Wendigo did not bother to sneak up on the herd after he pinpointed its location. The deer caught his scent and ran before he could see them, but it only added to the fun of the chase. He dodged trees and sprinted over the snow with grace and speed that rivaled their own. He leapt onto the back of the nearest. With claws anchoring him to the hide of the doe he bit into the base of its skull and shook his head until he felt the creak-pop of vertebra dislocating. The doe's legs buckled. He jumped off and landed beside its body.
It was not enough. He knew every time he hunted it would never be enough, but the compulsion to banish that hunger was the essence of his being and inescapable as the coming of winter. The deer would dull the ache while he waited for choicer prey to cross his path.
It was not until he hollowed out the belly, cracked open the bones for their marrow, and worked his way towards the head that he discovered the prize. The deer wore a thick necklace, forgotten in the excitement of the feast but now capable of holding his full attention. It was one of the strangest things he had ever seen done by a human. He wondered if he could get the next one he found to explain it. He gave the necklace a tug, but whoever placed it had fastened it tightly and he worried he would break it.
Inspiration struck. With a foot pinning the deer's neck to the ground he grabbed its head and twisted until it tore from the body with a wet snap. His prize was now free for the taking, though a little messier. He turned the necklace over and over in his hands, feeling the stiffness and weight of it. A little box was attached, but he couldn't decipher how to open it. Not wanting to bury it and worry about trying to find it later, he did the only thing he could think of for keeping track of it. He placed it around his neck. Perhaps he would grow tired of it and throw it away, but for now it was something fun and different.
Dawn lit the sky with the first traces of sunrise, so he sought out a large tree and curled up for a nap on one of its wide branches. He dreamed and saw memories of a life lived before he had entered it. The man's family. The voyage across the sea to the new world. Checking traps for fur-bearing animals. The crushing hunger that brought the man to death's door, a door the man opened to let him enter and take control. A loud whirring sound that whipped at the air.
He woke so suddenly he nearly tumbled from his perch. The sound was familiar, but he could not quite place it. He scented the air but could not find any unusual smells drifting from the direction of the noise. Pulled between the desire to investigate and flee, he stayed put and followed the sound until he made a visual connection to its cause.
He peered through evergreen branches and saw the object as it made its final descent from the sky to land in a large clearing. The noise died down as rotating blades on top slowed to a stop. He could not believe his luck. It was one of the human's flying machines.
He leapt from the tree and approached slowly, keeping to the shadows offered by even the sunniest day in the forest. He reached the edge of the clearing and counted four humans traveling in the flying machine. Three were men, light skinned New People like the one he had saved from death. Two were exploring the clearing while the other remained in the machine. The fourth was a woman, one of the darker skinned First People. She held a stick with three branches in the air, and after waving it around in different directions she stopped and stared right at him.
He did not like the idea of a human being able to spot him before he allowed it, but the woman didn't seem to know what she was looking at. Her face was expressionless as she strode across the clearing in his direction. She held the stick out and her male companions followed along. He rose from his hiding spot and watched with amusement as they froze in their tracks. One of the men held a gun, but he did not position himself to use it. They looked more confused than frightened. He had never come across humans this way, so he decided to let them make the first move.
Their reactions mirrored those he had seen from just about every human who discovered one of their own wandering starving and naked in the forest. The largest man offered his heavy coat and they hurried him back to the flying machine. The man with the gun spoke for his companions. "Dr. Palmer," he said, offering the slightest of hesitations before shaking a hand that appeared to possess claws. "These are my students, Mr. Watts and Miss Kelley. What's your name, Sir?"
"I am Wendigo."
Kelley's expression tensed, but the other humans did not notice. He took a seat and they gave him food and blankets. Kelley sat across from him, head tilted downward, as if trying to avoid looking into his hollow eyes. He watched them pull straps across their chests and imitated them.
"I simply cannot believe your luck!" Dr. Palmer said as he tried to make his strap click into place like theirs. "Using a radio collar for a beacon. Genius! How long you been lost out there?"
He looked around the interior of the machine, at stark metal walls and glass windows. He could remember a time when the drone of machines had yet to interrupt the silence of the forest. "Long time," he said.
The machine's noise started up again and he flinched. He calmed himself and pressed his face against the window to watch the machine take off from the ground. Inhabiting a mortal's body forced foreign feelings into his consciousness. With flesh and blood came fear, a sensation that was both upsetting and wonderfully exciting. He wondered if all humans felt this way when they used their machines.
"We had to come pretty far out for our study on the deer population," Dr. Palmer said, "but we'll get you back to civilization in no time."
He watched the landscape fly beneath him. The machine's tiny shadow raced across rivers, trees, and open patches of snow. He tried to pick out areas of his territory that he recognized. The thought of leaving it behind brought a new surge of fear. He did not know what threats he may face in a place inhabited by so many humans, but it was an opportunity he could not pass up on. He could satisfy the hunger again and again without having to wait for prey to wander into his remote homeland. Saliva pooled at the corners of his mouth.
He pulled his head away from the window and rested it on his knees. He wrapped his arms around his legs under the blankets. His nails dug into the flesh until they drew blood. Dr. Palmer asked questions that he ignored as he tried to focus his thoughts. Kelley watched while trying not to let him see she was looking. Watts, sitting beside him, did nothing to hide his curious staring. He rocked back and forth and tried to pretend they weren't there, but the scent filling the enclosed space was impossible to ignore. The four distinct smells were like four fragrant bottles of wine begging to be opened. He growled at the impulsive instincts assaulting him.
A light touch on his shoulders broke his concentration. He pulled away and saw it was Watts, who instantly looked guilty for startling him. "Sorry!" he said. "Are you OK? You're not looking so-"
The man's apology cut short with a scream as sharp teeth sank into his hand. The crunch of bones and taste of blood destroyed the last semblance of control Wendigo had over the hunger. He ripped away a portion of the man's hand and wolfed it down.
Their screams fueled his excitement. He looked into the panic-stricken eyes of Dr. Palmer, who held the gun out awkwardly in the cramped space between them. He seized the barrel, ripped the weapon from the man's hands, and bent it. A wide smile split his face as the intoxicating thrill of the cycle of hunt-kill-eat washed over him yet again. He swung the crooked gun at the two sitting across from him, feeling the crack of bone as the butt struck their skulls. Kelley went limp and Dr. Palmer leaned over her still form, hand held out as if it could shield them. A heavy punch to the side of his face reminded him that he still had Watts to deal with.
Even with only one and a half usable hands at his disposal, Watts was a big man who knew how to throw his weight around. Wendigo met his challenge with a gleefully toothy snarl. He threw the larger man to the floor and pounced, snapping the straps that held them in their seats. Ignoring punches from his pinned prey and kicks from the still-seated Dr. Palmer, he bit into Watts' throat. When he knew the prey could no longer escape he rose and surveyed the others.
Dr. Palmer trembled beside the unconscious woman. Wendigo grabbed him by the throat and smashed his head back, leaving a small smear of blood on the metal behind him. Three humans were now immobilized and ready to eat, but the scent of the fourth called to him. The hunger was so great; he could not bear the thought of one finding a way to escape. The fourth sat with his back to him looking out of several large windows. He put his hands around the man's head and twisted until he felt the neck snap.
The floor shifted and the room turned over on its side. He fell against the wall. Panic struck as he realized his mistake, but it was too late and he knew that trying to operate the machine himself would be pointless. He broke a window and leapt out.
As he hurtled toward the ground he tried to remember why he thought this would help. He felt freer after abandoning the confined space inside the doomed flying machine, but no amount of flailing at the air would slow his descent. He also could not figure out how to steer himself away from the exposed patch of rocks below to the softer field of snow nearby.
Return to consciousness came with the scent of his own blood heavy in the air and the greatest pain he had ever experienced. He bared his teeth and roared at the sky, as if it was an enemy he could defeat to bring an end to this suffering. When he moved shattered bones ground against each other. He could not feel his legs. The human body he had taken care of for such a long time was dying. He would not allow himself to return to that emptiness where there was no way to satisfy the hunger. He turned himself over onto his belly, dug his claws into the ground, and pulled his broken body in the direction of the scent of food.
He was pleased to find he had not landed far from the flying machine. It rested on its side in a crumpled heap. He climbed through a shattered window and landed on a pile of debris and bodies. One of them groaned, but he ignored the human to focus on easier prey. Meat, blood, and bone filled not only his stomach but something deeper. The power he took from the man flowed through him and brought relief as his injuries mended themselves. Gashes knitted together, bones realigned, and joints popped back into place.
The urge to heal himself passed and the hunger no longer clouded his thinking. He sat back on his haunches and considered what to do with the survivor. Kelley was resilient, but she would not make it much longer without assistance. Her body would be the perfect vessel for one of the hungry spirits still trapped in the emptiness where there was no way to eat. He slung her across his shoulder, ripped a mostly-eaten arm away from his meal, and leapt out through the window.
He carried her to a nearby tree and propped her gently against it in a sitting position. She stared with wide eyes and coughed. A thin stream of blood spilled from her mouth. He tore a tiny piece of meat from the arm and held it out to her. "Kelley will die. Here. Eat. Heal."
She grimaced and pulled away. He frowned. This was not something he could make her do. It was a choice. He set the meat down, stepped a few paces back, and gave his friendliest smile. "Kelley knows us. Knows the stories, yes? We offer life. You eat, we heal."
She narrowed her eyes, but refused to respond. He sprang backwards, turned on his heels, and leapt in a different direction. He danced before her as if electrified, trying to outdo himself in the height and length of his leaps. When he knelt by her side again there was no sweat on his brow or heaviness in his breath. He smiled and offered the meat again. "No more broken bones. No more pain. No more death. Here. Eat. Heal."
She spat blood at him. "Just... kill me. Death... is better... than a... cursed life."
He put his hand on her neck. Her pulse was weak. He stayed by her side, ready to offer what she needed to survive, until she took her last breath.
Though disappointed that he could not earn a favor from one of his kin by getting the human to offer herself as a vessel, he was not surprised by her choice. Some, like the man whose ear he had whispered into on that windy winter night, would do anything to avoid death. Others accepted it. He had long known this, but he did not think he would ever understand it.
He carried her to a nearby place where rocks and trees formed a pattern he hoped to remember. He dug her grave deep in the hard earth, out of reach of all but the most determined scavengers. At some later time, when the hunger threatened to overcome him, he could return to this spot and satisfy it with the power residing in her bones.
The radio collar snagged on a root as he climbed out of the hole and reminded him that he still wore it. He figured that since he had gotten at least a partial answer for its purpose he didn't need it any longer. He pulled it off and set it down beside the woman's body. It only seemed fair to return it to her, after she had come such a long way to retrieve it.