There’s a knock on my door, waking me from my sleep. I get up and trudge to my door, my stomach knotting around itself. Today I turn eighteen. I should be happy, excited… but I’m not. Instead, I’m filled with fear and uncertainty.
And the thing I’m most afraid of is the full moon tonight.
I slowly open the door, expecting one of the Tribe Leaders, or all of them, to be standing outside of it, ready to quiz me. Instead, there is nothing but the light of the rising sun.
I take a step out of my house, looking around. Something to my right catches my eye, pulling my attention over to the figure. A girl about ten years of age shuffles through the center of my village holding two large stone buckets of freshly boiled seawater. She stumbles and staggers, almost falling over and dropping the water buckets a few times as I stand there watching. I glance around. Maybe someone will help her.
But everyone else is asleep.
I focus on her again, and, after confirming the animal hides were secure over the scales on my legs, I rush to help her. She looks up at me with tired eyes, startled. No one ever helps the people that bring the water. They’re afraid these people might have accidentally touched the water and that they never report it.
“It’s okay,” I say softly. “Let me help you.”
She begins to refuse, to reject my offer and say it’s her job and she can do it, but I shake my head.
“Here,” I say, taking the long stick off her neck and placing it on mine. “No one will know. Everyone’s sleeping.”
She smiles a small smile. “Thank you.”
I grin back. I recognize her. She’s one of the girls that hangs around Lily-flor sometimes.
“I’m Sar-ee,” she says quietly.
“Nice to meet you,” I respond politely, making conversation with the little girl. “My name is Cressa-la.”
“I know,” she says as we reach the Bathing House, the one with the man-made well inside of it. “Everyone knows who you are.”
I glance at her, confused, and her face turns red. “I—I mean, you’re turning reaching year eighteen… Almost none of us make it that far.”
I readjust the stick on my back and turn sideways. “You just have to stay aware of everything, is all. Open the door, would you?”
She nods and jumps to do as I say. I side step inside and set the stone buckets down one at a time by tipping the stick one way and then the other. The water makes soft sloshing sounds.
“Thank you,” Sar-ee repeats, looking shyly down at the ground.
“You’re welcome,” I nod, smiling kindly at her.
Sar-ee shifts her weight uncomfortably and stares at the dirt floor. She walks quietly over to one of the buckets, almost as if making any loud noise would scare me away. Her tiny body drags it over to the well as she tries not to catch my eye.
“Hey.” I make my way over to her and help her drag the bucket the rest of the way. “We all need help sometimes. We can’t do everything alone.”
My own advice strikes a chord in my heart as the hypocrisy of my sentence touches my brain. I really do work better alone though… So I let the meaning of it hollow out as the words hang in the air.
She looks up at me and smiles. Her mood shifts from unease into something happier. I wonder if I’m the first to ever help her. I sure hope not.
We dump the first and then the second bucket into the well and set the hollow bucket-shaped stones to the side. We don’t say a word as we turn back to walk out the door.
The risen sun blinds us as the door swings open, and I have to blink several times. I make out blurry figures standing all around us. And then faces come into view.
The Tribe Leaders stand outside of the Bathing House, smiling. They clap as we walk out.
Kan-ner slaps me on the back, interrupting my question.
I catch a glimpse of Sar-ee as she beams up at me, clapping too.
“Congratulations, Cressa-la.” Rai-si smiles as he walks up to me. “You passed the first test.”
“What?” I croak, a smile of my own tugging at the corners of my mouth.
“Humility, the first trait of a Tribe Leader,” Tani-mah says, her eyes still as sharp and piercing as they were last night. “Congratulations.”
The rest of the Tribe Leaders slap me on the back and offer congratulations. As soon as I reach the edge of the crowd, Yurt-sah and Marin-na are standing with their arms crossed across their chest and wearing serious faces.
“You will have five tests,” Yurt-sah says, his chest heaving with each word. He smiles sheepishly. “Minus that last test.”
“The second one will test your better judgment. Fail it and you will not become a Tribe Leader. Follow us.” Marin-na turns sharply and walks in the opposite direction of me.
I take in a big gulp of air and walk with them. They march to the stone where we set and dress our food. Rai-si and Tani-mah say something to the rest of the villagers and they all begin to walk to where we now stand.
“Stand on top of the Feasting Table,” Yurt-sah bellows after turning fully around to face me. He holds out his hand to help me up.
I place my hands in spots that aren’t stained red with blood and push myself up, waving Yurt-sah’s hand away. Many times I’ve scaled this island without anyone else’s help, and I’m sure I can climb on top of this by myself too.
I get my knee up, being careful not to disturb the animal skin reaching above my knee.
Once standing, I stare down at Yurt-sah and Marin-na. They peer up at me, smiles playing on their faces. Uncertainty hits me like a tidal wave. I don’t remember what happened during the next few stages of becoming a Tribe Leader. It’s been two years since it’s happened, but I feel as if I should recall the memory, considering I’d been steadfast on becoming one myself growing up.
“Why don’t I remember?” I whisper to the sky.
“Are you okay?” Marin-na asks, her long black hair swaying behind her as she changes her stance, pulling her dark hands up to her temples. Yurt-sah does the same.
“Yes,” I nod, swallowing fear and calming the churning of my stomach. “I just… don’t remember this happening to anyone else.”
“It’s because everyone’s different, Cressa-la,” Yurt-sah smiles reassuringly. “So we make them different.”
“But… but you don’t understand—I don’t remember seeing anyone go through the process to become a Tribe Leader.”
Hushed voices dance across the mouths of my people as I finish my explanation. Marin-nah looks back at Rai-si and he nods, eyeing me. Tani-mah stands beside him, seeming to watch me even more carefully than her husband. Kan-ner and Lup-mem stand on either side of them, paying attention to Yurt-sah and Marin-na.
I gulp nervously again, my heart picking up its pace.
Marin-na turns back around and nods to Yurt-sah, ignoring my statement. The crowd falls silent.
The two Tribe Leaders before me close their eyes and sway side to side slowly as if they’re moving to the beat of the same invisible drum. They begin to hum quietly.
I glance down at Rai-si, but he does nothing to tell me everything will be okay.
I take a shaky breath and lace my fingers together, stretching my arms above my head.
Their humming has grown louder, approaching its climax.
I fill my lungs with air.
And then I almost fall off the rock.
Blue light dances around me, my vision taken over with the intensity of the color. Animals of all kinds fly around me, their bodies made of only light. I close my eyes as it grows brighter and brighter. Escalating, chaotic sounds fill my ears. They’re of laughter, of screams, of pain, of joy. They’re of death, of life, of music, of nature.
I cover my ears and sink to the rock.
“Make it stop!” I cry, but my voice is drowned out by the sounds, its volume rising by the second.
I cry out once more—and everything stops. Everything is still. Everything is quiet.
I open my eyes.
Before me stands my tribe. They watch me with eager eyes, tainted with confusion. I stand slowly.
“That’s it?” I ask.
And then water begins to crash through my village.
“Watch out!” I cry, waving my hands. My people twist to see over their shoulders, back at where I point. “Move! Get to higher land!”
Save them, Cressa-la.
The familiar voice sends a chill down my spine and I freeze.
Use your gift.
The water sprints toward them.
“Why aren’t you moving?” I gasp, my mouth suddenly dry.
“What do you want from me?”
And then I see Lily-flor. Running. Running from the water.
It swallows her whole.
“No!” I cry, falling off the rock. The ground hits me hard and I scramble up. I stagger to the water, my blood filled with adrenaline but my body heavy as stones. “Lily-flor!”
The chilling voice in my head chuckles.
I see an image of Tamir flash into my head. He holds his hands out, making the water move from around me.
I mimic him.
The water moves away from Lily-flor.
She lies on the ground.
Her chest is still. Her eyes are open.
And all I can hear is my heartbeat.
I let out a cry and pull my hand to the side as I turn away. The water parts and dodges my tribe, not a drop harming them. A high-pitched squeal passes by, and I catch a glimpse at a long, gray fish whip by, the laughter in my head fading out.
The deluge disappears and I glance at Lily-flor’s body. A tear threatens to make its way down my cheek. It would have fallen if the light animals didn’t appear from the trees and circle around me again, struggling to shove me back into reality.
Confusion courses through me.
“What?” I ask as the sounds rising again.
I feel myself begin to walk. I see nothing, but I know I’m headed somewhere. My feet stop.
The animals disappear and I stand on top of the cliff, overlooking the water.
I’m gazing over the edge, sharp rocks and raging seas below me. The sight is both breathtaking and startling. I stagger backwards, away from the ledge. My body doesn’t like standing that close—it’s as if I’m going to tumble over it at any given moment.
Something sharp pokes me in the shoulder. I turn around to see the Wurn Tribe girl that had taken me captive pointing her spear at me. A smirk tugs at her face as an abrupt mix of fear and anger surge through of me.
“You,” I spit.
“Jump or they all die,” she sneers, cackling echoing from behind her.
I peek over her shoulder.
Behind her stands the rest of my tribe. The Wurn Tribe holds several blades up to their necks, sneering and smiling. My eyes lock onto Rai-si’s. He shakes his head, telling me not to do it.
“Why?” I ask, fear churning around in my chest.
“Jump, Initi Girl,” she snarls, jabbing me with the spear and drawing blood.
I take a step back, and my heel touches nothing but air.
I pitch forward as I regain my balance, my heart leaping into my chest as I try to distance myself from the edge. Jagged rocks poke up from the raging sea, the foamy whiteness drowned out by another large wave. My breath hitches in my throat.
“Jump or they all die.”
I snap my head around. “You’d just kill them all?”
She nods, a smirk playing on her round face.
I take an unsteady breath and swallow every emotion pushing through my body. Anger. Rage. Sickness. Fear.
“One less tribe to worry about,” she snickers.
Disgust. Shame. Courage.
“Okay,” I breathe.
I lean back. Grab her wrist. Dodge the spear.
Plunge to the bottom.
But something stops me.
Rocks don’t touch me. The bright blue light is back. The noises have returned. And then I feel myself being lifted up.
The sound goes away. The light fades. My tribe stares eagerly down at me from the edge of the cliff. Tani-mah is at the front with her arms crossed and her face hard.
Rai-si, Kan-ner, and Lup-mem pull ropes, grunting from the weight. My weight.
I had plunged off the side of the island. Granted, the trees would have broken my fall once again, but if that net hadn’t have been there…
Maybe I would have been broken by the trees.
I gawk at the distance to the ground, my heart leaping in my chest. Had I really fallen that far not that long ago? It seemed like a much shorter distance then.
The net holding me is one used to capture prey, one that isn’t normally placed where it is at this moment. Did they know I was going to jump?
Once I’m to the top, the men help me back onto solid ground.
I’m going to be sick.
“Did I pass?” I croak, looking down at the ground.
Marin-na and Yurt-sah make their way through the anxious crowd gathered around me. They stop when they make it through, and I wearily shift my eyes up to them. They’re tired and sweaty like I am, resting their hands on their hips.
“Good job, Cressa-la,” Yurt-sah smiles. “You passed.”
Everyone cheers and I breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Yet I can’t help but notice Tani-mah as she stares at me icily, her arms folded across her body. She’s never been impressed by anything I’ve done, but this is a new thing entirely. Something teeters in her eyes, like she’s not quite sure what to do with me just yet.
Someone slaps my back. I pull my focus away from her only to refocus once again. She walks up to me.
“Congratulations.” Her voice is sharp. “Time for test number three. Follow me.”
I do as she says. She leads me to the Wall of the Dead. I tear my eyes away. I know what I’ll find. It’ll be the first name.
“For this test, I will tell you what to do. We must learn from our pasts, not regret them. There is a name on here that makes you uneasy,” she says, stepping away from the worn stone. “I want you to look at it.”
Stubbornly, I shake my head.
“Look at it, Cressa-la,” she says quietly but firmly.
I take a breath and glance everywhere but the tall block of wood.
And then I force my eyes to fall upon its surface, taking in every detail, every nick in the old cut down tree. I see her name etched in a handwriting that isn’t mine. Etched in by someone that should have been me.
Tears leap into my eyes and a knot ties in my throat.
“I can’t do this,” I whisper.
A hand wraps around mine. I jump. For a reason unknown, my heart longs for it to be the boy from the sea—but it is equally warmed when I look down and see Lily-flor. My head is confused at first, but then it reminds itself that what happened to her was just a test, a vision of some sort.
“Yes you can,” she says, her eyes glowing with intensity.
I squat down beside her, her face blurry from the tears in my eyes.
“I believe in you,” she whispers.
It makes me smile and I pull her in for a hug.
“Thank you, Lily-flor,” I say softly to her. My legs find their strength again and I stand, looking straight at her name. The woman that raised me.
“Now say it out loud.”
My eyes dart up to Tani-mah. Her eyes are like stones. She won’t ask again. It’s now or never. And I’m not throwing my life away because of something that happened in the past. Forgive and forget. And this is the moment where I need to forgive myself.
I take a deep, rickety breath. “Nan-ah.”
She touches her temples like Yurt-sah and Marin-na had, her eyes focused on me.
Forgive and forget.
Suddenly I’m flung into my memory. Into my past. Into my deepest regret.
“You see the water?”
I turn to see Nan-ah walking up to me, her hair flowing in the breeze. We stand on the edge of the cliff where my village sits. The sun is beginning to set, casting several colors out onto the dark liquid stretching as far as the eye can see.
“You can never touch it,” she goes on, her voice soft and musical as she sits next to me. She dangles her feet over the edge as I do. “Not even once. Because if you do, trouble will find you wherever you go.”
“Why can’t I?” I wonder aloud, asking the single question that has burned in my mind for the past eight years.
She takes a moment before she answers, my impatience growing. “Because if you ever do, trouble will find you wherever you go.”
“Why, Nan-ah?” The anger rises inside of my eight-year-old self. “What’s wrong with it?”
She looks at me, her eyes contemplating my query. And as if she was the wind herself, she turns back to the water. Her hair twists in the soft breeze.
“The water is a dark place for people like us, Cressa-la.”
“You didn’t answer my question, Nan-ah.”
“Cressa-la,” she begins.
“No,” I stand, the eighteen-year-old growing uneasy inside the mind of the eight-year-old me. This is where it all went downhill. This is where I branched off and became a lone wolf. “I’m tired of everyone telling me to wait until I’m older. Answer my question!”
I hear my voice crack and the tears start to well up in my eyes.Don’t do it, Cressa-la,I urge myself.Don’t do it.
“Cressa-la, come sit back down. Let’s talk this out—”
“No!” I stamp my foot. “I’m through with ‘talking it out’, Nan-ah! I want the answer to my question—to the question everyone wants to ask and yet no one knows the answer to. What is wrong with the water? We bathe in the boiled version of it and we drink it. So why can’t we touch it? What’s wrong with it?”
Nan-ah looks at me, her eyes showing the battle she’s fighting inside herself. She takes a breath and tries to speak. Stops herself. And then decides to finish speaking.
“Magic, Cressa-la. Magic is what’s wrong with it.” Her eyes are sad and long for me to understand. I see that now. “We boil the magic out.”
I stare at her for the longest time. The eighteen-year-old me cringes. The eight-year-old me scoffs.
“Thanks for being honest,” I spit sarcastically and turn away. “I thought that’s what mother figures were supposed to do.”
I walk away. The eight-year-old me is furious, wants to keep walking. But the eighteen-year-old me freezes. I watch as my young body disappears into the village, my heart hammering in my chest. I had been so angry… I had always thought I was right, that she had lied to me. This is the argument that pulled us apart.
But now I know she hadn’t been lying. She was telling the truth—but who would have listened if they had heard her say that? None of the recent tribes had ever believed in magic. It was the old ones that had stories about it.
I turn back toward her and sit down on the cliffs’ edge with her. She turns to me, startled, her eyes filled with tears.
“You’re back,” she sniffles, pulling me into a hug.
I smile, a tear falling down my cheek. I wipe it away, aware that I’d start glowing if I didn’t. The liquid finds a dry place on my clothing, keeping my secret safe for now. In her arms I feel safe. She’s the closest thing to a mother I could ever wish for… and now she’s gone.
It’s hard to look at her, even after all these years of not speaking. My heart squeezes inside my chest and I choke out a ragged sob. Nan-ah’s eyes are questioning as I wipe my eyes and dry my hands on my clothing.
“I’m sorry,” I blurt. “And—and I wanted to say thank you and that I didn’t mean what I said and that… that I love you.”
She smiles a sad smile, a tear falling down her cheek. “I love you too, Cressa-la, to the moon and back.”
The world around me wobbles and returns to the present.
“Good,” Tani-mah grunts. The crowd cheers.
That time I had, seeing Nan-ah and talking to her and apologizing… it felt like closure. I feel complete.
I take a sigh, letting the warmth inside of me expand and reach every part of my body. I hope Nan-ah’s looking down at me, and I hope she heard my apology. And I hope she accepts it.
“Number four,” Kan-ner says, walking forward with Lup-mem. They share an awkward glance. “This is the toughest one yet, Cressa-la.”
“And we wanted to let you know,” Lup-mem says. “That we would never do this to you or let this happen to you in real life.”
I glance around, everyone else seeming to do the same.
“What is it?” I ask, scared.
They sigh and begin to walk. I follow them.
They take me into one of the houses and shut the door behind them, directing me to the center of the house. They ask me to sit. I obey, uncertainty crossing my face.
“No one watches this one,” Kan-ner says. “The only thing they know is if you’re struggling to walk, it means you passed.”
Uneasiness sinks like a rock in my stomach as I switch my gaze between the both of them. They put their hands up to their temples like the rest of the Tribe Leaders have and close their eyes. And then they hum.
I’m thrown into a dark room, the only light from the moon above, shining into the hole at the top of the building. Two men with black cloth covering their faces stand above me. My hands are tied to a wooden pole sticking up from the ground. I try to escape.
“Where are they hiding?” The first man shouts in my ear. I cringe.
My brain fills in the gaps with images and words and sounds, probably by the work of the Tribe Leaders. My tribe is underground, hiding from the Wurn Tribe and the Revli Tribe. They had teamed up and they’re coming to destroy us—but they have to find us before they can carry out their plan.
“Why? What are you going to do to us?” I ask, the words flying out of my mouth and dripping with venom.
There’s a hot, searing pain, followed by a crack of something on my back. I cry out and fall to the ground. The second man holds a long rope-like weapon. Its end glows red with heat.
The first man takes ahold of my wrists and twist my arms to where they’re crushing my lungs. I can’t breathe.
“Where are they?” He hisses.
“I’ll never tell,” I wheeze.
Another crack of pain against my back.
I cry out.
The back of my shirt rips open and warm blood trickles down my skin, agony wrapping its fingers around my flesh and its fingernails slipping beneath it. Death seems to brush by me as another lash cuts into my spine, making my body spasm. My energy drains as I peel myself from the dirty floor.
“I’m sure the little girl—what was her name—Lily-something?—would appreciate you living, since you’re the one that is supposed to care for her.”
“Leave her—leave her alone!” I shout, squirming against the ropes and the tall wooden pole.
The men laugh.
The first one hits me across my face. I’m slung onto my side.
I’m hit again by the weapon. More blood. More torturous pain stutters through my system at alarming rates. Black appears around my vision. I could swear I’m dying.
The first man places his foot on my face. Pushes down.
“Last chance, princess.”
I spit out blood and attempt to breathe with my heavy lungs, dirt and dust swarming into my mouth. A bizarre sort of strength slithers into my body, swelling from my core. Somewhere inside of me, I find a chuckle and let it out.
“You want to know where they are?” I say. “You’ll have to kill me first.”
There’s a pause. Have I won? Do they need me that bad?
“Very well,” the first man says.
Dread seeps deep into my body.
He holds me down with his foot. Man number two strikes me over and over. I cry out. I sob. I bleed.
The first man lifts his shoe to get a good look at me. My vision is blurry. Everything throbs with a dull light. The world is surrounded by black, by darkness. It’s all ebbing away.
“Farewell, princess,” the man sneers, and lets his foot down one final time.
My eyes bulge. My lungs struggle to breathe. The whip hits me and slams against me over and over again. Death calls to me. Darkness grasps me. The end envelops me.
All is dark.
Suddenly light blinds me. I bolt upright, my lungs gasping for air. I clutch at my body, making sure I’m alive, and my eyes frantically dart across my surroundings. Lup-mem and Kan-ner stand above me, their eyes filled with concern. I push away from them and press against the wall. They were the men. They did this to me. My body hurts. It’s sore. Their fault.
“What did you do to me?” I rasp. “Why did you do that to me?”
I sob. They bend down to comfort me but I shove them away, living in the nightmare for a few minutes longer.
“We were making sure you wouldn’t give away anything important, especially if it was the location where we would be hiding in a situation like that. We’ve all—”
“How can you do that?” I interrupt, holding my knees to my chest. “How can you make me see all of that—feel all of that? It’s impossible…”
Tamir shifts to the front of my mind. Suddenly I want him here. I want him comforting me, holding me. But he can’t. He lives in the water. Even if he did only touch me, his body would be wet and I’d glow. And if I glowed… that means I wouldn’t become anything other than banished. And if I were banished, Lily-flor… I’d never see her again.
I inhale deeply and remove the tears from my face as I realize I am beginning to glow. I hope they didn’t notice…
“Would you like to stand now?” Lup-mem asks.
I take a moment and close my eyes, focusing on my breathing. I remind myself it was a test, and that it wasn’t real. None of that actually happened and it was a fabricated scenario. It was only a test.
Lup-mem stands before helping me up. I use both of them as support as they guide me out the door. My whole body spasms with pain as I take hesitant steps toward the door. The tribespeople cheer as food is handed to me to replenish my strength, and it disappears almost as quickly as it had appeared. Once I’m finished eating, I realize the pain has almost completely disappeared, only a small amount of soreness whispering in my muscles.
Rai-si calmly strides up to me, a small smile on his face. He’s the last of the Tribe Leaders—the head of them all.
“You have one more test.”
“It’s nothing like the previous one, right?” I ask, my voice trembling. The crowd chuckles softly, obviously holding no knowledge of what I had been through inside of that house. If they had…
“No,” he grins apologetically. “It’s even more terrifying than that.”
I hear myself whimper as I swallow the last bite of my food.
“Come,” he says, handing me my bow and arrow.
“Panthera pardus,” Rai-si whispers as we sit in the leaves. “Or a leopard.”
A large spotted cat walks across the slight clearing in the trees, its fur damp with either sweat or water. It makes no noise as the forest life bustles around it, but its muscles are tense, as if it knows its next meal will leap out in front of it at any moment. I watch it as the sunlight dances across it. It’s magnificent. And unsuspecting of us crouching behind the brush.
“I want you to shoot it.”
“That’s all?” I whisper back, the sense of challenge paper-thin. The beast can’t even see me! I could shoot it down in an instant.
“That’s all,” he breathes, patting me softly on the back. I cringe. “Now would be good, before it spots us.”
I nod and place the arrow in my bow. I close one eye, lift my bow, and—
“Open your eye,” Rai-si whispers.
“It’ll help, trust me.”
I say nothing, but do as I’m told. I aim once again—
The leopard looks directly at me.
Something flashes in its eyes.
My breath catches in my throat and my arrow soars just as the animals’ cub comes running up to it.
The arrow buries itself in the baby’s left flank.
My heart explodes.
The mother animal sprints towards us.
I don’t even move.
Rai-si stands, aims, and shoots. The cat falls to the ground, eyes closed. I’m stuck staring at the baby, my heart aching, throbbing. What have I done?
I rush over to it and stroke its rough fur, shushing it. The cub tries to get away, dragging its back legs, but I gently take ahold of it and pick it up, pressing it up against my body. It wriggles, trying to escape, but I’m stronger and I hold on, cooing to it.
I carefully pull the arrow out, hoping it won’t hurt the baby even more. It still struggles to get away, whimpering loudly. I try to shush it and calm it down.
“Cressa-la, let’s go.”
“We can’t keep it with us.”
“But it’s hurt! We can’t leave it here. You just killed its mother.”
Rai-si stares at me incredulously and shifts his stance. “I’m sorry, Cressa-la. You’ve failed. Let’s go home.”
He begins to walk away. The baby animal has grown still, a quiet gurgling coming from its mouth. I glance back down at it, wishing it’d make it through this, that it’ll survive. But I know better.
Blood is dripping from its mouth, and its eyes are closing. Its breath is shallow. I move it carefully to look at the wound.
The arrow had gone deeper than I thought it had.
“Shh, sh,” I utter quietly to the animal, holding it close. “It’s okay, it’s okay, I’ll try to help, I’ll try—”
Before I’m able to do anything, the baby leopard’s body goes limp in my arms. Everything in my body tenses up and I will myself not to cry.
I set it down slowly. Wipe a tear from my face. Its chest doesn’t rise nor fall any longer. The sadness collecting inside me turns into anger, into bitterness. If Rai-si had just assisted me in returning it to it’s full health…
There’s a sound behind me.
“I’m coming, Rai-si,” I growl. “Look what you did. We could have saved it. But you had to take away its mother.”
I turn around. The leopard that had fallen a moment ago stands, alive, and is only a few feet from me. The arrow sticks out from its neck. It’s growling. Smiling cruelly.
The animal’s eyes flash.
I lift my bow.
The animal leaps.
Rai-si is the last to turn around. Everything is quiet. Tani-mah even looks surprised and somewhat impressed.
“Did I pass the last test…?”
The world around me sways. Cuts cover my body. Bite marks on my skin bleed. But here I stand, alive with the leopard lying dead on the table where I had stood toward the beginning of my initiation. I think it’s a good place to end, to make a statement. But did I pass?
The world tips.
I don’t feel the ground as I hit it.