The Great Wendigo Hunt
Alabaster snowflakes drifted down out of a gray, lowering sky. Though, like all snowflakes, they made no sound as they landed, it was like the land itself sighed as they hit. High mountains loomed over a series of wood, stone, brick and mortar buildings, the peak’s summits wreathed in fog which seemed to be on fire as the last rays of the setting sun turned them varigold orange and blood red. The city of Gesir was quiet, the streets deserted, windows of inns and houses beginning to be lit by hearth fires, so that their radiance was a lesser sibling of the seeming inferno in the skies.
At the very center of the town was a cobble paved square. At the bottom left corner was a squat, long building with a tile roof. Just behind it was a modest sized yard of packed earth which would definitely turn to mud after the snow melted. The building was split into three parts. However, the sections were not even; the section in the middle was the largest, nearly filled with lean, fit men, who each had a bunk, and at its foot, a wooden chest. The next largest section was slightly more sumptuously decorated, with a purple rug on the floor and two bookcases, which were only sparsely populated. Someone looking in one of its windows would have seen, lastly, a desk, behind which sat a scarred man with a crooked nose staring, seemingly impassively at a short, thickly muscled man with a shock of red hair and full, satyr’s lips. The last section of the building was given over to storage of swords, spears, shirts of chain-mail and wooden shafted spears.
In the room where the desk stood, the older man reached down. Pulling out a drawer, he extracted a scroll. The grizzled senior was General Kracken. Tapping a dry quill against his teeth he read: “Lieutenant Surinnon Kael. Cited twice for ‘conspicuous gallantry.’ Another notation which says you saved a fellow trooper from being trampled by a draft horse. Care to elaborate on that last point, Lieutenant?”
“Nothing to it, sir. I just held my arms out and tried to look big.”
“I see. I also see you’ve been a Lieutenant for three years.” Here the older man fixed the younger with a piercing glance. Surinnon shuffled his feet and mumbled: “Yessir.”
“What was that, trooper?”
Surinnon snapped to attention: “Sir! Yes sir!”
The General put down the quill. “This last part is really interesting though. It seems you have a knack for defusing booby traps. And that you have bested three enemy generals in single combat. This makes me wonder, Lieutenant, why you haven’t been promoted–of course there is the fact that you hail from simple peasant stock, correct?”
“Hmm … it won’t be easy though. Getting you past that hurdle, I mean. I don’t like to see a man of your talents go to waste, but of course there is considerable danger involved …”
“With respect, Sir, a large part of my life has had one kind of danger or another in it. I’m a soldier.”
There was a visible thaw in the older man. He actually smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that. But you’ll need all your courage for this next assignment. I’m sending you over the pass, in midwinter, alone, and not least, I want you to go kill a Wendigo that’s been terrorizing some villagers in a place called Kamarga. You do that, and I’ll make you Captain. Or I’ll make love to a Succubus.”
Surinnon didn’t know whether to curse inwardly, make his will, or be thankful at the opportunity tossed to him.
* * *
Puffy white cumulonimbus and stratus clouds came boiling over the hills. Surinnon’s two best friends, Karvin and Markham had offered to come with him.
“Come on, Surin,” Markham had said, the big man and Karvin looking on as Surinnon packed his gear. “You can’t go over the passes at this time of year without someone to help. I mean, what if you have to make a fire, and you can’t because your hands are frostbitten? You know I’m good at making fires.”
Surinnon had his long-sword out. He gingerly felt the edge with one finger. He nodded to himself and put it back in the scabbard. Then he looked Markham in the eye. “I’ve got waterproofed, alpaca wool lined gloves, wool lined boots, trousers and shirt, a face mask with the same alpaca wool as the gloves, and I’m at least as good as you at making a good blaze. Stop worrying. I’ll be fine.”
“And the Wendigo?” Karvin asked, lean, muscled arms crossed across his chest. “How are you going to handle that when you get there?”
Surinnon walked over to a low table by the wall of the room at the inn Kracken had insisted he stay at for his last night before starting his journey. He picked up a stout iron mace with a four-flanged head. “I have some ideas,” Surinnon said. “Everything that breathes bleeds, and can die.”
* * *
The air was cold enough that it hurt to breathe. Surinnon walked through knee high drifts of snow. More snow fell in slow, drifting waves. The sun was only visible as a bright spot in an otherwise gray sky. Surinnon, however, was warm. In fact, he sweated in his clothing from the heat of his exertions. He was about three-quarters of the way through the pass, with at least three hours of daylight left. At his current pace, he should be all the way through and descending the other side by nightfall. If he pushed on (assuming the stars or moon came out), he could be in Kamarga a little after the sun set.
The next hour passed uneventfully. Light seeped slowly out of the world, but the moon was bright enough to see by with no trouble. Surinnon could see down below a collection of stout stone structures. The odd part was that there was a brighter knot of illumination in the center of the the town than in the individual buildings; the light seemed to come from many disparate sources rather than one big one, as if the denizens were trying, with their pinpoints of yellow light, to mirror the bright white constellations above.
Suddenly, Surinnon heard a strange sort of bellow. It was so loud it made his ears hurt, and rather than coming from one direction, it was as if it was all around him. What the hell? he thought. I was sent here to kill one beast, not an army! The bellowing rose to a piercing crescendo, and then suddenly, it stopped. Surinnon heard furtive footsteps, crunching in the snow, as though a very big man were trying to walk quietly, but was failing miserably. He pulled his mace free of the thong on his belt. A large shape became visible, running towards him on all fours. He had a sense of black, bristly hair, glowing orange eyes, and a form that was huge, even hunched over. If the creature had been upright it would have stood taller than the tallest man. As fast as it was coming, Surinnon had a plan.
The thing got to within spitting distance. It leapt at him, revealing long fangs and razor sharp claws, as well as a set of antlers, that mocked the graceful beauty of an elk in twisted parody. Surinnon sidestepped, and as he did, he hit the creature with the mace as hard as he could, catching it under the jaw and snapping its head around. Time slowed, the creature rolled once, twice, and Surinnon felt the steel haft of the mace snap like a thin reed. This was odd, because Surinnon knew the blacksmith who had made it, personally, and his work was said to be as stout as the work of the King’s own armorer, and that king had never in all his many struggles had a weapon break so.
The creature landed in a heap. After one slow heartbeat though, it sprang to its feet, turned around so that it was staring at Surinnon and howled in a manner that would have done the world’s noisiest infant proud. But there was another odd thing: it seemed to have suffered no serious harm, other than a slight bruise at the corner of its mouth. Even so, it turned away from Surinnon and bolted into the trees, the sound of its passage fading after a minute or so. Looking at the ruined mace, Surinnon gathered up the pieces, and said to the empty air: “I guess this was your first experience with pain, and you didn’t like it, did you?”
* * *
What struck Surinnon most strongly was the sheer number of torches and braziers. There was a torch for every street corner, and for every doorway; there were braziers next to a large building that could only be the town hall, but there were also about twenty braziers ranged in a circle in the square where a large gathering was taking place. It was dominated by a man with long, glossy, silver hair who was very sturdily built, but with a tendency towards the pudgy side.
Surinnon received fearful looks from those at the outer edges of the crowd, wide eyed, suspicious glances that lit on him, then flitted away. Those towards the inside of the semi-circle hardly had any attention for him, they were so riveted on the speaker, who was saying: “Of course we all know the creature is scared of fire. But that is a problem of another kind–my friends and neighbors, it pains me to tell you … but we are running out of wood to keep our public areas and dwellings lit. Therefore, I must admonish each of you that, excepting gatherings like tonight, we should all stay in our houses at night, and bring the little ones in when the first rays of the sun touch the mountains as it sets, and be in ourselves before full dark. And, although it is not an easy decision to make, myself and the other councilors have decided to extinguish the braziers in the town square–” here he was interrupted by loud murmurings which drowned out his voice.
A man shouted out, “But Elder, most of us have to cross the square as we come home from our jobs!”
Another man, with an axe resting on his shoulder and a hard look in his eyes said, “How am I supposed to be in town by sunset when I and my cousins work in the woods until dark? And maybe, just maybe, we could knock off early, but if all of us woodcutters do that, why then we’ll only run out of wood that much faster!”
“Hear! Hear!” a pretty young woman said.
The elder raised his arms for silence. “Neighbors! Neighbors! We must not abandon hope!” And here he reached into a pocket, pulling out a worn leather document case. “I have here a promise from General Kracken to send aid! Substantial aid!”
Surinnon began to gently, but firmly, push his way through the crowd. When he got to the front, the elder started, and then smiled uncertainly. “Young man,” he said, “you don’t look familiar to me. Are you from one of the neighboring farms, perhaps? If so, you are welcome here. I’ve long said it’s not safe out there.”
Surinnon took a deep breath. “No, Elder. I’m your aid. General Kracken sent me.”
“You? Alone?” Surinnon nodded. “But this is preposterous!” the old man said. “I asked for archers! And a contingent of armored horse to harry the beast and track it to its lair!” There was more muttering, and now the looks Surinnon received were on the whole, far from kind.
“Has the beast always been here?” Surinnon asked.
“Of course not.”
Trying to look more confident than he felt, Surinnon said: “Well then, I can tell you that its time here will be finite, and I can help you with hastening that, considerably.”
The elder pulled Surinnon close, and said, softly enough that the others couldn’t hear, “I hope so, lad, or this will no doubt be your last assignment. It’s killed forty of us already.” Speaking to the crowd again the old man called out, “This gathering is dismissed! The council will meet tomorrow morning, and come up with a plan!” There was some grumbling, but people began to disperse, slowly and then with gathering speed.
An earnest looking young man, with tousled dark hair touched Surinnon’s arm as he walked past and murmured: “I can help you. Quickly now, follow me.”
* * *
The dark-haired man led Surinnon to a modest, two-story dwelling about five minutes walk from the town square. It had a wood-shingle roof and was made of closely fitted, medium-sized stones. Inside there was a fire burning in a hearth, making the whole house feel warm, cozy, and safe. The only oddity was a heap of some material, covered by an oilskin tarp on a long, low table, shoved into a corner, with a layer of dust coating the covering.
The room was currently unoccupied, but that changed as a woman holding a lantern came down some stairs. She had auburn curls, worn long, and was strikingly beautiful, though her gray eyes betrayed what could only have been either fatigue or illness. Even so, her eyes glowed as they fell on the Surinnon’s companion, and she smiled broadly.
“Who’s your friend, Ran?” she looked over her shoulder. “Quietly though, Ala and Jan are both sleeping.” The young man answered her smile with a grin of his own and gently pushed Surinnon towards the center of the room, where the light was better. “I believe some introductions are in order,” the young man said. “I’m Ranjulo Siniavi. This is my wife Alicia and, this, honey, is …”
“Surinnon Kael. Happy to meet you, both of you. However, I don’t mean to be rude, but Ranjulo said he could help me.”
Ranjulo coughed. Fidgeted. “Umm … yes. But first, have you eaten this evening?”
“No. Not yet. I just came over the pass.” The couple shared a look. Alicia said: “Then you’re lucky to be alive.”
“That’s more true than you think. But is that stew I smell?”
“Trust a man to change the subject when he’s hungry,” Alicia said, but smiled to take the sting out of her words.
The three of them ate in silence, the couple with an air of ease, but obviously less famished than he by far. Surinnon finished, and Alicia and Ranjulo set aside their bowls unfinished. “Show him the pikes, Ran,” Alicia said.
Ranjulo walked over to the long, low table, excitement making his eyes gleam. With a flourish he pulled the tarp away, revealing three curious objects. They seemed like oversized spears, but the sharp ends were made of a strange, black substance, which glistened in the firelight. Ranjulo picked one up. “These are technically Pikes, as Alicia said. But I prefer to think of them as sword-staffs. It took me three weeks to make them. The points are Obsidian, which, incidentally, is supposed to have magical properties. There’s one problem though–” here he shook the one he held. The point fell off. “No matter how hard I try, the blades won’t stay on. I’ve tried sinew, I’ve tried five different kinds of glue, and even various combinations of the two, but nothing works!”
Surinnon gingerly tested the edge of one of the blades with a thumb, nodding approvingly. Then he winced. Lifting his thumb he revealed a small cut. He sucked on it to ease the pain. “Very sharp though,” he said. Ranjulo left the room, and came back with a wool pad and some gauze. He handed them to Surinnon, who bandaged his wound.
Ranjulo and Alicia collected some blankets and a pillow for Surinnon, showing him a clear space on the floor near to the fire on top of a rug. Then they excused themselves and went upstairs to their bedroom.
* * *
Surinnon woke to the sound of a woman screaming. This was followed by the sound of boots pounding by on the cobblestones outside. Two children came pelting down the stairs, preceding their parents by mere seconds. The girl had her mother’s hair, but Ranjulo’s eyes. She also seemed to be the older of the two by a few years; her brother blinked sleepily and yawned, rubbing his eyes with his small fists.
Ranjulo began to open his mouth, but Surinnon raised his hand. “Please, all of you. Stay here.”
Alicia frowned. “We have just as much right as you to know what’s going on!”
Surinnon nodded. “That’s true,” he acknowledged. “But I smell trouble, and unless I miss my guess, it’s of the bad kind. The kind you should keep your children far, far away from.” Both parents shared a look, but stayed silent as he gathered up his sword and walked out the door, having slept in his clothes.
The first thing he saw was the blood. Next were about a dozen bodies, each one bearing gashes, some broken arms, and all with their necks bent at unnatural angles. The elder from the square was there, looking somber. So were five men with quarterstaffs, and a sixth who was armed with a spear. Surinnon walked closer to the nearest body.
He was bent over, looking more closely, when he felt a thunderbolt strike the back of his head. He fell to his knees, seeing black dots and orange motes of light dance in front of his eyes.
Before his could recover, he felt his arms rudely wrenched behind his back and tied with what felt like leather thongs. Two sets of hands seized him by the shoulders, hoisting him to his feet by his shirt and all but dragging him to the man with the spear. That man had his jaw clenched and if his look had been fire, Surinnon would have been incinerated. “Stranger though you may be, it seems you have a knack for causing trouble, and I myself think it no coincidence that the very night you arrive, twelve men, women and children are killed by the beast, when it’s never taken more than two at a time!” A crowd was beginning to gather, each person trying to crane their necks for a closer look at what was happening.
The spear-man looked at Surinnon. “As marshal of the town guard, I hereby sentence you to be given over to your familiar. If I know anything, it should welcome you with open arms … before its innate bloodlust overcomes its respect, that is!
A burly man wearing a leather apron called out: “Can’t you see he’s here to help, Rudolph? If you weren’t so stupid you’d be on your knees begging this man to share whatever knowledge he has. I say, if Kracken sent him here, then give him a chance to kill the Wendigo!” There was an assenting murmur in the crowd.
The spear-man walked up to the man in the apron and pointed the tip of his spear at the man’s nose. “Be quiet, Stephan! I’m the law in this town! Beg him to help, you say? I say, may all Gods damn the day he came!”
Several men were hefting hammers, axes, and some garden hoes. But then there came the measured tramp of men marching, and about a dozen men armed with nail-studded cudgels reached the edges of the crowd. As they filtered through the crowd, shoving people aside none too gently, they reached Surinnon, taking up station with the other men already there and making a line in front of him. Surinnon saw a look in their eyes which he had seen before: they didn’t like their job, but they had had the habit of obedience drummed into them so hard that none would dare mutiny.
The burly man strode forward, Rudolph retreating at the look in his eyes. “You may think you own this town now, little ‘Dolphy, but mark my words, you’ve claimed your last victim. You’ll see what I mean very soon.” He smiled. “Very soon indeed.” Then he turned and walked away. Rudolph called after him, “I’ll be waiting! You hear me, you coward?! I’ll be waiting!”
The courage of those who had been meaning to start something ebbed away along with the retreat of their leader.
Surinnon had his neck forced back. Then Rudolph poured a fluid in his mouth, from a leather wineskin. The bitterness was overpoweringly strong. Surinnon tried to spit it out, but when he did, Rudolph continued pouring, so that he was forced to swallow with his inhalation. The world took a sideways lurch and Surinnon’s consciousness slipped away on cat’s feet.
* * *
Surinnon was glad to have found the well. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so thirsty. It had been a long day, hot and dry as a worn bone in the middle of an oven. There was even a dipper in the bucket set nearby. How great the water would taste! Eagerly, he dropped his heavy pack and picked up the bucket, which had a rope tied to the handle. The water was hard to see because of the shadow cast by the roof of the well, but he was willing to bet his last copper that it would taste divine.
He lowered the bucket into the well, heard it splash down not six feet below the rim. He hauled it up and scooped a dipperful and was raising it to his mouth before he noticed anything … unusual. The water was red, and it smelled oddly metallic, laced with a sweetly rotten undertone. He tasted one sip and began to retch. Not water! Blood! He heard a burbling noise from the direction of the well and dragged himself to where he could see into it. The fluid level was rising, and rapidly at that. It rose until it overflowed, splashing red gore onto the stones, on the ground.
Fascinated in spite of his disgust, unable to do otherwise, Surinnon looked at the blood still in the well … and saw eyes staring up at him, white, pupil-less eyes.
Surinnon screamed himself awake, yelling hoarsely and incoherently as sleepers just wakened do when they are both terrified by their nightmares’ substance, and overjoyed that their dreams were in fact just dreams. It was night. The moon and the stars cast an eerie blue glow over a snow covered clearing. He was aware that though they were no longer tied together, he couldn’t move his arms. A quick check showed that he had been spread-eagled on the snow, his hands and feet tied to posts driven into the ground, his sword and knife missing. He had a massive headache, and like in his dream, he fought a sense of nausea, but dared not vomit lest he choke on his own bile.
He heard a stealthy footfall. Another. What was odd though was that the footfall was so light. Surely a creature as large as the Wendigo couldn’t move so quietly, could it? Not even if it was magical? Something stirred in the trees at the edge of the clearing, and then stepped into the light.
It was Ranjulo. He caught Surinnon’s eye and smiled broadly, quickening his pace at finding the warrior alone. He carried two of his “sword-staffs,” and the blades were firmly and undoubtedly fixed to the poles. Ranjulo reached Surinnon, took a knife from his belt and began sawing at the other man’s bonds. In seconds Surinnon was free, trying to rub feeling back into his arms and legs where the leather had been cutting off circulation.
“I’ve never been gladder to see anyone in my life!” Surinnon exclaimed. Ranjulo clapped him on the back and handed him one of the weapons.
“There’s no secrets in a town this small. ‘Sides, Rudolph was proud, bragging all over town about what he did to you. Only thing is, he didn’t say where they were taking you, so I kissed Alicia, waited until dark, and then I tracked you. I’m only glad I wasn’t too late!”
Surinnon shook the spear-stave and then gently thumped the butt on the ground. The point stayed on. Ranjulo’s face was lit with a fierce pride. “I did it! I used molten metal to fuse the blades to the wood, that’s part of what took me so long. I don’t mind telling you–” Surinnon held up a hand. There was a loud crunch on the snow, over his left shoulder. His gaze hardened. “Follow my lead,” he whispered and began to turn. Then it hit him.
His ears rang, his pulse seemed to roar in his ears, and he fought to remain conscious. Ranjulo reached out an arm to steady him. “You’re not well. Let me lead!”
Surinnon shook his head. “You’re not … a … warrior,” he croaked.
“It doesn’t matter. You’re too weak to fight.” Here Ranjulo smiled once more, but this time it was a hard, bitter grin. “You. Get. Behind. Me.”
Surinnon wanted to resist, wanted to do something, anything to change the young man’s mind. There was another crunch, louder, as Ranjulo stepped in front of him (Surinnon using the staff as a crutch to stay upright), and then there was no more time. It was here.
* * *
The Wendigo slowly plodded into the clearing on all fours, rising onto two legs to sniff the air cautiously. It looked at Ranjulo and chuffed, following this by pounding the ground and growling menacingly. It grabbed a nearby tree trunk, a stout cottonwood, wrapping its knuckles around where the tree was as thick as a man’s chest with a loud crunch, and ripped the tree out of the ground, roots groaning as they were torn free of the frozen soil. Having done this, the Wendigo threw the whole thing over Ranjulo’s head. Ranjulo didn’t flinch as the massive chunk of wood flew near enough that the wind of its passing ruffled his hair. With a loud bellow, he charged the creature and stabbed it in the leg.
The Wendigo roared. It swung a massive hand in a backhand stroke, catching Ranjulo across the face and sending him flying, to land a short distance from Surinnon. The young man hit the ground and did not move. Dismissing Surinnon with what was a very human sounding chuckle, the beast slowly stalked towards Ranjulo, but with a noticeable limp. Surinnon felt like Hell, but he waited for his moment. Just when the creature was bending over Ranjulo, jaws agape, fangs dripping slobber, he fought with the nausea, fought with the pounding rush of agony, coursing through his skull, and began to run towards it and its intended victim.
The monster sensed something was wrong; it began to turn towards the sound of the running footsteps, but it wasn’t fast enough to stop Surinnon from leaping and swiping the blade of his sword-staff, directed at the Wendigo’s midsection.
He hadn’t known what to expect, but all the same when the blow landed, slicing deep into the creature’s body in a wash of crimson, easily slicing through bone and flesh, cleaving the monster in two, he looked at the black, multi-faceted glassy blade, now dripping red gore, with mouth agape and eyes wide. The Wendigo rattled out its last breaths, and its eyes filmed over and became glassy. And it died.
Surinnon feebly walked over to Ranjulo, the after effects of the adrenaline that had filled him giving him some energy, but the fatigue hitting him as it drained out of his body, and the drug’s continuing influence slugged him in the gut, made it so that all he could manage was a bent over, crouching shuffle. He reached the young man, who lay face down on the snow, and with trepidation, turned him over. He was pale, but breathing, and he groaned weakly in his unconscious torpor. Surinnon sat heavily, the drug’s poison slowly receding so that the fog, the heavy, muzzy, and generally shitty feeling to started to leave him. He began to feel something close to all right.
* * *
Surinnon sat before General Kracken once more, a mug of tea clasped in his hands, a large sack on the floor which gave off a foul stench, made marginally tolerable by the aroma of the tea. “So,” the older man said, sky-blue eyes keen, showing but little emotion. “What did you learn from being drugged like that–hopefully at least a measure of caution? Maybe you shouldn’t have revealed your purpose and intentions right away? At least not after you saw the hysteria in the town.”
“Well, sir, that’s a hard question. Truth be told, I almost died back there, and I don’t know how I managed to do what I did, but if I had to guess–well I’d say it pays to be stubborn sometimes, to find the strength you need in yourself, to survive when almost every fiber of your being makes you feel like just giving up. That might not be all of it, but that’s my best guess. And I know you don’t like quitters, sir.”
General Kracken smiled, one corner of his mouth tilting upwards. “No, I don’t. And does that conclude your report?”
“Yes, sir. Ranjulo Siniavi recovered fully. With the monster dead, the townsfolk quickly turned on Rudolph. They gathered hoes, pitchforks, and hammers and forced him and his thugs out. Last I knew the miscreants were heading south, hoping to find work as mercenaries in the Gem Belt. I wish them luck, seeing as how they never did anything more dangerous than bully scared, somewhat-less-than-rational villagers.”
“Very well.” Kracken stood. “My congratulations on your new Captaincy. I take it you’ll want to pick your own Lieutenants, then?”
“Yes, sir. I would at that.”
Sergio Hartshorne is a Sci-Fi/Fantasy author interested in things like free will, fate, choice, love and how we see it in literature, as well as serpents as sacred symbols. He believes in writing to inspire, even when his stories are at their darkest.