The hunters maintained their silence as they wove through the woods, giving Nicolae difficulty. It was hard to move without making a sound when the leaf litter was so deep and crisp. He placed each paw carefully, moving with stealth and keeping far enough away that they wouldn’t hear him.
“I still say that she went up,” one of the men whispered after they had been walking for over twenty minutes and Nicolae caught sight of the leader through the dense tree trunks.
The man held his hand up in a fist and the group halted. Nicolae stopped too, one paw in the air. It trembled with the exertion of holding it there. He gradually lowered it to the ground, holding his breath as he did so, and then exhaled when none of the hunters looked his way. The leader turned towards the man who had spoken and something silent passed between them.
Nicolae knew a threat when he felt it. It seemed the man who had spoken did too because he bent his head and remained silent as the group continued down towards the glade. Nicolae reached out with his senses, searching for both the wolf pack and the prey of the hunters. Could it be a bear?
They had talked about her being quick. Bears were fast when they had to be. He’d been on the receiving end of a few charges in his lifetime. They weren’t as fast as wolves though.
He sensed the timber wolf pack on the grazing land far below. The alpha howled and Nicolae paid him no heed, only using the sound to confirm their position on his senses was correct. He couldn’t feel any other animals besides a few birds and small creatures. The high-tech crossbows these men were packing said that they weren’t after prey smaller than a wolf, not unless they enjoyed a challenge. Even then, they would probably go after big game. Hunting large animals with only a bow would be more exciting and dangerous. A challenge most hunters would relish. Which brought him back around to bears.
The men stopped a few hundred metres up the mountain from the glade. Their leader raised his goggles, looked towards the rugged horizon, and then turned towards the other three.
“She might have gone to ground.” It was the one who had almost seen him. The leader looked thoughtful, his face shadowed and difficult to make out.
Two of the men he hadn’t got a good look at earlier were in broken moonlight now, their night-vision goggles pushed up on their foreheads. They were young, one of them around his late twenties and the other into his thirties. Nicolae suspected it had been the youngest man who had sounded scared. The other one had a hard set to his jaw and coldness in his eyes. The sort of look a man got after seeing a lot of death.
Nicolae had that look sometimes.
“I shot her.” There was certainty in the man’s gravelly voice. None of the others looked as though they were about to doubt him.
Nicolae sniffed, trying to catch a scent on the chill air. If they had shot whatever animal they were after, then it would be bleeding. He would be able to track it.
“The poison will take care of her in that case.”
Nicolae froze. Poison? He looked at the bolts loaded in the crossbows. Just what was it they had shot and now wanted to find? Hunters didn’t normally poison their prey.
Not unless their prey was strong enough to survive arrows and bullets and come after them. He shook that thought away. There was no reason for him to get jittery. In the century he had lived in the area, not once had anyone attacked the werewolves.
“I don’t want to risk it. I want to find her.” The leader this time.
The alpha wolf howled again and Nicolae listened.
They were hunting something.
Nicolae tensed, torn between breaking cover and heading down to see what the wolves had smelt, and remaining to listen to the men and ensure they left the mountain.
He raised his nose to the breeze and sniffed. He could smell it now, sharp and coppery, coming up from the valley.
A bolt zipped past him, thudding into a tree barely inches from his nose. Nicolae ran, keeping his rear down and weaving through the narrow gaps between the trees to cover himself. Another bolt narrowly missed him.
“Don’t waste ammo unless you’re sure it’s what we’re here after,” the leader said.
Nicolae pounded through the forest, away from the men and down towards the valley. He picked up the scent of blood and followed the trail. It grew stronger, fresh and sharp in the clear air, cutting through it. He sniffed the ground at intervals, trying to see if the animal had bled onto it so he could investigate the scent and determine what sort of creature it was.
The pine trees grew dense around him as he neared the glade. Their scent obscured the subtler one of the blood, making it impossible for him to tell what it belonged to. It didn’t smell animal.
It wasn’t werewolf.
He rounded a tree and spotted something in the clearing ahead.
The timber wolves broke out of the woods on the other side to Nicolae, heading for the body. His heart slammed against his ribs and he crashed through the undergrowth and out into the glade. He dashed across the open ground, passing the body, and leapt into the group, snarling and snapping at them, driving them back. His teeth clashed with those of the more persistent wolves but he was careful not to draw blood. His attack wasn’t about hurting them. It was purely to force them to leave the human alone. It was to protect them. If they ate the body, the locals would hunt them down and slaughter them all. He couldn’t allow that to happen.
The alpha growled.
The rest of the pack cowered, lowering their rears and bowing their heads. Some of the younger ones at the back whimpered and whined.
The grey alpha came forward, smaller than Nicolae but bigger than the other wolves, and stared at him.
Nicolae breathed hard and held the alpha’s yellow gaze.
The pack was hungry. With winter setting in, it was important that they fed well, but he couldn’t allow them to harm this human. The alpha didn’t move. Nicolae could understand his need to protect his pack and provide for them.
He huffed, turning the air misty for a second with his warm breath, and then came to a decision. He looked deep into the alpha’s eyes, communicating with him alone. He would hunt and leave them a deer at his cabin in exchange for the human. Was that acceptable?
The alpha wolf stared at him a moment longer and then turned and trotted silently into the forest. The pack followed.
Nicolae huffed again.
He would do as he had promised and give them a deer as soon as he could go out and hunt. During harsher winters, he often provided for them. Wolves were a proud race, just like their werewolf brethren, but this pack no longer took offence at his offerings.
Nicolae knew the pain of not being able to provide for the pack, of failing in his duty to protect them, and because of those experiences he knew that he had asked a lot of the alpha tonight. He was grateful the wolf had chosen to accept the deer and, to show it, he would find the largest one he could.
He turned and sniffed his way back to the human. She lay on the leaf litter, motionless and pale. Covered in blood. It had a strange smell. Some part of it was human but the scent was different, familiar. Was it the poison that made it smell so wrong?
The woman’s eyes were closed, her fair hair spread across the ground in a golden wave. Moonlight shone down into the glade, the bare branches of the trees splitting it into bright shafts that bathed her. He sniffed again and listened. No heartbeat but he couldn’t be sure. Twin darts punctured her black fatigues, one in the left of her chest, up from her heart, and the second in the right side of her stomach. Could she have survived that?
He caught the scent of the hunters on the darts.
Why had they killed her?
She was dressed like them.
Nicolae listened again for a pulse. None came.
There were some things that he couldn’t do as a wolf. He shuffled back a few paces to give himself more room and then focused. His bones popped and body twisted, the black fur on it slowly disappearing as he transformed back into his normal form. He grimaced and growled quietly, containing his pain for fear of alerting the hunters to his presence. He wasn’t sure if they had gone and he wasn’t sure if the woman was dead. He couldn’t let either of them know what he was. His ribs stretched and his limbs cracked back into human forms still covered in patches of fur. It swept backwards, towards his shoulders, revealing deformed fingers that pushed out into normal shapes. His muzzle compressed, his teeth receding, and he moved onto his hind legs, standing with a wobble. Pain ripped down his spine with the final shift of his bones beneath his now human skin, and he bit back his desire to throw his head back and scream out his agony.
Nicolae clenched his fists and breathed deep, waiting with closed eyes for the pain to pass and his heartbeat to level again.
Centuries of life as a werewolf and whenever he spent too long in his animal form, he still felt the pain as he had during the first change.
The moment it subsided, he crouched beside the woman, naked and unashamed. He touched her throat. She was cold and he couldn’t feel a pulse. Dead.
He ran his hand over his messy dark hair and frowned, thinking over what he should do.
His gaze assessed the two darts. Blood saturated the black material around them. He touched it, brought his fingers to his nose, and sniffed. He could smell the poison. Strong. Why had the hunters killed her? If he had found her before coming across the hunters, he would have said they had belonged to the same party. Only this woman wasn’t armed.
Nicolae looked around the clearing for a weapon.
When he looked back at the woman, she was staring at him with dark eyes.
Her left fist flew towards him.
Nicolae rolled backwards into a crouch, barely avoiding the punch. She lunged, trying to grab him, gasping and wheezing. Blood pumped from around the arrow in her abdomen. The dart must have punctured her lung.
His gaze met hers again and he froze. The words of warning to keep still fled his lips.
Fiery orange eyes pinned him with the deadliest of stares.
She bore her fangs and Nicolae backed away, his eyes still locked with hers, panic sending an icy wave through his blood.
What was a vampire of the Nocens bloodline doing in Canada?
She snarled and then slumped backwards, hitting the dirt hard. Nicolae didn’t move. He couldn’t tell if she was dead or not but he wasn’t about to risk his neck by checking her. His gaze darted between the arrows. There was a lot of blood on her, and around the glade. The arrows were poisoned. He dragged in a shaky breath.
The scent of her blood hit him and, now that he knew why he recognised it, he couldn’t bear the smell.
Nicolae shook his head at the first assault of memories, desperate to keep them at bay. He wasn’t there now. He was free. He had paid for it in blood and death, but he was free. The images came, relentless, horrifying visions of violence and pain, punishment in dark barred corridors, screams that echoed through the entire compound. He fell forwards, breathing hard, clawing the dirt into his fists and holding on.
Cries. Blood. The sting of the whip against his back. He arched forwards and growled, his teeth elongating. The laughter of his cruel masters. His neck burned, aching under the pressing weight of an iron collar. The humiliation of his brethren.
Blood ran in a fetid river before his eyes, trickling over damp dark stones and along the gutter in front of the cells, mixing with faeces and urine. Shackles clanked in the dim light. Bars rattled under the duress of a fruitless attack by a prisoner.
He wasn’t there.
Nicolae yelled his rage at the starlit sky. It burst from him, desperate and feral in its sound, and echoed around the distant mountains. A disconsolate howl from the valley answered him. The alpha. The sound of it and the message it contained soothed him and granted him relief. He shut the pain down, clearing his mind of the past and focusing on the present, but there was no comfort in it now.
His gaze snapped to the vampire.
He pushed himself back onto his feet and stood over her, staring with hatred burning in his gut. The hunters were still searching for her, and it wouldn’t be long before they reached where he was. They would finish her off. If she managed to survive both the hunters and the poison until daybreak, then nature would take care of her. The sky was clear. When the sun rose, it would spill into the glade. She wouldn’t be strong enough to escape it. Her kind deserved to feel pain.
He would never involve himself with vampires.
He strode away from her.
No matter how beautiful they were.
That thought arrested his steps. He frowned over his shoulder at her. The cold air curled around him, chilling and stiffening his bare body. He stared at the vampire and then at the horizon through the trees, and realised with self-loathing that he wasn’t strong enough to do it. As much as he despised her kind, he wasn’t a monster like them. She wasn’t the same bloodline as the ones who had enslaved him. She had done nothing to deserve his bitterness. If he left her, it would plague him and he would regret it. If he needed a reason to help her, he would do it for the sake of information about the hunters. They had to be the reason that she was so far from home.
Nicolae went back to her. She looked small and fragile as she lay on the dirt. Her appearance belied her true nature but it couldn’t fool his senses. When she had come around, he had felt her strength. Was she strong enough to fight the poison? He placed his palm against her forehead. She wasn’t burning up yet. If the poison was the type most vampire hunters used, then there was still time to help her.
Part of him said to leave her. Her kind had given him nothing but pain. She should feel it in return.
He couldn’t bring himself to do such a thing. Watching a dying vampire succumb to the sun and poison would be a petty form of vengeance. His heart had let go of his desire for revenge almost fifty years ago now, cleansed by his quiet life in the wilderness. Only the nightmarish memories kept it alive in him.
Nicolae sighed and picked her up, shifting her into his arms and cradling her against his bare chest in a way that didn’t disturb the bolts. If she woke again, he would drop her in a flash and distance himself. He doubted that she would though. She had probably used the last of her strength fighting him.
Was he really going to do this? If he brought her into his home, if he helped her heal, then he would be helping the enemy.
In times of war, it was acceptable to help the enemy of your enemy. The hunters had tried to kill her.
They were a threat to everything he had built here, and everyone that he knew.
He had to help her.
Even when he knew it would place him in danger.
The hunters were after her.
They would be after him too now.***