Part 2: Change

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The sleeping space in the big tent had reindeer pelts lining the floor and four walls. In that space, heat was so well conserved that they didn’t need a fire: the warmth of the bodies within was enough. But still, on blizzard-filled nights, the wind beat at the tent’s curtains and so the occupants slept lightly, dreaming often.

One night, Van had a strangely vivid dream. He was crouched in a thicket, listening to the wind. The fierce gale ravaging the night sky caught the treetops above him, causing them to rustle in waves, but it was unexpectedly quiet in the bushes where there were thickets and thick trunks to stop the wind.

Every once in a while, a freezingly cold gust would envelope him in snowflakes. All the while, he remained motionless, crouching and waiting for the blizzard to pass.

Suddenly Van sensed something, and strained his ears for more information. Something was in the darkness of the distance. With nose and ears, he felt the movements in the shadows. …Many, many things had shown up, and were silently but steadily drawing closer to him.

…Mountain dogs.

His throat and stomach contracted and a shiver ran down his spine. ──Just the idea of being devoured by those fangs was giving him goosebumps. But strangely there was an undercurrent of excitement, too.

Just a little bit more and the prey will enter the range of my bow…

A thrilling feeling of expectation welled up in him as he waited for it. At the same time, he felt a creeping suspicion that he was losing himself to something that wasn’t him but the second he tried to get up in fear, there was crying at the pit of his stomach that seemed to draw him in, waking him from his dream.

 

 

Yuna had sneaked under his blanket at some point and was now clinging to his belly and shivering. Rather than being scared, she appeared to be strangely agitated.

“Pa! Pa!”

While soothing her with whispers so as to not wake Ouma and the others, he bobbed Yuna’s small body while hugging her.

“It’s alright. You’re okay.”

However, far from calming down, Yuna leaned backwards, trying to twist her body. Before he could react, a beastly growl escaped from her mouth.

Ouma and the others showed signs of waking, and Van heard a hoarse, “What’s wrong?”

Before this there had been times when Yuna had cried at night, but the weird timbre in her voice just now worried Ouma as well.

“It looks like she had a bad dream.” With that, he hugged Yuna closer, gently stroking her back, but Yuna seemed dead set on continuing to cry. She stopped screaming loudly, but her trembling didn’t lessen. She clung tightly to Van’s collar with her small hands, trying to pull him closer to her, and was babbling incoherently. She was valiantly trying to tell him something but her tongue didn’t seem to work properly, as if she had returned to being a baby.

“…Pa, pa…y’shee…zhe blak…”

However, Van managed to make out those words. He could only stare back at Yuna.

The glow of the fireplace next to their sleeping space flickered weakly through the hole left open for ventilation. And yet it was almost pitch dark. Even though Van shouldn’t be able to recognize much at all, for some reason he could clearly see Yuna’s face. He was particularly drawn to her eyes. Her soppy, tear-stained eyes were looking up at him, filled with excitement.

Don’t tell me…she had the same dream? Did this girl also feel the presence of the black beasts gradually approaching, just as I sensed it in the thicket?

Just as he was thinking about this, he felt like he heard something, perking up his ears. He hadn’t misheard. Once again a sharp “Pyaa” sounded in his ears, and vanished.

It’s a warning. A puyka is sounding the alarm.

It began as a short, high-pitched sound, similar to that of a flute, but quickly changed into a deep “Ge, ge, gururuuuu,” as if something was creeping up from under the ground. He felt goosebumps form in reaction. The moment he heard it, a sharp pain pierced his middle forehead, and suddenly everything around him changed.

 

 

Yuna’s scent, his own, and the scents of Ouma and the others suddenly assaulted his nose. All the background sounds of the night became deafening. All of it hit his senses at once. A rapid drumming resounded over everything.

It took him quite some time before he realized the drumming was his own heartbeat.

Fear and excitement surged through his entire body in waves. He could also feel the same waves crashing through the small child in his arms.

Van stood up with Yuna still in his arms.

The black beasts are coming. They aren’t headed this way yet, they’re going in the direction of the reindeer and puyka enclosure.

He could perceive how the animals were running about in a panic, trying to escape and causing the earth to tremble beneath their hooves, so clearly it was as if he was watching it with his own eyes. The chained hunting dogs were howling and howling, on and on, with shrill voices as if they had gone mad.

 

 

Van pressed Yuna into Toma’s arms, nimbly put on his cloak, slipped his hands into gloves, picked up his hatchet, and looked back at Ouma.

For some reason, no words left his mouth. Finally, Van managed to squeeze some words out, though it came in a low growl.

“Black…attacking.”

Ouma was bewildered, asking, “Our black brothers?”

Van couldn’t answer any longer. The scene before his eyes distorted, words and thoughts becoming a distant memory of the past. The articulate part of him shrank back into the depths of his body, and he was dully aware of his limbs moving even as his consciousness split. That other him, dwelling deep inside, watched as he turned up the tent’s door cloth and went outside.

 

 

Without him noticing, the wind had abated. The snow-laden clouds had also dissipated, and the half-moon peeked out from behind the clouds as they rushed by. Countless shadows jumped across the blue, snowy ground.

It was oddly bright where he stood. The scents forcing their way through his nose, the sounds as they ran across the snow, and the shadows that ebbed and flowed from the forest edge like a wave of darkness formed a distinct image in his mind, illuminating the paths that the assailants would take to reach their destination.

On instinct, Van started to run. His body felt unbelievably light. He flew across the snow field, leaving it behind in no time.

Black beasts swarmed outside the enclosure. The pack circled the enclosure, taking wide berths occasionally. Van instinctively understood the reason behind their movements. It was the mohoki. It appeared that it was also repulsive to them.

Before he realized, the scenes he saw with his eyes and the pictures painted by the vivid scents around him melted together into a complicated sort of perception.

The black beasts kept intruding on that general perception. Many of the shadows stood by one side of the enclosure, growling. The frightened puyka and reindeer gathered at the fence on the opposite side. Other shadows drew closer to them, unnoticed. The growling beasts were beaters, herding their prey towards one location by intimidation. The hunters approached the puyka from behind, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.

Those guys are going to jump the fence.

Van could see shadowy images of them jumping over the fence before they actually did. Unbeknownst to the puyka herd, who were desperately trying to survive, his own actions mirrored theirs. Lowering his head like a leading buck charged with the protection of the herd, Van rushed at the beasts from the side.

The beasts noticed him and turned around.

The instant their eyes met, something strange happened. ──He felt himself divide in two.

One half, feeling the waves of fear coming off the puyka, felt like he needed to protect the herd. The other part of him inexplicably felt a kinship with the beasts.

 

 

The beasts stopped moving. Their movements ceased and they stared his way. The threads of life that pulsated and tied them together, were tied to Van as well, and he felt the beats pound through him at the same rhythm.

Before he realized, everything around him had transformed into streams of light. Strands of light branched in a myriad of directions constantly. Some of the veins of light tangled together, while others merely pulsed on their own. All of heaven and earth had turned into a mess of light streams, all moving at different speeds.

The forest’s trees transformed into streams of green light, the light radiating from the dirt itself all the way into the heavens. Those streams of light and the grove of thick, dark fir trees melded together mesmerizingly.

A male mountain dog, as big as a boar, stood directly opposite of Van, gazing intently this way. The instant their eyes met, his vision jerked and he was suddenly on all fours, looking at a huge man bent forward awkwardly.

Startled, Van looked up at the man, stepping back.

This is…me?

The moment this thought occurred to him, his soul smoothly slid back into his human body, and he was once again looking at the fierce male dog.

If I wished, I could move into any of these mountain dogs. Through these pulsating threads. These guys…are me. If I just pull on these light threads, we will move…

As he came to this conclusion, a distant wind blew forth and gathered the threads into a messy bundle, tugging on them like reins. The bundle of threads was pulled towards a big fir tree at the forest’s edge. Something was there. ──Whatever it was, it grabbed the bundle and forcibly snatched away the thread of light coming from Van.

With a snap his connection to the beasts was severed. His surroundings suddenly became deathly still.

 

 

Immediately the beastly eyes around him took on a fiendish gleam. Goosebumps covered his body. The fierce male bared its fangs, and leaped into the air.

Van lowered his head with a jerk, hitting its muzzle with the back of his hatchet as if it were an antler. He jerked back from the feedback, and the male crashed into the ground with a whimper, bouncing from the force.

As the downed male rolled over, the other beasts attacked. Van tossed his hatchet away, and tightly clenched his fists instead, striking the dogs on his left and right.

The instant he made contact, he felt a something pull him back, making it impossible to deliver punches at full strength. Despite that, his jabs still managed to either send the beasts tumbling, or slam them into the ground.

He felt more than heard a shrill sound behind him. The beasts also stopped moving all at once, turning towards the forest and perking up their ears. In the next instant, they turned on their heels and started to run.

Following the direction they were running in, Van was startled. The beasts were heading towards the tent. ──At the entrance of the tent stood Ouma and Toma, holding up torches to survey the situation.

Van wanted to shout, “Run!”, but no words came out of his mouth.

Suddenly a small shadow fell out of the tent. …It was Yuna. Kiya came running after her, poised to pick her up. Van screamed. But all that left his throat was a howl.

 

 

Lifting up the torch in his hand, Toma had been looking in the direction of the reindeer enclosure. He felt like the shadows were moving slightly but in the all-consuming darkness he couldn’t even see where Van had gone. However, he felt like he saw several shadows moving around near the enclosure.

“S’pretty hard ta see even with the torches. Reckon we should check out the enclosure?”

Just as his father agreed, Toma heard his mother’s voice from within the tent.

“Ah, hey, hey! You can’t go outside right now!”

When Toma looked back, he saw the tent flap being lifted and Yuna scurrying outside. She was trying to run straight for the enclosure. Just as his mother almost managed to catch Yuna, Toma heard a bizarre sound, like a howl, in the distance.

Taken aback, Toma turned around in the voice’s direction, just barely making out the many black objects steadily approaching them, and hearing their feet crunch in the snow.

“Dad!”

Before he could point them out, they were close enough to be seen in the light of the torches. The instant he noticed the glitter of their black fur, yellow eyes, and bared fangs in the light of the flames, the leading beast lunged directly at his father.

His father swung his torch in panic. But the beast simply tilted its head, dodging the torch by mere centimetres and sank its teeth into his father’s arm. With a roar, Toma hit the beast that was still latched onto his father’s arm with his torch.

Sparks were suddenly whirled up into the sky. Whimpering, the beast let go of his father’s arm, falling down onto the snow. Looking back, he saw his mother holding Yuna, who had curled herself up in her arms. A beast rushed at them from behind. Toma tried to get to her even as he shouted a warning, but something heavy crashed into his side, winding him. When he managed to open his eyes again, groaning and clutching his stomach as he tried to lift himself off the ground, he came face to face with a snarling muzzle. A rotten stench permeated his nose.

It’s gon’ get me!

He instinctively squeezed his eyes shut and tensed, but the weight suddenly vanished with a dull thump. Opening his eyes in surprise, he saw Van. Toma could only stare, eyes wide.

For a brief moment Van’s body had looked like it was glowing with mysterious power. A blazing gleam in his eyes, and flames bursting from his body. That was how Toma had seen it.

As soon as Van sent the beast that had been on him flying, he turned fluidly and grabbed the beast on his mother’s back by the scruff and threw it off with the same ease.

Van had lowered his head like a buck protecting its herd, kicking, hitting, and flinging the attacking beasts away. The beasts’ movements seemed to become sluggish, even as Van’s movements got faster and faster. Unable to even graze them, the beasts were kicked flying, knocked off their feet, or thrown into the far distance.

By this point, Toma wasn’t able to follow Van’s movements with his eyes anymore. However, the beasts that continued to attack them were flicked away one after another, flying off into the distance.

At that moment Touma heard something that somehow didn’t feel like a sound.

The beasts stopped immediately. Almost simultaneously, Van frowned. The beasts looked in the direction of the forest, bewildered, and then flattened their ears and retreated into the forest as if they had been pulled back on a leash.

 

 

“…Ah!” His mother yelped.

Looking back, he saw Yuna starting to run after wriggling out from his mother’s arms. She was absurdly fast, unbelievably so for a child. Yuna’s chasing figure was bright against the torch-lit snow, but she quickly vanished, melting into the darkness.

Dumbfounded, Toma couldn’t form any thoughts. In that short moment, Van whirled around, and ran after Yuna. As his back merged with the darkness of the night, it almost seemed more beast than man.

 

 

A small light swayed in front of him. As she ran, Yuna seemed to shine faintly. Yuna’s light was connected to the beasts. He was also bound to them. Van focused solely on running, forgetting to even breathe.

He saw the beasts slow their pace, as if waiting for puppies to catch up. Yuna vanished into the pack of beasts. Van wanted to melt into them as well. The entity that had appeared in him recently ached, wishing desperately to join the pack.

It was comforting, single-mindedly running with the beasts and being pulled along by the one holding the bundle of lights. The wind whispered into his ears. The scent of snow filled him from the inside out. The lights swayed. The forest’s trees came steadily closer. He tasted the cool and clear scent of the undergrowth buried by snow in the air.

Without him noticing, he connected to Yuna’s heart, and suddenly the ground was much closer. Everything was slow. The grass bent by the touch of a nose bounced back. The snow springtailbafari that had flown up from the clump of bushes after being awoken from its slumber, flapped its wings and gently landed in the thicket on the other side. He could clearly see every single vein in those wings, and even the ends of its thin, extended legs.

As he rushed into the forest, the aroma of the trees became denser. As the intense smell filled his nose, a pure white light flashed from behind his eyes to the crown of his head. The fragrance of the lichens and mosses clinging to tree roots or hanging from branches. All those aromas surged at him like the tolling of a thousand bells.

An especially conspicuous note in all this was the ashim. This lichen, which closely crowded the roots of trees, painting them the emerald sheen of its own image, emitted an indescribable, complex fragrance. When he sensed it, a shiver ran through his body. ──He split into different parts, clashed with himself and rejoined over and over in waves.

As the beasts’ pace slowed, so did Yuna’s. They all shook their heads in confusion. Van also stopped running.

The aroma of the ashim crashed through his body like a wave on the shore, calming the foreign urges raging within him.

Just a little more, and it’ll become completely calm…

The instant he sensed this, pain struck him between the eyebrows. The bundle of lights had been pulled once again.

The beasts lifted their faces, and with trembling bodies they began to run again. Yuna tried to follow them as well, but at the last moment, Van managed to extend a hand and scoop her up.

Yuna wriggled in his arms. Whining like a puppy, she shook her head and pedaled legs and arms, but Van didn’t let her go, firmly holding onto her.

The beasts ran away. Watching their fading bodies, a sadness like being left behind by one’s mother spread inside his chest. He wanted to go with them. Anywhere, as long as it was with them. Trembling as she burrowed into his chest, Yuna likely felt the same. She was bawling like a baby.

Nevertheless, Van held on tight. ──As the ashim’s fragrance calmed him, his original senses returned to him

I must not go.

Those words trickled into his mind.

I must not allow her to go.

Burying his face in Yuna’s hair, which smelled like the sun, Van pulled her small, childish body close.

 

 


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  1. Pingback: Shika no Ou – Volume 1 – Chapter 5 – Part 2: Change

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