by Maegan Stebbins

Cover art by Justin Stebbins

Rain. It beat down relentlessly around the pair of Venatori as they crept through the forest, pattering on their deep blue hoods and the long cloaks draped down their backs. The storm seemed determined to soak them to the bone, yet still the monster hunters stalked forward, their eyes ever alert. Their hearts raced at unnatural speeds. The two of them were under the influence of four or more potions meant to enhance their abilities beyond ordinary human levels.

The other two figures that traveled with them, however, had no such advantages. They were two men from a nearby town who had called in the Venatori for aid – and then decided they also wanted to accompany them on the hunt, forcing their way along using the local count’s influence. The Venatori had protested on professional grounds, but not very emphatically. They knew it was no use arguing with local lords, and there was always the hope those same lords might feel grateful and donate to the Venatori cause. But that seldom happened anymore.

The grizzled and grey-haired local captain of the guard, by the name of Edward Sandoval, was not afraid at the prospect of hunting a monster… even if none of them were quite sure what they hunted. Before they had departed from town, the Venatori had given him two of their extra potions. He didn’t even know what they did, but he at least appreciated that the Venatori had given him some of their supplies. Even if they were freaks for drinking this tainted magic poison. He certainly wouldn’t use it… unless absolutely necessary, of course.

Alongside Edward moved a man called Carlo the Strict. He was a local watchman under Edward’s command. Carlo had gained a reputation and a name in the area for his harsh ways and impressive fighting skills. In an attempt to not lose his dignity, Carlo had demanded that he be allowed to accompany the monster hunters. He was a man with something to prove. He aimed to prove he wasn’t afraid of anything.

But Carlo abruptly stopped in his tracks and held up a fist for the rest to do the same. The other three did so hesitantly, turning their hooded heads to regard him.

Edward was the oldest present, and his beak-like nose protruded from beneath his brown hood, giving him a hawk-like demeanor that suited his noble and austere features. His grey eyes – which matched his greying hair – glinted in the sparse moonlight that filtered through the thick clouds overhead… but it was the Venatori’s eyes that gave Carlo pause.

The potions that enhanced the Venators’ night-vision to monstrous proportions gave their eyes a faint, inhuman glow. It was unnatural. It set Carlo on edge. Especially combined with the exact number of eyes he now saw staring at him. Just three eyes staring from under two hoods: one blue eye, and two green.

“Carlo,” Edward rasped, his voice low, “keep moving.”

Carlo’s colloquial title of the Strict was reflected even in his appearance: he was an average-sized man, his build was lean and sinewy, his face haggard and his cheeks hollow at a young age. He kept himself clean-shaven, which matched both the look in his eyes and his long but well-kept black hair.

“This is no ordinary beast,” Carlo retorted. He motioned overhead at the dark sky, catching a raindrop in one brown eye when he did. “We should wait; start again in the morning.”

“The sun just set,” said one of the Venatori, with calm professionalism. “We can’t give it all night.”

The Venator’s name was Caiden Voros. His partner just called him Caid. He was the tallest and strongest of those present, with very broad shoulders and the kind of large, toned muscular build that looked like he could easily wrestle a bear. Carlo wondered if the muscles were even natural. He glowered at the single deep blue iris that watched him from beneath Caiden’s hood, casting a slight glow on his chiseled face… and the patch that covered his left eye.

“Can’t we?” Carlo snapped. “We don’t even know what it is.”

“We know it’s been seen in this area – at night,” Caiden’s partner reminded them.

She was the only woman present: Gwenevere Vergil. Her long, auburn hair hung down from either side of her hood as she stood hunched in the rain, and her green eyes firmly met Carlo’s. Lithe and striking, he found her extremely distracting, and he honestly had no idea why anyone would let a woman become a monster hunter… even if he had seen something on her neck that had almost convinced him otherwise: bite marks from a vampire, yet she was still alive.

Still, Carlo didn’t trust these potion-guzzling freaks. “It’s probably just peasants frightened of a rabid dog…”
Edward snorted, waving him off. “Be silent,” he ordered. “You’ll bring the beast down on us with your complaining.”

Carlo seethed. They hadn’t found a single footprint or even a shed hair of some beast. They had no idea what they were facing, or if they were even on the trail of anything at all.

Edward offered no further comment, turning and leading the way. His seniority made him reflexively take point, and the Venatori didn’t protest. In fact, they rarely said much. They just kept exchanging glances. For all he knew, maybe they had a potion that let them hear each other’s thoughts.

It wasn’t true, of course. They were simply partners. Long-time partners, who knew each other very well. From the look in his one good eye right now, Gwen guessed Caiden was ready to finish this hunt and move away from this oversized group. He was used to having one partner, not three. For that, Gwen couldn’t entirely blame him.

They continued in silence, their gazes constantly darting around the forest. The air was thick with the scents of a fresh spring rain: moist soil and wet wood. A quiet, cool breeze whispered through the branches of the tall black trees, the leaves overhead rustling lightly in the wind as they slid through the underbrush. To the heightened senses of the Venatori, all these sounds were amplified. And they seemed further amplified by the fact that the forest was, otherwise, dead silent.

Then a flash of lightning split the darkness, making the two Venatori briefly wince and pinch shut their overly sensitive eyes. They covered their ears in preparation for what followed. It did not take long: a crash of thunder, voicing the wrath of the gods as a deep, drum-like boom that slowly rumbled into silence once more.

Still the Venatori did not speak. After their eyes quickly readjusted to the oppressive darkness of the rain, they kept moving as if nothing had happened. The potion they had taken to enhance their senses were proving largely unhelpful, given there seemed to be nothing to find. Unfortunately, the side-effects of the potion included enhanced sense of touch… including pain reception. But the alcohol base used in all the potions – including those granting them greater strength and speed – dulled the enhanced pain at least somewhat.

And more pain was a small price to pay in the face of even slightly evening the odds with their opponents: monsters, many of which could tear a man in half with their bare hands.

After several more minutes of plodding slowly onward – the Venatori moving quietly and the inexperienced guardsmen making considerable ruckus – Caiden suddenly halted. His head was turned to their left, and the instant the others saw this, they all followed his gaze.

They had reached the foothills near the center of the forest. Now they stared into the depths of a nearby cave. They could not make out anything inside other than pitch black darkness, but it seemed large enough to house a creature of considerable size. Or at least shelter something, or someone, from the storm.

Caiden briefly rubbed his chin in thought, his gloves scratching against the slight stubble on his face. Edward stepped up alongside him, quickly joined by Gwen and Carlo. None of them spoke, but the glances they exchanged were significant enough. Edward pushed forward, Caiden now moving alongside him. Gwen shot Carlo a look, and with a twisted frown, the watchman followed after his captain and the other monster hunter.

It took them only a moment to cross the forest and reach the mouth of the cave. Upon stepping up to the mouth, however, Edward hesitated. He removed the bow from his back and carefully slid an arrow from his quiver – only for Gwen to pass him a different arrow instead. He glanced back at her and then looked at the arrowhead. It looked… tarnished.


Caiden strode forward. The darkness within was so oppressive that, even to the eyes of his Venator partner just outside, the shadows swallowed him in an instant. Caiden stopped in his tracks, waiting for his unnatural night vision to adjust to the even greater blackness around him. Everything seemed quiet, especially now without the constant sound of rain beating on his hood.

Then he heard something breathing.

He felt a burst of adrenaline, and his eye – weary and overworked from the potion, but still enhanced – finally started to adjust. A shadow stood before him, deeper than the darkness around it. It rose up mere feet away from the Venator, towering tall even over his own impressive frame. Its body was covered in dark grey-brown fur, and as it woke from its slumber to rise to its hind legs, it only seemed to stand taller and taller…

Very few creatures – even monsters – could boast a physique such as this one. It was nary half a second before Caiden knew what he was looking at – and what looked back at him, its red eyes seeming to penetrate his soul. For an instant, both of them froze up, one just as surprised to see the other. Caiden had never seen a monster like this in his life, but they had long been common knowledge in tales and legends.

The beast had the head, fur, legs, and tail of a wolf. But its massively muscular torso, strong arms, and large, clawed hands were like those of a man.

“It’s a damned werewolf!” Caiden shouted, so the others would hear.

The moment he spoke, the werewolf reacted. It opened its maw and roared, baring its enormous, stark white fangs. Caiden tried to leap back, but for all his potions, his speed never could have matched the beast’s.

A heavy, clawed hand struck him square in the chest, and his mail shirt did little to defect the force of the blow. It knocked him flat on his back, the pain making him grit his teeth and hiss, only narrowly swallowing a yell. Immediately, he leapt to his feet and moved backwards all at once, stepping back out of the cave in an attempt to draw the beast into the open. One hand clutched at his chest. He looked at his glove and saw blood.

Edward, Gwen, and Carlo appeared by his side. All of them had bows at the ready, silver-headed arrows nocked and prepared to shoot. Caiden reached for the crossbow on his back, unslinging it and loading a silver-headed bolt as quickly as he could, doing his best to ignore the pain of his wound. It flared as he drew back the crossbow’s cocking lever.

The werewolf reappeared before he had time to finish. It was as sudden as the flash of lightning earlier, charging forward from its lair with a blood-curdling growl, scattering its stalkers like chaff as they moved desperately to avoid the monster’s wrath. Carlo and Edward both loosed their arrows into the forest, far wide of their fast-moving mark, as they toppled onto the ground together. Caiden and Gwen leapt deftly out of the way. The Venatori quickly turned on the lycanthrope with their silver projectiles still prepared.

They let them fly, narrowly catching the monster off-guard. The werewolf gave a disturbingly human cry of pain as, at the same moment, Caiden’s silver bolt lodged in its upper back and Gwen’s silver arrowhead grazed one of its massive shoulders. But the wounds only made the monster all the angrier. Its red eyes flared with rage as it wheeled to face the two Venatori.

The werewolf let out a roar of agony and blind fury at the pain of Caiden’s bolt. Without a single moment of hesitation, the lycanthrope suddenly turned… and charged off into the forest. Edward and Carlo each loosed another arrow at it, but they never came close. It ran on all fours, gracefully loping at a pace that would have shamed most horses.

“After it!” Gwen cried.

Carlo’s pale face gleamed with sweat, but he somehow managed to obey the order. Caiden and Gwen shot after their quarry with Edward hot on their heels. Carlo stumbled after them as quickly as he could, even more afraid of being left alone in these woods than having to face the beast again.

But the werewolf had already disappeared, fading into the shadows as suddenly as it had attacked. The four soon stopped in their tracks, glancing around the forest, their weapons at the ready. Once again they heard only the sounds of rain, wind, and their own breathing, with a few distant rolls of thunder in the background. Gwen quietly pulled her hood up over her long, dark auburn hair again, and Carlo silently did the same with his tattered grey cloak. Caiden simply shook some of the water from his short-cropped dark hair, as if trying to shake off the pain of his wounds.

Carlo opened his mouth to speak, but Caiden immediately held up a hand to silence him. No doubt the werewolf already knew exactly where they were, but there was no need to draw even more attention to their location. Caiden’s movement prompted Gwen to look back at him. He forced himself to stand up straight in spite of the wound in his side. The blood was obvious now. Gwen frowned, taking a step toward him, but he quickly waved her off. The look on his face said, ‘Not now.’

Edward, his long and silvery hair now flowing freely, squinted between the Venatori as if to ask if they were going to continue the hunt. Caiden and Gwen nodded to him, but Carlo shook his head rapidly. His eyes pleaded that he did not want to die. Turning, Edward grabbed his lieutenant’s shoulder, his grey stare boring into Carlo’s brown. After a moment, Carlo’s panicked breathing regulated, and he finally relaxed some, readying his bow. Silently, he nodded.

Now they returned to the hunt. Staying in a tight formation, the four moved forward, their eyes searching every shadow in every inch of the forest around them. Not a single sound, movement, or smell betrayed the werewolf’s presence. They could not even locate any blood from the monster’s wounds. Perhaps it had simply moved too fast.

And then they saw the bolt. The hunters stopped, looking down at it. The silver head gleamed through the blood, but the shaft was snapped in two. None of them commented. Gwen silently reached down and picked it up, placing the broken arrowhead in her quiver.

Edward signaled that they should spread out and search. Voicing his hesitation only in his eyes, Carlo did as instructed. Caiden shook his head, but Edward did not see him. Once again, Caiden and Gwen looked at each other. She nodded once, agreeing that spreading out with a werewolf around was a very poor decision. They stayed close together, but moved off after Edward and Carlo.

Not a sound disturbed the silence as the four of them continued their search. Until, suddenly, they each heard a rush of noise. Whirling to face it, they all glanced around to make sure everyone else was accounted for.
Edward was missing.

Gwen waved for Carlo to come closer, and the guardsman nearly tripped over himself in his haste to comply. Gwen and Caiden had drawn silver arrows again, but Carlo was now left only with an ordinary one. For a moment, Gwen considered giving him another of hers, but she only had two silver ones left now, and the man’s aim didn’t seem entirely reliable.

The wind brought a fresh scent to their nostrils. The two Venatori once again locked gazes for a moment… and hesitated. Carlo, on the other hand, charged toward the coppery smell of freshly spilled blood.

With a mental swear, Gwen took off after him. She didn’t have to motion for Caiden to follow, as she heard him running by her side the instant she moved. Carlo barreled toward the troubling scent, and as they neared it, Gwen only became surer that it was the smell of a corpse.

Carlo abruptly stopped in his tracks, prompting Gwen and Caiden to duck into the shadows behind him. Before them, spread-eagled on the forest floor, lay Edward. Blood slickened the ground beneath him, shining on the underbrush.

He’d never even had a chance to scream. His throat was torn apart. The potions given to him by the Venatori, which he had carried on a strap across his chest, were smashed into the ground and shattered. He lay on his face, his neck twisted backwards unnaturally and his spine broken. His quiver of arrows had been torn from his back, its contents strewn across the forest. Edward’s eyes stared lifelessly ahead of him, glossed over by the cold veneer of death.

Barely a second after they found Edward’s corpse, Death itself made another appearance, in the form of the werewolf at their backs.

Just as the Venatori had feared, the smell of blood was a trap. With their backs turned and their attention directed at their defeated comrade, they were left vulnerable. Before any of them had time to think, the beast charged from the forest behind them, lunging forward with its all its feral weaponry at the ready. It aimed first for the one already wounded.

Rushing at him from the side, charging on all fours, the werewolf’s jaws bit down hard on Caiden’s abdomen with a sickening squelch of blood. Caiden screamed the instant the monster bit him, but he didn’t even have time to retaliate. All at once, it rose to its hind legs, carrying him with it as it went – held sideways in its maw – and then threw him into Gwen and Carlo, knocking both of them off their feet.

Gwen immediately righted herself, but Caiden remained in a bloodied heap on the ground. Carlo scrambled to his feet and quickly prepared his arrow, while Gwen pulled her silver dagger. She moved to stand over Caiden, holding the blade at the ready.

The werewolf barreled forward, swatting aside Gwen’s arm and knocking the weapon from her grip. As its jaws dived for her throat, she quickly raised her free arm in defense. She cried out as the wolfman bit down on her arm – and screamed again as it bit down harder, snapping her bones in the grip of its maw.

An arrow whistled through the air, landing square in the werewolf’s neck. The beast hardly even seemed to notice, but as it whirled on Carlo, it did open its mouth enough to let Gwen pull her arm free. Then, another silver bolt lodged itself in the monster’s leg. Caiden lay prone, blood painting the ground all around him, but he still clutched his crossbow in one hand.

As Caiden struggled to load another bolt and Gwen searched through the grass with her good arm to find her dagger, Carlo paused for a moment. Surely, he thought, two missiles – one in its neck, even if it wasn’t silver – would slow or slay the beast. But he had never fought a werewolf.

The lycanthrope whirled with a roar, charging straight toward Carlo. It dropped to run on all fours, so the pain of its wounded leg would not cause it to stumble. It barreled right over Caiden, stomping him under its feet. He felt its claws scrape his arms and shoulder. It crushed the breath out of him.

The werewolf could have finished Caiden then, but it seemed to be ignoring him, as if he was already dead. For half a second, it appeared that Carlo would stand his ground… but he suddenly dropped his bow and arrow, turning on one heel and rushing off in the opposite direction from the fight. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him. Gwen had never seen a man scramble through the woods with such speed.

Without turning to regard them again, the werewolf kept bounding after him, its sights apparently set on its future meal. Carlo did not stop to look back. Soon enough, both the deserter and the hunters’ would-be quarry disappeared into the night.

Looking onward at the shadows into which they had faded, Gwen let out a long sigh. She felt certain of two things: that werewolf would survive its wounds, even those inflicted by silver… and Carlo was going to die.

What she wasn’t sure of, however, was whether or not she and Caiden would survive.

Ignoring her own broken and bleeding arm, she quickly went to him and knelt by his side. Caiden lay on his back, blood still seeping from the open gashes in his skin. Now that she gave them closer inspection, she marveled at how Caiden managed to move or even remain conscious, especially with his enhanced pain reception. His wounds were deep, ugly, and oozing blood everywhere.

Gwen hesitated to even touch him. The bite was a hideous sight to behold, with plain marks of where the werewolf’s teeth had sank into him. Caiden’s breathing was ragged and labored, but he forced his eye open again, grimacing all the while. The enhanced pain was clearly hitting him hard now.

“Gwen,” he grunted, his gaze on her mangled arm.

She said tersely, “You’re worse off.”

She carefully peeled some of the destroyed mail and leather armor away from his wounds. Her touch, even as careful as she attempted to be, dragged a deep and agonized groan from the back of his throat. He went rigid.
Gwen saw that the potions Caiden had carried on a strap across his chest had been shattered when the werewolf trampled him. Some of their contents had seeped into his lacerations, burning and causing him even greater pain.

She frowned, gently laying her good hand on his unwounded shoulder.

Caiden apparently read something from her movements and glances, guessing at what she was thinking.

“Not like this…” he mumbled, sounding half delirious.

Gwen shook her head. “No, you’ll make it.”

She reached to the strap across her own chest. From it, she removed a very special potion: the cure for lycanthropy, as long as it was administered before the next full moon. Caiden blinked slowly, furrowing his brow to force his eye to focus.

He shook his head. “That’s yours,” he growled almost aggressively. “You take it.”

“You can’t give me orders,” replied Gwen, moving so that she sat behind his head. “This will hurt,” she warned.

She carefully pushed her hand beneath his broad shoulders, lifting his upper body just enough to rest his head in her lap, propping him at least slightly upright. He set his teeth when she lifted him, coughing a few times, gagging some on the blood coming up in his throat.

Caiden stared up at her, his expression grim. “I’m not… gonna make it.”

“Yes you are,” Gwen replied as if it was an order. “We’ve been through worse. Now take it.”

She uncorked the potion, but his hard stare stopped her momentarily. “Gwen,” he said, his voice like stone, “don’t waste that cure… on me. I’m… already…”

“It’s not a waste. If you hurry up, I can tend your wounds and staunch the bleeding. The other potions we took will help you recover – you’ll be fine. Trust me, I’ve seen it.” She paused a moment before adding, “Besides, Edward still carried the potion we gave him. I’ll take that one. You just take this. I don’t want to have to move you again.”

For a moment, Caiden paused. She could tell just from the look on his face that he was trying to remember if he had seen Edward’s potion on his corpse. But he had difficulty recalling. It was fuzzy from all the confusion and the pain wracking his body.

“Take it,” she ordered again, all but forcing the liquid down his throat.

Caiden had no choice but to swallow. The alternative would have been letting one of the most precious potions in their arsenal run down his face and go to waste, and no Venator would do that. She waited until he’d drank every drop before she tossed the bottle aside. He met her gaze again, but she looked away.

At length, he asked quietly, “Think it’ll come back for us?”

She shook her head. “It has its meal, and it fended us off. After it feasts on Carlo, it’ll move on for tonight… I feel sure of it.”

“Shouldn’t have… brought those two,” Caiden said, his words somewhat slurred and his eyelids drooping, as he spoke between waves of pain. “Things wouldn’t have… worked out this way… if we hadn’t. Next time, remind me not to… let amateurs… on board.”

“We couldn’t refuse the count’s orders, and he ordered us to bring them along,” she said as she very gently moved away from him, lowering his head to the ground again.

Going around to his most injured side, she began to remove his armor and clean the wounds, fishing into her satchel and making liberal use of her healing supplies. Stitching the deepest wounds one-handed was a struggle. All the while, Caiden lay motionless.

At length, he said flatly, “They got us killed.”

Gwen sighed. “I know. It was just… one mistake after the other. A colder hunter would have just abandoned them. I suppose at least we tried to do the right thing.”

“Gwen…” Caiden murmured, “go drink… your damn… potion…”

She ignored him, continuing her work, spreading a special Venatori poultice over the gashes. She glimpsed Caiden’s face again to see that his eye had fallen completely shut. Judging from his breathing, ragged though it still was, he was drifting off. But she meant it when she had told him he would be fine.

Within a few moments, she was done. Satisfied with her work, she inched away from him toward Edward’s corpse. She was reluctant to look, for she already knew the truth. She had seen his potion bottles shatter when he fell. Quietly, she rolled the corpse onto his back, Edward’s broken neck twisting and popping some more as his body was moved. She saw what was left of the potion bottle, its contents thoroughly soaked into the dead leaves and dirt.

Gwen sighed. Caiden was still unconscious. She returned to where he lay and very carefully lifted him by his shoulders again, but this time she slid her legs beneath him, leaning his torso against her body.

For a few moments longer, he remained unconscious but breathing. She watched the rain slow and threw back her hood, freeing her long auburn hair. Turning her face upward, she watched the storm clouds gradually float away, revealing the stars… and the beautiful gibbous moon. The sight of it gave her a chill.

Caiden awoke slowly, but she felt him move. Looking down, she found him blinking up at her, trying to recover his wits. She draped her good arm over his torso, careful not to irritate his bandaged wounds.

Something in her eyes must have given her away, for Caiden’s expression changed. “What about that potion?”

Gwen somehow managed a sad smile. “I’m sorry, Caid,” she said quietly. “I lied.”

The pain she saw on Caiden’s face hurt her even more than the lack of a cure. His hand shot up to grab her unwounded arm, and the strength of his grip surprised her. The way he stared at her almost made her feel guilty for what she had done. But she forced herself to smile again, at least as much as she could, and she slipped her arm from his grip just long enough to slide her fingers between his.

“It’s fine,” she said gently.

Something in her tone set him off; he was reading her like a book.

“Don’t even think about it,” he said, his tone commanding. “We can make it back to Greywatch. There’s still time…”

“The full moon is tomorrow night,” Gwen reminded him, her voice low.

“I don’t care,” Caiden almost snapped, his hand tightening. His gaze never left hers. “I won’t let you do this.”

Gwen sighed. “I’m not sure I can. That’s why… I was going to ask you to do it for me.”

Caiden didn’t even hesitate. “I won’t.”

“You have to.”

“No I don’t. Neither do you.”

“It’s our code.”

He suddenly broke and shouted, “To hell with the code!” He tried to sit upright and grimaced, falling against her again.

Gwen paused. “I never imagined you’d say something like that.”

“I just did,” said Caiden, forcing himself to sit upright in spite of the pain written all over his face.

“There’s no other way,” said Gwen, keeping her gaze locked with his. “I’ll be dead soon anyway. Remember the code… once someone turns, the person is dead. They’re just another monster.” She shook her head. “You can’t let that happen to me. I don’t want it to happen. I want to die with my soul.”

“There’s another way,” Caiden blurted. “There has to be.”

“There isn’t.”

Gwen would have drawn her own silver blade, had the werewolf not knocked it from her grip. Instead, she reached for Caiden’s, resting a hand on the silver pommel of the dagger sheathed on his belt. He didn’t move.
“It doesn’t burn to touch yet,” she said quietly, trying to convince him it was alright. “It won’t hurt for long. Just… don’t miss my heart. I’m not afraid.”

Caiden still didn’t move. For another long moment, they sat there, her hand laid on the hilt of his dagger while he simply didn’t move. Finally, she gently drew it out, carefully holding it by the blade and offering it to him pommel-first. He reached up and took it, watching the silver blade glimmer in the moonlight. Then he turned his eye back to hers.

“I’m asking you because I’m not sure I have the strength to do it,” she went on hesitantly. “I’m asking you because I trust you. I don’t want to be a beast. And I don’t want to risk… killing you.”

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take. Do you trust me, Gwen? Then trust I’ll find another way.”

Lowering her gaze, Gwen remained still. Finally, she nodded, and Caiden pointedly sheathed his dagger again. She still didn’t look at him for a long while, but he sat looking at her. When he tried to stand, Gwen quickly rested her hand on his shoulder to keep him from moving.

“Don’t,” she said. “You need to rest. That cure will take a lot out of you.”

When Caiden looked up at her again, she could already tell the potion was making him feel weak and disoriented. He shivered. Just when she figured he was about to pass out and stay that way for a while, he turned his head and wrapped one large arm around her. She looked at him in surprise, only to be met with a sudden and passionate kiss on the lips. For a long time Caiden had hidden his feelings behind a wall of respect and professionalism, but apparently he had stopped caring about those things about five minutes ago.

He finally leaned his head away again, clearly forcing his one good eye open.

“Stay alive,” he said, his words barely above a whisper.

Then he gave in, his eye falling shut and his head slowly drooping. Gradually, his body went limp, his arm falling from around her. Gwen sat for a long moment watching him rest. He looked almost dead. His skin was pale and covered in a shiny sheen of sweat, and his breathing was still pained, but at least it was regular. In spite of all the bloodstained bandages on his person and how exhausted he looked, he seemed peaceful.

Gwen stayed there, wide awake and alert, watching the hours pass. She watched the moon sail across the sky, and had she not continually remained wary for any sign of danger, she felt she could have named all the stars and all the constellations.

At last, Caiden began to look better. The color was returning to his skin, and he was no longer sweating. His breathing seemed more normal too. She had imagined the two of them would be striding proudly out of the forest around this time, successful in their hunt, and returning to some meager little inn together to crash for the night.
It was a good thing the cure had taken so much out of him, she thought. Now he wouldn’t have to be awake when it happened.

Thinking back to the last words he’d spoken before falling unconscious, she thought in reply, I will. Quietly and carefully as she could, Gwen slowly drew Caiden’s silver dagger from his belt. He started a little, making her freeze up, but he did not wake.

Gwen swallowed hard, wanting to apologize again, but she knew it was no use. Dagger in hand, she carefully rose to her feet. The pain from her mangled arm had long since faded – she simply ignored it entirely. The panging, throbbing, and burning from the broken bones and bite wound were shut out entirely by her will alone.

After taking several paces, she decided she was just far enough. She knelt, gripping the dagger in her uninjured hand and closing her eyes. The Venator drew in a deep breath and murmured a prayer to all the gods, hoping at least one would listen and take mercy on her soul – and hoping they would let Caiden forgive her for what she had to do.

Caiden awoke with another start, sucking in a breath at the pain of his wounds and the pounding in his skull. But worst of all, Gwen was nowhere to be found. He thought he still felt her lying against him, but she was missing… and, he realized, so was his dagger.

His silver dagger.

“No…” he breathed aloud, his stomach lurching at the mere thought. A surge of desperate strength coursed through his veins and allowed him to stand.

He whirled around, searching for any sign of her, his head throbbing so badly he felt that he could barely see and thought he might throw up. Not caring, he pressed forward, seeing the faintest sign of footprints in the leaves. With mad energy, he crashed through the woods, shouldering braches out of his path and ignoring the way they scraped and prodded into his bandaged body.

Gwen!” he cried, his voice ringing through the forest.

Moments later, he found her. She lay on her back, her unbroken hand still clutching at the silver dagger that was plunged deep into her own heart. Blood stained the ground around her and the long, deep blue cloak on her back. Her eyes were shut and her expression utterly placid, in spite of the few tears that still stained her face.

Caiden stopped in his tracks. At first, he stared, feeling sick and not quite knowing what was real. He fell to his knees beside her, gently laying a hand on hers that held the dagger.

His vision grew hazy with tears. The pain of his wounds was gone, no longer of importance in his mind. He carefully removed Gwen’s hand from the dagger. Caiden closed his one good eye as he drew the weapon from her heart, then tossed it aside as if it was cursed, utterly disregarding its value. Opening his eye again, he gently removed the silver, arrowhead-shaped brooch of the Venatori from the cloak around her neck.

Then he removed his own cloak and tore from it one long strip. Then, ever slow and gentle, he crossed Gwen’s arms over her chest and wrapped her body in both cloaks. Before he stood, he tied the single remaining strip of dark blue cloth around his waist, fastening it with Gwen’s brooch.

Finally, he stooped and carefully lifted her into his strong arms. Her limp head fell against one of his great shoulders, and he briefly lowered his own head to hers. His injuries ached terribly, but he didn’t even feel their pain in the face of the agony throbbing in his heart.

Carrying her as one would carry the single thing they truly held dear, he rose to his feet and turned to depart the forest, striding toward the rising sun.


Later that day, the Count of Pikeston received the hunter in his great, decorated hall. The Venator did not even glance at the ornate tapestries on the walls, nor did he look the Count in the eyes. He kept most of his face hidden under the shadow of his hood.

“Everyone else is dead,” Caiden told the Count, his voice flat. “The werewolf escaped, but it probably won’t return.”

The Count stroked the beard on his chin. “Werewolf? Just one werewolf?”

Caiden said nothing.

“So,” the Count went on, “you failed? Why did you even bother coming back here? Do you think I’m going to donate food and weapons and men to your organization, as in the elder days, when you come back empty-handed? You people really are as useless now as everyone says! I want that monster’s head!”

Caiden hardly even heard the man’s words. Local lords were always like this, treating the Venatori like common hunters who bring back trophies for personal reward. But the Venatori had hunted since before the Empire was born, for one reason alone: to protect those who could not protect themselves against the terrors that lurked in the night. They had watched petty lords like this one rise and fall. His words meant nothing.

At length, Caiden simply said, “I’ll be back.”

Then he turned and walked away, the Count fuming behind him. The sound of the Venator’s footsteps echoed through the hall as he headed for the door. But just before he stepped through, he looked over his shoulder and recited the motto of his order:

“The hunt never ends.”