Wolf's Cross - By S. A. Swann Page 0,1

made these prints?” Josef asked.

“Wolfbreed,” Heinrich answered. “The spawn of Hell itself. The beast has the aspect of a wolf, but stands—and thinks—as a man. It can cloak itself in human skin as it wishes, and it will ignore all wounds but the instantly mortal from all but a silver weapon.” Heinrich lifted the scythe and turned to Josef, and for a moment, in the darkness, he had the aspect of the angel of death himself. “This was a futile weapon, useless unless it took off the head of the beast with the first stroke.”

“But where are the bodies?” Josef asked, afraid of the answer.

He had his unwelcome answer at the village’s church.

At first, as they approached the small building, Josef thought that the window ledges, the roof, and the cross set in front had all been draped black in mourning. It wasn’t until they got closer that he saw that the black moved.

Every horizontal and near-horizontal surface in the area was covered with crows. The evil birds stood so closely packed that Josef’s eyes couldn’t distinguish one from another. They became a single black mass with ten thousand heads and ten thousand beaks. As one, the mass turned its eyes toward the approaching knights.

Then, as if by some demonic signal, they lifted as one, with a deafening screech and a thunderous pounding of wings against the sky. For an instant, the sun went black. Then the hellish cloud dispersed, leaving the men to view the feast that had drawn the birds here.

All the bodies had been thrown into the church, before the altar. Although the carrion birds had left little of the villagers but bone and sinew, the stench in the church was as bad as anything Josef had endured at Nürnberg. Given the state in which nature had left the bodies, the scene could have been the remnants of another plague village—a particularly gruesome one.

If it wasn’t for the drag marks.

The corpses had been killed elsewhere and methodically dumped in front of the altar. Perhaps most disturbing was the small painting of the Madonna and the Christ Child, where the faces had been clawed away.

Josef knew then that they did face a demon.

They followed the demon for three days, through the Prussian wilderness. Josef thanked God that they didn’t run into another spectacular atrocity, but that in itself was troubling. It meant that their foe—this wolfbreed—didn’t act randomly or in haste. It had planned the death of that village, and had methodically carried out that plan.

And, as they followed its trail, Josef was disturbed by the thought that the trail they followed was younger than the scene of carnage at the village, as if what they hunted had waited for them to catch up.

Even so, their tracking wasn’t perfect, and right now they stood in the woods, waiting to decide on the direction of their hunt.

The woods are dark here, Josef thought.

He sat astride a horse with the other probationary brothers of the Order—a line of ten men with incomplete crosses on their tabards. Ahead of them, dismounted, stood three of the knights with Komtur Heinrich, holding a low discussion about their course.

The tracks they followed had led down a path in the woods that was now little more than a game trail. The woods here were not dense, and their horses could navigate through the trees, but it had reached the point where their movement was restricted. Just turning his mount around would be an ordeal, weaving past trunks and over deadfalls, and the whole party had slowed to no faster than a man could walk.

Now they had stopped.

Above them, the sun had nearly left the sky, and the trees had already wrapped them in twilit darkness.

Where are we? Josef thought, unwilling to voice the question in the unnatural silence. Around them, the woods were as quiet as a sepulchre waiting for a corpse. The only sounds were the low voices near Komtur Heinrich and the muffled scrape of horses’ hooves against the dead leaves covering the forest floor. While they waited for word from Heinrich, Josef held a loaded crossbow in front of him. It had been close to half an hour since they had stopped, and his arms were fatigued from the weight in his hands.

After everything, have we actually lost its trail?

Even as a neophyte to the Wolfjägers of the Order, he had seen enough of what they hunted to question that such a trail could be easily lost.

The creature they hunted cared little

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