“Maria, wait!” Axel shouted, racing up to catch the older woman’s arm. “Why did you let him go? It’s unsafe! He could die out there, alone.”
Maria pulled Axel’s arm off and her face darkened. For once, their leader was afraid. “He isn’t my child, he never was. But he came to me starved almost to death and despite his differences, I took him in. He is my son, Axel, even if he will never call me mom. And it three days time, or maybe less, the warriors will come. And unlike before, they will take us all away to their world. I didn’t want him here. I didn’t want to watch the warriors kill him. He has a chance up there. He can survive whatever is thrown at him. He will survive.”
“What do you mean they’ll take us away? They can’t do that! We feed them, we keep their large world running! Tian’s heart will shatter when he comes back and we’re all gone.”
“Axel… I know you care for my son. But… I’d rather him be alive with a heart break then rotting away in some ditch. When they come for us, they will most likely kill me and I don’t want my dying breathe to be alongside my only child’s. If he lives, we still have hope.”
“It’s because he’s different, isn’t it. It’s because he’s better than any of those trash that they’d be quick to slit his throat,” Axel hissed, there was murder in his eyes.
“At the end of the day, the same boy we know and love will only be seen as a monster to them. The elders all got together during the night only to agree with sending him away. We want the village’s hope to survive. Because even if we’re separated far from each other, Tian will always be the glue that holds us together in the worst of times. It is my duty as a mother and a chief to ensure the survival of my heir. Tian has an important destiny, and if he dies here then he’ll never meet his protector, and the last hope of equality for all people will be gone.”
“You’ve talked to the stag spirit?” Axel whispered, and the woman nodded simply.
“He said that the time had come. Tian’s destiny has finally caught up, and I can protect him no more. They’re coming. He’s coming.”
“Go with Tian, then. So you don’t have to die when the Capital’s warriors come. I’ll get you a horse ready. The people will understand if you go, they would want you alive.”
Maria smiled at him only to shake her head. “A good leader stays with her people. The next chief has been chosen already, after me, and Tian… he’ll make a better leader then any of the other leaders before. I will not let the Capital think that my village and it’s people are cowards. We are descendants of the great mountain folk, those who crossed Death’s Pass first and built a home among the wolves, we are not cowards. When the blade is leveled at my neck, I’ll fall proudly, knowing my boy is alive and well. Knowing that I’ll spit in the face of the men who will take my people away.”
It took them the entirety of the next day to reach a place called Nederland. The road was filled with snow the entire way and he could smell more snow in the air. He clung to the horse’s back to stay warm as bitter wind howled through the trees and raised his skin despite the layers. His hands were ice, even when they were tangled in Moth’s thick fur. The horse struggled against the icy slope, each step unsure. Moth’s head was low as he fought his way through the blinding snow storm. The horse shook beneath him from the agonizing cold. The snow was all the way up to his knees. With a sinking realization, the more they tread, the snow only got worse. Tian was too late. The wind ripped its way through the valleys and caverns, almost pushing Moth off his feet and knocking Tian to the ground. The winter snow had already set in and Death’s pass would be sealed without a doubt. Winter had come early this year. The further they pushed, the colder they got. With the freezing, wet snow falling quickly and packing, their paths would be covered within the hour. They wouldn’t make it any further.
“I hope that they’ve taken cover, we can’t go any further,” Tian said as the horse slipped beneath him, limbs flailing in the snow.
“Should we keep going?” Tian shouted over the wind and the horse shuddered. “We have to turn around.”
Snow caked to his blonde hair, heavy and wet. He couldn’t stop the shivers as it soaked into his jacket and pressed against his cooling skin. A gust of bitter cold wind pulled at his already cold body. Tian squeezed his water eyes shut, sniffling pathetically as the snow started to fall heavier onto his shoulders.
“Move,” a familiar voice whispered in the gusts of wind. “Turn and run.”
A sense of urgency settled into Tian’s bones, but the boy bit it down and ignored it.
Seconds later, howls erupted around them and Tian’s eyes widened. His head swiveled alongside the horse's. Wolves. They’d take Moth and him out easily alone, knife be damned. The second round of howls were louder and closer, moving faster than what Tian expected. They must’ve already picked up their scent. He knew he should’ve taken a gun, how stupid could he be?
“MOVE!” The voice urged louder, and a physical pressure pushed against the center of his shoulders. Almost like someone was sitting behind him, pushing him forward.
Tian squeezed his eyes shut and cursed before cutting the straps to the packs. He watched all his food fall, immediately making Moth’s burden lighter. “We can out run them boy. Head for Death’s pass. We’ll lose them there.”
He nudged the horse in the side and Moth surged forward. Even without the extra weight, it was harder for Moth to pull himself up the path. It was getting more vertical the higher it got, but the horse couldn’t turn around. The wolves were all around them, giving chase. They had only one direction to go, Death’s pass and even with the old rock roads, it was still one of the most dangerous ways to cross the mountains. But also there only choice, or they’d become wolf food.
A wolf burst through the trees, skinny and crazed. It went straight for Moth’s heels, snapping its monstrous jaws. Just their luck, it was a mountain wolf pack, a bunch of hybrid wolves that stood at the height of a deer. They'd been born from a mutated, man-made virus. One could easily take down a horse, much less an entire pack.
Fear shot through Moth and the horse sprang forward, fighting against the snow. The wolves had special feet that allowed them to walk above the deeper snow unlike Moth who just sank with his weight. Right as the wolf snapped at Moth’s rear, the horse finally got his footing. Two hives smacked into the wolf’s chest, sending it careening backwards. They flew through the snow. The pack was right behind them, catching up faster than Moth could handle. His nostrils flared as he ran.
They came screeching to a stop once the path dropped over a 100 feet down. The ground had given in between them and Death’s pass. Down below sat a bunch of shredded wagons and supplies. A pit formed in Tian’s stomach as he stared down at the wreckage that once had been a well-known tribe. He knew what happened to them now. They’d fallen with the land, to their deaths. The tribe Maria had hoped survived had died such horrendous deaths. Frozen, lifeless corpses started up at them. They were curled around each other, attempting to keep each other warm before they died. Some had survived the collapse, only to freeze to death a hundred feet down.
Moth screamed out as something grabbed his leg. The horse was drug off its feet, sending Tian careening for the ledge. He felt the land give beneath him and he was falling to his own death. In seconds, he clawed for something to break his fall. His nails hardened instinctively, but with the powdery snow, the land kept giving. He squeezed his eyes shut only to feel something grab his clothing to stop him. The sudden break jolted his whole body painfully. Above him stood Moth with a bloody hindquarter, holding fast to Tian with only his teeth. The horse drug him back over to the safe edge and turned to the wolves with both his ears flattened to his skull. He was rigid, beyond scared, the fight or flight finally having been chosen. Blood oozed down his back leg where one of the wolves had ripped into him. Moth wouldn’t be able to hold his own. Tian leveled his knife towards the wolf and bared his teeth.
“Come at us fuckers!” Tian screamed and the wolves charged.
He raced forward, leaving Moth behind to fling himself at the nearest wolf. He slammed into its side, bringing the wolf down with a single blow to the chest, the blade sank in all the way to the snow. The wolf didn’t have a chance to whimper.
Another wolf landed beside him, rolling after getting hit by Moth’s hind legs. The horse was being overwhelmed by five wolves biting at his hips. “MOTH!” Tian shouted before grabbing the nearest dog to flip it off the horse.
Moth hit another in the skull with its hooves, and the head caved in. The dog dropped on its side unable to move. Tian jumped into the air slamming his knife into the shoulder blades of another, dragging it away from the horse’s flank angrily. He managed to lift it over his head, kicking and thrashing, before sending it flying over the ledge with a scream.
“RUN MOTH!” Tian shouted, slapping the horse on the rear. It took off, leaving Tian far behind after a moment of hesitation.
The remaining four wolves refocused on him, licking their chops before charging. Tian launched into the air, slamming into the bark of the nearest tree. His fingernails stiffened and he climbed his way up to the trees highest limbs. Above their heads, the wolves jumped and snapped at him. It gave him a second to think before flinging himself to the next tree. His hands slipped against the bark, his palms were covered in melted snow. He grit his teeth as he hurled himself over the top of the branch and downwards. He grabbed the branch below and swung himself down, planting both of his feet into the side of one of the biggest wolves, sending it rolling away. It snarled, yellowing teeth stained red with blood as it got to its feet. Its midnight black coat was comically covered in fluffy snow making it appear cuddly enough, if not for the snapping jaws. It launched at Tian, both large paws slammed into his chest sending them both down into the snow. Both snapped at each other, teeth flaring. Tian’s instincts kicked in right as the wolf drew back its lip. They rolled and Tian managed to duck, baring his own teeth. Huge fangs descended down from the flesh of his own gums and rage filled his veins. His eyes flashed gold as they fought. Claws dug into his flesh, and Tian’s hardened fingernails managed to sink into the soft belly of the beast. Right as the wolf sank his teeth into Tian’s shoulder, the boy drove the blade up through the chest. The wolf fell to his side, dead.
He shakily stood, holding his arm as his magenta blood flowed freely down his arm. Tian’s eyes flared gold and the wolves backed down, putting their heads low to the snow. Their tails tucked in between their legs as they slinked along the ground. He couldn’t stop the anger in his veins, burning its way down his body. Where he stood, the snow melted beneath his feet.
“LEAVE!” Tian snarled, eyes brightening impossibly more. His voice was deeper than he’d ever heard before. The black lines against his body flared and the wolves turned tail and ran.
Tian’s legs shook and he fell into the icy snow, shock spreading through his body. His shoulder burned and blood oozed and froze against the wounds. In his fear, he’d managed to rip parts of his fingernails off. Everything hurt but he got up anyway, chasing after the hoof prints of Moth.
He came up the snowy hill slowly, but stopped when he realized what lay ahead. There was a large pool of blood, the red stood out to him like a warning. It was still fresh, soaking into the snow and turning it an even uglier shade of red. It was still cooling, steam still rising. He peered beyond the trees only to choke on his own oxygen. If he didn’t look hard enough, he wouldn’t have seen the pile of wolves tearing into… a fallen horse’s body. His horse hadn’t made it to safety.
Tian’s eyes flared gold as he screamed, running for the wolves. Their heads popped up with bloodied muzzles only to put their heads down and step back. Tian snapped at the wolves and they turned and fled with their tails tucked between their legs. He snarled, veins pulsing in anger only for all his adrenaline to disappear once he turned around.
“Moth,” Tian whispered, falling beside the horse’s head. He cradled the stallion, who could only wheeze pitifully. He looked down the horse’s body and his stomach twisted. Moth wouldn’t make it. The scene was too horrific, more body parts were out instead of in. The horse must’ve been in excruciating pain.
The horse whinnied softly, pushing against his hand weakly. Tian’s eyes weld up with tears. “I’m so sorry Moth. This is my fault… I should have never let you go by yourself. I should have never brought us up here. I’m so sorry. I should have stayed by your side.”
The tears streamed down his face, freezing against his cheeks. The horse stared back at him softly, breathing slowing down. The horse kicked weakly before taking one last breath only for him to grow completely still. The warmth started to fade and Moth was gone. He sobbed into the horse’s side, long after the snow had started burying him and the horse in. His eyes burned.
The journey home was harder. The wind and snow threatened to drag Tian to his death, and without his companion, it was lonelier. Every time he turned his head he’d see glimpses of the wolves. They stayed back, circling him and for the first time Tian felt immense fear. In a few hours, it was complete white out and the cold was too much for even him to bare. His coat was almost ripped to shreds, puffs of sheep wool stuck out, occasionally falling free. He couldn’t stop the shivering, and it felt like his whole body was trembling. His body finally gave out and he rolled until he slammed into something hard. The shivering didn’t stop and he felt like he was going to die from the cold. He was too tired to care. Something rose in his peripheral, before warmth covered his freezing body. The wolves howled before bolting off and Tian opened his eyes weakly. The white stage stood over him once more, glistening and glowing ever so weakly. It’s usual bright white coloring looked faded and sickly, and its image was shaky. Its massive antlers lowered and Tian finally felt safe. The frozen tears on his cheeks started to roll once more.
He awoke once more to something warm all around him. His eyes had frozen shut, but he could tell the snow had stopped. He could feel the sun on his back. As soon as he started shifting, the warmth had disappeared quickly. He managed to get to his feet, clutching his arms as he shivered. He must’ve rolled a long way during the blizzard because he was close to the path, heading out from the mountains and to home. How he’d survived the fall, he’d never know. All the blood from his wounds had been cleaned away, probably by the snow. While he was out, though, the wolves had come near him. He could see the hundreds of tracks making an almost perfect circle around him. Whatever had kept him warm had left a large, human-sized indent in the snow.
He stumbled his way down the path, like a magnet pulling him away. It was like his body was on auto pilot, leading him further and further away from his failure. He held his arms tightly against his chest, trying to keep the shivers at bay. He came up to a place where the path had disappeared, and in its place was a large drop.
“I can make it,” he reassured himself.
Tian steeled his nerves before jumping. The snow gave way from where he hit, but he managed to twist and drive his nails into the rock beneath the snow. It slowed down his momentum as he neared the end. He locked his knees as he slammed down at the base of the mountain and howled in pain. His body collapsed like a dropped doll. Agony shot up his spine like he’d broken every bone in his small body.
Now at the base of the mountain he wiped himself off and looked up at where he’d slid down. Almost 50 feet or more was covered in his marks. “The Kukouk blood pays off in the end.”
He said goodbye to Moth once more, choking on his words before putting his back to the mountains.
☆ ☆ ☆
By nightfall he could see the edge of his village and relief washed over him. He hadn’t stop walking once, not even to catch a breather. His stomach groaned and growled in hunger. His legs ached with each step. The adrenaline that carried him was started to fade. He wanted to collapse in Maria’s arms and cry, he wanted to go back up and kill every wolf that had taken his horse away. He’d been there when Moth was born. He spent late nights halter breaking the horse and teaching it to ride, and he’d been there when Moth’s son was born. A brown paint named Wind. The mere thought that one of his best friends being gone drove him to tears. He’d tell Maria that he’d take all the youth down to his old home. He’d do whatever she asked.
The closer he got, the community fire got brighter. It’s warmth cast a comforting glow against the sides of the houses. He could hear the villagers shouting and his heart sped up thinking that they’d already seen him and were getting Maria’s attention.
“Maria!” He shouted, speeding up with tears brimming in his throat.
Until he saw that it wasn’t the community fire that was burning. It wasn’t the community fire at all and the villagers weren’t shouting in excitement. They were screaming. Houses were burning to ash and there were even more hideous screams as he watched huge men with dark clothing rip his people from their houses and drag them across the ground. The warriors had come early. He watched as one of the warriors level their guns at Jocelyne’s youngest child, a small boy named Samandrial, Sam for short. He was a little over two years of age and just learning how to walk and speak. Watching the boy’s head snap back and collapse was more painful then hearing the gunshot ricochet off the burning homes. He could hear Jocelyne wailing the boy’s name. He saw her break free from the men’s hold and she fell next to her boy, screaming over his fallen body.
It felt like an ugly thing had just crawled down Tian’s throat, and replaced his pain with rage.
Hands reached out to grab him and slammed him into the side of one of the last intact houses nearest to the edge of the village.