Mursidev stirred at the surge of activity outside his hut. Rising from his grass mat bed with a yawn, he thought it peculiar that everyone was bustling about this early in the morning. Gathering his robe and dressing before stepping outside the door of his wooden hut, he stepped out into a much brighter light than he expected. The sunshine barely broke through the thick canopy, lighting the forest floor in a grey hue that seemed determined to become silver.
He heard the voice of Athwale to his side. “Lord Mursidev! Are you not well? You have slept an extra three hours.”
Mursidev stifled a yawn. “I have? I must have underestimated how much strength I used overlooking the Enkan.”
“It must be so. It is almost time for the newest patrol to enter the Gumoto. We must make our way there now.”
Nodding his assent, the pair began to head into the forest. Liberally littered around them were wooden huts similar to the Ursidaean leader’s, though much larger than his. Bear cubs were scampering around the feet of their busy mothers, who were returning from a morning of foraging. The ladies carried vine baskets of food upon their heads, able to keep perfect balance in spite of the children being constantly underfoot. Mursidev smiled at the children who took a moment to greet him, asking after their well-being and asking them to behave for their parents.
“Athwale, I hope against hope that the threat of the Cursed Ones will end soon. I dream of these cubs being the first generation that will not grow in the shadows cast by the Cursed Ones.”
His subordinate looked to him in surprise. “But we have fought those hiding in the Gumoto for generations beyond count. How do you think we would be able to decisively defeat them now?”
“I cannot tell you why, but it is a feeling I have. Something that tells me a reckoning is near; a chance to thwart the threat once and for all.”
“We can only hope, Lord Mursidev.”
As they approached the forest centre, the stifling concentration of trees disappeared. In place of the foliage, felled trees had been changed into imposing pickets. To each side of the pair, the wooden stakes carried off into the distance. Within the pickets stood the Gumoto, the crater that contained the forest’s bane. The adult males were waiting around the entrance door, standing to attention when they noticed their leader’s presence.
Mursidev stepped forward to the imposing doors, muttering a prayer to any deity that saw fit to heed his call. As he completed his petition, he pushed open the gates and led his men to the precipice of the crater. Everyone stood silently, a degree of respect for the enemy that lay within the pit’s confines. Everyone’s eyes were trained on the one entrance door that sat some feet below the ridge, the wooden spikes hammered into the crater wall descending to meet it.
Athwale looked to Mursidev after a minute of silence, his muzzle grinning widely. “It is as the message said. Not a call to be heard, when they have always been. Your feeling may be accurate; we may finally be gaining the ascendancy on the Cursed Ones.”
His leader considered the pitch black pit below. “I would hope so. The dream tells me otherwise, but I have an uneasy feeling about this. Do you not sense it?”
A sudden roar emanated from the pit, startling the crater’s observers. The first bear stepped out of the entrance door, and the procession followed as he made his way up the wooden staircase. Mursidev breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that every person who had entered the day before was accounted for.
The procession leader knelt before his leader once he stood on the solid ground surrounding the empty expanse. “Lord Mursidev. We return with good news.”
“Rise, Jabari. I am thankful that everyone is accounted for. Dismiss your men, and we can discuss your findings with the next patrol’s leader.”
Jabari nodded and went to his men, thanking them for their service before dismissing them to their waiting wives and family. Mursidev knew that, even though the patrols were but a day, the fear felt by the relatives the soldiers left behind made the time pass slowly. The dismissed men eagerly ran out of the area, as much to seek their families as get as far away from the crater as they could.
Mursidev called over the leader of the new patrol. “Siwatu, let us hear what Jabari has found before we send you and your men into the Gumoto.”
The team leader finishing his duty attended to his leader and the ingoing officer. “All is quiet down there. As my messenger bird delivered to you yesterday, we wove through the tunnels we were advised by the previous patrol. Not a Cursed One to be seen. While I am happy to not face the fiends, that they have quieted and vanished so quickly does not sit well with me.”
Their leader nodded. “It is a worry, and the next patrol must be vigilant. They may plan a surprise attack on your patrol, Siwatu. If they overwhelm you with numbers, there will be little to stop them escaping the crater. I need not remind you what that means for not just us and Oltim, but any living being in Asamai. They will kill everyone and everything in their lust for death.”
Siwatu stiffened at the warning. “I have every faith in my men; not a single Cursed One will escape on our watch.”
Mursidev smiled. “As do I. Good luck to you and your men. I will see you off.”
As he had the day before, Mursidev spoke words of inspiration and encouragement to the ingoing soldiers, and shook each one’s hand as they made their way into the crater. He hoped against hope that the feeling of dread rolling through him had no basis.
– U –