She ran without stopping. The soles of her padded paws were sore, and the muscles in her legs flared with pain. Still, Nukka went on. She thought, if only she ran far enough, she might be able to run away from everything. If she kept running, surely she would turn back into a living human and wake up from this horrible nightmare. Maybe running could even reverse time somehow and return things to the way they used to be. However, the sun still rose and set, and reality loomed behind her like a hunter on his prey, threatening to drive a spear through her heart the moment she stopped.
She ran for three days before she finally collapsed. When she fell, she slammed into the hard trunk of an old oak tree. Her hearing, faint from exhaustion, could barely pick up the chattering of squirrels above her. Her eyes were blurred; from lack of sleep or from tears, she couldn't tell. She felt herself giving up all resistance as she fell asleep, drifting into a dream... or perhaps, a memory.
“You did,” the dream Onartok sighed, his eyes filled with sorrow.
“I don't... I don't understand.” Nukka took a step back, unsure of what to make this sudden and strange revelation. “I'm right here, aren't I?”
“No,” Onartok answered. “Tikaani's right here. Nukka died. Don't you get it?”
“You're lying!” Nukka shouted, jumping back. “This is some kind of sick joke, isn't it? Tell me the truth already!”
“Calm down!” Onartok barked, silencing her outbursts. “Calm down and think. You still don't recognize me, do you? Come on, try and remember, Nu.”
Nu? Her eyes widened as she stared at Onartok, beginning to recognize the soul behind Onartok's monstrous appearance. “Wait... You are.. No, it can't be! You're dead! I-I-I saw your body. I remember the funeral. You're dead! Dead!”
“And so are you,” he said gently, moving to console her. “Listen to me, Nukka. Remember what we learned as humans. Our Spirit Wolves die so that we-”
“You're lying!” Nukka shouted hysterically, refusing to let Onartok's words sink in. She herself was unable to decide on a single explanation for what happened. “There's got to be a way to change back! There has to be! Stop feeding me that crap about Spirit Wolves! This is all a lie! Or a dream! Or a big mistake! I can't be dead! I-I-I'm not a wolf! You hear me?”
“You're not making this any easier on yourself,” Onartok shouted, beginning to lose his patience. “Look at you, you're stricken with madness! You don't even know what to believe! Just calm down and listen to me.”
He took a step toward her, but she recoiled from him. “Stay away from me!” she screamed. “Just leave me alone and let me wake up!”
“Nukka, please, I—“
“Just leave me alone!”
Nukka turned and fled into the woods. She wanted to be as far away as possible. Far away from the truth. So long as she kept running, no one, nothing, would catch up to her... not even the truth.
She woke up in what felt like a cold sweat, but she had no way of knowing, thanks to the chilly rain that drenched her thick fur. She didn't even know if wolves could sweat.
A thick fog blanketed the woods, turning the once vibrant forest into a washed-out and gloomy sea of trees. Yet, despite the surrounding glum and the occasional clap of thunder, the peaceful singing of the trees was somehow comforting to Nukka. The leaves lapped up the falling raindrops, humming an almost serene melody. As a human, Nukka had never taken the time to listen. Or perhaps she had never even been able to listen.
The soothing hum of the rain aside, the rest of her surroundings were overwhelmingly dreary, and did little to quell her emotions. I'm dead... I'm really dead... She tried to groan, but all she could muster was a mix between a howl and a whimper. She tried to stand up on two legs, but her quadrupedal frame kept her on all fours. I'm still a wolf... I'm... I'm still a monster...
She always wanted to die an old woman, revered by the village as a brave and proud warrior. Not as some miserable mutt. She would often dream of the adventures she would have, fending off Spiritless Men and hunting herculean beasts. A long time ago, she shared those dreams with Shila. Now neither of us can dream, can we?
The rain made no effort to cease, nor did it make an effort to ease her broken state of mind. She wanted her life back somehow, but Nukka was dead. It was hard for her to admit it, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized there was no going back. You should be dead. The words echoed in her head. Familiar words, but in her current state, they meant nothing. She was dead.
The rain that fell was cold and heavy, and the air around her even more so. What usually served as a deep vibrant forest seemed hollow underneath the heavy fog. Hollow like me, Nukka thought, her despair growing. Her eyes grew heavy as she felt the effects of her fatigue take hold once more. This time, she hoped she would fall asleep and wake up as her old self. She banked everything on the notion that everything was just a crazy nightmare. She wanted to wake up somewhere else, anywhere but here. She wanted to wake up as Nukka.
When she did finally wake, she found herself in the warmth of her own bed. So it was a dream! She pulled the fur blankets off of her and strode rapidly to her door, relief propelling her forward with every step. It was all just a terrible, terrible drea— She opened the door as all of her relief drained away, replacing itself with a chilling sense of fear and terror.
The scene before her was like something taken straight out of a nightmare. The village she had called home her entire life could barely be recognized; flames were consuming everything like a pack of raging, hungry beasts. They devoured buildings whole in front of her eyes. Where the flames smoldered, the left only the black behind. She looked around desperately for somebody, anybody to help her put out the flames. Her eyes darted left and right, up and down, but there was no one around. Not even their bodies. For better or worse, she was alone. That is, until she saw Siku, pinned underneath a tree, looking at her with the same sad eyes as that time in the forest.
“Siku!” Nukka hysterically cried out to no one in particular. “What's going on? Who did this to the village? Who did this to Siku?”
Nukka gasped when the wolf opened its mouth to speak, speaking with Onartok's voice.
“No!” Nukka screamed as she felt flames burst from her chest, sending a white-hot burning sensation throughout her.
“No!” she repeated frantically as the flames swiftly spread across her body. The flames intensified, turning the terrified woman into a screaming ball of hellfire.
Once they finally subsided, Nukka felt empty and lifeless. Is this what being a pile of ashes feels like? But if she was indeed a pile of ashes, how could she think? How could she feel? Why do I feel so... alive?
When she looked down at the ground below her, she saw a set of furry blue-grey forelegs pressing against the earth. She was a wolf again, lonely and surrounded by a sea of black. She let out a shrill and tearful howl, one that pierced the world around her and shook the trees. She cried to the Departed Ones, disconcerted and confused. What have I done to deserve this? Why am I so alone? Why didn't I just die?
The wind answered with Onartok's voice. You did.
Nukka woke up again. This time, the rain and fog were gone and the sun spilled its warmth across the earth. How long was I asleep? She yawned and surveyed her surroundings, taking in what sprawled before her. Towering trees bearing fruits and nuts surrounded her. The ground was covered with a dense rug of dewy grass and weeds. The ground itself was soft to the touch, almost like mud. It must have rained, she thought absent-mindedly.
She rose to her feet and padded along the dirt, treading carefully on all fours. There must be a way for me to change back, she tried to assure herself. Her legs still wobbled and ached from her long run, but she forced the pain away from her mind. Her stomach started to growl; she needed to eat. There is a way... But right now I need to think about how I'm going to even stay alive long enough to find one.
But what do wolves eat? Her first thought was to try the grass. She lowered her muzzle to the ground and tugged a clump of emerald blades from the ground. She chewed for a moment before spitting it out, twisting her face in disgust. I guess wolves aren't really big fans of grass.
She looked up, smelling the sweet fruits that dangled from the trees above, deciding that she wanted those next. Unable to climb the trees, she sniffed along the ground, hoping to find some fallen fruit. Her sense of smell was much stronger, now that she was a wolf. It led her to an apple nestled on the ground in a small brown patch of grass, but it was rotten to the core and infested with maggots. Gross! Her only remaining option was to try and knock some fruit from the tree.
She walked over to the foot of the tree, and tried wagging her tail. It took her a while to learn how to use it, but once she tried focusing her energy on wiggling her backside, the motion came naturally. After taking a few moments to get herself into the swing of things, she started to slap her tail against the tree, hoping to shake it enough for it to surrender its treasures. The tree didn't budge, which annoyed and frustrated her. Come on Nukka, use your head!
...Wait a minute... She walked in the opposite direction until she was about twenty feet away and turned to face the tree. She pawed the ground and lowered her head, gluing her eyes on the tree in front of her. She broke into a sprint, smashing headfirst into the tree. Her head rattled for several minutes as she fell to the ground, her efforts fruitless. Why in the world do I take myself so literally? She shook her head to stop the dizziness when she caught the scent.
Her mouth began to water and her tongue lolled out beneath it. Never before had she smelled something so savory. She turned her head in search of the smell and caught a glimpse of a white fluffy rabbit as it dashed into the nearby bushes. It was a rabbit, and she'd never eaten raw meat before, but her animal instincts were taking control. She didn't want to do it, but she needed to eat something before she starved to death.
She imagined the taste of the rabbit's pink juicy meat, the sweetness of its blood dribbling down her chin, the crunch of its bones underneath the force of her powerful jaws. The instincts were foreign to her and made her feel like a deranged lunatic. Even so, the thoughts of herself devouring the little critter weren't totally unwelcome. In fact, she began to feel delight and excitement from them! If she was going to be a monster, she might as well play the part.
She crouched low and slowly trod around the bush, careful not to make a sound. The image of herself dining on the little creature pervaded her thoughts, enchanting her senses. A stream of saliva dribbled from her mouth as the creature emerged from the other side of the bush. She instinctively made her body stiff as stone. She felt her legs coil as she watched intently, waiting for the right moment to strike. The prize was hers as long as the rabbit didn't see her. She waited... waited... waited... Now!
The tension in her legs burst as she pounced upon the furry creature. She opened her mouth wide, preparing to gobble the rabbit up then and there. What she got, however, was a serving of dirt as she crashed into the ground; the rabbit had hopped away at the last second. “Get back here, you little—!” she howled as she spat the dirt from her mouth and bolted after the creature.
You're not going to get away from me, she thought, snarling. Her belly was aching and her legs still sore, but she kept up the pursuit. If she didn't catch the rabbit, she was doomed to starve to death. Just a little more!
She chased the rabbit out into a clearing, where her pursuit abruptly ended. Her eyes became fixated on the majesty of the roaring river that she had nearly dashed into. The river was several hundred feet wide; only the Departed Ones knew how deep. The water rushed along rapidly, pristine and mesmerizing as it sparkled in the sunlight. She padded slowly up to the bank and bent down to lap at the water. The water was crisp and sweet, tasting just as clear as it looked. She spent a few minutes taking in the water, drinking her fill. At least she wouldn't die of thirst. She remembered the rabbit she had let get away, and still fantasized about devouring it, but it was a lost cause by now.
She looked down at the water and saw her reflection glimpsing up at her. So... This is what it's like to be a wolf, huh? As the sunlight sparkled on the water, Nukka's blue and grey visage on its surface lit up, highlighting all of her new body's majestic beauty. For the first time since that day, Nukka didn't see a monster when she looked at the wolf that once was Tikaani—the wolf that she had become.
After drinking her fill, Nukka leaped onto a tall white boulder on the bank and felt the cool late summer breeze brush against her fur. Maybe this won't be so bad, she mused. But I'm dead... And now I'm an animal...
She looked down and around at her body. No, Tikaani's body. She couldn't feel Tikaani's presence; it seemed that she was alone. But where was Tikaani? The Spirit Wolf dies so their human link can live on. Was that what the stories meant? That when she died, she'd be reborn as a wolf? And did that really mean that Tikaani was dead instead?
“All because of me,” she murmured. “Because I had to go and get myself killed, Tikaani's...”
She caught a whiff of something upstream. It was faint, but it smelled like... There's another wolf nearby, she realized.She followed the scent slowly and cautiously. It could jump out and attack her, for all she knew. It might be just as hungry as her, and Nukka wasn't sure how appetizing she looked. She tried not to think about it as she approached. The wolf might be friendly, she told herself. It might even be willing to teach me how to actually be one.
The source of the scent was coming from behind a towering boulder nestled at the edge of the riverbank. She stalked around the rock, just as she did with the rabbit... and just like she did on that fateful day.For a moment, she was human again and Tikaani walked beside her cautiously. The pair of them crept around the large rock, fearful of what the fall had done to Shila's body. Please be alive, she thought to herself as she closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, the memory faded and she was her wolf self again. Tikaani was nowhere to be found. Her heart caught in her throat as the fur on the back of her neck stiffened and rose in fearful anticipation of what she would find.
It was only a young wolf pup sleeping against the rock. Its fur was dark brown, except for around its eyes, its ears, and on its belly, where its fur was cream-colored. It fidgeted in its sleep before it finally opened its eyes. It looked up at Nukka with two hazel-green eyes. Its innocent look helped drain the tension from Nukka, allowing her to relax.
“D-don't eat me!” he whimpered as he huddled up against the rock before noticing the river behind him.
“I'm not going to eat you,” Nukka stepped forward as she laughed, the sound of her voice startling the wolf pup.
“Y-you can talk?” he asked with wide eyes as he circled around Nukka, stepping away from the river.
No way, Nukka felt a dreadful feeling of deja vu wash over her, as she began to understand the situation. He was only a kid... She raised her head to howl, but the pup cut her off.
“That's amazing!” he said with a laugh before looking at his reflection in the water. “Oh, neat! I'm a wolf now!”
“Neat?” Nukka frowned. “I take it you used to be human?”
“Yup,” he grinned, before his face grew silent and confused. “But I look just like Immuyak. What does that mean?”
Nukka closed her eyes and let out the howl she tried to start a moment prior. The same one she had heard Onartok howl. The same one she had heard a long time before. Once the chorus of other howls began, she stopped and turned to the kid.
“Why'd you do that for?” the pup asked, before letting out an energetic howl himself. “That was fun!”
“Listen, kid,” Nukka swallowed. Now she knew how Onartok had felt. “You... you died.”
He sat silent for a moment before tears began to form in his eyes. “I... I know... I think.”
“Yeah. Momma always said that our Spirit Wolves die so we can live on. Maybe this is what she meant?”
“How did you die... uh...?”
“Miki,” the pup replied.
“Miki,” Nukka repeated. “Well?”
“I don't know,” he frowned. “I guess it was when the Spiritless Men attacked us and burned down our village.”
“What?” Nukka gasped.
“There was fire and blood everywhere,” Miki continued. “Everybody was screaming and I wanted to cry, but Momma told me to be strong. She said that no matter what happened, Immuyak would protect me. She told me that when this was all over, I should go look for Kanguyak, her Spirit Wolf. And then everything went dark.”
Even kids like Miki know the truth, yet I...
“I miss my Momma already,” Miki sniffed, interrupting the internal storm that brewed within Nukka. “Do you think I'll find her with Kanguyak?”
“I know you will,” Nukka assured him. “I'll help you do it, if you want.” She had nothing better to do anyway. Perhaps Miki's mother would be able to help her, seeing as how she sounded much more familiar with the legends.
“Really?” Miki beamed. “Thank you! Oh, this is gonna be so much fun!”
“Fun?” Nukka scoffed. “You're a monster now. How is that fun?”
“A monster? No way! Wolves are the coolest!”
More like cowards. Nukka still remembered the way Siku had abandoned... No... No, no, no... Don't tell me! Don't tell me! Don't tell me! Oh, please, don't tell me!
“Are you feeling okay?” Miki asked, noticing the despair that flushed across Nukka's face.
“I... I'm fine,” she lied.
“What's your name, anyway?”
“My name?” She wanted to say Nukka. But Nukka had died. Or was it Tikaani who died? But it was all Nukka's fault that Tikaani's life was over. But so is mine... And Tikaani was a wolf; Nukka was a girl. Tikaani's spirit may have been gone, but her body still lived on. Tikaani's the one standing here, not me. It was a difficult thing to do, but the dead girl knew she had to do it.
“My name is,” she gulped, forcing back her hesitation with a fierce resolve. “Tikaani.”
It was only fair.