in front of her. Fayanna had forgotten about it. "What's this?"
"It's nothing," the woman tightened her lips and put a hand on her hip. "You… you put that back…"
"It says 'love potion'," Aerie sniggered. "Petals, a dove's feather," she read off the list, then made a face like she'd smelt something. "Ew… urine from a dog in heat… ewww… what does that mean?"
"It's the logic of magic," Fayanna sighed, "all of these things are symbolic in some way. You give flowers to one you love, the dove is a symbol of Sune, the goddess of love, and the dog in heat… well, I'll explain that when you're older. Now put it back."
But Aerie wasn't done, yet. "Why would you have this out, hm?" She giggled. "Is pa not paying you enough attention? Or," she gasped, "you haven't got your eye on someone else, have you?" Aerie spun around, arm across her forehead as she faked almost fainting. "Why… does no one ever think of the children?"
"Very funny," Fayanna said, tapping her foot. "Maybe one day you'll perform on stage. But as for that, its research for a new play I'm writing. Which you won't be in, because it's far too grown up."
"What's it about?"
"Do you not listen? Just put it back."
Aerie finally relented, skipping back and placing the scroll carefully back on the stand. "Where is pa, anyway?" She asked.
"Oh; I expect he won't be back until very late. They're up debating energy and entropy again; you know how heated that can get. Now… I seem to recall I was about to do something…"
"I'm hungry… so maybe you were going to get us both something to eat?"
Fayanna gently wagged her finger. "No; stop trying to distract me… I haven't forgotten. You disobeyed me, again, and I have to punish you. So, how are we to do that?"
The girl thought about it. "Hmm… how about I just promise not to do it again, and we leave at that?"
"And would you keep to such a promise?"
"We-ell," Aerie joined her hands together, shifting furtively. "I would try, at least…"
"That's what I thought," her mother smiled and shook her head, "no; I'm afraid I'm going to have to teach you a lesson. So, how about, after you've finished your schooling tomorrow, you have to come straight back home to tidy your room?"
Aerie's jaw hung open. "B-but…"
"I mean it. That place is like a raven's nest. All sorts of junk just strewn around…"
"It's not junk!" The girl protested, crossing her arms. "It's very important research!"
"Uh-huh… and what about all those stupid little stones you have?"
"They're not stupid stones! They're fossils! Do you know what they are? They're sea shells! I checked them at the library… isn't that amazing?"
"What? That you went to a library?"
"No!" Aerie punched her softly on the arm. "That there are sea shell fossils at the top of a mountain. How did they get there?"
"Well, presumably, someone, or some animal, brought them up here."
"Uh-uh," Aerie shook her head adamantly. "It's a long way to go for food, isn't it? I checked the map in the library as well; the ocean is miles and miles away. I've never even seen it."
"So how do you think they got there?"
"Well," the girl put the finger on her lip, "at first, I thought maybe there had been a flood or a huge wave… but it would have to have been really huge…"
"Yes. I think my theory is more likely."
"But then I thought, maybe all the land was under water once, and the mountain just sort of grew over a really long time…"
"Have you ever seen a mountain growing?"
"No… but maybe it just happens so slowly that we don't," Aerie sighed. "I did think that maybe dragons were drinking from the sea and then vomiting it back up… but why would they do that? Dragons aren't that silly, are they?"
"Maybe you can ask one, one day."
The girl's eyes lit up. "That would be amazing! But… aren't dragons supposed to be bad?"
Fayanna sniggered. "Some are good, some are bad. But they're all quite rare…" there was to be more to that thought, but they were interrupted.
A harsh, high pitched female voice bellowed from the front arch. "Fayanna!"
Aerie's mother put a hand against temple, muttering. "By the goddess, what now? I mean… yes, Lar?"
Failariel, to give her full name, was a woman with sharp features, a stern face, and long, red hair braided very tightly. She looked furious about something, but it was hard to tell for sure. She had, in any case, forced her way into their home. But then, avariel hadn't a need for doors. Next to her was her son, about Aerie's age, but a little bit shorter and stockier. His messy red hair just had no order to it.
"Hello Dil," Aerie smiled and waved. Valandil was the boy's full name.
"Er… h-hi," he stammered and smiled back nervously. "I-I… I'm sorry about all this…"
Aerie tilted her head and blinked. "About what?"
The boy's mother leant over her, fuming. "Oh, you know what, you little…"
"Lar!" Fayanna screeched angrily as she saw the other woman raise her hand. "Why… don't you calm down and try to tell me about it, instead?"
The red haired woman straightened, nostrils twitching a few times as she turned away from Aerie to face her mother. "He won't sleep!" She complained. "He won't even go to the toilet, or any room, by himself anymore. And all because your little brat told him some disgusting horror story!"
This was not what she needed right now; Fayanna felt a real headache coming on. But, she still dared to ask, "Aerie?"
"I didn't tell him any stories!" Her daughter insisted.
"Are you sure?"
"Positive," Aerie nodded affirmatively, "what I told him was the truth."
"And… what truth was that?"
"That there are demons who can get inside your body and eat your brain from the inside out."
Fayanna stared in disbelief. "Why… why would you… never mind. Just them it was only a story, and that you made it up."
Unfortunately, rather than helping to set her friends mind at ease, Aerie seemed shocked and outraged by the idea of covering up the truth. "But it's not a story!" She said adamantly. "It's true!"
"Aerie," Fayanna started to say more slowly, carefully enunciating every syllable. "Tell Dil you made it up… please…"
"It was in the book. There were pictures and everything!"
Failariel tutted and scoffed, "pathetic. You just have no control over her, do you?"
Fayanna short a sharp look back at her, but then threw her back, trying to stay calm. "I'm sorry. She… just has a very active imagination."
Aerie, arms crossed and tapping her shoulder, kept shaking her head. "I'll show you if you don't believe me," she said, then stomped away to another room.
"Well, until you learn to administer proper discipline," the red haired woman went on, "I am not letting her play with my boy."
The blonde woman sighed wearily. "It'll be hard to keep them apart, don't you think? Seeing as there is only one school here. Or do you plan to give up the theatre to tutor him yourself? I'm sure it would be a welcome move by many…"
Failariel sneered back, "watch it, Fay… let's try to keep this civil, hm? I know you've always had a somewhat loose approach to life, but, really… you just cannot let your child run wild like this."
"All she did was tell a story," Fayanna held her palms up, then let them drop to her sides. "And, honestly, maybe Dil wouldn't scare so easily if you didn't wrap him in so much wool. The world is not all sunflowers and rainbows, you know."
"I certainly did not come here to be lectured in parenting by you, of all people!"
"Oh!" Fay clearly had enough. Her whole body tensed as she lent toward the other woman. "Oh, no, I know; you came here to give a lecture. That's how it's always been with you, Lar; it's always everyone who's to blame but yourself!"
The redhead's body mirrored the blonde's almost exactly as she lent forward as well, so they were practically nose to nose, each refusing to back down. Dil quietly retreated into a corner as the two women stayed like that for what seemed like a long time. After a while, it seemed like Fayanna was starting to weaken as Failariel lent forward more.
The redhead laughed victoriously. "Ha! You've never had any back bone…" then her eyes spun in her head and she gagged.
"Look!" Aerie said, jumping up with her book open. "See that? See the pictures? It's all there!"
Failariel stumbled back, her cheeks puffing out. She tried to gasp. "… ye g-gods… I need a bucket… please…"
Fayanna stepped around and looked, her eyes wide, but not quite the visceral reaction of her rival. "Where did you find that?"
"The library," Aerie shrugged, "but, you see, it's written by a wizard and a professor. So it's all true."
Her mother didn't know what to say. But luckily, she remembered the bucket.
"I… I-I've got to go," Failariel stammered moments later, as Fay patted her to make sure she'd got it all out. "Come on, Dil."
"Bye Aerie," the boy waved back as he hurried after his mother. "I… I-I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
Aerie stood on her toes as she waved back. "Okay!"
"Don't wanna go to sleep," Aerie yawned hours later. "Sleep… sleeps for sleepy people," she said, but her eyelids kept getting heavier and heavier as her mother carried her to her room and to her bed.
"I was like you, once," Fayanna said, whispering softly in her ear. "I never wanted to sleep; I always wanted to be awake and having adventures."
Aerie rubbed her eyes, trying hard to make them stay open. "What happened?"
"I met your father," she sighed, then smiled, "and then, the most wonderful thing; I met you as well."
The girl groaned. "That's… that's cheesy. And it's a cliché."
"Is it?" Her mother laughed. "Well, maybe; but some clichés are true."
Moments later, she was carefully laying down on a soft blue mattress. There was no need to tuck her daughter in; avariel tended to lie on their front, or side, with their wings covering them.
"You don't have to sleep," the child yawned again, more widely.
"The reverie," Fayanna nodded, "you'll learn it, soon. You're almost old enough."
"I won't be a girl anymore," Aerie put her head down, closing her eyes. "You won't be able to carry me."
Her mother smiled, kissing her head. "You know, wherever you go, and whatever you do, you'll always be my girl."
Aerie smiled too. She wrinkled her nose and said, "Cliché."
"Truth," Fayanna laughed. She ruffled her girl's hair again, then stood, leaving her daughter to dream.
And Aerie dreamt. She dreamt of dwarves in their mines, and of buried secrets and treasure. Of falling, and of fighting demons and meeting dragons, of the sea and the mountains, and gods and magic. Other planes and other worlds, sorcerers and wizards, witches and vampires, and ladies in castles, and songs and thieves…
And it was all the most amazing adventure.
Until she woke up.