Prankster danced with unrestrained joy around the desiccated human corpse. He flashed a toothy grin at the sky. “I thank you, Ancient-One,” he said. “So generous with gifts.”
The body laid face-down on what would have been a game trail had winter not devoured most of the game. It was surrounded by the tracks of foxes and ravens. The little thieves had taken the best parts, but the bones, ligaments, and pieces of leathery skin were all his. Prankster reached under the tattered deerskin robe and wrenched an arm loose. He waved it over his head and resumed the Happy Scavenging Dance. “For you!” he said, tossing it in the air.
The original Wendigo spirit ignored the opportunity to snatch the arm. It landed in Prankster’s outstretched hand. He gave the sky a disapproving look, and then howled with laughter. “All for me, then!” he said.
The scent was mouthwatering, though it was a pity there was no marrow left to flavor the bones. Not that it would make any difference, he convinced himself. The man must have starved to death on his feet. These winter-weakened ones were never as tasty.
When the meal was no more than a fond memory he licked his hands and chewed the grime out from under his claws, more to give himself something to do than because he felt dirty. He yawned. Summer stirred at the edge of his senses. Now would be a good time to locate a safe place to nap through the worst of it. He climbed a tree to scout for likely spots.
A routine sniff-check pricked the hairs on the back of his arms. A fellow spirit approached wearing an unfamiliar host. After the recent establishment of greeting ceremonies and appeasement rituals this had the potential to be good-exciting, but not with the scent of food lingering in the air. The last thing he felt like dealing with was listening to another wendigo berate him for having the luck to smell it first and not set any aside for unexpected visitors. He placed a hand over his heart and put on a mournful expression. “Too bad, so sad,” he said.
He dropped to the ground and moved away at an easy trot, surrendering the right to claim territory. Familiar landmarks led him to a stream with a slithering-snake shaped bend. He crouched on the bank, studied the water for a while, and then grumbled to himself over the lack of fish. The sole amusement the stream offered was a plenitude of smooth stones the size of a small fish. He selected one and took it in his mouth, rolling it with his tongue and biting with gentle pressure. The act of working his jaws on something, even if he couldn’t tear into it, was soothing. Saliva flooded his mouth and it slid down easy. It lingered for a few minutes before the Hunger took it away, but by then it shared the company of several others.
Lost in the reverie of his substitute meal, he left the task of sniff-checks to the unthinking portion of his mind. When it detected a fresh whiff of kin-scent it snapped him to full alertness in an instant. He spat out the latest stone treat, shot to his feet, and strained his nose to judge the distance between them. The boldness of this spirit unsettled him. The kin made no effort to hide his scent, if he was hunting, or call a greeting, if he had less aggressive motives. Prankster shot a few loud, short roars at him to shoo him away. He leapt over the stream and retreated at a faster pace than before.
The wind stayed with him, his only constant companion. It swept the other’s scent past him, allowing him to picture the chase in his mind’s eye. Never growing fainter, sometimes growing stronger. Soon it was obvious that he could keep running until he reached the end of the word, if it indeed had an end, or he could make a stand. Running like prey held no appeal. Far better to lose a host in a fearless confrontation. It would, at the very least, rob his kin of something new to gossip about. A thick grove of evergreens caught his attention. He climbed one, ignoring the prickling against his exposed skin. The scent of sap and broken needles enveloped him, pleasant but overpowering. He shook his head and sneezed. With that out of the way he held still and waited.
The stranger approached with confidence emanating from his every move. His host was tall for a human and looked young, around twenty winters or so. His long, once-braided hair had unraveled in the beginnings of a chaotic mess. Strangest of all he still wore his host’s leggings, though whether he had lost the breechcloth and other garments or eaten them remained open for speculation.
Prankster fought down the urge to point and laugh. He wondered why such self-destructive thoughts were always so eager to enter his mind.
The stranger approached the tree and looked up, tilting his head this way and that in a manner which would give an owl a sore neck. He dug his claws into the bark, stretched on tip-toes, and sniffed.
Prankster issued a harsh, thunderclap-loud roar of warning.
The sound nearly knocked the stranger off his feet in his desperation to scramble away. He dropped to a crouch on all fours and stared with owl-wide eyes. His nostrils quivered. He crawled forward a few steps. Swelling confidence drew him to his feet, and he stood tall with an exaggerated, rigid posture. He sprinted the remaining distance and leapt, gripping the bark and pulling himself up.
Prankster leaned over his perch and swiped, removing five jagged strips of flesh from the stranger’s face.
The stranger shrieked and lost his footing. He landed on his back and writhed, making sounds that alternated between wounded animal yelps and the high pitched cries of a young human.
Well aware of the minor nature of the injury and unmoved by his performance, Prankster savored the task of cleaning his claws.
Blood painted lines down the stranger’s face, marking the places where wounds once marred the flesh. He lifted a hand for a tentative examination, and then sniffed the blood that came off on his fingers. He licked them, stood, and tossed his head. The liquid moved in all directions, crisscrossing his face as if he had received multiple blows. He stood still for a while, posture deflated, looking lost and bewildered.
Determination hardened his expression. He turned back to the tree and circled it, head bobbing with concentration, sniffing. He placed a hand on the trunk.
Prankster growled long and low with each breath. This branch was his territory. He refused to retreat further.
The stranger began to climb on the opposite side.
Prankster descended to a lower branch so he could reach the intruder. He lashed out, trying to knock him on his back again. There was a flash of white teeth and a great pressure on his hand. He yowled in surprise.
Blood filled the stranger’s mouth. His eyes widened. He pulled away with frenzied shakes of his head, trying to remove the tasty mouthful. Flesh tore. Bones gave way to the power of his jaws. It was almost his.
The force nearly ripped Prankster from his perch. He grabbed another branch with his free hand, leaned away, and adjusted the grip his toe claws held on the supporting branch. The stranger moved a handhold up the tree. Prankster encouraged him to come closer with a yank of his snared arm. The stranger cooperated. Swallowing panic, focused on maintaining balance, he waited for the right moment. It came. He swung with his free hand and put a fist sized crater in the side of the stranger’s head.
The stranger went limp and dropped to the ground.
Prankster scrabbled to keep from falling after him. Once he regained balance he could assess the damage. The hand remained attached thanks to a few strands of fibrous tissue. The healing process began before his eyes, draining the portion of stored spirit energy required to repair his host. It was slow and uneven, the mangled stump sending tendrils of flesh in search of something to connect to. He chewed through the strands and finished the other’s work. The hand dropped over the side of the branch. Healing flesh sprouted forward at a more agreeable rate, freed of the task of putting itself back together. He held up his new hand, flexed the fingers, and breathed a sigh of relief.
The stranger curled in on himself, brushed trembling fingers over the wound, and whimpered.
It was one of the most pitiful things Prankster had ever heard. He snorted in disgust. A poor fighter had no right to complain of stupidity-inflicted injuries. It would be an easy kill, but first he wanted to satisfy his curiosity.
He leapt to the ground and approached the balled-up figure. Recovering from head wounds could take minutes. Until then the stranger would be at his mercy. He crouched and wrapped a hand around the stranger’s neck.
Connecting with another wendigo was an ethereal experience. He felt transported to another place, where he existed in a form left behind when he took a host. The closest comparison he could make was that he felt the way leaves moved in the wind, or like a snake looked when it glided through water. He wrapped himself around the stranger’s presence and probed it in search of an identity. The stranger recoiled with a burst of fear and made no effort to reciprocate. It was an unexpected reaction, and a rather rude one at that. He remained a stranger. Prankster could not attach a kin-name to the spirit’s presence.
He released his grip and met the other’s eyes with a contemptuous stare. “What are you called?” he said.
The stranger rose in a clumsy stagger, still dizzy from the effects of the wound. He turned to run.
In a flash Prankster had a handful of his hair. He flung the stranger off balance and sent him sprawling on his face. He pounced, pinning him to the ground. “Who are you?” he growled in his ear.
No reply. The stranger went limp, and for a moment Prankster thought he had fainted. He got off of him and stepped back, waiting.
The stranger lifted his head. His eyes looked more like those of a rabbit than a predator. He pushed his hands against the ground, drew his knees forward, and rose to a crouch. Shivers of terror shook him.
Mixed feelings warred in Prankster’s mind. The Hunger made its usual demands. It screamed at him that the other was no more than meat, easy prey. He had no doubt of his superiority as a fighter. He no longer feared the stranger with anything more than reasonable caution. Yet some detail nagged at him, stirred his curiosity. The Hunger was difficult to overcome, but resisting it to decide his own path could feel satisfying. Perhaps the greater control one could exert over this unwanted presence, the more fulfilling life would be. It was worth investigating.
He loomed over the stranger. “Do not move,” he said, punctuating the command with a snap of his teeth. “I will hit you!”
He turned away, certain that the other’s clumsiness would alert him to any movement. The hand rested against the tree trunk, palm outward as if in a motionless wave of greeting. It smelled delicious. He bit back the urge to gulp it down and returned to the stranger.
“Do you want this?” he said, holding it over the stranger’s head.
The stranger’s eyes fixed on the food, and then met his. “You do not mean that,” he said, voice slow with caution. “You will kill me.”
Prankster tossed the hand at him. “Is a favor trade,” he said. “You give food later. Not whole prey. Small piece is enough.”
The stranger pounced on the offering, tore off a bite, and tossed his head back to swallow it. He gasped and seized his throat with both hands. After much coughing and many bizarre facial contortions he hacked it up. He gave himself a few moments to recover, and then resumed eating at a more careful pace.
Prankster snickered. No matter how many times he gave his kin the opportunity to mock him, he had never done something that stupid.
Finished, the stranger rose to his feet. His eyes held a different look now, regaining a hint of that brash confidence. He tilted his head. “Why did you do that?” he said.
Prankster grinned. “Trading favors is important,” he said. “You know trading favors?”
“Thought so. It is important tradition. Sometimes, only survival way. You bad at hunting. Thought you needed help. Later, you help me. It goes that way.”
The stranger narrowed his eyes. “I not bad at hunting!” he said. “I almost caught a rabbit. I was this close.”
He held up his hands, a space as wide as his face between them.
Prankster laughed. “A fine story!” he said. “Tell everyone you meet. They be so impressed! Now, I ask again. What are you called?”
“I am Wendigo.”
“Not our first name,” Prankster said, flashing his teeth. “Your kin-name. Stupid know-nothing.”
The stranger straightened his back and puffed out his chest. “Stupid know-nothing,” he said.
Prankster shook his head. “Oouff, that a bad one!” he said, and then after a contemplating the response further, “How dare you!”
He cuffed the stranger on the side of the head, a bloodless yet painful blow.
The stranger stepped back and snarled.
Prankster stood on tiptoes and roared back. He trapped the stranger in his stare and held him, unblinking.
Sweat slicked the stranger’s face and enveloped him in fear-scent. He assumed a hunched posture and lowered his eyes.
Prankster smiled with satisfaction. “Answer me, you idiot,” he said. “My kin-name is Prankster. Do you have one?”
The stranger shuffled his feet and raised his eyes a fraction, still avoiding a direct stare. “No,” he said. “Do I need one?”
“Yes!” Prankster said, flashing another, gentler smile. “Everyone needs one. Cannot touch, names help. Makes gossiping easier. ‘This one good fighter. Not mess with him!’ ‘That one forgets favors. Shun him!’ Do not worry. I give you kin-name. Just let me think.”
He nibbled a claw and paced.
The stranger’s posture relaxed. He imitated the thinking strategy, pacing in tight circles and chewing his claws. He reached his decision with a broad grin. “I have it!” he said. “I will call myself Fang. That is good kin-name, yes?”
He peeled his lips back in an exaggerated, happy grimace.
Prankster melted his enthusiasm with a withering stare. “No,” he said. “Not work that way. You cannot choose kin-name. It must be given.”
“Why?” the stranger said, a whine creeping into his voice. “I want to be Fang. You cannot stop me!”
Prankster shook his head and snorted. “Mindless fool,” he said. “How old are you? A winter? Some moons?”
The stranger ground his teeth. “Had this host one moon,” he said. “It is my first. Does that make me stupid?”
Prankster waved his arms and offered his most charming grin. “It is nothing personal,” he said. “It all just words. Words do not bite. Sometimes, prevent the bite!”
“Prevent being hit? Or cause it?”
Prankster flashed his teeth. “You cannot complain,” he said. “You were being rude. Rudeness earns hitting. I have your kin-name. You are Knows-Nothing.”
Knows-Nothing made a that-smells-bad face. “Forever?” he said. “No! Keep for little while, maybe. Then I will change it.”
The anger had left his features, replaced with a desperation that was as pitiful as the wounded cries he made earlier. Prankster frowned. He shook his head to clear it. “No one escapes tradition,” he said. “I could not. You will not.”
Knows-Nothing averted his eyes and began chewing a claw. He kept at it until he’d bitten it off, then swallowed the tip and watched the replacement grow. “How long you been Prankster?” he said.
Prankster shrugged. “Oh, winters and winters,” he said. “Others not understand humor. Always whining, ‘Stop! Go away! I like boring life!’ Euugh. Their loss.”
“If I say am Fang?”
“They not believe you. They will mock you. Give you other kin-name. Maybe, worse than Knows-Nothing. Like Dies-In-Stupid-Ways. Poor him.”
Knows-Nothing licked his hand and wiped dried blood from his face. It gave him time to think, as a good grooming session often does. “Who named you?” he said.
“Always-Angry did. Be careful of him. Such a rude spirit. I shared joke once. He not like it. Punched me in male-parts. Ouchy-oww.”
Knows-Nothing glanced down at his crotch and grimaced. “How do I avoid him?” he said.
Prankster stepped beside him. “Not worry about that,” he said. “Just stop hunting kin. You lucky I patient. Attack Always-Angry, you dead. Now, I teach something. How to greet kin. Follow me. ‘Good hunting, friend!’”
“Good hunting friend?”
Prankster spread his arms and lifted his palms to the sky. “With enthusiasm,” he said. “Good hunting, friend!”
“Good hunting, friend!”
“Better. Say when see other. Keep your distance. If friendly, will reply. No reply, run away. After reply, next step. Hold up hand. Good. We touch necks. Gently now, no claws.”
He held his hand out in a limp posture, avoiding the rigidity of a claw-slash threat. Knows-Nothing imitated him. He touched the other’s neck with the pads of his fingers. The younger spirit’s claws pricked his skin, but drew no blood. They entered that place of weightless feeling where they could sense each other as if by scent. This time Knows-Nothing was eager to explore him. He held the connection for longer than necessary, allowing the other extra time to practice.
Prankster withdrew his hand and stepped back. He grinned. “Good job,” he said. “Politest way say ‘Hello.’ Maybe, our hosts die. Next one, scent changes. Kin-name stays same. Saying hello connects them. New scent, old kin-name. Understand?”
Knows-Nothing smiled back. “I think,” he said. “But, why not say it? They not believe you?”
“Is more than that. Is show of trust. Maybe, you could lie. Hide who you are. Avoid owed favors. Never do that. Never lie to kin.”
Prankster’s expression darkened. “It is disgusting,” he said. “Remember Medicine-Man-Human’s promise? One that created curse?”
Knows-Nothing cocked his head. “That was First-Wendigo, not us,” he said.
“Does not matter. Knew Hunger tortured First-One. Promised make it better. Hurts worse now. Want be like him?”
“Good. Is rudest thing ever. Sometimes, fights happen. Your host can die. Everyone understands. Less rude, less likely. Can find new host. Cannot take back lie.”
Knows-Nothing studied his claws while he let the weight of the advice sink in. “And then what?” he said. “Other than trading food?”
“Not much else. Maybe talk. Maybe play. Must be careful. Fights start easy. Avoid if possible. Waste of energy. Watch. I teach something. Someone mad, do this.”
Prankster crouched and tilted his head back to expose his throat. He fixed his eyes on the ground. After holding the posture a few moments he stood again.
Knows-Nothing filed it away for reference. “How often need do that?” he said.
“Whenever necessary and safe. Some arguments, let go. Winning not worth pain. Oh! I know! I teach games next! You will like this.”
A devious grin crossed his face. He poked Knows-Nothing in the shoulder with a claw and sprang back. Like a crazed frog he circled him, touching, leaping away, waiting for a response, repeating. As his excitement grew he began to laugh, letting loose harsh bursts of manic glee.
Knows-Nothing pulled his lips back in a nervous, bare-toothed frown. He growled and swiped, but was not fast enough to land a hit.
It was hopeless. Prankster crossed his arms and pouted. “What wrong with you?” he said. “Games are fun. Thought you liked learning. Oh well. We try different one.”
Knows-Nothing mustered an uneasy grin and took a step back. “I understand kin-names now,” he said. “Thank you for explaining. I am feeling so tired. You can teach games later. When I return favor, maybe?”
Prankster beamed. “All right!” he said. “Hope find prey soon. Call for me. I will be listening. Know so many games. You will love them!”
“That sounds… exciting. Goodbye.”
Knows-Nothing dashed away with unexpected haste, soon disappearing from sight.
A cool, pleasant feeling settled over Prankster. He was glad he let the youngster live. Someone out there just had to be waiting in eager anticipation to learn his secrets to leading a life of fun and games. Perhaps Knows-Nothing would soon outgrow his kin-name in that particular discipline.