A pack of wolves hunt a girl who takes her last breath by a river’s edge. She is found and nursed back to health by the kind-hearted Nhil people. She has no memory. No past. And is given a choice that could change her forgotten life forever. A pack of wolves adopt a man who begs for death in the grasslands. Blood revives him. Flesh strengthens him. All while the alpha watches him as if he knows who he is. He has no memory. No past. And yet…he’s drawn toward the smoke of a faraway clan. And in that smoke, he finds a girl with the same mark on her thigh, the same empty mind, and the same forgotten language on her lips.
Age Rating: 18+
A simple organ. A vital instrument in keeping mortal flesh alive.
To pump blood.
To give life.
To keep bone and breath from returning to ash and memory.
But that is not it’s true purpose.
I wished I’d remembered that when I found her.
I wished I’d remembered that the pounding in my chest wasn’t from a simple organ, striving to keep my fragile, feeble form alive, but the quintessential pathway back home.
Back to who I was, what~ I was.~
Back to every memory of her.
If only I had remembered that.
Perhaps then, we could have avoided all the pain.
Something firm but kind rocked my shoulder, causing scratchy eyes to open and dry mouth to swallow. Someone rolled me onto my back, forcing me to stare up at the blinding, boiling sun.
I winced and tried to curl away.
A tapping on my cheek. “Wake up. Come on. Say you’re alive.”
“She’s dead, Niya. Leave her to the vultures.”
“She’s not dead, Kivva.” The tapping grew in earnest, making my head crunch against the stones beneath my skull. The pain dragged me from the thick, foggy place. It tethered me, shedding the empty floating feeling, tying me firmly to a form that’d forsaken me.
I gasped as my heart beat stronger. My lungs breathed deeper.
“That’s it.” The tapping on my cheek stopped, sifting sweetly through my hair instead. “You’re okay. You’re not alone anymore.”
That word stabbed a lightning bolt through my chest. It made tears I couldn’t afford to shed roll down sunburned cheeks. It filled me with such bone-snapping pain I couldn’t catch another breath.
I coughed and—
“She’s struggling to breathe, Niya. It’s the sickness. Get away from her.”
“It’s not the sickness, Kivva. She’s just coming back from the land of death, that’s all.”
Another word that tugged on my heart, digging claws and teeth, ripping my spirit apart.
Whoever touched me kept running their fingers through my hair, giving me an anchor in this world while I tried to decide if I wanted to return to it.
“Come on. Open your eyes. I know you’re not dead,” the female voice soothed. “At least…not anymore.”
Could I come back from the dead?
Was that where I’d been, ever since I’d collapsed on this river’s shore?
Her touch went to my eyes, pressing down on my cheek while another pulled up my eyebrow. My eyelashes cracked open under her control, sending a blinding ray of light to pierce my vision.
I moaned and summoned all my strength to swat her touch away.
She let me go.
Darkness descended again.
But there had been something.
This world that seemed to hate me had delivered something I’d never seen before.
Gritting my teeth, I opened my eyes of my own accord.
“See?” The girl beside me grinned over her shoulder toward the others. “I told you she was alive.”
“Yes, but is she sick?” One of the taller figures shifted closer. “Where is her clan? No one survives out here alone. Did they banish her?” He raised a long stick with strips of vines and leaves fluttering from the top. Brandishing it at me as if it would ward off my evil, he added, “We should leave, Niya. We don’t have time to hunt and carry her too.”
The girl kneeling beside me bared her perfect teeth. “Are you so heartless to leave a mortal to die? A mortal like us?”
“If she deserves it.” The man nodded, his nostrils flaring. “Look at her. She has no clothes, no possessions. Not even a waterskin. Mark my words, she was stripped of rank and banished from her clan. She wears the mark of the sullied.”
I flinched as he jabbed his long stick against my upper thigh. “Right there. She is branded by death itself.”
Again, my heart hitched on the word, tugging with something, only to fade with another beat.
Niya bent over me, her gentle touch swiping at the mud and dirt clinging to my leg. Spitting on her dark hand, she smeared saliva over the filthy splodge the other man had stabbed. With her forehead furrowed, she studied my thigh far too closely.
Skin prickles cloaked me as I tried to shift away.
But I couldn’t.
My body had no strength. No energy left to fight. All I had were a few remaining heartbeats to fade into the whispering fog and forget about this place.
“It’s not the mark of the sullied,” Niya murmured, glancing at me with black eyes framed with blacker lashes. “It’s a birthmark.”
“A taint from the source itself!” The man rattled his stick, sending its vines and leaves swinging. The other men behind him bowed their heads and pressed fingertips to their eyes as if to shield themselves from my monstrousness.
“It is not.” Niya snorted. “You’re not our Spirit Master, Kivva. Don’t pretend you know what you’re talking about.”
“Then take her to Solin and have him tell you. But then you’ll be responsible for sickness sweeping through our clan for daring to bring ~that~ into our home.”
“That is a person, same as us,” Niya snapped, her temper revealing itself in a bloom of thorns. “And the mark you’re so afraid of is just a birthmark, like I said. A birthmark shaped sort of like a sunburst, if you must know.”
The man crossed his arms, his decorated stick clutched in a fist. “She stays here. She dies here.”
“She comes.” Niya turned on her knees to face me fully. “You need to stand now. You’re coming with us.” She smiled kindly. “We have healers. If you’re sick, we have cures. You need help and—”
“She needs to be left to die,” the man growled. “Come along.” He strode away from the two other men and one woman he’d been standing with.
My vision faded in and out as my heart still struggled to beat on starvation fumes. Compared to my sallow skin and prominent bones, these people glowed. The two males behind the suspicious one had skin that glistened as rich and precious as black river rocks. Their dark-skinned hands, etched with tendon and bone, had fingernails that gleamed almost pink, crowning the end of each one. Their eyes were just as dark, glossy with depth and wisdom.
The male who’d stabbed me rudely with his stick had light skin, splattered with freckles and sun-faded brown hair. The other female had similar colouring to him, unlike the girl kneeling beside me, but it was their intricate braids that made me gasp.
Long hair on both female and male, all intricately weaved and coiled with feathers, beads, and shells. The wind caught a few feathers, twirling them in a breeze.
I swallowed, doing my best to ignore the pain of my body so close to fading. My gaze locked onto the flower-threaded braids draped over the standing woman’s breasts.
For all the perfection of their health and vitality, they’d hidden parts of their bodies with slaughtered animal furs. The men wore strips around their hips while the women had an extra piece binding their chests.
These people had covered their nudity with the dressings of their prey.
Why did that incite such strange feelings—?
“Don’t worry,” Niya said kindly, drawing my attention back to her. “We’ll find clothing to cover you.” She glanced at my dirty, emaciated form. My bare skin hovered between the colours of hoof-trodden dirt and sun-bleached earth. The ivory lines of scars on my legs and fresh cuts up my thighs only added to the blisters from my sunburn. My colourless, white hair carried its own version of leaves and bracken but not from decoration. I merely wore despair and survival.
“Come,” the man with his stick commanded. “Enough of this.”
No one from his clan moved. Their eyes bounced from me to Niya on her knees, making up their own minds.
Niya used their uncertainty for her gain. “She’s just a person. Same as us. She’s not a spirit. She’s not sickness or evil. We leave her here, and she dies. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to confess that my inactions led to someone’s death at the next fire counsel.”
Those words seemed to work magic.
The two men leapt into action. Surrounding me, they passed their matching long sticks to the woman with thick feather-threaded braids and arched eyebrows at Niya. “Move then. We’ll have to carry her. Hunting is over for today.”
Niya rose from her knees, giving me an assuring smile. “We’re going to pick you up now, okay?” Her black eyes flashed. “Do you have a name?”
What was a name?
I didn’t think so.
I don’t remember…
Not waiting for me to answer her question, she pointed at the ring of people towering above me. “This is Huo, Rin, and Moke.” Arching her chin at the surly one, she added, “And that’s Kivva.” Tapping her own fur-wrapped dark chest, she smiled with white teeth. “I’m Niya.” Her eyebrows rose as she pointed at me. “Now you…do you have a name?”
I swallowed back the dryness, tilting my head at the bubbling river beside me. I needed another drink. My body kept begging for water, food, and shade. Things I needed to stay alive, but I didn’t want to stay alive if staying alive was this hard, ~this lonely. ~
How long had I walked before my body finally gave out?
A moon, a year, a decade?
I’d walked until my feet bled and bones threatened to snap. I’d walked beneath blistering sun and bruising rain. I’d tried to find shelter in the dens of beasts, only to be chased away by howl and fang. Even the kinder animals avoided me, scurrying away as I tripped through their territory.
A few suns ago, a wolf pack with spiral horns on their majestic heads had started to tail me. Their noses locked on the scent of my impending death. Death that I’d given into when I’d found this river and fallen face first into its wet welcome.
Tears tried to form.
My heart swelled agonisingly in my chest.
I didn’t know why I’d been walking, what I’d been searching for, or why I’d been so alone, but every piece of seclusion and savage solitude came crashing down upon me.
A sob gathered in my chest.
I tried to curl into a little ball, to hide, to forget, to die.
“Hey…” Niya ducked to her haunches again, cupping my dirty cheek. “You’re okay.” Her eyes glossed with overwhelming kindness. “You’re not alone anymore.”
You’re not alone anymore.
Her voice echoed.
Her words repeated.
They chased me back into the eternal forgetful fog.
And the last thing I remembered was strong arms slipping beneath me.
I turned weightless as the sky claimed me for its own.