“Until fate brings us together again, I shall wait for you.”
“We love you."
Taka vowed to never forget their voices. It was the last memory he ever had of his family. He did as he was told. He ran and never looked back.
Just keep running!
He ran for hours across the barren countryside. The scenery around him changed from devastated ruins, to scorched farmlands, and to deserted houses reeking with the smell of death. He was lost, broken, and devastated.
He ran until he reached a dark forest with trees taller than windmills and the air as fresh as a new morning. The young man collapsed face down on a muggy pile of earth, soaking it with his own tears.
Where am I? How did I get here?
Taka pounded the ground with his fist until blood trickled between the ridges of his bony fingers. He needed to replace the despair with anything. The anger, the sadness, the hopelessness, replace them with anything. Replace them with pain.
I'll kill all of you for taking my family!!!
But the pain didn’t replace anything. It nudged deep into his broken heart, claiming a place of its own.
Taka propped himself against a tree and surveyed his surroundings. He could tell that it was day but the dense foliage on the trees allowed miniscule sunlight to enter. His vision began to dim and his strength started to fade. He was ready to give in to sleep when the sound of rustling leaves startled him.
A pair of red eyes appeared from within the trees. They emerged from the foliage and revealed a beautiful yet feral face, framed within full locks of silver hair. The face had dainty ears jutting out on the top of its head, flicking like butterfly wings. A lithe female body slinked down the tall cedar tree before him and dropped on all fours with the uncanny agility of a fox. She wore a white gossamer dress which hugged her frame upon every movement. Behind her were nine tails that spread majestically like a fan. They had the same shine and fullness as her silver hair and they moved as if submerged underwater.
A Gumiho! What terrible luck!
Taka trembled as the Gumiho approached with hungry eyes and snarled with ivory-white fangs. He had heard the stories about the Gumiho, on how they killed men who wandered into the forests and ate their hearts and livers. His family died by the hands of the Horde. And soon, he would die by a Gumiho’s fangs.
I…I don’t care anymore. Just let me die.
The young man realized that it was futile to oppose fate. He missed his family. He wanted to see them soon.
Mama. Papa. Kumi. Wait for me.
The Gumiho hovered before Taka's face and sniffed him. She then sat with legs crossed and gazed at him with an inquisitive face. “You look scrawny for a human,” she said. She watched as the young man's arms went limp and his body fell on its side. With eyes closed and labored breaths, the color of life slowly drained away from his skin. “Drats!” the Gumiho cursed under her breath. “I can’t eat from a corpse. I’ll be tainted.”
She grew desperate as she watched the young man wither before her. She had no choice. She had to save his life if she wanted to feast.
The Gumiho carried the unconscious Taka to the nearest river to douse and cleanse his wounds. She then left him by the riverbank and ran on all fours back into the trees. She returned with medicinal herbs, rolled them into tiny clumps and chewed them into mushy paste. She applied the paste on Taka’s wounds and used several layers of torn fabric from her dress to keep them in place.
The night has fallen by the time the Gumiho was done. She laid exhausted beside the young man, contemplating his fate under the collective starlight.
“What am I going to do with you?” she thought while lying on her side and gazing at the young man’s face that glowed under the light of the fireflies. She did what she can to heal her wounds but was uncertain if she was able to save him.
“He’s alive!” the Gumiho exclaimed when Taka finally regained consciousness. “Mama….Papa….Kumi…,” he mumbled in delirium while shivering from the cold.
The Gumiho inched closer and spread her 9 nine tails underneath Taka, swaddling him in a tight embrace to keep him warm. Taka stopped trembling and the pain melted away from his face, giving the Gumiho an strange relief. She felt the young man's feverish warmth, a sensation that was completely foreign to her. In that fleeting moment, she felt serenity.
The young man then turned and wrapped his arms around the Gumiho, leaving her stunned in his unconscious embrace. She found herself unable to push him away and blushed as his warm breath grazed her cheek. With Taka's face a mere inch away from hers, she was mesmerized while staring at his lips. She dared to nudge closer but stopped when Taka’s lips moved.
“Mama, Papa, Kumi. I’m scared to be alone,” Taka whispered while tears escaped from his eyelids. Curiosity overwhelmed the Gumiho. She inched closer until their foreheads touched. She let Taka’s memories flow through her, forging a mystical tether between them.
She saw Taka’s father skewered with spears, his mother gurgling with blood, and her sister in tattered clothes with a soldier on top of her. She saw the burning village, the devastated farmlands, and the ominous march of the Horde. She felt Taka’s fear and anger as he ran away. She felt his deepest heartache and his crippling despair. Through Taka’s eyes, she saw hell.
The Gumiho’s cheeks were damp when she opened her eyes. She felt Taka’s ache engulf her heart. For the first time, she was gripped with an overwhelming emotion. She felt compassion.
She moved her nine tails to embrace Taka closer unto her. “There, there,” she whispered while she caressed his unkempt hair. “You’ll be safe with me.”
Taka’s lips slowly curved into a smile as if he was savoring a blissful dream. Throughout the night, they slept in each other’s warm embrace.
Taka woke up the next morning with a Gumiho gawking at him. They sat across each other with an awkward silence until the Gumiho stood up with arms akimbo.
“Human! You shall stay here in the forest until the moon smiles, understand?” The Gumiho spoke with imperiousness.
Until the moon smiles? Does she mean until the next crescent moon?
Taka agreed. He saw no benefit in angering the mistress of the forest. He owed her his life after all. Surprisingly, the Gumiho gave another odd request.
“I want you to give me a human name,” she demanded.
“What name do I give you?” Taka was befuddled.
“I want the name Kumi!” the Gumiho declared with a hearty smile.
“No! Anything but my sister’s name!” Taka blurted in anger. Who does she think she is? No one can replace my sister.
“Please Taka. I want a human name so that you don’t treat me as your captor,” the Gumiho pleaded. Taka’s heart dropped. At a time when he felt unloved and abandoned, he couldn’t fathom why she stood by his side.
“Fine. I shall name you Kumi,” he said with reluctance.
While Taka recuperated from his wounds, Kumi taught him the ways of the forest. Taka learned to command fireflies to light his way, weave impervious cloth from spider and caterpillar silk, and draw energy from the trees and the moon.
In return, Taka showed Kumi the ways of the humans. He taught her how to count, read and write; how to catch fish from the river so that she never have to kill humans for food; and her favorite, how to dance.
During nights when the moon was at its brightest, Kumi and Taka danced while fireflies encircled them. Together, they made the forest their sanctuary, a paradise just for the two of them.
Until one day, the moon didn’t shine as bright as it used to. Taka saw the crescent moon and realized that the time has come for him to leave.
“Kumi, fulfill your promise! Lead me out of the forest!” Taka demanded.
“I beg you Taka. Please stay. If you leave, the forest will erase your memories. In here, I can protect you. We can be happy together,” Kumi said while on the verge of tears.
Taka drew closer and held Kumi's hand. “Kumi, my heart will always remember the warmth of your hands. No magic can make me forget,” he said while wiping a tear from Kumi’s cheek. “Before I leave, will you give me your smile as my last memory?”
“Yes Taka," Kumi replied and gave Taka the loveliest smile she could ever muster.
They walked through the forest hand in hand, remembering each other’s touch and warmth. Fireflies emerged from the bushes to illuminate the way, painting the forest in a golden glow. A breeze gusted through the wall of trees that lined their path. It made the leaves and branches sway rhythmically like hands bidding goodbye.
They reached a clearing where a thick wall of vines covered the side of an immense cliff. Taka watched as the vines slithered and moved, revealing a gateway to the outside world. Beside him was Kumi who kept her head low. She couldn't comprehend the ache that was clawing her heart.
Taka glared at the gateway and wondered if he still had a home to go back to. Fate was cruel to take everything away from him and it stoked a fire that raged in the pit of his soul. The onslaught of the Horde must stop. He vowed to bring them to justice by his own hand so that no one else would suffer like him.
"I'll miss the days we've spent together Kumi. I was fortunate to have met you. I owe you my life," said Taka while beholding into Kumi's glassy eyes. “Promise to never forget me. I shall return to this forest and I’ll…”
Kumi couldn’t resist the invisible force that compelled her to move toward Taka. She closed her eyes and drew closer until their lips touched. The notion of human love was completely distant to Kumi, but in that transient moment, she thanked fate for the pure joy that this precious human had given her.
“I promise,” whispered Kumi as she let go of the kiss, their breaths melding in the cold night. “Until fate brings us together again, I shall wait for you.” She placed her hands on Taka’s chest and felt his robust heartbeat, amazed that it was beating in time with hers.
Taka pressed Kumi’s hand against his chest and then turned toward the exit. Their hands lingered in each other’s touch until Taka had to let go. He fixed his gaze at the ethereal gateway to hide his own tears from Kumi. Just like before, he never looked back.
Kumi averted her gaze as she couldn’t bear the pain of watching Taka walk away. For a moment, however, she wanted to claim that last memory of him.
She raised her head and stared at the gateway. She couldn’t see Taka. Her vision was marred by her own tears. She wanted to see him. His silhouette would have been enough for her.
She ran toward the gateway, ready to abandon everything and be outside with Taka. As the vines slithered around to conceal the exit once again, she caught a glimpse of Taka turning around to face her.
Taka turned around and saw an empty forest. He remembered his deceased loved ones, his devastated home, and his burning desire to avenge his misfortunes brought by the Horde. However, he couldn’t shake off the suspicion that something, or someone, is missing in his memories.
“Odd,” he mused. “I thought I heard someone call my name.”