Flesh Eater

A little while ago, I bought a handmade Wendigo sculpture from Tom & Emily at http://www.heartwoodrealm.co.uk . I don’t think they still have any available, but looking into its scary glassy eyes and its bloody teeth, and thinking back about the stories and legends and accounts of the Wendigo made me want to actually include one in the story. And so I took the photo on this page, and in the title banner. The Wendigo is a terrifying spirit in Algonquian folklore, and I hope this does some justice to the legend.

This story could take place at pretty much any time, though it refers to the events of Sin Walker as happening “a while ago.”

I loved winter because the sun went down in the middle of the day, and that meant I could actually get out and do things. But I also hated winter, because all the other monsters in town felt really emboldened, and there was a much larger supernatural mess to clean up. It was give and take.

Vampirism was all about time management and risk assessment. Sure, you might really want the blood of that lovely young maiden in the village, but you had to account for a two-way commute, full seduction and blood-drinking, and maybe even fighting off a villager or two. Dracula never talked about the sheer inconvenience of it all. Of course, in the modern day, you got your blood delivered to you by the six-pack, with a label that read “Certified Humane.”

Those two words meant so much. Drinking blood was already just about the worst violation of kosher there was, but laws could be bypassed if it meant saving life – and if nobody was actually dying or even suffering as a result, then I could preserve mine with a reasonably guilt-free conscience. Not entirely guilt-free, but reasonably so.

In my flailing attempts to make something good out of my long un-life, I worked as a detective. Scattered in among the ordinary-human cases (kidnapping,adultery, normal snooping) were a fair share of what I mentioned before. San Francisco was a city of monsters, and someone had to clean it up. So why not trust Lucy December, who was one of them, after all?

The most recent incident had been dominating the news cycle for a little over a week. A family went missing at a campground, which wasn’t too unusual in and of itself. But then someone found a severed leg, with chunks bitten out of the calf, and people went nuts. As much as I liked it when the media wasn’t focusing on the president, this was awful. It turned out that more people had been vanishing from Big Basin than anybody had realized in an epidemic that had been ongoing for months. But now that the public knew, everything was different.

Most of the park closed at sunset, but now so many would-be do-gooders have been swarming the place that security couldn’t keep up with them. This meant more disappearances, and more media frenzy. They had even closed down the campgrounds.

So, yeah. There was trouble. I had an in with the local police, and even though Big Basin wasn’t part of the city proper, they were able to keep me abreast of the situation. This included details that weren’t widely-known.

“The bite marks aren’t human,” Lt. Al Collier said to me over the phone. He and I weren’t always on the best of terms, but he knew when to call me. “And not like any wild animal in the area, either.”

“How so?” I asked. I was in the wonderful room of controlled chaos that was my office, lounging in my chair behind my desk. At the other end of the room was Sarah, my secretary. She was a great lady – human, diurnal, and time sitting in my office meant she could make money while working on her degree. We got along great.

Sarah held up a piece of paper on which she had written, “REDWOODS CANNIBAL?”

I nodded.

“The bite circumference is too large for a human,” Collier said. “And the shredding implies sharp er teeth than what people have, but other than that it looks like it came from human jaws – no muzzle or snout, at least nothing resembling any known animals in the area.”

“So what you’re saying is, be on the lookout for a mad gorilla,” I said.

“This is not a laughing matter.”

“Okay, sorry,” I said. “Anyway, I get what you’re saying about the bites. What else? I mean, I figure that if you’re calling me, there’s more behind this.”

“There are a few eyewitness accounts,” Collier said. “Dismissed because they make no sense, but very telling.”

“Yeah, that happens a lot,” I said. It was funny, really – there was no worldwide “conspiracy” to hide the supernatural, per se. Gods, demons, monsters, fairies, and whatever else all agreed to keep themselves out of the public eye, and people talked about a ‘masquerade’ that refused to break, but it’s not like there was a shadowy government department behind it, or anything. When people knew, they knew. When they didn’t, they usually never found out. Enough folks in high places knew to help keep a lid on things, and it rarely spread very far. After all, what would you believe?

“A few people have claimed that they saw the killer,” he said. “Talking about this tall, inhuman thing. We’ve got two witnesses who said it had antlers.”

“Antlers,” I said. “Anybody try to claim that it’s Bigfoot?”

“A lot,” Collier said. “Apparently it’s become a meme.”

That happened a lot, as well. Someone would see a monster, everybody else would mock them, and then the rumor would fizzle and die. But keeping an ear out for crackpot theories helped more often than you’d think.

“Okay, so we’re looking for Bigfoot with antlers,” I said. “It’s a start.”

“Do you think you can help?” he asked.

“I’ll try to look it up,” I said. “And maybe go out there myself, depending on what I find. Do you have any connection to the police who are, you know, actually investigating the thing?”

“I have a little influence,” Collier said.

“Then tell them to be careful,” I said.

“They are already going to do that,” he said.

“Yeah, I figured,” I answered. “I’ll look into it. I’ll text you any info I find.”

“Thank you,” he said.

After the call ended, I looked at Sarah and said, “Bigfoot with antlers. Ring any bells?”

“A bad Christmas card?” she offered.

“I guess? Is that a card?” I asked. Christmas wasn’t really my thing, but a lot of my friends did celebrate it. So I smiled and nodded enough, was vicariously happy with them, and went back to my own candle-lighting seasonal celebration, myself.

“I dunno, it just seems like something you’d see,” Sarah said. “But as for monsters with antlers, that sounds like it could be Celtic or Native American. Does it remind you of anything like that?”

“Hell if I know,” I said. “But I can call around. It’s a good start, right?”

“Want me to look anybody up?’ Sarah asked, taking out an extremely old-fashioned and outdated rolodex that I kept around because I was too lazy to type all the old numbers into a proper system.

“Nah, I’ve got his number saved,” I said.

My list of Celtic sources could have filled an entire notebook, but I really had only one source on Native American legends. John Renar was an unassuming blonde guy who happened to have more native blood in him than any number of Hollywood Crying Indians. He could also turn into a wolf at will, and helped me take down a rogue skinwalker a while ago. Good guy all around.

“Lucy,” he answered the phone. “It’s been a while. How are you?”

“I’m doing great,” I said. “Just, y’know, constantly beset by monsters and demons. How are you? How’s Christine?”

“We’re getting married next month,” he said. “Do you want to come to the wedding?”

“Is it happening after dark?” I asked.

“Oh,” he said after a moment of awkward silence. “I’m sorry.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” I said. “So hey, I have a question for you. Have you been watching the news lately?”

“You want to know if I know anything about the Redwoods Cannibal,” he said.

“There are reports that is has antlers,” I said. “So I’m taking a wild stab in the dark.”

I could hear him sigh on the other end of the line.

“Have you tried looking into Celtic myths?” he asked. “They have deer, too. Or do you think that my people have a monopoly on The Great Nature Spirits, or something like that?”

“Just a stab in the dark,” I said again. “And my Celtic friends are next, John. So, you don’t know anything about it?”

I could hear another sigh.

“If I did,” he said. “And I told you not to go after it, would you heed my warnings?”

“You told me not to go after the yee naadlooshii,” I said. “And I kicked his ass, remember?”

“This is different,” John said. “Very different.”

“Yeah, you told me that the skinwalker was the most feared thing in the world to your people,” I said. “And his ass, might I remind you, I kicked. Thoroughly. So is this one somehow worse?”

“My people are rightly afraid of skinwalkers,” he said. “But this isn’t a skinwalker, and it’s not from my people. I’m not Algonquian.”

“Algonquian?” I asked.

“Northeastern tribes,” John said. “The Micmacs, the Ojibwe, the Wampanoag, and others. They are not the same as the Navajo any more than Germans are the same as the Italians just because they are ‘white.’”

“So the thing we’re dealing with is an Algonquian monster?” I asked. “That’s pretty helpful. Thanks. I’m looking for something with antlers from there, right?”

“Let the antlers go,” he said. “They don’t – they’re not – they don’t always have antlers. What you’re looking for is a cannibal spirit. An eater of flesh. The creature haunting Big Basin Woods is the Wendigo.”

Oh. That was a name I recognized.

“The cannibalism taboo monster?” I asked.

“It can be,” he said. It’s also a spirit of greed and subjugation. Its spirit can take many forms and possess many people. Often, a person will go berserk on a killing spree because of the Wendigo influence, but they remain mortal. And sometimes it’s an entire society. Your kind were like the Wendigo to us.”

“So, I’m looking for a normal guy?” I asked. “Just your garden-variety Hannibal Lecter running around?”

“My point is,” John said. “There is the Wendigo as a conceptual idea, as an urge that possesses people to do terrible things. But there is also the Wendigo as a monster, an evil spirit that twists and mutates individuals into cannibal demons.”

“So which one has the antlers?” I asked.

“If your culprit is wearing a mask or headdress, it could be either,” he said. “If it is just a man, then he will be captured by the police, and this will end.”

“And if not?” I asked, thinking about the size of those bite marks. “If it’s the monster?”

“The Wendigo never lets its prey escape,” he said. “Ever. And you can hurt it, but it always heals. You have to cut off its head, or destroy its heart, or burn it to ashes to even stand a chance. Wendigoes don’t usually allow people to do that to them.”

“Okay, so standard supernatural monster protocol,” I said. “Gotcha. Any powers or anything?”

“Wendigoes never let their prey escape,” he repeated. “They are superhumanly fast and strong, far more than even you would believe. They possess powerful magic. They can run in the air like it is the ground. They can freeze the air. They are always hungry, but never sated. Always cold, but never warm. And they do not stop. Ever. Do you understand me?”

“Yeah, I get the picture,” I said.

“I don’t know that you do,” he said. “This creature would tear your head off without a second thought, Lucy. You’re not strong enough to do anything about it. Do you understand me? If it really is a Wendigo rampaging around in the forest, then the only way to get rid of it is to wait for it to move away when the victims stop coming.”

“Well, that’s a problem,” I said. “See, the thing is, lots of people are forming search parties and trying to rescue the campers or catch the cannibal. They aren’t going to just stop coming.”

“They will when enough get killed,” John said. “Or when they get bored and move on to the next big social cause. White people are fickle. You don’t have the attention spans to commit to anything.”

“Yeah, I’m not going to wait for more bodies to pile up,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Why?” he asked. “Look at people in general, especially the ones here. Most of them don’t deserve saving, and you know it.”

“That’s not how I view the world,” I said to him. “And you know that, John. But thank you for the help. I’ll send you and Christine a big wedding gift, okay? Just e-mail me the link to your registry.”

“I think you should stay home,” he said. “Wait for this thing to pass. It will, you know.”

“Thank you again for the help,” I repeated. “You’ve done a lot.”

After I ended the call, Sarah looked at me. “So, what do you think?” she asked.

“I think I have a lot of reading to do,” I said.

It turned out that the idea of the Wendigo was more complicated than John Renar had said. On the one hand, there was Wendigo Psychosis, the mental condition in which people honestly thought that they had turned into cannibal monsters. It was a cultural mental illness, like Tarantism in 15th-Century Italy, or sharing memes on Reddit.

But the monsters were real, that was true. Wendigoes took many forms – yes, some had antlers, some had deer skulls for heads, others were big ice zombies, others were more like werewolves. There was very little consistency in description, though I found one common thread: They were terrifying.

Some legends said that you could kill a Wendigo with a silver bullet, others told you to drive a wooden stake through its heart. I discounted those for obvious reasons. But taking out the heart, severing the head, dismembering or burning were common prescribed remedies, so John hadn’t been leading me astray on that.

I loaded my gun with silver bullets, just to be sure. I had to wear gloves when I did so, but it wasn’t my first rodeo. Vampires can get away with a lot if they take proper precautions.

Big Basin was one of the best places to go see the redwoods. It had hiking trails, campgrounds, and acres of unspoiled forest. Sheer, absolute beauty that I wished I could see for myself during daylight hours. But seeing as how the sun would make me die violently, I only knew the trees at night.

Getting in was easy enough. When you can turn into a tiny bat, security means nothing to you. More intense vampire powers depended on having a healthy supply of blood, with the strongest draining you quite a bit. Something like a full Dark Metamorphosis transformation took a lot, but turning into a bat was pretty easily doable. I turned back only when I was far enough inside the woods to feel alone.

I stood there among the titans, trees so vast and so giant that they took my breath away no matter how many times I had seen them. These things were older than I was – older than many so-called “immortals.” They had seen the rise and fall of civilization without the aid of deities or magic curses. These were the Ancients, rooted deep within the earth, rising tall over other forests like skyscrapers. The redwoods would endure even when vampires burned away to ash. Even as gods died.

I crept between them, seeing as clearly as I could in the darkness, listening for any sign of life. The cold, wintry air surrounded me, held back by my coat but gnawing at my face with numbness. Among the evergreen scent of the sequoias lingered just the tiniest hint of the sea breeze, a reminder of the ocean that was so nearby.

Living in the city made me more sensitive to the different sounds of nature. But I heard nothing – it was too late in the year for crickets, but there should have been at least the occasional quiet rustling. Instead, it was only me: The short girl in the trenchcoat. I drew my gun.

After a while, the sound of rustling footsteps began to echo amid the trees, and reached into my coat for my gun. I saw flashlights, and left my gun alone when I started to hear them talk.

“We’re not gonna find anything, man. They’re gone.”

“Yeah, this is bullshit. You know it, I know it. They found the leg, it’s only a matter of time until they find the rest of the bodies.”

“That’s not the point.”

I ducked behind a particularly thick tree, and held my breath. It was just three guys – three completely ordinary men. But it was also three armed men, and I really didn’t want to see how jumpy they were.

“Look, there’s this guy going around, this maniac,” the man kept talking. “And he’s eating people! The cops won’t do anything, I don’t know why. Probably afraid it’ll look bad. But it’s bullshit, and someone’s gotta do something.”

“Don, if we shoot a man in the woods, the police will do something about it.”

“Yeah, they’ll give us a fucking medal. Now be quiet, I thought I heard something over there.”

Well, shit. Sure, I would heal from a gunshot, but that wasn’t the point. So I stowed my gun, held up my hands, and stepped out from behind the tree.

“Hey guys, don’t shoot. It’s me. I’m just–”

Holy shit, one of them screamed and shot at me. I eeked and ducked.

“Don’t shoot!” I said again.

“Yo! Trent! Stop!” one of them shoved the shooter, who stumbled and pointed his gun at the ground. “What’s wrong with you?”

“are you okay?’ the third man ran to me, and helped me up. “You’re not shot?”

“Nah, I’m fine,” I said sheepishly, and hoped that he wouldn’t find my gun by accident. “But don’t shoot!”

“You’re why we have gun control!” the first one said to Trent, and shoved him again. “You! What the shit is wrong with you?”

“Guys, I’m okay!” I said. “My name is Lucy. I guess you’re here because of the missing people?”

“Because of the killings,” Trent corrected me. “And I’m so sorry I almost shot you, lady. You looked like you were dangerous.”

I adjusted my coat, and looked at all three of them. “I count two hunting rifles and a shotgun,” I said. “And who’s dangerous? By the way, hi, Trent. Nice to meet ya.”

“Mike,” the second said.

“Jaime,” said the third.

“Okay, Trent, Mike, and Jaime,” I said. “You’re wandering around in the woods, armed, ready to shoot at anything that moves. Maybe you should go home, instead.”

“So what?” Mike asked. “You’re alone. And a woman.”

“Yes, I am alone and a woman,” I said, and took my badge out from my coat. “I’m also a licensed detective. I have an actual reason to be here. You guys are aiming to become a really sad but funny headline.”

“Shut up, my sister’s one of the ones missing,” Trent said. “I don’t like your attitude.”

I bit back a sarcastic retort. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Really. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but you just almost shot an innocent woman. In the woods at night. While a manhunt is going on for a murderer. Do you see how this could mess things up?”

“We’ll be more careful,” Jaime said. “Won’t we, Trent?”

“Yeah, I promise I’ll be careful,” he said.

“Gun safety,” Jaime said.

“Finger off the trigger, don’t point it at anything you don’t want to kill,” Trent rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I understand.”

“Do you?” Jaime asked. “Do you really? You almost shot this girl.”

“That’s me,” I said.

“Stop giving me a hard time,” Trent said.

“So, guys,” I interrupted. “Have you seen anything strange here?”

“No,” Mike said. “Just you. Are you sure you’re okay here? You shouldn’t be alone. We’ll protect you.”

“Seriously, I’m fine,” I said. “But I think maybe you three should go home, have a beer or ten, and plan things a little better. What you’re doing right now is a recipe for disaster.”

“I’m not going home,” Trent said. “I’m going to find the monster who killed my sister, I’m going to make him beg for his life on his knees, and I’m going to blow his head off.”

“Trent!” Jaime said.

“Yeah, guys, this conversation is sort of taking a dark turn,” I said.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stick with us? You’ll be safer.”

I sighed. “How about this? You go that way, I’ll go this way, and we meet back in three hours. If everybody’s still alive, I’ll buy you guys a pizza or a round of beer or something, and you go home for the night. Okay?”

There was hesitation on the part of all three of them before Jaime took the lead again.

“That sounds great,” he said. “We’ll meet by the entrance. Are you going to get lost?”

“Nah, I’ve got a great sense of direction,” I said.

“And what if you’re not there?’ Trent asked. “What if you go missing, too?”

“I’ll be there,” I said.

I shook my head as I left them behind. Buncha maniacs, seriously. I needed to find the Wendigo before they got themselves killed. Or worse, before they shot an innocent person. I could sympathize with going berserk over a lost loved one, but there were rules. One of the big ones was “don’t shoot the Jewish gal.”

I heard something. A rustle at the edge of my hearing. I stopped, holding my breath, and looked around. The tree canopy blocked out nearly all moonlight, and even my vampire senses had trouble seeing in near-total darkness. The shapes of the redwoods stood out in the night, tall shadows in the darkened landscape.

Was it an animal that I heard? Could that be all? Something the size of a human being or larger would certainly make more noise, even when trying to be stealthy – heaven knows I did, and I was a vampire. Big Basin had everything from deer to squirrels living inside it, and even the occasional cougar. It could just as easily have been one of those going about its nightly routine, right?

Except that I hadn’t even heard a single bird all night. Nothing. Whatever walked in these woods, walked alone.

I drew my gun, practicing proper trigger discipline (take that, Trent), and focused on moving silently as I continued to look around, trying to detect anything – motion, sound, signs of any other presence. Even breathing. Some vampires can hear a heartbeat, but that was not my specialty.

I felt cold. The temperature had dropped even more, and I could see my breath despite the darkness surrounding me. It wasn’t the damp chill of the sea breeze, either. The air itself had gone still, cold in anticipation. It bit into my bones, and I suppressed a shiver.

There was a feeling when the supernatural was near – a sort of uneasiness that most mortals couldn’t identify, but gently nudged them away from danger. I could detect it, and it was one of the most useful tools I had. I was almost never ambushed, not by a proper demon. But when that feeling came, it was strong, ad I realized that it had been in the background ever since I entered the park, but had remained beneath my notice until now. Too subtle? Crowded out by other thoughts and concerns? Had it been watching?

Hold on. Take a deep breath. Relax. Don’t get spooked, Lucy. Maybe I was overreacting, spooked by the dark. Worst case, it was just another monster, and monsters were my specialty.

And monsters were my specialty.

I took another look around, eyes focusing on each shape in the dark. The vast shadows of Sequoia trees towering into the heavens. Silhouettes of smaller trees as well, saplings or smaller varieties. The park had decent oak and fir populations as well, all crowded in and competing for sunlight. I had control of my surroundings. I knew where I was. I knew what was here.

That isn’t a tree!

I turned just as the shape lunged at me. I could see the silhouette of an impossibly tall man in the darkness, the unmistakable shape of antlers branching from its head. The temperature dropped even more harshly, the air freezing around me as the Wendigo silently attacked. I brought my gun around and fired, the muzzle flash lighting up the gray, gaunt figure in front of me.

I shot it. I knew my bullet hit. But I also knew it didn’t stop the Wendigo’s momentum in any way. Claws stabbed into me like icy daggers, the creature’s iron strength lifting me from my feet and tossing me in the air. My spine struck against a redwood and I dropped my gun before tumbling to the ground.

It was on me before I could get up, its breath coming in an icy, blood-scented hiss. I pulled my legs close and kicked both feet into the Wendigo’s gut to try to force it off me, giving myself some space. I rolled to my feet as soon as I could, and tried to gain my bearings enough to go on the offensive.

The creature’s claws carved through my coat and shirt, cutting deep into my ribs in a blow that would have felled a mortal human. I screamed and tried to grab its wrist to twist its arm, and maybe put it into a hold. The Wendigo’s other hand palmed my face and forced me back into the tree, smashing my head against the bark with skull-crushing strength. It shrieked, the sound an amalgamation of predators, prey, and the rage of corrupted nature as it began to slam my skull into the tree. Blood spilled from the wound in my side, and my knees began to buckle.

Contrary to popular belief, vampires can be knocked unconscious. I was out after the third or fourth time it slammed my face into the tree bark.

Ache. Darkness. Haze. The void of unconsciousness.

Wake up. It’s dragging you.

Warmth. Cold. Sudden sharp, tearing pain.

Wake up! It’s eating you!

I forced myself back into consciousness.

Ropes bit into me. I was tied to a tree, bound too tightly to move. My clothing was soaked in my own blood, and I had lost so much that I couldn’t even dream of struggling against my bonds if I had wanted to. My body ached in several places, the telltale signs of freshly-healed wounds. Bite marks.

Crackling amber light reflected off the trees, coming from a campfire nearby, fueled by fresh redwood branches. The thing sat by the fire, illuminated by the glow. It was like looking into the eyes of death itself.

I could see the Wendigo clearly in the warm firelight. Gaunt, veins and bone stood out from its frozen-corpse pale skin, with muscle wrapped like iron wire around its emaciated form. It had no lips or nose, and what flesh remained on its skull-like face was shredded and burnt, exposing its jagged, yellowing teeth in a rictus. Its eyes were black, shiny, soulless, yet lit with the spark of diseased life, flickering like candlelight from deep within those spheres. A pair of antlers crowned its head, dry and cracked. It turned to me as it warmed its elongated, claw-tipped fingers by the fire.

It spoke.

It spoke with the voice of a hungry grave. A dark rasp, emphasis on the wrong syllables and on guttural sounds, like a creature unused to using speech or language.

“If I remove a limb,” it asked. “Will it grow back?”

“What?” I gasped. My head still swam from the blood loss. What was it asking?

The Wendigo moved close, stale gore on its breath, its teeth inches from my face. I noticed the dried blood on its side where I had shot it. So I had hurt it, after all.

“If I remove a limb,” it asked. “Will it grow back? You have healed so far.”

I realized what it was asking, and honestly saw no reason to lie. It might buy time, at least.

“Yes,” I said. “If I sleep, and have enough blood in my system, I will heal completely.”

“Blood,” it said, drawing out the syllable as its torn mouth stretched into a grin. “Oh, yes. One must water the garden before the harvest. Yes.”

I shuddered. “I’ll be ash when the sun comes up. It’s pointless.”

The Wendigo chuckled, a sound icier than the cold air that always surrounded it.

“I will bury you,” it said. “You will live. You will feed me. We will feast together. Blood and flesh.”

I couldn’t summon enough strength to break out from the ropes, but I had to think. There had to be another way.

“Blood and flesh,” the Wendigo repeated, leering in closer.

I spat in its eye.

It rared back, hissing in rage, and suddenly pressed a clawed hand against my forehead. Cold overwhelmed me, like ice shooting into my brain, the chill of death that even I had never felt filling my sight, my hearing, my head with pain.

It gave me visions.

“Colonel Jeremiah Blackwood. Top of your class at West Point. Decorated veteran of 1812. And the best damn Indian fighter we’ve got.”

“Yes, sir.”

The two officers spoke, barely visible in the lantern-lit office. Blackwood stood at attention as Captain Lockwell gave his orders.

“We have a job for you. A group of Shawnees who refuse to leave even after we’ve warned them. Do you understand what you need to do?”

“Yes, sir. I know exactly what to do.”

One scene faded. Another began anew.

Smoke. Fire. The acrid scent of gunpowder and blood. Screams.

“Don’t let them escape!” Blackwood shouted above the din, spurring his men on. “Nits grow into lice! Don’t let any of the little devils get away!”

Blood and death in the air. The lust for blood built, that which had always lingered in the back of his mind only grew, fueled by more carnage. The joy was palpable, real. If only it could never end.

Afterward, silence fell on the battlefield. An old native man, battered and bloody, on his knees and surrounded by soldiers. Jeremiah Blackwood stood before him, a pistol in his hand.

“So, you were the chief,” Blackwood said. “You didn’t make your people listen, and now look what happened. This was all your fault.”

The old man looked at him through bloody eyes, in silence.

“Well?” Blackwood asked, and cocked the revolver. “Do you have anything to say, you savage?”

The chief began to laugh.

“Why are you laughing?” Blackwood asked the chief. “I’m going to kill you!”

He turned to the other soldiers around him. “Can he even speak English? In the future, I’ll not have you waste my time with prisoners.”

“There is a curse on you,” the old man said, a light accent coloring his speech. “I laugh because I would be happy to die here, rather than live as you will soon. It crouches behind your back. Just like all of your people. You will suffer and–”

Blackwood didn’t shoot him. He struck the man across the jaw with the butt of his gun, and then hit him again and again, his vision going red as he pistol-whipped the old man to death. Even after there was nothing left of that wrinkled face that could be recognized, he kept striking.

“Don’t ever waste my time again!” he yelled at his shoulders, and kicked the corpse at his feet. “Now clean up your mess. And keep an eye out for any Squaws that are trying to hide.”

Stupid. Worthless. To them it was just a job. None of them knew. But then, even Blackwood had felt that way until today. Until it became desire. Hunger.

Another fade.

Lockwell’s office was in shambles. Furniture broken, papers scattered, blood covering the walls. Captain Lockwell’s corpse lay slumped over the desk,his throat torn out, chunks of flesh missing from his neck, his arms, his face.

And yet he fed. Fed, and fed, and fed. Felt the hunger grow, a yawning, unfillable chasm. It wouldn’t end. Couldn’t end. It could never truly be fed.

What little humanity was left in Jeremiah Blackwood told him that he had to run, had to get out of here before anybody discovered what he did. Already he was changing, becoming something else – something more than he had imagined. But he had to flee. Had to leave everything behind. But that was fine. All that mattered now was the hunger.

He ran into the wilds and never looked back.

As the vision faded, I gasped for breath, my head spinning. The Wendigo had let go of my face, and its black doll’s eyes stared expectantly into my own.

“Jeremiah Blackwood?” I asked.

Blackwood the Wendigo cocked its head and gave a confused look, as if half-remembering something, but unable to form a coherent memory.

“Your name,” I said. “Was Jeremiah Blackwood.”

Understanding dawned and it grinned, showing its jagged, blood-stained teeth.

“Yes,” the Wendigo said. “It was. But I am greater now. Stronger.”

I looked hard at Blackwood. Once a human, cursed to live forever. And to feed. I could relate. Should I feel pity?

The Wendigo leaned in and bit a chunk out of the side of my neck, where it met my shoulder. I felt its teeth shred my flesh and scrape against bone, missing the artery but spilling precious blood down my shirt. It hurt so much that I couldn’t get the breath to scream.

The Wendigo leaned back as my healing kicked in, slowed from the blood loss but still active. It grinned, licking the blood from its mouth and chin.

“Water the garden,” it mused. “How much blood? How much to bring? How much to spill for you?”

“Don’t,” I said. I began to think of a way out of these bonds. If I still had enough blood, maybe. “I won’t take any blood from someone you’ve killed.”

The Wendigo frowned. “You will,” it said. “Or you will be eaten.”

I could turn into a bat. Maybe. If I summoned all of my strength, I might manage it for just a second – but a second is all I’d need, the transformation would pull me out of the ropes. But then he’d have me, be on me before I could get my bearings and fight back. I had to wait until it moved away, wait until there would be time. But I couldn’t let the Wendigo strike again. I refused to use someone else’s life as a shield.

I glared at the Wendigo with my best steely gaze. It ignored me, turning and walking back to the fire. It stoked the fire, shifting the branches around and adding a few more. It didn’t seem to need the heat, but perhaps it liked the light? Or maybe some tiny piece of humanity remembered the need for a campfire. I couldn’t figure it out. It idly kicked at it once, disturbing the firewood. One of the branches nearly rolled out and into the dirt.

This was my chance. I focused, the act of transforming much less simple in my weakened state. I felt the change resisting itself, refusing to take effect. But it was possible.. I could sense that much. I just had to focus. To think past the pain, and the cold, and the starvation.

The Wendigo turned to look at me again.

“I will feed you,” it said as it began to approach. “You will grow. More and more like me, you will grow. You know it. You feel it.”

Come on, concentrate! Almost there!

“You are like me.”

I clenched my fists until my palms bled, and finally felt the transformation begin to open up before me. I could do it. I could change. As soon as that damned monster was out of my face.

The Wendigo turned away from me suddenly, its body tensing in a predatory stance. It sniffed the air I heard rustling, and voices. Saw a telltale flashlight in the distance.

Oh shit, no. Please, no.

Trent, Mike, and Jaime emerged into the clearing. They saw me tied to the tree. They saw the campfire. And they saw the Wendigo, its form illuminated by firelight.

“What the hell is that?” Trent shouted.

“Guys, run!” I screamed. “Get out of here!”

“Is that the girl?” one of them asked, and then the Wendigo attacked.

I forced myself to change, pushing past the weakness and blood loss. I felt myself turning into a bat, shrinking out of the ropes. I held the form for such a short time, barely a second before it collapsed, restoring me to human form – but that second was all I needed, and I fell to my knees free and unbound.

Gunfire.

I jumped to my feet, scrambling to keep my shaky legs underneath me. I looked up in time to see the three men shooting at the Wendigo, whose body lurched back as the volley of bullets hit it. But then it lunged again, twice as fast. It knocked Jaime headfirst into a tree without even looking at him, and he crumpled. Trent tripped as he tried to back up, and the creature reached past, first batting away Mike’s rifle and then grabbing his shoulder with one hand. The Wendigo took off his face and the front part of his skull with a single swipe of its claws.

I stumbled and fell, almost going face-first into the fire before my hands brushed against the branch that had nearly fallen out.

“You killed my sister!” Trent screamed, shooting at the Wendigo.

The Wendigo grabbed Trent’s shotgun and howled, and that was when I leapt in with what I hoped was a warrior’s cry and not just an uncontrollable scream, and hit it in the face with the burning branch. Sparks flew as the Wendigo’s head snapped back, and it barked in pain.

Its body was slick with blood from the shots it had just taken, but it was still on its feet, and still strong. The Wendigo caught the branch on my second swing, and wrenched the erstwhile weapon from my grip.

“No!” it shrieked. “Submit to me!”

Its claws raked over my chest, tearing into me. I muscled through the pain and blood loss, driven purely by adrenaline, and tried to tackle it. The Wendigo, being almost twice my size, didn’t budge, but it grappled with me. That was better than going after the others.

The monster began to push me back, toward the fire. I wrapped my arms around its midsection and tried to push back against it, focusing my thoughts.

Plant your feet…

Its teeth bit into my shoulder again, another jolt of white-hot agony joining the rest of the pain. I kept my heels dug into the ground even as he pushed me back.

Confirm your grip

It pushed me further, and I felt the heat of the fire as my heels dragged closer. The Wendigo let out a shriek of triumph and bit again. I lowered my head, focusing on my center of gravity.

…and FLIP!

I flipped back, throwing the Wendigo in a perfect suplex. It went headfirst into the campfire, and I could feel the impact as its antlers struck and then dug into the burnt soil underneath the coals. I let go and rolled away.

The Wendigo thrashed, its antlers stuck in the ground under the coals, its nightmare shriek as it burned echoing through the trees. I rolled to my feet and looked at the other two. Trent was helping Jaime to his feet.

“Shoot him!” I shouted. “Shoot him!”

They fired on the monster. Just as the Wendigo freed itself and rose, its head on fire, both men began filling it with bullets. It jerked back and stumbled, finally injured enough to be visibly affected. It tripped and fell into the campfire, shrieking again, as it began to burn.

I grabbed the fallen branch, which still smoldered, and charged at the fallen Wendigo, lifting it above my head.

The Wendigo, flesh-eating spirit of greed and murder, looked at me with fear for the first time in its life. I drove that branch into its chest, pinning it to the ground through the campfire. It thrashed and squealed, blood spewing from its mouth. The smell was horrific as it burned, the sound equally nightmarish.

But then, its spasms slowed. Its screams stopped. The Wendigo let out one more gurgling wheeze, and the eyes that locked with mine were not glassy, black, soulless orbs, but the eyes of a human. Jeremiah Blackwood was there in its final moments. Tortured, helpless, and perhaps for the only time in his long, long existence, remorseful. The man was glad to die with the monster.

I sat down and finally took a breath. I put my head in my hands. All that, and I still had to rely on other people to be my shield.

“Jaime!” Mike ran to his fallen friend. Trent stared at the burning corpse, stunned. Maybe he still disbelieved what he was seeing?

I sat down and began to dial Lt. Collier’s number. Then I stopped and looked up, to the two men.

“What was that?” Trent asked.

I sighed. “The police are going to cover this up,” I said. “But it’s all right. Monsters are real. But if you know about them, it’s like painting a target on your back. If I tell you, do you guys think you can leave it alone? Walk away?”

I didn’t know if they could, to be honest. But I owed it to them. For Trent’s sister. For their friend. And maybe for my humanity. Blackwood thought that we were alike, cursed to feast on our fellow man. But there was a difference. There always would be. Every life saved mattered.