"Ris-Asala Zahirana," one of the elders greeted as he approached.
She wanted to correct him. She wasn't Ris-Asala yet. She hoped it would be many long years until she was. But the cold look in his eyes told her to bite her tongue. "Elder A'sa." She bowed her head.
"In the morning, what is our course of action for the clan?"
Her brow peaked up. "Course of action? We wait until Athenaya returns."
His lips parted and then he groaned as if he didn't want to argue. "Ris-Asala Athenaya should have been here by now. If the scouts and hunters have returned, we must fear the worst."
Zahirana grimaced, lips curling in a tense smile. She gave a breathy, hushed laugh in disbelief. "That's absurd. They have to trek the wilds at night. They're probably tired." She folded her arms to keep from shaking but her shoulders were caving inwards. "They'll be here."
He stepped closer, between her and the clan. His voice was quiet, "You are our leader. You must be prepared for the worst."
"I'm a child," she hissed under her breath. "You can't expect me to lead."
"That is why we elders exist to guide you." He nodded as if the debate was over. "Now, in the morning, what is our course of action?"
She curled her fingers into the soft skin of her arms and buried her nails down. She focused on the pinch of pain. It was small but it was enough to focus on. "The second meeting point is north of here. We move there and wait."
"Who will scout the area ahead of the group?"
Her gaze swept from the old man's face to the clan. Most of them were too old to be scouts. The rest were children far too young to have any real scouting skills. She settled her attention on a few budding teens who were still in their training.
The elder nodded as if he understood. "I'll speak with them. You should speak with Ris-Loresa. He wanted to have counsel with you."
She rolled her bottom lip into her mouth. She was tempted to bite a hole through but she allowed it to roll free. "Thank you, Elder A'sa."
Zahirana marched past him to the storyteller's caravan. She knocked on the door before climbing the steps and opening the door. "Forgive my intrusion."
He sat in the middle of the space with a small table covered in a bear's pelt. On top rested a stack of parchment that he had been reading. "Come in, Ris-Asala. We must talk about the temple."
She huffed and closed the caravan door behind her. "I'm not Ris-Asala."
He smiled. It was genuine and perhaps the first real smile she'd seen since returning to camp. She sat down across from him and looked down at the worn scroll. "I know you're still young. I know this isn't what you want."
"Sarlen could..." Her throat closed around the rest of her words. She couldn't speak it let alone admit the dangerous truth that was unfolding. "Where are they?"
"The temple of O'fyon." He turned the parchment so she could see the images better. They were the same situations but the artist was different. Someone else had drawn these. Perhaps someone else who had seen the mural long ago.
"You said something about a curse."
"Curse. Prophecy. These words get thrown around too easily."
She settled her hands onto the desk as patiently as she could. "Speak clearly. Is there a curse or not?"
"You've likely released something. A darkness that would indeed be considered a curse upon the world."
"How do I stop it?"
He stared at her. He looked down at the parchment beneath her palms. "I'm afraid I don't know. There's nothing in the pictures to show that it can be stopped."
She huffed. Then she laughed, a series of laughs that she couldn't keep down. It was all too much. And worst of all, the irony was bittersweet. She'd been told her whole life the gods had chosen her to lead her clan. Instead, she brought about a dangerous curse that would kill everyone.
"Guess the stars were wrong about me." She sneered and dropped her hands into her lap.
He was the one to settle his hand down onto the parchment this time. "This mural is only the first."
"There are others?"
"Supposedly." He raised his brows at her. "Much of our history is lost, as you well know."
"So, the other murals might be in other temples."
The storyteller hummed but it was deep with uncertainty. "There are hundreds of ancient temples. We can not be certain which of them might even host the murals."
"This one was strange, though. O'fyon is the god of wind. Why would O'fyon's temple be here in the wilds? We can look for others like it."
He chuckled and it was a genuine, sweet sound. "He is not only the wind god. Remember. What is the bedtime prayer we teach the children?"
"Every single night and day O'fyon shall be there, to guide and protect us with all his love and care. Each night before we fall asleep, reach up and kiss the sky. Tell O'fyon you love him and the rain will be his reply."
"Where else does it rain more than here in the wilds?"
She balled her hands into fists and ducked her head down. "Forgive me. I should have..." Her throat clamped up and her nose began to burn as grief strangled her. "I have to go back. There might be another hint. I could find Sarlen and Athenaya."
"It's too dangerous."
"I have to try." Zahirana started to move towards the door.
"The clan needs you, mataelu. Will you abandon them as well?"
Her hand wavered on the caravan's door. "Sarlen is all I have left."
"The clan is your family, too."
She froze with indecision. She wanted to follow her heart and race after her brother. Before she could consider her choice, a high-pitched scream broke the silence. The elk signaling an alarm of something dangerous approaching. Another scream followed, one of the children.
Zahirana threw open the door and scrambled out into the encampment. She saw the elders corralling some of the children. They were tugging them away from something. She searched the darkness, her elven eyes adjusting until she could make out the large shadow wrapped around the pale form of an elk. The longer she stared, she could finally understand that the monster was eating the elk. It was the same monster from the temple.
"Run!" She scooped up the closest child and raced to the edge of the encampment's circled caravans. "Take the children and go to the second meeting point."
Ris-Loresa took the young girl into his arms. He said it flatly, almost an order, "We will wait for you there."
Zahirana nodded. "I'll keep it distracted. If I don't make it..."
"Keepers of Fate guide you." He turned away and called for the clan to follow him. He raced off into the wilds, climbing over the large roots of trees with the rest of the clan following in staggered groups..
Zahirana spun around just as the monster abandoned its meal to settle its attention on her. She leapt across camp towards a bow. She drew an arrow from the nearby quiver and aimed for the beast's glowing eyes. Between the eyes, she reasoned, letting the arrow slip through her fingers. It whistled through the air. When it reached the beast, however, it scraped skin but the bone was like metal. The arrow clacked then fell to the ground.
Its broad shoulders rocked back and forth as it clomped forward. She could see it clearly now. A canine, she thought. But it was too large to be a dog. It had the floppy ears of a puppy and wrinkled snout like a human warhound. Its black mane covered its head and down its back. It stood taller than an elk. Larger than the Great Bears in the north. It was unlike anything she had ever seen before.
She snatched up two more arrows and fired them off in concession. She fired the first at its throat but it bounced off again. The beast's jaws snapped up the second arrow mid-air and clamped down onto it. It spit the splintered wood out like a dog fetching a stick.
Zahirana tossed the bow aside. Magic then, she decided with regret. She wasn't the most talented with casting spells. She reached with her hands and coerced the trees to give her strength. She pooled their energy into the palms of her hands, just enough that didn't harm the tree. She flourished her hands, sweeping the energy through the air then bringing it together between her palms.
"Zulin ar!" She threw the energy forward across the closing space between her and the beast.
It jumped up onto its back legs and with a swipe of its paw, her attack was tossed aside like a child throwing away a toy. It growled then. It raised its forepaws and brought them together as if it too were summoning a spell. And she watched in horror as a golden orb of light began to bloom in its grasp, the same golden orb that had been painted into the mural.
She sucked down a shaky breath as the orb shot across the field and engulfed her vision. It was warm at first and then it burned, hot as a summer sun at noon. She stumbled backwards but the energy was already upon her. It surrounded her. It seared her skin. Sweat pooled on her forehead but it was a hot, clammy sweat that began to lace her entire body. Then, as quickly as it consumed her, it disappeared.
She fell to her knees. She couldn't see anything but darkness. She shivered at the sudden loss of heat. The sweat chilled in the night air and left her damp hair clinging to her skin. She put her hands in front of her face but all she could see was the afterimage the orb had burned into her vision.
She stilled, listening for the sound of the beast but the wilds were quiet. Not even the owls made noise. There wasn't a single creature scurrying about in search of food.
When her vision finally cleared, the encampment was empty. She looked about but the creature was gone. She tried to focus on the events that transpired. The monster had used magic. She never saw an animal of any kind summon a spell before.
She scurried to her feet but a dizzying sickness tugged her sideways. She stumbled until she fell to her knees and pressed her forehead into the cold dirt. She laid down against the dirt and lush moss, breathing in the familiar scent of earth. Her home was so familiar to her and yet so foreign. As if the spirits of the forest were rejecting her.
She stared across the camp towards the dead elk and the scattered caravans. At least the other elk were released, she consoled her mind. They were free. But everything her clan had worked for was abandoned. Everyone she loved was in danger and it was all her fault.
She forced herself up onto her knees and crawled some distance before she had the strength to stand. She grabbed her bow from off the ground then strapped the quiver to her back. The arrows she fired at the demon earlier were still on the ground like a bitter reminder.
She began to wonder again what had happened to the beast. And what was the strange gold orb that surrounded her? For now it didn't matter. For now she had to find her clan. She had to protect them at all costs and make up for her childish mistake.