First comes the smell, then the buzz of flies, and last is the sight of a desiccated limb covered by loose strands of fabric. The bright colors of the improvised shrouds turn the bodies into macabre puppets.
This one is a child, I note idly. They were the second to go, after the sick and wounded.
We have been following the trail of the lost Three Rivers tribe for two days now, and my patience is running short. Nashoba insists that we catch up with them together, or the shaman who called for his help might simply attack me out of fear. I am concerned that by the time we reach them, there will be no one to interrogate.
This splinter of the Muskogee people was expelled from their land by settlers a month ago and since then they have wandered West. A vision sent to my, well, “employer” I suppose, spoke of a terrible beast stalking them and devouring their members. I now believe that this is the least of their worries. We have come across no less than ten cadavers in a single day of travel and they all exhibited signs of starvation. The bodies were husks, curled up on themselves by a devouring pain. I do not envy their fate.
“We...We should really...”
“For the last time Shaman, you can do this on the way back. The longer we delay, the more bodies there will be.”
“He was just a child.”
“Yes, yes, I am sure that the adults wanted to live too. Listen Nashoba, our arrangement was that I hunt a monster for you, not dig a mass grave.”
“Ah, of course. You are correct, I am letting my emotions interfere with our task. There may be others that still draw breath.”
I want to roll my eyes but I refrain. Nashoba is only mortal, and he at least did not involve God nor smother me with speeches on the importance of grief and other inanities. I can understand his anguish, although I do not share it.
“Mistress, we should stop the carriage here and continue on horse.”
“Your Tushka is right. Road very small.”
Nashoba gained mastery of the tongue through a dream quest apparently. The contrast between his flawless Akkad and his broken English is jarring.
“Then you take the horses.”
“There is something in the air, Daughter of Thorn. We are close, and late.”
I sniff a bit and detect nothing but pine, mountain air and the stench of a decomposing body. Noticing me, Dalton adds:
“It is cold Mistress, unseasonably so.”
“We are halfway up the Appalachians. Is this not normal?”
I already noticed that the place is too quiet. There are clearly magical shenanigans afoot and time is therefore of the essence.
“Then you take the horses and light the torches. I will scout ahead and guide you. Hurry.”
For an hour we climb up the twisted path. Scrawny pine trees and dried up vegetation with the occasional corpse make the place desolate and the trip unpleasant. All my instincts tell me that this is not natural. There are no spells here, nor creatures nearby. The influence is more pervasive. It is like an old grease smell that would leave an oily taste on my tongue.
We make good time despite my companion’s exhaustion and the path finally clears up as we reach a small plateau. Large slabs of granite covered with lichen alternate with diseased ferns. The remnants of a large camp can be seen in the center. There is a fire, still smoking a bit, as well as broken tents, pottery and baskets, and the shattered remains of a loom.
The others join me, and I raise my hand in warning.
The plateau is rather small at the base. It could contain perhaps an encampment of a hundred people at most. The stone plane climbs up to the left and falls steeply on our right. The few trees offer little protection against the chilling wind.
Nashoba stays on his mare while Dalton arms himself before disappearing in the darkness. I track him by sound until he stops moving. That means he found a vantage point.
I turn back to Nashoba and point to my nose, then to the left. I follow the stench of unwashed bodies and rancid sweat to a hollow in the face of the rock. I lean forward and look in.
The light reflects off the eyes of a dozen people huddled under grimy covers. A dying fire barely emits any heat. The smell is eye-watering.
Under the abominable odor, I detect a mage power gone rancid. It is close in nature to Nashoba but with a most sour aftertaste that reminds me of the fallen vampire I slew a week past. It appears we found our shaman. Whether they are still sane is open for debate.
Nashoba approaches the hollow then recoils in disgust. Perhaps I should have warned him of the revolting musk. I am much less affected by it than mortals both by my nature and by virtue of not having to breathe.
The shaman places a scarf around his head and starts speaking to the miserable band. His inquiries are first met with silence, then answered by a wizened woman with a bone headdress sitting at the back of the group. Her gnarly fingers grip a staff adorned with a crow skull and she speaks in a deep gravely voice.
I do not need to understand to feel the pain and terror in her tale. The remaining tribe members recoil under my gaze and refuse to look up. They feel like people who have given up on everything. They truly are a sorry lot, and I note in passing that there are no children left.
This tribe is done for. Few could remain sane after going through what they suffered. Their best bet for survival would be to splinter and join other people, praying to their gods that they can forget the horror of their existence.
Not that I care.
I wait patiently until my companion is finished and I note that it is lucky that the female shaman can speak Choctaw. It is easy to forget that the natives are made of several people with their own culture and dialects when most of us white folks refer to them as savages. Being a vampire has certainly changed my perspective on the matter.
After a few minutes, Nashoba walks without a word to the center of the clearing and restarts the fire using kindling and a few pieces of dry fabric.
“Forgive me Daughter of Thorn. Could you kindly help me gather some wood? I ask this as a favor.”
He has no right to demand it and his specific phrasing shows his acknowledgement. With that said, Nashoba is one of the few mortals I respect. He is also tired and lame.
I can show kindness to those I favor. I also deduce from his anguished expression that the news is not good, and he may need some time to process it. We have found the survivors of the tribe and extracted the knowledge that we sought, after all. Some more delay is acceptable.
I go around gathering firewood and, in some cases, making it. I find snapping the trunks of those weakened trees surprisingly easy. I suppose I have no more use for an axe, now. After three trips Nashoba informs me that I have gathered more than enough and places a large pot on top of the fire which he fills with water from his canteen.
“Should we not give them our rations if you intend to save them?”
“Not directly. Those who starve have a weak stomach and eating solids could kill them. Their body can only tolerate a broth.”
“I see. While we wait, you should share what you learned.”
“Of course, Daughter of Thorn. I have delayed but too long. They left their lands with little food and this was soon exhausted. They did their best to forage but without knowing the lay of the land, feeding seventy mouths is impossible. It is at this time of great distress that the beast struck. Like carrion birds circling a bleeding beast it harried them. One after the other, the hunters started to disappear. Of course, the tribe started to send people out in pairs or even larger groups. It was all in vain. The beast would then take more and the food situation kept deteriorating. First, the weakest members perished then the children started dying too. Despair took over them. Women started to hunt as well, and some would come back hurt. A few people took their own lives. The survivors decided to flee up the mountain in hope that the beast would give up or that they could at least confront it. They built this fire you see here and waited.
They say the beast came. They say it was taller than the tallest man and dressed in a patchwork of skins. That its face was like of a rock cleft in two and that its teeth were like the canines of a wolf. All of them. They say arrows and spears bounced off it like toys and that it killed a man with every swing of its mighty arms. They say they could no more stop it than they could stop winter. After it killed enough people, the rest fled higher up while this small group hid there in the hopes that it would look them over, or at least that the cave would be too small for its massive frame. That was yesterday."
“So, the beast is still up there?”
“Yes, and so are the survivors if there are any.”
“Then I’d better be on my way. Can you ward your fire?”
“Yes, I shall do so immediately.”
“Will it be enough? It seems this other shaman could not stop it.”
“She is old, weakened by hunger and her tribe lost its land and its way. Her powers are so diminished they might as well be nothing. I should be able to keep a monster at bay until you return. If I am in danger, I will fire the pistol you lent me in the air.”
“I hope for your sake that it will be enough.”
Before I leave, I discreetly reach Dalton’s hideout and discover he hid himself with fallen branches. In the dark and covered with greenery, he is barely visible. I tell him not to engage unless he has no choice and follow the trail up the mountain.
Without the mortals I can move much faster. A first inspection reveals no tracks, so the creature probably has some way to mask its presence. That would also explain why no hunter managed to escape it. Undeterred, I rush up the steep incline with as much celerity as I can without leaving myself open. In two minutes, I find my first body.
It is a man, quite old. As expected, he is covered with bite marks that show a jaw several times larger than a human’s. The beast devoured the muscles on the legs and arms, the back and most of his entrails. I am about to leave when I notice something peculiar. There are no defensive wounds and the reason is made clear when I push the head to the side with my boot. The man has been brained by something blunt before being devoured. My theory of the monster being able to hide increases and I feel the onset of paranoia as all my senses grow to their sharpest. I even spot rabbit’s fur in the hunter’s hand, proof that the beast left nothing that could be easily swallowed.
A few meters away I find a mother and her child, still holding hands. They were killed the same way.
I continue quickly, making a conscious effort not to run in a straight line and checking regularly behind me. I see nothing out of the ordinary, only abandoned personal effects and a mess of human tracks. In a few more minutes, I notice embers glowing in the distance.
The night is silent.
I approach from a side. Nestled among trees are the remains of the last campfire of the tribe. There is nothing left, not even a body, but the smell of old blood is pungent and after circling I see no tracks going further up. The lack of remains worries me a little. What manner of beast can do that?
I walk warily forward. The unnatural stillness of this place is getting to me. Besides the freezing wind nothing stirs, not even the grey ash covering everything like stained snow.
Massive bloodstains dot the site. They are only a few hours old. I am about to circle around to look for tracks, hints, anything, when I spot something among the embers. Curious, I approach.
A branch snaps behind me.
I roll forward and slice behind me at the same time only to hit air. There is nothing to see, which means...
I turn, claws up and ready.
I circle. Still nothing. The quiet sound of a breathing rabbit comes from the pines.
I am jumping at shadows. I still move in the clearing so if the creature tries to rush me, I would still have some time to react.
This foe is proving to be troublesome. It can hide and is probably quite strong and resilient. The dagger should be enough to hurt it and am confident in my speed, however it will be of little use if I am caught off guard.
Tracks on the dust show signs of a massive scuffle. So many human feet, and what is this near the camp fire?
Hundred of bones shattered, their marrow sucked dry, as if...
Well, that is curious, and illogical.
No, it could not be.
The hunters disappearing one by one, caught by surprise.
The lack of anything but human tracks.
The remaining tribesmen slaughtered in one spot instead of fleeing a large opponent.
Cooked human bones…
I need to be sure.
I jump in the bush looking for a very specific set of tracks and eventually, I find it. Multiple humans heading down the path. Now that I know what to look for it is easy to notice.
God Bloody DAMNIT! Played for a fool! Aaaarg!
I run down the mountain like all the hounds of hell are on my heels. Come on come on come on. Let me be there in time. Let me be there in time...
A gunshot. That is not a pistol but Dalton’s rifle.
I move even faster. My chest is almost to the ground and the very wind pushes my hair away and back.
With every step I dig furrows in the loam and fly forward ten paces. Faster. Faster!
I will be on time.
I’m here. In a single moment I spot Nashoba in the middle of a magical circle with his pistol discarded on a rock. He is surrounded by the cannibals who silently slaughtered and devoured their own kin. It appears they lost their humanity in the process.
Long, gaunt forms of white skin and bones are now revealed by their discarded blankets. The little flesh they have is twisted and taut like steel cable. Their face is human down to their upper lips, then it turns nightmarish. They bare distended maws of crooked and yellowed teeth to my companion’s ward.
Five of them press at the edge of a shimmering circle. The Three Rivers shaman is standing at the edge, still clad in her rotten regalia. She is dancing and croaking while waving her ominous staff. A seventh abomination is prone on the ground with a smoking hole through the torso.
Dalton’s handiwork. He must have shot as they were creeping on the Choctaw man.
There is little time.
I move faster than I ever have. I need to push them out of the way! I reach the first creature without slowing down and punch it in the gut.
With a ghastly sound of shattered bones, the thing folds around my stretched hand like a wet towel. The momentum catapults it against two of its fiendish allies and they are smashed backward like pins.
I finish the move by throwing my entire weight in a swipe. The first target’s chest disappears in a curtain of gore. An instant later, the fifth creature’s head just disappears.
I finish the sequence with a silver throwing knife that shatters the enemy mage’s headdress and sends a splatter of blackened blood flying.
This will do for now. I crash into the thicket with all the subtlety of a herd of buffalos. A second gunshot guides me to Dalton. As I arrive, he unloads his last pistol in the face of the last standing foe. He must have missed the brain as the creature jumps on him with claw extended.
Oh no you don’t.
PUNY WEAKLING. BOTTOM FEEDER. SCUM. YOU DARE RAISE YOUR HAND AGAINST HE WHO IS MINE?
I dig two talons in the thing’s neck and swing it over my head with a furious roar, sending it careening head over heel.
The creature’s short flight is interrupted by a large stone on which his head bursts like an egg, then a trunk, before finishing in a ravaged heap on the ground.
Dalton is fine, if a bit stunned by my sudden appearance.
I sprint back to the clearing and take out my dagger. I quickly finish off two wounded before turning to the enemy shaman.
It is pressed against the wall of the cliff by Nashoba’s staff. Its filthy yellow talons dig into the rock and her shrieks make my ears ring, yet my ally does not budge.
“So, you want to interrogate it?”
“I know all there is to know. I kept the thing alive so that you could feed.”
“... Do I have to?”
It reeks like a pox-ridden pigsty. Nashoba glares at me in silence. I suppose I should not behave like a spoilt child. I can certainly use the power.
I grab the thing’s arm. It tries to fight me but compared to the fallen vampire I faced a few days ago, I feel I am wrestling a toddler. I still break all its fingers for good measures. Why take a risk?
I bite down.
I am so hungry, so hungry. The pain in my belly is relentless. It digs into my entrails with its serrated fingers. There is nothing but the devouring agony.
I led them here. I led them to their death. We should have fought and died on our feet like warriors, not hunted and starved like animals. The children... what have I done? The visions I sent were sent too late. By the time the tortoise shaman of the Choctaw comes, there will be nothing left of the Three Rivers clan.
Today I ate my finger. The pain of tearing down the limb was less than that of starvation. It was hot and juicy, if terribly bony. Now I remember what food feels like. I feel clarity of thought drift away. There are others like me, who tasted the forbidden flesh. I can feel their eyes on me and on each other. I do not want sanity. Sanity is what brought me here in the first place. Let me be mad. Let me be lost, but above all, let me be sated.
We are silent. There is no need to speak just as there was no need to listen to the dying cries of our kin. We are still starving despite the heaps upon heaps of flesh we pushed down our gullets. It is fine. Tomorrow we go down the mountain. There will always be more villages and more hunting parties. Always.
I back up from the shriveled form of my victim. That was strange, though not entirely unpleasant. Both sour and tasty like pickled fish, and the power was good. On par with an experienced mage, I would say.
I suspect Nashoba is interested in my vision, so I share it with him as Dalton joins us.
“Yes, Daughter of Thorn. I know of what you speak. They are called Wendigos. I heard the tale of a mighty hunter called Anwe the Slayer who was the first to find them and purge them from this world. I never thought the stories were true...”
Nashoba limps back to a stone and sits wearily. I must remember that they traveled through the day and it is now past midnight. They will need to sleep soon.
“They are Hunger,” he continues, “they are what happens when men and women succumb to it. Those of the stories were lazy hunters who would take the wives of their victims as their own. This was not the case here. The Three Rivers tribe fell because it was chased away. They fell because they chose to flee as an act of desperation.”
The shaman is having a moment, which I can respect. Dalton has tied a scarf around his nose and busies himself piling the Wendigos while I feed the fire and wait.
“There will be more of them. Every month, your ships spill their cargo of men and machines on these shores. We are getting pushed West slowly but surely.”
“Will you fight?”
“Some of us will. At least, they will die on their feet. There is no facing your people’s weapon of fire and steel, not without our own. We would need schools and mines and factories and armories to compete and when we have all of this, we will have become you. This is a tide that cannot be stopped.“
Powerlessness. I know this feeling all too well.
“We achieved something today.”
“A drop in the ocean. Those we saved may one day join the ranks of those we just freed.”
I wish I were drunk so I could join in his melodrama.
“You think too highly of yourself, shaman of the Choctaw. We are droplets ourselves. Did you not say that we were weeding roots of destruction? That is what we did tonight. Do not look at what you cannot change and despair. It serves no purpose but to invite madness.”
“Forgive me if I cannot appreciate your perspective while I stand in the ashes of seventy men, women and children.”
I shrug. I cannot share his emotions and I would not care to, but I can respect his grief and give him the time he needs. The Hunt is done, after all. It was interesting although the Prey was a disgrace to its own kind.
I assist Dalton in building a funeral pyre. Thankfully material is abundant. Our native companion joins us as we light it.
For a moment, all is quiet, then he starts singing.
I do not understand the words and I do not need to. The song carries regret and impotent rage at first, then melancholy and finally, a measure of peace. We stay there watching warm winds carry motes of light to the sky. It no longer feels so cold anymore. Somewhere below us, an owl hoots and the fire crackles.
At some point, the two men fall asleep. I make sure they are covered and when dawn approaches, I stand up to go. As I take a step, Nashoba shifts in his covers.
“Thank you, Ariane.”
I nod and leave.