“I guess… I’m just afraid, Levi,” a distressed outlaw said.
“You know damn well we ain’t both gonna get through the night, Cassidy. Get the hell outta here already. Would ya? I’ll hold him off. The time for talk is over. Get back to your family and live out the rest of your life,” a panicked, grizzled man muttered.
“I can’t just leave you, Levi. Not like this,” Cassidy replied.
“Now, listen here, there’s a good man within you but he’s at war with what he aspires to be and who he used to be,” Levi responded.
“I haven’t changed a damn bit. I’m still a bad man. The things I’ve done, well, they’re just unforgivable. Maybe I deserve to be down here,” Cassidy said.
“Cassidy, you’ve got no idea what a bad man truly is. A bad man doesn’t go into the depths of hell trying to get riches for his family. Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m telling you to look at me. I’m the bad man. I had a girl that loved me dearly once, but I fucked that up. I had a daughter, but yellow fever took her. After all that, I couldn’t find myself believing in a damn thing no more. Not even in myself,” Levi muttered.
“I… I… can’t do this,” Cassidy spoke.
“Don’t make me repeat myself, Cassidy. This thing is coming for us both, and it won’t stop until it gets what it came for. Lord knows we ain’t gonna get what WE came for, but there’s still hope for you. You understand me? My path is coming to an end. Maybe it was fate that put me here. Maybe it was for you to see that you still got a life ahead of you,” Levi explained.
“Levi, I’m half the man you are. Now what do I tell the town folk if I left my brother here to die from this sinister creature? And what of Butch?” Cassidy refuted.
“You tell them, you faced the destiny beset before you like a warrior, a man. And, hell, Butch carved out his own destiny by giving in to his damn greed. Like he always did. Now go, brother,” Levi replied.
The hesitation in Cassidy’s eyes became transparent, and down to his core he knew that his fate offered only one path moving forward. His breath got heavier with each passing second, and as his eyes began to well up, he looked in the opposite direction to Levi. He placed his hand on Levi’s shoulder and with a heartfelt farewell, he placed one foot in front of the other. Placing both hands on his sidearms, he kept both triggers firmly gripped.
“Most people spend their whole damn lives searching for some unattainable treasure. Nowadays, men don’t realize that they’re already richer than they could ever dream. Not even a man like Butch could figure that out until it was too late. The thing that keeps a man anchored is family. That’s what Levi was to me. A brother. He was the only one who ever truly accepted me. Everything I know about being a man is all thanks to him,” Cassidy spoke to himself.
“Never forget what happened here tonight, Cassidy. Pursue the life you were meant for. You keep running and you don’t turn back,” Levi’s voice echoed down the halls of the concave grotto.
The creature’s piercing screech drowned out the reverberation of Levi’s voice.
In that very moment, a surge of recollections flooded his mind – reminding him of the man he’s always been. A gluttonous killer who found himself in a vicious cycle of being misunderstood and abandoned due to his own reckoning. His ambition always exceeded his grasp, and he always wavered. He was a dreamer who idolized men like Levi, a hero both lucid and bold. In truth, he knew deep down inside he’d likely never achieve that ideal.
However, for the first time, he could see his life clearer than he ever had. He knew Levi became a hero through a series of catalysts. His courage to endure was the fabric that bound his legacy.
Cassidy halted his pace and fixed his gaze on the path he just walked down. He shouted, “LEVI.” But no response was offered. Fearing for his brother’s life, he mustered up a modicum of courage to run back to Levi’s last position.
As he began running back, he could hear howls and cackles seep from every crevice in the grotto. He recalled what the Algonquin tribe warned them about a fortnight ago before they embarked on this conquest.
“Sometimes the obvious path is riddled with pain and sacrifice. If the gold is what you seek, it will not come easy. Many men have turned in search of the fabled treasure inside the grotto,” a chieftain of the Nova Scotian Algonquin tribe spoke.
“Turned into what exactly?” Butch replied.
“Something sinister. A wendigo. Beings that hide in plain sight, lonely places. They feast on the darkness of men. The greed in their hearts satiates them. Once you succumb to your own gluttonous desires, you rise as a wendigo. Bound to where you rose in search of new victims. Wendigo’s are haggard, contorted creatures, and are cannibalistic in nature. The cycle just continues and continues. It is a cycle of falling and being created a new,” the chieftain responded.
Butch and Levi guffawed at the chieftain’s words. They couldn’t believe what they were listening to such preposterous claims of so-called cannibals lurking in the night.
“You gotta be kidding me. You’re telling me I should be fearful of some creature that supposedly lurks in that their grotto. You just want the gold for yourself,” Butch asserted.
“Butch, calm yourself. We’re going no matter what. We won’t be swayed by an old wife’s tale. Cassidy, what do you make of this? Cassidy… Cassidy…,” Levi asked.
Levi’s voice rattled louder and louder in his mind as he drew closer to Levi’s whereabouts. Butch was taken by whatever that curse was, but that was his own doing by being so foolish. Cassidy concluded that he was not going to lose Levi as well. Nevertheless, his steadfast determination inspired his newfound courage to move forward. To abandon the moniker of killer and embrace that new man he aspired to be. A hero just like the man he was now attempting to save.
“Gahhhhh,” Levi let out a blood curdling scream.
Hearing the scream, he picked up the pace to stumble across a scene so macabre and tragic it made Cassidy plummet to his knees. His heart ached as if a dagger had run right through him. Levi’s body was torn apart and strewn all over the floor. He was disfigured beyond recognition.
“Cassidy, you were too late. He was claimed by the wickedness of his own soul,” a cynical wendigo cackled.
“Butch, that sounds like you. Did you do this to Levi?” he said while raising his revolvers.
“Bahahaha. Yes, and his flesh was divine,” Butch responded as he tossed Levi’s heart at him.
Butch was clearly not completely transformed. He bore the fangs, shallow gaze, and skeletal structure, but he was speaking as fluidly as Cassidy could. Cassidy unloaded a flurry of rounds into Butch, which made him fall to the ground and gasp for breath. And suddenly, the newly turned Butch let out an unnerving howl that resounded throughout the grotto. A series of howls responded back within seconds. In that moment, Cassidy had realized that it wasn’t just Butch who fell prey to his own greed and underwent a horrifying metamorphism into a wendigo. Wayward men had gone to the grotto for centuries. All warned of the same curse that was bound to the place.
“Brothers and sisters rejoice. Another joins our ranks,” Butch spoke with his remaining breath.
“I’m all alone now. That same fear is settling back in, Levi. And I’ve never been more afraid in my life,” Cassidy stated as he began to think back.
“Now we’re never completely alone. Men like us, in time, will become ghosts. Relics of a bygone time. But you know what Cassidy? Fear is what keeps us moving forward. It pushes us to either become better versions of ourselves, or we cower to our own defeat. You’ll know when it’s time to let the old you fall so that a new, better Cassidy James can be created,” Levi said over the dusty remains of a campfire a fortnight ago.
As Cassidy stepped away from the fire, he looked despondent and replied, “the thing is, I’ve come to see everything in a new light. I mean to say… that I’m worried that who I am will eventually place me in a position where I’m truly alone. I’m afraid of that more than anything. Losing my family. Being left alone.”
As Cassidy came to, he knew that the words Levi spoke was the only way to move forward yet again. He picked himself up and staggered back down the same path he’d already gone through. Grasping the walls with a heavy breath, he was floundered.
On the other end of that tunnel, a drove of wendigo’s began to dart towards him. Gnarly fangs were protruding from their emaciated grimaces. Skin tightened around their joints as if it was bound only by bone. Their eyes were lifeless and bloodshot. They were agents of sin. Beings that felt nothing beyond their own morbid slake. They now coveted the only meal they had left dwelling in the grotto – Cassidy.
He was now out of breath and had nowhere else to go. “Seven rounds. That’s the only thing that’s going to get me out of here. Ok, Cassidy, you got this. There’s about half a dozen of those basterds ahead. Let’s make Levi proud now,” he spoke fervently. Catching his breath quickly, he picked up his pace and kept treading forward.
Raising one hand, he planted a round into the skull of a wendigo latched onto the ceiling. As it dropped, the remaining five wendigos became distracted by another corpse to devour. They were ravenous like a pack of feral dogs. Gnawing at the skin wrapped bones, the wendigo spared no time devouring their monstrous brethren.
“Hmph, that’s the way. These things will consume their fallen,” he whispered as he aimed his other revolver.
His sharpshooting days kicked in, and he dropped two more wendigos. It wasn’t an isolated incident. The wendigos were tragic beings drawn to any corpse they could feast upon. With this revelation, he sprinted past the remaining creatures with the exit in sight.
Exerting every bit of strength, he had, he kept running. He didn’t look back. The howls began to slowly dissipate and then he saw it. The exit. Along with three steeds still waiting out in the blistering cold. His gaze widened and a sharp grin formed.
“God damn! I did it,” he bellowed as he mounted his horse.
In the darkest hour of his life, he overcame everything that held the old version of himself back, and he came out of that grotto reborn into the man he always aspired to be. Cognizant to his own evolution, he knew that Levi, had he still been alive, would be proud of the transformation that transpired in his wake. Trotting off on the back of his mount, he had finally found solace.
Instantly, a deviant claw shot up from a snowy mound and tore off one of the horse’s legs. It collapsed, trapping Cassidy underneath. Howls could be heard all around the shrouded woods. His forlorn body laid on the wintry wooded canvas as the howls grew louder, and ever closer.
Michael Santiago is an aspiring author and current English teacher in Nanjing, China. He decided to get into education so that he could not only travel the world doing what he loves, but to ignite that creative spark by putting the power of storytelling into the hands of his students. His creative drive and passion for literature has helped him translate the power of books and their capacity to bestow knowledge onto his children.