"Can we go now, Cori?" Malin asked, a wide yawn exposing her perfect white teeth and drawing her bright, blue eyes into thin lines.
"Sh!" Cori flapped his arm at her impatiently and flattened himself against the ground, trying to conceal himself among the dark fronds of grass. Strands of his long, dark hair flopped over his tanned face and he shook them back, tightening his grip on his crossbow.
"But I'm bored!" the five-year-old whined.
"If I don't hunt, you'll also be hungry," Cori replied bluntly, "Be quiet!"
Something moved ahead of him and he forced himself to become still, knowing the slightest movement would send his target scurrying for safety. A small animal, grey with a squat, round body, blunt face, short, stubby ears and a curly black tail lumbered into view, sniffed at the air, then started to nibble at the grass. Cori closed one eye, lining up the crossbow.
Then a high-pitched scream caused the animal to leap up and take off at a speed Cori wouldn't have thought its squat body would be capable of. His attention was no longer on the animal, however.
"Malin!" he yelled, leaping up and sprinting in the direction of his sister's panicked screams. What in the Five Worlds had possessed her to run off anyway? That child was such a liability!
Cori crashed through the undergrowth, heedless of thorns and splinted branches as he forced his way through bushes and trees, battling through the dense forest foliage until he came to a clearing. He stopped short, gasping in horror.
Once there had been a community here, a colony of the Araidian folk who had come with humans when they had crossed through the portals from the old land of Earth. They had built their homes within the forest in the hopes that they could become one with nature once more.
But now ... now the clearing was in chaos. The tree houses had been smashed or were burning, trees that had stood straight and tall now lay sprawled and splintered. The little brook that ran through the clearing ran red with the blood of the Araidian folk, whose corpses were lying everywhere. In the middle of all this, a lone figure amid the chaos, was Malin.
"Oh, please no!" Cori gasped, "Not again!"
Malin ran up to him, sobbing, and threw her arms around his waist. Cori crouched down to her level and gave her shoulders an urgent shake.
"Tell me you didn't, Malin," he said, "Please, tell me you didn't!" By all the powers that be, how could this have happened so fast? He'd dropped his guard, taken his attention away from her for one minute and……….
"I couldn't help it!" Malin wailed, "Cori, I didn't mean it!"
"I know you didn't, Makhienna," he soothed, feeling his heart plummet, "I know it." He pulled her into a hug, sighing inwardly.
He couldn't keep doing this ... he couldn't hide her forever. Sooner or later someone was going to catch them.
"They'll kill me, won't they?" Malin wailed, "They'll burn me for this!"
"They won't," Cori said firmly, "I won't let them! I promised our mother that I'd take care of you, and that's a promise I don't intend to break."
No matter how bad it gets, he added to himself, no matter what happened. He had sworn and he was bound to that oath ... and he loved her. But no matter what he did - no matter how far he ran or how well he hid her, no matter how many sleepless nights he spent carrying her as far out of the reach of the authorities as possible, he couldn't change anything. He couldn't undo all she had done, or restore the lives she had unwittingly taken. Try as he might to find an answer he couldn't lift her curse. Malin was an 'Arisharma' - A 'Demon of Loneliness'. Every time she smiled at someone or came close to making a friend a demons of fire and darkness would appear and destroy everything in their path. Only Cori seemed to be immune - he was the only one who could get close to her without being in danger. But that was his curse, his punishment....
"Makhienna," he said gently, using the word of endearment their mother used to call him by and which usually calmed her down, "Don't you worry, alright? We'll be ok - I'll find a way through this, I promise!"
Malin hiccupped. Her face was streaked with tears, her eyes puffy and red. Cori pulled the sleeve of his shirt up over his hand and used it to dry her cheeks, then he drew her rebelliously curly copper hair away from her face and drew the white hood of her cloak over her head.
"Go down to the river," he said, "Stay there till I come to fetch you."
At least, in this cold weather, there wouldn't be any people by the river, he thought to himself with another inward sigh. In a way taking care of Malin was a curse in itself - Cori was never in one place long enough to make any friends, and for an eighteen year-old that was a heavy blow.
But what else could he do? He wondered as he dug out a burial mound for all the folk who had died and interred the bodies with proper reverence and care; at one time Cori had been training to be a priest - but circumstances had changed somewhat with his mother's death.
"I'm sorry," he said as he made the last symbolic hand gesture over the mound of earth that had become this communities' tomb, "I should have kept a closer eye on her."
A cold wave of guilt consumed him. It was his fault, his curse in a way. When he'd found out that Malin had been conceived he'd been so full of rage and pity for his mother that he had wished the unborn child dead, had prayed that the baby spawned by the monster that had attacked his mother would never find a friend to aid it. Too late, when he had held her for the first time when she was born, he had realised that it wasn't her fault. Children were innocent, ignorant of the sins committed by their parents.
Cori had laid down the curse, and now the curse was laid down on him, three times stronger because he had to cope with the guilt of knowing what he had done to his sister. "If I could turn back time," he said, casting his eyes towards the steel- grey sky, "You know I would undo all that I did. It was I who did wrong ... why punish Malin?"
The gods afforded no answer and Cori rose slowly to his feet, rubbing tears from his eyes. He'd better find Malin again and move on before the smoke curling up from the razed clearing summoned soldiers from a nearby town.
She was asleep when he found her, curled up between the arched roots of a tree and half covered by the falling leaves. Cori carefully lifted her onto his back, insuring that his cloak was tied firmly around the five-year- old to hold her in place and that her arms were entwined securely around his neck. Then he began to move at as fast a pace he could manage without disturbing her, grateful that his training as a priest had, in a way, prepared him for this.
Priests on Calrain, one of the largest of the five, human inhabited planets known as The Five Worlds, often had to come into contact with the sick as a part of their occupation. It was therefore necessary for them to exercise rigorously as a part of their training, as a strong body was better able to fight off illness. Also the priests were accustomed to travelling by foot, and therefore quickly became used to walking for long distances during rituals and also to answer the call of a citizen on a remote farm or homestead.
And, Cori reminded himself grimly; his familiarity with fasting had certainly come in handy ... there was a limit to what he could find to feed himself and Malin when they were constantly on the move. Small game was in plentiful supply, that was true, but the majority of animals he came across were either unpalatable or far too swift or keen of eye or ear to be dropped by his crossbow. He and Malin had been surviving primarily on plants and roots hurriedly picked or dug up as they passed them.
Cori sighed and looked up at the sky, which was growing steadily darker, through the thick veil of the treetops. Neither of the two moons would be visible tonight, which meant he would have no light to see by and would be forced to stop. Still, maybe he would be able to find somewhere to shelter near a stream or river ... then at least there would be access to clean, running water and maybe even a fish or two ... if he could catch them.
He altered his direction, his good hearing catching the burble of running water in the distance. Soon he emerged from the sun-dappled darkness of the forest onto bare, rocky land and initially shied away out of instinct. He needed to get as far away as possible from the razed settlement, however and he could hear the water, tantalisingly close, drawing him towards it.
He reached down and gave the water-skin hanging from his belt a little shake ... almost empty. There was nothing for it. Sighing, he started forward again, trying as hard as he could not to let his footsteps echo against the rocky ground.
All the while his sharp, priest-trained eyes were surveying the landscape, looking for anything that would betray the presence of game animals or - Cori's skin chilled at the thought - spies or soldiers sent to track them down. After a while he spotted a deep patch of shadow on one of the cliff faces and, investigating discovered a small cave. It was only just big enough for him and Malin to fit in together, but at least it was dry and out of the open. Cori deposited Malin on the rocky floor, covered her with his cloak and then spent a good while carefully uprooting a bush and replanting it over the cave entrance to conceal his chosen den ... it wouldn't do for someone to come across them during the night.
Then he retraced his steps back to the forest, gathered dry tinder and came back to the cave. He built up a woodpile and, removing a flint and steel from a pouch on his belt, struck out a spark to ignite the campfire. Satisfying himself that Malin was ok, he picked up a long branch with one end sharpened into a point and walked the short distance to the river.
The water was cold and Cori's teeth chattered as he waded in and held the homemade spear above his head. Carefully he studied the water, looking for the telltale flash of light on scales that would give away his quarry. A quick dart of the spear impaled a wriggling, good-sized fish and Cori made his way back to the fire, shivering.
Before long the fish was gutted, cleaned and smoking on a flat stone in the glowing embers. Cori respectfully buried the entrails, giving thanks to the Spirits of the Waters for allowing him to catch a meal for himself and his sister, and then he flopped down beside the fire, poking a stick absently at the fire and causing sparks to leap and hiss around the cooking fish. He'd have to wake Malin soon ... but when he'd checked on her she'd been smiling, as though she was having a nice dream, and he was loath to disturb her when there was so little in her real life to be cheerful about.
When the fish was done Cori carefully removed it from the fire, took a careful bite and grimaced ... it wasn't very pleasant eating, but at least he knew the species was edible and it would take the edge off their hunger. Carefully he disguised the rancid taste of Malin's portion with a few strong smelling herbs, then went to fetch his sister.
Malin moaned and rubbed her eyes when he picked her up, but she sat quietly enough by the fire and obediently ate the food he pressed into her hands. When she'd finished Cori gave her most of his own portion, feeling his appetite drop lower than it should have been after so long without decent food. He took a sip from the newly filled water-skin, then offered it to Malin, who drank thirstily.
By now the night had well and truly fallen and the only light came from the flickering flames of the fire, which Cori had stoked up to a full blaze as soon as he was done cooking. Shadows danced across his face, making his features seem more drawn and weary than they really where. He gazed into the fire, watching the flames spin and dance. He felt his eyelids flicker and close, but still he could see the flames, leaping and dancing like the people at the major festivals. Then suddenly they were people ... people whirling and twirling around the fire, the light of the flames glinting on bare skin and sweat-drenched clothing, hugging the slim figures of the dancers. Suddenly Cori was standing and the folds of a long, blue cloak were swirling around his shoulders. He could feel the weight of a diadem crown on his brow and of a sword on his belt. For a moment he merely watched the dancers with rapt attention, then one of them span away from the group and came, laughing, to his side.
Her smile was a radiant as the sun, her skin as pale and perfect as the two moons and her hair as lustrous as a raven's wing. Around her brow was set a diadem crown that Cori guessed was similar to his own and her face and arms were painted with symbols he knew all too well ... symbols he had been trained to draw and to recognise, symbols whose importance and power had been drilled into him with utmost care.
The woman smiled and held out a perfect, slim hand to him. Cori took it and soon found himself spinning around the fire, laughing and dancing, feeling the radiant warmth of the fire on his skin and the glow of acceptance and friendship kindling within his very being. But then that ember seemed to flicker and die. Panic set in. Through all the festivities he had not seen his sister.
"Malin!" he yelled. At once the girl stopped spinning him around, planted her hands on his shoulders and said sharply:
"You swore you would not mention that demon's name again!"
"She is my sister!" Cori gasped, looking around him for a sign of Malin.
"My Lord, she was a Demon of Loneliness ... there's nothing you can do for her kind. She brought nothing but death and disease to anyone she meets."
"That fault is mine, not hers!" Cori pulled away from the woman, meaning to go in search of his sister. But then the passive tense of her words made him stop. "What do you mean, 'was' and 'brought'?" The woman smiled wickedly and Cori suddenly saw her for what she really was ... a demon, a temptress. All her beauty suddenly vanished and an evil fire blazed in her eyes.
"Do you not recognise me now, Cori? Do you not see what your precious sister has become? I am all that is left ... all that remained after you killed her...."
"NO!" Cori screamed, backing away from the demon, "I wouldn't .... never in a thousand years or for all the riches in the Five Worlds!"
"You killed her, Cori of the Ancient Temple," the demon replied, "You dammed her the moment that curse left your lips all those years ago."
"All those years...?" Cori stuttered, "Where am I?"
"The question is when are you?" The demon cackled, "I brought you - or at least your dream self - forward. We are in your future, Cori … and I tell you, your sister is dead!"
Malin? Dead? It wasn't possible ... how could he ever let that happen? He had sworn to protect her and, if there was one thing Cori prided himself on, he kept his promises.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"Do you not recognise me?" The demon grinned at him maliciously, "You summoned me, that night when you cursed the child growing within your mother's belly. I am Malin ... or at least the demon part of her your hatred brought into existence!"
"No!" Cori whispered, feeling his throat tighten and his stomach knot with guilt. What had he done? Had the soldiers and demon hunters eventually caught up with him and ended his sister's life?
"Ah, ah, ah…." the demon waggled her finger at him, "No use blaming others for your own actions, Cori of the Ancient Temple … it was your crossbow that brought your precious sister down, not the hands of soldiers or hunters."
"No!" Cori said again, shaking his head violently, "Your words bear no weight ... why would I destroy what I swore to protect?"
The demon merely smirked and waved her hand, indicating the festivities. "All this for you ... for ridding them all of the demon that plagued them ever since she took her first breath, the demon who drew the life out of her mother and every wet-nurse you could manage to find for her!"
Cori swallowed hard. When his mother had held Malin for the first time she had suddenly gone into convulsions and started to bleed uncontrollably ... in her last moments she barely had time to ask Cori to take care of his sister - to ask him to make the pledge he would have died to keep. Then the curse had claimed the lives of three wet-nurses and Cori had been hard pressed to find another. Eventually he had managed to convince an old friend of the family to express a little milk and he had fed the baby himself using a bowl and a little wooden spoon until she was old enough to take goat's milk. Cori had always been the only one unaffected by Malin's curse ... he guessed this was because he was the one who cast it, but then the spirits acted in strange ways ... maybe this was his punishment for meddling with the laws of life.
"You're lying!" he spat, "I would not take part in a festival celebrating the death of my sister! What happened to her? What have you done to her? Answer me! ANSWER ME!" he bellowed. The demon cackled.
"Malin is dead," she repeated, "Dead at your hand, Cori ... that's how you honour your vows!"
"You're lying!" Cori growled.
The festival fire dissolved and suddenly Cori was back before the small campfire, which was spluttering and spitting out streamers of smoke as the last pieces of tinder were consumed. Pale light streaked the sky and Cori was surprised to see the sleepy face of the sun peeping out from behind the horizon.
"Cori?" Malin asked again. Cori turned over and saw his sister kneeling on the ground beside him, her large eyes wide with concern. "You were shouting..."
"Just a bad dream, Makhienna," Cori smiled, trying to figure out if he was trying to convince her or himself.
"Do we have to get up now?" Malin asked reluctantly ... she was getting used to early starts, but still resented having to be on the move when the sun was not yet fully up.
"No, Little One," Cori said, feeling as though his legs would not support him if he tried to walk so soon after that nightmare, "Not yet."
He held out his arms and she snuggled up next to him, leaning her head trustingly against his shoulder.
Cori laid his own head back down on the rocky ground and tenderly stroked his sister's hair, feeling a tear sliding down his cheek at the thought of what he had seen in his dream. Was that the future he was striving so hard to give Malin the chance of seeing? Despite his determination to live up to the promise he had made his mother, was Malin destined to die after all?
No. No, it couldn't be ... not at his hands. He loved her ... he wasn't capable of destroying someone he loved.
Sighing, he dropped a kiss on his sister's temple, glad that she was now sleeping and could not see his tears. I'll get you , he promised, directing his thoughts at the demon who, if his dream was to be believed, resided within Malin's soul, one day I will find a way to drive you from her and I will destroy you! By the sky above me, I swear that I will live to see Malin make and keep a friend ... I promise you that!