“Long ago in a time when the tiger smoked a pipe,” Seungwan read aloud, resting her cheek against her fist as she began to move her brush down the clean sheet of paper.
She ignored Seulgi who sat before her, clutching the bloody wolf pelt to her shoulders, shivering.
“She told me to come to you. That you’d keep me safe.”
Seungwan her lips slowly, her brush pausing against the pale piece of rice paper. She tilted her head and her eyes were dark against the flicker of candlelight.
“You interrupt the Storyteller as she writes, human?”
Seulgi swallowed, trying to stop her shaking.
“She gave up everything so that I could be here. She considered you her closest friend.”
Seungwan paused, pursing her lips. She slipped off her small spectacles with ease and Seulgi met steely eyes.
“She was one of my dearest friends. Immortals in the mortal world tend to stick together since we’re all we have.”
“I’m, I’m sorry that,” Seulgi paused, trying desperately to contain the tears that burned her eyes. When they trickled down, she could pretend that it was the snow that was still melting in her hair. Seungwan said nothing, watching steadily.
“I always knew that you would kill her.”
Seulgi said nothing, just bowing her head and rubbing away the tears silently.
“If she had just let you be, you'd have been rescued on the road to the Jurchens. The only intersection of your plot lines would have been your first meeting. You would have been an insignificant side plot in her grand story.”
“And she would have been the most important beginning of mine.” Seulgi raised her chin and Seungwan saw a little of Joohyun in the look. It was clear that the last mountain god had raised her.
“You talk back to The Storyteller, girl? Joohyun isn’t here to protect you from any of the wildness outside those doors any longer.”
“She is here. She’ll always be here.” Seulgi gripped the wolf pelt tighter and Seungwan sighed as she carefully placed her brush against her ink stone.
“What is it that you want to do, Kang Seulgi? I could, if you so desire, help you leave this mortal body and ascend to the heavenly realm. Or I could take you back to the land of the humans.”
“What would she have wanted?”
Seungwan hummed as she reached for her pipe in her desk drawer.
“Well, I suppose she would have wanted whatever you wanted.”
“Storyteller, you know how my story ends. You know how all of our stories end.”
Seungwan smiled serenely as she stuffed a pinch of tobacco into the end of the long and thin pipe.
“I suppose I do.”
“Then couldn’t you tell me what I’m supposed to do?”
“It seems you’re in luck, Kang Seulgi.” Seungwan exhaled a stream of unnaturally purple smoke, eyes half lidded like a sleepy cat bathing in warm noon light.
“I was just writing Joohyun’s story. Maybe we could read it together and see what we can learn from it. Perhaps in finishing her story we can find out what we should do with yours.”
Suddenly they both heard the sound of a gunshot and the howl of a wolf.
“That was just the ending, Seulgi-yah. We should start from the beginning with no spoilers.”
Long ago when the tiger smoked a pipe, a little girl was saved by the last mountain god in the forest of ice and snow.
Joohyun tipped her head back, ears pricked for more sounds as a scream died into nothingness. Her breath wreathed around her face like a veil in the cold. The humans would continue their cycle of death and rebirth no matter the season. She had heard these sounds during the sweetest of springs when the flowers of the meadows opened in thick bloom and now she heard them again during the harsh winter when the only smell she could discern was the crisp pine and snow. And now the coppery tang of blood.
She prowled forward, ducking her large head under the low-hanging branches of a tree heavy with the weight of snow. Shaking her dark fur of the bits that clung to her, she watched from her perch on the mountainside. It was the small village at the edge of the forest. Few humans dared to live there due to the stories of the great black hound searching for wandering souls to be dragged down to hell for their punishments before reincarnation. They mistook the lonely howls of a single wolf for a warning from a grim reaper in a wolf’s form.
But the little dwelling off the side of the mountain was for the untouchables who didn’t care about being chased into the afterlife. They were the butchers and hunters who were deemed by humans too dirty and dangerous to live among them.
Black smoke rose from the thatched roofs of the homes. Sometimes Joohyun had watched from her safe distance on the mountain, seeing the human children playing behind the short walls as women in bloody aprons walked side by side with men covered in pelts and holding hunks of raw meat. They stole from Joohyun’s forest with their arrows and their traps and she had been helpless to stop them. As the dynasties had shifted, so too came a shift in believers and sacrifices to nourish the gods of old. Joohyun was lucky she even had a swatch of land to still protect with her small shrine at the mountain’s base. She knew of many gods whose lands had been transformed into timber for homes and fields for crops.
But as she saw the unmoving carcass of one villager, face down and clutching a dead babe to her , she couldn’t quite muster a sneer of contempt as she usually did. She watched as men on horses, cloaked in furs and clutching long swords, rode around the village to continue their pillaging.
She saw one human on a horse chase after a small human child, tripping in a long skirt. Joohyun’s ears pricked forward as she listened to the girl scream in fear as the man easily dismounted, sword in hand. Swallowing, she couldn’t help but prowl forward, edging from her safe distance to more flat ground. By the time she was on the edge of the tree line, the human had the child by her hair, gripping the dark black strands mercilessly.
“We’ll sell you to the Jurchens to the north. They’ll pay handsomely for a pretty girl like you.”
The girl screamed, kicking and thrashing under the man’s grip. Joohyun watched her as she fought, eventually silenced when the man backhanded her so hard that she collapsed onto the snow. Her nose twitched as she smelled the fresh tang of blood.
“The way to the Jurchens is long. The bruise will fade away. We can still get a pretty price for you. Regardless of how immaculate your condition is.”
The human grabbed suggestively at his pants and Joohyun couldn’t help the snarl that ripped from .
The child was still face down in the snow, unmoving, but the human lifted his head and looked into the forest. Joohyun knew the moment he saw her massive form outlined in the tree line by the way his eyes widened.
“S-stay back!” he yelled, brandishing his sword as he stepped away. Joohyun merely prowled forward, her paws sinking into the soft snow. She paused briefly to look at the girl who was still face down and bleeding. Nosing her back, she could feel the little human’s warmth and hear the steady thump of her heartbeat. Joohyun lifted her head and pulled her lips back into a fierce snarl. On four legs she was easily as tall as this man who was now trembling pitifully, his ankles sinking into the thick snow.
“Help!” he yelled once, but by the time the sound echoed in the small valley, Joohyun had already lunged forward, biting into flesh. The human dropped his sword as he tried to pry her off him but Joohyun tore out his throat, jaw bloody. She panted as blood and drool dripped from . Her ears pounded and she could feel the temptation of bloodlust clouding her brain as she saw the small crowd of men on horses start toward her. She eyed the human who was trying to clutch at his neck to staunch the bloody mess but it was no use.
I am the guardian of life and rebirth in this forest, human. I dictate who will live and who will die.
The man’s eyes bulged as he heard the feminine voice boom in his mind. But Joohyun simply padded toward him and pressed her front paws down hard on his chest, cracking several ribs with deadly precision. With that, she left him behind her, gasping for air with his torn-out throat and bloody lungs.
Turning, she made quick work of the remaining men, careful to not hurt the horses who were harmless in the grand scheme of things. She dragged the last human by his shoulder, leaving a bloody trail in the snow. He screamed at her and impaled her upper foreleg with a knife that stung so much she nearly loosened her tight grip on him. Enraged, she snarled and shook him vigorously until she heard his neck snap with the force.
Joohyun panted as she took an unsteady step from the man she had just killed. She at her bloody chops and felt nauseated by what she had done. She had truly become the wraith from the underworld that the villagers had whispered about in the nights when her painful howls were the only thing that kept the loneliness at bay.
She staggered back toward the forest, limping with her still painful knife wound. Pausing, she saw the little girl, still face down in the snow. Glancing back at the village she listened for any heartbeats in the thatched huts. All she heard was silence.
Nudging the child with her nose, she turned her on her back. The little one’s eyes fluttered as she looked up at Joohyun but it was clear she wasn’t exactly awake. Joohyun carefully sniffed her body and realized that her temple was bleeding and reddened with the beginning of a bruise. Had another one of those men thrown her against something during the pillaging?
Joohyun’s mouth curled into a snarl and she glanced back at the bodies littering the field as horses trotted rider-less in the snow melt. She looked back down at the girl and nudged her chest gently with her nose. When she pulled back she stiffened at how she’d covered the whole front of the white shift in crimson.
The child stirred a little but didn’t rise.
Joohyun huffed before opening and carefully gripping the girl's shoulder, pulled her into a sitting position. The human was sitting up at least, head bowed as her fingers began to twitch. Joohyun sniffed at the child's braid which had been pulled messily apart. Even though she was a human, there was still the innocent youth that made it impossible for Joohyun to tear out and leave the massacre behind. There was a wrongness to murdering any living thing, but especially cruel was the killing of creatures that were still not quite grown, in the in-between of just born and fully matured.
Suddenly, a small fist gripped the fur at the nape of Joohyun’s neck. She let out a warning growl, tail swishing behind her nervously. The child collapsed forward, leaning heavily against Joohyun’s broad chest as small fingers dug into her thick fur.
“T-they’re all dead,” she whispered against Joohyun.
Joohyun tensed, unfamiliar with how to comfort a human in grief. In her forest, death and rebirth were as expected as the snow melting in spring. She settled for bending down so that the child could be encased in her warmth.
“Will you kill me too?”
The girl pulled back and looked at her with big brown eyes and Joohyun just stared, feeling trapped in the way the deer must feel when it was pinned by the heavy gaze of a tiger. Instead of speaking, she settled for leaning forward and the blood trickling down the child's face. At the gesture, wetness trickled from her eyes and the girl sobbed, clutching Joohyun closer. Her ears flattened in unfamiliarity at the gesture but the warning growl rumbling in her chest faded away in the icy wind as snow gently fluttered down onto the barren valley.
Joohyun’s fur was clutched against the human’s face for a while, the dark fur on her chest feeling sticky and wet. The girl was trembling the whole while, from the cold or from the unfamiliar pang of newfound loneliness, Joohyun did not know. But then the child suddenly fell backward, lips blue, and Joohyun found her answer.
She paused as she stared down at this strange small girl, watching as the specks of snow gently fell onto her face, dusting her eyelashes and dark hair. Joohyun felt a pang of unfamiliar pity in her chest where she supposed her heart was. With a huff she tilted her head back, preparing for a howl. She’d have to go find the Storyteller.
“When you finally called for me, and it’s been years by the way, you just wanted help disposing of a human?”
Joohyun said nothing as she sat outside the main gate in front of the house, tail curled over her front paws. The human child was inside, visible through a sliver of the open wooden gates. She was sprawled out on the front porch of the main building, being attended to by one of the Storyteller’s assistants. The girl had fainted from a mixture of words that Joohyun did not understand including concussion, shock, and cold exposure.
Seungwan stood tall with her usual pipe in one hand. She took to staying in her human form at all times, preferring the loose-fitting fashion of men’s clothes with wide bell sleeves and flowing silk pants. It meant nothing to Joohyun who simple sniffed at the smells unfamiliar to one who was only clothed in moonlight and snow melt.
“Well? It’s been years. I could use a nice conversation with an old friend. Sooyoung over there is a bit too green for stimulating stuff.”
“I heard that!” yelled the attendant with an irritated huff. Joohyun’s tail twitched in a bit of rare amusement.
“I know you don’t like your human form but I prefer you using your words over doing that strange voice projection thing.”
You mean this?
Seungwan rolled her eyes in exasperation and waved her hand as if the gesture would get rid of the booming words in her head.
“Please for Samshin Grandmother above, don’t do that. It’s creepy.”
Joohyun huffed as she tried to rise to her full height but stumbled, a throbbing pain from the knife still embedded in her forearm.
“And you got hurt, too? What in the Holy Mother’s name is wrong with you? First murdering a whole village of humans and now you’re dragging a child into the world of the Mu.”
I didn’t murder a village! I merely killed the ones who disrupted the peace of the mountain. As is my duty given to me by the Holy Mother and the Sandalwood King.
Seungwan’s mouth pulled down into a frown as she brought her long pipe to her lips and took an elegant inhale.
“Well what do you want to do with the girl? And please answer as a human and not with that scary wolf god voice.”
Joohyun’s lips curled into a snarl at the derision but Seungwan merely stared her down, arching an eyebrow in amusement.
“Do you think a wolf can scare a tiger?”
Joohyun sighed at that, fur on the back of her neck flattening at the words.
Inside then. The human pelt is too weak to survive the coldness of this weather.
“Your long isolation has really improved your manners.”
Joohyun merely flicked her tail in annoyance as she limped forward, past Seungwan and toward the inner courtyard. She paused as she saw Sooyoung gradually warming the girl's body, carefully putting on layers of clothing that had been heated by the furnace.
“Will she live, Sooyoung?”
“I think so. Humans are fragile but she seems hardy enough. She got hit around quite a bit though.”
Joohyun’s growl ripped through her teeth and she began to limp forward but paused. The child turned at the sound and looked at her from across the court yard. She expected fear or anger or some combination of emotion that would make Joohyun flatten her ears. But instead with her small fingers, she gestured for her to come closer. She ignored Seungwan’s guffaw as she padded forward until she was next to the porch, her massive form making Sooyoung tense a little in uncertainty. Joohyun watched as the girl reached forward and brushed a hand against the bloody wound on her foreleg. The whine that escaped from made the human jerk away.
“Are you… alright?”
Joohyun looked curiously at the girl whose eyes were still wet with snow melt. She had never seen that look directed at her before. Who would ever throw concern at a scary beast living on the side of the mountain?
“Come along, mountain goddess. We have some things to discuss!”
Joohyun glanced at Seungwan who was walking toward an adjacent building that she knew was her study.
“G-goddess, after I finish treating the human I can take care of you.”
There is no rush. I have survived far worse than a human’s small blade.
Sooyoung gasped and Joohyun merely dipped her head before glancing at the child. She nosed her forearm gently, letting small fingers dig into her fur once before letting go.
Her name was Seulgi.
Joohyun turned to look up at Sooyoung. She was now in her other form, a woman with her long dark hair hanging loosely down her back and a small stature that hid well the massive wolf who watched over her mountain.
“Seulgi?” Seungwan asked curiously, pulling off her glasses. “A cute name for a cute girl.”
Sooyoung sighed but said nothing, expectantly looking at Joohyun who found herself smoothing out the fabric of her dark blue hanbok.
“What would you like me to tell the girl, Goddess?”
Joohyun hummed, dropping her gaze to settle on the snow piling up steadily in the courtyard. A part of her ached to be out of the thatch and stone of civilization. To be free to run in the snow melt until her breath was visible under the thick scent of pine.
“What is there to tell?”
Sooyoung seemed to be flustered at the steadiness of Joohyun’s gaze, ducking her head with a flush.
“S-she asked for the wolf. Seulgi asked for the wolf and so I was wondering what I should tell her.”
“She wants to see the wolf? Did she seem afraid?”
“No, she seemed worried. Especially about your wound.”
Joohyun glanced down at her arm which had been bandaged. She disliked how itchy the thick white cloth felt against her skin.
"Why would a human worry about me?"
"Because you saved her?"
Joohyun scoffed as she rose to her feet, ignoring the confused glances that Sooyoung and Seungwan exchanged.
"Do what you want with the human. She is no longer my concern."
"I thought you protect everything on your mountain," Seungwan commented glibly, not even making eye contact with Joohyun.
She paused with one hand pressed against the sliding door.
"If the humans can abandon me, then I can abandon them."
Seulgi clutched the wolf pelt on her shoulders tightly against her, no longer shivering. Seungwan slipped off her glasses as twisted in a poor impression of a smile.
“I thought this story was about her life.”
“Then why do you tell me only of the times when I’m in it?”
Seungwan sighed a little and rested her brush against its ink well.
“In a way, you were the beginning of her second life. For so long Joohyun had been despondent in her grief and loneliness. An immortal wasting away at her designated shrine, waiting for the end. But then you came along and put your little hands all over anything.”
Seulgi nodded and Seungwan stared at the woman, the single candle flickering and casting chiaroscuro-like shadows on her face. The way her expression was emotionless save for the twitch of her jaw was all Joohyun. It reminded Seungwan of a wolf tensing to bite. But who could Seulgi lash out to blame but herself?
“Do you wish to hear the rest of the story?”
“It seems I know most of it. I was there the whole time after all.”
“Yes, but just because you remember it all does not make it the whole truth.”
Seulgi hummed and absentmindedly along the fur of the wolf pelt.
“Please. Continue then.”
(Seungwan drops Seulgi off at another butcher village on the outskirts of the mountain. Joohyun sees her from time to time and can't quite stay away.)
Joohyun watched lazily, her tail flicking behind her as the girl tumbled in the meadow. Springs were short on her mountain, more of an intermediary between winter and summer. But Seulgi seemed to delight in the warmth on the mountainside stretching out her arms and staring up at the big blue sky. Joohyun tipped her head back and looked at the fluffy clouds curiously, wondering what exactly it was about them that captivated the small human.
Joohyun rose to her paws, the wound from winter still burning slightly. She may be a god but she was no miracle worker. Hopefully by the next winter, the ache would fade.
She ambled closer to the girl and looked down at her, muzzle close to the round face. Hands reached up and the fur on the sides of her jaw tentatively.
“Can I give you a present?”
Joohyun’s ear twitched and she sat back on her hind paws. Seulgi rolled onto her stomach, grabbing something that was hidden in the thick grass.
“Close your eyes, please.”
Wagging her tail in curiosity, Joohyun closed her eyes at the request. She heard the child grab something and step gingerly closer until she was right in front of her.
“Could you lean down a little?”
Joohyun huffed but leaned forward, letting the girl put something on her head. When she opened her eyes, Seulgi was grinning at her, eyes disappearing into happy crescents.
“I made you a flower crown.”
Joohyun shifted, feeling soft petals brushing against her ears. Normally she would shake the crown off her head in irritation. A god should not be taking part in such childish play. But the little child was looking at her with a smile and those warm hands dug into the thick fur of her neck.
“You look very pretty, my Lady.”
Seulgi smiled at her and Joohyun responded by simply leaning forward and nuzzling her temple.
She turned from Seulgi to glance behind her, surprised to see Seungwan in a gaudy colored hanbok. Behind her was Sooyoung, lugging wrapped parcels of clothes and bound books with both arms with a dour expression twisting .
“We’re just about packed to leave. Hello, Seulgi!”
The human looked up at Seungwan with a smile, hurtling forward with a flower crown in hand.
“Seungwan-nim, I made you something.”
Seungwan smiled as she bent down and let Seulgi happily put the clumsy wreath on her head.
“None for Sooyoung? I think she’d very much like one.”
Sooyoung shot Seungwan an exasperated glance that was conscientiously ignored.
Joohyun sighed, examining the fur trim on her sleeve.
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“You miss the human. Seulgi.”
“I’m an immortal goddess who has guarded this forest since the beginning. I do not feel loneliness.”
Seungwan rolled her eyes, putting down her brush with an irate clack.
“This is the second time you’ve visited me. In one week! I come up here for the winter months to get inspiration and isolation and you certainly aren’t helping me.”
“You complained earlier that I didn’t visit enough.”
“Balance is important. You can’t just inundate me with all of your love and affection so suddenly. It can overwhelm and smother.”
Joohyun sullenly chewed on her bottom lip.
“Why don’t you visit the human if you miss her so much?”
“I don’t miss her. She said she wanted to see more of the world so she left. It's what humans do!”
“Well she went to Hanyang, right? You could always visit your old sea god friend that lives off Ganghwa Island. See Seulgi on the way back?”
“It's been years, Seungwan. Who knows if she's still in Hanyang.”
Seungwan glanced at Joohyun and smiled.
“You never really know how lonely you are until your company is taken away from you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You’ve always had a soft spot for the humans, you know. Back in the old days when they still believed in you, you’d visit them as a human. Don’t you remember the legend of the beautiful lady who would help lost travelers reach the Baekdu peak?”
“But after a thousand years they no longer remember. My shrine has no offerings. The shamans have stopped coming. Now the humans only come to the mountain to take and not to give.”
Joohyun sighed as she glanced out the window, watching the snow flutter down. Perhaps she had liked how the human had always toddled over to her and expected nothing in return. The past few years had been an unexpected distraction for her enduring existence.
“I envy you sometimes, Seungwan. I don't think you ever loved the humans as much as I did.”
The woman glanced up in surprise at the admission and saw that Joohyun’s eyes glistened with unshed tears.
(years have passed and seulgi returns skilled with a bow. the next few years joohyun and seulgi relearn who they are in each other's lives at the dawn of a war brewing on the peninsula)
Seulgi suddenly came into view and Joohyun couldn’t help the pride in seeing the human childgrown. She’d been so small and weak, quick to cry and slow to defend herself. But now she was before her, a bow and quiver strapped to her back as she moved with the litheness of a huntress. A wolf, Joohyun thought proudly.
“I come with an offering for the goddess of the mountain,” Seulgi announced with a big smile. At the sound of her voice, Yerim popped her head out from behind the small shrine, practically throwing her thatch broom off to the side.
“I hope you have something for the shrine maiden! The goddess has been making me eat venison for days.”
Joohyun rolled her eyes before turning to smile back at Seulgi who was before her with a large wrapped parcel hugged to her chest.
“How have you been, Joohyun-nim?”
Joohyun’s mouth simply ticked upward at the question, taking in the warmth from the other woman’s smile.
Seulgi ran a gentle thumb along the slope of Joohyun's cheekbone.
"You're so beautiful."
Joohyun said nothing as she stared at this strange human before her who had lost her family, her home, and now her country to the flame and smoke of the invaders from across the sea. Did Seulgi feel as empty as Joohyun felt on those cold nights when there was nothing left but the snow melt and pine?
"Do you know," Joohyun asked suddenly, pushing Seulgi onto her back so that the other woman was vulnerable with her neck bared, "where I got my human name from?"
"Mm. Thousands of years ago when people visited my shrine, there was a traveling student who heard that a sip from Mount Baekdu's waters would help him pass his test to become a scholar for the king's court. I took him up to the peak as a guide and as a reward he gave me my human name."
Seulgi frowned as Joohyun began to tug at the front of her shift.
"Why did you keep it? You have so many names."
Joohyun's smile turned a little bitter as she gazed into the innocent naivete shining in Seulgi's eyes. It glittered like galaxies of hopeful stars.
"Humans have given me very little when I have not asked. But that name was one of the only things that was given to me freely without having to ask."
"What else have you been given freely?"
Joohyun her lips and pressed against the curve of Seulgi's jaw.
"You," she breathed out, the word trembling in like a declaration of love.
Seulgi cradled Joohyun’s head in her lap, the soft hair that she had played with as a child. She tried to ignore the blood soaking into her lap, a warmth she hated in the freezing winter winds.
“Seulgi,” Joohyun whispered weakly, the human voice a little unfamiliar in the years she had tried to stay as a wolf as the tide had turned against the immortals of the Mu.
“Save your strength. Please. I just need a moment and then I can carry you the rest of the way down the mountain.”
The goddess turned a little so that she could look up at Seulgi with a bloody smile.
“You should save your strength instead of trying to save me.”
“Joohyun-nim, please don’t- please don’t say things like that!”
“Don’t cry.” A warm hand brushed at the swell of Seulgi’s cheek and she let out a shuddering sob.
“I can save you! I can get you to Seungwan-nim and-”
“It’s too late, Seulgi-yah. Did you know why I hid what the Sandalwood King told me from you?”
Seulgi stilled, the words making her feel colder than the winter winds swirling around them.
“It’s because it would have hurt you. But the era of the gods and those who worship them is gone. Now is the time for gunpowder and borders. Chosun will waste away with the malaise that has eaten at her for centuries and be replaced by the sin of betrayal and bloodshed.”
“No, but that means… That means that you wouldn’t be able to protect the mountain any longer.”
Joohyun’s eyes fluttered a little and Seulgi’s hand stopped the other woman’s wrist from falling. The gesture made her eyes widen and they stared at each other.
“The Sandalwood king cannot protect me or this forest any longer, Seulgi. Trying to save me is pointless.”
“Don’t you dare say that! You can’t tell me what is and isn’t worth saving,” Seulgi stubbornly bit out as her eyes filled with tears. She tried to turn Joohyun on her side so she could continue carrying her on her back but the other woman gently resisted, stopping her with a hand on Seulgi’s shoulder.
“Dear one, you cannot save me. But I wish to save you.”
Seulgi turned, the tears trickling down her cheeks freely. Joohyun pressed a bloody hand against her neck, holding them both steady.
“Take… my pelt. Use it for warmth to get to the next mountain. Seungwan is there. If she sees my fur on your shoulders she will protect you from these men with guns.”
“N-no I won’t go without you! I can’t you’re my… you’re my everything.”
Joohyun let out a labored breath as she swayed forward, resting her forehead against Seulgi’s collar bone.
“My life is bleeding from me and it won’t stop, Seulgi. I’ve taught you the cruelty of this forest. You know that when a creature bleeds and bleeds it must die. But I will not trap you in this fate of mine.”
Seulgi whimpered as she clutched at Joohyun tightly, weeping into the other woman’s hair that was for once loose at her shoulders. It was a little wild and untamed with rare knots and tangles. Usually Seulgi would have brushed Joohyun’s hair until it shone with not a gnarl to be seen.
“Why do you make me do the cruelest thing? You would ask me to cut your flesh and take from you again?”
“You… you were the only one who asked nothing of me in my millennia of life, Kang Seulgi.” Joohyun shifted as she let out a painful moan. It was getting harder to move with the wound aching against her ribs.
“All I did was take from you! When I first met you I made you take care of me and that’s all you’ve done my whole life. You’ve given and given and all I’ve done is take and take. Why must this thief take the last thing you could give, the fur on your back?”
“Everything you have taken I have given willingly. I give you my flesh so that it can save you from the one thing I cannot protect you from. This love of mine may be cruel, Kang Seulgi, but it is my last selfish wish that you see many more moons under this sky.”
Seulgi laughed wetly, pulling back a little so that she could look at Joohyun again. The other woman’s skin was almost the color of the snow that surrounded them. The paleness frightened Seulgi but she felt that in the goddesses’ last moments she must be brave.
“I will do what you ask, Joohyun-nim. If you cannot live then I will live for you.”
The other woman’s eyes filled with tears, hearing the quiet sadness in Seulgi’s broken acceptance. It was the cruelest thing to make Seulgi, a child with nothing in this world but the snowmelt and the furs on her back, kill the one thing that loved her.
Joohyun answered with a small smile and she leaned forward pressing warm lips against the corner of Seulgi’s mouth. She nuzzled a little into the side of her face before suddenly dropping onto her back and before Seulgi was the large wolf that had became immortalized in her memory. Her first memory of the large heroic beast who had saved her from the treachery of marauders was now weakly prone on her back with a gaping wound.
And she remembered together with the fallen goddess a time and place that was edged with grey when small fingers wove a sloppy flower crown for the last god of snowmelt and pine. The air then smelled fresh like sunshine and the shadow of the years to come was distant. Fruitlessly, Seulgi had dared to hope for something in her future with this strange and wonderful creature. And selfishly Joohyun had let her.
The amber eyes of the wolf captured hers one last time.
I am sorry. And thank you.
The great wolf held her gaze for a few more seconds, trying to say more than words ever could. Seulgi reached forward and buried her hands into the scruff of the wolf’s fur. And then those amber eyes fluttered closed and the last of the mountain gods slumped to her side.
“Humans are the cruelest of creatures, Seungwan. They tie you to the them with a smile and the words I love you. Why must they trap us in such conniving ways?”