A Year in the Life of Optimus Prime: Two
By Buckeye Belle, with Vivienne Grainger
(Louisiana Territory, 1682)
Snow crunched under Guillaume Fournier's moccasins, and his breath made fog in the cold air in front of him, as he climbed through the drifts of snow along his trapline.
In the winter of 1682, Guillaume lived a hard life at the extreme edge of European settlement in the New World, near the French outpost of Vincinnes, in what would someday become Indiana. Trapping had not been good this winter, and he, his Miami wife, and their children were hungry.
Guillaume stopped, and dug down through the recent snow to find his trapline robbed: skinned frozen carcases left for the wolves.
When he mastered his fury, Guillaume looked at the prints left in the fresh fall, but could not identify the species. He knew of nothing that large which was three-toed.
The next trap had likewise been plundered, but the carcasses hadn't been there long enough to freeze.
Guillaume smiled; not a nice smile. He was catching up to the thief.
Still, this second theft, and he had resigned himself to further loss, had left him with only one item of value, which he thought that he probably would have to sell thanks to this filthy thief. His father's knife.
Oddly, Guillaume would not be too terribly sorry to part with it; he had never liked it, and he used other blades in preference. Something about it felt wrong whenever he drew it to skin his catch. Maybe selling it would be best either way.
He crept through the trees as he approached his next trap. A human figure was crouched over the trap, studying the carcass of a wolf lying nearby.
Guillaume saw red. He yanked his knife from his sheath and charged, screaming; some words French, some Miami.
The knife, after a first stab in the stranger's back, seemed to come alive in his hand. Guillaume got a second thrust in before his victim threw him off and rolled, coming up with a tomahawk clutched in one hand.
The two adversaries stared at each other in horrified recognition. Guillaume saw, with a shock that was like a blow to his heart, that the man was his wife's own brother, his good friend Black Fox.
Black Fox, whose hepatic artery had been severed by Guillaume's first strike, sank to his knees. "Guillaume...I saw that someone had robbed your trap line..."
Guillaume sobbed, going to his own knees and clasping Black Fox to his heart. "I thought you were the thief. Forgive me, my brother, I did not know it was you!"
Black Fox smiled at him, shuddered, and died in his arms. Guillaume screamed, "No! Oh, no! Blessed Virgin, Great God, Jesus, no!"
Wailing in his grief, the friend he had killed in his arms, Guillaume did not see the knife began to glow a sickly blood red, and that color lift from it and coalesce into a cloud of inky blackness. Out of that blackness grew a shadowy, wolf-like form.
Guillaume was sobbing, Black Fox's body in his arms, too lost in grief to hear it growl. When it leapt, it took out his throat before he could mount resistance.
"Madame Fournier?" said the reeve of Vincinnes.
The Indian woman bowed her head. "My husband," she said in fractured French. "He went to check traps last day, not back yet."
"Guillaume is missing, madame?"
Guillaume's wife went next to her people, to find that Black Fox, too, was missing.
The search mounted for the two men ended in horror.
It was the Miami who found them...in a bloodstained clearing, torn to pieces and half devoured. They assumed, and reported, that a bear had been responsible.
Madame Fournier and her children returned to her people.
That long winter, two more hunters from the village fell victim to the hungry shadow. Demon, the French settlers whispered. Wendigo, the Miami said, and shivered. No one dared hunt alone.
After the second pair of deaths, the village shaman said to his wife, "This - thing, whatever it be - it is not of the Great One. Will you help me to drive it off?"
His wife, the village wise woman, said calmly, "You might do better to ask Cabanokay Fournier. She lost a husband to it, and she has at least as much magic in her as I do."
The shaman gaped at her. "But you don't like her!"
The village wise woman snorted. "And what has that to do with the safety of our village, husband mine? No, Cabanokay has the greater vested interest, so she is the better choice to work with you on this matter."
"Wife," said the shaman, "I adore you."
"That is certainly ... wise ... of you," his spouse said demurely, and they both laughed.
The thing lost its battle with them, but preserved its life, and found a second village.
There, a missionary priest drove it off with no more than faith and a crucifix. But there was always another human settlement; it would, could, and did, live on animals between them, as they were far-flung from one another. It learned to take one or two victims, never more than three, and move on.
At about the same time, the Iroquois destroyed a Miami village. Its only survivor was its medicine man's fifteen-year-old apprentice, Swift Hawk, who had been on a vision quest at the time of the attack.
He returned to find his tribe's lifeless bodies, men, women, children, lying where they had fallen. His mentor among them, there was no one to help Swift Hawk return to everyday consciousness; his psyche, ripped open on the vision quest, would now forever remain half in this world, half in the Other.
In that state, he followed his people's traditional mortuary customs, packed a few belongings - the Iroquois had plundered most of the food from the village - and began a life as a wandering shaman.
His reputation spread, as his power increased, and other shamans grew to fear Swift Hawk, but also called him in for otherwise-insoluble problems.
By the time Swift Hawk was fifty-five, old among the Miami, the energy Guillaume had inadvertently freed from his father's knife had grown to thirty feet tall. Some few who had seen it and lived described it as a bear; other survivors swore it was a wolf.
Swift Hawk had come to The Village of Black Walnuts - it never got another name, simply remained "Kokomo" to the Miami, the French, the British, the Americans - because the creature had gotten careless, and returned to Kokomo only five years after its first visit. Swift Hawk had been nearby, and agreed to see to the creature, or at least to discover what he could about it.
A half-day's journey to the site of the latest murders stopped him in his tracks fifty feet short of the clearing in which it had occurred. He called out to his guide, "Morning Sun! Go no further!"
Morning Sun, himself in training, said, "Swift Hawk, there is no one here," but obeyed him.
"No one here to the eyes of the body. Open the eyes of your soul."
The boy gasped. "I see it! It is not even of the Great One! I had no idea such creatures existed!"
Swift Hawk stalked past him, going very deliberately into the clearing, which bore all the marks of the struggle for life of a pair of Miami. These had been young women, Swift Hawk realized, out gathering early-spring berries for their families. He stopped at a sticky mass of blood, and quite deliberately reached down to touch it.
The sweet scent of femininity he ruthlessly screened out of his perceptions, which rid him of the victim's association. What was left ... was not merely hunger, although it was in fact mostly that, and insatiable with it. It required as well a victim's horror and terror.
It hunted animals when needs must, but its much-preferred prey was human. Swift Hawk also saw that the skinned bodies trappers sometimes found were often its work. It did not need the animal body to survive, although that was often half-eaten as well. It skinned the trapped creature alive, to feed from its pain.
He growled. This ... thing. He did not believe for a moment that he could kill it, but he could perhaps bind it back into an inanimate object. He would employ nothing that a human could find useful; that was what had freed it in the first place.
He rose, and cleansed his hands. "Take me to your medicine man," he said to Morning Sun. "I will do my best for your people."
Swift Hawk made the rounds of "his" trapline alone. He had purchased the rights to it for a half-lunar cycle from the poorest man in the village; the trapline wasn't very productive.
But it was only the fishing line, so to speak. Swift Hawk himself was the bait.
The moon was setting when he left Morning Sun's village. He had risen before first light, purified himself, set various magical traps about his person, and garbed and equipped himself as needed to work the trapline.
Now, as he crunched his way across the gravel of a stream bed, he was as ready as he could be. He had resigned himself to giving his life to rid The People of this thing, and that allowed him to make several decisions that a person still bound to living could not.
His knife, for example, was primed to suck life-energy from any wound it inflicted. He had sharpened it with great care, and in doing so fell into what later peoples would call "a meditative state." Truly, he was never far from such...but this time he had seen the traces of energy that the creature left behind. He knew it to be a spirit not of this world, a creature of darkness and eternal hunger.
The first trap on the line held a muskrat, still alive. Swift Hawk dispatched and skinned the creature, baited the trap, and removed the carcass some way away, so that wolves or bears would not be attracted to the fresh bait if they found the carcass.
At the third trap, in a crook of the river's elbow, he felt the creature approaching.
Swift Hawk smiled, and drew his knife. He had lived entirely for this battle.
His last prayer was not for survival. "Great One," he said aloud, "all my life I have done my best to serve Your people. Let me come to You successful in my last effort on their behalf."
He reached down to pick up a small stone, black, unremarkable: not flint to be made into an arrowhead, not granite to made into a tomahawk, but simple unusable river rock. Then he went into battle.
The next day Morning Sun found Swift Hawk lying on the river gravel as peacefully as if he had simply stretched out to rest. Many thought that was what had happened; he had been an old man, after all.
But the killings stopped, and no other villages lost trappers or gatherers any longer.
And one small, black stone, unsuited for use as arrowhead or tomahawk, flung into the nearby Eel River with the last of Swift Hawk's strength?
It waited. Years passed, great cities grew up, and the numbers of humans in the area greatly increased. In the cool clear waters of the Eel River, a small black stone, and the thing it contained, waited.
End Chapter 1