Hunter of the Masks: Part 5
Chatan scrambled backward on all fours, doing everything he could to put as much distance between the aberration and himself as he could manage. His back hit the rough bark of a tree trunk, stopping his retreat. All the while, the nightmare thing simply stared, empty eyed, in his direction, blood still dripping from a horrifically long tongue.
“Ashkii,” called out Chatan. “What is that thing?”
“Quiet! Do not attract it’s attention.”
With terrifying fluidity, the beast stood upright on frail legs, its face never turning away from Chatan. As it did, Chatan recognized the shape as the one that had hidden in the corn at Rain-Cloud’s farm. The planted crops had obscured much of the detail, although it was obscenely lacking in physical description other than its face. It moved gracefully, walking upright like a person should, shaggy hair and tongue swaying with each step. Using the tree to brace himself, Chatan pushed himself upward to greet the creature face to face.
As it drew near, Chatan felt a wave of nausea roll over him like an incoming tide, accompanied by the overwhelming stench of death. It leaned in close to him, like a dog studying the scent of something unknown.
With a savage grunt, Ashkii pulled himself from the crevice, shredding his shirt in the process.
“No. Leave him be. He is a friend.”
The creature shuddered and turned to face the boy. Ashkii was clearly terrified of the bizarre figure in front of him but remained tall and strong.
“Name of the Wind, what is that thing?” bellowed Chatan.
“In my tribe the elders speak of spirits who live around us, around all things. We give them form in dolls, idols, or maybe masks.”
Chatan nodded in recognition, having seen and even participated in such ritual before. Having wandered so far and so wide across the Unbroken Lands, he had come to experience the ways of many tribes. The idea that ghosts and spirits could walk among men was not unknown, even in the ways of his fathers and grandfathers, but he had never seen a spirit quite like this.
“I found it,” Ashkii continued. “The mask, that is. I found it in a sacred place that I never should have entered.”
“And then it followed me.” Tears began to well up in Ashkii’s face, but he never tore his eyes from the haunter of the masks. “I did not know what it was at first. I thought it was a friend. Then one day, I awoke to find it beside me where my brother slept. Except…except my brother was…it had…”
Chatan understood immediately. Whatever spirit had dwelt within the mask, it had been something evil, likely sealed away by elders of another time for reasons lost or purposefully forgotten. Ashkii, barely having come of age, had not asked for any of this.
“I did not think the elders would understand, so I ran. I ran and hid away from the world for a time. But the spirit grew angry. It was hungry, Chatan. It was so hungry.”
“All those people. It killed them for food…”
“Yes. Yes, I think so.”
“How do we kill it?" pleaded Ashkii. "You have slain monsters before; the stories tell it! Please Chatan. Help me.”
Chatan reflected upon a life of aimless wandering, of bloody work, and horrors most dared not imagine. Across his body he bore the scars of knife, arrow, and sword. It was true that he had slain creatures beyond the reckoning of man, but rarely something such as the vile presence Ashkii had released into the world. If the thing did not bleed when cut, there was no way Chatan of Red-Deer knew to help.
From the world of shadows that surrounded them, thrummed the twang of a bowstring.
The missile struck Ashkii hard in the shoulder, knocking him to the ground. It had taken a moment before recognition caught up, then suddenly he screamed, clutching at the projectile – little more than a sharpened stick – that jutted from his body.
As Ashkii cried out, so did the Mask Dweller.
Now familiar hooting cries announced the coming of the half-men as they emerged from the night. Surely, they had seen the spirit-beast, but perhaps their minds were too simple to comprehend the danger which they now faced.
More arrows, and a thrown spear clattered upon rock and wood.
Chatan ducked behind the tree that supported him, unable to reach a suitable weapon in time. There were only three of the beast-men, but that was more than a match for him in his current state.
The half-men raced inward, met at once by the Spirit of the Mask.
The first beast-man fell beneath the swipe of an inhuman hand, his body snapping against the piled rock like so many twigs.
The next lashed out with stone ax in hand. The weapon struck against the evil spirit, but passed through without harm, just as Chatan’s arrow had done at Rain-Cloud’s farm.
He was thrown off balance and tumbled to the ground.
The last attacker shot forward, spear in hand, but the evil spirit chuckled grimly to itself at the attempt. Wrapping two sickeningly large hands about the half-man, it wrenched him from the earth and squeezed. Chatan felt the snap and break of each bone reverberate through his own body as the thing choked out the beast-man’s life.
The last of the attackers tried to scramble up and away, but in an instant the Mask-man was upon him, biting and tearing at the bare flesh upon its back.
Then it danced.
The destruction wrought upon the mountainside was indescribable. The Thing from Beyond ripped and tore at the half-men, drenching the ground in gore and entrails, all the while it laughed gleefully as it had in the corn. For the unholy thing, this would be a feast.
Chatan watched in horror at the grotesque display, as the thing gorged itself on the remains of those it had slain.
Ashkii, clutched at the arrow in silence.
As quietly as he could, Chatan rushed over to the wounded boy, kneeling beside him.
“Stay still, Ashkii. I can help.”
Chatan wrapped two firm hands about the crude arrow shaft and nodded down at Ashkii assuredly.
Without warning, the warrior pulled the arrow from the boy's shoulder.
Ashkii let slip a cry of painful release.
The spirit beast halted its sickening revelry, turning a gore-soaked visage toward Chatan.
“I am sorry,” he whispered.
There was no time for the boy to react. Chatan drove the arrow back into Ashkii’s, puncturing his heaving chest near his heart.
The beast beside him screamed in unearthly agony, flopping upon the ground like a fish yanked from fresh water. It fell, writhing upon the ground, convulsing as the un-life that it had lived dissipated before Chatan’s eyes.
Tearing his face from the dying thing, he looked Ashkii squarely in the eye. That the boy was dying was evident. The blood had rushed from his face, turning his copper skin pale as moonlight.
“It was the only way I knew how,” said Chatan, clearly not proud of his actions. “It followed you. Protected you like a kept wolf. Whether you wanted to be or not, you were its master. It was bound to you.”
Ashkii coughed, drinking deep of the last breaths he would take upon the Earth.
“Th-thank you, Chatan. The others…they are free?”
Chatan shed a tear as Ashkii’s life faded, his body going limp.
Gently, Chatan lay the boy to the ground, and turned to where the demon had been. The creature’s body had gone, disappeared from this plane of existence, leaving behind a display of carnage not meant for this world. As Chatan drew nearer the tableau, he spotted something out of place, an item that hadn’t been there before. Taking a closer look, he recognized a simply made mask lying in a pool of half-man blood.
Chatan lifted a foot, and brought it down hard against the mask, sending splinters scattering across the ground.
“You are free now, Ashkii. You are all free.”
Well, that's it. That's the end of the story. I have to admit, this didn't end up where I thought it would and is probably one of the darker stories I have written.
If you hadn't quite noticed, my characters are something of mythic Native Americans living in a prehistoric version of North America inspired by Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age. As an anthropologist and archaeologist, I was always drawn to North American prehistory and am constantly dismayed at the lack of fantasy that takes place with these kinds of characters and themes.
So I wrote my own.
If you have seen my picture, I am sure you know that I am a white dude. I am. I know not everyone cares about this kind of stuff, but I do. In my writings of Chatan of Red-Deer Clan, I do my best to show these characters as people, not as stereotypes. I know many Native people from various tribes and I do my best to think of how they would like to see heroes of their background represented. That being said, I totally understand that I am not perfect. I have done a crazy amount of research about cultures, languages, mythologies, and lifestyle, but I understand that it will never truly make up for my lack of experience so to speak.
Cultural appropriation does hurt people. I have seen it in my classroom and in my professional life. I don't want to do that, despite clearly walking the line here.
All I can do is try my best.
I read an article once talking about the amazing Imaro tales, and the author Charles Saunders, the author of the article also being African American (and a woman, I believe). The author made a distinction of what is acceptable use of another culture, and what is not. They made the claim that someone who has not experienced the oppression of a minority, shouldn't write books about those topics. They also said that Sci Fi and Fantasy are sorely lacking in the representation department, and genre fiction with minority characters should be encouraged no matter the background of the author.
I think it is safe to say that Chatan is firmly in that "genre fiction" category.
I am sure that opinions differ on this topic, as opinions tend to. But that made sense to me, and makes sense to a lot of people I've talked to. I made sure to ask around before I first put Chatan on paper.
Anyways, I hope you enjoyed "Hunter of the Masks" as much as I enjoyed writing it. Stay tuned for next week's two-fisted WWII Pulp Adventure "Cult of the Beast King" starring Captain Mack Taggert!