These woods are empty and colder everyday. Not that I feel the cold. My thick hide prevents the bite from reaching my core, no matter how frail I appear. It comes as a small comfort that I will not freeze to death. A death so common among the ladris, among my people.
I do miss it sometimes, though, the cold. The wind swirls around my paws, dusting my claws with a thin layer of snow, and a crunch resounds each time I step. The woods are empty, my padfalls the only sounds. My name is Zigo Enolsee, and I am a wendigo. I roam these woods, searching for food but hoping I will never find it.
A scream reaches my ears.
The woods aren’t as empty as I first thought. As I first dared to hope.
I narrow my eyes, vision focusing on six lost people. Hunkering down, a branch digs into my back, but I ignore the pain in favor for stealth. Six men. Only five are alive. The unfortunate sixth has perished. The scent of copper stings my nose, and my fur stiffens. One of the five raises his hand, a bloodied dagger clutched within his fingers.
Did the survivors kill the sixth? They must have. For now they cheered, a sharp sound in my once-empty woods. A sound that bounced off the spindly trees and overcast sky.
Crimson fire emerges from one of their hands. The magic spheres on the ground, burning the snow away in an intentional circle. The others kneel around the body. Ripping clothes, skin. They throw bloodied chunks onto the frozen ground around them. The pyro directs the flames, scorching the meat to black. Fear knocks my breath away. They intend to eat the sixth, but they do not know the consequences. The hunger unable to be quenched. Unending. Unyielding. Even as a wendigo, the hunger burns. Even though I know having more of my kind would increase my chance for survival, I cannot let this happen. Becoming a wendigo is, quite simply, worse than death.
Would they stop if I showed them what they would become? It is my only chance. I link my mind with the pyro’s. I know you are hungry, but do not eat your friend. You will not like the consequences.
The pyro searches for the source. Searching for me. His thoughts enter my mind. So…hungry.
I project my mind into the others. You will become a monster. A wendigo.
They shout. Tug their heavy dark cloaks tight. Step closer together. Step away from the body. Their fear heightens. But underneath I sense disbelief. Wariness. I understand. It seems like a death toll when that hunger claws within you. A hunger so feral you would willingly eat your own kin. Then, to have a voice enter your mind warning of wendigos? They were a myth among my people, too. A bedtime story to scare the little ones.
But I must stop them from making this mistake. I step from my hiding spot, raising my antlers and muzzle to the cloudy sky, extending my long limbs, showing them what they would become. I can smell them clearly even over the sour stench of their comrade. Fear. Rage. Confusion. But the pyro steps forward. His dark books stomp down the snow, heavy cloak flaring outward, a bright-red ball of fire moving back and forth between his hands.
Do you know how it feels to shift? I ask. The stretching of bones, the splitting of your own skin? Tearing into your best friend because the beast wants to? I am this way because one tiny scrap of my comrade’s flesh passed my lips. Because I was hungry. And because I didn’t believe.
The pyro yells and raises his hands. Crimson flames shoot out, faster than I had anticipated. I barely manage to leap out of the way. My tail sears. Burnt. Still, I must do something. I dash around the men and clamp my jaws down on their dead comrade, dragging him away. Warm ladris blood gushes down my throat, and I struggle to keep sane. To keep the beast from taking over completely. I throw the body over a fallen log, ignoring the burnt scraps I left in my wake in favor of a more immediate danger.
The pyro screams. A wall of white-yellow flame rushes to me, and I cannot escape. I am not so proud to admit that a part of me does not want to. The scorching pain is almost…welcomed. The fire licks up my fur, and a different scent fills my senses. Like old rotten wood unable to catch but finally doing so. I fall to the ground, antlers snapping on impact and muzzle digging into the snow. For the first time since I took on my new form, I can feel the ice pushing into my jaw. The cold.
The men still yell, pointing in my direction, pointing at each other, pointing at the log. At the blackened pieces of flesh I left behind. Arguing. Angry. Scared. At least I accomplished that much. Shaking his head, the pyro walks back to the others. I thought he would join the argument, but he kneels down and picks something I can barely see off the ground. Something blackened. He puts it into his mouth and chews. Chews. Chews.
My eyes close on their own accord, but the wendigo curse lives on.
Kellie Doherty is a writer and editor based out of Eagle River, Alaska. She writes queer science fiction and fantasy in numerous forms including novels, short stories, flash fiction, and poetry. Her work has been published by Desert Palm Press, Mischief Corner Books, and Back of Beyond Press, among others.