They walked in silence for a few hours. Cobble stones gave way to dirt. The mist grew thicker as they went, until the fog pressed in where they could only see the path in front of them. Leela sensed movement in the forest just out of sight. Several times she caught glimpses of shapes in the mist.
“What sort of creatures live in the forest?” asked Leela.
“All sorts,” said Raizo, “Bears, wolves, deer, birds. But they all live under the influence of Motakke. I don’t believe you have anything to fear from them.”
Unearthly growls emanated from the mist, raising the hairs on the back of Leela’s neck.
“How sure are you of that?”
“The creatures usually will not harm travelers,” said Raizo, uncertainty rising in his voice. “Not unless—”
A deafening bark came from behind them. They whipped around in time to see a massive beast bounding out of the fog. Leela had barely enough time to shove Raizo out of the way as the creature missed its pounce. The beast recovered its footing and squared off against the two travelers. Leela could see the creature clearly now. It was a large wolf, taller than either of them. Shocks of white fur traced intricate, angular patterns in its gray coat. Its eyes were a deep black and larger than those of any wolf Leela had seen before.
The wolf bared its teeth and stepped closer. Leela drew her knife and placed herself between Raizo and the wolf. The wolf paused its advance. A moment passed as they stood there. The wolf growled softly then backed away into the mist. Leela and Raizo stood where they were, unsure of what to do.
“Is it gone?” asked Leela.
“For now, I think,” said Raizo, “but be on your guard.”
“You said the creatures here don’t attack travelers.”
“I said they usually don’t.”
The wolf attacked again, this time leaping from the side. Leela stuck out her left arm to push Raizo out of the way, but the wolf went past him and latched its jaws onto Leela’s outstretched arm. The wolf’s momentum knocked her over, but Leela put her feet under the wolf and kicked it off of her. The wolf tumbled off the path and disappeared into the fog. Now free, Leela got to her feet, grabbed Raizo, and together they ran down the path. They dared only a few glances backward as they sprinted, lest they lose their balance and trip on the cobblestones. Their pounding footsteps slapped on the stone path, sounding dull in the damp air. Eventually they could run no longer and were forced to stop. Leela turned to face back down the path, gripping her knife, and stood ready to defend them. But neither sight nor sound of the wolf came down the path. Leela swiveled her head in all directions, listening hard. But only her own ragged breaths pressed into her eardrums.
“You’re bleeding,” said Raizo, pointing to Leela’s arm. He pulled out a piece of cloth and held it out to her.
Leela hissed, “Quiet!” and waved away Raizo’s hand.
Raizo avoided Leela’s swat and pressed the cloth at her again. “Bind your wounds. The wolf will not attack again.”
Leela turned to Raizo, but kept her ready stance. She eyed the cloth in Raizo’s hand, then saw his face. Raizo wore a grim expression that Leela could not discern. She relaxed and accepted the cloth. As she wrapped her arm, Raizo quietly turned and began walking down the path again. Leela followed.
As the sun set, they found a shelter by the path made from the same neat stone as the arch. They laid out their bed rolls and Raizo used his flint to build a fire. The wet wood hissed, but the flames kept the darkness at bay as they ate their dinner.
When Leela finished eating she pulled a fresh bandage from her pack. As she peeled off the old bandages, the congealed blood made the cloth stick to the wounds, making her wince. Raizo, now finished with his own meal, quietly watched.
Leela gently flushed the cuts with water from her water skin before applying the clean bandages. Finished, she sat back against the shelter wall, cradling her arm. Her eyes met Raizo’s from across the fire.
“Tell me, Raizo, why were you so sure the wolf would not attack again?”
Raizo lowered his gaze to the fire, tugging at his mustache. “Everyone has different reasons for seeking Motakke. Not all so innocent.”
Leela raised an eyebrow, “What are you implying?”
“I won’t presume to guess your motives. But–”
“You just did.”
Raizo said nothing, keeping his gaze on the fire. When he spoke again, it was in monotone, as if reciting a litany. “Mottake knows the heart of every man. With the dead, he grants an audience to both the guilty and the innocent. The pure may pass, their journey truly blessed. The guilty souls must meet their reckoning. For all their sins require a toll of blood.”
Both sat in silence for a minute.
At last, Leela spoke, holding up her bandaged arm. “If this is the price I have to pay to see Motakke, I’m fine with that.” She lowered her arm again. “Will you still guide me?”
Raizo lifted his eyes to meet Leela’s. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Of course.”
Leela’s dream that night was more strangely vivid than any she had dreamed before. She stood in the village hall. Her parents were there, dressed in black, faces stricken with grief and anger. The elders stood above her, eyes gleaming. Her friends and neighbors surrounded her from all sides. They were screaming, but Leela could not make out their words. All eyes were on Leela, except for those of the Great Elder, who had his own locked on the large tome before him. He was reading aloud in solemn tones. When he finished, he too gazed at Leela, eyes deep and black. The great mass of people surrounding Leela pressed in, pointing at her. They screamed, and screamed, and screamed…and Leela awoke drenched in sweat and shaking.