Fiction by Christian Shuck
Three Days After Wikvaya Left Camp
Wicasa sat with his legs crossed. Around him were other tribal leaders. In the center of their council, a small fire burned. The air, despite being out under the stars, tasted foul.
Something was amiss.
It was not unheard of for a vision quest to take several days. However, they had all expected Wikvaya to return quickly. He was the son of a great man, and with that siring came high expectations. The worry on the faces of Wicasa’s brothers was heavy. The concern, most of all, showed on the face of Keme.
“My son has not yet returned,” Keme spoke. “I am concerned he has been away this long and think I will go look for him in the morning.” The group of leaders muttered among each other. Some in favor of Keme’s decision, others believing he should wait.
“This is not the first time one of our young has taken so long to receive his vision,” said Enyeto. Wicasa looked to his right, where Enyeto was sitting. The man’s large frame took the space of two of the other braves. He was one of the most respected men of the tribe; because of his size, but also due to his gentle nature.
“I understand your worry for your son,” Enyeto continued. “Wikvaya is special to all of us, we all share your concern. But I think because you are such a loving father, you rush to save Wikvaya from that which could help him grow.”
The men in the circle mumbled to each other again. Wicasa watched Keme hold his reaction.
Helki, sitting next to Keme, reached out his hand to place it on Keme’s shoulder.
“I too, agree with Enyeto. I have watched my nephew grow, and am excited for him to receive his vision and become a man. As much as I would like to be certain he is alright, I am reminded that we all had to experience this in our own time.” He motioned a hand around the circle. “Wikvaya is eager, but strong. He will return soon and we will all celebrate together.”
As the rest of the circle took turns voicing their opinions, Wicasa turned his attention back to the air. He thought the stench of the air was growing. Though he admired the encouragement from the other men, his instincts told him that something was indeed wrong with Wikvaya. He waited for the conversation to break before he shared his thoughts.
“All of your words of encouragement are good for Keme.” Being the oldest member of the tribe, and also the spiritual counsel, all of the side conversations stopped so that Wicasa could speak.
“It is good to see you all supporting him and Wikvaya on his quest,” Wicasa continued. “This is what makes our tribe, our family so strong.” He paused to take a deep breath, for he knew he was about to crush their hope. “Pay attention to the air.”
The group looked to each other, then in unison tilted their heads up, noses to the sky. After a moment, they looked over to Wicasa.
“The air tonight is tainted. Something is nearby, that should not be,” Wicasa said.
“What do you mean, brother?” Keme asked with anticipation.
A sound outside the group, the snap of a twig, startled them. They turned in the direction of the noise, and in the glint of the firelight saw a figure staring at them through the dark.
Keme leaned toward the shape, squinting to see. Then his confusion turned to excitement.
“Wikvaya?” he said to the dark.
The figure stepped closer, clumsily, as if it were a wounded animal. Keme stood and moved to greet his son.
“No!” Wicasa called out. “Keme, that is not Wikvaya.”
Keme did not hear, or he did not want to hear. He wanted to see his son, who was now a man. But as he approached, it became clear to him that Wicasa was right. Though the man in front of him looked like Wikvaya, something was very wrong.
“Keme,” Helki pleaded, “stay back.”
“Who are you?!” Enyeto shouted.
The being started to glow. Like the hottest ember in the heart of the fire burning at the center of the council.
Keme, angry that this thing was not his son, charged. The other members of the tribe whooped and shouted as they ran to join him.
When Keme tackled the stranger to the ground, he was surprised with how weak he was. The man fell to the ground like a feather. The glowing thing wheezed, groaning. The face was Wikvaya’s, but the eyes were black and empty. It frightened Keme. His fear only fueled his anger, and he reached for a rock. Keme struck the stranger in the head.
The being glowed brighter, nearly pink, like a flower in a field. It cried out, and the scream made Keme cover his ears.
“Stop!” Wicasa yelled. “Stop him, quickly!”
Enyeto, Helki and the rest of the council ran to pull Keme away from the fight. The being stopped screaming, and laid still on the ground. The pink glow faded to red. Then orange, and eventually went out.
Wicasa stood to join the group. He realized others from the camp had come closer to their circle to see about the disturbance. Quickly he made his way to the place where the stranger laid on the ground.
“What kind of magic is this?” Helki asked Wicasa after he was standing with the group.
“It is a skin-walker,” Wicasa explained. “A demon of great power. It will bleed the life from young ones.”
“How did it come here?!” shouted Keme. “Where is Wikvaya?!”
Wicasa’s voice was solemn. “Wikvaya is gone, his soul has been eaten by the skin-walker.”
Keme fell to his knees, crying.
“We will mourn him another time. We must remove this beast from our camp before it awakes,” Wicasa instructed.
The group looked to one another, each expecting someone else to offer a solution.
“I know of a place,” Enyeto volunteered. “There is a cave not far from here. We can take the beast there and burn it.”
“Quickly,” Wicasa said. “Bind it, so it cannot get free. Bring torches. Enyeto, lead us to this place you know.”
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Through the dark, a line of torches marched away from the camp. Two men held a pole on their shoulders. The man that was not Wikvaya was tied by his hands and feet, dangling like a freshly killed deer. Keme looked at the body, lamenting for the loss of his son. Strangely, the smell which intruded their council fire just before the appearance of the skin-walker was no longer noticeable. Keme wondered if the glow of the thing had somehow burned it out of the air. Then he realized he had not taken any moment to wonder how the thing was able to glow at all. He did not remember the body being hot when he tackled it to the ground. It had not caught fire, or burned the ground when it fell. This magic was terrifying, and he was glad the tribe would be rid of it soon.
The other men walked near the being, but not next to it. Carrying torches through the night was not customary, as it would normally give their position away to game or enemies. The traveling light seemed to give the group added comfort. Their intent was clear, so there was no conversation.
Wicasa walked in the middle of the group. He was sad for the loss of Wikvaya and as they traveled he tried to think of how best to comfort the boy’s father after their task was finished. He looked at the limikkin, dangling from the pole. Its appearance was striking. Not because it was ugly or terrifying, but because it looked exactly like Wikvaya.
As the group traveled, no one made a sound, save for the occasional rustling of leaves beneath their feet. Shadows of the forest danced in the flickering light of the torches. Demons, exposed by the brightness of the fire, following the troupe to witness the execution of one of their own.
Enyeto, leading the band, stopped at the edge of a hollow.
“This is the place I spoke of,” he said to the group. Wicasa made his way to stand next to Enyeto so he could observe the location.
“This place,” he began, “this is a way to the world of the spirits. We must leave the skin-walker here. It will be up to the guides of our fathers to decide its fate.”
“Leave it?!” Keme called from the back of the group.
Wicasa turned to address them all. “We will burn it, take its remains into the cave, and seal it up.”
A small pyre was arranged at the bottom of the hollow, near the mouth of the cave. The limikkin was placed in the center. Wicasa nodded to Enyeto, who lit the fire beneath the beast. Wicasa began to chant, asking for spirit guides to come and claim the demon, and to arrest it.
Keme began to cry.
Helki stood with Keme, trying to comfort him. But without warning, Keme ran forward.
“Wikvaya!” he shouted. Whether he stumbled, or dove intentionally, Wicasa could not see. Keme fell into the fire, attempting to pull the body away from the flames. The smell of burning flesh filled the air. The beast awoke, screaming and flailing wildly at recognizing its pain. It clung to Keme in desperation, pulling him into the pyre.
Enyeto covered his ears to dull the high-pitched agony. A wet, greasy sensation met his fingers. He looked at his hands to find blood.
The group, frozen in fear, watched as their friend burned.
Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com. He currently lives in Terre Haute.