A'N: Whew! I'm sorry it took so long. As for Of Promises and Perseverance, I'm having Celebrian-Gladiola-Elwyn look over the chapter because it's a biggie and I need to make sure it's just right before I update it. I'm just waiting for her feedback. Oh and Elwyn, if you're reading this chapter, I apologize if I spelled your name wrong.
"Mother! Kiba pushed me in the mud!"
I yawned widely as San's little voice reached my ears. I sat up and gazed out at the riverbed where my cubs were playing. Kiba and Tsume were almost full-grown. For some reason, all the giants of the animals were being watered down and I somehow knew that my cubs would never reach my size.
"Tsume, watch out!"
I sighed and lay back down. San had already forgotten being pushed in the mud and gone back to tossing it at her brothers. It had been a little over two years since I'd taken San as my daughter. Her wolf speak was fluent and understandable, while her human speak, being much more complex, was shaky and babbled. San had no memory of her life with the humans and believed herself to be a wolf like us. But soon, this would all change. I knew in my heart that she couldn't stay ignorant forever. She had to know of her human heritage. And the only way to teach her would be to take her to the pool of the Forest Spirit. We'd soon have a chance to. Mother's wound had never healed after the battle with Makoto all those years ago. She spent most of her time sleeping in the den and rarely came out anymore. We would have to leave for the pool soon to beg the Forest Spirit to save her. Her wound was killing her.
My beloved mate. San had effectively torn our pack apart. Even now, what I had seen happen to Makoto pained me.
Three full moons after he left us, I heard pained howling reverberating up the hillside from Irontown. I recognized it as Makoto's and instinctively ran as fast as my legs would carry me to the hilltops overlooking the town. What I saw there nearly made me cry out myself.
I was too late. Makoto laid on the ground on our side of the lake, bloody and beaten with humans and their sharp spears approaching from all sides. Even from that distance, I could see that they'd somehow snapped his back leg in two. Makoto was struggling against the throw ropes they'd wound around him, snarling and thrashing even as the spears punctured his hide and he howled in pain to the sky. I could only watch as one of them finally drove the spear deep into his heart. A gush of blood erupted from his mouth and he fell silent on the hard wet ground.
My mate was gone. Kiba and Tsume's father was gone.
I averted my eyes from the sight, trying to run, but unable to move my feet. But even there, despite my sadness and despair, that familiar rage tore into me, searing through my very soul. I raised my head and gave a long, loud howl of anguish and rage. The humans paused in the act of dismembering my mate's body and looked up. I must have posed quite a sight standing on the hill, illuminated by moonlight and howling to the sky. With a single bound and a bloodcurdling snarl, I leapt from my spot and careened down the hill in a few short bounds. By taking the humans by surprise, I was able to scatter them by my lonesome and watch as they panicked and loaded into their boats and paddled furiously until they were out of my reach.
I padded forward to my mate, tails limp and ears flattened. I sniffed cautiously, detecting the smell of death all around him. I shuddered, resisting the urge to flee, for death was the enemy of all creatures. The smell of his blood was overwhelming and I whined softly. His dead eyes stared up at me, the old fury still lingering, even after his passing.
I raised my head and glared at the humans still on the lake, vultures lingering at a kill. They were waiting for me to leave Makoto so they could take him. Normally, I would. But this time. They'd gone too far.
I seized my mate's body in my jaws and proceeded to drag him back toward the forest, daring the humans to try to oppose me. Fortunately, they stayed on the lake and didn't come any closer as I disappeared back into the forest with my mate's body.
The truth was, I wasn't sure what to do with it. Humans buried their dead in the hopes of seeing them in some other world. But to the creatures of the forest, there was no life after death. We became the world around us, instead. We became food for the creatures we'd hunted, paying them back for their many sacrifices. We became the trees and grass and the soil for the rest of the world to enjoy. And then, we could watch as the wind as new generations arrived to enjoy what we'd left behind. A truly peaceful after-existence. But the humans were too blind to this fact. They destroyed us even after death.
I wasn't sure what to do with Makoto's body. It took me a little while to realize what the only thing I could do was. It was the one thing he had left to offer me after all he'd done for us.
I sank my jaws into his body, tearing out a chunk of flesh and bone. I proceeded to devour the body of my mate, thanking him for his last gift of energy and sustenance that would help give me the strength to continue my quest. This gift would also give my sons the strength they needed to defend San. It wasn't cruel, it was life.
Now, two years later, I still felt Makoto's strength roiling inside me. Having so much more to contend with, I had grown wiser in a very short time.
San was what humans would call a toddler. Her daily goals consisted of four simple things; she ate, she played, she ran, she slept. Not always in that order, but it was amusing to watch, nonetheless.
My pack was dwindling ever more. My brother had seemingly vanished off the face of the earth and Mother was unable to reach him. He may have ventured into the next region to find another pack, or become a loner. Either way, he was dead to us now. By deserting us in our time of desperation, he had severed all family bonds forever. I prayed my children would live to see a time of peace. I knew that Mother and myself would die long before such a time.
I watched as San chased Tsume all through the dense wooding and used her amazing flexible hands to climb trees like an ape. I began to wonder if she was in fact ill-suited to be a wolf. But then I reminded myself that had the apes found her in my stead, they would surely have killed her. Besides, her odd appendages added an extra benefit to her new life. She could do things to the humans that we wolves could never dream of. She could wield weapons against their creators. I had already mapped out her future and her first test as a member of the wolf tribe. She'd be able to use her humanity as a ruse to fool the humans, luring them into a trap until it was too late. That in a sense, would be her first test.
She was already comfortable with almost every animal we'd met. Soon, Tsume, Kiba, San, Mother and myself would journey to the pool of the Forest Spirit to both ask for San's blessing and to hopefully beg for Mother's life. Then, and only then, would San be allowed to venture beyond the den by herself without fear of death by another god. If she was accepted by the Forest Spirit, she'd be accepted by every other animal, some albeit grudgingly. They'd have no other choice. The Forest Spirit laid down the laws for our lives. Life and death belonged to him alone. Even when he walked, beautiful blooming flowers and fragrant grasses would shoot up from his footsteps, only to wither and die seconds later when he lifted his great hoof. He both granted life and took it away, often with no greater reason than to allow existence.
I yawned widely. It was almost evening. I'd soon have to hunt. Lately, Kiba had been accompanying me, leaving Tsume to guard San. She and Tsume seemed quite close and Kiba had become the omega male in San's care rather gracefully. But still, all I did was worry about San when she was so vulnerable. Just about everything in the forest was a danger to her.
"Kiba," I called. "Come with me."
Kiba glanced back at me, groaned and climbed out of the mud puddle where he'd been splashing about happily with Tsume and San.
"Do I have to come with you, Mother?" he asked. I snapped at him lightly.
"You won't be a cub for much longer. Ordinarily, I'd take both you and your brother, but San is too little to be by herself and your Grandmother is too weak to defend her. We must hunt something large enough to sustain us for two full moons, at least." I told him grimly. Because of man's invasion further and further into the forest, game had grown scarcer. That day, we traveled nearly two full leagues before finally taking down a large boar.
The boar struggled briefly, but we silenced him mercifully with our teeth to his throat. Our two tribes shared an uneasy boundary. We left them alone if at all possible and they left us alone in turn. But because unlike them, we wolves had to hunt meat for sustenance, they were still fair game, as a large boar could get us by for many days to come.
Unfortunately, even with my great strength, this kill was far too large to carry back. We had two options. We could either eat our fills here and now and then carry back in our mouths as much meat as we could, or one of us would stand guard while the other fetched the rest of the pack and brought them directly to the kill. The second choice was a problem because we were a respectable distance away from the den and my Mother was growing weaker by the day. But Mother was quite a bit larger than myself and required that much more food just to fill her belly. The largest chunk I could carry wouldn't be enough for both her and the two young ones. We were then only with one choice. Kiba would stay with the kill and I would fetch San, Tsume and Mother. It was the smartest option. Not the safest, but the smartest. Fortunately, there wasn't much else in the forest that we'd have had to contend with.
As fast as my paws could carry me, I raced back to the den, anxious to see Tsume and San alive and well, hopefully out of the mud puddle to make them easier to clean.
I found Tsume resting with his head between his paws, eyes slowly closing as San sat on his back and tugged his ears. To her, it was easy amusement. To him, it was sheer bliss. San and Tsume spotted me almost at the same time. Tsume was faster because San was still little, but in time, she'd learn to sense the faintest footfalls from the farthest distance her human ear would allow. Being with us would sharpen her senses tenfold, but she would never reach our levels simply because nature never intended for humans to be with wolves.
"Mother!" San cried, jumping off Tsume's back to approach me. I had taught her early on that it was bad for her to walk on all fours like us. If she was going to be at all useful to the pack when she was old enough, she'd have to walk upright like the humans. It had taken a lot of coaxing and gentle punishment to make her listen, but it had worked.
"San, Tsume, your brother and I have made a kill. It will get us through many moons to come. But there is a problem."
"What?" Tsume asked. San tugged herself up onto Tsume's back, expecting a journey. Tsume was quite a bit taller than she was, so it was a bit of a job for her to get up there.
"The kill is a large boar and too big for me to carry here. Our only option is to go to it. Kiba is guarding it, but we must still hurry, nonetheless. I shall wake your Grandmother. Follow the scent back to the kill."
As they started off, I watched as San instinctively clutched Tsume's fur and squeezed her little legs into his sides for better balance. She was already more efficient than most human children. I doubted that any of them could make themselves understood by their parents at this age.
I padded into the den. Mother was curled up in the back and deeply asleep. I knew that waking her would do no good for her wound, but she had to eat.
"Mother, wake up." I said. Mother stirred and growled in her sleep.
"Moro, leave me be. I know what you have come for, but it's no use. I am dying, my daughter."
Even though animals aren't human, tears still flow, though differently. I felt them. I forced them back.
"No!" I snarled. "No, you can't die! San needs you! Kiba and Tsume need you! I need you." I said the last part quietly. Mother painfully raised her head and licked my muzzle tenderly.
"Moro, go to your family at the kill. Eat your fill and enjoy the taste. Our times of plenty are soon waning. This bounty won't last forever. Gorge you spirits with memories of these days. By the time you return, I shall be one with the earth and run free with your father."
I knew she was right. Her wound smelled septic and she was in great pain.
"At least let me bring you one last meal." I protested. I was losing my mother, my world.
"No." Mother said, her voice weakening. "Don't tell them. Move them to a new den. Abandon this one. This way, I shall have privacy from spying humans. By the time I am found, I will be nothing worth pillaging. Grant me this final wish, Moro."
I whined shrilly and nuzzled her, knowing it would be the last time I'd ever do so. For the first time in a long while, I yearned to be a cub again, snuggling at her breast and feeling the warmth of her body against mine and Toro's. But those days were gone, never to be regained. It took all of my strength to just pad slowly out of the den where I had been born and where I in turn had birthed my cubs. I glanced back just once at Mother, her beautiful, wise old eyes glazing over with pain as she nodded me away.
Knowing if I stayed any longer I'd be unable to leave, I took to the wind and galloped away from the den, no, the cave. It was no longer our den. As I ran, feeling my heart tear into pieces, I silently cursed all death. I would find another den, but now, this one was Mother's tomb. How I dreaded telling the children.
I stopped a good distance from the den and collapsed, unable to go on. I barked and yipped in despair. I jumped up, I scattered rocks, I snarled at trees, I dug up the earth and I threw myself down in agony. Then, when I'd bruised myself beyond fast healing, I raised my head and howled long and mournfully into the sky. At that second, I felt a horrible pain inside my heart and then a sudden and terrible emptiness where there had never been one before. I knew right then that Mother was gone, and I was alone.
I forced myself to join my cubs at the kill. I knew that if I could make it to them, I'd be all right. I had to, for San's sake at least. I was all they had left, now.
But as I was heading in that direction, a horrible noise met my ears. It was the sound of a boar's call and combined were the snarls of Kiba and Tsume. But most frightening of all, I could hear San's voice.
And she was screaming.
A/N: Why oh why do I love cliffhangers? (sigh) Oh well. I hope you liked it.