Wendigos. Why the hell did it have to be Wendigos? Of all the creatures that Tess had ever met, the Wendigo was the most fierce, the one that held the most fear in her heart. And there was the irony, she couldn’t act on any of that fear. Any trace of fear or sadness, and the damned thing would steal your soul. Happy thoughts, loving thoughts were the way to stun it, until the beast could be slashed down with a sword. They usually didn’t travel in groups, but she was lucky tonight. There had been three, all together. The first had transformed its elongated, emaciated body into a vision of her father, his white hair flowing down his back, orange eyes burning with ferocity. It even had the detail of the man’s armor down. It would have been convincing, if she didn’t already know that her father was at home, weeks away on horse, protecting the lands of Raili. Tess had taken him down easily, keeping him contained with memories of her father teaching her the art of his sword, of him taking her and her mother on picnics near the lake, of drifting off to sleep carried by the sound of his voice. The moment her father’s form was still, Tess lunged forward and thrust through thin skin and cracked through bone, destroying the heart of the beast. Or whatever it had in place of a heart.
The second Wendigo took the form of Tess herself. That was easy enough. Most probably would hesitate, to take their own life, or even the Wendigo version of their life, but not Tess. She’d been through too much, wished for her own demise too many times, and when her sword went through the gaunt, skeletal looking form of herself, it was a satisfying sort of catharsis. A sigh of relief left her lips, though she knew it was too soon to celebrate.
One monster left. Slowly, Tess circled, looking around the trees. She had been so caught up in the destroying of the other two that she hadn’t kept an eye on the last one. The voice came from behind her, deep and dark and familiar, and for a moment, Tess’s heart leapt in hopes that this was real. That he was real. “Tessy, help me,” he called, though he wasn’t all that far away. “I think the Wendigo got me, help me, please.”
He was standing near the edge of the forest, half behind a tree where he could have easily snuck up on her. He was older now, so unlike the boy who left home to work as a page, to become a knight. Adaaris had grown up, just as she had. He was so much like she remembered, tall, thin, but well muscled, wearing leather armor that seemed too thin, too well worn. How easy it would have been to believe this illusion, that he had been taken by a Wendigo in armor that battered. His chocolate curly hair hung down passed his ears, framing his still boyish face, his slate eyes were pleading with her for help. Oh, Wendigos were masters of illusion, and she must have found an elder, for him to be showing her the future form of an old friend. Ada advanced on her, and Tess took a few steps back, her sword feeling heavy in her small hand. “I don’t think I’m gonna make it, Tessy,” he told his, his voice breaking.
To show a Wendigo fear was to lose your soul. That was the truth of the matter. And even though she shook, even though she was terrified that she would be wrong, Tess had to face this. If this was a Wendigo, he would continue to terrorize people, to kill them and steal their souls. If it wasn’t…then she was putting the man who had been her childhood best friend out of his misery, to let him rest in peace.
“I don’t think you are either, Ada,” she said softly, trying not to let her voice show her emotions. No fear. She had to finish this, no matter what the consequences were. If it was the third Wendigo, then all it meant was that her friend was still out there somewhere, alive and well. Tess drew a long breath, wiped the Wendigo goo off of her sword and onto her old skirt, and advanced on him. Good memories, she reminded herself. Happy thoughts. Running down to the lake for afternoons of swimming with Ada. Picnics by the vineyard with him and their parents. Practicing magic with him. Every memory that she projected made Ada stop, freezing him in place by that tree, and Tess continued to advance on him, slowly. Ada telling her he loved her. They were only eight, but that was her dearest memory. She could remember the smell of honeysuckle in the air as they ran through down the path from the lake back to her home. He left the next day. Tess had sat at her window, watching the road that lead between their homes, wishing he would come back. She could feel the stab of pain as Ada’s large hand reached out and grabbed her bicep, squeezing it tightly to draw her nearer.
One memory too far . She had ruined her happy memories with a painful one, and could feel someone sucking at her, as if pulling the air from her lungs. “Hell no,” she whispered, fighting for breath, and she lunged forward as best she could, plunging her sword through Ada’s chest messily. The beast twisted, briefly losing its disguise so that she could see the grey skin stretched tightly over its bones, it standing to full height, much taller than her, and then disintegrating into a puddle of black goo and dust.
Tess knelt near the remains of the Wendigo, trying to fight the hot tears that had started to slip down her cheeks. Even though it wasn’t him, it was just a creature, one that had tried to kill her, the motions of running her friend through was so painful. The Wendigo disguised as her father hadn’t been so hard, she would return home and see him soon, but Ada… Ada was lost to her. He hadn’t been home in eleven years, who knew when he’d show back up, if she’d ever see him again. When enough time had passed, when she finished mourning the loss of a person who hadn’t even been in the same forest as her, Tess took a three small bottles from the pouch at her hip and bottled up some of the ashes. If nothing else, she could sell the remains of her heartache to a group of high mages who would use it for their illusionary spells. At least she could make some money off of this.
“Good-bye, Ada,” she whispered to the still air around her. She tucked the bottles back in her pouch, cleaned and sheathed her sword, and started back to find a town, a place to rest her weary body and soul.