I'm a Navy Veteran (Hospital Corpsman), Registered Nurse, and Author. Here, you'll find book reviews, short stories, shared adventures from my time in the Navy, and news about my current and upcoming book releases. Visit www.roycesears.com to learn more.
By Royce Sears Book One of The Elegance of Nature Series
“Sing your Death Song and die like a hero going home.”
— Chief Aupumut (1725)
The darkness was complete. “Where am I,” Otaktay wondered aloud. He surveyed his surroundings, but there was only darkness. He was lying on his back, and his body ached. He shifted, something soft beneath him, straw maybe, or grass, he couldn’t be sure. The sweet, rich smell of freshly excavated earth was thick on the dank, cool air of the strange place. He became aware of a rhythmic beat, a rhythm he felt rumbling within the earth as much as the air. Initially, he thought it was the rhythm of his own heartbeat, until the singing, and a long, low chant, rising in pitch and volume, reached his ears. “Am I dead? Is this the Spirit World?” he asked.
He was naked, not that it mattered, but his clothing would have been a small comfort in such strange surroundings. Trying to remember what happened only conjured hazy images of riding Natan over the prairie—a chase, and a battle—but with what, he could not fathom. His back stung, and he touched it and found deep gashes slathered in a gritty poultice. His ribs were bruised and his head ached fiercely, but he gathered himself in the darkness and rose, bumping his already aching head on a surprisingly low ceiling.
“I’m sure the Spirit World would not be so small, or hurt this much,” he mused. A laugh at his own musings jarred his ribs painfully. The muffled sounds of chanting, singing, and drums reached a distant crescendo, before fading into a dreadful silence to accompany the utter darkness. “No, you didn’t have to stop. Keep singing! Please?”
When the songs and drumming did not continue, he decided it was time to explore the darkness. Shuffling carefully, unsure of his footing, he extended his arms and explored his unfamiliar environment. Tendrils smelling of moist earth dangled into his face and hair, roots, he guessed.
“Roots above me, six paces long by eight paces wide, and nothing but some straw? No exit? Have I been buried alive?”
Encouraged by the roots hanging above his head, he tugged and pulled in hopes of creating an opening to call for help. The tangled mass of roots and earth proved too thick, but he stubbornly continued his failed attempts, the Warrior’s spirit within him refusing to yield. That same spirit ached to feel the wind whipping at his long black hair, to feel the Sun upon his face. He yearned to feel the strength, the powerful comforting presence of Natan beneath him as they protected the Village with their Swooping Hawks. In desperation, he clawed at the earthen walls, calling out to anyone who might hear him. Scratching with broken fingernails at the compacted earth of his prison walls until his fingers bled, he collapsed in exhaustion.
Hunger and thirst haunted his thoughts. “How long have I been here?” he asked himself.
“I don’t know, don’t ask me,” he said, answering himself.
“Well, you should know. You’re the one that got yourself into this.”
“I’m going mad,” he murmured.
Time had no meaning within the walls of his prison, but he began to measure it by the severity of his thirst. Beyond the walls, the chanting and drumming had begun again, though punctuated with the deep undulating howls of the dogs this time.
“Ah, there it is again. At least I know I am not alone. I hear you, my People. Let me out and I will join you!”
Listening intently, he was able to pick out Natan’s voice among the long mournful wails of the allies of his People. Determined to avoid wasting more efforts or precious energy on ineffective attempts to dig out of the prison, he sat cross-legged in the darkness, focusing his thoughts inward, like his vision quest.
His thoughts dwelled on Natan, and the dogs of the People, as their howls echoed through his consciousness. The relationship of the People with their dogs was as old as time itself. Legend taught that before the horses came, the dogs had moved and carried the villages as they followed the buffalo herds. They had taught the People to hunt and track, and would remain by their side forever, as long as there was food to share and a place for them at the fire. He remembered the day he and Natan became one. He was twelve years old again as his mind delved into the rivers of time.
“You have gone through your vision quest, Otaktay. You have become a man, and now it is time to become a Warrior of the People, follow me,” his father, Dahkeya, said solemnly.
He followed in his father’s shadow to the edge of the village. They approached a fenced where whines, yips, and yelps, along with the occasional excited bark of young pups greeted them as they entered. The pups, only five weeks old now, stood nearly as tall as Otaktay’s waist. He knelt to touch the nearest puppy through the fence, but his father glared at him sternly. No words were needed. Otaktay stood, waiting patiently behind his father. His father pointed to a row of ten other boys of about his age sitting on the ground, evenly spaced and waiting, eager and hopeful they would be chosen by a Companion. “Go to them, Otaktay.”
Otaktay sat, taking his place on the ground with the others.
His father moved before them to speak, “Today, you come face to face with who you are. You will be seen through the eyes of those who will know you, who will judge you and your readiness to become a Warrior. Some of you will not join with a Companion today but you will have another chance, after you have matured. Your Companion will come to you, will choose you, and you will know if you have been chosen.”
A sharp whistle from one of the trainers prompted the pups to run to him. He raised his hand above them, and they sat in unison. The trainer opened the gate to the separate area where Otaktay and the other boys sat waiting and the pups stared eagerly at the open gate, but did not move. The trainer waved a hand and Otaktay’s eyes widened as the pups launched themselves, bounding into the area where he and the other boys waited. The dogs walked in circles around each of the boys, sniffing and inspecting each one carefully. The pack of dogs approached him next, each one carefully investigating and sniffing him, as if silently interrogating him. The cool wet noses tickled as they scrutinized him, but he did not move. He waited, closing his eyes, clearing his mind, and forcing himself to relax. There were eleven boys and only five dogs. He didn’t want to think about what life would be like for him if he, the son of an Elder, failed to join with a Companion. The Warrior’s Companion was a source of strength, a mystical bond between man and animal. The bond forged between them grew beyond loyalty and friendship, extending into the hearts and minds of the bonded—a bond of their souls.
He heard panting, a hot breath warmed his nose and he opened his eyes to find the largest pup of the pack sitting before him. The puppy licked his face, his long, wet tongue caressing first his cheeks, and then his ears. ‘Natan’, he thought, as he realized that somehow he knew the puppy’s name was Natan. The rambunctious pup, Natan, he thought again, playfully placed his large front paws upon Otaktay’s shoulders, bowling him head over heels in the dirt. They wrestled, growling playfully at one another for long moments as the bond between Warrior and Companion grew stronger. Their eyes locked as Natan bowled Otaktay over again to stand above him, his broad chest heaving as he panted above his Companion. In that moment, the will of man, and the heart of dog solidified in a bond which no one quite understood, but no one questioned either. “Nature works her magic in her own ways”—some would say.
Otaktay’s thoughts grew more focused as his legs became numb and his breathing slowed. He allowed his mind’s eye to drift, floating through his consciousness as thoughts arose then flitted away like gnats before a flame. Images of a Wendigo, catlike and deadly, rose to his mind abruptly and his eyes snapped open. His heart raced, his breathing became rapid, and a cool sheen of sweat erupted upon his palms. His fears arose, emerging lifelike and terrifying from the darkness, to confront him. He should know this creature, but could not remember. Forcing himself to close his eyes again, he faced the fear and forced it to subside as he searched for his calm center—and the Wendigo.
What are the Wendigo? Why are they here? Why does this one haunt my thoughts and dreams? He knew the Spirit of the Wendigo, according to legend, was a vengeful spirit capable of corrupting a human being—a ghastly, ravenous, cannibalistic spirit set loose upon the world to punish man for his greed and gluttony. The Wendigo were Shape-changers, in other legends they were known as Skin-walkers. In their cursed existence, they ceased to be human and became something more, something beyond mortal comprehension.
It was believed the Great Spirit saw the discord of the Old World and released the Spirit of the Wendigo upon the land to swing the balance of nature in the other direction. The People now bore the burden of restoring balance to the world. The People must face the result of the greed that had been allowed to consume the world. They must destroy the Wendigo to swing nature back into her delicate balance. The Elders called this change the Yuteca Makoce, or the “Renewal of the Land.”
As he continued to search for memories of the Wendigo, the haunting image remained unexplained, but he found that deep center of himself again. He found himself relaxing into the ancestral state of a vision quest. His body ached, and each breath stung his bruised ribs. Hunger gnawed at his empty stomach and his mouth was dry—parched and shriveled—as the land after a wildfire, but the physical concerns of the body faded into nothingness as Otaktay—a Warrior of the People—driftedinto the dreamscape of a Vision.
Head bent low to the grass, the deer munched on the tasty greenery growing wild in what used to be a haven of human civilization. She pulled the long tufts of grass up by the roots, raising her head to chew. Her ears flicked back and forth, warily listening for the sounds of approaching predators. The short fluffy tail irritably twitched the flies away as she munched on the sweet grasses that were so much more abundant than they used to be. The rest of her herd was nearby, scattered throughout the small area and grazing happily on the same delectable greenery. Even in their constant state of alertness, the herd did not sense the presence of the unmoving figures hidden within their midst. Jadyn crouched in the shadows of a crumbling brick wall and Eric had hidden himself so well within the thick overgrowth of vines along an old chain-link fence that even Jadyn didn’t know where he was.
The evening Sun was dipping low into the west, shadows lengthening as it sank towards the rolling foothills and distant snow-capped mountain peaks. A light breeze tickled the tops of the long grass to create whispering waves of meadow music as it bent and swayed to the rhythm of nature’s beautiful, yet deadly song.
Jadyn held the powerful compound bow in a tense, white-knuckled grip. An unnoticed bead of sweat glistened in the evening sun as it slid down his forehead, collecting at the tip of his eyebrow. The sound of his pounding heart was deafening in his ears. Surely the deer could hear the pounding of his heart, or maybe the loud grumble of his empty belly. He waited, watching the deer to see if they would follow their routine again.
Their spot, boxed in on two sides by the walls of the Old Places and a third by the vine-covered fence, made an ideal location to trap their prey while avoiding the notice of the Fects known to haunt the Old Places. Technically speaking, they weren’t breaking Gramp’s rule about the Old Places, being near an Old Place was not the same as going inside one, they’d reasoned.
The Fects were a fact of life for Jadyn, Eric, and their Family. In the early days, after calamity befell the human race, they were known as the Infected. Some were merely very sick in the beginning, while others began to change. They were no longer human, but there was no pattern to the changes wrought by the Infection. Some became monstrous beasts, growing four to five times their previous size, while others developed tentacles, wings, or any number of other features that enhanced their ability to survive and kill. The evolutionary adaptations were necessary to feed the appetite of the virus. Evolution gone awry, through a chance meeting of two worlds, had created the ultimate predators to stalk the wilds of planet Earth. The simple virus, not even a single-celled organism, had arrived on Earth with well-intentioned visitors and proved too efficient for the human immune system to combat. The virus did what the elegance of nature had designed it to do, replicate itself while consuming resources within the host. Humanity had been forced to adapt.
Waiting for the slight breeze to shift in his favor, Jadyn drew the arrow to his cheek. He remained crouched, not wishing to give away his position. Holding his aim, he waited long moments for his quarry to present him with a favorable shot. The kill must be quick and clean, he reminded himself. He could hear his father’s voice as he sighted along the arrow, “a wounded animal will draw attention, and you don’t want anything to notice you out there Jadyn.”
With the practiced skill necessary for survival, he let his arrow fly. True to his aim, the handcrafted wooden arrow streaked unerringly toward the target. The deer took three long strides in the sudden adrenaline rush of danger before her pierced heart burst under the stress and she collapsed, gasping for air in the soft grasses which had led to her demise. The rest of the herd, alert to the danger of the hunter, bounded away.
The mortally wounded deer struggled to her feet again, before stumbling weakly upon once strong legs, lost her balance, and tumbled to the earth. The cautious yet jubilant hunter took a single step toward his prize before realizing his mistake. He sank back to a crouch and waited. There were too many hunters who had lost their prize, and their life, to the overconfident excitement of success in the hunt. The smell of fresh blood would draw the attention of the Fects if there were any within range of the scent. He remained crouched and waited patiently, playing the Hunter’s Game that his father had taught him. The true test of any hunter was the test of patience.
Otaktay opened his eyes, squinting at the brightness of the sudden and blinding midday Sun. The open expanse of the prairie, speckled with the shade of tall trees sparsely dotting the vista before him, met his bewildered gaze. He had been somewhere— somewhere strange—but no matter now. The open fields were before him with the Sun on his face and the wind in his hair—all was well with the world. Something was amiss; shouldn’t his Swooping Hawks be with him on the prairie? A weak cry for help caught his attention and he listened, unable to locate the cry. Coming from everywhere, and nowhere, he searched for its source. Unable to locate it, he ran to the nearest tree and bounded into the low branches with ease. He climbed higher, and higher. It seemed the tree went on forever into the heavens above. Stopping, he looked down. Far in the distance, miles into the horizon it seemed, he saw a young man. Long brown matted hair, caked with blood and dirt, dragged on the ground as the weak figure of the youth, younger than his own twenty years he guessed, pulled himself along the dry and broken earth. The youth was injured, and might perish, even with the help of a healer. Leaping from the tree instinctively, the prairie far below rushed up at him. He closed his eyes, braced his arms before him to break the fall, and prepared to meet his death. His arms caught air suddenly and he instinctively spread them wide, he soared up and over the waves of gently swaying grasses below—much to his surprise. He flapped his wings, feeling the currents of air lifting him beneath the brown and golden wings as he soared. Flying high above the earth on the wings of an eagle, he soared into the cloudless heavens until he could see the young man again. His sharp eyes saw details, details the eyes of Otaktay could not. Welts of blood crisscrossed the naked white-brown skin of the youth’s back and legs. His body was beaten and broken, and the spirit within him crushed. The pain, both spiritual and physical became a palpable entity and Otaktay wavered in his flight as the pain washed over him. The eagle’s eyes focused on an amulet dangling from his neck as the youth dragged himself with his last reserves of strength. A turquoise amulet in the shape of an eagle dragged upon the earth and shimmered, flashing brightly in Otaktay’s eagle eyes. A cloud of dust on the distant horizon caught his attention. He pierced the distance through the whirling clouds of wind-blown debris to reveal a dogged pursuit. Many men, brandishing ornate swords emblazoned with elaborate Sunbursts gave chase upon the fallen youth.
He dove, rapidly falling toward the figure lying upon the dry and barren earth, calling to him from above, “Help is coming young one! The People are coming!” Only the shrieks of the eagle escaped his lips. Swooping low, he landed roughly near the anguished form. Landing looked much easier than it actually was, he decided. Otaktay the Eagle shrieked—“Hang on young one!”
Otaktay opened his eyes again—overcome with a feeling of familiarity. He squinted at the brightness of the sudden and blinding midday Sun beating down upon him. Stinging sweat burned his eyes despite the cool breeze gently tugging at his long raven hair. The breeze carried with it the sweet aromas of burning cedar, sage, sweet grass, and tobacco, wafting over his senses to purify his body and soul. He rose, his purification complete, and turned to face the Great Medicine Lodge. The domed structure stood in an open field, surrounded by a grove of pine and cedar trees. A host of owls, perched upon the dome, stared down upon the field intently—their wizened gaze observing a large crowd gathered outside the lodge. He turned to face the crowd, standing before the entrance of the Great Medicine Lodge. The crowd parted as if awaiting his passage. He stood bewildered for a moment, not sure of what he was to do here, and yet somehow he knew he was to remain—awaiting the arrival of another. Behind him, the deeply resonating heartbeat of a drum shook the earth, carrying a message of peace across the winds that seemed to echo from every corner of the Earth.
Otaktay opened his eyes again, squinting at the brightness of the sudden and blinding light interrupting his Vision. Dimly, he wondered if he were still within the realm of the Vision, or if the earthen walls were really crumbling before his eyes. The scrape of shovels upon the earth assaulted his senses and he tried to rise, but his legs were numb and lifeless. Strong hands assisted him, though he could not see who was behind them in the harsh glare stinging his sensitive eyes. He emerged from the hastily dug hillside while shielding his eyes from the glaring Sun. He was supported on both sides, held upright and strengthened by his brothers of the Swooping Hawks. Reborn of the Earth