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Ora emerged from the cave, stretching and scratching her head. The heat was oppressive even this early in the morning. She sighed and headed down to the river to gather the soaproot that she could bathe the children once they woke up.
She went to the usual spot where it grew in abundance, but found none. She frowned. That was very odd. She poked around along the river several meters in both directions. Still nothing.
It was then that the smell reached her. She gagged as a scent reminiscent of the rotten eggs Kor brought home that one time crossed with carrion reached her nose. She turned and hurried back to the cave.
Kor and Arn were standing outside. “Ora, what is it?” Kor asked. “There is something disturbing the Wise One.”
Ora told them about the missing soaproot and the smell. “It is foul, Kor, and I have no idea what’s causing it. I didn’t wish to range too far, but with as strong as it is it has to be nearby.”
Her two mates stared at each other. “Should we send someone out to search for what’s causing this?” Arn asked.
“Who could go? The Wise One is too old, the children too young. Nur, Sen, Dak, and Lon are the only other warriors in the family. If something is coming we need them here to defend us,” Ora said.
“I could go,” Arn said.
“It’s not allowed,” Kor said, gesturing to Ora.
Ora shook her head. “There are exceptions to the laws, Kor. This is time for one of them.” She turned to her younger mate. “Arn, do not range far. We can’t help you if you go beyond our border. If you don’t see anything before you reach the cairns, return immediately. The last thing we need is feuding with any of the other families.”
“Yes Ora.” Arn gripped his spear and headed down the path.
Mun, the eldest of Ora’s children, poked her nose out. “Mother, Asa and Hui are sick.”
Ora hurried inside. Her youngest, a pair of twin girls, who were Kor’s joys, were huddled near their sleeping mats. It was obvious that they were vomiting, as the smell lingered in the medium sized cavern. They were pale and glassy eyed.
Ora put her hands on their foreheads. “They aren’t fevered,” she muttered. She pressed on their stomachs. Neither of her daughters responded as if they were in pain. She tilted their faces up. Even when she looked deep into the brown and green depths of their eyes, they didn’t make any motion that they even saw her. She snapped her fingers in front of their noses. Nothing.
“Ora, what’s wrong with them?” Kor asked.
“I don’t know,” Ora said. “Where is the Wise One? She may know.”
“The Wise One does not answer when we try to rouse her,” Nur, Ora’s youngest sister, said. “She fell into a stupor not long after sending Kor and Arn to find you.”
Ora went to the old wise woman. She was pale, and there was the faint smell of bile near her. The younger woman touched the old one’s arm. The other woman was stiff and cold. Ora placed her ear to the Wise One’s chest. “She is in no stupor. She is dead.”
“She foresaw her death many years from now,” Dak, Arn’s cousin, said. “How is it that she has died now?”
“I don’t know,” Ora said. “There is so much this morning that is wrong.” Arn appeared, ashen faced and shaking. His spear was missing and there were burns on his legs. “Arn, what happened?”
“The Earth Goddess is furious with us,” Arn said. “Her angry breaths pierce the ground and scald flesh. The scent is her bile. It seeps up through new cracks in the stone and dirt.”
“Mother, Tai is getting dizzy,” Mun said, rubbing her forehead. “And I have a headache.”
“Everyone leave the cave. Now,” Ora said. “If the Earth Goddess is angry, she will be trying to kill us here in our home. We must go now.” The family grabbed food and clothes and ran out of the cave.
The scent of rot and bile grew stronger. The children gagged and the adults scooped them up into their arms, sheltering their faces against their fur clad shoulders. Ora took the lead and hurried her family away from the cursed lands. Burning mists erupted from the ground, scalding them.
The earth cracked, opening a wide chasm beneath their feet. Screams filled the air as the mist surged up and against their tender flesh. The ground shook and the fissure expanded. As Ora’s feet slipped out from under her into the nothingness of thin air, she wailed, begging the Earth Goddess to forgive her even as she and her family were swallowed by the flaming darkness.