Thank you all for reviewing. ;w; Including the guests because I can't thank them through PM, only on here. Seriously, you have no idea how grateful I am. I get more excited over seeing one review for this story than ten reviews for my other one. Ha! I have issues...
Ooh, this is a longer chapter! And a good one. :)
Tuskle must have started the rituals after that, because Oki could remember nothing. One second he was lying on the floor of the hut; the next, his paws were freed and he could feel wind sifting through his fur. He was strolling through a thick forest. Mist lay low among the trees, causing him to feel as if he were walking on clouds.
Perhaps the exorcism had failed. Perhaps they had already dumped him off in Yoshpet, and this was his new home. For some reason, he couldn't remember why this had happened or who had caused it.
Oh well. All that mattered right now was the touch of the breeze and the snow beneath his paws. He trod on through the thick mist, leaving behind the familiar scents of home, venturing into the unknown. He briefly wondered how far the mist stretched into the forest, but then he decided it didn't matter. He would follow it until the end.
Suddenly, something darting among the trees caught his eye. He stopped where he was, looking around warily. He flared his nostrils, but the mist filled his nose, making his head feel fuzzy. Spots appeared on his vision and for a moment, he thought he would collapse.
A high-pitched yip brought him back to his senses. He turned to see a chestnut brown wolf bounding away into the forest. White markings ranged along her lithe body. Two tiny antlers poked up on either side of her head, making it seem as if she had two sets of ears.
A feeling of déjà vu swept over Oki. He felt like he had been here before, rushing through the forest with this brown wolf. Abandoning the mist, he gave into curiosity and began to pursue her.
She was most certainly faster, always seeming to be one step ahead of him. He struggled to keep up. A few times, he thought he had lost her, but then he would see her bushy brown tail whipping around a tree trunk or disappearing into the brush. The more he chased her, the closer he came to catching her.
He was nearly upon her when she slipped into a cluster of bushes, disappearing among the greenery. Oki burst in after her, expecting to find her hiding among the leaves. Instead, he found himself standing in a clearing with no sign of her to be found. At the center of this clearing stood a tall, metallic structure with strange markings on it.
With a small jolt, everything came rushing back to Oki. He was in Yoshpet. Kai had just led him to the Spirit Gate. Tuskle was trying to exorcise the curse out of him. Had it worked? He faintly recalled the others saying they would leave him in Yoshpet if she failed. But he wasn't a demon-he was still himself. Wasn't he? He had never felt more confused.
Kai suddenly appeared from behind the Spirit Gate, still in her wolf form. She stepped forward, touching her nose to Oki's. "I'm glad you came." She breathed, her green eyes bright and friendly.
"Kai. I'm so sorry I forgot who you were," Oki said shamefully, "I can't believe I let this curse get the better of me…I am not worthy to be called a warrior."
"But you're so much more!" Kai rumbled, circling Oki and brushing her pelt against his. The touch of it was comforting and familiar, somehow. "Come on, Oki. Let's leave the tribe. They abandoned you...but I won't. No one will ever find us here. No one knows this forest as you and I do."
Oki stiffened. That sounded odd, coming from Kai's mouth. "What about Lika?" He said, suspicion clouding his mind.
Kai didn't answer. She looked like a fox caught in a trap.
Oki sighed. "This is a dream." It was a relief to finally figure it out. It meant Tuskle was still fighting the battle for him.
He turned his attention back to the Spirit Gate. Even if it was a dream, he felt that he needed to go through there for some reason. It was pulling him in. Closing his eyes, he willed his sword to appear on his back. He could feel it materialize into existence and weigh him down slightly. Then he removed it, preparing to slice the rock down the middle to open the gate.
"Oki, stop!" Kai yowled, digging her claws into the hard ground, "Please, don't go. Stay here with me!"
Oki ignored her, putting all of his strength into opening the gate. With a neat slice, the metal slabs parted. A shimmering light emanated from the gate. Oki took a step towards it.
"Oki." A chilling voice stopped him in his tracks.
He turned to see Kage standing where Kai had stood only moments before. His snout was curled with glee. The corners of his lips always seemed to push up a little bit too far, making his smile appear unnatural. It chilled Oki to the bone.
"You're not going to break my curse," He said in a silky smooth voice, "Soon, you'll be a fully-fledged demon under my control. Nothing can save you, not even the power of a god."
Oki shot him a glare, tempted to leap on him and rip his throat out. But he knew in his heart that Kage was just trying to keep him from going through the gate. Even in dreams, the demon was a hindrance. "Don't underestimate the power of the gods." He declared in a powerful voice.
He saw the smile drop off the demon wolf's face. Before he could say another word, Oki turned and charged into the light. The heavy doors shut behind him with a sort of finality. The dull sound echoed in Oki's ears, then faded. Squinting against the bright light, he gazed around the realm he had entered. The last time he had gone through the Spirit Gate, he had ventured 100 years into the past. But this was a dream. He hadn't the faintest idea of what would happen next.
A treacherously familiar voice nearly caused Oki's heart to stop. But it wasn't Kai or Kage speaking to him this time. No. It was a voice that dug up all of those painful memories he had tried to suppress from six months ago.
"Amaterasu. Greetings." Oki turned and bowed his head low, refusing to look the white wolf in the eye. He feared to gaze upon her, dreading the flood of emotion her image would bring.
"Oki, look at me."
He gritted his teeth at her commanding tone. There would be no getting out of this.
Oki slowly lifted his eyes to gaze upon the goddess. Heartbreak shook him to his roots when he saw her. She was as beautiful as ever. Her red markings were more accented than before and a flowing white mane ringed her neck. Fire burned on her back, not just orange, but all colors of the rainbow. She looked just like the legendary wolf Shiranui, when he had met her all those moons ago. A memory of Shiranui covered in blood flashed through his mind and he shook his head to clear it.
Amaterasu's dark eyes gleamed in the light of their surroundings and a playful smile stole across her face. "You never treated me with this much respect when I was on Earth!" She accused in a good-natured tone, stepping forward and head-butting him in the chest.
Oki just stood there, numb. Suddenly, everything felt like it was falling into place once more. Like she had never left at all. "If this is a dream, I don't ever want to wake up." He said, stepping forward and burying his face into Amaterasu's neck, drawing in her scent.
"It's not a dream. Not quite," Amaterasu said, pulling away. Her expression was grave, a look that didn't seem to suit her mischievous self. "It's a vision…I've seen what's happening to you, Oki. Tuskle can't break the curse. Even now, she is trying to free you, but it's all in vain. At this rate, all will be lost."
"But you're here now." Oki said quickly, almost excitedly, "You can free me!"
Amaterasu shook her head sadly. "Physically, I am not here. I must remain in The Heavens, where I will stay for eternity."
Oki took a step back, eyes widening. Eternity? "Then all hope is lost for me." He said fearfully.
"No," Amaterasu said sharply, "It is not. Leave Kamui; go to the village that was once threatened by Orochi. It is where I began my journey and it is where you will end yours."
Her image began to fade.
"Wait!" Oki said, dashing forward to touch her one last time. But his paw passed right through her sparkling white coat. "Don't leave." He begged, "It's not worth living, without you here. Please take me with you!"
"I can't do that." Amaterasu said sorrowfully, as she disappeared into the light, "I wish I could, but I cannot. I'm sorry, Oki."
His scarlet eyes were wide with grief. The light hurt to look at, but he withstood the pain, willing Amaterasu to come back. But she did not.
Instead, everything plunged into darkness.
Oki gave a loud yelp as he woke from his sleep. It died in his throat, as his jaws were still held in place by the tightly wound rope. Heart beating uncontrollably, he lifted his aching head and looked around.
He found himself alone in the hut. Tuskle had finally given up her quest to save him. But it didn't matter anymore; Amaterasu had restored his memories. He knew what he had to do. By the spirits of the air, earth, and sea, he would fight this curse and return to his former glory!
With a roar, Oki parted his jaws, forcing them open as far as they could go. The rope held tight, digging into his skin, but the thought of his goddess gave him strength. He broke through it, blood scattering from the cuts in his snout. Immediately, he bit into the ropes that bound his legs, easily chewing through those.
His muscles groaned in protest as he forced himself to his feet. He tried to focus on becoming a human. The transformation would refresh him and heal his wounds.
But nothing happened. It was as if he were locked in this body. The wolf body, with its teeth and claws, suited the needs of a demon more than any human body ever could. He shook off a sense of foreboding that enveloped him and limped towards the door. It was shut securely; the window next to it, however, was not.
Bunching his haunches together, Oki prepared to leap through the shutters and into the outside world. Just when he was about to do so, the door opened and there stood Kai and Tuskle.
"Oki!" Kai shrilled, shocked to see him up and about.
At the same moment, he jumped, ramming through the shutters and out into the cold. As soon as he hit the ground, he took off running. There was no time to explain. He couldn't risk being captured by his tribe and tied up once more. He had to get to the village Amaterasu described. The one that had been plagued by Orochi in legend.
"Get Samickle!" He heard Kai shriek over the sound of the wind.
Snow pelted his face, flattening his fur. A blizzard was setting in, but it did little to affect the rush of adrenaline that warmed his system. He hadn't felt this alive in a long time. Heart pulsing with excitement, he dashed out of the village. On the way, he passed little Lutra, who was dancing around a snowman.
"Oki, let's make snowballs sometime!" He called after the wolf as he zoomed past.
"Later!" Oki barked, sprinting out of Wep'keer and down the bridge the merchant made his shop by.
"Hey Oki!" The rather fat wolf shouted when he saw him, "It's freezing out! Get over here and buy something!"
"Oki!" A high-pitched howl sounded over the wind. He would recognize that voice anywhere.
"Sounds like Kai wants you. Hey, where you going? Come back! Come back and buy something!" The merchant called after him.
Oki tried to double his speed. Kai was a good deal faster than him. He had to lose her. Lungs burning with fatigue, he plowed through the snow, ignoring the sting in his soft pads. He journeyed down the frozen river, and then took a left in the road that led to his old hut, the one he had occupied during the Twin Demons' reign.
As he passed by the run-down house, he briefly considered hiding in it. But Kai would know to look for him there. Besides, the mountain tunnel that led to the South was not far off now. He was almost there.
The blizzard suddenly picked up. The wind howled and the falling snow obscured his vision, until he could only see a few feet on front of him. The muscular wolf slowed his pace, panting raggedly. The cold bit into his lungs, leading him to cough uncontrollably. The pain that wracked his chest was so terrible, he had to stop and control it.
His vision blurred. He suddenly felt weak and light-headed. Was this part of the curse? Or had he just been too foolish, coming all the way out here?
Rage flashed through his system, stiffening his joints. To his dismay, a snarl forced its way out of his lips. But he had nothing to feel angry at. He shook his head, trying to clear it.
Stomping a foot, he declared, "The mighty hero Oki will not be possessed by a mere demon!"
"Is that so?" A bored voice replied.
Oki's ears shot up in surprise. Kage leisurely came strolling out of the curtain of snow, his broad head held high. He stopped a few paces in front of the blue wolf and sat down in the snow, tail waving a greeting.
Oki expected to feel that awful demonic ferocity take hold of him, but it didn't. Instead, he felt quite calm in Kage's presence. Oki gritted his teeth and the skin around his nose wrinkled in discontent. It was because of the curse. Kage had possessed him and now he was instinctively starting to accept him as his alpha.
Kage let out a delighted laugh, as if he could read Oki's thoughts. He stood up and began circling the young Oina warrior. "Wonderful. It's taking longer than I initially perceived, but I think my curse is finally starting to set in, don't you?"
"You will pay for this with your life, you foul demon." Oki snarled softly, glowering at Kage.
"Will I?" Kage said, once again taking a seat in front of Oki. He lifted an ice-packed paw and began to gnaw on it, looking unconcerned. "Then go right ahead."
Every instinct told Oki to attack Kage and rip his heart out, but an invisible string held him back. His limbs quivered, but he couldn't force them into action. At his hesitation, Kage threw back his head and howled with laughter.
"You should see the look on your face! Ahh, but don't worry, Oki. When I said I'd let you run on my right flank, I meant it. I'll take good care of you when you're a—"
The invisible string snapped. Silent and deadly, Oki sprang forward and rammed his skull into Kage's snout, cutting off his words. Blood spurted from the dark wolf's nose and he let out a yelp of pain. In retaliation, he dug his fangs into Oki's scruff and forced him to the ground.
Oki tried to fight, but his body suddenly went limp with defeat.
"That's right," Kage growled through a mouthful of red fur, "Kneel! I'm your alpha now."
"I have no alpha!" Oki spat.
Kage's eyes glittered. "You can keep trying to fight this curse, Oki. But you won't win. You can be sure of that."
Pain seared through Oki's body, so sudden and intense that he blacked out.
When he came to, the blizzard had calmed and Kage was gone. Bright red droplets of blood speckled the snow around him, but he wasn't sure whom it belonged to. He felt weak all over, his heart throbbing dully in his chest. Each pulse sent a wave of pain shooting through his body. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block it out. It didn't do him any good.
Is this what death felt like? Or was this the final stage of the curse?
Regret washed over him and he felt like crying for the first time in moons. He didn't want it to end like this. He wanted to die in battle, like some noble hero. Not like this…
The great blue wolf became still, his eyes closed. White flakes of snow drifted down lazily from above, covering him in a soft blanket. He didn't bother to shake them off. He was numb to the cold.
I was a fool. Oki thought sullenly, reflecting on the life he had led, Back then, I thought the most important thing was spilling the blood of evildoers. Why didn't I realize what truly mattered until it was too late?
Memories he had tried so hard to repress forced their way back into his hazy mind. He saw the image of a beautiful white wolf standing on a frozen ark. She was gazing down at the earth beneath her, looking at it for what would be the last time. Sheltered in the surrounding trees, Oki had secretly watched her departure. When the ark started to close, taking her with it, he abandoned his hiding place and bounded forward. He wanted to tell her goodbye…but she was already gone.
Something stirred within him that night. An unexplained grief.
And that was when he knew.
She was the one that had always mattered. He had fought alongside her and marveled at her strength. She had shared his defining moments with him and taught him what it truly meant to be a warrior. And in that short span of time, something had bloomed between them. At first he didn't see it, but now…thinking of her…
Why?! His mind cried out, another spasm of pain coursing throughout his body. If only I could see her one last time! So that I could tell her…tell her that I…
Oki's heart leapt in surprise. Kai! She couldn't be here. It was too dangerous. Oki tried to move, to get up and warn her, but he was too weak. The snow had frozen him in its icy grip.
"Oki!" Kai cried out, rushing towards him in her human form. "What happened? Please be all right…!"
Oki couldn't even find the strength to speak. He flicked an ear to acknowledge her presence, to show her that he was indeed all right. Still, she wrapped her arms around him, trying to clear the snow away and warm him with her body. Don't! Oki wanted to yowl; I don't want to hurt you!
"Speak to me, Oki, speak to me…" Kai whispered, running her hands through his thick fur. He could barely muster a whimper. "Come back to my hut. I'll take care of you."
That wasn't any guarantee they wouldn't tie him up again. Oki shook his head and managed a soft growl through clenched teeth.
"Please…!" Kai faltered, on the verge of tears. "I want to help you, Oki."
"You can't help me!" Oki snarled suddenly, that dark power within him giving him the strength to stand. He went light-headed with nausea at the sudden movement, but he managed to stay on his feet. His fur bristled with rage. He wanted to sink his teeth into Kai's throat, to tear out those beautiful green eyes glazed with concern.
She shrunk away from him, shaking with fear. Only then did he realize how terrifying he must have looked. The Oina warrior took several shaky breaths, trying to calm himself as best as he could. The fire within him died down, but it was only stifled—next time it would surely rise up even stronger than before.
"It's not safe to be near me." He told Kai, looking away shamefully. Acknowledging his predicament was even more painful than he could have imagined. To say those words that sealed his fate. He had truly become what he had feared and hated for all of his life. A demon.
"Turn back into a human," Kai begged, changing the subject, "You won't be like this if you're a human, I'm sure of it."
"I can't." Oki sighed.
"Yes you can! Just try—"
"I can't." Oki repeated, his voice taking on a dangerous timbre.
Kai didn't respond. Though she wore her mask, it was easy to tell that she was crying. The air was thick with her grief. Oki couldn't stand to be near her any longer. He turned and began to limp away.
"Where are you going?" Kai called after him.
"I'm leaving." Oki panted, without turning around. He could see the gaping hole in the mountain ahead of him. That was where he needed to go. There was no time to lose.
"Don't!" Kai shouted, getting up and running after him. "When will you learn that this is where you belong? You can't leave, Oki! I know things have been hard on you, but…but…Amaterasu is not coming back!"
Those words, plain and cold, pierced Oki's heart like a knife. He expected the rage to seize him once more, but all he felt was unbearable emotional pain. It was enough to stop him in his tracks, letting Kai know she had hit a weak spot.
"She's a goddess," Kai went on, her voice breaking, "It's time you stopped living in the past. Everyone cares about you, Oki, and we just want to help. Even before this curse, you…your behavior…" She trailed off.
Oki shot a glare at her over his shoulder. "What?" He said, his voice cold.
"How you've been behaving…it worries us. It worries me." Kai added in a quieter voice.
"Why do you care so much?" Oki growled, his eyes narrowed with defiance.
"Isn't it obvious?" Kai said, lowering her head. "It's because I love you."
He knew it all along. He just refused to acknowledge it. He thought maybe, maybe if he were careful not to lead her on, she would drop the issue. But it hadn't been enough. It was never enough.
"I don't deserve you." Oki muttered, trying to let her down easy, but the words sounded foolish. He didn't deserve her, yet he longed to be with a goddess? Kai must have realized this; she didn't respond.
"Come back to the village with me. We'll heal you." She said instead, holding out her hand, "It's time to let go of the past."
A flash of his old stubborn spirit pulsed within the Oina warrior. He bared his teeth and snarled, "I'll never let go of the past."
Summoning his last scrap of strength, he bolted away from the girl who loved him so dearly. As he plowed a path through the snow, he could scent her following him in her wolf form. How many times would he have to break her heart in order to protect her?! He skidded to a halt and turned around to face her.
Kai stopped in her tracks, a few paces behind him. She stood there breathlessly, a glimmer of hope lighting up her eyes as if she thought Oki had changed his mind. If only that were true. But giving up and going back to the village wasn't going to help him now. He had to go—even if he had to hurt her to do so.
"It's never been you, Kai. Never." Oki said, trying to mask his sorrow, "It's always…it's always been her."
At this, Kai stumbled a few steps back, as if he had struck her. With a high-pitched whimper, she lay down in the snow and buried her face into her paws. Oki could no longer stand the sight of her. He turned and ran away, as fast as his legs could carry him. He entered the tunnel into the mountains, embarking on the path that would take him far away from the snow-covered landscape of Kamui.
As he ran, he heard a faint sound. It filled the tunnel and echoed all around him, ringing in his ears.
It was the sound of a wolf, giving forth a howl consumed with grief and longing.