Salanth hurried over to the river until his bare feet touched the shores. The creek moved through his scaly toes as he splashed around with joy. He stared down at the running water, watching the rocky riverbed. Krista was not far behind him and jumped into the shallow creek, creating a large splash, hitting her little brother with a volley of droplets. Salanth squealed and ran away from Krista, stomping in the water.
Krista giggled and chased her little brother. “Come back here!”
She ran after Salanth until her little brother suddenly stopped. His tail was pointed horizontally. Krista came to a halt. A massive, furry, brown beast was about two dozen paces away from them. The husky animal’s paws were drenched in water. Its belly and neck were soaked, water dripping down. The head was arched toward the two Scalebane children, and its black beady eyes stared at Salanth. That was the stench. Krista could smell it clearly now.
Bear, she thought. The blood in her veins pumped directly into her scalp-feathers, causing them to stand upright, the natural reaction for vazeleads when frightened or angered. She had seen bears in Kuzuchi Forest before, but never this close. This was dangerous. They were easy prey. She knew she had to get Salanth out of there.
The sound of the water amplified with each breath Krista took. Her senses skyrocketed into full awareness—the branches swaying, the leaves blowing, the water dripping off the bear, and the unholy stink. What was she supposed to do? Her father had taught her the basics of hunting and harvesting berries in the forest. He also taught her how to avoid animals by recognizing their smell, but Krista had simply ignored the warning signs this time, not realizing the danger. Father hadn’t yet taught her what to do if she came face-to-face with a predator the size of a bear. She wasn’t careful, and now Salanth was in danger because of her foolishness. She had to get him out of there safely. That was the duty of an older sibling.
“Salanth,” Krista said softly. She took several steps, dragging her feet through the water so she didn’t make a splash.
Her eyes locked on the bear. The animal didn’t move, still staring at her little brother. Krista was now directly behind Salanth. Her tail moved in front of her, gently touching Salanth’s tail. The subtle connection caused the little vazelead to stiffen.
“It’s okay, Salanth,” Krista said while sliding her hands under her little brother’s armpits. If the bear were to act, Krista was ready. “Just stay calm. Father said they get mean when you wiggle too much.”
Water splashed beside the bear’s paws. The animal snorted, and with a swift strike, it pulled out a fish from the river, piercing it with its claws. The animal snagged the prey with its sharp teeth, puncturing down through the scales. The fish squirmed uncontrollably as the bear chowed down its flesh.
That’s it, Krista thought. She grabbed her little brother tightly, pulling him up and backing away from the bear.
“I need you to be my eyes,” Krista said as she turned her little brother so he could see behind her. As she spun Salanth around, she turned to face downstream. Krista gradually picked up her pace, making sure she didn’t make too many splashes as she walked toward the shore.
Oh, please don’t be following us, Krista thought. She felt her heart pound as she stepped out of the water and onto the muddy ground. The sensation of the dirt sticking to her scaly feet was a small sign of success.
“How are we doing there, Salanth?” Krista asked in a soft tone. She didn’t want to be too loud and risk worrying Salanth or getting the bear’s attention. “You see the bear?”
Salanth mumbled, but it wasn’t clear what he meant.
“Salanth? Do you see the bear?”
Nothing. Salanth hugged Krista’s neck.
“Salanth,” Krista said, irritation filling her voice.
A twig snapped behind them, and Krista’s tail instinctively stood straight up. The scales on her back tingled. She didn’t even look to see what was there; she simply ran. Her heart raced, pumping uncontrollably as she rushed through the forest back toward the village.
Please, please, please, Krista thought. Her mind could only play visions of a giant furry beast rushing down behind them. Powerful paws. The teeth. A beast like that could snag her and maul her in a blink of an eye. Shredding flesh. The thought was on repeat. She felt the need to check over her shoulder. Then again, there was no point if she was about to meet her fate. Krista couldn’t resist. She had to know if the bear was there. If he was, she could throw Salanth out of the way and sacrifice herself so he could escape.
She took a quick spin around, moving backward. Only trees were behind them. Krista allowed herself a toothy smile as she exhaled with relief. The bear was not there. It was probably back by the river, distracted by the fish. Salanth and Krista were safe. Still sprinting, she turned to face a tree directly in front of them.
Her eyes widened as she tried to skid to a stop. The ground was muddy. She slid. Too late. Krista shielded her little brother with her shoulder as they collided with the tree. The Scalebane siblings smashed into the trunk with a heavy thud. Krista’s shoulder hit first, followed by her skull, which rebounded off the bark. She hissed as she collapsed into a ball, still holding on to Salanth. Her face slammed into the dirt, vision blurring, head spinning. Her ear-holes rang. She lifted her head, trying to confirm that the bear was not there.
Where is it? Krista thought while her vision began to centre itself.
Salanth wiggled in her arms, squawking.
Krista’s eyesight returned, and her hearing tuned to normal. She scanned the forest, looking as far as she could see into the greenery in all directions. The bear wasn’t there. They were safe. Her little brother was curled up against her chest, safe. She grabbed him with both arms and spun him around a couple of times, checking for any scrapes and bruises. Nothing new.
“You’re fine,” Krista said.
She let her brother go, getting herself up. The movement caused her to yelp as pain ruptured from her arm and up to her head. A mixture of mud and black blood ran along her arm. She would be feeling that for the next couple of days. Not to mention the fact that Mum and Father would have a freak-out about this adventure. There was no way she could cover up these scrapes.
I hit a rock, Krista thought, trying to conceptualize a lie to tell her parents. They didn’t need to know that she’d taken Salanth into Kuzuchi Forest. As long as they couldn’t smell the woods on them, they would be fine. Even if they did, Krista would be okay. What mattered was that she had followed her father’s training and protected Salanth. After all, she was the older sibling, as fate would have it.