Please note: I am still editing and may make minor changes to this text before final publication.
Settling onto the carved wooden bench beside his mentor, Aibek considered the disastrous morning. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t think of any reason why the meeting couldn’t have waited until later in the evening--after the celebration--or even the next day. Still, he’d wasted his morning and much of the afternoon rearranging sleeping accommodations for guests who couldn’t get along. The whole thing had been absurd and childish to Aibek, who had just wanted to get to his best friend’s wedding. He’d made it. Barely.
The cheerful music switched to a gentler tune. Aibek straightened his coat and turned toward the park's entrance. Zifa shuffled toward the arch, eyes locked on her groom. She wore an emerald silk gown with gold vines embroidered on the skirt that matched the lacing up the front. Aibek recalled when she'd bought the dress in Kainga. She was the first Nivakan bride to wear a city gown since the villagers had won their freedom, and her joy had been infectious. It had taken three visits to Kainga for fittings and adjustments before the dress had been ready, and she had laughed and talked all the way home from that last trip. Shaking himself back to the present, Aibek watched the bride make her way to the center of the park.
A crown of autumn leaves adorned her up-swept hair. As the crowd watched in silence, she raised a hand and wiped tears from her cheeks. Long, flowing bell sleeves lined with shimmery gold satin fluttered in the breeze as she moved.
Touched by the emotion written on the bride’s face, Aibek shifted in his seat and turned his attention to Faruz. A boyish grin lit the groom’s face – like he’d gotten away with some mischief. What could he possibly be thinking?
Zifa completed her maiden’s march into the park and held her hands out to her groom. Faruz folded them into his, still grinning, and waited for Valasa to begin the ceremony.
Valasa cleared his throat, and the murmurs of the crowd quieted.
Aylen took a noisy breath and plunged into the dense forest, holding aside ferns and briers to find the diminishing path. They moved, slow and steady, through the forest. The haunting calls of the emrialk continued, but Aibek couldn’t catch a glimpse of the creature. He craned his neck with every screech, both wishing for and dreading a glimpse of the fabled emrialk.
Surely all the stories weren’t wrong; they must be truly beautiful to inspire such fantasies. His aunt had always said the emrialk were giant wolf-like creatures with a heavy mane like a lion’s, and a long, narrow face. They were reputed to be as sleek and limber as a summer fox, but with the hunting habits of a lone wolf.
Aylen led the way through the heavy brush.
His steps slowing, Aibek peered into the deepening forest. Was it out there, watching him?
Will I even be able to see it if it decides to attack?
Another screech rent the air, this time closer. His heart hammered against his ribs and he resisted the urge to run into the forest toward home. Instead, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, forcing down the panic and waiting until calm had replaced it. When he opened his eyes, he froze, not even daring to breathe. There, where he had stood only a breath before, stood the largest creature Aibek had ever seen.
It lowered its sleek brown neck and brought its face to Aibek’s level, watching him through angry, intelligent eyes. The emrialk cocked its head to the side. Without a sound, the creature lowered itself to the ground in a hunting crouch, folding legs as tall as Aibek under itself. Its red and white striped nose stretched out the length of Aibek’s arm, the black end quivering as it sniffed at the travelers. Aibek cringed at the foul breath blowing in his face, but couldn’t make himself move.
A heavy chestnut mane concealed much of the creature’s shoulders, but the back and legs revealed powerful muscles under a dappled brown coat. It stretched closer, its head larger than Aibek’s entire being, and flattened its pointed ears against its skull. The black fury in its eyes, focused and intent, made his blood run cold, and Aibek tried to scream. Unable to force a sound from his mouth, he flailed his arm, smacking at the air beside him until he connected with flesh.