Ed Rutledge hugged his rifle under his right arm as he adjusted his toque with his left. The early morning hours were always cold this time of year and the fact that it was the Annual Hunt just made it that much worse.
He was glad that he wasn’t facing the task alone, though. John Glasgow and Christian Stevenson were on either side of him as they made their way through the empty streets of Emmettsville.
“What time is it?”
John looked at his watch. “It’s almost four. We still have three and a half hours to go before dawn.”
“Good,” Christian said. “Three and a half hours to kill this fucker.”
It was his eighth time participating in the hunt and the forty-nine year old welder had become something of a legend around Emmettsville when just five years earlier he had successfully killed the first werewolf, Terry Indigo. He should’ve felt proud of the accomplishment, but he knew the feeling would be short lived as there would be a new werewolf to hunt the following year.
“There’s something that never ceases to amaze me,” Ed said. “Even though everyone in town is told to go to the church hall to wait out the hunt, the werewolf always manages to kill a few every year.”
“I wish a lot more people would leave their lights on,” John said. “These old street lamps create more shadows than they cut through.”
“There are two things I hate about the hunt,” Christian said. “The fact we’re not allowed to shoot the werewolf in human form or while it’s changing and that the werewolf has to bite someone every year.”
“The bite guarantees that there will be a hunt the following year if the hunters are successful,” Ed said. “Plus you never know what can happen between hunts. You two are aware that Brendon Jenkins has been the wolf for the last five years, correct?”
Both men nodded.
“Shortly after the hunt last year, Brendon got diagnosed with cancer and they only gave him six to eight months to live. He’s lasted twelve. I would say either way that this will be his last hunt.”
“Who was it last year?” John asked. “I mean, who got bit?”
“Carly Fortner,” Ed replied. “She was only fourteen.”
Christian shook his head in disgust. “I can’t believe he chose to bite a fourteen year old girl.”
The three hunters walked in silence as they remembered how Carly had been found crying with a large bite in her shoulder, knowing her fate had been sealed.
“That doesn’t mean that she’ll be the next one though,” John said. “Remember, Todd Charleston had been bitten in the second year of the hunt. He still hasn’t assumed his role. Strange how the disease or whatever it is only allows one person to change in a given area at one time. Why do you think that is?”
Christian shrugged and was about to say something when Ed held his arms out, stopping them. All three immediately brought their rifles up to the shoulders and looked about.
“What is it?” John whispered.
“There’s blood on the road.”
Ed walked up to the small accumulation of blood, knelt down and stuck two fingers into it. As he turned his hand over to look at his fingertips, he cringed. Even though he had seen his fair share of bodies over the years during the hunt, feeling someone else’s blood on his skin never got easy.
“It’s still warm,” he said, wiping his fingers on his pants.
“Is it a trail?” John asked.
“No. It’s a small pool but, it was left here deliberately. He’s close so keep your eyes open.”
Christian let his rifle drift down from his shoulder a bit as he looked at Ed. “Did you say it was deliberate?”
“Why would it…”
The attack happened incredibly fast. It leapt out of the shadows with a snarl and tackled Christian onto the pavement. Even in the shitty streetlight, the werewolf was an impressive and horrifying sight. Underneath the dark brown coat of fur was a six and a half foot muscular frame built to hunt man.
It easily bit through Christian’s shirt into his flesh.
John fired off a shot but not surprisingly missed. The werewolf howled as it sprung off Christian and disappeared into the shadows on the other side of the street. Within seconds, they heard it crash through branches into the woods.
Christian screamed, clutching his torn shoulder. “It fucking bit me!”
Ed and John both knelt down beside their injured friend but he turned away their assistance.
“I know how to take care of myself. Go kill that fucking thing!”
Without hesitating, Ed was on his feet and running. On the way by, he grabbed John by the back of his shirt, yanking him along towards the dark tree line.
Somewhere in the distance, the werewolf howled.
It felt like they had been going in circles for a couple of hours. John was breathing heavy and Ed knew that his friend was tired. The adrenalin from the attack had worn off long ago, and now they were barely able to keep on the werewolf’s trail.
“Ed,” John said between breaths. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said earlier… about Brendon being sick.”
“What about it?”
“Well, what do you think a disease such as that would do to a werewolf?”
Another howl pierced the night.
“Have you been listening to the howls?” John asked, looking around. “They don’t sound as strong or vocal as they did earlier in the night.” The werewolf cried out again. “Ed, to me the howls sound weak… almost as if the werewolf is sick.”
Ed thought for a moment. What his friend was saying sounded plausible – if the cancer did transfer over, how would it affect it?
“You might be on to something. What do you say we end this one?”
John sighed, nodded and pushed off from the tree.
They pressed on but had only walked another twenty minutes when they heard another howl that was quickly cut off by a high-pitched whine intertwined with pain.
The sounds were close by.
John looked over at Ed, clearly unnerved.
“What the hell is that?” John asked.
“I don’t know,” Ed replied.
The whining continued as they moved forward with their rifles repositioned for firing at a moment’s notice. Within a few minutes, the trees thinned out as they approached the area where the sound originated. They stepped into a small clearing and stopped with their mouths agape.
It was lying on its side.
The beast was convulsing as if it were suffering a seizure, it wasn’t completely transformed. Its lower extremities resembled a wolf’s hind haunches but the fur on its torso had started to rip, human skin pushing its way through. Partially formed hands twitched uncontrollably at the end of human arms.
“Oh my god, look at its face,” John managed to say before he threw up.
The head was a misshapen mess that reminded Ed of the bizarre animal fetuses he had seen in the freak show of last summer’s carnival – half Brendon, half wolf. Inside its malformed mouth, a tongue rolled and lapped up against its snout.
He cautiously approached and the beast tried to squirm away, but the tremors had eliminated any ability to control its movement. One golden wolf eye, along with Brendon’s own blue eye, stared back as he tried to come to grips with what he was looking at.
With a deep breath, Ed raised his rifle and fired twice into its head. Within seconds, the body lay still.
“Ed, what happened to it?” John asked. He stared long and hard at the misshapen corpse.
“It couldn’t change.”
John looked up to the sky and then at his watch. “It’s still not sunrise, so why would it be changing?”
Ed took his hat off and ran his hand over his balding head. “Maybe it was sick like you said.”
“Do you really think the cancer could interfere with a werewolf changing?”
Ed shrugged. “It’s possible.”
“This is fucked up,” John bent at the waist and placed his hands on his knees preparing for another round of vomiting. “Did you see its eyes?”
“Yes I did.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget those.”
“Neither will I,” Ed said as he watched John look over at the body and then back at him. “The wolf eye wanted me dead but its human eye…” Ed swallowed. “Brendon’s eye was pleading… pleading for me to kill him.”
“Oh my god…” John trailed off.
“You know, when I shot and killed the werewolf a few years ago, I had killed in the course of the hunt. I felt justified and like a hero.” Ed placed his hat back on his head and looked at the body. “This time, I feel like a murderer.”
~ Jon Olson
© Copyright 2015 Jon Olson. All Rights Reserved