Mikkelson the hunter, cold and lost, crumpled between the tall trees. Snow topped, they turned a black sky white and his world upside down. He gasped, and grasped for his waterskin, pulling the corked end free and swigging the last of the water within. There was little to quench his dry thirst, and for all the snow, he held onto his senses enough to warrant the caution of frostbitten lips. The wind howled, and no doubt wolves within, and he knew, though dying, he had enough life left to find shelter; something, anything kept hidden from the grip of winter cold.
He climbed and forged on, pulling the fedora tip to his nose. The snow battered him, it hated him, it wanted to claim him for the wild forest. Simpatico: the children carried the seed, and the Earth Mother gave them the means to do so. He fell though, no mind for philosophy, and leant a battered arm to hard bark. A moment’s breath: a second, a third, a blink or two, and something in the distance, out of place caught his ragged attention: a light. He thought maybe a home, some lonely, snowy denizen hiding in nature for his refuge.
The heat of survival drew his legs tighter, gave his back poise. Mikkelson pushed on, invigorated by this new, preferable option to untimely expiration. Come to me, he prayed, be the fire-stoked home to rest by broken body. As he neared though, he saw it; nothing but a cave, though a cave with light within meant something more. The prize he’d left Europe and journeyed the Great Path for. Cocked pistol in hand, he slowed and stalked his way closer. Inside, a shadow painted itself upon the walls, flickering in monstrous shapes of pointed joints and bony form. A step from one hazard to another and the black shape writhed, shrinking away and fading, but no light died. Still the cave was illuminated, though Mikkelson was not.
A moment more, with no pause on entry, and he was inside. A corner waited, turning him from the white behind; of sure and easy freedom. Beyond the sight of snow outside, something new introduced itself. A woman, old, lay atop a pile of broken bones bequeathed by past visitors. Her arms held a rifle, locked on a dark hole beyond: the exit, or entrance to deeper caverns beneath.
She turned. He paused. They aimed at one another.
“Well? Are you here to save me, or kill me?” She said; thick accented words, hard to understand.
Mikkelson raised his colt, though his rib cried louder than his threat. He winced, taking a sharp intake and dropping his weak arm. “Hverken,” his frozen jaw rolled, “Eh, neither. Here for the creature.”
“Too many to name out here, but I’m guessing you mean the Wendigo?” The woman kept her aim trained.
He snorted. “I have no need for Indian names. It is a sickness escaped from Niflheim, and back to Hel I should send it!” Bruised bones and an empty stomach left his patience vacant.
The woman, lowering her rifle, sighed with blown-out cheeks. “Well alrighty then. Seen as you are most definitely not from around here, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Now help me up.”
Cautious as he may have been, Mikkelson saw she was more warn than he. The weathered cave gave protection, but little more. She would not last long, left alone atop the bonepile. Holstering his pistol, he approached with care, seeing that her legs were stained red.
“Straight to it, hmm? Not even going to ask for a pretty lady’s name?” She smiled. “Well, no worries. I, this damsel you do not know, have broken my leg – well, it were broken for me.”
Mikkelson, though experienced with such a life as this and the lessons it tends to teach, paused. He looked her over, then down the black hole in back, and felt his own pains within still yelling for attention. “The… Wendigo did this?”
She propped herself up; an attempt to slide down the pile followed. “Well, it weren’t no wolves.”
“…you attack, and yet you live?” He helped her away, finding temporary solace at a rock. “How so?”
“You so,” she moaned, adjusting her posture. “Wandering in when you did – wrong place, but sure as hell right time.” A waterskin appeared, taken from her belt. “Drink? You need it too.”
He nodded, tasting a bitter wash of rehydration. A sleeve wiped red from his lips; a cut somewhere within perhaps. His body thanked him, quietening down their childish rants and being still for just a moment. Silence took them for a time, Mikkelson letting tired eyes take in the cave’s entirety. It was lit well, by torches on low stands. Several bodies cluttered the floor, most in half-dress: parts of clothing missing and some completely naked, baring bite marks where fatty meals resided.
“Where are you from, stranger?”
Mikkelson turned, looking her over also. “Denmark,” he said, “across the seas.”
“I didn’t think you meant Massachusetts.” Her lips parted, she smiled. “You got a name?”
There was no reason to spend all this information, and spill the borders of personal details to this stranger, in a cave, in the middle of a frozen western world miles beyond any town. Yet he did, and without care, perhaps he lacked conviction of making it beyond this craggy hell.
“Søren Mikkelson.” A stretch burned as he walked to the dark entrance. “It went down here?” The black was assaulting; a creature in and of itself. It pulled at him, swallowing his face and features, tempting him into its emptiness.
“Aye,” she said. “You alone, Søren? No friends to sail with from Denmark, no hired guns from the coast? I find that a mighty bit… irresponsible, to come hunting for some creature by yourself, I mean.”
Heavy breaths echoed as he tore himself from the pulling darkness. Looking to her across the cave, Mikkelson rubbed his eyes; shook his head. “No more but me, I had a friend.” A guilty weight tried to suffocate his words. “Lars…” he whispered. “It is not important.”
“Fair enough, I’d hate to pry.” She smiled again, sincerity lost. “I have a question for you, a one you might find mundane, but entertain me. It’s important.”
Mikkelson tilted his head; a line begun with loss of warmth gave him no desire to ponder. He flicked his wrist, the colt un-holstered, levelled at his hip. “What do you want from me?”
“Well, I don’t want to die here, that’s for sure.” She waved a hand. “My question is simple: If you left this cave and headed back, could you make it into town? I, most obviously cannot, but your wounds seem frightfully less dire.”
Pistol unwavering, he let his eyes roam again. The cave seemed brighter, though unlikely so, and yet he felt capable. Doubt had triumphed outside, and extinguished his abilities to conduct the hunt. But inside, warm and watered, he knew it quite possible. He nodded, understanding more than just curious questions.
Mikkelson, with experienced hands, pulled a twin colt from a holster and raised it, firing it down the dim tunnel beyond. Bang and whoop followed: no attack, no reprimand. Just silence.
He turned back. “You are the Wendigo.” He knew it to be true, fearing no fool for misplaced guesswork.
Her smile went to pout, eyes loosing reflection. “Quick, I’ll give you that. Most of these boys stumble in, all bravado, wanting to help a lady fallen on bad luck… my heroes. Not you though, Søren. Hmm?”
“You are no lady.” Pistols and words; all fell on her. “Where is the death form, where is the body Hel gave you, creature?”
“Harsh words, mister. You might just hurt my feelings going on like that.” She stood from the rock, awkwardly so, her manipulation of body not beyond the wounds. “What gave my show away, Nord man?”
Air shivered; the light adjusting to her unseen build. Mikkelson chinned the fiery torches. “They are mounted low, and these dead are missing clothing.” Eyes met. “You are wearing them; their memories, and their warmth.” He rounded the centre, moving to exit. “And the bite marks, they are yours.”
She, the it-thing Wendigo, snarled. Body shook and earth beneath, and all around the cave constricted. “You know of nothing, fool. You come here, near death, and I save you! I will take that price, too.” An unseen hand tweaked its marionette with mastered skills. The body fell, limp and cool, and the shadow appeared; realised in his presence.
“Price?” Mikkelson coolly considered its words. His strides even, his calm controlled. “Ah, you need me, my body? Loki made you flawed, Lofn bred you sick? A broken-legged servant is no servant at all. You are a sygdom… a sickness.”
“Be quiet your Norse ranting, this is my home!” Spat the Wendigo. “You trespass, you die. I take you, and you are mine, and with it and your loss, I will leave this place and travel to the community, and exact my will on them!” The black shape grew, washing the ceiling with its presence: a new sky of black.
Mikkelson unloaded both colts, bringing war on himself. They bounced inadequately, causing not bloodshed but frown upon his cautious face. He turned to run, but found the snow-white exit snuffed out by shadowy suffocation. “Take me…” his lips repeated, “take… me.”
“Babbled words from a soul gone mad,” the Wendigo crowed.
“How?” He asked, to all and nothing; the cave as was the Wendigo’s presence. “I am no cannibal; I knelt not to that taboo for gain.”
The textured wall of ravens-black laughed. “Drank plentiful though, of my water did you not? Though water… or blood, in quantity of another’s, or indeed of many others. In good conscience, you used them to survive. Now your skin and bones and body heal. Did you not, Nord man… did you not?”
He growled, calm gone, armour pierced: a chink found by an untouchable demon. Mikkelson returned one pistol to his waist, practicing the other to his temple. “You will not win.” He pulled the trigger, blasting hot round through soft flesh; an eye sprouting above his check. His body collapsed.
“NO!” The Wendigo screamed. Rock shook and stone fell, and all about dust filled the cave. Bony shadow withdrew, giving way once more to the form of the broken woman. She hobbled to him, to roll affront his gaping maw, to see the horror of suicidal features. A click announced a drawing back of steel hammer…
…and with a polished bang, the colt fired.
Re-animated senses blinked as one, and then the body folded onto burning torches. The flames licked, tasting old-fibred clothing and evil soul. The Wendigo howled, trapped in the physical, unable to sprout its shadows and dance away. Smoky clouds drifted as dead flesh burned.
The new white sky outside the cave had turned to warmest blue. The sun brought warmth, the trees gave way, and rays collected at booted feet once more. He wiped off his colt, and holstered the weapon still; for another day, another place it would be recalled. Mikkelson, though not the finest medic, wrapped the dry cloth thick, and tied it tightly across hollow socket. His eye was gone, but his life was ripe. Just as Odin: half-blind but wiser, waiting for his next Ragnarök.
He walked on, back to the Great Path.