Tiny fish wriggled past the rock. They wandered in and out of reach, sunlight flashing silver off their scales. Wendigo crouched, splayed his hands before his feet, and leaned over the water as far as he dared. His head jerked back and forth, eyes following first one fish and then another, while he calculated which would make the easiest prey. A bony face stared back at him from the water, and the smallest beginnings of a growl rumbled from his throat. Though he recognized his host's face, he did not appreciate the way the reflection appeared to mock him with its ability to dwell within the hated substance.
A thread of drool trickled from his lip and swayed with the turns of his head. It broke free and fell with a plop, scattering the fish. As if suspecting something more sinister than the first drop announcing the beginning of a rainstorm, they did not regroup around the rock. Wendigo sat back on his haunches and sighed.
He lifted his head and turned his face to the wind, nostrils flaring. Though humans were often attracted to lakes, none had stopped by here recently. He scoured the sandstone cliffs rising to the west, hoping to see movement among the trees atop them that would indicate prey his nose overlooked. Not even a deer to give him something to do while he waited for the next human to cross his path.
Unwilling to force himself to enter the water to go after the fish, he instead crouched again and dipped his mouth into it. He lapped as if it were fresh blood, pooling warm and salty from a torn throat. He could feel it slide into his stomach, where it lingered for mere seconds before the curse made it vanish to keep him hungry. If he drank fast enough, he could almost convince himself that his belly would stay full. He lifted his head, taking deep breaths, and the hunger roared back to life strong as ever.
Wendigo took a few moments to attend to grooming before seeking out new hunting grounds. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his ratty coat and scrubbed at his beard, trying to remove the scent of blood that always lingered in traces from past kills. The constant reminder made the hunger that much worse, and he did not like the attention it attracted from his kin. Sometimes, during their brief encounters, they sniffed a bit too eagerly at it.
When he was finished he rose and scanned the lakeshore until he located his boots, safe and sound where he left them. It took several leaps using small stones to reach this larger rock farther out from the shore, and even without the footwear his claws had skidded several times, nearly sending him tumbling into the water. He picked one about ten feet away, crouched, and sprang.
Or would have, if his muscles weren't frozen.
A melody rose from imperceptible softness to wash over his mind like the rhythmic slapping of waves against the side of a boat. His body remained rooted to the rock as if carved from it. He tried to turn his head to locate its source, but his eyes were the only thing that responded. They spun in their sockets. A whine rose sharp and quavering from his throat.
The song deepened and a feminine hum emerged. His muscles relaxed and he slouched forward, staring down at his reflection in the shallow water. It was the same face he had worn for the past three hundred winters, but everything else flickered. One moment, nothing but clear sky overhead and the lake around his rocky perch. The next, his image was smaller and he stared down at it from the center of a bridge over a river. Birds flew past and alighted soundlessly in trees growing on its bank. He took a deep breath, and found no new scents to match the new environment. His vision flickered again and he was back on the rock in the lake.
The music intensified, and with it came a sense of euphoria. The mirage replaced the real world again, and this time he recognized it. It was the human's home, the mysterious land of France. Jacques Broussard, the man who used to control this body, visited it when Wendigo allowed him to sleep. Something was taking the memory from the human's mind and trying to make it real.
Wendigo furrowed his brow and watched the images change. He wished he could communicate with the man's consciousness to enlist his help in fighting the outside influence, but he didn't know how to let it out again after taking him as a host. All he could sense from behind the mental barrier was the joy that bled around the edges into his own awareness. He could see and smell and hear the truth. Jacques could not.
"Come to me."
He would have flinched, if he were able to. The voice was female and carried a hint of the tone from the wordless song, which had now ended. His body straightened under some unseen force and he turned around.
She took two forms, one for each world he now inhabited. In France she was a beautiful lady with dark hair and gentle eyes. She stood on the bridge, held her hand out, and smiled. Wendigo felt Jacques growing more restless, and could only imagine what the illusion must be doing to him. His Marie. The female he sought for a mate, and whose disinterest in part drove him to leave familiar territory in search of a new life. He longed for her in a way that almost reminded Wendigo of the hunger, though it was not the man's stomach she stirred.
In the real world she was a creature waiting for him a short distance away in deeper water. From the torso up she was shaped like a young woman, but the tail of a fish swished beneath the surface. Her skin was green with a mottling of brown stripes, and three blue stripes that trailed from the corners of her eyes to gill slits on her throat. Her black hair reached the beginnings of her tail and was tied back in a glossy braid. She stared with wide brown eyes and smiled, revealing needle-sharp teeth. "I meant it. Come here!"
Wendigo felt her will competing for control of his host's body and pushed against it with all the strength he could muster. He drew his lips back to give her a look at his own considerably more robust fangs and snarled. The eager look on her face faded, and with it he felt a slight weakening of her mental grip. Then she smiled again and he found himself stepping over the edge of the rock to wade to her. He bit back a whine at the feeling of water against his skin and glared at her. "Leave me alone! Go away! I will kill you!"
She gasped. "What an attitude! Such energy! I knew I made the right choice. We will be perfect together!"
The water was past his knees now. She rose, balancing on her tail, and cupped his face between webbed fingers. "You are so cute! But oh, you smell as if you have not touched water for a hundred seasons! Typical male. You know, they would all go out with tarnished scales and tangled hair if it were not for us. I found you just in time. Now that we are mates, you will never be in such a sorry state again!"
He was already exhausted from trying to regain control, but anger flared up and combined with fear of the unknown to deepen his resolve. Touch was not something his kind allowed lightly. He showed his teeth again and growled, the closest he could come to biting the offending hands.
They finally dropped and clasped around his back. She rested her head on his chest and nuzzled his coat, which happened to have been owned by a human not long ago and did not yet smell like three hundred winter old carrion. She gave a contented sigh, as if comforted by the vibrations the growling produced. "Won't Father be surprised? Always finding faults with the males I chose for mates. He can't say no to you though, can he? Not a human male as spirited as you are!"
The growl tapered off with a frustrated groan. Wendigo dug deep to think of a strategy for arguing with something that failed to be impressed by a perfectly good set of fangs. "But
Already have a mate."
It was true if he chose to see it that way. The spirit in the female human's body hadn't tried overly hard to kill him the last time they met. This was a step in the right direction. He had an eternity to figure out how to take the next step.
The woman on the bridge in France threw back her head and laughed. "What? The human female who allowed you to do this to yourself? What does she have that Alsoomse of the Nebaunaubaewuk cannot offer you? My father is the Chief and he can get you anything you want."
She paused as if gathering her thoughts, then broke the silence so suddenly it startled him. He rumbled a warning growl, but she ignored it. "I am the daughter of the Chief! Your mate can't beat that and you know it! Come, we must go see him and tell him the good news!"
She walked off the bridge on a road leading into town. He kept by her side, feeling the water closing in over his head even as the illusion of a sunny day on dry ground persisted. He screamed with his last breath. "Jacques, you stupid human! It is not real! Stop listening to her!"
He had never bothered to test the limits of his ability to keep a host alive without air, but he guessed it would take a few hours before he started feeling the effects. Perhaps the pain of dying would finally shatter the illusion. There wasn't much else he could hope for.
They walked past houses to a meeting place in the centre of town. Curious faces of men, women, and children peered from the windows, and several came out to follow them. Alsoomse turned to a young man who looked about her age and addressed him. "Quick, fetch the Chief! I have an important announcement for him!"
The young man flickered and became one of the creatures, a male with brown skin and a creamy belly. He swam away from the clear water of their gathering place to the shadows of a rock wall embedded with caves. Wendigo rolled his eyes up and could see the sandstone cliff rising above the surface of the water. He lowered them and scanned the rest of his surroundings, surprised at the visibility that remained even at this depth. Eager faces of many shapes, colors, and sizes gathered but kept their distance.
The crowd parted and the young male took his place among them. Behind him came the largest of the creatures Wendigo had seen so far. It bore the face of an old man, complete with white hair that trailed behind it in a long braid. In keeping with the variety of colors and patterns the creatures showed, this one was dark green with a pale belly and white spots. His vision flickered and a man with an equally imposing stance and sour face replaced the creature. He sensed the first twinge of apprehension from Jacques since his emersion in the creature's illusion. The human had never gotten along well with Marie's father.
Alsoomse clasped his hand in hers and fidgeted while her father looked him over. Wendigo met the Chief's eyes, flashed his teeth, and snarled. It came out a bubbly gurgle, which startled him so much that he cut it off before it reached full steam and frowned. The Chief's detached expression did not change.
Alsoomse groaned. "I did it all on my own, Father. How many of the others were able to lure a human on their first try? Surely that is proof enough that I am ready to take a mate."
The Chief spoke with heaviness in his voice that suggested he had already invested more energy than he cared to think about arguing over the issue. "You are still too young, Soomse. You are not experienced enough to pick a mate. You did not even choose a real human male to sing to."
"Don't call me that in front of everyone! I hate it when you- wait, what?"
She leaned in close to Wendigo's face as if studying it for the first time. He showed his teeth and gave a half-hearted gurgle. When she failed to be intimidated he decided his only chance was to try to keep quite, conserve energy, and wait for an opportunity to escape.
She whirled back to face her father. "Have you gone blind at last? He is too a human male!"
The Chief shook his head. "You are wrong. It is a Wendigo."
Wendigo's eyes widened. He didn't like the thought of these creatures knowing of his kind when he had never even heard of theirs.
"They are winter spirits. Rare beings. They cannot interact with our world in their true form, so they take over the bodies of humans to give them substance. You cannot have such a creature for a mate."
"He responded to my song. That means he's mine! I won't let you take him from me!"
The Chief sighed. "You misunderstand me. It cannot be your mate because it will not survive. Do you see any gills?"
She pulled his coat back and stared at his throat. "No
but he followed me! It happened just like you said it should! I've been focusing really hard on him. He should have started changing by now."
"It will not. Wendigo spirits preserve their hosts as they find them and protect them from harm. They are also stubborn. If you do not put it back where you got it, it will not make the Change and eventually it will drown."
Alsoomse's face fell. Her bottom lip even trembled a bit. Whispers and sniggers rose from the crowd. She refused to look at them, instead grasping Wendigo by the shoulders and shaking him so hard his head flopped back and forth. "You can't do this to him! He heard my song! He's mine! Get out of him so that he can stay with me!"
She shoved him away and turned to the Chief again. "Help me fix him!"
"That information is beyond the limits of my knowledge of these spirits. You would have to ask a human shaman."
She flicked her tail and rose, looking over the crowd. Wendigo followed her gaze and was pleased to see the lack of sympathy projected from them.
The Chief continued with a tired sigh. "Let it go, Soomse. The tribe has not had a shaman among the Changed for many generations now. It seems to be a dying art among the humans. They may not even exist anymore."
Marie strode across the town square and rose on the balls of her feet to stare the old man in the eyes. She shook her finger at him and spoke with bared teeth. "Why do you hate me? Why do you keep making things up to keep me from getting what will make me happy?"
Her voice was rising to screeching levels now, and even through the distortion of the water it hurt his ears. Wendigo shook his head to clear it. Then he realized what he had just done. He tried to move his limbs and they responded, albeit sluggishly. He could feel the weight of her anger through the thread of will that connected her to him. The stronger it grew the weaker her concentration was. He lifted his head to the surface, struggled to clear the shakiness from his muscles, and began swimming.
The subdued commentary from the crowd rose with poorly hushed whispers and gasps. Alsoomse turned around and gave a tiny squeak of surprise. She reached Wendigo with a few furious beats of her tail and clasped his head in her hands, pulling it down to force him to look her in the eyes. "Did I say you could move? Get back down there and wait while I straighten Father out!"
Her will scrabbled for purchase like the dull nails of a human sliding down an ice bank. Wendigo brought his arm up and wrapped clawed fingers around her neck. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open in what might have been an attempt to scream. He sank his teeth into her cheek and shook his head. Despite the tempting taste that filled his mouth and the cloud of blood that swirled around them he gave in to his fear, released her, and fled. Voices rose behind him, but he did not dare look back.
"Eeeek! I've been disFIGured!"
"Really, Soomse, what did you expect to happen when you put your face next to something with teeth like that? Here, let me have a look
It is not that bad. You will be fine."
"I am not fine! Ohhh, he's getting away! Quick, someone grab him!"
A new pang of fear shot through Wendigo, but he did not feel any other wills reaching out to ensnare him. He was alone with Jacques again. By the time he reached the lakeshore the phantom images of the French village had stopped flickering across his vision. He paused only long enough to shake his dripping head, then plunged into the forest to put as much distance between himself and the lake as possible.
He ran until he could turn his head into the wind blowing from the direction of the lake and detect no scents that reminded him of it. He paused in a clearing, panting and still uncomfortably wet. Now that he was safe the fear left him, and he trembled with anger instead. A sapling caught his eye, slender and with branches reaching just over his head. In the absence of any moving targets he pounced on it, ending its young life with a tug that brought up a mess of roots and dirt. He threw it and listened with satisfaction to the crash it made when it hit a larger tree. His eyes glazed over and his lips drew back in a feral grimace.
His next clear memory involved the taste of wood and a stabbing sensation in his mouth. He rose to his feet, shook his head, and looked down. A large stick lay before him, cracked and soaked in drool as if it were a bone chewed by a dog. He pulled a splinter from his gums and frowned.
The clearing looked as if it had hosted its own private tornado. No small tree stood unbroken and several concave spots in the earth suggested that nearby boulders had found a new resting place. Wendigo turned his back on the scene and went on his way, feeling for splinters with his tongue.
By the time he remembered his boots it was too late to go back for them. An image flared in his imagination; Alsoomse, pining away for him on the shore, finding them, carrying them back with her into the depths of the lake. Maybe she would hug them to her breast at night and smell them. He shuddered.
Even after the tantrum he still felt a lingering trace of nervous energy. He decided to focus this into the task of acquiring a new pair of boots. Boots were important. Humans looked at you funny when you weren't wearing boots. The looks weren't as odd as the ones they gave when you weren't wearing pants, but it was still an important detail. Wendigo liked to think that he was good with details. One of these days he would get them all right, and the humans would have to accept him as one of their own.
He trotted through the darkening forest and smiled to himself. Everything would work out if he could just find a human with comfortable footwear for the taking.
And never, ever, go near water again.