Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction
[Originally published in E-scape.]
Dave Hackett had always felt safe in Equinox - a town so tiny it didn't even show up as a pinprick on most Michigan maps. Just a bump in the pavement along County Road 448. A gas station, a pub & grub, a bait & tackle… a few dozen shacks and trailers spread out through the surrounding woods, most of them pretty well hidden. A magical place. The name had something to do with Indian legends rooted deeper than the oaks, with a secret spot where the Ojibwa gathered to celebrate the rites of Spring.
It was not just a place: a place and time fused together. When day and night meet as equals…. When light and darkness battle for the soul of the World…. The legends were misty, hard to grasp. Dave had always preferred Mom's explanation. An equinox is a door between the seasons, Davy. Mother Nature stands there with a foot on either side, trying to decide whether to wear Her heavy winter coat or put on a summer dress. Until She walks through, anything can happen.
That Spring, anything did.
Dave loved wandering the woods when the snow began to melt and Mother Nature was ready to take off Her winter coat. First thaw unlocked the forest smells: faint spice of pine needles mingled with the dank, relentless odor of moldering leaves. He carried his Winchester out of habit, though he didn't expect to use it. Most years, at least a taste of sunshine spilled through the cracks at the edges of Mom's cosmic door; Equinox had seen nothing this Spring but an unbroken shroud of gray. The land echoed the heavens. Trees didn't show buds, undergrowth had not yet dug its way out of winter graves. Dave could not find so much as a sprig or shoot or seedling. The weirdest thing of all was the silence - no bird song, no animal noises. No squeaks or chirps or chatters.
Dave Hackett had hunted and fished the wildest places in the Upper Peninsula for thirty years, but he could not shake the feeling that the woods and marshes around his home no longer considered him a friend.
Once in a while, he caught a glimpse of motion out of the corner of his eye. He began to see them in the trees. Squirrels. Just squirrels. But these had fur as black as the Devil's soul on a Sunday morning - fuzzy balls of midnight skittering across the bones of winter-ravaged trees. He rarely saw them move, except for the rapid tremor of their breathing. The hairs on his neck and arms prickled like the quills of a cornered porcupine. He saw dozens in the surrounding branches. Motionless. Watchful. He heard movement behind him, spun around to see a horde of bushy statues with shiny buckshot eyes. He heard it again in back of him - the scratch of tiny claws on bark - whirled around to face it. Furry bodies clung to the trees like dark, malignant tumors. Not dozens… hundreds. They made no sound.
Dave stood there, fingers numb against the worn stock of his Winchester two-forty-three autoloader - a rifle he had once used to drop an eight-point buck at a hundred yards. Enough to blow any one of those little bastards back to Hell. And yet, his hands shook so badly he couldn't have hit the broad side of a Winnebago.
One large, slobbering predator he could have handled. But this… this was an army of critters too small and quick and numerous for any one man to stop.
The squirrels closed ranks, tightening around him like a noose. They scented blood. And fear - it soaked the lining of his camouflage jacket. He raised the rifle and squeezed off a shot, not aiming anywhere at all. For one horrible moment they did not move; then some primal instinct awakened, and they scattered. Dave's own instincts sent him sprinting for home, stealing glances over his shoulder as he stumbled over winter deadfalls. He did not see any black squirrels, but he could feel them. He could feel them.
After a muscle-searing run, he spotted the cabin through skeletal branches. He stopped beyond the tree line to catch his breath. The spicy aroma of woodsmoke wafted from the chimney; little Carrie squealed as Kevin pushed her on the creaking rope swing in the back. The sights and sounds and scents of home embraced him, mundane and comforting, until he felt like the biggest fool in the entire U.P. Shake it off, Davy boy. It ain't real. It can't be. He glanced at a clump of popple along the edge of the clearing, and his fear melted away like a June snowfall. Even from a distance, he could see that the slender branches were beginning to bud. He wandered toward them, grateful for any sign that the door between the seasons had really opened, and reached out for a stem. His hand sprang away like a startled doe. The door to Summer - to light and reason - slammed shut.
The buds worming their way through the flesh of every popple in the thicket were black. They were as black as coal.
* * *
Dave had never been a drinking man, but he needed a drink. He needed it bad. He pointed the old Ram pickup straight for Wild Bill's Bar & Grill, where they served the tastiest venison steak and the cheapest beer in town - not exactly high praise, since Wild Bill ran the only bar and restaurant in Equinox. Still, if anybody else had seen weird goings-on, Wild Bill would know about it. Dave gave up on finding a space in the gravel lot beside the cinderblock elegance of Wild Bill's establishment and parked his truck on the shoulder of County Road 448. He walked past the jam of vehicles, recognizing the regulars… and several rusty hulks that never made an appearance unless they were roaring past on the highway.
Even the human animals were acting strange.
When Dave pushed through the jangling door, everybody turned to stare. Dead light bulbs and a swirling cloud of tobacco smoke made it hard to see, but he could see enough. Haunted faces - worn by men who did not spook easily. Wild Bill slapped a Moosehead down on the bar. "On the house, Davy boy. You look like you need it."
Dave grabbed the bottle with a sigh and plopped down on a barstool. "That's a fact." He took a long, grateful pull before sneaking another look around. The fidgeting eyes made him nervous. "So… what'd I interrupt?"
Wild Bill exhaled a gust of sour air redolent of beer and nicotine. "Jesus, Dave, just about the weirdest powwow we've ever had in this joint… but the price of admission is a story. Let's hear yours."
He told them about the squirrels. When he finished, the silence stretched into a tension as thick as the tobacco smoke, and easier to choke on. He scanned the room, desperate for a sympathetic face, and spotted Joe Mishomis sprawled in a corner booth. Joe was full-blooded Ojibwa, probably the friendliest son of a bitch in town. The two of them had fished together since Dave was big enough to lift a rod: Joe taught him how to light-line nymph a fly leader, how to fish the swampiest parts of the Fox River from a canoe, how to tie a Woolly Bugger that no trout could resist.
Please, Joe, bail me outa this.
Old Joe didn't disappoint. "If that ain't one for the books. Davy Hackett, King of the Wild Frontier, chased out of the woods by a pack o' killer rodents!" Everybody laughed - nervous laughter, maybe, but a healthy sound. Dave just smiled and shook his head. "I got to admit, those little bastards spooked me bad."
Skunk-Jake Skinner slammed his bottle down on the table, sloshing beer all over a hunting jacket that looked and smelled like three-day roadkill. "That's just one piece of it, man! It's crazy out there. Ain't seen no birds but crow and grackle in more'n a month. Ted DeBoer run a pair o' coyotes off his place that was both just as black as the ace o' spades. This time o' year, snowshoe rabbits oughta still be pert near white, but yesterday I shot me one with fur the color o' Kentucky coal dust. It's Devil's work!"
Joe shook his head, silver hair swaying like willow branches in a soft breeze. "Depends on whose Devil you mean."
Paul LeClerc piped up from across the room, words noticeably slurred. "We ain't got the time nor the stomach for any of your mystic Injun bullshit. Why don't you just crawl back inside your bottle, Chief, and leave the serious talk to the men?"
The room grew deathly quiet. Joe forced a grin so brittle it looked like his face would crack. "That's right, boys: I hunt Wild Turkey, just like my ancestors. Since slobs like you shot all the feathered kind, I gotta shoot mine with a glass."
Several men cursed and lurched to their feet. Joe did not move - he just held on to that knife-edge grin, but no trace of humor touched his eyes. Dave would have wagered big money on old Joe if it came to scuffle. He didn't want to see it come to that.
"Lay off him, guys. Ain't no need for us to be takin' chunks out of each other when there's so many critters out there wantin' to do that for us. Let's just sit down, have another beer, and try to figure out what's what."
Wild Bill slid another round of Mooseheads along the bar. "Now you're talkin' sense, Davy boy! We're all neighbors here. At the least, we oughta keep our eyes open, watch each other's backs. If we're real damn lucky, maybe this whole freaky business will blow over once Summer comes."
Joe Mishomis only shook his head. He looked like a guy who knew a private joke, one more sick than funny.
"You palefaces just don't get it, do ya? Something's comin', all right... but it ain't Summer, boys. It ain't Summer."
Dave followed Joe outside, ignoring the drunken chatter of Wild Bill's other patrons. Joe's boots crunched across the gravel as he angled toward the woods in the direction of his cozy shack out along Bear Slough. Dave caught him before he ghosted into the trees, grabbed his shoulder with a roughness born of pure adrenaline.
"What's goin' on, Joe?"
"Ah, Davy... you wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"I'd believe about anything right now. Try me."
A gust of North wind made Dave shiver, filled his nostrils with the smell of frozen rot just begun to thaw. Joe stared at him - stared through him, at something far beyond them both. He stooped beneath the weight of what he saw. "I came to Equinox every Spring when I was young for the rituals out by Hiawatha Creek. I'd sit there, shivering in the darkness, listening to the old Midewiwin chant their prophecies. Every year the wind just blew their words away with the tobacco smoke. Nothing happened. Nothing changed. After a while, I stopped listening. Part of me still believed… but I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. I would've done things different if I'd known."
"If you'd known what?"
"The Mide priests foretold that Gichi-manitou would one day grow angry enough to send His warriors against those who have laid the scars across His face. These warriors will wear black war paint - the color of death and vengeance - to signify they will show no mercy to the enemy. It will come to pass at a time when the Winter snows are melting, when day and night meet as equals. Muk-a-day Ze-e-gwung: Black Spring. Season of Revenge. Your ancestors didn't name this town, Davy boy; they just translated."
Joe stared into the forest, eyes widening in shock. "The manitous are gathering. Bagucks, Spirit of Misfortune, I know you. Take your curses somewhere else!"
Dave turned, followed Joe's haunted eyes into the branches of a white birch. He saw something perched near the top - gray-white and indistinct against the swollen clouds - felt immense relief that one creature, at least, had not been infected with whatever black contagion plagued these woods. He narrowed his eyes as Joe muttered some indecipherable Algonquin prayer. A bird. Just a scrawny bird.
The wind moaned, rearranged the branches, and Dave caught a clearer glimpse. Not a bird… not really. It had no flesh, no feathers. He stared into the empty hollows of a tiny skull, curved beak the color of jaundice bobbing as the branches swayed. Pointing straight at him. They gazed at each other for endless seconds as icicles twined around Dave's spine. Then the thing skittered away, bleached bones clicking as it moved, and disappeared into the twilight. Dave Hackett could not even breathe.
A hand fell heavily on his shoulder, nearly made him jump out of his skin. Joe's tone was mild, fatalistic - tinged with pity. "Go home, Davy boy. Stay close by your family. Ain't nothing to do right now but wait."
* * *
The thought of fishing made Dave's blood run as icy as Spring snow-melt, but he had promised Kevin. Unlike his own father, Dave meant to keep his promises. They picked a spot along the Manistique, an open stretch of riverbank without too many weeds. A place where nothing could sneak up on them. It should have been a good time to hook some trout: the little black stone flies were hatching, and Dave had a handful of Number Fourteen extra-longs that were dead ringers for the real thing. So far, they hadn't caught anything but the sniffles. The sun could not burn through the gunmetal clouds that had hovered over Equinox for more than a month; steady drizzle soaked through jackets, shirts, and skin.
The dismal weather seeped into Dave's soul, steering his mind into darker waters.
A splash down-river jolted him out of his reverie. He spotted Kevin climbing up the bank, fly rod clutched in one shivering hand. Dave felt a flicker of relief that his boy had finally had enough. "You 'bout ready to pack it in, Kev? Your Mom'll be cooking a nice hot stew to thaw us out when we get home."
Kevin laid his rod carefully on the grass. "Nah, Dad, I promised Mom we'd have trout for supper. I just gotta go water a tree."
Dave wrestled with a bout of panic. "Stay close, boy. And mind you don't piss on anything that might take exception." Kevin flashed him that cripes-Dad-I'm-not-a-kid-anymore scowl before disappearing into the pines. Before Dave could decide whether to go after him, something splashed off to his left; his spinner began to hum. Damn if I don't have a strike! He tried to work the fish away from the weeds, playing it back and forth, waiting for it to wear itself out. He saw something dark and shiny dart below the surface, recognized the spotted markings of a stream brown. He almost lost it in the cattails before angling it out toward deeper water. Back and forth, back and forth, a little closer all the time. He caught glimpses of its thrashing outline; a good fourteen inches, at least. Dave waded out and grabbed for his net, slipping it under and up as the fish swam within reach.
He pulled his dripping prize out of the water - nearly dropped it, net and all. The thing in his net had the telltale spots of a brown trout on its back and sides… but the thing in his net was not brown. Its scales had a bruised purple-black sheen. Spots infected its oily flesh like an ebony pox. Its jaws opened and closed, not with the sluggish motion of a suffocating fish, but with a ravenous snap. Christ, it was hideous! He fumbled for the pliers in his creel, wanting nothing but to get this monstrosity off his hook, to get himself and his son away from here. He tried to grip the trout-thing's head when it began to thrash. A razor-sharp dorsal fin sliced a gash in the meat of his palm. He yelped in pain as blood spilled from his hand into the murky water, staining it copper brown. He dropped the net. The tangled trout-thing floated below him, jaws spasming. It looked like the thing was drinking his blood.
Blind, crazy rage blazed inside Dave Hackett. He grabbed the handle of the net with his good hand, held the fly rod gingerly in his other, and splashed toward shore. He threw his rod onto the bank just as the trout-thing twisted its body and carved a long slit in his two-hundred dollar neoprene waders. He slammed the fish against a mossy stone, net and all; the thing quivered and lay still. That wasn't good enough. He smashed a boot against the trout-thing's side, crushing it against the rock, nearly losing his balance and falling face-first into the muck. That'll teach you to screw with a Hackett, you ugly bastard! He pulled his boot away to savor his handiwork… and wished to God he hadn't.
The trout-thing's pustular belly broke open. Half a dozen grubs wriggled from its steaming entrails like groping fingers, filling the air with the stench of putrefaction. "Sweet Jesus…." Dave wretched into the river. He wiped his mouth with a trembling hand as the currents carried the remains of his breakfast away. He stumbled up the bank, leaving the net for some fisherman with a stronger stomach. He couldn't stop shaking.
That was when Kevin began to scream.
Terror gave Dave strength. He sprinted into the woods, following his son's wail until he spotted Kevin rolling on the ground. The squirrels. A dozen swarmed his little boy, biting and clawing Kevin's chest and back and limbs. Dozens more bounded through the branches, scampered across the sodden leaves. Too many! He scooped Kevin up in his arms, kicking madly at the creatures on the ground, grabbing the furry monsters gnawing on his son and tossing them aside. He felt them crawling on his jacket, climbing toward his unprotected face. He could never get them all. Never.
Dave turned in the direction of the truck… and stood eye to eye with a ghost. The apparition wore deerskin leggings and moccasins with the puckered seam that had always been a trademark of the Ojibwa. His long-sleeved hunting shirt was covered with intricate beadwork. Silver hair hung in two long braids over his shoulders. He carried a battered longbow and a quiver of arrows slung across his back; his wizened face had been smeared with markings the color of hot tar. Dave recognized that face. Joe Mishomis glided forward, voice cutting through the madness like a razor. "Keep still, Davy. Don't move until I tell you."
Joe pulled a pouch of some moth-eaten animal skin from the medicine bag belted around his waist, unstrung it, spilled a heap of white powder into his hand. He sprinkled the sour-smelling stuff all over Dave and his squirming, sobbing little boy. The squirrels who clung there screeched in rage and pain, dropping to the muddy ground. As Dave watched in disbelief, the critters began to smolder. With a whoop, Joe scattered the rest of the pouch's contents to the wind until a chalky cloud engulfed the nearest trees. The squirrels in its path burst into flame, raining from the branches like a shower of meteors. Joe grabbed Dave's arm, cursed him into motion, steered him past the spinning, screeching fireballs. The reinforcements converging from both sides slowed for a moment, confused by the carnage. That gave Dave and Joe the time they needed, and a clear path to the truck.
Dave shoved Kevin into the driver's side of the pickup, jumped in after him, slammed the door so hard the whole truck shook. Joe swung in on the other side, banging the door shut just as a pair of squirrels thudded against the window. "How the hell did you do that? What was in that pouch?"
Joe was sweating from the run, boiling with the fire of some inner pain. "Old medicine… Mide medicine. If you get us outa here, Davy boy, maybe I'll have a chance to explain it." Dave turned the key and held his breath until the engine roared to life. He gunned the pickup down the rutted trail, bouncing all of them around like popcorn in a kettle. Kevin cried harder. Dave tried to comfort his son, but he would not slow down — not until they put some miles between themselves and the dark waters of the Manistique.
* * *
When they reached the cabin, Ellen seemed more shaken by their sorry state than Dave had ever seen her. Tending Kevin's wounds calmed her a bit: applying antiseptic and bandages gave her something to occupy her mind. Joe Mishomis gave Dave plenty to occupy his mind as well.
"Today is the Vernal Equinox. You're out o' time, Davy. We all are. Pack only what you need - I'll help you toss it in the back o' that rustbucket - then get your family as far away as you can, as fast as you can."
"What about you, Joe? I can't leave you here alone!"
"You've been a good friend, Dave… but I'm Ojibwa. If I run, I die without honor, with the spirit of a slave. A man can't outrun his fate."
The sky had turned a bloated, trout-belly gray, conjuring images best forgotten. Ellen floated through the cabin like a ghost, packing for herself and the kids. She had always reminded Dave of a wildflower: beautiful and hardy, able to flourish in the toughest conditions. He watched her stuffing clothes in an old canvas suitcase - withering before his eyes - and cursed his inability to stop it. Joe pried the suitcase from Ellen's trembling fingers and lugged it outside while Dave threw a few things in a battered duffel, trying to remember when he had last gassed up the truck. Would they have enough to make the Bridge? Ellen had cousins in Grayling. Not close family, but good for a night's stay.
Just get 'em across the Bridge, Davy boy. With any luck, these critters can't swim.
Joe burst through the cabin door, the lines of his face writing a message Dave did not want to read. "Too late, Davy… too late to run." Dave could see the pickup leaning strangely in the driveway. Both tires on the near side - steel-belted radials, no less - had been chewed to ribbons by something with unimaginable power in its jaws. Joe, old buddy, your Gichi-manitou is one cold-hearted bastard. Somewhere behind him, little Carrie screamed. He could not blame her.
The sky was a writhing, screeching sea of black. Birds filled the air: crows, grackles, juncos. Martins with feathers that glimmered a metallic purple-black. Red-winged blackbirds, the splotches on their wings shining like fresh blood. Birds of every shape and size blotted out the heavens, exploded through the treetops like ebony missiles to collide with the multitude that flocked above them. Feathers fell like a blizzard of dirty snow, twisting and twirling in the wind. No. Not wind. The roar of some immense beast that had been locked away for centuries, waiting. Waiting.
When day and night meet as equals….
Dave rushed past Joe and slammed the cabin door, slid the deadbolt home. He turned pleading eyes on his wife. "Get the kids downstairs. Get the sleeping bags, flashlights, lanterns, a thermos full o' water. Don't let 'em budge from that damn cellar."
Ellen herded Kevin and Carrie down the stairs, gave Dave one last look before she clattered after them. "Ten minutes, Davy. If you're not down in ten minutes, I'm coming up after you."
He nodded, Winchester gripped tightly in his hand. "Joe, I'll bolt the windows here and in the bedrooms. You lock up in the kitchen and in back."
"Deadbolts aren't gonna help much, Davy boy."
He found Joe in the kitchen, staring out the window above the sink, and forced himself to look as well. Blobs of darkness tore free of the tree line and sliced into the clearing: wolves, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, all painted with the same demonic brush. Dave Hackett had built this cabin with his own hands. It had protected his family from fearsome winter storms… but it would never withstand this one. Never. As Gichi-manitou's warriors swarmed toward him, they flickered between two forms, dark images superimposed on the same photo negative. Four-footed creatures ran upright; paws melted into moccasins; fur flattened into flesh, lengthened into braids of flowing hair; claws became tomahawks and knives. Man to beast. Beast to man. Back and forth, back and forth, shadows of two worlds fused together. Only the eyes did not change - ovals of flame dancing around chunks of obsidian.
…When light and darkness battle for the soul of the World….
They needed light! Dave scanned the house in desperation, spotted something in the yard - a rusty cylinder lying between the cabin and the nightmare horde. Light. He threw open the kitchen window, aiming the Winchester before he had time to doubt his instincts. He fired. The bullet ripped through the metal skin of the propane tank, and the false night descending on the Hackett's cabin erupted into flame.
For a moment, the attackers halted. Snarls of rage and roars of agony rose above the shrieking of the wind. Some of the creatures whirled and staggered back into the trees, their furry bodies burning. Dave let out a yell of triumph. It worked… for a moment. Then the black tide surged forward again, parting before the flaming wreckage of the tank and circling toward both sides of the cabin.
The war would not be won so easily.
Joe's dark eyes sparkled with reflected fire. "You made your light, Davy. Now let me make mine."
He pulled a doe-skin pouch from his medicine bag, emptied the contents onto the sink. The pale blue powder smelled of spruce and wintergreen and other things Dave could not name.
"We don't have time for this. We're better off in the cellar!"
Joe ignored him as his stubby fingers drew pictographs in the powder. "Go if you want, but let me be."
Dave heard something scratching at the back door. He pointed his rifle at the sound as Joe chanted some arcane Algonquin spell. Joe's voice rose, swelled like thunder - became real thunder rumbling in the clouds above them. Joe clapped his hands. A monstrous thunderclap rattled the windows as lightning flashed down from the heavens to blast the jack pines at the edge of the forest into kindling. A dozen man-beasts howled and fled, whirling shadows sheathed in flame. Joe clapped again. Another spike of lightning seared the ground beside the cabin, scattering the manitous.
Lightning crackled everywhere, shattering the trees, starting countless fires in the surrounding woods. Joe collapsed. The Ojibwa's wrinkled skin was slick and scalding to the touch, as if he burned with some terrible fever. Dave helped him stumble toward the cellar as bursts of thunderous light flared and strobed around them. They found the stairs, bolted the door behind them, descended slowly in the dim lantern glow. Ellen and the kids lay huddled in a nest of sleeping bags and weapons as the ground rolled beneath them. Ellen's voice rose shrill above it all. "Sweet Jesus, Davy, what's happening?"
Dave had no answer. Joe struggled to sit up, sweat dripping from his brow despite the chill air in the cellar. "The Door has opened. We slowed 'em down some… but they'll still be coming. We have to be ready when they do."
Dave could hear it now, between claps of thunder - a growling, snarling fury just outside the walls, the frantic scratch of claws on wood. "How, Joe? How do you know all this… and how the hell can you summon lightning?"
"I was – am - Midewiwin. A Mide priest. There are eight degrees of Mide knowledge, each with its own medicine. I reached the seventh before I lost my faith. If you think they want you, Davy boy, believe me: they want me worse."
Glass shattered explosively somewhere above their heads, followed by a thump, the creak of something lumbering across the cabin floor. Ellen's hand tightened on Dave's arm, fingernails biting like a rattler's fangs. Joe simply stared at him. "Not much time. You can't beat the warriors of Gichi-manitou; your only hope is to make peace with them, to prove you're not the enemy. Trust me… or we all die."
Something smashed against the cellar door - something massive. The door was double-bolted, made from sturdy oak, but it shuddered with each collision. A low growl emanated from the other side, rising in pitch and power like the engine of a Mack truck starting on a cold day. Dave looked at Ellen, saw the terror swimming in her eyes as she cradled a sobbing Carrie in her lap, clutched Kevin tight against her shoulder. Another crash upstairs, punctuated by the sound of splintering wood.
Dave turned to Joe and nodded. "Tell us what to do."
Joe pulled another pouch from his medicine bag, reached inside it, withdrew fingers smeared with something black and greasy. He leaned toward a trembling Carrie and began painting symbols on her tear-streaked face. "Do what I do. Don't expect explanations - there won't be time."
Joe moved from face to face, painting dark pictographs on pale flesh while an unseen monstrosity battered the cellar door. When the door exploded off its hinges and thudded down the stairs, they were ready… as ready as they could be. Four shadows bounded through the opening, pausing at the foot of the stairs - timberwolves, fur stained the color of coal, yellow eyes blazing. Something else materialized in their midst. Dave did not see it descend the stairs; it simply appeared, its shaggy body coagulating out of liquid darkness until an immense black bear towered above the wolves. Blood-red eyes burned with a cruel intelligence no animal had any right possessing. The entire cellar reeked with the thick, gamy stench of unwashed animal. Joe whispered in an awestruck tone: "Gichi-mukwa… the Great Bear!"
Dave raised his Winchester, saw ropes of muscle tense beneath the bear's shaggy hide, saw the wolves crouch as if to leap. A hand grabbed the barrel of his rifle and pushed it to the ground. "Don't be a fool! You can't kill a Manitou… but it can kill us." Joe placed his longbow on the hard-packed dirt, slid it across the floor toward the bear. The beast studied them in silence, snorting steam that reeked of blood and carrion. Then it lowered its head, picked up the bow in massive jaws, and splintered the weapon like winter deadwood.
Joe whispered to Dave: "The rifle. Offer it to the wolves." His Winchester? Dave's hands tightened on the gun reflexively. One of the wolves growled low in its throat. "Do it, Davy boy… or this cellar's gonna be a grave." He slid the rifle toward the growling timberwolf, butt first. The wolf placed its front paws on either end of the gun, closed its jaws around the barrel. Sparks flew in all directions as fangs sliced through polished metal. Dave's beloved Winchester snapped like the spindly foreleg of a fawn.
Joe struggled to his feet, wobbled through the dust to face the Great Bear. He held out his medicine bag with hands that did not shake and spoke softly in a language Dave did not understand. His voice was humble – reverent - but his dark eyes never wavered, locked proudly with the flaming eyes of the manitou.
Gichi-mukwa moved faster than any creature that size could possibly move, slamming Joe backwards and pinning him to the ground. Before Dave could leap to his defense, the wolves sprang in unison, each one targeting a different human prey. His wife, his kids! He tried to reach them… but the manitous reached them first. Little Carrie vanished, absorbed into the core of a living shadow. Kevin tried to spin away, was overtaken by another shadow-beast. For one terrible instant, only his hand protruded from the wolf-thing's side, fingers twitching before they disappeared. Ellen did not even move. The demon-wolf split and stretched until it wrapped her in a shroud of nothingness. Gone. All gone. Except Dave could hear them. They were screaming in his head.
He tried to howl his rage and grief and misery, but a furry missile struck him in the chest, knocking him against the wall. Hot breath against his throat, but no bite of fangs, no white-hot rake of claws. Instead, he was simply swallowed whole. Alone now, dropping through the endless tunnel of his own despair. Damn you, Joe… I trusted you. My wife. My babies. What have you made me do? An unfathomable darkness swelled until it engulfed every thought and fear and memory. Someone whispered an answer, sad but unyielding.
Before a new season can be born, the old one must be slain. That is the way of things. In the end, there will be no place left to hide.
Dave Hackett fell, fell into a starless void filled with a thousand voices chanting words he could not grasp. Then there was nothing….
* * *
Dave awoke on the dirt floor of the cellar, stiff and cold as morning sunlight spilled through the splintered doorway. He shook his head, tried to clear away the grogginess. He remembered: darkness, death, an unnatural mating of animal form and human spirit. The agony of rebirth. He remembered… but the memories were hazy, snatches of a vivid nightmare. It would take time to embrace the changes.
Ellen lay nearby, snoring softly while Carrie and Kevin snuggled on either side. There was no sign of Joe. He listened, noticing the strange quality of the silence. No birds. No snarling manitous dressed in midnight fur. They had moved on. He could sense them spreading out in all directions, expanding like concentric ripples on a pond after something heavy has been dropped into its depths. Or has risen from them to break the surface. He decided to let Ellen and the children sleep while he explored.
The cabin was a shambles: shattered windows, torn curtains, shredded and broken furniture. The whole place stank like the den of some rabid grizzly. The front door swung creakily in the wind, its deadbolt ripped loose and tossed in a sawdust-littered heap beside the welcome mat. Ellen would be devastated, at first. But they could repair and rebuild, if they decided to stay - or they could start again somewhere else. Somewhere well away from County Road 448.
He wandered outside, sniffing the fragrance of pine and spruce and cedar, sharper than he had ever noticed. The sun bled weakly through the clouds, but it did not burn strong enough to dull the icy bite of Kiwetin, the North Wind. The Ojibwa spirit-name slipped into his mind as smoothly as his own. Strange thoughts. Strange feelings. Strange, but also wondrous. He heard a rustle in the brush beyond the yard just as Joe Mishomis glided out of the jack pines, looking peaceful and refreshed.
"How long you been out here, Joe?"
"A few hours. Wanted to scout around, see how bad things were. Not many folks made it, Davy boy. Not many at all."
Dave nodded, saddened but not surprised. "Ellen and the kids are downstairs sleeping. You had anything to eat? Feels like I haven't eaten in a week."
Joe grinned. "I found a bit of fresh meat already. Go on, old buddy — I'll wait around for Ellen and the kids, explain things to 'em if you're still on the prowl."
Dave grinned back. "Thanks. I'll be home before you know I'm gone." He wandered across the yard and slid into the forest, turned back once to wave; for a moment, Joe's image flickered, swelled into the outline of a great black bear. Dave took no notice - he knew only the thrill of the hunt, the atavistic lust. He sniffed the wind, caught a faint scent of rabbit in the distance.
Rabbit would do just fine.
Dave sank soundlessly to the ground. As his rumpled clothes melted into jet black fur, as his hands and feet sprouted claws, he remembered something Joe had said - vaguely, as if he had heard it in a dream. You cannot defeat the warriors of Gichi-manitou. You can only pray you will be found worthy to join them.
Wild blood sang in Dave's veins, celebrating the change of seasons. It would be difficult for Ellen and the kids, but he would help them. As he glided through the trees following the scent of prey, he felt the heart of Gichi-manitou beating beneath his paws. The magic door in Equinox had opened. Something had stepped through.
Dave Hackett went out eagerly to meet it.