The Werewolves' Story
Healer and Hunter: Chapter Five
For his last conscious memories being ones of agonizing pain and
then mercifully passing out, Zzandoren felt surprisingly good when he woke up.
Dazed, maybe, and with a strange kind of dull ache at the edge of his awareness
that he didn't think had anything to do with the pain he remembered, and both
heavily weary and absolutely ravenous, but... not hurting. He wasn't sure why.
Everything seemed muddled, foggy, confused; his mind didn't want to work-- and
he found that he didn't really want it to. And the reason why he didn't....
Shying away from that instinctively, he opened his eyes. It was dim, though not quite dark: the sun had set maybe an hour ago, as had the finally-waning Shinan-Al, but Ranin-Il and Iyan-Il were overhead, one brightly full and the other nearly so. The two together provided plenty of light for Zzandoren to see around him, even if it gave everything a reddish tinge. He didn't think he'd been out long; he last remembered it being late afternoon. Someone, probably Rythri, had tucked his cloak over him, under which he was quite naked, and his pillow had been a sadly shrunken and rather uncomfortable bag. Rythri himself was curled up several yards away, sleeping fitfully with one foot twitching in some dream or another.
Fitfully enough, in fact, that he started awake when Zzandoren sat up, rubbing at his forehead. He actually cringed back when he realized what had woken him, to Zzandoren's sudden distress. "Rythri?" he asked; his voice sounded rough-- hoarse, maybe-- and the smallest bit plaintive. His friend-- his traveling companion-- he didn't want him to look afraid of him, even after--
"Zzandoren?" Rythri replied tentatively, peeking at him again, and he stopped that thought before it could get any farther.
"Are you-- all right?"
"Huh?" Rythri looked surprised to be asked that question. "--Oh. Yeah.... Are you?"
"I think so." Rythri was trembling, but it wasn't cold out, and he looked thinner than ever. In part of his mind, Zzandoren wasn't surprised-- he even felt shame, as if that was somehow his doing-- but the rest of him desperately ignored that part. "What's wrong?"
"N-nothing... I mean.... Zzandoren, are you-- I mean, do you-- remember the past five days?"
"I--" He choked on the answer he wanted to give, because it wasn't true, but if he said it-- if he thought about it--
"You do, don't you," Rythri said-- not asked, said.
He did not. He most certainly did not. He would not. If he remembered-- if he thought--
Five days. Five days that he did-- he did not remember-- five horrible days--
"Zzandoren, are you--"
Five days. That he didn't want to remember, but that he was remembering, anyway, whether he wanted to or not-- every painful minute of it. He swallowed heavily, shutting his eyes uselessly against the youth's worried expression. "How many?" he asked hoarsely. "How many were there-- how many did I--? I don't-- that part-- it's not very clear...." That was a lie. It was too clear, he could see it all so clearly, even now-- he just hadn't stopped, then, to make sure he'd actually--
"Four," Rythri answered, very quietly.
All of them, then. Maybe that was a mercy, that none of them would now have his curse as well as having to live with what he'd-- with how much he'd-- he'd--
He looked down at his hands, turned them over a few times with blank, painful incredulity. They shouldn't have been clean. None of him should have been clean. He didn't remember being clean. It must have been Rythri, after he'd passed out, unless it went away with the change. He had a lot to thank Rythri for, now, he remembered. He'd done what he could. And he'd done a lot: following, suggesting, guiding, even being afraid-- even standing in the way of-- of a-- a monster. A monster, just like in the worst werewolf legend he'd ever heard of. A vicious, blood-thirsty predator, an insatiable hunter, a killer-- a murderer.
Zzandoren was shaking. His hands were trembling violently even as he stared blankly at them.
Rythri crawled forward, expression concerned-- sympathetic, even-- he didn't deserve sympathy-- and put his hand on one of Zzandoren's. He yanked himself back from the touch before the fingers could even close on his, scrambling blindly away. "Don't touch me!"
"Don't touch me, don't come any closer-- please, don't touch--" He couldn't say any more, his throat had closed painfully. His eyes burned and he was shaking even more. Rythri didn't approach him again, he just crouched in the grass and watched him, pale eyes wide.
"Zzan, it's-- it's all right...."
"How can you even say that?" He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes painfully hard, until he saw stars in the blackness, but that wasn't enough. He deserved to be bleeding on the ground, he deserved to be hurting. "It's not all right! I'm-- I-- you saw-- how can you say that?"
"You-- you weren't yourself," Rythri said weakly. "It was the curse--"
"You don't-- you didn't--"
"Maybe it's different?"
"It's going to happen again. It's going to happen again. Every however long-- every five months. Every time that moon is full. What if I don't listen to you next time? What if I hurt you next time? What if we don't get far enough away? I'll kill again-- I'll--"
"Zzan, stop it--"
"I can't let that happen, Rythri. I can't. Innocent people, Rythri, innocent people!"
"I can't-- it'll happen again. I can't let it, I--" He struggled to his feet, looking around wildly. Maybe-- maybe his sword was around here somewhere. If they hadn't managed to lose it in the hellish past five days. Or his dagger, his dagger would be enough, probably better. Or his bag-- his bag was still there, with... most of his herbs in it, or so it smelled like. He had enough of a certain few plants that he could--
"Zzandoren, stop it!"
Rythri had his hands on his shoulders, catching him in mid-lunge for his bag, in the hopes that his dagger was in it or he hadn't lost the plants in question. He shook him so hard that his teeth clacked painfully together, forcing him to blink at him.
"Zzan, it was not your fault. It's a curse, remember? It's something you can't help! And killing yourself won't change anything, either, except take a damn good healer and damn good person out of the world."
Rythri interrupted his weak protest fiercely, giving him another vicious shake. "If I have to keep your weapons and medicines myself, or go bury them where you'll never find them, damn you, I will. I will not let you do that."
Still trembling, Zzandoren stared at him in disbelief for a long minute-- why should he care? He'd seen what he'd done... what he'd been... what he'd done.... But if he still cared, if he was really telling the truth about keeping him alive even if it meant they went weaponless and medicine-less-- and he had the sinking feeling that he was-- then... then there was no hope. He was a monster, he was stuck a monster, and he would kill again-- and soon. In another five months, it would all happen again....
Rythri at least caught him when he fell, the brief adrenaline that had gotten him to his feet running out so fast that his knees buckled. The anari held him awkwardly as he sobbed into his tunic, patting his back hesitantly and, after a few minutes, uncomfortably disentangling himself. He let Zzandoren curl up on the ground, even draped his cloak back over him with another awkward pat. Zzandoren didn't protest, he just buried his head in his arms and wept, and Rythri let him.
By the time he'd worn himself out-- again-- Rythri had fallen asleep again. Zzandoren didn't blame him, remembering how hard he'd pushed them both-- or how hard the beast inside him pushed them both-- which was it? Him or a beast? He didn't know whether he had the right to distinguish between himself and what he did during the full moon. But he did remember how hard Rythri had been tried. They'd slept in snatches only when Zzandoren himself was too tired to move on, ate only when Zzandoren himself was too hungry to focus on the hunt of intelligent prey, and he'd had more energy and endurance than poor Rythri. No wonder he was asleep now.
Zzandoren, though, felt almost too tired and too drained to sleep. He stared with sore, half-open eyes across the meadow they'd wound up in when the first shadow hit Shinan-Al's surface and the beast lost control. He didn't see anything, too lost in thought.
He could have killed himself right then, while Rythri slept, if he'd still had the inclination, but it seemed like it would take too much energy.... And then Rythri would feel guilty that he'd fallen asleep and not kept watch. He didn't want to cause more pain, especially not to Rythri, who had been forced to live through that, an auxiliary to murder, no matter how unwillingly. And Rythri had been right, anyway: even if he prevented further deaths with his own, it would not make up for the ones he was already responsible for.
No, he wouldn't suicide. But there had to be something else he could do... some way to keep from killing again.
Except his mind wouldn't work. He was simply too exhausted to even think. There had been days of minimal food, water, and sleep; days of constantly being on the alert, constantly hunting; the pain of the transformation, and the few wounds he'd sustained-- and subsequently healed, without even realizing it, so that they were gone by now; his heavy guilt, shame, and emotional exhaustion.... He was too worn down to think of an elusive solution, but not worn down enough to actually sleep and forget.
Instead of thinking-- remembering-- he focused again, with effort. How many of their things had Rythri managed to salvage? His pack with the herbs, his precious book, hopefully his dagger, and his cloak, at least.... No, he could smell the metal of the dagger, it was there. His coat-- Rythri was using it for a pillow. He'd apparently lost his clothing and his shoes-- left behind, most of it, and... he vaguely remembered tearing the trousers off during his first change. Oh, gods, and his staff... there'd been no way Rythri could have carried it. They'd have to go back for it-- maybe stop by his victims and make sure they got blessed and buried-- unless he wanted to start again, recarving another staff with his collection of spells....
His staff. His spells. He was a priest-- if he hadn't been abandoned after the past five days.
Oh, gods, maybe....
His goddess Glace had answered him before-- not that he called on her often, but now and then, for particularly difficult cases or for direction. She'd even spoken to him twice unexpectedly, without his seeking her out, to tell him things she thought he ought to know. And she was a kind deity, not one to leave even her general followers alone if they were in need, much less her actual clergy. If this wasn't need-- dire need-- he didn't know what was. As long as she wasn't busy....
It took less time than he had expected, under the circumstances, to get his breathing back under control and center himself, but he didn't even bother trying a formal prayer. Glace didn't need it, and he wasn't in any state to remember one. All she got was an anguished, exhausted cry of her name in his own mind-- so as not to wake Rythri-- and a plea for her attention. Then he waited. In the past, he'd sometimes had to wait a few minutes, as the goddess was busy with someone or something else, and since this wasn't an immediate emergency, despite his own distress over the whole situation, he half-expected this to be one of those times. He was a little afraid that she wouldn't answer, at all, that he might be abandoned after what he'd turned into, what he'd done....
Instead, he was startled by a response immediately.
It's all right, Zzandoren. I already know everything that happened-- I knew when you were bitten, and I knew where it was likely to lead-- and of course I'm not going to abandon you.
Limp with relief, fighting the urge to break down and cry again, he croaked, "I don't want it to happen again, goddess... I don't think I could live with myself if it happened again. What if next time there are more? What if next time there are children?"
I'm sorry this happened to you, Zzandoren, and I wish there were something I could do, but I cannot take this curse away.
It had been a small hope, and a brief hope, but it hurt when it died, nonetheless, and it took him a moment to respond. "Is there anything I can do? Lock myself up somewhere when that moon is full?" Five days of being locked in a cell or barricaded in a cave or something... even in the days preceding the moon, that would drive him mad. But he would do it, if he had to.
Your curse is different than your friend Rythri's. You can transform as he can, whenever you wish, as a normal wolf-- slightly larger, slightly more intelligent, but still normal and still yourself, albeit with a smaller brain. When you change for the full moon, you are as you were: a creature made to kill. But Zzandoren, she continued when he made to interrupt, you do not have to change with the full moon. You can resist it, when Rythri and others cannot.
"I-- don't have to change?"
No. It will be difficult-- it is very hard to resist-- and you will have to focus constantly for those five days not to change. It will probably be five days of torture for you. But it can be done.
"I don't care, goddess," he promised fervently. "I'll do anything I can not to go through that again."
I have faith in you. The tone of her voice was warm, like she'd put ethereal arms around him comfortingly, and he let out a shuddering sigh, the last of his tension and fear fading into true exhaustion. Not for good, but at least for now, he could let it go.
"I hope I don't let you down."
You could never do that.
"Zzan?" Rythri asked sleepily, awake at last. "Who're you talking to?"
Distracted, Zzandoren blinked over at the youth, a little groggy himself. Before he could answer, he felt the presence of the goddess slip away, and he put his head back down wearily-- but with relief, and the sense that maybe he could sleep now. "No one, Rythri... go back to sleep."
The young anari's eyes fixed on him for a moment, but he was too exhausted to stand up to him again. He gave in with a yawn and an, "All right," and shut his eyes again. Zzandoren did, too, and it didn't even take a moment before he slept, at last.