There was no more strength left in her after all what have happened, and Mierdred lied down on snow covered cage floor at the bars. She hugged herself with her multiply arms in vain attempt to catch the fleeing warmth of her body and reached with one hand between the bars. She touched the white snow with her fingers, feeling its cold. Some of the desert natives, like those who had never ventured out from Bracada Desert, would call snow as sand, but then they would quickly realize their mistake - sand was usually hot, and snow was cold and death-bringing to any foolish wanderer.
For the first time in her entire life, she was vulnerable to the bitter cold and fear coming along with it. Mierdred was hungry, tired and wounded, and altogether was far from the best condition to meet the attack of fierce high mountain coldness. She tried instinctively to fight but as time passed, the cold seized her whole body part by part, surrounding and locking her in a freezing dread of helplessness. Suddenly, her eyelids closed and she fell down into the endless nightmarish unconsciousness of a deadly tired creature.
The body of Mierdred was lying inside the cage and light snowflakes slowly fell down, covering her with white blanket. The cage sat at the end of narrow ledge and was fastened with a chain to the mountain face. Cold night in high mountains of Snow Bracada surrounded everything in quiet darkness. Hours passed. Suddenly the narrow beam of golden light cut the night in half and lighted the body of young Naga Queen in the cage. The beam became wider and thin vertical crack running from bottom till top of rock to which the cage was chained, silently opened in a brightly lighted portal with a man clad in long robes, shimmering with golden needlework, coming out of it. He had a long, knee-length and very well cared of beard and all his looks spelled "wizard" all around him.
The newcomer to the ledge did not waste a second. The wizard with the shining eyes moved to the sleeping Naga, and made some intricate gestures with his hands. The figures of both the human and the Naga Queen slightly shimmered and were covered in whirlwind of foggy bluish substance. Something strange was happening. Exactly then for an observer, if only one would be there, it looked like four stars fell down from the night sky and circled around the cage. Finally, they stopped, froze for a second and then burst in a blinding shining with the same effect as of an exploding supernova star. When the darkness returned where it belonged, the cage stood empty... like nothing have happened, and there was no sign of any living or dead creatures around. Light white snowflakes lazily fell to the rocky ledge and covered now empty floor of cage, with a still seen black spot - where the warm body of Mierdred was lying just seconds ago.
Meantime, the Empress Palace located behind the Gold Mountains was in pandemonium... despite the late hour of night. Of course, the death of the Empress was by itself the event disturbing the usual order of life, but after the burial ritual has been over it was almost forgotten already with the more important concerns that were connected to the future, not the past.
The Empress was either so confident or stupid to believe in her longevity and invincibility against assassinations or accidents or plainly did not trust anyone, but the fact was she did not leave any instructions about an heir and she had not any daughters of herself.
That was the serious problem as the Naga Empire has always had the ruler who united all Naga circles from the ancient time. The Empress had to be chosen and at once. The task was of the Loremaster and hers alone, as she was the only one beside the Empress herself who has had the power for this. The Empress could be chosen only from the circle of Naga Queens. There were never too much of those at the recent time, even though the legends spoke about glorious ages of past, when the legions of Naga Queens ruled all Bracada, but that has been stuff from deep history scrolls and now, it was the present.... and there were precious few of Naga Queens left, especially after the last great battle with the revolted Golems.
The names of Naga Queens were well known to all, but a rare Naga knew that the Loremaster had the ancient copper plate with engraved names of all living Naga Queens of the Snow Bracada. Not a mortal hand or any hand at all engraved the names, they appeared by themselves when a Naga was transformed to a Naga Queen and grew her tail rattle. They disappeared also by themselves - when a Naga Queen passed from this realm to another, lying behind the doors of death. The strange artefact was kept in secret and vigorously protected by the generations of Naga Loremasters.
Now the current Loremaster of Nagas was carefully studying the copper plate in her colonnade chambers, and the deep frown of worry did not leave her face. Her real name was Heilasi Mech'Kipr, but it was nearly forgotten and she was simply known as the Loremaster to everyone. The heavy weight of responsibility before the future fate of Naga Empire was not something that she was not accustomed to, though it was the first time in her long life she was actually in position of choosing the Empress of all Nagas.
The Loremaster sighed and switched back her attention again to the plate and task in hands. Mentally she already crossed out most of the Naga Queens' names in the list. Some of them were too old and fragile to bear the weight of the Empress crown, some had not character, will or wisdom to be a ruler.
The last few names remained but the Loremaster already knew the answer... and it was not good. No living Naga Queen was good enough to be the next Naga Empress. All of them had some flaws, now the Loremaster had to find the one in the list who had fewer flaws than others, and it was not the best solution at all. Nevertheless, Heilasi dutifully checked out the last names in the list. Those were the recent promotions of the young Nagas to Naga Queens: Lionesse Sivel, Pelien Dragos and Sollivell Mech'Tor.
Lionesse Sivel was an ordinary Naga with no exceptional talents... though with good fighting capabilities, but little wisdom or diplomacy that necessary for talks with the Merchants of Northern Erathia. The only important fact about her was that she was the Daughter of Wilen, the Advisor to the Gold Crown. However, that was not enough to be an Empress. Lionesse was crossed out too.
Pelien Dragos. She was a gifted Naga with strange magical powers, but with the hands of a mother, and not a fighter or a warrior leader. The Loremaster placed a question mark beside this name in her mind. She needed to think about this.
The last name on the copper plate was of the Loremaster's own daughter by the name of Sollivell Mech'Tor. She thought with kindness about her, but there was one single problem. The young Naga was suffering from the Sofien Fever. The disease caused blindness quickly, especially if one has had it from the birth. The Loremaster sighed, but crossed her own daughter out too. The disease ruined all chances of her daughter to ever become an Empress. Perhaps the daughter could become the future Loremaster after her mother, as she was the most brilliant pupil of Heilasi, but never the Empress. The Loremaster loved her daughter dearly, but Heilasi did not want the Empire to be ruled by an unfit Empress.
The Loremaster carefully put the plate down on polished surface of a low table, and looked out the barred window... to the snow covered mountain peaks that were shimmering even at night, with a quiet white glowing. Somewhere there was the cage for Nagas condemned to death sentence with Mierdred inside. Once again in a course of this eventful day, the thoughts of the Loremaster returned to this young Naga, who had promised to be the exceptional Naga Queen one day. Moreover, it could happen so soon as Mierdred was in the age when Nagas were usually transformed to Naga Queens, though there were known some cases of transformation in later age, and even among elderly Nagas... but they were extremely rare occasions, and now all hopes were ruined.
The Loremaster smiled sadly. Finally, she could admit to herself that she has indeed had hopes that Mierdred would become Naga Queen one day, and eventually the Empress as Mierdred and none else was the best candidate for the job. It was the pity that the girl was so stubborn and unpopular, but to end her life in such way, crashing all secret plans and schemes of the Loremaster was a real disaster.
Her distracted glance that was aimlessly searching the far mountain peaks finally spotted the strange golden glowing in the room. The Loremaster abruptly turned from the window. The glowing was initiated from the copper plate with the Naga Queens' names. With wide opened eyes, Heilasi watched the wondrous artefact, as its surface was gradually covered in bright gold light. Despite witnessing the very same thing many times already in her life, she never ceased to be amazed when the actual magical process of appearing or disappearing of a name occurs. Now it was happening again. What would it bring? Would it be a death or the birth of a Naga Queen? At that moment of choosing the future Empress, every single Naga Queen was more precious than ever, and the Loremaster caught herself at praying that it would be a birth.
She patiently waited while the bright light subdued to a soft warm glowing, and finally died out altogether. For a couple of minutes more the Loremaster could not force herself to take the copper plate in hands and simply stared at the artefact. Then she shook the uncharacteristic for her indecisiveness off and took the plate with firm determination. Quickly she began to scan the names list from top to bottom. Nothing have been changed so far, meaning that no Naga Queen has passed to the after death realm. Lower to the end of the list the Loremaster's glance went, the slower she read the names. At the end, there were none of so familiar names at the list but there was the new line at the very bottom of it. The prayers of Heilasi were answered; a new Naga Queen was born that night. Who was it, she wondered...
The Loremaster read the last name, which was not on the copper plate just a few minutes ago, frowned and re-read again. Not believing her own eyes, she quickly crawled closer to the bright wall torch with the dry rustling whisper of her multiply tail rattles as the only sound in the quiet chamber. Palace servants knew better than disturb the Loremaster that night. The brighter light of the torch did not change what have been written on the plate and what Heilasi has already read twice. The last name in the list of the existing Naga Queens was of Mierdred Deur'Mar. There was only one Naga with such name... and she was in the cage up in the mountains! But she already was not a Naga, the Loremaster corrected herself, but the Naga Queen... and the best one among living.
This changed everything. Mierdred the Naga could be wasted, but Mierdred the Naga Queen could be not. Suddenly a thought struck the Loremaster and a smile played on her lips, but only for a little while. The next moment she crawled back to the window and peered out into the night. Rarely seen on the Loremaster's face smile returned, turned wider, and then dominated all her face. Finally, Heilasi had the solution for the task. Even better, she had a plan.
Heilasi Mech'Kipr was wise, too wise, as some said. But only in their minds or in quiet whispers among the most trusted friends. The Loremaster's power was great, in some ways even greater than the Empress's herself, though it was much subtler, up to being nearly invisible and only most clever and observant Nagas understood what role apart from the evident keeping of archives and holding Nagas' history and laws did the Loremasters always play in the life of the Naga Empire.
Now the time of thinking has passed and time of action came. Heilasi ordered a secret patrol to be sent out to the Sky Pillar at once. The patrol included a wizard adept in spell casting of necessary incantations and known for his closed mouth. In addition, a cell in underground levels of the Palace, which were called as the Deadgates among Palace servants and were known as the cellars among the Nagas, was prepared. The cell was without doors and windows, only with a small trapdoor at ceiling with an intricate closing mechanism with bars and locks.
After all orders and preparations were done Heilasi brought a small scrying crystal ball out of her cabinet and looked into it for a long time. Then she nodded with satisfaction to something she has been watching in the depths of the glowing ball and tore her glance from the ball returning to the reality of her own chambers. Her face was strangely changed. The features were all the same but the whole impression was of another person. Barely audible whispering words formed between her dry lips: 'I will still have an Empress, maybe a puppet in my hands, but still an Empress!', - and she laughed. Strange was this laugh, long, hard and so alien to the Loremaster everyone knew.
Deep inside her strange unconsciousness that was closer to oblivion than dream Mierdred was troubled by weird visions and odd encounters with the bizarre creatures. They did not threaten her but moved past her as on parade. Two of them caught her attention more than others. One was with a lion body and head but with large leathery wings and segmented tail equipped with the sharp sting at the end. Mierdred had no idea what was this alien beast.
Another was also a monster - green something, which looked like a Dragon, but only of the smaller size with less powerful wings' span, and the scales were not like Dragon's. The creature had the banded long neck with elongated head and big mouth with even bigger sharp needle teeth but had not the usual for the Dragons upper pair of arms. Then Mierdred remembered who it was in her dream - it was a Wyvern Monarch of the Swamps. She heard stories from other warrior Nagas that these Dragon-like beings lived in the swamps, and fed on poisonous plants. That probably explained the poisonous fangs of the Monarch, his main attacking weapon apart from the powerful claws of his legs.
Mierdred did not understand why she paid so much attention to those two winged beasts but somehow deep inside she knew that they were important and she had to remember them. After this, the dream became more confused with sounds and images whirling around her in crazy dance of a nightmare.
Suddenly, something fell on top of her, and Mierdred awoke from her strange dream. Her awakening was horrible, and later Mierdred would have wished to sleep for eternity than to awake again like this. She opened her eyes, expecting to see her covered in snow and almost without any hope for survival in her cage. She did not hear any noise of the wind and she was covered not with snow but with filthy threadbare blanket, which was probably the same thing that has waked her up. That all looked very wrong, she thought. How right she was!
In surprise and growing worry, Mierdred levelled her up and stared around. She looked at the blank wet walls, which were covered with lichen, and a small opened trapdoor at the ceiling barely visible in the darkness. The trapdoor was the only source of light in the darkness of the space she found herself and it could be called only as a cell. Abruptly the clicking noise of closed locks sounded loudly in the dead silence of the cell and the trapdoor closed.
Mierdred was alone in the small wet cell. She crawled to the place that she thought was approximately directly under the trapdoor. The darkness was nearly complete except the single spot where the lock of the trapdoor was and the grey dim beam of weak light was streaming through it. Mierdred raised her hand and place the palm under the beam. Soft squeaking in one corner of the cell seemed to sound so loudly that she jumped on place. Slowly she approached to the wall from where the noise was coming. There was nothing there, just bare wall. Mierdred bowed and checked the wall surface. There was a small hole in the wall at ground level and though the noise stopped when Mierdred began to inspect closely, she was certain that sounds were from this hole and most probably were done by mice or even worse, rats.
Mierdred sighed heavily, and lay down on the stone floor. She was in prison, which was clear enough. She could only hope that those who imprisoned her would show themselves soon enough. The only thing left for her was waiting. Philosophically Mierdred admitted that being imprisoned here in the cell was better than in the cage up at the mountains. It was cold here but even remotely... not that freezing cold as on the top of Sky Pillar.
She did not know what have happened and what it all meant for her and decided that it was worthless to guess. At least she survived the cage and she knew that she need her strength to survive further. What she did not know yet was that her cell was inside the Empress Palace Castle Ge'Manh and the responsible for change of her fate was she herself and the Loremaster of the Naga Empire.