Home for the Holidays (3)

We’re getting very close to Christmas now, and what’s better to spread holiday cheer than a story about Wendigos and a sweet, old couple in the suburbs? Enter Chapter 3 of my newest Nick Ventner tale, Home for the Holidays. If you need to catch up, here’s a link to Chapter 1/Chapter 2!

Excuse the makeshift cover art!

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3 – A Few More Cups

Nick was drunker than he had been in a long time. One of his least favorite parts of lacking income was the inability to get good and truly tossed without a fair share of guilt. Sharing booze with ‘family’, he had no such obligation. From the moment Bill had handed him his first cup, Nick had taken on a singular goal: Forget any misgivings, and possibly the rest of the evening.  

     Luckily for him, it turned out Bill and Marie could really throw them back. What started as a quick game of cards with several convoluted drinking rules he couldn’t remember, quickly turned into a straight drinking contest. The alcohol turned on him before he even noticed, and the room took on the pulsating, spinning blur quality that only existed on the other side of the line.  

     As he sat back in a plush armchair, there wasn’t much else in the world he cared about beyond himself. His fingertips were numb, but there was a fresh cup of something brain-smashing between them. Was there anything else that mattered? An instinct, more than anything, tilted his head to look at James. The kid was curled up under an electric blanket, brooding. His eyes flicked watchfully between the three of them, and Nick felt he was missing something important.   

     When he couldn’t figure it out, Marie took notice and prodded. “What’s going on, James? Don’t want to join in all the festivities?”

     James worked his hands, trying to keep the cold out of them. “Sorry, I think I just had a bad burger or something on the road.”

     Nick looked at him quizzically. Years ago, he had implemented a simple rule: No stopping for apprentices. They hadn’t stopped for burgers anymore than they had traveled through a magical candy-cane village. Nick sipped his drink. Candy canes! That’s what this is made of.

     “Where’s the bathroom again?” asked James. His face looked gaunt in the dim light of the living room.

     Be it imaginary burgers or moodiness, something was wrong with the kid, even Nick could see it. A flash bulb went off in the corner of his mind showing a mess of fur in the snow, but it was gone too quickly to grasp fully. Suspicion crept back into Nick’s booze-addled brain. He couldn’t figure out why, but it was getting stronger every second.   

     “Just down the hall on the first floor. Can’t miss it.” Bill pointed in the direction Nick had been exploring earlier.

     “Thanks, hopefully it’s just indigestion.” James slunk off in the direction of the bathroom looking more melancholy than food sick.  

     “He’s a good kid, you know?” Nick’s words were thick, dripping from his mouth like a decadent sauce. “Always does—” Nick faltered, “mostly does what he’s told. One of the better apprentices I’ve ever had.” James was many things, but he wasn’t a liar. Nick knew there was something to the burger comment, but in his current state of half awareness, he was having more than a little trouble connecting the dots.

     Bill’s eyes narrowed. “Do they have apprentices in accounting now?”

     Nick hiccupped, only half realizing his mistake. “Oh yes, accounting, loads of numbers. Have to get them all figured out somehow, don’t we?” The room was starting to spin. Why was the room starting to spin? Nick’s stomach turned and he felt the horrible rush of bile come bubbling up into his throat. “Oh god, will you excuse me.” Nick took off running for the bathroom. “For the love of god, James, I hope you—” his sentence was cut off by vomit spewing forth from him like a vengeful internal volcano.

     “Oh god, I’m sorry about that, I’ll clean it up!” Nick fell to his knees, holding his head between his hands. A great pain had come barreling back from the corner of consciousness he tried to banish. “Oh god, don’t get sober on me now,” slurred Nick, trying to convince his own brain.

     James stepped out of the bathroom. “I wouldn’t worry about the floor.” His tone was dead and flat.

     “No, come on now, I won’t be a rude house guest.”

     “Too late for that.”

     “Why are you being so pissy, my boy, aren’t we having a good time.”

     “For someone with so many rules, you don’t seem to pay much attention to them.” James pulled a shotgun from behind his back and pumped it, loading a shell.

     “What the fuck?” Nick backed away reflexively and tried to pull the harpoon gun from his jacket. A switch snagged and the weapon extended, pushing through his coat pocket and sending a harpoon flying into the ceiling. Plaster rained down, mixing with Nick’s vomit on the floor and forming a grey-brown slurry. “Oh god, I’ll pay for that too, but in fairness, you did pull a gun on me.”

“I’m not pulling it on you, idiot.”

Nick shook his head. “Wait, then who’s it for? Is Bill a hunter?”

     “Bill and Marie have been sober for over a decade.” James held up Nick’s tome. “You dog-eared the page. Turns out, much like you, wendigos like their liquor.”

     “Wendi-what?” A roar cut through the house and all at once, the lights went out.

     “You just had to make a scene, didn’t you?” James turned on a flashlight attached to the end of the shotgun. “And to think, you didn’t want me to spring for the extra tactical gear.

     “Hey, who’s the apprentice and who’s the?” A clawed hand caught Nick from behind and threw him in the air. He collided with the ceiling, missing the embedded harpoon by inches. The concealed rifle tore the rest of the way through his jacket and clattered down the hallway. Nick landed in a squelching pile of his own sick and the smell almost made him vomit again.  

     Thunder roared through the entryway as James fired the shotgun. Pellets of bright white fire spread out in a cone, briefly illuminating Bill whose eyes glowed red in the darkened house. The pellets ripped through his skin, starting little fires wherever they touched, and spraying brown-black liquid onto the floor.  

     Nick rolled to his side and watched as Bill batted at the fire, his skin tearing where it had touched. From somewhere beneath the human formerly known as Bill, a larger creature began to emerge. His bones creaked, growing and pushing against the taught cover of skin. Fur sprouted in ugly patches, tearing and rending his human form. A horrible crunching filled the room as two bloody elk horns extended from the man’s skull.

     “Ahhhhh!” Screamed Nick. “James, it’s a Krampus!”

     “It’s not a Krampus, dumbass.” James fired another blast from the shotgun. The creature screamed and turned away. With a single, hulking blow, it ran through the front door, sending the weak, wooden rectangle flying off and into the snow storm. Before James could get another shot off, it was out of range and lumbering through the storm.

     “It’s not?” Nick asked, watching the door resentfully. “I’ve always wanted to fight a Krampus.”

     James held up the tome again. “Wendigo, remember?” He shook the book like someone would shake keys for a small toddler.

     Nick vomited again. “Oh, right, right, of course, the wendigo.” He wiped his mouth. “Well, either way, that leaves us with a pretty significant problem.”

     “What’s that?”

     “Well, you’ve pissed one of them off, but where’s his dear partner?”

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Link to Next Chapter!

Home for the Holidays – A Nick Ventner Tale

The following is the first chapter of a holiday Nick Ventner Tale. If you like wendigos, booze-ridden monster hunters, and a bit of cheer, read on 🙂

1 – The Suburbs

Snow fell in heavy flakes on the windshield of the beat-up sedan. “You sure this thing is going to make it through the storm?” Nick unscrewed the top of his silver flask and tried desperately to get a few more drops out of it. Somehow, on the three hour drive out of Midway, it had all disappeared. He wasn’t sure, but he suspected some sort of water demon might have had a claw in it.

     “I’ve done this drive plenty of times, Nick.” James hands gripped the steering wheel calmly. The weak, yellow cones of the headlights tried to cut a path through the snow, but barely illuminated ten feet in front of them. The highway, usually bumper-to-bumper with traffic, was almost completely empty. Occasionally, they’d pass another vehicle, gathering snow after its owners had abandoned it, but no one else was fool enough to still be out.

     “Maybe we should turn back to Midway, get ourselves a couple of handles and spend the night drinking every time we see a snowflake.” Nick shook the flask violently, rattling the metal stopper. “I could have sworn there was more of this.”

     “You drank it before we even hit the onramp. I believe your words were: How fast do you think I can—”

     “Drink this flask, alright, I get it.” Nick tossed the empty flask to the floor. “Why would anyone live out here anyway?”

     “Parkview is a nice place for those who don’t like the hustle and bustle.”

     “Quite a few murders for the burbs if I remember right.”

     “That was over twenty years ago, and I’ll remind you, you wanted to come.”

     Nick sighed and slumped into the seat. “Only because you said there would be free food. I don’t know if you’ve seen the financials lately, but after the Cerberus in the sewers, no one is jumping to hire us.” It had been a damned good fight, but so messy for Public Works the following morning. Pissing off civil servants was never a good way to drum up more business. “Fucking unions,” Nick muttered.

     “Maybe if you hadn’t have pumped it full of thermite right next to a gas main, the explosion would have been smaller.”

     Nick huffed and leaned his head against the window. The glass was cold, calming what was sure to be the start of a raging hangover if he couldn’t get to more booze soon. “We might have been that thing’s chew toy if I hadn’t.”

     James sighed. “Maybe we could use a bit more planning for the job we’ve got coming up in Clearwater?”

     Nick laughed. “The tabloid job? You’re staying in the car for that one. It’s going to be a quick in and out, nothing more.”

     “You ever fought a sasquatch before?”

     “It’s just a man in—” Nick stopped as the radio turned on suddenly, flipping between stations rapidly and playing unintelligible garbled static. A mix of Christmas music, weather warnings and talk radio blasted through the car at full volume. Nick slapped at the dial trying to get it to turn off, but the noise sent sharp pain coursing into his temples.

     James reached out and turned the dial to off, but the radio continued to whine and sputter. Ahead of them something ran across the road, visible only briefly in the headlights. Nick had a chance to see mangy, grey fur before James slammed on the brakes. The car started to spin immediately, sliding sideways through the freeway like a drunken acrobat.

     “Jesus, James, turn into the spin!” screamed Nick, wishing once more that he had been more thoughtful with his flask rations.

     James turned the wheel, gripping it with white knuckles and the car skidded slowly to a stop. Looking through the fogged windshield, it was difficult to see anything beyond the falling snow.

     “What was that?” asked Nick.

     “Probably a bear. They started moving out here a few years ago after the forest fire.”

     “A bear, in the dead of winter?”

     James sighed. “Do we really need to talk about climate change again, Nick?”

     “I don’t know, does climate change explain why the bear would have fucked with the radio?” Nick reached into the back seat and pulled out a thick, leather-bound tome. He always carried it with him , despite protestations from James that ‘monsters don’t live in the suburbs.’ He’ll learn, thought Nick and began flipping through the tome’s pages.

     “Five minutes out of Midway and you’re pulling out the Monster Manual?” James scoffed.

     “You know damned well, it’s not called that.”

     “It’s a manual for monsters. What would you like me to call it?”

     “It’s the ramblings of a drunken master who killed far more beasties than you or I. Now, I suggest you start driving, because the longer I go without a drink, the lower your chances of survival get.”

     “Right, like your other apprentices?” James put the car into gear and they were rumbling down the snow-covered highway again.  

     Nick rolled his eyes. For once, he had been completely honest with James when he hired him. Almost all his previous apprentices had died horribly at the hands of strange creatures, cannibal cults, or door-to-door salespeople with a grudge. Trouble was that James hadn’t believed him and thought it was all just a scare tactic. It didn’t help that the confrontation with the Cerberus had given him far too much confidence for his own good.

     James continued guiding them on their already harrowing journey to suburbia. Nick read through the pages of his master’s book, looking for creatures that lived in cold climates. There were far too many for an expeditious search. It seemed the old fool had catalogued everything, even a yeti, a creature most believed to be extinct. Finally, after looking specifically for entries tagged with ‘Found in Urban Areas’, Nick came upon The Wendigo.

     The beast was originally of Native American origin, but in the modern world had become more of a general horror. Nick read on. Wendigos are one of the trickiest beasts for a hunter to encounter. While I am fairly certain I have never run across one, there is no way to be sure as Wendigo are well versed in psychic warfare. When they aren’t roaming the forests looking for fresh prey, they can disguise themselves in human form.

     James pulled off the highway and onto a street lined with identical houses. To differentiate themselves, the various owners had littered the outside with colored lights. Nick looked out the window and saw an inflatable Santa Claus rocking back and forth in the strong winds. “Why did it have to be the suburbs?”

     “Oh, shut up and enjoy it.” A wide grin was plastered across James’s face.

     Nick was distracted by his puzzlement. In their short time together, James had been nothing more than a dour, sarcastic ass. How was the kid not panicking about the creature or the radio? Nick shook his head and continued reading. What’s worse, Wendigos are so persuasive in their appearance that they can force false memories on their prey. Nick stopped as a few pieces clicked together. “Hey James, how did you say you know these people again?”

     He laughed. “They’re my family, Nick. Well, not blood-related, but they were around all the time when I was a kid. You know, the kind of people you call aunt and uncle even though they’re not?”

     Nick didn’t have the slightest idea what the hell James was talking about. Holiday cheer at the Ventner household was found at the bottom of a candy-cane-stuffed rum bottle. Between that and re-runs of the same fifteen movies on television, the holidays passed in a fuzzy blur. “But you’re not blood related? Interesting.” Nick turned back to the book.  

     “What are you reading about?”

     “Probably nothing, don’t worry about it.” The entry didn’t say anything about radio frequencies or messing with electronics, but Nick supposed with a psychic being, that wouldn’t be too far off the mark. “How much farther?”

     “Five minutes. Enjoy the view. Isn’t this nice?”

     “Sure, kid, this is nice.” The words tasted like vomit. Somehow, over the course of their drive, the holiday lights had grown more prevalent. Nick looked out the window at the glittering houses and felt an empty feeling. Something wasn’t right, he was pretty sure of it. A queasy feeling sloshed around in his lower stomach. All at once, he felt the contents of the flask he had drained. Maybe it’s just that, he reassured himself.

Second chapter will be uploaded soon! There will be a total of five chapters, all out before Christmas. If you like it, consider sharing the story around, I’ve recently deactivated Facebook, so word of mouth is all we’ve got!

Short Story – When a Cold Wind Whistles

Here’s a short inspired by another North American legend, the Wendigo. I don’t often write thriller, but I had this idea one day and here we are. If you enjoy the short story, consider checking out my full novel, Whiteout, the tale of a drunken monster hunter chasing a yeti.

When a Cold Wind Whistles

“Someone once told me stories are best told on a cold night next to a warm flame.”

The wind whipped through the trees, scattering the ashes of their campfire into the snowy air.

“Others say, stories of the creature are best left alone. Just saying its name is enough to bring misfortune upon you.”

Bud and Larry sat listening, holding cans of cold beer between gloved hands. The old man had been guiding their hunt for three days, and hadn’t said much beyond ‘Deer, there’ or ‘Rest now’. Only after an hour silent by the campfire toward the midnight hour had he spoke at all.

“Fifty years ago, on a cold, starless night, I was guiding a camping group.” He let his eyes drift to the sky, watching the ashes turn from white, to orange, to black. “Family of four, nice enough folk. Mother worked in town, father was a business man. Both wanted the boys to see something that wasn’t concrete and glass.”

“He’s talking about the Millers,” whispered Bud.

Larry nodded, silently remembering the legend that had grown almost as old as the town itself.

“Yes, the Millers, that was their name.”

“One of the worst bear attacks in the county history,” said Bud, taking another sip.

“There was no bear.” The man sat silent for a moment.

In the distance, a branch cracked. Both men shivered, but the old man sat straight-backed, as if he had heard nothing.

“They had a dog too,” he added. “Cute thing. Always liked dogs.” He reached for the six pack of beers buried in the snow and broke one off the ring.

“Hey-” started Larry, but Bud stayed him with a strong hand.

It didn’t seem the old man was asking permission anyway. With a gnarled finger, he cracked the tab with a snap hiss that echoed off the quiet forest beyond. He drained the can in one go, tossing the empty shell at the fire and sending a shower of sparks into the sky.

“My father had always told me no one wanders these mountains for free.” He turned his eyes from the fire to look at each of the men in turn. They squirmed under his intense gaze. “I was a willful child. Something I think you two might know something about.”

Bud laughed and the old man nodded.

“Yes, I thought so. Well, being the child I was, I had no desire for ancient rituals and hokum.” He smiled, but it was thin, like the act was tearing at the edges of his fragile skin. “There’s an altar just at the edge of the woods where all guides pay tribute beneath an ancient elk skull that was nailed there centuries ago. I never paid our passage, figuring I could use that money to buy a better bottle when I got back. So, we set off, me, the father, the mother, the two boys, and Rufus, that cute, yapping dog of theirs.

The first two days were really something spectacular. Clear skies, lots of wildlife, and good conversation around the campfire. Much like we’re having here tonight.”

The men didn’t think it much of a conversation but remained silent.

“The first night, we sat around the campfire, drinking and reveling, the second, more of the same, and then there was the third. I should have known from the moment that damned yapping dog took off into the sunset that something was wrong. Never did see that dog again.” He reached forward and pulled another beer off the ring. Once again, he drank it in a single gulp.

“You should slow—”

“We looked for that dog for hours, but when it grew dark, we did the only sensible thing; made a fire, left out a tin of food, and hoped the dog would find it before some other creature got to it. As last light faded from the sky, the children fell into a tearful sleep. I hated seeing them like that, but there were more pressing concerns.

Around that fire there was no drinking and no reveling. The father wanted to go looking for the dog and several times I had to physically restrain him from doing so. The man was adamant. Eventually, I got him to calm down, explaining to him that he’d likely be killed. There are no shortage of dangers in the forest at night, especially in the dead of winter.”

 

Larry felt his eyes drift from the fire to the forest. The trees were thin and barren; the snow giving them an odd, grey glow in the firelight.

“It was around then that the wind got this high, warbling whistle to it, like some diseased bird calling in the distance. When it didn’t stop or slow, the parents looked to me for guidance.

‘What was that?’ asked the father, standing from his seat.

A darkness grew over me then. All at once, the foolish error of my ignorance was laid bare. There was a dry crackle as something snapped branches in the distance.

The father turned away from the fire. ‘Maybe it’s Rufus’, he offered.

‘The dog’s dead,’ I replied.

In the trees, the high-pitched warble continued, growing closer with every second, threatening to drive me to madness. How he thought it was the dog, I’ll never know.

‘Just listen here,’ started the father, walking toward me in an attempt at menace. ‘We’ve had quite enough of your-’

I covered my ears, hoping to drown out the noise, but it buzzed in my skull like a trapped animal. A cold wind blew through the camp and for the first time, I shivered.

The father struck me, trying to stir me to action, but growing up in the village, I had heard the stories. Just because I had put no stock in them didn’t mean I hadn’t listened. The warbling continued, intensifying until I could hear nothing else. The pain was immeasurable. Something wanted in, and it took all my effort to keep it away. Then, as the noise reached its fever pitch it cut out suddenly leaving us in silence.”

 

The old man paused, letting his eyes drift off the fire once more.

Larry wanted to tell him to stop, but they had never asked him for the story the first place. He didn’t put much stock in ancient legends but didn’t like jinxing a good hunting trip either. They only had one day left before heading back to town, and he wanted to get a good sleep.

“What happened?” asked Bud, leaning forward in his camping chair, nose practically touching the flame.

The old man let out a heavy sigh and raised a hand to his temple. In the distance, a wind blew once more and branches cracked.

“If you don’t want to tell it,” offered Larry, seeing a way out.

Bud shot him a look telling Larry to shut up and pushed the remainder of the beer cans toward the old man.

He opened his eyes again, looking down at the offering. “Kind of you,” he said, snagging another can and draining it in a single gulp, leaving a single beer on the ring.

“Sure,” said Bud, impressed.

Larry dropped a hand to the rifle resting by his side, watching the tree line where the branches had cracked. Probably just getting spooked, he told himself, feeling the wood of the stock. But never hurts to be prepared. With the moon blotted out by clouds, the fire didn’t offer much in terms of vision, but it still made him feel safer.

 

“The sound stopped, and for a long while, I just sat there, eyes shut, knowing that whatever was going to be there when I opened them wasn’t good.

‘Sir?’ asked the mother, her kind voice like an angel after the warbling. ‘I’m sorry he acted like that.’

I opened my eyes to see the husband had gone. The wife knelt before me, holding a cool hand to my forehead. ‘Where?’ I asked.

‘He stormed off looking for Rufus. He’ll be back soon.’ Her tone was calm, as if she expected nothing less.

‘No,’ I replied. ‘He won’t.’ I felt it, even before I saw it; the tug at my spine, letting me know I had become prey. I lifted my gaze, looking beyond the campfire, my heart freezing in my chest as I did so.

None of the stories did it justice. I stared into the glowing red eyes of a thousand dead men, all wrapped into one. The creature itself stood nine feet tall, skin pale and waxy as if it had been pulled straight from the grave. Bones poked out at odd, uncomfortable angles, in some places bursting through the flesh into the naked air.”

 

The old man put a hand to his side, remembering.

Larry pulled the rifle into his lap. He couldn’t be sure, but it felt like the wind had moved from a hollow whine to a low whistle.

Bud stared across the fire, eyes never leaving the old man.

 

“Its head was that of an elk, huge and dead for some time, lifeless, apart from the glowing red eyes. Its antlers had been sharpened to knife points and bore the dark, black stains of murder. I stared at it, and it stared at me. In its right arm, it carried a bundle, obscured in the darkness.

The creature cocked its head to one side and pulled the elk’s mouth wide to a grin of pointed teeth and lifted a clawed arm. Hanging limply, speared by a wicked claw, was the husband. He looked up at me through dying eyes, and whispered: ‘Run.’

I heard it as if the words were spoken right in my ear.

The wife must have heard it too, because she turned just in time to see the creature grip her husband with a second clawed hand. In a clean motion it tore him in half tossing the ragged body to either side with a sickening splatter.

The woman screamed, and the creature began its warbling whistle again. I tried in vain to reach for my gun but found myself frozen to my chair.

Maybe it was shock, maybe she was feeling the same thing, but the woman didn’t run. She stayed put.

‘Don’t,’ I pleaded with the creature. ‘I’ll pay the price.’ It was my ignorance that had brought it down on us in the first place.

It paid me no heed and crossed the distance to our camp in three easy strides. The red light of our fire danced in the creature’s eyes and with an effortless swipe, it put it out. Left with nothing but the light of the stars and the moon, the creature somehow looked ghostlier than before.

The woman moved in between the creature and the tent containing her children. ‘Get the hell away from me!’ she screamed at it.

The creature let out a low, shuddering laugh. Frozen to my chair, I watched as bones and muscle tensed in its back. The whistling started again and the creature knelt to the woman’s height so that it could look at her eye to eye.

‘Fuck you,’ she spat.

The creature brought a clawed hand up into her chest, lifting her off her feet.

She gagged and spluttered, trying desperately to get a final breath. Blood flowed from her lips and down her chin. The creature twisted its claw and let her fall to the side. She was dead before she hit the ground.

Scared, shuffling noises came from within the tent and the creature turned its head hungrily.”

 

The old man’s eyes went vacant, staring into the fire, reflecting its light.

Larry stood up from his camping chair, looking around the forest uneasily. “I’ll say it, Bud. I don’t like this story.”

If the old man heard him, he didn’t say anything.

“Oh come on, Larry. It’s just a ghost story. Grow a pair and sit down.” Bud chuckled to himself. “I had no idea you were such a sissy.”

Larry racked the slide on his rifle.

“Will you cut that out. You’re going to hurt someone,” said Bud, standing from his chair. “Put the gun down Larry, it’s just a story.”

There was another crack from the woods and both men turned suddenly. “It’s a racoon, Larry,” put the gun down.

Larry’s heart beat violently in his chest.

“Wendigos you see,” started the old man again, “are inherently greedy, gluttonous creatures.” He snagged the final beer can.

Larry and Bud turned their attention back to him.

He stared straight into the fire, not looking up at either of them. “It had already killed two fully grown adults. Plenty to feast on for days to come. But when it heard the cries of those children. It wasn’t survival, or even sport, it was pleasure. The smile on those dead lips was one I’ll never forget.”

“I want him to stop telling this story!” yelled Larry, hysterically. He backed away from the campfire, suddenly afraid of the old man.

“Jesus Christ, Larry.”

Larry swung the rifle around toward the forest.

“Alright, that’s it.” Moving up behind him, Bud took the rifle and stripped it from Larry’s grip, elbowing him in the gut as he did so.

Larry fell to his knees, coughing.

“Get some sense in you, and you can have this back.” He pulled the slide back, releasing the round in the chamber and removed the magazine.

“Bud, please.”

Bud sat back in his camping chair and watched as the old man closed his eyes and finished the final beer. “Take a queue, Larry. Sit down and drink a little. It’ll calm your nerves.

“I’ll never forget the way those kids screamed,” the old man continued as if nothing had happened. “It left an imprint in my mind.” He raised his hands to his temples, massaging them gently.

“I couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything but watch as it shredded the tent and everything in it. Those poor kids. All the while, the creature sang its horrible, warbling song, gleeful in its work.” The old man stopped, shutting his eyes tightly.

Larry paced on the edge of the fire, holding his gut from where he had been punched. Desperation crept into the back of his mind and he felt something at the base of his spine. It was a tingling, pulling sensation that he couldn’t shake. “I don’t like this, Bud.”

Bud ignored him. “How did you escape?” he asked.

A low smile spread across the old man’s face, his skin taut in the firelight. “I didn’t really. The wendigo feasted for what felt like hours before it came to me. Like it wanted me to watch. Then, as I thought I might die from exposure, it knelt before me, eyes gleaming red, boring into mine. In that moment I saw every soul it had ever taken and every foolhardy child that had ignored the elders’ warnings.

The vision wore on for an eternity, but then suddenly, in a snap, it was gone. I didn’t realize it, but my eyes had been closed the whole time. When I opened them, the creature was gone, and I was left with the bloody remains of the family scattered around me. I left that place and wandered, eventually coming back to town to tell the tale.

I knew no one would believe me, and so I told them it had been a bear, woke early from its hibernation. When the rangers found the family, there was no question. No human could have done that.”

 

The forest went silent around them and Larry stopped his pacing.

“That’s it?” asked Bud. “The wendigo just left you?” He let out an exasperated sigh.  “Four beers for a bunch of buildup.”
He spat. “Well played, old man.”

“I’m not finished,” said the man, his voice growing quiet, gravelly and low.

A high-pitched warble cut through the forest.

Bud froze as the old man opened his eyes and stood in the firelight. They had taken on a red glow and his skin had grown pale.

Bud fumbled with the rifle, suddenly wishing he hadn’t unloaded it.

A massive rack of horns sprouted from the old man’s head, tearing through the thin flesh. His fingers extended to grey claws, creaking and popping horribly as they did so. “It’s like I said: No one wanders these mountains for free…”