Looking back now, my panicked flight through the forest and hills of Kahruvel seems like little more than a series of photographs: still images burnt into my mind. I know I was scared – how could I be anything else? – but I can recall little else. I wanted to get out of the forest, away from the silent trees and back to people and noise and life. I was so desperate that it was only as I burst from the forest and bounded across the small bridge the divides Kahruvel’s southern border with Cowell I noticed the speed with which I now ran, and how surefooted I was. Hell! I seemed as fast and as graceful as… as… No! I could not even think the word! Instead I bounded down the stone steps, dozens at a time, and raced over the arced bridge that crosses the canal. At its apex I launched myself off into the air and leapt the twenty metres onto the far bank where I ran past the workshop and towards the lighthouse at full speed. It was empty. In fact Cowell seemed deserted and the only sounds I could hear were my ragged breaths and my heart pounding inside my chest. Desperate I called out for help. No one answered. I ran to the nearest window to peer through, but instead I caught my own reflection and my blood ran cold. My head was domed and bald, the skin a light fawn colour whilst my face was a chiselled pattern of snow white. Atop my head rose two curved, black horns sweeping backwards and upwards half a metre above me.
And my eyes… oh God! my eyes! The pupils were onxy ovaloid slits, like those of a cat, whilst the iris was a shifting, twisting pattern of red and yellow flames – the two married to give the terrible impression my eyes were flaming shards of dark coal continually burning in my skull.
I gasped out loud and staggered back from the window, trying to put distance between me and the horror reflected.
I shouted for help, desperate for someone – anyone to hear me and come to my aid, but Cowell was as silent as the forest had been when I found that blasted backpack. The backpack! I was still wearing it! If only I had thought – this was the source of all my terror. The moment I had put it on, I had changed. All I had to do was remove it… throw it away and I would be normal again.
I tore at the straps, wrenched the damn thing off and heaved it as far away as I could. It landed in a cloud of dust and dirt and rolled to a halt some ten metres from me. I looked at my hands, willing them to change back, begging under my breath for the skin to return back to normal. They remained white. I sobbed out loud and fell to my knees, tears stinging my eyes.
“Your spirit animal would appear to be a gazelle, young man”, a voice behind me said. I spun round and fell backwards on to my backside, hands scrabbling in the dirt to push my away from its source.
A near-naked old man, skin like leather and long hair pulled back into a ponytail, stood watching me. My mouth flapped uselessly. “Take your time,” he said, “you will have many questions all wanting to get out at once. Let them come.”
What… what has happened to me?” I shouted, the fear in my voice making it strange to my ears.
“Ah. A big question first. You may not be ready for the answer, but I shall tell you anyway. You have changed. Been reborn.”
“Reborn?” I repeated, “Did… oh God, did I die? Am I dead?”
The old man furrowed his brow and looked at me if I were a rather stupid child, “Dead? Of course not. Would you be here talking to me now if you were dead?” It occurred to me I had no idea if I would or not, but my mind was in too much turmoil to raise the point, “You have been reborn into a new body, a mixture of your old body and that of your spirit animal guide. In your case, it would seem that of a gazelle.”
“But how? Why?” I asked.
“How is easier than why. How is due to the backpack you elected to throw over there,” he flicked his nose to where the pack lay, “But why is down to the fact you have been chosen.”
“Chosen? By who?”
“By whom,” He corrected me. “By the backpack, of course.”
My head was spinning. Chosen? By the backpack? Nothing made sense. Maybe the pack had fallen on me after all and I was laying on the forest floor, unconscious, dreaming, dying.
“No,” he said “you are not in the forest laying in a coma. This is real and happening now to you.”
“But… look at me? Can I change back?”
“Yes. Once the backpack trusts you.”
“Trusts me? How can a backpack trust me?”
“A good question, although I suspect you do not know why. To answer the question you think you have asked, you should ask how can a backpack change you into a gazelle. To answer the question you should have asked, you need to put it on again. It will inform you of what you have to do.”
“There is no way I’m putting that damned backpack on again!” I shouted, my voice full of panic, “Never!”
“Then how do you hope to return to your old form?” the man asked quietly, with a faint smile about his eyes. I had no answer. My eyes darted between the pack and the old man, searching for any way I could think of to make this all go away. Any sliver of rationality I could grasp. I could find none. My shoulders sagged as I realised I had no choice, or rather a series of unpalatable choices.
“I really have to wear it again?”
“Will it… will it hurt me again? Will I die?”
I wanted to ask him to promise but couldn’t bring myself to. It was just too… whiney.
“I promise,” he said, smiling.
There was nothing for it. What did I have to lose? I reached for the backpack…