Calamity was the oldest word in the language of Niara’s people. It was the word for their old world which had fallen to pieces. They used that word for falling down and for failing grace. They used it for the loss of life and for the leaving of love. Two and a half days away from her foster mother’s deathbed, Boabab’s prodigal daughter woke up shaken–from a strange dream and so she; despite her disdain for those who would rely on them; listened to the bones.
The bones telegraphed that one word repeatedly and relentlessly. Calamity–they sang. Calamity had befallen Niara and would soon again and again and again. She, despite her disbelief, offered up a prayer the heavens and her dead as she put out her fire and dismantled her camp. Her anxiety made her careless. Like a rank amateur, a stupid child wielding her machete, she advanced, noisily tramping through the wood.
She’d been walking non-stop for several hours, preoccupied with the sweltering heat beating down on her back when a chill ran down her spine. She stopped in her tracks. She frowned, sweaty brow creasing. Something was off kilter. With dawning dread, she realized what it was. In these wild, twisting woods, there was only silence. Silence had swiftly fallen, every living thing in the bush gone rigid with fear.
Niara’s breath quickened, became so amplified that beyond the stuttering of her heart, it was the only thing she could hear. Her eyes darted about unsteadily. Was it even in her field of vision, the beastly thing getting ready to pounce? Her nostrils flared. Her breath quickened. She swallowed hard. Nothing. She saw nothing but something was out here in the bush with her.
Bramble cracked. A low rumbling growl filled the air. Niara balked. Something big was coming straight for her. Her finger tightened around the handle of her only weapon, a makeshift machete made of material torn from Boabab’s hull. She’d never known it before but somehow, she recognized that raw, rancid taste sticking to the back of her throat as abject terror.
The brush rustled and then beast loped out of the cover of the bush. It stood on four legs like a lion but Niara had never seen the likes of this creature before. It had a coat of gold punctuated by a series of black stripes. Its eyes were fierce and golden. It opened its mouth and snarled. Niara caught a glimpse of long, sharp teeth. It was beautiful, powerful, and menacing.
Niara’s last shred of common sense prevailed somehow.
Do. Not. Run. The last thing you want to do is run.
Niara whimpered. Dear gods. But what was she supposed to do now?
The muscles in the beast’s back bunched. It sprang forward. It came in for the kill, closing the distance between them in the blink of an eye. Niara swung the machete forward with all the might she could muster but she knew it. She was doomed. The fatal blow she expected never came. Something hard and heavy knocked her sideways. She hit the ground so hard the wind got knocked out of her. A cacophony of yelling and animal howls exploded into the air.
She was surrounded by a wild-looking band of men and women. The massive feline lay on the ground, unmoving and bloody. The group cheered and hooted as one young man raised a broken spear to the sky and cried out in triumph. Overhead, something that looked like a massive, mechanical dragonfly hovered, making a whirring noise. At first, Niara simply sat there on the ground, dazed. Her brain couldn’t seem to catch up with the scene unfolding around her.
She heard a groan and a low, feminine voice bit out a curse. Niara’s gaze swung around to the source of that voice. The heavy object that had crashed into her was a dark woman with a lithe, slightly muscular body. The woman’s straw-colored tunic, if you could call it that, stuck to her like a second skin. The coarsely woven material allowed for freedom of movement, it seemed. The top ended at the woman’s midriff. The bottom was a matching pair of leggings which ended just below the calves.
“Nicely done, Bait!” The woman sat up beside Niara and chuckled. Her voice went up a few decibels.
“Even a fangless cow from Boabab can be useful in the hunt.”
The other hunters responded with hoots and a smattering of laughter.
“Bait?” Niara spluttered. “Fangless cow?”
“Got a death wish,” The woman turned her full gaze upon Niara. “Do you?”
The woman’s eyes were golden, fierce and beautiful like the eyes of the beast her companions had just felled and she spoke in earnest.
“Even a babe knows better than to act like prey in the bush.”
Niara didn’t have a valid comeback for that.
She sighed. “You’re right. I got careless. No death wish, though.”
“Good,” the woman’s face split into a smile. “Good!”
She sprang to her feet and extended a hand to help Niara to hers. “I am Wendi.”
“Niara,” the young priestess took the offered hand. “How do you know I came from Boabab?”
Wendi’s head tilted. “You have that look about you.”
“No,” Wendi grinned. “I recognize the tunic. How is Baba Gen these days?”
“A pity,” Wendi murmured.
The mechanical dragonfly touched down a few feet away. The side opened and a man came out. He trotted over towards the two women. He was a blindingly handsome sort, fair and golden haired. His eyes were an intense and deep blue.
“Wendi? You alright?” He asked worriedly.
“Ethan, this is Niara.” Wendi responded with a brief nod. “Niara, this is Ethan, my second-in-command.”
Ethan dipped his head towards Niara. “Boabab?”
“Yes, how did you—”
He grinned. “You just have that look about you.”
Wendi erupted into laughter.
“I take it you’re not a hunter?” He probed.
“Nope. Priestess, more like.”
“All alone in the bush?”
Niara blinked. “Is it that strange?”
“It is,” Wendi declared firmly. “Why are you even in our territory?”
“Believe it or not,” Niara answered, rummaging around in her belongings for Baba Gen’s map. “I think I came here looking for you.”
She handed the note with the ancient writing to Wendi. “Do you know what it says?”
Wendi stared down at the note. Her countenance darkened for an instant. When she looked back up at Niara. Her eyes were over-bright and strange. She handed the note to Ethan.
Ethan stared down at the note. “I’m not superstitious,” he muttered, “but isn’t this a sign?”
“It seems,” Wendi told Niara, “that we have much to talk about.”
“What does it say?” Niara prodded.
“It says,” Wendi answered, “that truth lies beyond the wall.”
Chapter 3 (Coming Soon)