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Aconitum

By mhowalt All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Chapter 35

“So this is how half of your work days begin,” Peter said. He studied a bird as it landed in a treetop with new, light green leaves. But it weighed down the branch and had to continue to a more sturdy one.

Hector studied Peter as discreetly as he could. It was strange to see his friend on a horse. Since he had arrived in Frankfurt several years back, Hector practically hadn’t seen him outside the city. “Yes,” he said. “Or probably a little more than half.”

Peter turned to him and smiled. He had to squint a little against the bright sunlight. “Thank you for coming with me.”

Hector shook his head. “Of course. This is important to you.”

“Yes,” Peter agreed with an audible sigh. “Yes, it is.” Headquarters had received a letter from a village north of Frankfurt a few days ago. A werewolf had been seen lurking in the vicinity. Maybe. The letter had been confused and confusing. The werewolf had not attacked anyone. And it hadn’t looked like a wolf that much at all. It walked around on two legs like humans. But it had been a furry creature, something no one had seen before. The hunters and the board had discussed whether this was their line of work or not. The verdict had not be unanimous. Hector had told Peter about it to hear his opinion as a doctor, and unlike the letter, he had been very clear indeed. If there were a werewolf with fur and human traits, he was very interested in seeing it. In studying it. It could be helpful, even groundbreaking to the research of werewolves. Hector had agreed to go and take the doctor with him.

“What do you …” Hector hesitated. There wasn’t a good way of asking, but he wanted to know before they reached their destination. “What do you hope to find?”

Peter shook his head. “I’m honestly not sure, Hector. I hope to be able to put an end to the rumours or confirm them once and for all. And if I can confirm them … Perhaps that can be the first step to finding a way to help a lot of people.”

“I hope we will find some answers,” Hector said. The doctor always put a lot of effort into his work, and as part of it, he had studied books about werewolf anomalies. There were rumours and myths of werewolves who were wolves most of the time, but who still had control of themselves. No one had ever found any proof. Peter was content in his position as a physician and seemed fine with his routines, and he did take his monthly ordeal very well, better than anyone Hector could imagine. Yet he was constantly searching for a way of limiting or even curing the illness. Because that was how Peter and most doctors saw it. As an illness. They weren’t like the preachers who claimed werewolves to be God’s punishment. A lot of diseases had killed people in the course of history, and now there was a cure for many of them. Perhaps it was possible to limit the effects of being a werewolf or even find a way to prevent becoming one. Peter certainly thought so. He discretely experimented on himself with medication and imbibed various carefully measured-out concoctions.

Hopefully Peter wouldn’t be disappointed, but this trip may turn out to be a red herring. Mass hysteria over nothing. Or a regular werewolf that Hector would have to deal with. But then again, not a lot of people were looking for anomalies. They were too busy fighting the werewolves they knew.

Peter moved uncomfortably in the saddle, not used to spending whole days on a horseback. “It’s interesting to try this. Regardless of what we find,” he said, ignoring Hector’s badly hidden grin.

“It’s nice to have your company,” Hector replied before he could stop himself. He hunted alone. Had for the past two years. But Peter wasn’t here to hunt with him, and it was all right to enjoy having company for once.

“You’d never give it up for anything.”

“No. It’s …” What? His life? His calling. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t want anything else.”

“I understand,” Peter replied.

Hector wasn’t certain if he meant that he understood it was like that for the hunter, or if he actually would like to do the same.

“You have your calling. I have mine,” Peter continued as if he heard Hector’s thoughts. “But it’s interesting to see what you, all of you, do. How you live when you aren’t in Frankfurt.”

Hector smiled. “Yes. And you get to see it in good weather.”

Peter quirked an eyebrow. “At least you don’t have to worry about the weather for health reasons. You haven’t had a cold for four years.”

“Well … regardless,” said the hunter and cleared his throat.

The two riders reached their destination that afternoon. It was a small village, and the closest thing they came to an authority figure was the local clergyman.

“Hector Rothenberg,” Hector introduced himself and shook the clergyman’s hand.

“Peter Hessen,” said Peter when the clergyman offered his hand to him as well.

“Welcome, hunters,” the clergyman said. “Thank you for coming.”

Peter opened his mouth to protest, but Hector shook his head. When Peter was home in his white coat and dealt with patients, he was one of those people who radiated authority. He could give orders to patients and colleagues and keep his head in life or death situations. But he wasn’t a hunter, and he didn’t know how to behave here. Hector would explain the matter and why he had brought a doctor, but now was not the time. It was important to get to the point right away.

“Of course,” Hector said and smiled. “Our horses need rest and something to eat, and we would like to leave our bags somewhere. After that, we should talk to the people who can describe to us what they have seen.”

There was no inn in the village, so Hector and Peter would stay in a spare room in the clergyman’s home and left their belongings there. It was also in his living room that they were introduced to six witnesses. One was so old that Hector doubted if he could tell a man from a tree, and another so young that her story could be a child’s imagination running wild.

“Thank you for coming,” Hector addressed them all. “My name is Hector. This is Peter. He conducts physical examinations and can determine what kind of werewolf you have seen.” And, he thought to himself, whether it was a werewolf at all.

They sat down at a table and called the witnesses to them one at a time. Hector didn’t want their stories colouring each other, so it was better that way. Peter was taking impressively systematic notes during the interviews. Hector never wrote anything down when he talked to people. Sometimes he would jot down a note or two for himself afterwards or have a map where they could mark relevant areas, but no more than that.

The first witness told them about a figure outside the village moving around in the twilight. She had seen it multiple times, but at first she hadn’t believed it to be a werewolf.

“Why? And what made you change your mind?” Hector asked.

The figure had walked about like a man, she explained, and it had been too far away for her to see it very well. She hadn’t wanted to accuse anyone of anything, and there hadn’t been any attacks or people going missing. But then others had talked about the figure, and she had mentioned what she had seen. When she thought about it, it really may be a werewolf after all. Its hair was strange, and she hadn’t been able to see the face.

Hector thanked the witness. What she described didn’t help them much, but hopefully some of the others would be more useful. Peter scribbled notes during all the interviews and asked questions when the witnesses didn’t go into enough detail. He was also drawing, Hector noticed.

Eventually they ran out of witnesses. Hector showed them out, and then he turned to Peter. “So, what do you say?” he asked.

Peter leafed through his papers and Hector curiously studied his drawings. He had created a being who looked like a mixture of a man and a wolf. Hunched over, but walking on its hind legs. It had a human head with straggly hair and fur all over its body. That was how the majority of the witnesses described what they had seen. “I’m not sure. It doesn’t sound like … On the other hand …” The doctor trailed off.

“I agree,” Hector said. “But whatever it is, I’m sure they have seen something. The descriptions are similar enough. But the figure or person they have seen doesn’t appear to act like a wolf or a werewolf. It hasn’t attacked anyone. We can’t be sure yet. It could be someone pretending to be a werewolf to scare people.”

Peter frowned. He had heard of that sort of thing, but unlike Hector he had never had to deal with someone who exploited the idea of a werewolf to their own advantage. “Well, the witnesses are clearly confused. No one has seen anything like this before. We haven’t either. Perhaps …”

“Yes,” said Hector. He knew what his friend was hoping for. But Hector couldn’t help being sceptical. If such creatures existed, why had no one seen them before? And why had one showed up like this all of a sudden? “In any case, we need to find it. Him. Regardless of what we’re dealing with. I will hunt and bring it back alive if it’s possible.”

Peter nodded. “And people in the village? Won’t it endanger them if you bring it back and it turns out to be feral?”

“Yes.” Hector ran a hand through his hair. There wasn’t an easy or a right way of doing this. While no two hunts were ever the same, this was a little too different for comfort. “We’ll find a barn or a stable. I can tie it up if it’s wild …”

“Well,” Peter replied with a smile. “You’ve tried that before.”

Hector grinned sheepishly. “And then you can decide …” He stopped himself. Decide what? Whether it should be allowed to live or die? If it were a werewolf or not?

“Yes,” Peter said. “I understand. That is probably for the best.”

Hector left the village on foot since all the witnesses had seen the figure lurking around close to their home. He was armed with silver bullets and his hunting knife, but he was also carrying a couple of syringes and doses of analgesic medicine. If it resisted, these things may come in handy. Unless he didn’t have a choice.

There was a forest close to the village, and people had seen it disappear between the trees, so that was where Hector went. He didn’t need to go far before he found the first traces of … He wrinkled his nose. Something left behind by a human being. The villagers weren’t likely to go about their business out here, especially when they were scared of a creature roaming the area.

He continued as quietly as he could and followed a path of broken branches and downtrodden vegetation away from the latrines. There were no paw prints, but a clumsy pair of feet had attempted to wander through the forest in a straight line. If this were a werewolf, it had been more man than wolf only a few hours ago.

It didn’t take long for the hunter to find what he was looking for. Someone had clearly spent the night in the forest more than once. There was an empty campsite, but was it abandoned? He crouched next to an extinguished fire. The ground was still warm, and some kernels from fruits and berries were still fresh. Hector stood up again and moved on. Then a branch snapped close by. He raised his rifle and turned. A figure was dashing away from him in wild disarray. “Stop!” Hector shouted.

But the figure kept running, and Hector followed it. The creature moved more like bumbling human than a werewolf. His bare feet made imprints on the soft moss. He was wearing clothes, but they looked torn and didn’t sit quite right.

“Stop right there or I will shoot!” bellowed Hector.

The figure halted. It had its back to him and promptly raised its arms over its head.

Very well. He wouldn’t really have taken that shot. He would have caught up to the stranger, but it was easier this way. And it was a test to see if the other understood him. “Turn around. Slowly,” he ordered.

The stranger shuffled around to face him and the barrel of his rifle.

Hector narrowed his eyes. Yes, bare feet and hands sticking out of the ragged sleeves. They looked like human hands, but they had long nails and were furry. And the face … It was a man’s. But Hector couldn’t blame anyone for being confused. This was his area of expertise, and even he did not feel certain. The stranger’s face was completely covered in fur. He never straightened his back. But the eyes were not those of a wolf. And there were no paws or tail or wolf ears. Hector frowned. What in the world was he dealing with here? “Can you talk?” he asked.

The stranger opened his mouth. Hector instinctively moved his finger a little closer to the trigger. But no growl or roar escaped the creature, and the mouth didn’t seem to be full of a predator’s teeth. “Yes.”

Hector relaxed his grip on the weapon and lowered it slightly. “My name is Hector. Do you have a name?”

The strange man considered it. “Simon,” he then said.

“Simon,” repeated Hector. “Why did you run away from me?”

“You are a hunter. You want to kill me.” The voice was rough. It was not used to forming whole sentences and saying them out loud.

“I won’t harm you if you don’t attack,” Hector replied. “I give you my word.”

The stranger’s eyes darted from Hector’s face to the rifle.

“I am a werewolf hunter. Are you a werewolf?” Hector asked.

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