The morning sun was rising in the sky, sending into the small house a soft yellow light through its tinted windows. The curtains added an orange glow to the barely furnished room, bathing in soft hues of caramel the bed on which Kaya lay asleep. Her grandmother called her from the kitchen, asking her to wake up. Kaya lay in her bed for a while, taking in the warmth of the sun before springing up from the mattress.
Cursing herself for sleeping so long, she ran to her grandmother, hugging her tightly. Her grandmother, Deleena, whispered in her ear, “Happy birthday, dear!” However, Kaya was only half listening. She was already rummaging around for the present that her grandmother had promised to give her on her sixteenth birthday.
‘I know what you’re looking for. There you go,’ said Deleena sweetly. Her hair was greying around her temples, and she appeared a bit too old for her age. She held a small box in her hand, covered in bright blue paper. Kaya grabbed the little package and opened it hastily.
‘So, this is what you wanted me to have on my sixteenth birthday? You should have told me earlier! You know that I’m not really into fancy jewelry.’
Even so, she held the locket close to her heart. It had a silver chain with a pendant, which had a green leaf encrusted inside a sapphire stone shaped like a drop of water.
Now, they were not particularly wealthy. In fact, they lived in a sparsely populated village at the foot of the mountains surrounded by an endless network of deep forests. And the locket looked rather expensive.
‘Do not lose or break it. Handle it with care,’ advised Deleena. Assuming that her grandmother had said so because of how costly the locket appeared, Kaya nodded and planted an affectionate kiss on her grandma’s cheek. ‘Thank you for the gift! I’m going to Taraksh’s. I won’t be long!’
She took the road that led to the house of her best friend, Taraksh. His place was deeper into the forest. However, Kaya was fond of the woods and found the lush landscapes refreshing. In fact, they would often practice dueling outside Taraksh’s hut.
Kaya only had a grandmother whom she could call family. And, of course, she had Taraksh as well. Taraksh spent most of his time logging timber with his elder brother, Rian. Contrary to the reserved Rian, Taraksh was more talkative and easygoing.
It did not take her long to reach Taraksh’s house, which was a simple structure made of stone and wood. The house blended perfectly with its surroundings, and it would take a trained eye to make it out from a distance. This was because Rian had made every possible effort to avoid people and human contact.
Even when he noticed Kaya standing outside the stone-paved entryway, Rian carried on with his wood-chopping activity.
Used to his eccentric personality, Kaya cleared her throat. ‘Ummm… I was looking for Taraksh.’
Rian did not raise his head and simply pointed in the direction of the river, where Taraksh would usually be in his leisure time. Kaya could not help but notice his hands. They were sunburned and calloused from all the hard work. Splinters of wood jabbed at his fingers as he remained engrossed in his work. Kaya wondered if he was actually hitting the wood or hitting himself in the process.
The few times she had spoken to Rian, she had felt that he was an average guy. An average guy who had hit his head on a giant piece of rock, that is.
She giggled at the thought, but noticed that Rian did not have the courtesy to smile back at her. She decided to go see Taraksh at the riverbank.
‘Taraksh, Taraksh… where you at?’ Kaya inquired.
‘Look what I got,’ she exclaimed, unable to contain her excitement.
Taraksh was too busy to pay heed to what she was had in her hands. He would not have had it any other way at nearly twenty feet above in the air. Suddenly, he noticed a movement in the water out of the corner of his eye.
‘You know, wearing a locket is so out of style for a handsome guy like me,’ he muttered.
‘Oh yes, you would definitely turn heads looking like a —‘
But Taraksh never got to know what he would look like. A slimy creature jumped out of the water, heading straight for Kaya, who shrieked at the sight of the finless beast whose teeth protruded out of its needle-shaped mouth.
Taraksh hurriedly clambered down the tree and wielded his sword at the creature. Its yellow bulbous eyes were, however, focused on Kaya only, and the beast whipped the sword with its tail as though it were some distracting flea.
Taraksh jumped in between the two. The creature lunged at Taraksh and bit at his ankle viciously. Taraksh cried in pain as Kaya attempted to stab the writhing slab of mass with her own short sword.
Taraksh’s leg could not hold him up, so he fell down on Kaya, trapping her underneath him. The creature slithered like a snake and had its spindly mouth open. It was about to shred Kaya’s arm that held the locket when a spear came flying in and found its way into its midsection.
The creature raised its protruding eyes at Rian and hissed, “drohi”. Kaya was sure she was hallucinating at the sight of Taraksh’s blood. Hysterical, she blurted out, ‘what did you just say?’
Rian went rigid as a stone. He and the creature both looked at her at the same time. Kaya wished she could slither out of the situation. The creature cast a menacing glance at Rian before jumping back into the river.
Rian looked at her and said, ‘You are hurt.’
‘What? A slimy eel or something called you names… it talked… it freaking spoke to you and… and you think I’m hurt. I’m definitely delusional.’
‘No, you’re not.’
‘Oh, I sure am. First, I heard a seal talk; now I can hear you talk too.’
The corner of Rian’s mouth twitched, but he resisted a smile. He said, ‘It was one of the many water demons that wanted to attack you.’
‘What?’ Kaya was dumbfounded. ‘Well, I’m okay. Please tend to Taraksh,’ she managed to say and realized that Taraksh was nowhere to be seen.
‘Taraksh… Taraksh… where are you?’ she shouted out loud.
‘Move slowly. He might be nervous about letting you see him in his true form,’ Rian told her.
Kaya slowly turned around and nearly screamed. She saw a pair of deep gray eyes staring at her. Apart from the eyes, everything about the wolf was pristine white in color. And it appeared deadly. Its form evoked fear in Kaya’s heart. She ran back toward Rian and embraced him as tightly as she could.
Rian was too stunned to move. He stood debating if he should hug her back or push her away from his body. Finally, he managed to say, ‘Well, under normal circumstances, a wolf would have pounced on you before you even took a step back, but this one wouldn’t hurt you.’
Kaya jumped away from Rian as quickly as she had run to him. She asked, ‘You know him?’
He replied, ‘I bet you know him too.’
Kaya mustered some courage and glanced at the wolf again. Taraksh appeared in no hurry to attack her. In fact, he seemed to say something to her through his eyes.
Kaya was confused, she hesitantly looked at the wolf and muttered, ‘Taraksh?’
The wolf perked up his ears and approached her. Kaya could not make head or tail of that awkward situation. Too exhausted from the shocks that she had already received on her birthday, she fainted and collapsed. However, Rian managed to prevent her from collapsing. This time, he was the one to hold her tightly as he took her inside his hut while Taraksh kept close.
Kaya slept cosily on Rian’s bed while he paced the room nervously. He seemed to decide to walk up to Kaya and lay a hand on her forehead, caress her cheek and keep the golden locks of hair away from her face, but then decided against doing so and began pacing up and down again.
He was lost in thought when a glass of water fell on the floor. Rian picked up the glass and raised his eyes to see Kaya sitting upright in the bed.
‘Tell me, it was a bad dream,’ she muttered.
‘Happy birthday, Kaya,’ Rian and Taraksh echoed in unison.
Rian pulled up a chair and sat down facing her. He had always maintained some distance from her, and being this close to her, peering into her eyes, which seemed to see right through his heart, was a nerve-racking experience. He summoned up every ounce of his courage and began in a soothing voice. ‘It’s high time you hear a unique story. We have little time left. I’ll answer all the questions you may have.’
To be continued…
…now that you’re here
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