The Werewolves' Story
Healer and Hunter: Chapter Twenty-One
Coming to this tiny hamlet, barely twenty people all told, had
started off looking like a complete waste of time. The rumor going around of a
werewolf haunting the premises was quickly proved to be a true wolf whose leg
had healed funny and couldn't run. He was starving, so he was reduced to hunting
miiri and, once, threatening a child who came too close. Hence, the cry of
"werewolf!" that brought Resham and her companions running. For a
group trying desperately to break in their two new members, it was less than
disappointing. Disgusted, they'd put the poor creature out of his misery, taken
what small pay the hamlet could afford to rid them of their
"werewolf", and had been ready to call the whole trip a wash.
But then Shessyi whined, at Resham's side, and cast about as if looking for something. The expectancy and warning in his mind was unmistakable: he'd scented a real werewolf.
Resham had been told more than once how ironic it was that her animal companion was a wolf, when she had dedicated her life to hunt the abominations called werewolves, creatures who turned into wolves. Resham's answer was simple: ironic or not, a wolf had an excellent sense of smell, a strong desire to please his master, and a good memory for training. If anyone needed a wolf for a partner, it was a werewolf hunter, and Shessyi was one of the reasons Resham's group was so successful. Besides, there was a kind of justice in taking down perversions with the real thing. Shessyi certainly seemed proud of his position, as much as a wolf could be proud of anything.
And with Shessyi doing his job yet again, perhaps, Resham thought with a grin as she jerked her head at Mollath to get his attention, the trip wouldn't be so much of a wash as they'd thought.
It was obvious that none of the villagers were actually hiding a cursed nature, or they would have found them immediately. After some questioning, it turned out that there had been a stranger in town recently. Two of them, in fact: a wandering human healer and his shy anari apprentice.
"Older gent, quiet man, dirt poor, and a bit jumpy," Herryan grinned proudly, repeating what he'd heard that evening around the campfire. "Came through about four days ago, and didn't stay long. Just long enough to set and heal up the baker's arm so he could go back to baking bread, confer with the earth-witch about the best way to handle that pregnant woman when her time comes, and bolt down a couple meals."
"I heard a few people say they didn't much like the anari boy," Kumar said, frowning, making his slow voice sound more mournful and troubled than usual. "And one woman wondered why he was so deferential to the healer fellow, but.... I don't know."
"Fellow's a priest-- a healer-priest," Resham said dismissively. "That's not going to be a werewolf." Kumar looked less certain, but no one else questioned her. Next to Mollath, Resham was the eldest and most experienced among them, for all she was also the most opinionated and motivated of the lot.
"But what about the other one?" Mollath asked around the leg bone of the jackalope Shessyi had caught for their dinner. "The anari one. What did they say about him?"
"Stand-offish," Herryan said promptly. "Even more jumpy than the older gent, didn't seem to get along with anybody 'cept the healer."
Mollath grunted thoughtfully as he chewed.
"Shinan-Al is going to be full tomorrow," Farrah spoke up, and Resham smiled at her encouragingly; Farrah had been her own pick for the team, untried though she was. "That'd explain a jumpy werewolf. And a jumpy master of a werewolf."
"Werewolves don't have masters," Herryan snorted.
"Don't be so sure," Mollath countered. "Not all wolves are leaders. Take Shessyi." He mussed the wolf's neck-fur companionably. "He's happiest with somebody to give him orders-- not everybody, mind," he added, when Shessyi snapped warningly at his offending hand when he tried to tweak his ear. "But somebody. Werewolves can be like that, too, depending on how wild they are."
"But a human, er, leader?" Herryan asked skeptically.
"It happens," Shohai rumbled, and of course everyone listened. The big man simply talked too loudly not to. "Weres are rare enough, anyway. He'll take what he can get. Poor priest probably can't get rid of him."
"But wouldn't he have bitten him by now?" Farrah suggested. "If they've been traveling together?"
"Too nervous, maybe," Resham waved it off. "Shessyi would have smelled two werewolves, if they both were. Wouldn't you have, boy?"
The wolf snorted. There was annoyance in his thoughts. The trail was old, and muddled with other, odder smells, but he did think there was only one werewolf.
"So d'you think he's really a werewolf?" Herryan asked eagerly.
"We'll have Shessyi track him in the morning," Resham said, giving her boy's ears a fond ruffle. "And we'll see what comes up. I think it's worth pursuing, if Mollath is willing."
"I'm willing," Mollath nodded.
So it was decided, and as soon as the sun rose, they followed Shessyi's nose. It took them four days, but since Shessyi was certain he was getting closer-- and very certain he had a werewolf at the end of the trail-- and Resham and Mollath really wanted a real hunt to break in Herryan and Farrah, they persevered. Kumar was remarkably quiet most of the way, lost in thought, but that wasn't particularly unusual, and the rest were excited. They had options all planned out, roles all decided ahead of time: they could be flexible if they had to, of course, but it was always easier to go in with a couple strategies. Mollath was giving Herryan the job of point-man instead of himself-- Herryan was his pick to add to the group-- but put Resham with him, to keep him from being spotted before he got off a decent shot and protect him if he missed.
Shessyi warned them when he caught an actual scent on the wind near sunset on the fourth day. His eager mind was adamant that their quarry was near, and he wanted to go after it now. Resham kept a firm rein on him, but everyone wanted to press on and maybe get the threat taken care of tonight, so Mollath gave the order to close in. Kumar cast his precognition spell and directed them where to wait. He insisted on joining the second rank with Farrah, forcing Shohai to hang back with Mollath, but Mollath let him. Resham was glad the girl wouldn't have to deal with Shohai's clumsy attempts at flirtation while they advanced and waited, and she shot the priest a grateful look as they spread out in their positions. He didn't seem to notice, focused already on where he'd seen the werewolf and his healer-leader passing by in the near future. Resham followed his example, turning to Herryan with a reassuring smile.
"Just shoot when you're ready," she told him as they settled into their cover and she absently charmed the foliage to better hide and protect them, sinking the earth just enough to give them enough cover. The young man nodded, stretching out his longbow and fitting the silver-tipped arrow to the string. Not all werewolves were susceptible to silver, but it was their most common allergy. Resham herself had a silver dagger, an iron-headed morning star, a short stave studded with lead spikes, and two sabers of gold-dusted steel and bronze-- just in case silver didn't work.
Shessyi, stretched out on his belly in the loam beside her, let out a warning whine. A breath later, the expected forms materialized out of the growing murk, crossing a moonlit patch between the trees from the hunters' left to the hunters' right. The taller, human healer-priest-- long-haired, gentle-looking, and walking with a staff and a bag over one shoulder-- didn't look as nervous as one might expect, given there was a very tall, long-legged wolf bounding around him. Resham felt a stab of worry; why would he look so relaxed, why would he be smiling indulgently, if he was in the company of a werewolf? If, at any minute, he could be bitten?
What if, she thought, Farrah had been right? What if he'd already been bitten, and they were dealing with two werewolves? Resham had never come across more than one werewolf, but she'd heard stories of pairs traveling together, and those stories were not ones she'd ever cared to experience personally. There was worry in Shessyi's churning thoughts, too. They were downwind of the pair, and the smells, though still odd and alien, weren't conclusively one werewolf.
Resham only had time to pray to the gods that Farrah was wrong and the healer was just mad, or had sufficiently tamed the werewolf somehow that he felt he had nothing to fear, because there wasn't time for anything else before Herryan let loose his arrow and all abyss broke loose.
The wolf-formed werewolf went down with a howl and an arrow in his shoulder-- a good hit. "Rythri!" the priest cried, half-kneeling and half-falling beside him. The wolf writhed in the grass, still howling-- had silver been this one's "allergy"? gods, Resham hoped so-- while Herryan noched another arrow. The priest had looked up then, though, one hand on the wolf and the other clutching his staff. The expression on his face, as he looked right at where they were huddled, was dark, even ugly, and surprisingly unnatural on the gentle-looking face.
Herryan loosed his second arrow, but too late: the priest said a quick series of words, and the arrow bounced off a shield that sprang up just in time. "Damn!" Resham muttered, finding the earth beneath his feet equally unable to get through to him. That was one powerful shield-spell.
When Mollath's crossbow fired from the trees behind them, and Kumar's own spell cracked the shield, Resham could actually see the broken barrier. She tested the boundaries, muttering at the trees behind him to try and coax its branches into buffeting the shield-spell, as well. Kumar's wasn't enough to get through, but another good hit ought to do it, so if she could just--
"Holy mother Aaliyah," Herryan breathed.
Shessyi growled low in his throat.
The priest burst free of his coat, trousers and tunic tearing away with the force of his transformation, and he was snarling more fiercely than any werewolf Resham had ever seen. Because he was no wolf-- he was a monster.
"Fall back!" Mollath's bellow sounded. "Retreat immediately! Resham, Herryan, get back here now!"
Right then, there was nothing Resham wanted to do more-- she'd run across something like this once in her career, and she didn't want a repeat of that incident now, not with two unbroken fighters-- and she scrambled to her feet, hauling Herryan with her. Shessyi had his teeth bared, fully bristled and growling, but even he scrambled out of the way when the huge thing of a werewolf charged. Resham shoved Herryan past her, yanking her short stave out of its holster across her back and swinging with all her might, trying to at least fend the beast off so the kid could get away. The werewolf merely caught it in its teeth and ripped it away like it was no more than a toothpick. She didn't have time to dodge when it leapt for her, but Shessyi knocked her out of its way, and it went rolling past her-- and into Herryan.
Herryan. The stupid kid who had not run, but who had been staring, transfixed with terror, as the werewolf-beast bore down on them both. He didn't even have time to scream as he went down, teeth in his throat and the terrible sound of his own tearing flesh eclipsing any sound he might have made.
"Herryan!" Resham cried, struggling out from under her companion, but it was far too late for him. Gods grant that Farrah had more sense and had bolted.
It was Kumar, and he followed the order up with another spell. This one halted the werewolf in its tracks, freezing it. It snarled and twitched, and Resham tried to run-- she'd never seen a werewolf fighting a binding like that. Shessyi hindered more than helped by trying to herd her away from the beast, and Kumar was sweating, standing rigidly still as he tried to hold his spell. "Kumar, come on," Resham yelled. "Kumar!"
The werewolf-beast shook its great, horned head, its muzzle worked free, and gave an eerie howl that actually hurt Resham's ears, making her stumble, and made Kumar collapse backwards. The spell was broken and it surged into motion again. It landed on Kumar... and Kumar wouldn't be getting up again.
All Resham could do was run, but it was too close. She heard Mollath's crossbow, heard the bolt roar by her and thud home in the beast's body somewhere, but she didn't dare look over her shoulder to see where. It didn't even seem to notice: its bounding paws didn't falter, its panting breath didn't hitch. The next bolt didn't even hit it, flying wide past it. Shessyi's growl turned into a yipe; she could imagine him being bowled over without a second thought. The werewolf-beast was getting even closer, undeterred by wolf companion or the third shot that went wide, but it roared echoingly-- closing in, overtaking her--
--heavy paws hit her from behind, teeth closed in her shoulder, and there was more roaring in her ears that she expected meant she was dying. She blacked out when her head hit the ground, and the last thought in her mind was that she hoped the others got away.