"Toran, wait for me!"
The baritone of his chuckle reverberated through the dense jungle foliage, though his movements couldn't be discerned. Yanzi stopped running and tried to slow her breathing like she was taught. Her heart beat a constant staccato. Beyond, birds and chimps chattered despite the dark muggy atmosphere under the canopy. A tickling bead of sweat rolled from the nape of her neck, mimicking the zig-zagging pattern of a snake slithering somewhere in the underbrush. Yanzi breathed in and inhaled the earth, trying to decipher its secrets.
"I give up, you're just too good."
With a huff, Yanzi spun a slow three-sixty, scanning the trees through squinted eyes. A pair of yellow orbs gazed back through the shadows. She halted. The glow had only existed for second, yet the bush had responded by going completely silent. The untried girl began to tremble. She wasn't eighteen until the ceremony the following day. He couldn't possibly come for her yet. Where was Tor-
"Quickly, Yanzi! Come to me." Toran emerged a mere six feet from his ward. His arms held fast to the wisp of a girl who obeyed him without hesitation. All his life he'd been trained for one purpose, to protect The Golden One. No need to waste time and energy facing the creature, he'd already gone. Toran knew the Jaquar was simply viewing... For now.
Still, smoothing the blonde curls from her glistening forehead and meeting her eyes of amber so full of trust, Toran questioned his own motives. How could he guide her through the coming trials when he simply wanted her for himself?
"It's alright, Goldy. The beast has integrity where it lacks kindness. He will not come for you yet."
Toran's lopsided grin coaxed Yanzi to breath and take courage in the strength he offered her.
"Right, I knew that."
"Uh-huh." Toran quirked an eyebrow and slowly detached her from his arm. Small finger nail indentions were visible on his bicep. "This is our last day of freedom, let's finish our journey to the river."
Splashing and giggles greeted the couple's ears when they came upon the rocky beach. Youth from the tribe littered both sides of the shallow waters.
"Hey guys, look who showed up!" A group of teen aged boys were goofing off, scaring the girls into faux squeals and showing off their abs. "Tor, let's prove who's the strongest warrior under water. I know I can hold my breath longer."
Yanzi saw his chest inflate at the challenge, though he regarded her in question. "Are you alright?"
A meek nod and he was off to defend his title. Meanwhile, a couple of caddy girls beckoned Yanzi to join them. If not for her impending coming of age ceremony, she would have avoided them, but this would be the last normal day among her people.
"About time you took that dog collar off and got away for a while."
Yanzi instantly regretted her decision.
Marhda giggled at her own barb and eyed a much shyer Kieris for support. "Am I right?"
"Well," hand fluttering at the back of her shaved head, Kieris looked down at her toes dipping in and out of the riverbank. "I know I've never stood up for you, Yanzi, but I understand why you only stay close to Toran. I mean, anything could happen to you being The Golden One and all... I don't envy your position. I'd be scared."
Perhaps the confession only surfaced as a means of goodbye, most believing little Yanzi's calling far surpassed her ability, it stunned The Golden One nonetheless.
Her birth had sent a tremor through her people. A coal black baby being born with cornsilk colored hair was a sign. Such a child was only born in the tribe once a century or so. Following the baby's birth, crops drooped with their heavy bounty, water ran clear, livestock doubled in number, and so did the tribe. No one died as long as a Golden lived. The drawback being the return of the Jaguar.
He is no simple jungle beast, though he holds that form with all the feline grace and beauty in kind. A mystical anomaly conjured up be the earth itself to judge the uncharted tribe according to its actions, he takes human form and calls upon the one touched by the sun to determine the fate of all.
Yanzi is that one. The weight of responsibility bowed her petite shoulders. "I am scared."
"Shut-up!" Marhda, the tallest girl in the tribe, rose from kneeling to her full six feet four inches in one swift movement. "We're the only the only ones who have a right to fear. Our future is in your hands, we have no say in the matter, and you come simpering before us." Tears intruded her merciless scowl. "You're weak, you're going to fail, and we're going to pay the price."
Stumbling back from Mardha's crumpling stature, Yanzi struggled to breath past the thickness collecting in her throat.
"You're wrong. We won't fail." Toran came up behind Yanzi, casually wrapping his arm around her shoulders.
The Golden One stilled at her guardian's touch. Despite the cold wet of his body, his inner warmth resolved the quaking of her fragile spirit.
"But you won't always be there," Marhda spat in Toran's direction before snatching at Kieris and dragging the hapless girl out of their presence.
"Tough crowd, huh? Sorry about that, Goldy. I thought we'd be able to catch a little break before things got serious."
"But... She's not wrong."
"Don't say that." Determination overcame his jovial nature. "Let's get out of here and get focused. Tomorrow you'll face him."
Yanzi looked up at hard set of Toran's chiseled jaw. He was looking off into the jungle as if the Jaguar was there listening.
Her guardian believed in her even if no one else did. "You're ready."