Ahead, through the storm, he saw the dark silhouettes of more trees. This stretch of woods seemed to come right to the edge of the river, so he would have to pass almost among the trees to continue southward. Yet he had no other choice. If he waited for the storm to end, his pursuer would overtake him. So Jack kept walking, studying the trees as he approached, watching the branches and the spaces between for the tiniest movement.
The wind shifted, gusting at his back now, propelling him along, and he felt a moment of relief that the storm had turned in his favor.
And then he caught the scent that the shifting wind had brought, a familiar smell that nearly froze him with terror: the stink of rotten meat.
The Wendigo had found him.
THE SPIRIT OF BRUTALITY
JACK LONDON RAN FOR HIS LIFE, and the Wendigo followed. He did not look back—he had seen it before, at night, and although now the storm might shield his view somewhat, he had no wish to witness this thing touched by daylight. But though he did not look, his other senses were alight, and he knew that the monstrous form now had him in its sights. The shifting of the breeze meant that its stink had already caught up with him; its pounding footsteps crunched snow and splintered plants; and the air itself seemed to taste different. No longer cleansed by the wintry storm, the air Jack breathed was tainted by death.
He could turn and shoot, but he was certain that would do no good. Still, he kept hold of his rifle because he didn’t want the thing to think he had given up hope. How many travelers, explorers, and stampeders must it have witnessed panicking before its onslaught, shedding bags and weapons left and right as they ran blindly toward their deaths? He had no way of knowing and no wish to find out. And if he were to die here today, he would do so with dignity.
I’ve got to make the trees, he thought, a plan fluttering at his mind.
Whatever fate Lesya had intended for him, he had much to thank her for, not least the food he had been eating since she had found him. If it hadn’t been for that, he would have collapsed or even died by now, and terrified though he was, deep down a small part of Jack reveled in the strength he felt, the speed he ran. He wondered if all victims being chased down by predators felt this way, just for a moment.
Jack reached the cover of the trees and immediately changed direction. He sensed outward and felt a fox cowering in fear a hundred steps away, and closer by lay a regular trail trodden by the fox and its family to and from the river. He steered himself along this trail, summoning his fledgling abilities and uttering a foxlike bark as he went. The land sloped up from the river here, and his pace slowed…and then from behind he heard the ragged snap of trees and branches splintering as the Wendigo came.
It could have taken me at any time, he thought, switching direction quickly, leaping over the hole in which he knew the fox family cowered. It’s been stalking me through the storm, and it could have closed in and ripped me apart.
He leaped a gully and then darted to the left, away from the fox trail. He kept the musky warmth of the fox in his mind as he ran, and the growls rumbling in his throat were not his own. In the pressures of pursuit, his plan had no concrete form: He simply sought to confuse the Wendigo. If he could do that, perhaps the chance for escape would present itself.
Jack darted right and left again, trying to keep low to the ground. He dodged a large fallen tree, rejecting the temptation to hide behind it. Even if he could camouflage himself completely, he knew that the monster would find him. He might be able to smother himself with leaves or the imagined attributes of a fox, but his talents were still young, and he could never hide the true smell of his blood or the sound of his human pulse.
He paused, concentrating to shift his attention from fox to rabbit, and then started running again. Can it smell or know those things? he thought. Does it even acknowledge them? From all he knew of the Wendigo, it sought human flesh and none other. Animals might be a distraction to it at best. But he had to try.
At the next fallen tree, Jack paused and looked behind him for the first time.
The Wendigo was raging up the slope. It came between the trees, thrashing and whipping its great limbs, and for an instant it looked like a living tree itself. Its size certainly matched, and each time it lifted a leg to step forward, a sharp tearing sound reverberated through the woods, like roots snapping as their owner hauled itself from the ground. The air around it seemed splashed with blood—it misted in the atmosphere, sprayed the boles of surrounding trees—and Jack realized the sound came from wounds constantly opening across the thing’s torso.
He sought its face, amazed at its pain, but such a sight was lost among daytime shadows.
It roared. Perhaps it saw or sensed him watching, and after a beat it paused, taking in great bellowing breaths as it sniffed him out. Branches ruptured as it turned its head left and right, leaves fell, and then Jack felt its full attention fixed upon him.
He tried to breathe but could not. And as he turned and started running again, he realized his terrible mistake: I can never outrun this thing!
Soon, he knew, he would have to stop and fight.
But first he needed to marshal his thoughts, and for that he needed a place to hide away.
He explored out and ahead of him as he ran, trying also to use Lesya’s lessons and the small gift of magic she had placed within him to summon the traits of wild animals. Jack realized just how little he knew about the strange talents she had cultivated in him because, in the terror of his flight, there was no way to truly assess just how effective they were. There would be no second chances today.
Clasping his rifle, the weight of gold hauling him down, he struggled on. Soon he sensed a cave somewhere ahead of him, and the fading smell of what had once inhabited it. He moved quickly in that direction, glancing around nervously in case its former inhabitant was choosing that moment to return. But such fears were foolish, and he almost laughed out loud. He glanced around at the pursuing Wendigo—saw only trees swaying down the slope, its bulk blurred through the forest—and then he went for the cave.
The remains of the black bear’s den were still there, and Jack quickly rolled among the detritus. He imagined himself as the bear, growling and grumbling low in his throat, hands pawing at the ground, fur bristling in cautious anger at what approached. And as he heard the Wendigo come closer, Jack grew still.
It paused somewhere beyond the cave.
Jack breathed heavily and throatily, like a bear, trying not to let his fear taint that sound. It won’t believe this for a heartbeat, he thought, his confidence failing just as the monster’s legs stepped into view.
The cave mouth was low and festooned with hanging plants. But even if they had not been there, Jack would not have been able to see the thing’s upper body and head. It was so tall, its legs were like bleeding tree trunks, thin, knotted, punctured here and there by deep wounds. Its feet were like irregular slabs of meat, with splintered bones protruding where Jack approximated its toes to be. Blood and other fluids flowed from sores and wounds, and there were strange, spiky growths at several points up and down its legs. They might have been hairs, but they were as thick as Jack’s fingers.
He realized that he was holding his breath, and with realization came a gasp. The Wendigo grunted, legs twisting as it turned its upper body somewhere above Jack’s line of sight. It heard me, he thought, and suddenly the cave mouth became very distant and precious. It was the only splash of light he could see in his ever-darkening world, and it was also the place through which death would visit. So he squeezed his eyes closed again, casting himself back into Lesya’s woodland clearing, and it was her beautiful face he saw before him as he concentrated on gathering the smells and sounds of a black bear around him. She smiled and nodded her approval, and when Jack said something back to her, it came out as a growl.
He opened his eyes. The Wendigo seemed frozen beyond the bear cave, and he imagined its head tilted to one side as it listened for another sound. So Jack growled again, a low, throaty sound that also held a trace of fear. He imagined that any bear seeing this thing would be scared.
The Wendigo roared—a sound filled with pain and wretchedness—and then stalked away.
Jack breathed a sigh of relief and crawled quickly to the cave’s mouth. There’s no way I’ll lose it for long, he thought. It will soon sense the deception, it’ll smell it out, and then when it comes back for me, I’ll have lost the element of surprise. What he was about to do felt foolish and perhaps would doom him, but then he was also tired of running. Eventually the thing would chase him down and fall upon him, and he would die knowing exhaustion and fear, and nothing else. At least this way, he would begin the fight with the upper hand.
He crawled from the cave mouth and stood slowly, leaving the saddlebags at his feet for now. The Wendigo was uphill from the cave, grabbing at tree trunks to haul itself higher. Its head was a monstrous parody of a human head, and for a beat Jack thought it was made of many bodies rolled and twisted together. He blinked quickly, trying to dispel that idea, but it would not leave him.
Squatting, aiming the rifle, he calmed his breathing and rested the sights on the back of that massive head.
When the Wendigo next paused to reach out for another tree, Jack pulled the trigger.
The report was staggeringly loud, bringing home to Jack just how quiet the woods had become. He and the Wendigo were being watched, in silence, by the forest creatures. Perhaps it was a scene they had seen many times before as this monstrous, cursed thing pursued a flesh-and-blood human across the landscape, and in that case the animals knew what the likely outcome would be. For tales of the Wendigo to be so prevalent, some of its victims must have survived. But it was still regarded as myth and legend…so the number of survivors must be few.
Jack was certain that the bullet struck home, but its only effect was to reveal his position to the Wendigo. The huge thing belied its size as it spun around and came at Jack. No pause, no moment to reflect or to pin the human on its senses…it charged downhill like an avalanche of flesh and bone, and the greatest fight of Jack’s life had begun.
What made me think I could defeat this thing? he thought as he dropped the rifle and stood his ground. But really he knew. It had less to do with the deceptions and imitations that Lesya had taught him, and more to do with the sense of togetherness he felt with the wilderness, and had been feeling more and more since the ship had first docked at Dyea. There was a rightness to this, and Jack was long past denying whatever destinies he had set in play by embarking upon this journey.
He had not conquered the wild, nor tamed it. He had become a part of it, and it a part of him.
Jack roared. There was no particular animal sound contained in his voice, and neither was it distinctly human. It was a cry of the wild, and he put every ounce of the energy he had left into uttering his fury and rage. It shivered through his whole body as he aimed his scream at the sky; his hair stood on end, his skin prickled, and his bones seemed to vibrate in time with the screech.
The Wendigo slowed from a run to a walk, but still it came. Its misshapen head tilted to one side, and those mad eyes regarded Jack like a fellow madman. And who was he to argue? He screamed again, this time directly at the monster. And when it seemed to pause in its tracks for a beat, Jack accompanied the scream with a step forward.
The Wendigo stepped back. It uttered a surprised cough, then crouched down and stretched its head forward. It sniffed, great moist nostrils opening in its head. Jack fisted his hands by his side. His heart was thrumming, blood pumping so fast through his body that he felt delirious in this unseasonable storm.
The Wendigo’s eyes betrayed their true madness then. It screeched at the smell of Jack’s flesh and blood, slavering, and its hands whipped forward, knocking branches from the trees around it as it reached for him. The arms were longer than he had guessed, its fingers even longer, and though Jack fell back, he still felt the cool kiss of its fingertips abrading his face. Blood dripped down over his lips and mouth.
He darted out his tongue, tasted his own blood, and thought, This is what it wants.
The Wendigo came for him, and Jack pulled his knife from his belt. He ducked its swinging arm, leaped, hacked at its foot, stepped back again as it lifted one leg and stamped down. It would happily crush him before eating him; his blood would be just as hot.
He darted around behind it, ducking something that could have been a branch or tail, leaning in toward the monster, sweeping left to right with the blade and feeling a warm pulse of blood as the metal parted skin. The Wendigo seemed hardly to notice, such were the wounds and sores already leaking across its body, and it reached down for Jack.
He ran between its braced legs and turned sharply to the right, tripping on a tree root concealed beneath the snow. Now it would tear him apart slowly before upending his halves and emptying his insides into its mouth. He could picture it in his head as he scrambled away, lunging past a tree, staying just out of reach.
The Wendigo came for him, and Jack pulled his knife from his belt.
The stench of the Wendigo was horrendous: rotting meat, death, decay, filth, rancid fluids streaking its hide. And the sounds it made were just as repulsive: the growls as it sought him, yes, but also deep, distant grumbles from its stomach, the reverberations of an eternal hunger that could never be sated. Somewhere in there, the bones of Jack’s friends and enemies alike ground together.
As it reached around a tree for him, he lashed out with the knife again, and this time the Wendigo screamed.
Jack gave over his reactions to instinct, casting aside conscious thought and allowing his primal nature to the fore. Most men eschewed this leftover of their animal past because they believed it beneath them, but now Jack felt the full import of his ancestors back through the ages, their thoughts, their intuitions, and their will to survive. Thousands of years behind him, wild men and women challenged nature and mastered it, and now Jack was doing the same.
The knife was his tooth and claw, speed his ally, fearlessness his drive. The threat of death was ever present, and there were no guarantees that one heartbeat would see the next. But such danger gave Jack power, because nature’s prime movers were life and death.