They reached the edge of the ruins but only the trained eye would notice the marble columns beneath the knotted vines. The earth was reclaiming her forests as her own. Whatever memories were made among the ruins were long forgotten and erased from time.
Sarlen’s steps slowed and he stopped before the main entrance to the temple courtyard. “I’m not sure we should enter, mataelu.”
She eyed him curiously. “The spirits here are kindred.” She could sense them. Within the older, larger trees an energy hummed and like a slow, languid heartbeat they pulsed. “This is a sacred place. So long as we respect them, they’ll leave us alone.”
Her brother eyed her and then the courtyard. In its center was a large, white statue of a winged man with robes that looked as if they were caught in the wind. His arms were held out lovingly, a father welcoming his children home. Sarlen entered the courtyard but he kept his distance as he circle the outer edge.
Zahirana was not so cautious. She walked to the base of the statue and bowed just as Ris-Asala had taught her to do. She placed her hands over her heart then swept them outwards in a delicate flourish then swirled them upwards to the sky. She could see the round halo of sky through the canopy as if someone had carved the trees apart to ensure the wind god had a view of his statue.
She did a final bow before moving towards the temple’s main hall. “Sarlen,” she mused. “Are you afraid of your own gods?”
“Only spooky ruins,” he clarified. “There might be traps.”
“Who would put traps here?”
“Humans,” he spat and they reached the main hall together. “They wouldn’t want us praying to our ‘false gods’.”
She scoffed and moved into the dimness of the wall. Despite how many windows there were and an open trip of ceiling, the vines and trees had filled in most of the space. On the far end they could see what appeared to have been an altar and below it the land curved downwards into a tunnel.
Zahirana picked up speed but when she smiled back at her brother, he wasn’t as eager. “Don’t worry, mataelu. It’ll be fine.” She grabbed one of the torches from the wall and with a snap of her fingers, a spark of light flared. The tunnel’s wall brightened and she could make out faded, worn paintings of an unfamiliar scene. “Ris-Asala might want to see this for herself.”
He crept closer. “She’s probably explored this place already.” His fear faded as he ran a palm across the drawings. The artist used mostly black and white paint but every now and then a spark of color appeared. Upon some of the people drawn there were flecks of gold jewels on necks and wrists. It was unlike anything Zahirana had seen in history books. She might not have even thought it was elvish if it hadn’t been for the people’s pointed ears and thin frames.
“What is this thing?” Sarlen had made his way deeper into the tunnel without Zahirana even noticing.
She rushed over to get a look at it.
“It’s in all the pictures.” He pointed along the wall and in nearly every scene there was a round circle of gold with rays of light coming off of it. “I thought it was a sun but…”
“People are holding it,” she agreed, noticing it was strange.
His tone deepened, “On their heads?”
He motioned her over to another scene. “Do you think this is what destroyed the elven empire?”
Zahirana saw it then. There was a wave of green that shimmered into violet and it was reflected across the ground beneath the people. Two people, she noticed. But the ground was collapsing out from under their feet, tumbling downwards into darkness.
“Strange indeed,” she muttered. She rounded the other side of her brother, the torching lighting up the last of the tunnel. She could make out the elven language written in an arch across the wall.
His voice shook, “We should leave.”
“This is elvish.” She held the torch closer. “The sun will rip open the sky…”
“Zahirana,” he chastised. “Let’s get out of here. This place is too strange for my liking.”
Before she could read the last of the enscription, a gust of wind blew into the tunnel and snuffed the torch out. Sarlen shouted and in his panic shoved Zahirana forward. She fell into the wall, her elbow scraping against the uneven stone.
She hissed. “Would you stop?” She snapped her fingers and the torch burned with a small flick of fire. She tried to get a look at her arm to see how bad the damage was.
“Za...Zahirana…” His voice was high-pitched and trembling. “Move this way. Move towards me.”
She looked back at him and held up her arm so he could see the blood. “You’re such a child. Look what your superstitious panic did.”
His eyes were wide and he looked like he was trying to grab her but he was frozen in place. His hand was held out but he couldn’t move foward or backwards.
She narrowed her eyes and turned around with the torch. The fire wavered in her sharp movements but when it steadied she still couldn’t see the wall or the inscription. It was gone. She fluttered her eyes to clear her vision but there was only darkness in front of her. She held the torch out towards it and saw the vague outlines of something black, mounds of dark skin and fur.
Two round red orbs appeared, eyes opening to take in her presence. A hot wind blew across her face followed by the low rumble of a growl.
Zahirana shuffled backwards towards her brother. Dire wolf, she wondered. Great bear.
She held out a hand behind her until she felt her brother’s leather cuirass. She shoved him, pushing him towards the tunnel’s exit. It took a few shoves before he jolted to attention. And then, as if he realized they were in danger, scurried around and ran.
The beast’s mouth open with a loud roar.
Zahirana chased after her brother, her feet smacking into the tunnel’s floor. And even when she reached the soft moss of the wilds, she kept running. Sarlen raced past the statue of O’fyon and out of the courtyard’s entrance. She might have followed him if the clan’s safety hadn’t came to mind.
The young elf stopped and spun around.
The dark shadow’s feet pounded, beat after beat like a war drum. It’s dark mouth peeked out of the tunnel, mounds of flesh upon a upturned nose. A row of white, jagged teeth bared at them as it released another snarl.
She shouted over her shoulder, “Go, Sarlen. Get Ris-Asala.”
Before he could reply, the temple grounds began to tremble from the beast’s heavy paws. A crack in the earth roared and the statue of the god tilted sideways. The courtyard was splitting in half and she thought back to that last scene in the tunnel where the ground opened up and swallowed the two people. The statue fell and shattered against the forest floor. The ground caved in as if another tunnel had been hidden down below.
Zahirana turned her gaze back to the beast as its head appeared.
“Run!” Sarlen screamed. “Behind you!”
She looked back at the tunnel that opened up. The dead, or rather undead, were beginning to claw into the courtyard. They wore the old elven armor from centuries past. Their eyes were burning in a bright shade of blue as if the flames of the underworld were peering out of them.
“I’ll keep them busy!”
“No! You’re faster than me.” Sarlen readied his bow and notched an arrow. “Run! Warn the clan!”
She took down a sharp breath, her nose flaring as she forced herself not to cry.
He fired the first arrow into the swarm of undead.
Zahirana turned away from the tunnel in the ground, the monster approaching, and her beloved brother. She ran into the wilds as fast as her feet could carry her. She gathered the life force of the trees, pleading with them to give her strength. She anchored the power into her bones and the father she ran the more power she could gather.
She stopped long enough to weave the spell into existance. She pulled the magic out of her until skin peeled away to reveal fur, her bones cracked as they altered beneath her flesh. She let out a loud howl that echoed across the wilds. She raced again, paws clawing into the earth with desperation. She moved through the wilds with expert precision and the spirits helped guide her through the dense underbrush.