I’m never sure what I should write in these things, I guess I should tell you why I’m applying.
It began one morning, six or maybe seven years ago.
Brannigan, the huge, tan alpha from the Lewson kennel found the first one, and brought it to his shepherd’s attention. The poor sheep had been ripped open from throat to dag-end, blood stained the tight-cropped blue-grass to a shimmering brown-black, and I think everyone in the walls came out that day to the field for a sight.
Inside the walls, every lip was flapping about the dead sheep.
The shepherds were worried. There were murmurs, that didn’t reach my young ears directly, but took on a life of their own, creeping inside the walls, that one of the dogs was to blame.
The dogs denied it, of course. It was a matter of honour amongst them that they protected the village and the flocks, that one of them might have killed the sheep was unthinkable, some of the more sharp-tongued and sly betas muttered about the accusations of disloyalty and mistrust, but the alphas soon silenced such noises. No village dog was to blame, of that Brannigan was sure, he’d been to the body first and didn’t know the scents that still clung, dew and blood soaked, to the wool.
Still though, while the shepherds listened to Brannigan, the rest of the adults were quick to dismiss testimony from those they would accuse. Many of the villagers never really got the dogs, saying they couldn’t understand what they were saying, but then I guess some of them just weren’t as smart as the dogs were.
I believed Brannigan and the others, but Dad was not so sure, and asked me to stop playing with the pups.
There were other kids in the walls, like the constantly talking Mary Gringley, who lived next door. Her personal opinion was that the Boggart her crazy old Nan had warned her about had done it. With people like that to talk to, was it really any wonder that all my friends had four legs?
I found Dad’s request hard to understand and harder to agree to, but after the second killing, the request became a ban. The dogs were kennelled that night, and pretty much every adult was on watch at night there-after.
That was when two or more sheep a night started dying.
Word was sent to Landfall-town, Jess Martins and his brother Ken went carrying letters and requests for aid. The council at Landfall-town met and discussed it and when the Martins came back they brought an investigator.
He was useless, he looked at the latest corpses, and examined the kennels, trying to work out how the rogue dog was getting out.
He didn’t talk to Brannigan or any of the other dogs, but did talk to the shepherds assuring them that Landfall-town would compensate them somewhat for their losses, and that the sheep should be brought in until the rogue dog could be identified.
Then he left. Riding off over the horizon as if he was scared to hang around until night, and perhaps he was. The killings always came in the darkness. The folks brought half the sheep in, every street and corridor filled with bleating woolbags, the rest of the flocks were left untended outside.
I stood watch with my Dad for the first half of the night, bleary-eyes paying as much attention to the chatter of the grown-ups as to the sheep. Sometime around midnight there was a huge shooting star that drifted sun-bright across the night, carrying a patch of daylight with it. After it had passed beyond the southern horizon I turned back to the sheep and saw that Dad was staring at me, he sent me off to bed then, and I was so tired I fell straight asleep.
Every inch of the village stank of sheep and blood come morning. Twenty dead in the streets, some in some of the buildings, in all thirty-four sheep had died that night. The guards had heard the attacks, but by the time they’d struggled through the press of sheep, each time, the ripper had gone. Another followed each attack close on its heels, and sometimes two or three sheep would be waiting the adults when they finally located the source of the terrified cries.
We drove the remaining sheep out into the waiting, dispersed flocks then, and the shepherds said that there were no dead sheep outside the walls. We were all out there, having an impromptu village meeting about it, and avoiding having to clean up the corpses in the walls when we saw her for the first time.
Dressed in black leather, with silver buckles and stitching she came striding into sight through the distant trees. Across her back she carried a long spear, and a huge rifle. Straps and webbing held knives, magazines, pistols and spare spear-heads, that swung and glinted in the morning sunshine. Some of the menfolk stepped towards her, but no one raised their gun to cover her as she confidently strode closer.
I had no idea what she was then, I didn’t even hear the whispers that stole through the remaining adults as they tried to motion kids back away from her, this strange leather-clad woman.
She fascinated me. I wasn’t yet fifteen, but I knew beauty when I saw it.
Graceful lines of long, straight bones, smooth skin stretched tight over taut sinew and muscle, symmetrical features, her dark eyes with their strange lids and long hair, so black that the pony-tail top seemed to flash blue in the sun. I didn’t know who she was, but I wanted to be like her.
She stopped a little way from the group of armed men, and called to them, showing a flash of silver in a wallet-like pouch. Franklin Martins handed his gun to Jess and walked forward to meet her, gesturing and talking before reaching forward to shake her hand. She took it gently and then pumped it up and down firmly, like she was killing a snake. Franklin nodded as he turned and gestured towards the rest of us, and only as she stepped forward did he risk gently rubbing his wrist.
Franklin walked along behind her, his lecherous eyes drifting from his wrist, to her leather-clad swagger as she went before him. She nodded to the other men, but did not pause to shake any hands, instead she strode straight towards me and the gate behind.
As she walked up to me, I said hello. She looked down at me and spared me a smile, but didn’t respond more than that as she walked by.
Her first order of business was to look at the killings. She used tweezers and eye-glasses to look at the wounds, before she got right in and sniffed at the wool. I was close enough to see tears run down her cheeks as she rocked back on her heels and pulled a handkerchief to blow her nose, and daub the tears away before she turned to face everyone in the walls.
Next, she demanded that the dogs were sent out of the town, the kennels must be emptied, and all the dogs spilled out with the sheep tonight.
“I will catch your sheep-ripper,” she said, “only if you release the dogs.”
The council were set against that, of course, telling her one, or more, of the dogs was responsible. She wouldn’t be persuaded of that, pointing out that since the dogs had been locked up the killings had escalated.
“The dogs were protecting the sheep, even if one has turned rogue, and I’m not saying that that is so, the one rogue must avoid all the other dogs to kill. If there is a rogue he is smart enough to escape the kennel and can then hunt without fear of the others,” she told them, which is what I’d tried to tell my Dad days before.
For more than an hour, they argued. Only when she threatened to leave if they further refused to co-operate did the shepherds go and release the dogs. I chatted with some of the dogs as they stretched in the sun before trotting out into the fields. They told me that no dogs had left the kennels, and that they were glad someone who might listen had finally come.
When I had grown bored of talking with the dogs, I headed back into town to watch the stranger once again. She was talking with some of the shepherds, assuring them that the sheep would be safer with the dogs than they had been.
“Honestly,” she told them, “I will be surprised if any die tonight, and if one does, it will be all there are.”
This seemed to settle the matter as far as the shepherds were concerned, but the council were less impressed. They grumbled about the huntress, and her ludicrous demands.
“Why should a stranger from outside the walls get to tell us who, or what, should be kept outside or locked in?” elder voices grumbled.
That was the worst, she demanded that the wall gates be closed and locked that night, and one sheep staked inside the gates, not one of the Council seemed inclined to agree.
“How’ll we get out to the sheep when the dogs attack?”
“What if a fire breaks out, we’ll be trapped.”
“Don’t reckon the point of staking one inside, where’s the sense in that, the dogs’ll be out.”
“What if she’s wrong? It’ll be only sheep left.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. The man from Landfall-town said they’d pay us for the losses, I don’t reckon we can lose on that deal.”
“You’rn id-yit if’n you’d reckon some ‘countant in Landfall’s gunna pay top-dollar for a whole herd,” I think it was old lady Gringley that chuckled, “reckon she’s right afa’all.”
“Gromish, gromish,” the arguments went on.
All the while the huntress simply sat and watched, her eyes picking out each speaker, with a sharpness and a set to her jaw that told me that, like with the dogs, when she wasn’t speaking she was at her angriest.
Finally, as the sun began to sink, and the council were mostly adamant that she wouldn’t bully them into closing and locking everyone in, and their imagined rogue dog out there with the sheep, she stood up. She took seven long strides toward the gates, anger burning in her eyes as she turned and glared at them all as they sat there like idiots.
She sighed, the tension that held her teeth locked together melted down her back.
“I’ll put this simply for you. I am going to leave now. If when I return in the morning this gate is still closed, regardless of what happened outside, then I will find your ripper. If the gate is open when I reach the tree line tomorrow, I’ll turn back and you’ll never have to deal with another hunter from my guild again, at least not until a purge. Is that understood?”
“Well, I don’t know about that, after all it is our gate,” someone behind me said, I thought it sounded like old man Gilman, but it could have been Martins.
She focused past me with steel in her dark eyes, and said, “I didn’t ask if you agreed, I asked if you understood. Clearly, you did not. If this gate is open, you are on your own.”
She didn’t linger long then, but strode off past the sheep and dogs. I noticed Brannigan trotted up to walk alongside her as she went, they exchanged a few words before she left him to guard the flock.
As the sun touched the horizon, my Dad and some of the other younger adults pulled the gates closed and pressed the great lock secure. They ignored the members of the council who grumbled and moaned, but I noticed that not one of the elders ordered the gate re-opened.
That night was tense, the adults stayed up late, jawing their way around the problem, and how they wouldn’t let the huntress, or guild, dictate terms to them come the morrow. I don’t know why they bothered, they weren’t going to say boo to her in the morning. I knew from the slight noises outside that the dogs were doubled up, watching each other as well as the perimeter about the sheep. No sheep would die this night if Brannigan had his way, as I drifted off I could hear his gruff growls behind the walls.
“Remember… can prove… it’s not… All we have to… Stay alert… awake… Watch those sheep… It’s all down to us… Listen out… Keep your noses peeled people…” his litany rolled on into my dreams.
Morning came soon enough for me, but for many folk it had been a long, dark night, filled with fear and recriminations, and for one poor soul, it had been very long and very final.
The morning sun drew the council together, but not one of them noticed who amongst them was missing as they expressed their various worries and concerns about the huntress and her guild, and what she may want with them today.
The voices rose in anger at imagined slights, and unheard insults, until out of little more than bullish stupidity they called for the gates to be thrown wide and for the shepherds to seek the dead sheep beyond the walls Fortunately, clearer heads pointed out that they could look from the walls. Which was where I had placed myself, everything beyond the walls looked peaceful, serene even. Even I had not noticed the missing councillor from that vantage though.
The argument had hardly wound its way back to the trampled byways of the previous night when she appeared. Walking from the tree line, she mindfully skirted the flocks and the dogs, before she banged hard on the gate.
“Good, you may open the gates now. See no dog enters this day and I may be able to find your ripper, if you’ll let me,” she stated.
Everyone gathered in tight by the gates, as they worked the lock and dragged the heavy metal back open. They watched her mistrustfully as she glided in. Today she carried fewer weapons, but still that spear clung to her back, and I wondered about that as I watched her from up on the walls.
“I want you to all go and do whatever work you would normally do. I will walk around and investigate properly,” she said, looking about the village. She glanced up at me sat on the wall, and smiled again, before striding away towards some of the housing.
I dropped from the wall and walked along behind, while the adults shrugged and got to work. I noticed the council simply gathered to grumble and gesture in her direction, but I didn’t care about them. I wanted to see what she did. Why was she wandering around inside the houses and huts?
I stole a glance in through one of the doorways as she was poking about the inside of one of the houses. Her main concern seemed to be clothing, in each house she stopped to examine the contents of the laundry baskets, sniffing occasionally at something, before pulling a grimace and throwing it back.
At the time, it seemed a strange thing to do. I worked out she thought someone in town was the ripper, but thought it ridiculous, why none of the old folks could sneak past a dog, and even I, who had the most practice with the pups, would never think to succeed in sneaking past Lorton, Vivian and, heavens forbid, Brannigan. That old Alpha’s nose was so good he could almost smell what was on your mind, never mind in your hand. No, the idea of one of the people running out in the night to kill a sheep was unimaginable, even to me. Besides, to what purpose? The attacks were opportunistic and animal-like, too animalistic for even our dogs, I thought.
I said as much to her as she walked out of one of the houses.
She shot me a sharp glance then, looking me up and down as though seeing me for the first time. Her quick smile, appeared and then left a ghost of itself on her lips as her eyes sought mine. She came close, and surprised me with a sudden, loud sniff, right by my ear.
“Yes,” she said, “you’re right, much too animal for one of your dogs. You are a clever little thing aren’t you. Perhaps, one day you’ll leave this village and join a guild, maybe even my guild, and get far, far away from people so stupid they can’t see what’s in front of their face,” she said.
Then we found the body.
The huntress had pushed open the door of one of the houses, and revealed a scene of carnage. Dark, congealing blood pooled thickly about a shapeless mound on the floor. At first, I thought someone had missed cleaning up one of the sheep from the day before, until I realised what I was staring at.
“Sheep don’t have hands,” I said.
“No, they do not,” she said stepping between me and the body, she lowered herself until she looked me in the eye, “you are not stupid, you can see what is in front of your face. You have looked at a dead person, and you will never be able to unlook at them. Now the question I’m wondering is, what you are going to do next?
“On the one hand you might scream, and run and hide, and you might spend the rest of your life screaming, running and hiding, but on the other hand you might not. You have a lot of options, no doubt, I wonder which one I’d pick? Perhaps I would run, but only to go and tell someone, my mother,” she noted the little twitch of my head, “my father, then. I might do that, run and tell my Dad, or some other responsible person, a sheriff, a law or police officer, or someone like a member of the council. If I was alone, that would be the sensible and correct thing to do, but what if I was with an adult? What if I was already with the most competent adult I had ever seen, someone who knew that it wasn’t the dogs as soon as she got here, without even talking to the dogs, or me?” she paused, letting the words sink in as she stared me right in the eye, as though she was reading my mind.
“What would I do then?” I said, “then I might stop and think, what could have done this, inside the walls? What could have got in here and done this horrible thing to someone I knew? It couldn’t be one of the dogs, because the gates were locked, but then it couldn’t be one of the people because the dogs know the scents of all the people. Then I’d wonder, who is this person I’m with, this most competent adult, this woman that the women-folk won’t gossip with, and the men-folk are scared of. I’d wonder about why people call her a ‘huntress’ and what her guild is. I’d wonder long and hard about whether she could have done it, could she sneak past the dogs and the sheep outside, scale the wall, enter a house and kill? Because I think she is the sort of person who could do that, but I’m rather hoping right now that she is not the sort of person who does do that.”
She smiled at me again. “Be a bit late if I was wouldn’t it?”
The tension broke.
“What could have done this? What do you hunt?” I asked. It was the piece of the puzzle I needed.
“I hunt werewolves,” she said, standing back up and turning to look about the room as she carried on explaining, “Well, more specifically, I hunt beings that pretend to be werewolves. We all have specialties you see. Some hunt Vampires, or Zombies, some hunt Bigfoots, Faeries or Goblins. Each of us is different, depends what we are good at. Me, I happen to be the best at sniffing out a werewolf. So when I see a minor report, about a rogue dog killing sheep, my nose starts twitching.”
She moved about the room now, moving curtains slightly and then looked at the bloody marks on the wall. She held her longest dagger up, it had marks on the blade that I realised were a scale, and she measured the claw marks, which were almost at the limit of her reach.
As she read the scale off she whistled and said, “Big.”
After that she drew a different knife, it was smaller, curved, and after it had arrived in her left hand she put away the big blade, and drew a gun.
“Someone I know is a werewolf? That can’t be right, everyone has always been here since the village was started, no one new has been, not since the Martins brought back the man from Landfall-town, but he came after the first killings, no one had been here for months before that. Not since the spring when the soil men brought a new batch of worms, the old lot had gone wrong somehow, and all the grass was dying.”
“Well there you are then, first something went wrong, a little thing, nothing much. But someone around here said it was something bad, a sign, a curse, what did they call it?”
“Mary Gringley said her Nan said we had Boggarts, that’s her Nan who lives in Wheatover, not the one on the Council, that’s her Gran. Wheatover’s miles away, nearly to Landfall-town. Do you mean Mary is a werewolf?”
“No,” she said, “but Mary called it a Boggart. Boggarts are a type of mischievous fairy, not very powerful, unless they are named. Did someone name it?”
“I don’t think so, but if anyone did, it would have been Mary.” I told her.
“Well, the thing we are hunting, didn’t stay as a low Boggart, it found ‘Werewolf’ in someone else’s head and it didn’t want to stay even part Boggart,” she said as she made her way back to me. “Who would know about werewolves?”
“Oh, erm…” I wrestled with that one, who had told me about werewolves? Was it Dad?
“Okay, that’s not working; it will come to you in a moment. Let’s try a different tack, the thing we’re looking for, it likes vivid imaginations. Who tells the most exciting stories?”
“That’s easy, the Martins are the best storytellers, they always win storytelling and reading competitions.” I said, and it was true, all the Martins boys ever did was compete with each other. The rest of us could tell a tale, but only them and their Dad could make everyone laugh, cry and want to run and hide with just words.
“Yes, Martins — he’s the one who came forward to greet me. I should have noticed it then, but all the dogs.”
“What the hell’s going on in here? Cam, step out here, get away from her,” a new voice said from behind me, it was Arthur Gringley, Mary’s Dad. I moved back away from the room, and the blood, and suddenly realised whose house we had entered.
“We found her, Mr Gringley,” the huntress said, but Mr Gringley didn’t listen to the words. He’d already seen, and unlike me, his eyes didn’t see a sheep at all.
“Oh goddess no, Mum!” he screamed, pushing me out into the sunshine as he shoved his way into the room. Other adults came quickly then, pushing me further and further back as they tried to rubber-neck the wails of anguish.
Murmurs and cries raced through the swelling crowd.
“The huntress killed Hilda Gringley,” was the first thing I heard.
“She didn’t do it,” I shouted, but they didn’t want to hear.
The whole village seemed to rant, roar and clamour then, folk came running back in from the fields, Brannigan came loping in and I shook, my head, and headed him off.
“You mustn’t come in Brannigan, the huntress can’t smell the werewolf out if dogs are in town, I think.”
“I will respect your and her wishes, but tell me please, what has happened? We scent sadness, fear and anger,” Brannigan said, in his deep gravelly tones.
“Hilda Gringley has been killed, Brannigan. Same as the sheep, it was terrible. The huntress said it was a big werewolf.”
“I think perhaps, the villagers did not believe her,” he said gesturing up and away with his nose.
I turned as he had pointed and saw the crowd had parted and the huntress was walking through the middle of them, her body-language was subdued, restrained, the rest of the crowd were agitated, if she had not been armed I’m sure they would have mobbed her.
When she reached the open square, she stopped and turned. The tight, controlled body-language did not drop, but it changed. She stopped looking defeated and started looking dangerous.
“I will explain this once, you have a Demon amongst you. Something alien, and foul, and it has killed.”
“The only alien thing here is you,” Franklin Martins jeered.
“Yeah, are you saying you killed her then?” Jess Martins added.
“It wasn’t her, it was a rogue dog,” someone in throng said, “the killings started long before she turned up.”
“How could a dog have got in to do it, the dogs were outside with the sheep and not one sheep died?” the Huntress yelled, “Damn, you people are stupid. Why do you think I’m here? The guild doesn’t send a Demon-hunter this far out because of a bloody rogue dog, and rest assured every kill I have ever made has been investigated and upheld as conclusive and proven. If I’m here it is because you have an infestation, a possession or a full blown manifestation, and if you do not do exactly as I say more people are going to die.”
“You said no one would die yesterday,” Mary Gringley spat through tears.
“No, I said no sheep would die. I tried to make you stake that single sheep here, inside the gates, but you didn’t listen to me. Perhaps now you bloody will.”
“We want you to leave,” Franklin Martins said.
“If you won’t do as I say, I will be forced to leave you to your fates,” she tried again.
“We won’t do what you say anymore, we tried that, and look what it got us,” someone yelled. I hoped it wasn’t my Dad.
“I will leave, but first you must decapitate and burn that corpse,” the huntress demanded.
Cold silence met that demand.
“Then I will go, but I will return. Any of you who are not stupid will keep a piece of silver on your person tonight, so that there will be someone here in the morning,” she said the last after she had turned and was looking at me and Brannigan, before she walked past me, rolling her eyes as she went.
Brannigan asked, “What should we dogs do, mistress Demon-hunter?”
“Keep clear of the town, Brannigan. You and yours can do little against it, and all you protect are too stupid to understand no dog did this. Besides, now it has tasted a human soul, I doubt it will go back to sheep. It was nice to meet you, Cam,” she said and shook my hand; I felt a cold, metal disc being pressed into it, which I slipped into my pocket. “I hope I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Shaking her head, she walked away.
Later in my room I looked at the small disc. It was an old silver coin, almost polished flat, but on one side there was a hint of a head, on the other a bird carrying sticks, I held it while I got ready. First, I pulled my desk across to block the door from opening, then I wobbled the wardrobe across the window.
For a few hours, I tried to sleep on the bed, but I felt too exposed so I dragged the sheets from the top and curled up underneath. I nested with pillows pressed about me in the darkness.
I might even have slept, for a while, but then the screams started.
There were yells, and dull thuds, crashes, growls, shrieks and screams. Once in the darkness I heard the loud crack of a gun, followed by an unearthly wailing noise that trailed off to gurgling silence. Things went quiet after that and then I know I slept.
When I woke, it was late, nearly noon, and I struggled to move the desk and get out into the hall. The house didn’t seem messed up or anything, so I went to the bathroom.
After that, I began to look around more carefully.
The door was open, but there was no damage to it or the frame. I pulled it closed behind me as I slipped out. The normal sounds of the village were not there, instead there was just distant sobbing.
I picked my way out of the narrow, blood-soaked alley into the main square. I did my best not to count the fourteen corpses in that alley, all ripped from throat to belly.
I looked across the square and saw the survivors, women-folk crying, men-folk silent in rigid, grief-ridden masks, loading pieces of wet meat into barrows to carry out of town.
The huntress was there and smiled a thin, wan smile as she spotted me.
“All the bodies now, decapitate each one. All the way, no head can remain even a scrap attached,” she said.
I heard the axe fall, on my right, and knew from the speed of the swing and the clarity of the chop that my Dad was still alive. I looked over towards the noise, and confirmed it. He caught my eye as I watched. He set to the next body, with a grim horror etched on his face, where only moments before had flickered relief.
I turned back to the alleyway and went into the house, I found Dad’s hatchet and came out. Necks are tougher than they look, but I soon found a knack to it. By the time I had reached the square again I had also discovered that heads are heavier than you’d think, I could carry only two at a time with my fingers wrapped in the longer hair. To move the rest I needed a barrow.
I walked out carrying the two heads and carried them out to where the Martins were digging a charnel pit. I dropped the heads on one of the torsos, ignoring the digging boys and their watching father, grabbed a barrow and went back.
“They are digging a pit out there,” I told the huntress, I knew the corpses should be burnt.
She nodded to me, checked her pistol and I noted was still holding that curved silver blade in her left hand. Then she went out and I heard vague shouting.
“…girl knew… fire, you idiots… wouldn’t… yes, now… told you…”
I found the werewolf’s corpse. I was most surprised at that, it was behind a rain barrel, curled tight around a shotgun wound. I whistled, rather than yelling, or approaching. Brannigan and the huntress both arrived simultaneously. Brannigan bowed politely and backed away.
“Odd,” the huntress said, reaching in and slitting the throat, peeling the head back and letting it roll free, much more elegant than my best attempts with the hatchet. With the head free she rolled the body over, looking at the wound, she reached in and dug free a silver teaspoon that someone had jammed into the barrel of a shotgun.
“Whoever did this actually listened to me, and I thought you were the only smart one out here,” she said as she twiddled the spoon in between her fingers, “smart enough to fool a Demon-hunter for a while, but not smart enough.”
She reached down, grabbing the wolf-head by the thick fur, and lifted it up holding it at arm’s length. She left me to raurk the giant corpse heavily into the wheelbarrow. She walked out into the square, and the Martins were there whispering with the others, Franklin was talking with the council, when he saw the huntress returning, I saw a wide, sly smile twitch its way across his lips.
Before she could say anything, he pressed his way to the front of the crowd and cried, “You’ve done it, you’ve killed the werewolf!”
The rest of the crowd looked past him and the idiots cheered.
She raised the head high, as though basking in the kill, and then threw it to the ground.
“You plain-brained idiots! I didn’t kill it, it was killed last night, and this wasn’t the werewolf, this was the Grengley woman.”
“She means Hilda Gringley,” Franklin Martins growled.
“Exactly, I’m glad you agree. You can see the scar from her first killing on the corpse, here. She wasn’t the werewolf, the werewolf killed her during the fight last night to try and throw me off the scent, but this isn’t my first werewolf hunt.
“Now, everyone lend a hand, we need all the bodies stacked, decapitated and ready to burn before the sun goes down. I want you to send the dogs and the sheep away until morning. There must be nothing to interfere with the cremation, and no dogs around. Then we are all going to go and shower off the death and blood and I will tell you who the real werewolf is.”
So, we did. No one argued now, the sun was sliding down the afternoon heavens, and we didn’t like to think what would happen if we did not meet her deadline. Even the Martins who normally used their quick tongues to slide away from the worst work were in the thick of it.
The sun was low when we finally managed to light the fires. I was surprised how well the bodies burnt and didn’t expect the thick, black, greasy smoke. She was right, we were going to need to bathe, blood, soot and greasy fat clung to every fibre of my being. I felt worse that I had ever felt, and from the looks on the others faces they felt the same, or worse.
The huntress borrowed our bathroom, and she was quick too. When it was my turn it took nearly twenty-minutes to just work the black soot and grease into the cracks of my skin and out to the edges of my face, but she stepped out clean, and so was the towel that was hanging to dry.
Then the survivors, only twenty-eight in total gathered in the square.
The huntress moved to the front and addressed us all.
“Last night you learned a lot about yourselves and today you learned more. One of you is a vicious killer that hides inside a normal form. One of you is a werewolf. You may as well step forward and present yourself, my test is infallible, and I will reveal you in front of those you call friends. No? Well then, we’ll begin. What many people do not know,” she stopped touching my face with both her hands as she looked deep into my eyes, and then continued. “True lycanthropy is not a curse or a disease, true lycanthropy is an infection.”
As she talked she had moved and held others as she had held me, looked into them as she had looked into me.
“This demonic infection can animate and control the corpses it kills, it can curse the living to believe themselves transformed,” she moved to hold the head of Franklin Martins, though he twitched slightly at her touch. “There are even those who become so cursed that their physical being and the infection fuse, creating a physical werewolf transformation.”
She moved to Jess Martins. He didn’t flinch, but stared coolly back.
“But all the time, the spirit responsible rests, feeding on the idea and the power of the myth, never revealing itself.”
She moved on to Ken, stood almost at the end of the line, he flinched as her hands gripped his head, and fought to avoid her eye-contact. I think we all heard the hiss and growl he fought to hold back.
She stared deep into his eyes, and he ceased fighting, his body going limp and submissive before her.
“This is because the spirit, the dæmon, feeds on living souls as well as the souls of those it kills.”
She moved to the next candidate, Mr Gringley, and beyond that my Dad, I realised. Oh, no it couldn’t be Mr Gringley, and that meant…
“I am especially suited to ferreting out these spirits, the Lycanthra—a-aah,” her hands became a blur, one whipping to her top pocket, pulling free a white handkerchief, the other flashed to her shoulder. Mr Gringley was already turning, ripples of fur erupting as his mouth and nose extended snapping at the motion. The hand lifted her silver spear and flicked it. “Choo!” she sneezed and Mr Gringley the werewolf collapsed without a head.
“Bless you,” Dad said.
The huntress smiled to acknowledge him, “As I was saying, I’m especially suited to finding them, because I’m allergic to dog and wolf hair. I’m afraid the body must now be burnt, before it can find another host.”
She turned to face the Martins. “You three are lucky, but you are also the most likely place it will go, as it almost had you. Wear these until the body is burnt.” She threw them three silver chains. Shame-faced they slipped them on.
We burnt the body, and she told us we should be clear. She sniffed around a bit before the morning when the dogs returned. She did check Dad too, more for my peace-of-mind than any doubts on her behalf, I’m sure.
She said goodbye to my Dad, and then paused looking at me.
“What is your full name, Cam?” she asked.
I told her, and she grinned, “I’m Demon-hunter Cameron Highton, Werewolf specialist second-class, just in case you ever need to know.”
She talked with Brannigan once more before she left, sneezing and with eyes streaming with tears again. I left them to it, but watched her go thinking my life would never be the same again.
She walked off into the tree line and disappeared into the deep forest.
Brannigan and my favourite pup, Kelsto sat outside the gate, watching the woods as the sky darkened.
There was a flash in the darkness and a glowing ball rose in the distance, it swept towards us climbing as it came, before flashing away trailing hints of flame.
So that’s why I’m signing up, I owe the guild my life, and since Dad died… Well, here I am, how can I help?