Chapter 1. Akira
It was time. Today was the day. The winter was finally here. This year, the Wolf would be mine. An honour that was only granted every seven years. And this year, it was my time to shine. At least, it was supposed to be.
I vividly remembered the coldness from that day like it'd just happened. The wind had howled as the whole tribe had gathered in half a circle around the ancient altar. The first snow had only fallen yesterday.
The winter was here.
My whole family had respectfully bowed their heads for me as I approached the stone altar. I'd always been the youngest, the forgotten one. But the Guardians had chosen me. And now, finally, it was my turn.
If everything had gone right, I would've gotten my wolf and the Great Wolf would've gotten me. If only.
With the Winter Stone stolen, there was no way the ritual could take place. No ritual, no shift, no Winter Wolf. Simple. Just my luck.
I angrily gritted my teeth at the sour memory and groaned as I felt the straps of my backpack dig deep into my shoulders. If I didn't get over this stupid hillside, I would have to make a two days detour. And two days was a lot of time, time I didn't have.
I dug my bare fingers in the cold snow as I ran up the slippery side screaming as a madman. My feet slipped, snow shrieked, birds fled. But I made it. Exhausted, I fell down on top of the hill and I happily threw a handful of snow into the air. The frustration had been worth it. I mentally patted myself on the back, congratulating myself for shaving off two days of harsh walking.
As I stared at the night sky, it became quite clear that sundown wouldn't be far away. I groaned as I thought about the falling night. When the dark fell, the forest turned from calm to frightening. I needed to hurry because there wasn't much time to set up camp.
I had no time to lie in the snow. I needed to find a clearing, get a fire going, and find suitable branches to set up my tent.
Reluctantly, I heaved the lumpy backpack on my shoulders and orientated myself back towards the East. Step by step, my feet disappeared into the fresh snow as I left a trail behind for nobody.
I insisted that retrieving the Winter Stone was my duty as the next Guardian. I need to prove everyone I did deserve to be chosen. And returning our most valuable possession was my chance. The Elders protested and told me the Winter Stone was too valuable and that its fate shouldn't rest solely in my hands. But when they asked if there was anyone willing to join me, nobody had risen to the occasion.
Instead, a bunch of angry eyes prickled into my back. The same eyes I'd felt since the very moment the Elders announced I would become the next Winter Wolf.
Not that that would happen anytime soon without the Winter Stone. Our ritual was worthless without the ancient magic stowed away in the artefact. Magic that was given to us directly by the Great Wolf, a revered spirit and common ancestor.
So I'd kissed my mother goodbye, hugged my grandparents and left on my journey to the East, deep into enemy territory. There was only one tribe dumb enough to steal the Winter Stone and leave such clear tracks. Yes, without a doubt, the Coyote Clan was behind this. Our distant nephews and long time rivals. They would do anything to spite us and after many attempts, they finally seemed to have succeeded in stealing our most important relic.
With a burning hatred in my chest for the Coyotes, I stomped through the forest with more resolve until I finally found myself at a deserted clearing.
There was a heap of rocks that would more or less protect me from the howling wind and a relatively flat spot where I could sleep without the blood rushing to either my head or toes. Not bad.
I dropped my backpack and with a branch, started sweeping the snow away from the floor, hoping to expose enough terrain for a campfire and my tent. That was the easy task. Finding enough dry wood to get a fire going would prove much more difficult. And not to mention, a sturdy long branch that would support the hides I brought with me. With the whole forest covered in a thick bed of snow, finding dry wood was like finding water in the desert.
It took me close to nightfall to find enough suitable branches and the darkness had fallen before I managed to spark the first bunch of tinder.
A small flame danced in my hands as I carefully fed it more wood, my breathing hitched in my throat as I prayed for the twigs to catch fire. I really didn't want to get caught a whole night in the looming forest with no fire or warmth to protect me.
"Come on," I breathed, shielding the small flame from the icy wind. "Just burn, please."
Relief flooded my chest as the fire spread in my hands and hungrily devoured some of the smaller branches. Ooof. My camp was now accompanied by a warm fire and with my heart at ease, I fell down on a big lump of wood.
From my pack, I conjured a strip of dried elk and with the fire happily dancing away, I chewed on the jerky as it filled my mouth with savoury goodness. The flames were slowly warming up my cold bones and the meat was filling my stomach. Not a bad situation. A small fire, a tent that looked like it could break any moment, and a wooden stump with maggots crawling out of it. Ahhh, home sweet home.
But I smiled. I was alone and there was no one here that could look at me with mean eyes or whisper behind my back. I was sick of hearing I wasn't worthy of having my wolf released.
Not that I blamed them. I wasn't exactly sure why they picked me, even if they were short on candidates There were only four more people in my age group that still had a wolf inside them. We were going extinct. Chances were extremely low that the next generation would still possess wolves. If that was the case, I could very well be the last Guardian of our tribe. I could be the last Winter Wolf. No pressure or something.
But it seemed to have sent my peers in a blind fit of rage. But I could understand that. I'd been passed over the last two times and I felt that rage before. That white hot rage and heavy disappointment. Last time, I assumed it just wouldn't happen for me. I was almost too old. And in seven years, anyone who was passed over, would be as well. Their wolves would be locked inside them for the rest of eternity. A cruel fate.
If I didn't find the Stone, it would be my fate. And my families. Becoming the Winter Wolf wasn't just an honour for you, it was an honour for the whole family. If you shared blood with someone that became a Guardian, your own wolf would be able to the Winter Wolf. You'd be just a little bit stronger, a little bit more connected to anyone and everyone.
So my family rejoiced when they heard the news. My grandparents had embraced each other and tears had flown as their wolves would finally be able to talk to each other after sixty years of marriage. My uncle and my two nephews had come to visit me in deep gratitude. Although my uncle married a human, both his sons had inherited a wolf. Something quite unheard of. But as they were both passed over, their hopes of ever connecting with their wolves disappeared. So when I, the baby of the family, became nominated by the Elders, hope returned to them. When they announced that the Winter Wolf would go to me this year, they howled in happiness.
And I couldn't wait to meet all the wolves in my family, wolves I had been surrounded by from the first breath I took in this world. Wolves that had taken care of me and protected me with all their love. I would finally be able to talk to them. If I worked hard enough, I could even become the bridge between everyone in my family. It would change the face of my family.
But with the Winter Stone stolen, those chances were stolen as well. So I needed to find that stone and bring it back home. Not just for me, but for them.
All I needed to do was cross the dark Aladwin Forest, the one that my grandparents always forbade me from entering because it is so easy to get lost in. And if I somehow made it out of the maze of trees, I needed to cross the vast deserted wasteland that was rumoured to be the home of the Puma, a sly and mysterious creature. And after I made it through the desert, I needed to cross enemy lines, fool all the Coyotes I passed, penetrate their inner city and steal the Winter Stone back. Oh, and of course, get back. And I needed to do it before Spring arrived. Piece of cake.
I groaned loudly. Spring would arrive in less than three months. I was so thoroughly fucked.
If I put the Winter Stone one day too late on the altar, we would all be stuck waiting for another seven years. I would be too old, there were no younger wolves in my family left, so with my failure, any hope for my family would die.
I needed to be successful here. I had no other choice. I just needed to remind myself this was a marathon, not a sprint. I needed to keep my eyes on the prize. Don't stray. Don't do anything stupid. Don't get distracted. Don't die.
I glared at my pack and wondered if I should have another strip of meat or should ration myself. Would eating all my rations now count as something stupid? But as I savoured the taste of the elk in my mouth, I decided I deserved another piece. Marathon, not a sprint, right? I needed energy.
But before I could, a sharp howl cut through the eery night. It would've spooked me, except that I recognised it as unmistakably wolfish.
I threw another glance at my hot fire and as I contemplating staying right where I was, the next howl made me shiver to my bone. This wasn't a regular howl, it was from a wolf in pain. A wolf lost and separated from his pack. A wolf that needed help.
I was help. I could help. I needed to help.