Chapter Nine—Culan’s Dog
Frank took the necklace to the Secret Spot.
The Secret Spot was a place a few miles back into the mountains where thousands of years of rainwater had carved a small alcove into the side of a cliff. He and his friends had come there often when they were boys, playing pretend that it was King Arthur’s castle, or an Indian cave, or Khazad-dûm; today it seemed as good a place as any to carry out Linda’s bizarre command. He didn’t know why she wanted him to destroy the necklace that she had worn every day for the past year, but he loved her and he had his orders: Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.
He put the necklace down on a flat rock just inside of the alcove, took out the hammer he’d commandeered, and sundered the pendant into a thousand little fragments. He stared at the bits of sandstone glumly; he didn’t know what he’d expected, but this was certainly an anticlimax after how eager Linda had been for him to carry out his task. Shrugging, he stood up, stuck the hammer back into his belt, and started to turn around when something in the back of the alcove caught his eye.
It was an anvil.
Curious, he walked over to it and gave it a once-over. Sure enough, it was an anvil, or close to one: It looked more like something made by a craftsman to whom anvils were often described but who had never actually seen one.
It looked like something that would come mail-ordered in a big wooden crate with ACME stamped on the side.
Jutting out of the top of the anvil was the hilt of a sword. It was humungous, about ten inches long, and made of some kind of shiny black metal with green filigree. The pommel was an emerald the size of a mountain oyster, carved into the shape of a skull. A leather thong, like the band of a necklace, hung from it. Curious, Frank reached down and grabbed the hilt.
A surge of electricity shot up his right arm. Compulsively, he pulled at the hilt; the blade that it was attached to slid out easily, as if it was lubricated. More and more blade came with it, until Frank was holding four and one half feet of cold iron. Thin and angular figures that looked like simple letters were carved up and down the center of the blade in the same metallic green that decorated the hilt.
An energy coursed through his being, growing stronger with each beat of his heart. Time slowed down. The blowing of the wind, the chirping of birds, and the cars booming down the highway a mile away all sounded crystal-clear. Somewhere off in the distance, a coyote howled.
The coyote, Woden bless its soul, is the one true anarchist of the genus Canis. Canis lupus is a communist, and Canis domesticus is a pushover, but Canis latrans is a true individualist: He eats when he’s hungry, sleeps when he’s tired, ruts when he’s randy, and goes wherever he will whenever he will, paying no heed to the fangs of an alpha male or the hand of a human master.
Frank was broken out of his reflections by the sound of a low, angry growl coming from the alcove’s opening. He spun around and saw, coiled and ready to strike, a gigantic timber rattlesnake easily twelve feet long and as thick as a man’s thigh. It glared at him with its evil yellow eyes, and it did not hiss; it growled like an angry alligator.
Frank’s sword burst into flames.
Waves of transparent green fire swept over the sword’s blade. The sight enraged the coiled saurian, which sprang as fast as lightning, intending to plant its long, cruel fangs in Frank’s midsection. In his altered state, he was able to step out of the way at the last second; as the wyrm’s jaws snapped shut on empty space, he brought the sword down with all his strength and lopped its head off. The whole creature jerked as the gulliver came away. The body, now independent of nervous control, writhed spasmodically, and the head bit wildly at the air.
The fire went out and the sword started shrinking, growing smaller and smaller ‘till it was the size of a Boy Scout pocketknife. Thoroughly unnerved by the experience and with adrenaline charging through his veins, Frank slipped the leather thong over his head started back down the mountain towards town.
Ol’ Scratch crept quietly through untrod paths and dark mountain crags, his mind squirming like a toad. With his prison destroyed and no new vessel to replace the body he’d lost long ago, he was reduced to a mere force: A shade out of Erebus, the shadow of a cloud passing over the sun. The shadow passed over a patch of mountain flowers; they withered and died, with traces of frost on their leaves.
His mind—ancient and wicked thing that it was, as crooked as a Mississippi legislature, as black as iron and just as cold—was troubled by two things: He was being taunted, and by rights he should’ve been dead.
The release from his prison had loosened some of the knots in his head and allowed him to remember some fragments of a past that he had thought forgotten forever. He remembered how he had been born.
Ages upon ages ago, and in another world as well, he had been lost and dying in the wilderness and out of desperation had killed and eaten a friend in order to stay alive. The Goddess saw his sacrilege, and cursed him as she cursed all who committed such a sin with a twisted body and a lust for flesh that could not be slaked. It was a trade-off, though. In exchange for his humanity, he was given power over wild animals and winter weather, and the closest thing to immortality that any man could ever hope for. He became a Wendigo, which means in the tongue of the forest folk of the North, “The evil spirit that devours mankind.”
After a while a new hunger came on him, the same hunger that burns in the bellies of all evil men and once-men: He wanted power, and wanted to use that power to break things. He wanted to make the world burn.
He’d used his foul touch to spread a wave of death and pestilence over much of the world; nations fell, kings were shaken from their thrones. His doom was a woman, one Sinead MacMorn by name, daughter of a tribal headman and a very dangerous witch. She had gone looking for him claiming blood-vengeance for the loss of her father. She laid him low, but rather than destroy his frozen heart and condemn him to the Other World, she carved a sigil of protection into the heart and threw it into a chasm with the curse, “And may it lie there until the mountain falls.”
And so it had. In a thousand years, it had turned from ice to stone. In another ten thousand, the mountain fell and the heart drifted from world to world to be traded back and forth between magi and holy men who bought it for a pretty with no knowledge of its true purpose. Then it had come to Linda, and from Linda had gone to Frank, and from Frank had gone to oblivion.
What tortured him was that he could remember all of this, down to the minutest detail, but he could not remember his name.
A great wind blew, and Ol’ Scratch shouted, “What is my name?!?!”
Thunderheads gathered over the top of a nearby mountain, and Ol’ Scratch bellowed, “What is my name?!?!”
Rain, and then snow, and then hail, started falling, and Ol’ Scratch keened, “I can’t remember my name!”
Glumly, he forced himself to accept that his true name was lost forever, never to be seen again. He moved on to the next order of business: Why was he still alive?
The only definite way to kill one of his kind and to make sure it stayed dead was to dismember the body and destroy the heart. He had not had a real body in almost a millennium of millennia, and his heart—turned from enchanted ice to enchanted stone—was smashed. By rights, by the immutable laws of nature, he should have been dead. What in Old Nick’s name was going on here?
The question was answered when Ol’ Scratch sensed something nearby. Cowering behind a boulder was a man with a broken leg. His wound was gangrenous, and he was mere hours away from dying of thirst. Ol’ Scratch chuckled to himself, compressed his diffusing essence into a man-shape as best he could, and moved in.
When the vaguely man-shaped shadow came over the boulder and into view, the lost man nearly died of fright. He managed to stammer out, “Who . . . who . . . who?”
“Please allow me to introduce myself,” said the man-shape. “I’m a man of wealth, and taste.”