Wolf's Cross - By S. A. Swann

PART ONE

Anno Domini 1353

I

Brother Josef had thought he had seen Hell itself. He had seen it in the black swellings that plagued his father and mother, sisters and brother. He had seen it in the doctors who fled at the sight of him coming from an infected house. He had seen it in the faces of those who still dared walk the streets of Nürnberg, carrying smoldering bundles of aromatic herbs to chase the infection away, or at least mask the omnipresent smell of death. He had seen it in the piles of bodies left to rot for lack of men to bury them. And he had seen it in the blackened face of a woman he loved, abandoned to die alone in her family’s house.

However, upon joining the Order, he had learned that Hell took many forms.

It was the will of God, and his superiors, that he serve his probation under the command of Komtur Heinrich, who headed a convent of warrior monks within the still barely tamed wilds of Prussia. Komtur Heinrich held a peculiar place in the Order, and his men bore a name within the Order that Josef had not heard before: Wolfjägers.

Even the device they bore had a difference from that of the wider Order: a severed wolf’s head occupied the upper left quadrant of the Teutonic Knights’ black cross.

The weapons borne by the Wolfjägers were different in character, as well. The smaller items, daggers and arrowheads, were cast of pure silver. Swords and axes were of more typical steel, but with edges clad in silver.

It was not his place to question his role, and it was not until he saw the first signs of what the wolf hunters actually hunted that he understood.

He knew that their foe was some sort of demon, but he was worldly enough to expect that the “demons” they sought would resemble men. In the depths of his self-doubt, he feared they might resemble Jews. He knew that Jews were not responsible for the pestilence that had scoured the land. During the worst of it, the synagogue at Nürnberg had stood as empty of life as the cathedrals.

But that hadn’t stopped riots in the countryside, as panicked villagers burned Jews like the city folk burned incense, in a pathetic attempt to keep the death at bay. Even decrees by Pope Clement VI hadn’t been able to halt the slaughter.

Josef didn’t believe that the men of the Order, devoted to Christ and the pope, would be so readily deceived. But when Heinrich talked of demons who walked like men, it so much resembled the rhetoric Josef had heard during the worst of the death that he wondered—and chided himself for the doubts. His faith had led him to this point, and he did not believe his service to God would be so subverted.

Soon enough, God and his Komtur saw fit to give him evidence of the demons the Wolfjägers hunted, and they were not men—Christian or Jew.

He was unprepared when Komtur Heinrich stopped them outside an unnamed village whose fields had gone wild and unharvested. At first, Josef thought they had come across an outbreak of the pestilence finding a northern foothold. But Heinrich announced, “For those of you new to this service, observe well what we find here. We are close on the trail of the demon.”

They rode forward in silence, and unlike the plague villages Josef had seen when he had finally departed his family’s estate at Nürnberg, the first bodies he saw were those of animals. The corpses of sheep and oxen dotted an overgrown field, their bodies black with flies. Despite the decay, Josef could tell that the beasts had died by violence, not from illness. Parts of the corpses were scattered, so that an accurate census of the dead wasn’t possible.

They stopped at a house with a splintered door. Blood splattered the threshold as if in mockery of the angel of death. Inside was chaos—blood, fragments of furniture, and a broken scythe whose blade was spotted with gore and tufts of blond fur.

There were no bodies.

“It has been here,” Komtur Heinrich said, drawing attention to bloody prints in the dirt floor of the cottage, where the weather had not washed the marks away.

Pressed into the gore was the pawprint of a wolf, but a wolf that would have to be the most monstrous animal Josef had ever heard of. The gauntleted hand of a large man could barely spread wide enough to cover it.

“What manner of wolf

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