Hector uncorked the bottle with his teeth and raised it in a toast to an invisible partner. No, not invisible. Nonexistent. He worked alone now. He put the bottle to his lips and felt the liquor burn all the way down through his throat. It wasn’t a particularly nice feeling in itself, but he looked forward to what came afterwards.
It was almost two in the morning and he had just returned to the inn. He had been searching for an elusive werewolf. It was out there, but he needed to sleep after a long day’s ride and would continue tomorrow. He leaned back against the wall and took a long gulp of the bottle. Sore muscles gradually relaxed and the dull pain that he was getting so tired of was fading away too.
No one could replace Tomas. It was not an exaggeration born from melancholy or the sentimentality of a drunk speaking. No, it was a fact. He didn’t want a young and inexperienced hunter as his protégé. Didn’t want to be responsible for someone. Perhaps one day, but he doubted it. So it needed to be someone as good as he was. An equal. And they did exist of course. The problem was that everyone who wanted a partner had one already. A few years ago, he and Louis may have joined forces, but Louis had a good partnership these days. Besides, no one could replace Tomas because no one was Tomas. If he found a new partner now, he would only see all the ways in which that person was not Tomas. That would not be fair to anyone.
Hector took another mouthful of liquor and put the cork back in the bottle. That was enough. He only needed to fall asleep. No reason to wake up with a headache.
When he left the town the next morning, Hector was determined to find the werewolf. He had a job to do, and he was looking forward to it. Looking forward to the hunt itself when everything else disappeared and the only thing that mattered was finding and killing the wolf. That was what he did. That was who he was.
Initially, everything went according to plan. Hector found a trail and followed it. When he spotted the werewolf, it was drinking from a small stream. It looked, as they always did, like a big, but ordinary wolf from afar. When they were painted or drawn, they were always depicted as monsters, froth around their bared teeth, glowing red eyes … But how else would ordinary people perceive them?
He would have to take the shot at a distance. The place was too open to step any closer. It would see him and smell him if he did. And it was best to avoid close combat if at all possible. He put the rifle to his shoulder and aimed. But the moment he pulled the trigger, a gust of wind made the wolf look up and jump back. The bullet only grazed it. It had smelled the hunter, and now it was heading towards him at breakneck speed.
Yes, avoiding close combat was best. But sometimes it was inevitable. This wouldn’t be the first time. Hector tossed his rifle aside and drew his hunting knife.
Few seconds later, man and wolf were face to face. It stopped in front of him, pulled its lips back from its teeth and growled at him. Hector bared his teeth in a grin as well. If that’s how it was going to be, then so be it. The wolf attacked first, Hector dodged, spun on his heel and jabbed his knife into thin air. It was more like fighting a human being than an animal. Usually when he came this close to a werewolf, it jumped ferociously at him, but this was more like an evenly matched duel. The wolf snapped at him, he evaded. Then he lunged at it and it jumped to the side. When it threw itself at him once more, he parried with his arm, and its teeth caught on his silver bracer. It flew backwards, howling in pain. He followed up with a thrust of his knife. It slid into the wolf’s chest, but it didn’t seem to hit any vital organs. He pulled at it, but the knife was stuck long enough for the wolf to jump at him and throw him to the ground. They were bizarrely locked together with the hunting knife as the only link until the werewolf sank its long canines into the hunter’s shoulder. He cried out in pain and anger and kicked again and again while the gashes grew deeper and longer. The wolf fell back, and the knife came free.
Hector got to his feet and followed up with a jab close to one of the werewolf’s ears. It went into the brain, and he pulled out the blade and pushed it in once more. The wolf fell to the ground, and he planted a boot on its head to keep it there while he decapitated it.
He had been bitten. That was the one thing that really, really could not happen. Black flowers began to bloom in front of his eyes. He sat down heavily. He had been injured as painfully as this before. But the pain was not the problem. He forced himself to take a few deep breaths. Panicking was not going to help. Still, his hand was shaking when he reached into the pocket in the revolver holster and pulled out an ampoule. He had two with him. What he was about to do would not be pleasant, and it may even kill him, but there was no other way. He sat for a few moments with the thing in his hand. Tried to plan his next actions. He needed to drink one and then hurry back to the town. His shirt and coat had been shredded and soaked with blood. He would have to bandage his shoulder, but he didn’t want anyone else involved. No one could be allowed to hold him back. He had to get out of there as soon as possible if he were to stand a chance. He needed his horse, and then they simply had to to ride even if it meant travelling all night. The following day he’d drink the contents of the second ampoule. Hopefully it would be enough to get him home.
The cork in the ampoule came out easily, and Hector downed the liquid in one mouthful. The taste made him gag. It was appropriately horrible. He stood up again, picked up his rifle and began to jog back to the town. It didn’t matter that his shoulder was pounding and stinging. Nothing mattered if he didn’t play his cards perfectly.
It was too late for anyone to be in the streets when he reached the town. It was probably for the better because he looked horrible and he had no capacity for patience or politeness now. Hector went straight to the doctor’s house. The door was opened by a sleepy-looking woman in a nightgown.
“Doctor,” Hector greeted her, “The werewolf has been dealt with. I need bandages. And ask someone to saddle my horse.”
The doctor took one look at him, and he could tell that she knew what had happened. Was it really that obvious? She grew pale, but she nodded. “Just a moment,” she said. “Sit down out here. On the doorstep. I’ll get bandages. Do you need anything else?”
Hector nodded. “If you have anything for the pain that doesn’t slow me down. And water. Get me some water.”
“I’ll go look. Just a moment.” The doctor disappeared back into the house behind the hunter.
A few minutes passed, and in the meantime Hector sat down and pulled off his coat and his shirt enough to get to the wounds. It was hard to gauge the extent of the injuries from this angle, but he could see the white of the collarbone peeking through the blood and torn flesh.
The doctor returned. Hector heard the door creak when she pushed it open. But something wasn’t right. He grabbed his revolver and turned around to point the barrel at the doctor’s chest. “Don’t you try to do my job for me,” he hissed.
The doctor had a rifle in her hands. She was holding it clumsily, clearly wasn’t used to shooting, but she knew Hector had been bitten and had decided to do what someone ought to do.
“Put the rifle down and get me those bandages and get my horse and do it fast before I blow your head off!”
She put the rifle against the wall just inside the door and disappeared again without a word. Hector had to admire her resolve. But he was a hunter, and he had things under control. He had taken the antidote, and he had one of the best doctors waiting for him at home.
The doctor returned once more, this time with bandages. Hector took care of the injuries, and at the same time a boy ran out of the house and to the stables. The hunter was back in the saddle and on his way in less than ten minutes.
The first couple of hours went well. Hector’s shoulder hurt, but that was to be expected. He just had to take everything in the stride and ride as fast as he and the horse could manage. But then it got worse. The pain spread throughout his body and he started sweating although it was a cool autumn night. When the sun rose, he was shaking. He took a short break to let his horse graze while he lay down on the ground and stretched. When he stood up again, his stomach turned and he stood at the side of the road and vomited. But enough time had passed from the first dose. He hoped.
A few hours later, he drank the contents of the second ampoule. The taste was even worse than the first time, but he forced himself not to throw up again. The medicine needed to stay in his body.
His hand clutched the saddle, clammy with the sweat that broke out all over his body. The road ahead was blurry and too dark for a sunny day. Every beat of the horse’s hooves echoed in his head like church bells. It vaguely occurred to him that he must have a fever and possibly still be losing blood. But he needed to push the horse as much as he could. That was all that mattered. The only thing he could do was to hang on and hope that he would make it to Frankfurt before it was too late. And that he would make it to Frankfurt at all.
The sound of hooves on the cobblestones in the yard below reached his office, and Peter looked up as he was wont when someone approached. It gave him a few precious minutes to prepare for surgery when a wounded hunter returned. He was heading for the window when he heard a shout.
It was Hector’s voice, but the doctor had never heard it so desperate, so strained. Peter turned on his heel before even looking out of the window and ran out of his office and down the corridor. “Come!” he ordered two hunters who were standing in his way on the stairs. They had enough respect to follow him to the courtyard without any questions.
Hector’s horse was there. It was soaked with sweat, clearly exhausted, but that was not Peter’s concern. The hunter himself was. Hector was trying to dismount, but he practically slid off the horse and his legs gave out immediately.
“Hector!” Peter cried before he managed to bury his personal sentiments and replace them with professional zeal to help a patient. He knelt next to the hunter. He was injured. His clothes were full of dark stains. Dried blood. And he had a fever. Peter reached out and touched the revolver holster on Hector’s hip. Nothing in the pocket. He had been bitten. Good God, he had been bitten.
“Get him inside. Now,” Peter ordered the two hunters behind him.
They obeyed him again and picked up the lifeless Hector. Peter was not certain that his friend knew what was going on at all. He led the two hunters inside and to the hospital wing, up the stairs and to an empty bed. Another doctor hurried towards them. Good. He would not leave Hector in anyone else’s hands, but he needed help with this.
“Thank you,” Peter told the two hunters. He unbuttoned Hector’s coat and ripped open his shirt to get to the injury. Someone, probably Hector himself, had clumsily wrapped bandages around the shoulder. “Scissors,” Peter said. His colleague handed him a pair without a word, and he began to list a number of things that he would need while he was removing the bandages.
“Is there anything else you need, doctor?” asked one of the hunters.
“No. You can go now. Thank you,” Peter replied without looking up. He barely registered them leaving and his colleague going off in search of the right equipment and medicine. Hector needed him more than ever now if he were to survive this.