Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nadezya and the Devil Hunter, Part 2 of 2

Missed part 1?
Part 2
The trip back to Kurm took longer for having to carry the saucer steady and it was late afternoon before the night of the full moon when Nadezya returned to the village.  Convincing Rulrik to swallow the moonlight would be more work than simply asking to drink.  Nadezya first retrieved a wine bottle, poured out some of its contents, and filled it up again with water from the moonlit grove.  Then she set about mixing a tonic that would cast a glamour on her.  Any witch worth her salt could cast a simple disguise, and by the time Nadezya was done, she looked like an elderly woman who could easy be a servant in the lodge where Rulrik stayed.  Slipping the wine bottle into her coat, she made off at once to find him.
Warring lords, traveling soldiers, and wandering hunters often rested in the lodge when passing through Kurm.  The inside of the wooden building seemed deep as a lord’s castle.  Nadezya wormed her way through narrow halls and feigned the weariness of the age she guised herself in when passing the servants, until she found the dining chamber.  A dish had been set for Rulrik, along with a glass of wine.  Nadezya emptied the glass down her own throat, but before she could fill it with her own vintage, the door sprang open and the red-clad hunter appeared.
“I requested that no servants be present when I sit to eat,” Rulrik snapped.
Nadezya bowed.  “Beg your pardon, sir.  I was about to pour your wine and be on my way.  My apologies for intruding.”  She was overdoing it a little—she’d never encountered an old woman in the cold lands who groveled so much—but the devil hunter was a foreigner and probably liked to have his feet kissed.
He liked the act enough to ease his tone.  “No wine tonight,” he said, taking his seat.  “The full moon will bear down on this village tonight and I must be prepared to hurt its horrors, be they of paw or hoof.”
Nadezya’s hands wrung the wine bottle.  Tonight was indeed the full moon’s night and perhaps her only chance to save Jektov, who’s talking had clearly failed.  “I’ll respect your wishes, absolutely, ser knight, but I must tell you this is a local flavor that often soothes pain and eases nerves.”
“As all wines will,” Rulrik said.  “You think I’m not experienced in this?  That I can’t stand the devil and the wolf out there?”
“I have full faith in your experience,” Nadezya said, pretending to retreat with the wine.  Any witch worth her salt could lure a man or woman into her bidding and this witch was not ready to quit.  “Do you truly believe someone in our humble village could be a werewolf?”
“I don’t need to believe it.  Anyone can be a monster under the skin.  A devil has danced with a man or woman here and the poor soul has become a beast at night.  I have not seen paw prints, but I promise that this devil is not carting the fool on its back.”
Nadezya had to stifle a laugh, imagining Jektov in his horse form as any kind of devil.
Rulrik stared emptily at his empty wine glass.  “When I was but a boy, a fellow came to our village.  He offered flowers to the ladies and sweets to the children.  Both he gave to my sister, herself between childhood and womanhood.  I did not take a sweet, for I was ill.  That night, I heard a crash from my sister’s room, and despite my illness, I ran from my bed to hers.  When I found her, this man stood over her bed, and she was no longer human.  Full moon’s light poured through her window that night.  My sister grew fur, teeth, claws, and a tail.  She became a werewolf.  The devilish man fled, but I vowed to hunt him down and avenge my sister.”
Nadezya retreated another pace with the wine bottle and wondered if the rusalki’s warning had predicted this story.  Perhaps Rulrik was not evil.  Perhaps he was only misguided.  Perhaps some justice lived in him after all.
“I loved my sister,” the hunter went on.  “It burned me up inside to see her in pain, in a monstrous state.”  He pounded the table.  “Then I burned her in righteous flames, as is fitting for all such creatures!  My heart lightened, for I’d found my calling to cleanse this evil from all people.  No witch, no wolf, no devil, and no monster will survive while I hunt.”
Nadezya’s sympathy didn’t survive either upon seeing the man’s true colors.  She approached with the bottle again and Rulrik noticed it once more.
“Let me have that wine after all,” he said, extending a hand.  Nadezya passed the bottled moonlight and waited nearby to see him take a drink, but the hunter waved her off.  “I’ll not have you watch while I and others sup.  Be gone.”
The disguised witch hurried from the room, but not from the lodge, as she didn’t wish to arouse suspicion.  She hung around corners and halls, making slow progress to the exit.  When at last she emerged outside, the sun had nearly set.  She quickly dropped her old woman’s glamour, eager to see Rulrik who hunted werewolves become one himself.
The lodge’s front door opened.  Nadezya grinned first, and then scowled.  “What were you doing in there?”
Jektov emerged from the lodge, alone.  “Exactly what I told you.  While you’ve been off playing in the wilderness, I’ve been convincing Rulrik to leave the village.”
“And a fine job you’re doing, I can see.”
“You will see.  I’ve convinced him that whatever was here may have moved on.  He’s only going to have a look around during the full moon and then he’ll be on his way.”
“But what of you?” Nadezya asked.
Jektov smiled.  “I’ll simply be a horse.  Best to keep me penned in tonight so there aren’t any suspicious hoof prints from a midnight gallop.”  He glanced at the sky.  “Speaking of which, I’d better return home before I’m caught.  All’s well now.  Aren’t you happy you did nothing drastic?”
“Perhaps I did do something drastic,” Nadezya said.
“Such as?”
Nadezya explained the moonlit grove, the moonlit water, and how the moonlight would fester inside Rulrik.  “He will become his inner beast when the moon is full.”
Jektov raged.  “First of all, you had no business toying with magic here!  Second, he was leaving!  I told you I had it all sorted.  And third, I drank that wine as well!”
Nadezya counted these as small problems.  “You’re already cursed.  What could it do, turn you into a horse-wolf?”
Jektov gripped his stomach at that moment and the witch knew the look of pain on his face—his transformation was at hand.  A horrific howl erupted from inside the lodge, for Rulrik’s transformation had come as well.  Nadezya wished to savor the moment, but she was too worried for Jektov.  She watched warily as he dropped on all fours, his clothes split apart, his face grew long, his limbs longer, and then coarse hair blanketed his body.  Nadezya sighed with relief.  Jektov was only a horse.
Rulrik was much more than that.  The lodge entrance splintered into a thousand pieces as an enormous wolf crashed into the village on two legs.  His howl drew the villagers from their doorways and sent Jektov the horse whinnying and galloping away.
Nadezya tried giving chase, but a crowd of villagers slowed her pace as they came charging at the werewolf.  The hunter’s paranoia had infected them all and they had pitchforks and torches ready, none knowing Rulrik would be the wolf they sought.
Neither did they know how strong a werewolf could be, especially one who hunted in his man form.  Teeth snapped bones and butchered guts, and soon the tide of villagers swayed in Nadezya’s favor as all the people hurried to escape the monstrous Rulrik.
All but one.
The wolf passed Nadezya.  Jektov was long gone.  Only a woman stood still at the village’s center.  Burns and scars blemished her skin and the nearly-visible bones revealed she was starving.  After a moment, the nameless woman tugged at her face.  Away went the burns, the scars, and the black eyes.  Away went any semblance of starving, for the woman was oval as an egg, and her limbs were lean, but strong.  Age took to her face and two mismatched eyes gleamed at Nadezya, one yellow, one white.  Any witch worth her salt could cast a simple disguise, and Baby Yaga was worth the salt of many witches.
  Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
“Grandmother, forgive me,” Nadezya said.
“I am no kin by blood of yours,” Baba Yaga growled.  “And you are hardly kin of witches.”  The old witch grinned.  “Well, perhaps not.  Look at the havoc you’ve brought on this place.”
“Don’t praise me.  You’re here for vengeance.”  Nadezya stood tall.  “On with it.  I have no tonics, no solutions, no potions.  I have no curses prepared.  I’m defenseless.  Punish me!”
Baba Yaga’s grin widened.  “I already have.”  One of the village houses creaked, groaned, and stood up from the earth on two giant chicken legs.  It shook the soil from its base and waddled over to the old, monstrous witch, who clambered up into a trapdoor in the house’s bottom.  “It’s true that I could do worse to you—injure your hand, as you did mine.  Skin you, break your skull, drink your blood.  I may, one day.  For now, I’m happy to watch you suffer for what you’ve done to the devil hunter, the village, and to your friend.”
Nadezya’s eyes widened and she raced past the abnormal house.  Baba Yaga’s cackling chased her all the way home.  She didn’t find Jektov there.  Quickly she gathered up necessities and their wooden egg.  She had no intention of remaining in Kurm.
Outside, the mud was a mess of tracks—men, women, a werewolf, and a horse had all torn through the village, but the horse was easiest to follow.  Nadezya silently hoped that Jektov had not been injured by the villagers in their fervor, or the beast in his bloodlust.  The blood on the ground helped grow her fear that the former knight had been hurt or killed.  In time the horse’s tracks diverged from the crowd of others.  They went past houses and trees, on through soil and mud, and through the night, and Nadezya found Jektov unharmed beneath a tree … and yet, not right.
The sunlight bathed the coarse hair that covered his body and his four hooves stamped impatiently as Nadezya approached.  Her hand stroked his mane.  “But the sun has risen,” she told him.  “The full moon is gone.”
Nadezya then remembered the wine of the moonlit grove.  “The moonlight will be inside he who ingests it, always.”  The witch shook her head.  “No, it cannot be always.  Change back, Jektov.  You can’t argue with me as a horse.  You have to tell me I’m doing wrong again so I can refuse to listen.  Like I’ve done now.”
Jektov the horse whickered and stamped his hooves again.
Nadezya didn’t have the heart to ride him.  She stroked his head, slung one pack over his back, and walked away from the tree.  Jektov trotted behind her.
“Perhaps we’ll discover a cure for the moonlit water within,” the witch said hopefully.  “Or a spell that will expel the curse that transforms you.  It might take a bit of walking, and perhaps bullying a few rival witches.”  She waited for Jektov to respond, to tell her this sounded like a fine plan, but the horse gave no indication that he had even understood her.
And so, with a curse on one’s back and heavy shame on the other’s shoulders, Jektov the horse and Nadezya the witch strolled on common paths through the cold lands, following a hope that Nadezya could not see.

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