What a terrible place to spend the rest of your days…
That was all that Alex could think about as he trudged through the thick drifts. Well, almost. The other words he had in mind were far too inappropriate for him to confess to even thinking.
But for all extents and purposes, it would be Snow. The white was burned on his retinas and the cold was burned in his skin; it would be nearly impossible for anything else to cross his mind. He gritted his teeth in frustration as he pulled herself across the frozen ground and through the icy snow banks that clawed their way into the bleak gray sky, mentally cursing himself and every higher power that he could think of for being stuck in this situation.
The elders at the village had also warned him that traveling through the wilderness alone was dangerous. He had not listened. The elders at the village had warned him that there might be a blizzard. He had not listened. The elders had told him not to travel through the valley at night. And, as he thought bitterly now, he had not listened.
And although Alex could not see it, a flash of black was visible for the tiniest of moments in the pine trees laden with ice. Harsh pants, four worn paws hitting the ground, and the flick of a tail. And, strangely, the faintest jingle of metal before the black shadow faded from view.
Alex sighed, watching the puff of cooled air disperse around him, and then began doggedly pulling himself forwards again. He shivered, pulling his parka closer to himself. His blonde hair hung in limp streaks around his forehead beneath the hood, quivering in the harsh wind. Their tips were frozen solid, encased in sweat and tears of frustration that had succumbed to the icy cold, stoic reminders of what would happen to him if he stood still for just a bit too long.
The village was still a long way behind him; turning back now would be nearly as insane as leaving in the first place. Yet his destination wasn’t even visible on the horizon. He definitely wasn’t going to make it before nightfall, even if he wasn’t already tired. Stupid ice, stupid weather... he muttered sentences under his breath, beginning in a low monotone and cursing everything that he could imagine for his current predicament. Blearily, stubbornly, doggedly, he continued walking along.
The shadow was back. It peered down an elegant yet certainly deadly snout, sniffing the air deeply. The shadow’s black head pricked up as it scented the air. The scent of the blonde boy in front of it, tinged ever so gently fear, filled its nostrils.
Its tail flicked in anxiety. Could it really be? It whimpered uneasily. The song of hunger had long been loud in its belly, but now it was reaching an untimely crescendo. It was hungry. Humans were edible. So was the boy.
It was time.
Alex had resorted to cursing the individual trees alongside him when he heard the sound that chilled his blood.
A long, drawn out howl.
It echoed in the distance for a moment, hovering in the ominous sky for the slightest second before weaving down to earth, through the trees and past the moon, until it hit him head on like a freight train. Another impossible task, something that he could not deal with.
Alex was long out of curses by this point. The village elders had, lastly, warned him about wolves. About how they hunted in packs, and a fully grown, athletic human could not hope to get away from a pack on the hunt. Seeing as he was sixteen and already weary from days without sleep, Alex was neither of these things.
Alex bit his lip, entirely out of ideas at this point. And he had long since been out of curse words.
Alex was afraid, although he would never admit it. The piece of his heart devoted to courage and strength and bravado and all of the lovely stuff that the village elders had stuffed him with… it was frozen with the rest of his body, he supposed. Right now, the only emotion he could process was the cold pit of fear settling in his stomach.
The shadow howled into the air. It wasn’t a vicious cry, really. It was more of a regretful one. Misery, loneliness, hunger, sorrow… the concerns of a wolf and more were woven into its luxurious melody, which danced through the treetops on wings as fast as the pack itself.
Its black tail flicked once again as it began to trot forwards, its worn and weary paws sinking deep into the soft snow. It picked up speed, pulling itself through the snow banks with vigor and grace that few creatures on earth could manage to do.
Alex floundered through the snow, arms flying akimbo. His breath came to him in short huffs, tiny clouds of cold air floating around his head like nimbus streaks on a mountain. He had realized, for the first time, that he was probably going to die. He realized bitterly, though, that it wasn’t the arrival of the wolves that sealed his fate. The cold had long since gotten to him, and hypothermia was a silent but slow killer. Now, though, he knew that he had no chance.
The shadow veered to the left, bursting out of the trees and still howling its call. The boy was close by, and with a yip, it skidded to a halt in front of her, tail flicking through the air.
Alex shouted out in fear, pulling up short as the black, four-legged canine landed in front of him, eyes glowing like coals. He tried to take a step backwards, to avoid the lashing tail and snarl, but he promptly tripped and found himself splayed out in the ground in the snowdrift on his back, arms spread and blue eyes wide.
He watched with horror, trying to bring himself back to a sitting position but finding that his limbs would not respond, either from fear or exhaustion.
"I’m going to die here,”
he thought to himself blearily, staring upwards at the bleak gray sky. He could hear the wolf-shadow’s short breaths as well. “Here, of all places.”
A painful pause. “This sucks. Really.”
The wolf-shadow prowled upwards, black tail flicking through the air. Its breath, too, came out in steamy ice clouds around its nostrils as it padded closer through the snow. Soon, it stood on top of him, surprising light through his layers of parka and numbness.
The wolf-shadow lowered its head to his neck, eyes glinting. Flash of white canines. Tail flicking. Eyes burning like coals. Gum slowly retracting and canines seeming to elongate as preparations for kill begin.
He prayed that it would be quick.
The wolf-shadow moved faster than his eye could track. It dipped in, a black flash. Alex barely had time to wince before it was over.
When Alex blearily opened his eyes, the first thought that came to his mind was the fact that he wasn’t dead. He wasn’t in pain, his entrails were not scattered on the snow banks or in the belly of a wolf miles away, and his body was very much in one piece.
He sat up in confusion, his hands sinking into the deep snow up to his wrists as he looked around, blue eyes widening with alarm.
In his lap, the wolf-shadow pricked its black head up, whimpering as it met his frightened gaze. It had fur as dark as midnight, from the tip of its snout to the bottom of its tail, which was wagging furiously in the snow beside her. Satisfied that he was not in danger, it laid its head back in his lap, still wagging its tail frantically. It had already cleared a patch of snow in a large arc around itself, and there was still more to come.
“No way,” Alex breathed. But as he looked into its—no, her… he knew that for a fact—weary eyes, there was no mistaking it. His hands flew to her neck, scrabbling as fast as their numb tips could through her thick fur.
His numb fingers caught on something around her neck. He froze, hardly believing what was there. He wiggled his fingers experimentally, hearing the gentle musical jingle and clink of metal on metal. Not daring to breathe, he pulled the object towards her, sliding it around her neck.
It was a collar. He knew that. Even without looking, he knew that it consisted of exactly thirty-two golden chains interlinked together, with a heart-shaped tag in the center. He pulled the tag towards him, his heart pounding. Impossible, he knew. The last time he had seen a collar like this…
“No.” The woman had blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, just like Alex, but her eyes had no joy. Instead, they were weary of the world and the spark of life and happiness had just seemed to have been smothered in her sapphire depths. Her hair was frazzled and her face was grim, but she was resigned.
“But mom…” the boy trailed off. It was Alex, but much younger. Seven years old, maybe. Eight, tops.
“Alex!” his mother shrieked sharply. He snapped to attention, quivering at the rage he heard in her voice. “I told you we couldn’t have monster like that. It’s wrong! I told you once. I told you twice. I told you three times, Alex! Do you know what their kind does, Alex? They steal our sheep. Do you know what we do with the sheep? We eat the sheep, and we use their wool to make our clothing. Do you know what happens if we have no sheep?” She paused dramatically. “We freeze to death and die.”
“But mom,” he whimpered again, stroking the black dog at his heels. She wagged her tail joyfully, looking at the proceedings with uncomprehending eyes.
“No,” his mother growled firmly, her forehead creased into a frown. “I cannot believe that you tried to raise a monster for a year and a half and didn’t tell me.” She also couldn’t believe that she hadn’t noticed, either.
He whimpered, and beside him, so did the dog. “But…”
“No,” she repeated firmly. She raised her fist threateningly, and he cowered back in fear. “The creature goes,” his mother said fiercely, her voice low and deadly. “I don’t care where, and I don’t care how. But it’s got to get out of here.”
“She’s not a monster,” Alex whispered, correcting her timidly.
“What?” her voice was deadly.
“She’s not a monster, and she’s not a wolf. She doesn’t steal our sheep, and none of our kind do. Plus, we call her she, not it…” Alex trailed off at the warning look in his mother’s eyes.
"Don't talk about it like that. It's a monster, and nothing else. And don't you dare talk back to me."
Even the dog could not ignore the venom in her voice, now, or the fear. She shrunk back behind the boy, wrapping herself sinuously around his feet and whimpering, stealing furtive glances at his mother from between the boy’s heels. He idly stroked her head as he watched his mother turn heel and leave the room, a storm that would not blow over. His fingers caught on the golden collar around the dog’s neck, entwined in her fur…
The same collar was entwined around the wolf-shadow’s black fur as he turned it over in his hands, trembling. He pulled the heart-shaped tag closer to him, his own heart nearly freezing when he held it in his fingertips.
A piece of the heart had broken off long ago, in the top right corner. He fingered the jagged golden edge while she held her head obediently up for him, her head trembling. Her tail had stopped wagging as she, too, sensed the gravity of the situation.
The golden heart with the jagged edge, one piece missing. He fingered it, barely making out the smudged and scratched engraving that went around half of it. The first letters were smeared out, but the rest… he had written them himself. Painstakingly scratched at the golden metal, etching a single word into its surface: her name.
She had worn if ever since, and he had been proud of it. At least, until…
“Get out of here!” young Alex shrieked.
She had floundered in the snowdrift, unsure of what to do. She looked up to Alex for guidance, but he turned away. He bowed his head to better hide the tears, blonde bangs obscuring his blue eyes. He pointed away from his house, away from the village, away from every one. “Go on,” he said brusquely. “Leave.”
She whimpered, but she refused to.
“I’m leaving now,” Alex said quietly, painfully. “You can’t follow me, Kora. Do you understand that?”
She whimpered. He could have sworn that she shook her head.
He took a step backwards, his head still bowed. The soft crunch of snow made him glance upwards, but he did not raise his head. One of her paws had already sunk into the snow, and she was tentatively preparing to take a second step forwards.
“No!” he roared angrily. “No!” his voice softened into sobs. “No,” he repeated, much quieter this time. “You can’t stay here. You have to go. They think you’re the one who devours our sheep. They think you’re a monster, Kora. They’ll kill you if they find you in the village again!”
What his mother had said had only been the beginning. As the rumors had spread that Alex had raised a monster, one coated in blood who devoured innocent lambs and stalked children in the night, it had become increasingly unsafe for them. Within a week, Kora had already been hit with three rocks, thrown callously like words by neighbors. Soon, Alex feared, they would bring worse things. Like guns.
“Stop it!” Alex shrieked. Her tail sunk beneath her legs, but she did not retreat.
Murmuring curses under his breath, words that he had snatched from his mother, Alex grabbed the coil of rope that lay around his shoulders. It broke his heart to do this, but he had no choice.
"I’m sorry,” young Alex whispered, slowly and methodically tying knot after knot in the frayed rope. It chafed at his hands, but the tears that chafed at his eyes were worse. With another thud, he slammed a fifteenth knot into the rope around the tree.
Beside him, she whimpered uneasily. In her dark fur, the golden collar glistened just the tiniest bit in the setting sun.
The collar, however, was soon almost entirely obscured by the frayed tan rope around her neck. Half of it was gently looped around her, and the other half was coiled in knots and knots around the ancient tree, tied around and around its aged bark like a noose.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated uncertainly, his eyes still hidden and his head bowed. “But… if you leave me, at least you’ll live.”
Not trusting himself to say anything more without crying, young Alex turned away, taking slow and deliberate steps through the snow.
Behind him, the young black dog threw up her head. A mournful howl tore from her ragged lips. It wasn’t a vicious cry, really. It was more of a regretful one. Misery, loneliness, hunger, sorrow… the concerns of a scared little one and more were woven into its luxurious melody, which danced through the treetops on wings as fast as fate itself.
Alex could not bring himself to look back. He knew it would be painful. He had been expecting it, really.
After all, losing her… it was like losing a piece of his heart.
“Korokoro,” Alex whispered numbly. She looked up at him and nodded, no trace of hatred for his past wrongs in her eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
She only looked at him with intelligent but aged eyes—had it really been nine years?—and then she laid her head down in his lap again, the golden-heart around her neck clinking. She was weary. It had been nine years of waiting, searching. Nine years for him, but sixty-three for her. She finally felt the aches in her bones and the tiredness in her joints that she had long since forced away.
He sighed, idly stroking her. There were tears burgeoning in Alex’s eyes, but he forced them away. As he sat there, his arms thrown around her warm head for either warmth or just out of love, he realized that the icy cold was taking its toll on him, as well.
Alex became increasingly more aware of this fact when he realized that his legs, buried as they were in the frigid snow, would no longer respond to his movements.
Korokoro whimpered, sensing his alarm, and she lifted her head up tiredly. Her black eyes still sparkled like coals. Hunger clawed at her belly, but she didn’t care. She had… she had found him. For years, she had always thought it would be impossible to find him again. She had nearly given up. But doggedly, with the loving perseverance gifted to all members of her species—and indeed, it seemed it had been gifted to her in excess—she had refused to give up on him.
And it had paid off.
He straightened his head, one thought still pounding in his delirious mind. How many hours had he spent laying there? The sun had definitely sunk in the sky. It was much darker now. Soon the true cold, the bitter cold, would come, and even Korokoro with her thick fur would be unable to defend herself against its ravaging claws.
“Kora…” Alex whispered hazily. “Get… get out of here.”
Her eyes flickered with recognition.
“Go on, leave,” Alex murmured, nudging her head off of his lap. “You’ve got to leave, Kora,” he murmured, stroking her head and the heart shaped tag around her neck. His nickname for her still rang in his mind. Alex remembered with a chill the night when he had snuck back to that same tree and found her gone, the rope gnawed off and her footsteps trailing off uncertainly into the depths of the forest. The shattered shards of half of the heart, no doubt torn off when she had been tearing at the rope in a frenzy to reach him, had been scattered in the snow around him. He had taken them home and buried them as a memorial to her. He had never… never in a million years had he expected this.
“I’m dying, Kora. I’m going to go somewhere that where you can’t follow.” Normally, such words would have chilled his heart, but for some reason, he didn’t care any more. “You can’t follow me, Kora. Do you understand that?”
Kora whimpered and buried her head even deeper in his lap, spreading her warmth next to his stomach. The sun was setting fast. “No,” Alex said gently, shoving her away. “No.” He paused for a moment, choking back a sob. No tears, he told himself. No crying. “No,” he repeated, very quietly this time. “You can’t stay here. You have to go. You’ll die in this cold. It’s terrible, Kora. Trust me; I know. It’ll kill you if you stay here and more.”
She whined, nuzzling her warm snout into his stomach and burying herself. Even though the parka, Alex could feel both her warmth and the snow’s freezing fingers. “Stop it,” he murmured, choking back a laugh and a sob. It was just like old times. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, stroking her now. His fingers caught on the golden chain around her neck. “I’m sorry,” Alex repeated. “But if you leave me, at least… at least you’ll live.”
She whimpered, shaking her head. This time, she would not make the same mistake. This time, things would be different. She whined uneasily, wedging herself firmly beside him. Although he could not understand her language, she spoke in whispers that needed no words. Never, her burning eyes told him fiercely.