The Cold Magic
I don't know why I brought the heater. What little good it did to warm up the interior of the hunting blind came to an end in just a few hours. I scolded myself for only bringing one propane canister.
"Embrace the cold" my buddy at work told me. Like hell. This was my first time hunting alone, I'd really overdone it on creature comforts. He would laugh at all the frivolous shit I'd dragged out here if he knew about it.
The blind itself was lined with mylar like a space blanket. Inside was a folding camping toilet, a cooler full of beer because it somehow didn't dawn on me until I arrived that I wouldn't need one, the now empty canister of propane, a heat lamp that attaches to the top of it and a camping stove I could do nothing with as I'd already used all the fuel getting warm.
I'd also brought a case full of self-heating canned food. Turning the little key, I set it down and watched as steam began to vent from small holes in the lid. A minute later it was piping hot and ready to eat. So far I'd done damn near everything except hunting.
The stew was mediocre, but hot. It raised my core temp to the point where I could begin to focus on something other than the cold. Lifting the flap, I braced myself for the gust of frigid air that stung my face like a whip. I blinked. Could that be what it looked like? In the distance a buck gnawed at a lichen coated boulder. At this point I felt I'd satisfied the requirements for telling my buddy I'd roughed it in the wilderness like a real hunter, so if I could bag this buck I figured I could pack up and head home.
While not an experienced hunter I owned and regularly shot a variety of rifles and had done so for over a decade. Whether I could hit the target was not in doubt. It was quite far away and the wind complicated the shot somewhat, but it was nothing I hadn't dealt with before. I held my breath, made some final adjustments, and squeezed the trigger.
The buck most likely never heard the report. There was a burst of red spray from its eye, then it dropped like a sack of bricks. I resigned myself to the realization that I now had to trek all the fucking way out there and drag the body to my car. I'd come with what I thought would be adequate preparation; a large sled to lash the remains to and some snow shoes.
I glanced back to try and gauge the distance, and was about to return my attention to the snow shoes when out of the corner of my eye I detected motion. I glanced again, fully expecting it to be a trick of the light but there it was again. Another hunter? I unfolded a small set of binoculars and fiddled with the focus dial.
The buck was convulsing. My stomach turned. Had I failed to kill it? I didn't see how that was possible. I'd brained the fucking thing. It stopped moving, and I let out a sigh of relief. Until it began to spasm again. I set down the 'nocs and raised my rifle, intending to finish the job. But when I looked through the scope it began to dawn on me that something wasn't right.
The buck was now partially upright, twitching madly. The movement was herky-jerky, like stop motion animation. Not like a recovering animal. More like something else was moving it from inside. It stood fully erect on its hind legs. The head flopped around, neck still limp until whatever had climbed inside to wear it like a suit filled out that part. The head snapped upright.
I had to breathe consciously. My body was stiff as a board and I'd begun to sweat. As I looked on, the head wound began closing. Like videos I'd seen, time lapse footage of decomposition but in reverse. The part of the skull collapsed by the shot reformed itself before my eyes. Blood trickled from the snow up the animal's leg, then was sucked back into the head through the bullethole just before the hole itself vanished, and the bullet popped out.
I retched. What else could I do? Never before this had I seen anything remotely out of the ordinary. It was too much, all at once. Then in a moment of panic, I leveled the gun at the creature, held my breath, and fired a second shot. It suddenly turned and looked directly at me. The wind abruptly stopped and when I looked up from the scope, I noticed snowflakes hanging motionless in mid-air.
There was an unnatural clarity to it. Like looking at it through a vacuum. When I peered back through the scope, the creature was nowhere to be seen. I hunched over and struggled to regain my composure. Fuck the blind. Fuck all of this useless gear. I slung the rifle over my shoulder, strapped on the snow shoes and headed for the car.
They say not to over-exert yourself in the snow. "If you sweat, you're dead". Now I understood why. The sweat was rapidly freezing and only by further exerting myself could I stay warm. But that only made me sweat more. In my peripheral vision I glimpsed a familiar form. Sailing by me, just behind the trees, legs not quite touching the ground. I whimpered, and upon spotting a cave entrance I made a bee line for it.
Why? I couldn't tell you. Something primal. It felt safe. Once I was deep enough inside I understood why ancient man rode out winters here. Underground the temperature stays constant year-round. As I knew I was far from the first to discover this it was almost unsurprising to discover the altar.
The cave widened into an atrium with a relatively flat floor and a circle of stone monoliths around a flat, table-like surface in the center. Symbols comprised of angular intersecting lines were carved into every inch of the stones. Except for a single sentence in legible English, added recently by the looks of it. "There is no death here but what it allows." On the altar lay the partially decomposed remains of a rabbit. Someone must've left it here not too long ago or there would only be bones.
As I looked on, the remains began to twitch subtly. Fur crept over bone, legs filled out with muscle. Decomposition in reverse. All too familiar. The rapid twitchy motion, so much like time lapse, until the animal was fully restored. It got up, sniffed at the air, then hopped towards the cave entrance. Against the light streaming in from outside I saw the silhouette of what looked like a tall, muscular, hairy man with antlers.
I was up and running before I consciously decided to. I also only realized I was crying when I stopped, out of breath in total darkness. I wiped away frozen mucus but could not get my thoughts in order. The purest, most visceral fear I'd ever felt ripped through my body and every attempt to control it only made it worse. That's when I felt hot breath on my neck.
I don't know how long I was out. I woke up in an unfamiliar but comfortable bed. As my vision cleared up I determined it was a log cabin. An old woman sat in a rocker by the fire, smiling warmly at me. I tried to speak but couldn't form words. Trying to get up was also fruitless. "Oh don't push yourself, you're still weak." There were so many questions, but I gave up for the time being and took in more of my surroundings.
She must've found me, I thought. Did I make it out of the cave on my own? I couldn't remember. The woman just smiled, wrapped up cozy as could be in her blanket, rocking contentedly. Surely she didn't build this cabin? Perhaps when she was younger. "You know, there's no hunting allowed in these woods. Don't fret about your gun, it's by the door." There it was, along with a dozen others of various makes and models.
My voice finally returned, though weak and raspy. "Where am I?" She continued to smile vacantly. "Do you have a husband?" More maddening silence. "How far away did you find me? I need to get back to my car." Now she furrowed her brow, carefully considering how to respond. "Settle down dear. You aren't going anywhere, not after what you saw." She stood up. The blanket fell away. And with it, the illusion of the old woman.