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“I Am Brahkis” Episode 6

The Adventures of an Intellectual Barbarian

I feel uneasy descending the Spirit Shaman’s hill in what now seems a deeper darkness. His words about kinship with the wolves stick with me, though they provide little comfort when I hear the howls rising again in the distance. At least they no longer sound so close.

It doesn’t escape me that Yorilis declined to help in my search. Is this because he is testing my resolve and ingenuity, or because he has no personal stake in whether the son of his Chieftain dies? Neither would surprise me.

Three quarters of the way down the hill I pause and smell the air. Perhaps I can catch a scent that will help lead me in the proper direction. The wind carries nothing I can recognize beyond the subdued fragrance of the long grasses under my feet. In the stillness of my smelling, however, a familiar caw reaches my ears and draws my attention to a pile of cairn stones.

On top of them stands a grackle, and I can’t help but wonder at the coincidence. There is no way this could be the same bird that guided my path through the spider-infested wood a few days ago, though. Nature has a fondness for playing tricks on the weary.

And yet, with no other answers, I deign to ask him, “So which way should I go?”

The grackle takes off north, heading into the cover of trees that lay beyond the hill, and I laugh at myself as I begin to follow. A shallow mist is rising along the base of the hill, and I feel the air grow colder as I descend, though I have not come far. Perhaps the weather is changing.

As I reach the bottom of the hill I look to my right as the north side of the hill comes into view. It is littered with stacks upon stacks of stones, marking the graves of my ancestors, and the mist hangs heavier upon them than the side I descended. My heart skips a beat as I allow a moment of superstition to creep across my logical mind – what if the mists clinging to the stones are the ghosts Yorilis warned me of?

I shake off the notion, which admittedly doesn’t seem far-fetched to me now that I am actively hoping a bird will take me to the growing site of snowbell blossoms, simply because I will it. I pause before entering the thicket, looking for another glimpse of the grackle. Absent, I enter nonetheless.

I pick through the undergrowth as best I can, but with little moon or starlight penetrating the canopy, it is slow business. Branches and vines of thorns scrape my exposed skin to a burning redness, and my own footsteps are too noisy for me to hear the flitting of wings. It claims a serious effort to progress even a stone’s throw from the edge of the thicket, and I am regretting my lack of prudent strategy.

A little deeper still, I am forced to stop walking in order to remove a particular prickly plant that has impaled my left bicep. Without the harsh crunching of my steps to mask it, I hear a softer padding of wild feet behind me. When I turn, at first all I can see are the eyes, but they are joined shortly by the ghostly white of bared fangs and a threatening, low growl. One of the wolves is stalking me, and I know there must be others, unseen, not far from our position.

I try to move slowly, removing the thorns and looking desperately for a clearing wide enough to make a stand, should the beast come for me. My head swivels constantly from the stalking wolf to the path ahead, which remains choked by brush and a fallen tree trunk. The grackle calls out from somewhere ahead, but I am ready to curse him, wondering if this was a trap of his making. My reason continues its retreat in the face of danger.

I make it to the trunk, but the wolf is still following and growling, and then I hear them – two more howls from close, somewhere hidden by the brush on either side. They are closing in for the kill.

Then, the most amazing thing happens. A gathering of mist, no larger than my body, slithers like a snake along the ground from the direction I came, past the threatening wolf, until it reaches me. The mist winds around me in a spectral embrace and a chill passes through, first frightening then leaving me calm. A thought, unbidden though spoken in my own voice, repeats in my mind: You are the wolf.

I close my eyes and summon it to my imagination. I see the wolf following me and realize he is not tracking me in order to do me harm, but because he is my shadow – a living extension of my soul. I feel the thrill of the hunt and the urge to call my kin welling up inside me. The growling stops and I open my eyes. Both the mist and the wolf are gone.

The call of the grackle reminds me of my quest, and I once again follow, my faith in his guidance restored. I am astounded by what just happened, but don’t want to cancel my good fortune with an immediate search for explanations.

Another few moments of fighting through the brush and I see it – a dappling of moonlight ahead where the trees are not so thick. My heart dares to hope that my luck is holding up. At last I reach the clearing, walking as softly as I can manage so as not to disrupt the fabric of what might just be a dream.

I am not the first to enter the glade, though. On the far side of the clearing, holding a small basket of snowbell blossoms in the crook of her elbow, stands a woman, moonlight reflecting off her iridescent skin.

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