Chapter 9: The Legend
“Kerri, I can’t believe you’re up there chasing ghost stories,” Jim’s voice chattered through the chopper’s headset. “You’ve let him get to you—this is crazy!”
Kerri just stared at the mountains passing by outside the helicopter doors. “Only if we’re really lucky,” she responded, still running scenario after scenario through her churning brain. “Think about it though—Native Americans have been telling stories about predatory shapeshifters since before recorded history. The Blackfoot tell of the wolf man. The Cherokee have stories of a tribe that can reportedly change into bears. The Navajo have yee naaldlooshii, the skinwalker. Tribes from all over the US have similar legends ranging anywhere from malevolent spellcasters, more feared than Salem’s witches, to revered medicine men, to harbingers of death. But they all share the same animalistic foundations.”
“—Europeans brought over stories of werewolves. Cults of lycanthropy date back as far as 1200BC. The French have the loup-garou and ancient Mesoamericans had the nahual. Think of it, Jim. How outrageously naïve would we have to be to assume that all these stories from all over the world, from all periods of history, have no basis in fact. Do you think the ancient Greeks consulted with the Viking ulfheobar before Zeus turned King Lycaon into a wolf?”
“Really, Ker! Are you hearing yourself right now?”
“You saw Josh’s footage. Human eyes can’t produce that reflective glow, they don’t have the proper anatomy. Darren would be in the mid to late stages of starvation in that video. There’s no way he could muster the strength, let alone the fortitude, to chase down and catch a snowshoe hare with his bare hands. You saw his eyes. You saw how fast he moved. Now tell me that was normal, Jim.”
“Alright, so it was a little freakish, but that doesn’t mean Darren Henderson, Ditsy Darren, has become some Rocky-top Native American werewolf. –Werewolf— Ker!”
“I don’t know what he is, Jim. But he’s not Darren anymore.”
Taking a deep breath and scrunching her eyes shut, Kerri repelled backwards out of the helicopter, swinging back and forth on her rope for a moment before carefully releasing some slack through her pully. The wind off the chopper blades was buffeting snow in every direction, but soon, her feet touched down onto solid earth.
Ducking down, she disconnected herself from the pully system and scurried out from beneath the hovering aircraft. Three others were overseeing the supply drop, so Kerri hurried off, away from the pummeling gusts, moving instead toward the distant array of stone-walled conical buildings lining the steep ridge.
Drawing up short, she hesitated, shielding her eyes with her hand as she squinted at a stocky figure standing among the snow-covered rocks. A blast of wind whipped a drift of white fluff into her face and she turned, watching the chopper lift up and away, not to return until that afternoon when the supply team was scheduled to be picked up. Reaching up, she felt for the reassuring presence of the tiny earpiece, still firmly in place, though muted against Jim’s constant haranguing.
Turning back, Kerri started forward again, picking her way across the precarious landscape toward the figure among the rocks.
Stopping about a dozen paces from him, she recognized his weathered features from Darren’s HeadCam footage. Brow furrowing, she lifted her arm in what she thought she remembered as a Salish gesture of greeting.
The weathered tribesman didn’t return the gesture, but Kerri thought she saw his braids dip in a brief nod of acknowledgment. Hoping she was right, she pushed herself into motion again, closing the distance between them.
Reaching him, she dipped her head deferentially. “My name is Kerri,” she began, remembering the man’s tentative grasp of the English language and searching for meaningful words that might have survived the decades of disuse. “I-um… I need to know what the mountain is hiding—what you are guarding.”
The shaman gave an immediate jerk of his head, brows fixed and jaws bunching. Kerri didn’t need a translation; no way.
Pressing her lips tight, she sucked a frustrated breath through her nostrils, staring around the snowy landscape for inspiration. “Look,” she finally began. “Something has happened. One of the contestants—one of our people—he’s… changing.”
Pale gray eyes, unusual for the tribes in this area, flicked up to hers, and a muscle high in his cheek trembled. “…Change…”
Kerri nodded pulling her lips between her teeth as she reached for her phone. “Yes, changing. …His eyes…” She circled her free hand over her own eyes in illustration. “…His hunger…” And she rested her hand over her middle.
The shaman’s gaze watched her hand as it rubbed over her stomach, a furrow growing in the center of his brow.
Checking his face, Kerri swiped open her screen and pulled up the still-frame she’d had Josh send to her: a close zoom of Darren’s impossibly luminescent eyes.
One of the shaman’s hands drifted up, fingers holding a slight tremor as he brushed them over the image of Darren’s face. Then his eyes flicked up to hers before looking uncertainly toward the village.
“Please,” she pressed.
Kerri watched the muscles in his jaw tense one or twice before he nodded his head, still looking off toward the scattering of conical, stone-walled homes. Meeting her gaze once, he dipped his chin and walked off toward the village.
Kerri ducked her head beneath the low rim of the doorway. Securing the leather flap behind her, she heard the old man call out to someone inside. Tiponi? Curious, she followed him down a few stone steps into the warm interior of a dugout home. The inside walls were lined in the same glittering quartz-like stone as the exterior, and there was a low fire burning in the center of the large space, the smoke curling up and out through a hole in the center of the hide-covered roof. Drying herbs and animal tokens lined the walls and overhead beams, lending the circular stone room a somewhat mystical feel.
A younger woman with long braids, Tiponi, presumably, looked up at their entrance. She might have been an older daughter, or even a younger wife, in her furs and beaded necklaces, and she stilled in her motions of tending the fire as they walked in, eyeing Kerri with open uncertainty.
Tipping her head in the woman’s direction, Kerri brushed past a dangling eagle’s wing, following the old man’s gesturing arm as he motioned her to sit across from him at the fire.
Silence followed her decent, and she watched the pair carefully, firelight glinting off the dark claws adorning the shaman’s bone necklace—too large to be wolf, or even bear.
Finally, he took a breath. Turning to Tiponi, he began to speak to her in a low voice.
After an uneasy glance in her direction, she began to translate, her voice carrying the thick and beautiful articulations of the south-western tribes. “Fathers of our fathers, and their fathers before… Keepers of our people from all tribes… We guard the restless one. The ageless. The Unnamed.”
Ice prickled across Kerri’s limbs and she licked her suddenly dry lips. “The Unnamed?”
Nodding slowly, she went on. “Each tribe has their stories, their legends. How He Who Lives Above brought life to the earth, how the light came, and the trees sprang forth, and the creatures came to walk the land.”
The shaman was still murmuring to her as she spoke, and she nodded in time with his words as her expression darkened. “Then came the—” but she paused, working her hands as she tried to find the right word. “—the wrong ones. The mistakes.”
Despite herself, Kerri found herself leaning forward, her bubbling anxiety temporarily eclipsed as she was drawn into the quiet woman’s gentle cadence.
“The clay men, the tricksters… the spider. They all disappointed, disobeyed. But when He Who Lives Above sought to sweep them from the land, one survived.”
Kerri swallowed. This wasn’t the legend she’d been expecting. “W-which one?”
Tiponi shook her head, eyes lifting to the shaman’s for a moment. “Each tribe will say different. But the ageless one remained, seeking to gain the creator’s favor by taking the parts of the creatures he loved best. The velvet prongs of the elk, the golden eyes of the wolf, the sturdy legs of the buffalo. But his thieving repulsed the creator, and he fell even further from favor. And when He Who Lives Above finally created man, the Unnamed looked upon him with bitterness. Deep was his envy, and he sought to lower man in the creator’s eyes.”
Pausing, the shaman gestured at a horned skull hanging from the overhead beams, the coils of its caprine appendages nearly three feet wide.
“The first men saw through the Unnamed’s lies, driving him out of their villages as he cast temptations at their feet. But he was patient and clever, and he returned to tempt the first men’s children, grooming them to be weak to their desires, seducing their spirits with whispers of speed, and strength, and power.
“When the first of these descendants finally came to him, her soul tainted with envy for another woman’s husband, the Unnamed smiled on her, and gifted her the cunning beauty of the vixen. But once she had stolen away her man, the fox inside her continued to prowl, heating her blood, driving her from her hut at night to feast on rodents and fowl. When finally the tribe discovered what she’d become, she too was driven away to weep at the Unnamed’s feet.
“Another sought to best his brother hunters, and so the Unnamed made him as the jaguar—swift, agile, and fierce. But when the blood of his prey touched his lips, his teeth grew to shred its flesh and a tail sprouted from his spine. His mind became feral and he disappeared forever, into the forests. Again, the Unnamed was pleased with the pain he had caused the creator’s children.”
Kerri’s mind was taking in the unfamiliar legend with the same level of scrutiny as she had devoted to her coursework. A shapeshifting trickster, a devil in disguise… common enough traits for many civilizations across history. But something about this story was nagging at her. A fox woman? Like the Japanese kitsune? And the other—how would a tribe this far north even know what a jaguar was? She knew of the nagual and onca, but those legends were firmly based in South America, Mexico at the closest.
From somewhere deep in her pocket, she felt the buzz of a text coming to her phone, answering the question of whether or not it would function on the system’s remote data link. She ignored it, not wanting to interrupt the story.
Brow fixed in a position of rapt attention, she listened on, trying to make sense of the unnatural conglomeration of different cultures, all slowly following a broken path back to the same sinister source. The shaman’s voice rose and fell as he narrated on, the stronger voice of Tiponi seated beside him describing the Unnamed traveling the world, sowing discord among peoples, cultivating greed and vile ambition, and rewarding those who sought him out, only for them to be consumed by violent, bestial transformations.
“The Unnamed’s power continued to grow, the more children he had serving at his feet, feeding his tainted spirit with the fear of the creator’s children, until one day, seeking reprieve, the tribes of our fathers came together and sent their strongest of spirit, N’Mahkah of the earth and sky, to ask He Who Lives Above for help.
“And so N’Mahkah climbed to the top of the tallest mountain and called out to the sky for his maker. Hearing N’Mahkah’s cries, He Who Lives Above turned his eyes, once more, back to the world below.
“He saw, then, the horrors created by the Unnamed, the ageless one, the tempter. And also, he saw the pure spirit of N’Mahkah and the pain in his heart.
“‘That which my folly thought to steal,’ He Who Lives Above spoke, ‘I will bless such to you. And so, you shall contend his evil.’
“And, one by one, the spirit animals of the earth descended to share a portion of themselves with N’Mahkah. Then, armed with the strength of creation, the spirit warrior descended the mountain once more.”
From her pocket, Kerri felt her phone give a longer buzz, and she silently berated herself for not simply turning the damn thing off. Reaching down, she silenced it with a click and turned back to her two hosts. “But N’Mahkah couldn’t have won, right? Not if your tribe is still here, guarding him.”
Tiponi solemnly shook her head. “No. N’Mahkah called on the tribes to sound the drums and gathered the strongest hunters, dipping their spears and arrows in sacred ash. But when they confronted the Unnamed, his powers were still too great. They could not defeat him. But even though they could not kill him, they drove him back, wounding and harrying him until he retreated, seeking refuge in a cave, high in the cold mountains.”
Kerri felt a chill run down her arms as the wind gusted outside the heavy hide door, and she turned, as if she would see the Unnamed peeking through the flap.
Following her gaze, the woman spoke on in hushed tones, not bothering to wait for the shaman’s prompting. “Knowing the power of the Unnamed could never be matched as he was, N’Mahkah took it upon himself to guard the cave where the Unnamed lay hidden, licking his wounds. And, using the power the Creator had granted him, he cast a web across the mountain, sealing himself and the Unnamed inside for eternity. His hunters, he sent out to hunt the beasts of the night that the Unnamed had sired, each kill draining more power from the Unnamed’s spirit.”
“And he remains? Your tribe guards him still?”
But she shook her head, “We are all tribes, as all are needed to guard him, since N’Mahkah left to join the spirits. We are Blackfoot, Wintun, Navajo, and Montauk. We are Mayan and Chono, L’Nuk and Aleut. Hopi…” she added with a hand to her chest. “Each of us descended from the leaders of the great battle with the Unnamed. We have gained more, over the generations, but the Unnamed is still strong, and our numbers dwindle.”
“…The medicine,” Kerri murmured. “Jim said you were hit hard by influenza—ah, fever.”
The woman’s forehead wrinkled and she turned to the tribesman, who had just begun speaking again. “The village leaders, in their drive to protect our people, deemed the sacrifice of your people a small price when weighed against our duty. But they did not ask Mahasani before agreeing. If they had, we never would have allowed you on this mountain.”
Kerri felt suddenly very unwelcome, and she swallowed, slapping her hand down hard over her pocket as the buzzing rose once more. She nodded slowly at Mahasani, finally knowing his name. “The contestants—our people—on the mountain, they’re in danger, aren’t they?” She didn’t phrase it as a question, but she still felt her stomach sink as she saw the grave look steal over Mahasani’s features.
“The whole world is in danger,” Tiponi responded. “If the Unnamed is allowed to father another scion, his power will begin to grow again.”
Kerri’s phone gave another sharp buzz and she finally thrust her hand into her pocket. “Excuse me, I’m really sor—” But she cut off as the text message alert on her lock screen expanded to read:
Kerri! For the love of God, open your goddamned phone!