12 years later
An old Ashtian legend said that one crescent moon passing in front of the other promised good luck. While it never worked out well for Raian, it never stopped him from trying. After three days of stalking the bear, it was a good night for glory.
The forest was serene, but never silent.
Somewhere, cool and damp, a frog concert competed against the cicada song, and the hooting owl perched in his creaking pine, awaiting his prey just as Raian did. Further off, higher in the mountains, wolves howled. At times, the tranquility was broken by a fight, when two animals faced off, and Raian knew that by the time the snorts and screams faded, only one would walk away. The peace of the forest would come back in a rush like the wind through the leaves.
Tonight, Raian would break that peace with his own hunt.
Through a clearing in the canopy, he glanced at the moons hanging in a star-speckled sky, the near moon cradled inside her big sister. He couldn’t stifle a yawn.
“Not falling asleep on me, are ya?” Tail asked, boredom mingling in her lowered voice.
He only shook his head and pulled a knee into his chest, sweeping his gaze across the clearing for movement.
She plucked an arrow from his quiver and dragged her thumb through the white fletching. His arrows were a handspan longer than hers, heavy with steel-forged broadheads, but she never favored the bow like he did.
At the far end of the clearing, a bulky form came forward. Pale moonlight fell on broad, rounded shoulders and a wide rump of black fur. The animal pawed and sniffed the ground and shrubbery, rustling leaves and breaking twigs where it stepped. The bear.
Raian’s hand fell to his longbow, and with his other hand, he snatched the arrow from Tail. It would be a long shot. He gave her a knowing look, one side of his mouth curling into a grin he’d given her all too often since the day they became friends.
“A thousand pounds,” she guessed in a whisper, golden eyes trained on the beast.
Raian would worry about how to haul it back after he’d killed it.
Tail’s long braid fell in front of her shoulder as she rose to her feet and picked up her own bow. The faint squish of her soft boots on the damp forest floor faded away. She would circle around to strike from the flank.
He didn’t take his eyes off the bear as he waited, pacing his breaths. He leaned forward and planted his feet, coming to a squatting position behind a huckleberry bush.
The bear turned its broad side in his direction. The lungs lined up for a perfect shot. It would be a shame to let the opportunity go with the good-luck moons smiling down.
Raian stood and drew the heavy bow in one fluid movement, never taking his eyes from the target. The fletching grazed his cheek. His breath eased out and he paused, holding his body still in the night. He released the arrow, the string brushing against his rigid leather bracer like a whisper.
The arrow soared across the clearing. The bulky creature swayed with the impact as the broadhead punched through rib bones and flesh. Its head turned straight in Raian’s direction, two beady black eyes holding him fast.
A shiver prickled down his spine, standing his hair up on end. Even on one lung, the bear could live long enough to tear Raian to pieces. He took one step backward, his hand reaching for another arrow from the full quiver on his back. Not that he’d have a chance to use them all.
Like scraping stone, a voice rasped, filling Raian’s mind. I will feed on your flesh as Dyata feeds on your soul, little human. The bear lumbered forward with a daunting swagger as if the arrow was little more than a mosquito bite.
An unwelcome force tugged at Raian’s stomach, like a beast waking, waiting to be set free. The sensation scared him more than a talking bear did, and, of all the bears he’d hunted, not one ever spoke to him.
The bear broke into a ground-trembling charge, brambles and twigs snapping and shaking beneath its massive paws.
A tangle of prickly vines caught Raian’s heel as he stumbled back, almost wrecking his balance. If he died, at least he wouldn’t have to catch his father’s scolding. And Tail was nowhere to be seen.
He didn’t have to die, though, the beast inside reminded him.
As the bear loomed over him, close enough for Raian to smell the stench of carrion on its breath, he let the sensation in his gut swell, ever fiber in his being determined to create heat. He gasped as a chill swept through his body. Flames burst to life at the swing of his arm, separating him from the bear. He stumbled away from the searing heat, his limbs heavy as the strength left him.
The bear bellowed in frustration, big tufts of its black coat on fire. Ateryè, power of the old gods!
“Raian!” Tail’s frantic shout pressed him into motion. He staggered back, his muscles aching and trembling.
As she ran to his aid, Tail shot an arrow that sank between the ribs protecting the bear’s other lung.
Raian’s smile of triumph faded from his face as the bear refused to die. Tail crashed into his side, one hand on his bow arm.
A furious roar erupted from the bear, saliva spraying from its gaping maw. It hurtled toward them like the roll of thunder in an angry sky.
They ducked backward under the protection of a fallen tree and a thicket, but not fast enough. A huge claw raked at Raian, tearing through his sleeve. Pain exploded in his right shoulder.
Tail shoved him back, deeper into the thicket.
The bear worked its shoulders under the tree and pushed itself onto its hind legs. The tree dislodged with a loud creak and rustle, dropping to the ground with an explosion of cracks. The bear stepped over it, a low rumble in its throat.
With a pounding heart, Raian scrambled backward, Tail’s arm across his chest like a shield. She pushed her back into him, and he pulled her along. Rough brambles scraped along the sides of Raian’s face and his bleeding arm. Loose hairs clung to Tail’s sweat-slicked forehead and cheeks, her eyes reflecting the bright blaze of Raian’s fire.
Saliva flew from the bear’s jaws as it tried to snap at them through the thicket.
Raian’s muscles shook, but he could see weakness in the bear’s assault, too. Its breaths were labored and shallow, and it stared back with those black eyes as it slumped with a final groan.
The others will hunt you in my stead, ateryè warrior. With your soul, Dyata will return to this realm. From the ashes of this world, her vision will rise, and she will claim for herself what the others abandoned.
Raian stared into the bear’s eyes as its life seeped away. With a grunt, he got to his feet, legs wobbling and head spinning. At least he could thank the good-luck moons he was alive. The crescents slipped out of their eclipse and the smaller moon took the lead in their endless chase across the sky.
The peace of the forest rushed back, the cicadas and the owls and the frogs.
Raian rested his hands on his knees. The heat from his magic still tingled under skin, and his ears rang. He stepped around the bear’s corpse, using the thick branches for support.
While he couldn’t quite understand how the ateryè worked, something else deep inside him did. He needed his energy back. Ignoring the aching of his head, he focused on the heat. As the fire died, Raian’s arm stopped shaking. He took a deep, steady breath. His feet felt grounded. His weariness melted away with the last flames, leaving behind blackened earth and a cloud of smoke mingling in the pine branches.
“Damn it to Ashta,” he said, standing up straight. “My arm really hurts. I hate bears, demon bears even more so.” He watched the blood soaking through the tatters of his right sleeve and groaned.
“It must have been wandering the world since the gods left,” Tail said as she held her bow tighter. “What did it mean, using your soul to release Dyata? Dyata doesn’t exist, not anymore.”
“Wandering the world since the gods left, like you said. Its brain was probably addled after a century or two of aimless drifting.”
Yet magic wasn’t supposed to exist anymore, and there Raian stood, the curse running through his veins, as he stood over the corpse of a being that shouldn’t exist, either.
All Raian’s thoughts fled as the bear morphed into a pool of black ichor. It seeped into the ground, leaving behind their arrows on the forest floor. So much for hauling back a worthy kill.
Tail shook her head like she was trying to clear a bad dream, but Raian knew she was nervous in the way she kept looking deeper into the woods. They waited, staring at the black stain all the while, and the cicadas kept singing, the owls hooting, the frogs croaking.
He tugged at his ruined sleeve, grimacing as the cloth slid over the gouges in his arm. Tail sighed and peeled the sleeve away. She applied a salve from their hunting packs and bandaged him from shoulder to wrist. It would do until they made it back to the village.
“How did it feel?” she asked, hesitantly.
Raian scoffed, slinging his hunting pack onto their empty carcass sled. “So much pain, I might be better off losing the whole arm.”
“Not that.” She pursed her lips. “The magic.”
The charred earth he’d left behind pulled at his attention, but he refused to look at it. The last time he’d touched his fire had been an accident, four years ago. It had latched onto a rare temper and he’d nearly burned his family’s lodge down. “It was like something I used to be close to, an intimate bond, and finding that it had turned wild. It felt… wrong.”
She reached out and grasped his good shoulder. “I take it we don’t speak of this, ever again?”
“Something like that.”
They gathered their weapons and started to make their way back to the village in the darkness of night. The thick top canopy blocked the light of the stars and moons, but neither Raian nor Tail needed the sky’s guidance. The forest was an old friend.
Raian followed Tail through New Ashta’s gatehouse as the first rays of dawn crested the mountains. It was a tight space crammed with hunting bows and overnight packs, dried foods and carcass sleds. A single lantern cast long shadows across the room. Behind them, on the wall, were rows of hooks. Raian’s charm was the only thing hanging there.
Attached to a braided leather cord, it was a coin-shaped piece of wood with a diamond symbol inside a sun.
Before he could claim it, Tail dropped their empty sled against the wall, startling the two night-watchers who looked up with sleepy eyes from their low wooden table. They leapt to their feet and rushed Raian and Tail to the healer’s lodge.
New Ashta was a cage, walled in with pinewood on the west and south, surrounded by sheer cliffs around the rest. It wasn’t without its charm, with the ever-crashing waterfall spilling into the lake to the east, the maze-like collection of plank lodges and stone walls dividing yards and vegetable gardens, spread along the gentle hills and patches of spruces.
The healer’s lodge was made up of eight beds around the hearth. Small, but Raian had never seen even half the beds occupied at once.
Kalani, the apprentice healer, rubbed sleep from her honey eyes and rushed to light the hearth and the bedside lanterns. She was always beautiful, even with her walnut-brown hair sticking up on one side from sleeping. She guided Raian to one of the beds, so firm, it was, he might as well sit on the ground.
Tail plopped down on the next bed over, folding her forearms over her knees.
“It’s not too bad,” he said as Kalani stripped off his bracer and shirt before undoing his temporary dressing.
One eyebrow arched. “I’ll decide what’s bad,” she chided, a hint of amusement in her crisp voice, and she began to dab a wet cloth where his wounds were dirty. “You’re going to need a lot of stitching up, though.”
A man with short brown hair, eyes as rich as spring soil and a whole head taller than Raian, stepped into the lantern light, a man who was the image of their father. The perfect son: a natural leader, ambitious, and dutiful. He wore his mark of Ashta around his wrist with an array of other leather cords and stones.
Taro stood next to Tail. “What happened?”
Tail sighed, but remained quiet, and Raian didn’t feel like lying twice, because minutes later, their general arrived. With a yawn and an exasperated massage to his temples, Kentan wore his usual guise of indifference on his aging features and a permanent crease between his brows. Unlike younger men who were proud of their accomplishments, Kentan never wore his mark.
Anani was on his heels. “Raian!” The fifteen-year-old boy ducked under Kentan’s arm to skid to a stop, jaw hanging open. “Woah, you’re gonna have some big scars.”
Putting on a grin to mask the pain, Raian turned his arm slightly to show off the wounds under the lamp light. He met his father’s eyes, grimaced, and squeezed them shut as Kalani cleaned the scratches on his arm with stinging liquid, biting him to the bone. Her white rags blushed red as she worked.
“You alright?” Kentan asked in his low, growling voice as he looked over the damage. “You’d been gone for some time.”
“Almost four days,” Raian said, trying to swallow a groan as Kalani began threading catgut through her bone needle.
Kentan watched him expectantly.
“We tracked a bear. It was probably nine heads high at the shoulders, near a thousand pounds if its tracks were anything to measure. I took a long shot.” Raian lowered his eyes and shook his head. “Anyway, my placement was sloppy, and it charged.”
“Tail?” Kentan crossed his arms and turned toward her.
She perked up, golden eyes big and innocent.
“Are you alright?”
“Why, yes, General,” she replied, twisting her braid around her fingers. “Thank you for asking.” She threw him a grin that Raian did not find the least bit convincing, but Kentan seemed to accept it.
“Tail saved my ass, really,” Raian interrupted, drawing his father’s attention back. “She put an arrow in the other lung, and the beast fled—OW!”
Kalani had pierced his skin with her bone needle. He clenched his jaw as the catgut pulled and stitched him back together.
“Remind me how many bears you’ve felled since the snowmelt?”
“Four,” Raian answered through his teeth.
Kentan nodded slowly. “A good summer for you. I’m no healer, but I’d say it’s the end of the summer for you as well. You won’t be drawing on anything with that arm, not for a while.”
“He is right,” Kalani said, pulling another stitch that made Raian’s stomach curl.
“Boys, go make yourselves useful,” Kentan said to his other sons as he turned away from Raian. Taro and Anani filed out of the healer’s lodge, but Kentan paused at the door. “Your mother would be proud.”
Raian took a deep breath. “Are you?”
A forced smile, a shallow nod, and Kentan said, “Of course.” He left the lodge.
As the morning came, New Ashta awoke, the villagers preparing for the summer solstice festival. Raian could hear their excited voices through the window above his bed, the pounding of nails as decorations were hung. As warm sunlight found its way through the window, he began to wonder if his mind had been playing tricks on him, that three days of little food or sleep got him imagining a talking bear. Hadn’t it run off when Tail shot it, like he told Kentan?
“’Saved your ass,’” Tail repeated, a smug curl on her lips. “As usual.”
“What would I do without you?”
She tucked her chin into the palm of her hand. “Probably make all sorts of rash decisions, get into trouble, and doom the world.”
Continue: CHAPTER THREE