It wasn't the best time to be outside.
The skies were an ashen shade of grey, and the sun was barely visible. Clouds, thick and endless, dominated the horizon, promising extensive snowfall. Taelia was experienced enough to recognise the severity of the coming storm. She kneaded her temple. This one will be bad, I should think.
It was midway through winter, and around the time that Terror Mountain encountered its worst seasonal conditions. Wind whipped past Taelia, raking through her blue-black hair, as she scanned the winterscape. The mountain was covered in snow, and barely gleamed in the weak lighting. Fir trees were interspersed throughout. Most stood tall, staunchly unyielding against the wind, although many others were bowed.
Taelia's sigh had nothing to do with the chill in the air. Her surroundings were eerily quiet, and there were no signs of movement as she walked. She was alone. However, the faerie noticed that there were fresh pawmarks imprinted in the snow. Hikers had passed through the area, and quite recently.
Their trajectory suggested that they had taken a path up the mountain. Not again, Taelia thought, hesitating. How unwise. There was little shelter to be found in that direction and, unless she sought them out, they could freeze during the blizzard.
The snow faerie had grown up in the region. Her understanding of its climate had been developed over a considerable length of time. Taelia knew that the stillness of the landscape was deceptive, and that the subsequent change would take the hikers unawares. There was always a calm before a storm.
As she climbed, the breeze grew stronger. Her coat flapped behind her when she paused at the edge of a large lake. The sheet of ice covering its surface was so crystalline that Taelia could see the water running beneath. Small white pebbles were visible at the bottom, and an abandoned grappling hook flashed at her from where it rested between the stones.
Seeing red in her periphery, Taelia turned away. Her gaze fell on a tent on the other side of the lake. Two forms sat sprawled around its base, and seemed to be building a fire with limited success. In these conditions, she doubted that anything would burn.
When she stepped closer, a crack appeared under her boot. It splintered its way across the lake, the ice groaning as the fissures spread, and she moved back. Clearly, it was unable to support her weight.
Both Neopets jumped to their feet, and the faerie realised that they were Kacheeks. Wide eyes met hers. Well, good. She had their attention, and could soon be on her way.
"You... you're the snow faerie, Taelia," one hiker stuttered. "What do you want?" The blue Neopet shared a glance with his green companion, and they spoke to each other in panicky whispers. Dread, mixed with awe, was written across their features.
Taelia wasn't there for chitchat. "You need to leave," she told them bluntly.
There was no reply. Her voice had been cool, and it occurred to Taelia that the hikers had likely misinterpreted her warning as a threat. The blue Kacheek's eyes had widened further, and Taelia fought to keep from rolling her own as she debated the merits of correcting them. Impatience won out, and she swallowed the invitation on her lips. The hikers were unlikely to agree to follow her to shelter.
"Go now. There's a storm coming, and you won't be safe here." Her tone was tinged with exasperation, and she had her back to them before they could respond. She didn't have time to waste in unnecessary conversation.
Common sense told her to return home as swiftly as she could. Taelia hurried down the mountain pass, letting haste spur her on, until she was a good distance away from the lake.
Four metres ahead, a small Snowbunny had stretched itself across the trail. From the marks beneath its paws, she could tell that it had tried to burrow its way into the snow to keep warm. Its eyes were closed, and Taelia realised that it was exhausted. Slowly, sympathy welled in her chest. Trying to be careful, she tucked it under the fur lining of her coat.
A gust of air blew from the north, and Taelia looked up to see snow spiral from the sky. It was no longer feasible for her to remain in the open. She needed to find cover, and quickly.
When she rounded a corner, the faerie spotted a series of ice caves off to the left of her path. The cavern she chose was small in size but its frozen surface was firm to the touch. Taelia found a nook inside, and settled the Snowbunny in her lap. She sat still for several minutes, listening to the storm without, as she stroked the Petpet's white back.
"It sounds terrible," Taelia murmured absently. The wind shrieked, and the falling snow pounded the earth. She heard the sound of raised voices although she wasn't sure if she'd imagined it. Sometimes that was the case.
Taelia would've felt cold but the Snowbunny snuggled closer, pressing its nose into her free hand. She didn't pull back from the contact. In a way, it felt nice to have the company.
Terror Mountain was popular with hikers, and Taelia had run across countless Neopets caught out in a storm mid-trek. She'd helped dozens find refuge, and even welcomed some into her hut to wait out the weather. Often, however, it was a thankless undertaking. She'd come to expect very little from others in the way of companionship.
Time went by, and it was almost evening when Taelia ventured outside. The landscape had been covered in a new, pristine layer of snow that shimmered in the afternoon light. Overhead, sunset had begun to paint the skies with streaks of gold. It was so different from earlier that Taelia surprised herself by smiling.
She still held the Snowbunny, and she knelt to set it down on the ground. As it danced around her feet, the hum of conversation reached Taelia's ears. Her initial reaction was one of surprise although it ebbed as the voices drew close. She was sure that she'd heard them before.
Glancing up, Taelia looked into two familiar faces. The Kacheeks blinked as their eyes locked to hers.
"It's you," one breathed. Taelia recognised the speaker as the Neopet she'd spoken with earlier. It became clear to her that the hikers had also taken shelter in the cave system.
"Watch out, Nate!" the other Kacheek exclaimed, regarding his friend with a shocked expression. Evidently, he thought that Taelia was dangerous.
Taelia was just as taken aback when the Snowbunny's ears perked up, and it bounded into Nate's arms. The day had certainly been full of surprises. "Is that your Petpet?" she asked. If it had been lost, then it was possible that the hikers had been looking for it when she had previously come across them.
The Neopet's response was slow, and a muscle twitched along his jaw. "Yes. We got separated." Now that they were face to face, Taelia noticed that he was tall for a Kacheek. His shoulders were squared, and he carried himself rigidly.
She sensed the direction of his thoughts, and spoke to head off any questions. Ice filtered into her tone as she explained how she'd found the Snowbunny, taking it with her to keep it warm.
Nate's nod was reluctant but he backed down readily enough.
Taelia grew thoughtful as she watched the Kacheeks turn away. Despite Taelia's good intentions, she was accustomed to being treated with suspicion, even hostility, by the Neopets she approached. Some seemed to think that she was responsible for the storms.
The faerie rubbed her head as she tried to pinpoint when it had become like this. Was it her fault? Was her manner too abrupt? Too cold? She gave up when the hikers disappeared from view.
A desire to go home surged through her body. Snow settled in Taelia's hair as she walked into the breeze, her step even. For now, her loneliness had abated slightly.
At least she had the winds as her constant companion.