When Avalik and her very first Tokota set out to begin the completion of her Rites of Dominance, she expected to get into (and out of) some scrapes here and there. An entire month surviving in the wilderness, and in the middle of winter? Surprises were bound to happen. Though to some degree, she thought to herself as she stood beneath the pine in the shadows, she supposed she expected the majority of it: falling into the frigid river, check; not having packed enough food because math is hard, check; seeing the most beautiful auroras, sunrises and sunsets she could otherwise never dream of, check. What she did not expect was the moose. It came crashing through the trees on the slope above them and landed gruffly in the snow, an impressive rack adorning its mounded head, and boy, it was big. Capital B-I-G, BIG.
She had nearly jumped out of her skin upon its sudden arrival. That was just another surprise. But the fact that it wasn’t leaving--that was the biggest surprise.
It stood between them, head hung low under the weight of its antlers, steam pluming from its nostrils in a vented rush with every heavy breath. On any other day, in any other place, under any other circumstances, Avalik would have reveled in this beast’s beauty, admiring its rich pelt and the concave and convex curves of its form, describing pounds upon pounds of muscle that powered it to plow its way through snow and trees.
But today was their last day in the mountains. Tomorrow they were supposed to go home. And Avalik knew Mother Nature, or Aippaq--whomever--would throw absolutely anything at them to stop them. It just wasn’t meant to be.
She looked past the moose at the Tokota. A Toki. A dwarf. Named for not being quite the real deal. Almost’s hackles were raised higher than she’d ever displayed in her life. Her black lips pulled back in a vicious snarl at the bull, her tail curved far between her legs. She swayed her head back and forth slowly and took baby steps in either direction, indecisive of where to go or how to move.
She was nothing more than a house pet, a circus act, drawing crowds wherever she went, both people and Tokotas alike marveling in her small stature. It was the first they’d ever seen, many declared, and even though a few others just like her began cropping up over time, her cheeky personality continued to draw coos and pats. And Avalik gritted her teeth during every moment.
When she had come to this area known as Tokotna after first hearing about the Tokota species, she was hell-bent on acquiring one herself. Not just buying one--taming one. A wild one. She tried for weeks to lure a lovely chocolate roan, and on only one night glimpsed the fabled lilac black Dire. It was these monsters she had been after, beasts of the night, unpredictable, whom she would conquer and train to bend to her every whim.
And then, out of nowhere, a pup landed in her lap. A Sphinx pup, no more suited for the harsh northern climate than a salamander. And her legs were only half the length of a normal Tokota, another quality to liken her to the general physiology of amphibians. She was an oddity, she was in fact a Tokota (not a newt,) but she was a pet.
Avalik absolutely hated herself for her disappointment in what turned out to be her First Tokota.
But the people on the street who stopped them to ask questions and shower Almost with kisses would hate her infinitely more for being so ungrateful for such a unique animal. So she kept it to herself, months of stewing in regret and disgust and wanting to give it all up. Lord knows Almost deserved better than to belong to someone who wished she were something else.
Still, no disappointment rivaled that which she felt for herself in this very moment.
The sky streaked pink and purple; the orange sun was throwing out its last feeble life-giving rays before drowning behind the horizon for another frozen night. Everything the light touch tinted a calm, warm peach: the river, the two conifer territories to the north and south, the western, black mountain ridge that rose up into the sky like felled anvils. And Avalik had a perfect view of it all, which situated picture-perfect directly behind Almost’s rear, 8,000 feet above sea level. The immediate drop-off behind the Toki was the reason they picked this plateau to camp: because of the view it provided.
Now the view made Avalik sick to her stomach. Now the view was in danger of swallowing her Tokota whole.
During their trip, Almost frequently sauntered over to the cliff’s edge to peer down into the valley below, her tail wagging triumphantly behind her.
“Almost,” Avalik warned her on a nearly daily basis, “don’t fall down there, you’re too heavy to pull back up.” She teased Almost frequently. Almost didn’t seem to mind. “I’m just going to have to leave you here if you do,” she said with a smile. It was the smile that always brought the Tokota back to her, safe and sound. In recent days, Almost had nearly conquered her fear of falling great distances, and had now become fascinated with ledges of all sorts, even the edges of the ice floes and glaciers provided some entertainment for her.
It was for her own entertainment in watching the Toki revel in the distance from up high that made Avalik stop herself from calling the Toki back to her from the cliff this time. And now a bull moose had trapped her against it.
Avalik’s chest tightened and she suddenly found the fresh mountain air difficult to breathe. The moose swung its huge head in her direction, as if considering its scrawny, human-shaped option. Then a sound so vicious and full of rage pierced the air. Avalik’s eyes searched the nearby treeline for its source before realizing it had come from Almost.
The moose’s attention immediately turned to Almost and it bellowed loudly.
Before it even had a chance to close its jaws from its battle cry, Almost was on top of its face, tearing frantically at the back of its neck. The beast kicked its front legs wildly like a cyclist, clipping Almost’s belly with razor-sharp hooves.
“ALMOST!” Avalik shouted in vain, knowing the Toki would not give up until the moose was either out of her sight or dead. She was a formidable hunter indeed, but her specialty was in small game: foxes, rabbits and the like. She had on occasion helped take down a bear, but that was in large packs with help from other Tokotas twice her size. This was new prey, if ever it could be called that.
The two grappled, lunging at one another for a few quick blows before parting again. The moose raked the air with his antlers threateningly, daring the Toki to come closer so he might be able to gore her. Avalik watched, desperate for the familiar weapons of her homestead that used electricity, magnetics and plasma. On this planet their guns were designed with explosives inside of them. She came to own a shotgun but was too afraid to learn how to use it properly, so it lay empty amidst her supplies, existing purely for show.
She wondered if the moose would recognize her steel.
She skirted around the foray towards the tent to retrieve the gun, but stopped halfway, her mouth slightly ajar at the sight she laid her eyes upon.
The little Toki, her salamander, her pet, had learned to dart between the moose’s legs, snapping at them like a vicious wolverine. The moose danced above her, his crescent-moon hooves stamping down too late every time. Almost was doing it. She was actually winning! Avalik bared her teeth in a wily grin. For a moment, she and her Tokota locked eyes. It was the only moment during her battle that her gaze softened, and she actually smiled at her handler, before diving right back into the thick of it.
Avalik again imagined what it would have been like to have won the heart of a monster, to have tamed a wild Tokota. What amount of blood sweat and tears would she go through to earn its respect, to win its love? How hard would it have been willing to fight for her?
She knew. Nothing on this planet loved her more than that Toki. And there was nothing that could tear them apart on this rite for Dominance, not even a bull moose.
In the brief moment that Almost tripped, the moose lowered his head and plowed her right off the edge of the cliff.
She wasn’t sure what happened first, but she screamed bloody murder even before she and Almost locked eyes once more before her head disappeared beneath the ledge.
She was still screaming when she realized her hands were bleeding as she descended the steep cliff face. Her voice faded as she looked into her palms, first one and then the other as she switched her grip on the rock wall. Her left hand had a huge gash that ran the length of her lifeline. Ah, right; she had grabbed the knife sitting on the cooler by the blade instead of the handle, which she quickly righted before plunging it into the neck of the moose. That’s what all that blood on her other hand must be. And the knife? She searched her empty hands again, only able to guess that it was still stuck in the animal’s jugular. She paused in her descent, staring at her hands. What was she doing?
She couldn’t recall. It was darker than she had remembered. And she was going somewhere, she was going down. But she didn’t want to fall.
The image of Almost’s little head peeking worriedly above the ledge of the cliff before disappearing into an unthinkable end came back to her.
Avalik looked down fearfully. She was closer to the bottom than she would have guessed. And there, in the snow, having slid about fifteen feet from the base of the cliff down the hill, lay Almost on her side, her little legs sprawled out haphazardly.
Tears stung her eyes and she moved more quickly, clumsily, falling the last seven feet and landing hard on her wrist. It might have been sprained but she was blind to the pain in her wrist, blind to the open cut on her hand. She only felt the pain in her chest that threatened to wrench her open from the inside out.
Cautiously she approached her Tokota who lay very still. The wind picked up and stirred the animal’s fur, but she did not react. Avalik stood back and for a moment had to wrestle the lump in her throat out of the way in order to hoarsely call out her name: “A-Almost?”
“Almost?” she repeated and the hot tears began to flow.
Her heart jumped higher than it had when the moose first came barreling down the mountainside into their camp: Almost’s head moved in the snow. Avalik dropped to her knees beside the Tokota’s face and grabbed onto her cheeks gently, marring her beautiful tundra fur with blood. “Almost!” The Toki’s eyes opened, first the green, and then the brown one. She looked up at her handler dazedly but flashed a dogged smile before closing her eyes again and sighing heavily. She continued to breathe deeply, undoubtedly resting from the battle with the moose. Avalik kissed her Tokota until Almost began to return the favor, her tail stirring the snow as it wagged. “Almost, I told you to stay away from that ledge,” she sobbed out a laugh and hugged the Toki’s head again. “Now come on, we’re going home early.”
She rose to her feet and watched for Almost to do the same.
But Almost did not.
“Come on Almost,” she repeated and waited. Almost continued to lay there, her tail slowing to stop. She looked up at Avalik sheepishly, her Tokota smile slipping away into a neutral or even apologetic expression. “Almost.”
With great effort, Almost rose up onto her elbows. Her huge head swayed. Her forelegs quaked as she dragged herself a foot forward in an attempt to rise. Instead she collapsed, and glanced out of the corner of her eye up at Avalik guiltily.
“Almost, come on, we have to go.” Avalik was surprised by the sternness in her voice, but she was really getting angry. Why wasn’t Almost getting up? She decided to give her a few more moments of rest before encouraging her to try again. “Let’s go, stand up,” she said harshly and walked around behind the Toki to help her. She grasped her hips and lifted, pulling hard. For a moment Almost’s rear was in the air, balanced on two hind legs, before it toppled over and stayed down in the snow.
“Almost, get up,” she warned. Almost tried again, her legs scrambling of their own accord, but she simply would not stand.
“No,” Avalik shook her head, “no you are not staying here. I’m not LEAVING YOU HERE!” She couldn’t control it, her last words issued forth in an angry scream. She pushed at Almost, pulling her upwards, trying to get her to get up. “NO, ALMOST,” she scolded, her head hot and dizzy. Almost whined when Avalik pulled too hard on her waist. It startled her and made her drop the Tokota again. “ALMOST!" she was furious. "ALMOST, GET UP!” she screamed, and kicked the Tokota in the rear, hard.
Her blow startled the animal, and instantly she regretted it. She saw the hurt in her eyes--not hurt from malice or physical harm. It was the pain of not being able to do what her owner asked of her.
Avalik burst into tears. “Almost..." she sobbed, wanting to reach out to the Toki but she flinched. "Almost, I’m so sorry,” she cried nearly inaudibly and fell to her knees. The Toki scrambled for her owner's face, tail wagging sympathetically, tongue lashing out to lick up her tears. The Toki’s unconditional affection only made her cry harder.
She buried her face in the Toki's fur and wailed in disdain for her temper and her actions.
Almost's tongue, though rough and hot, soothed her slightly, at least it brought her back to the point of reason. She wondered how they would get home. How Almost would get home.
The thought of leaving to go seek help from a nearby settlement haunted her heart, made her sick.
She couldn’t leave her.
She couldn’t abandon her.
But Almost couldn’t stand up. They desperately needed help, now more than ever.
After a few more rounds of new tears, Avalik was finally able to right herself and search their surroundings. She could still see much of the valley below beyond the thicket of pine in front of them, and it was largely empty until the treeline. Still, she had to try.
She cupped her bare hands to her mouth and shouted desperately, “SOMEBODY HELP!”
Again, in the opposite direction, “HELP, PLEASE!”
She knew there were hunters and trackers in the area, and members of the Tokota Cultural Association frequented these mountains to keep tabs on the wild Tokotas in the area. Someone had to be nearby.
“SOMEBODY HELP US!”
“Help,” she choked on her last cry, her voice run dry. She had been calling for at least half an hour to no avail. Almost whined up at her and attempted to lift her head, but Avalik shushed her affectionately and came down beside her to stroke her gently. “We’ll try again in a bit, girl. Someone will come for us. When we don’t return tomorrow, if you can’t-” she stopped herself and swallowed the lump that had returned to her throat, “someone will come for us.”
Through her blurry, tear-burned eyes she saw movement in the northern corner of the valley. Something small and bright moved through the moonlit snow.
Avalik jumped to her feet and strained her eyes for a better view. The lantern was attached to a sled, attached to a Tokota, driven by a human.
She waved her arms frantically, and called out again “HELLO!” She swallowed hard. Her throat was so dry from yelling. “HELP!” The sled continued on its course southward. “HEY! HELP, PLEASE!” It passed the mid-point of the valley, and soon it would disappear out of view. She thought about running down the hill to try and catch up but the trees between here and the valley would obscure both her and the driver’s view of one another.
Avalik filled her lungs with frigid night air--and choked. She coughed hard, unable to clear the feeling of mounds of dust against her windpipe. “No,” she whispered hoarsely as the sled continued to drive away from them. Almost whined with concern.
She looked to her Tokota. Her little house pet. Her trained, dancing, crowd-pleasing, brilliant Sphinx.
“Almost,” she sounded like a garbage disposal. “Sing.”
Slowly Almost lifted her head back and, as instructed, drew out a long, melodious howl the way wolves do.
She looked to see what the driver would do. But it wasn’t the driver whose attention they had caught. The dark-colored Tokota slowed and looked in their general direction before coming to a complete stop. “Yes,” Avalik whispered. Almost continued to sing. The sled driver gestured for the Tokota to continue moving, but she stood quite still, only once turning her head to glance at the driver. Almost’s song drowned out, but she took another breath and sang, this time higher. Avalik saw the hood of the person turn too.
The sled began to move, and as it did it curved toward them.
Once more, Avalik dropped to her knees in the snow, utterly exhausted.
Almost’s tail wriggled like a worm in the delight of her owner being that much closer to her. Avalik wrapped her arms around the Toki’s neck and buried her face in her fur.
“Good girl,” she whispered. “...Good girl, Almost.”