Larian Paul hated it.
He was quick to relocate from the harsh, unprotected openness of the trail to the darker confines of the forest, where fewer beams of the sun could reach him and he could find solace in tracking the beast that had escaped him over a month ago. Tracking the girl allowed him to focus quite clearly on his task with exceptional concentration when undisturbed. This man, Aaron Ross, didn't seem to understand that part.
"How far behind the girl do you think we are, Mr. Paul?"
Biting his tongue and hiding his scorn, the werewolf hunter glanced back over his shoulder at the thin-bearded man, who had insisted on helping with the tracking instead of joining his two comrades on the trail. "Considering we happened across each other several days after the full moon, when the burning of the wagon occurred, I'd say we're a good number of days behind her."
Aaron frowned at the answer. "Why don't we just ride ahead down to the town and find her there?"
Larian once again dipped into his very shallow reserves of tolerance. "Mr. Ross, with all due respect, I know what I'm doing. I am tracking this creature to be sure of where she has gone. I want to know, for a fact, where she is. Yes, she could be sitting in Kylot right now, dallying until the full moon like a sitting duck. However, she could be waiting somewhere in the woods until those nights are in proximity, choosing to enter at a different time. There are many options, and I am going to do as I was doing before you found me and continue tracking at my own pace. Feel free to do what you wish."
The leader of the men from Kylot remained silent for several seconds before answering. "Accept my apologies Mr. Paul, you are the expert at this. I'm just worried about the safety of my town."
"As am I," he lied, "so allow me to concentrate at this task so we can find the girl before anything bad can happen." Larian returned his gaze to the forest floor, looking upon the large tracks of the transformed creature.
The ground of the forest, having been damp from the rainwater that had made it through the canopy, had been a perfect mold during the nights of the full moon. While the wolf had been running, the force it laid upon the ground each time had left considerable impressions among the dirt, leaving a perfect trail to follow. As the forest didn't receive as much sun as the rest of the trail, the dirt, though many days after the rainstorm, still held a residual dampness which preserved the tracks almost flawlessly.
"Well, well," he spoke to himself. "I was wondering when I was going to come across this."
Stepping up behind the crouched hunter, Aaron peeked over, curious. "What'd you find?"
"The werewolf made a significant journey through the woods during the full moon; much farther than I had expected, which no doubt accounts for how far the girl is ahead of us. But, as for any werewolf, the full moon does eventually go away, and that's where we get this nice little image." Using his forefinger, the hunter pointed to the moist ground, where a variety of different imprints were collected amongst the dirt.
"This looks like a jumble of things," Aaron commented. Larian Paul nodded, before pointing ahead.
"That trail slightly ahead…what do those prints look like?"
The semi-husky Aaron moved forward, examining the prints ahead of where Larian was positioned. "These look…human!"
The hunter smirked. "Yes, and up until this point, the trails have been that of the wolf." Drawing the Kylot man back to his position, Larian motioned at the many different marks on the ground. Some were beast-like, others looked like human handprints. Many looked like combinations of the two. "Right here, we have the point in-between—the transition. This is where the creature transformed back into the girl."
"Incredible," whispered Aaron, whose skepticism was finally beginning to wither away.
Larian Paul rose to a stand, gazing to his left through the trees. Samuel, the young twenty-two-year-old he had recruited from Aralan, had seen him pause and had halted the wagon as well as the two men from Kylot who were traveling the trail with him. With the day growing old and sunlight beginning to wane, any more time spent idle would put him farther behind the werewolf; a concept quite unattractive to Larian. The hunter waved to his partner and motioned him to get the party moving again, as he signaled Aaron to follow him along the girl's now-human trail.
"Getting closer, Erin," Larian Paul whispered to himself with a smirk.
The dim illumination by the small oil lantern did little to help the hunter see the human tracks of the girl, so he was lucky that when she wasn't in her beastly form, she was quite predictable.
Her footprints were, for the most part, in a straight line heading east; running parallel to the Mountain Path. Moving at a steady pace, while glancing down occasionally to check that the girl's trail was still there, Larian found that the group was making good time.
"Mr. Paul," interrupted the now-common voice of Aaron. The hunter refused to slow, hoping the man would not try again.
"M-Mr. Paul, if you please." The Kylot-native paused again as Larian continued through the woods, neither acknowledging him nor slowing. "It's getting late, sir, and I think we should set camp for the night, and—"
The werewolf hunter felt his anger rise at their weakness, but he swallowed it back. He immediately stopped and spun to face Aaron; and though he meant to hide his anger, the expression on his face seemed to frighten his 'companion'.
"Fine," Larian scoffed in a harsh voice. "Stop if you must, but cease pestering me about it. I've had enough delays already, and sleep would be the worst of them."
Aaron stared blankly for several seconds, and seeing his point had gotten across, the hunter turned and continued into his previous pace through the woods.
"Set up camp, boys!" shouted the man from behind. "I'm going on ahead, with Mr. Paul!"
Wonderful, Larian thought. Just another distraction. He turned to the Kylot man and held his hand up. "So, change your mind?"
He nodded. "I want to see this beast found and punished just as much as you do."
Hardly. "If you want to help me, Mr. Ross, then please take over Samuel's post and drive my wagon alongside me. Your friends can catch up with us later."
Aaron didn't seem to like the suggestion of leaving the hunter's side. "But, I'd rather-"
"Make your choice," interrupted the hunter through clenched teeth. "I don't need a babysitter, I need help. And that is what I need help with."
After a moment of silence, the Kylot-native nodded in agreement. "I understand," he said with a defeated groan, turning to head towards the trail before pausing briefly in stride. "What pace shall I go at? Also, how will I know if you need me at all?"
"So many questions for such a simple task," Larian berated, looking into the dark depths of the forest. "We travel through the night, and aim for arrival in Kylot by noontime tomorrow. That's when I help you become her predator instead of her prey."
The hunter's mind immediately snapped to his other 'passenger'. "Do not forget that our dear girls' father resides in the back. Don't hesitate to hurt him if he cause trouble but by no means shall you injure him any more that he already has been." A wretched smile rose between the dark stubble upon his face. "A good hunt requires live bait to draw in the prey. Once we have our beast, then we can show our friend back there the meaning of true pain for ever crossing me, with little red-head watching."
Thomas Helms tasted blood, but by now he was used to its presence and spit it out without a second thought. His head pounded with a pain worse than he could ever remember feeling, though such ache was also present throughout his entire body which could barely function. He could feel the bumps of movement from whatever he was lying in, each jump of the floor igniting his sensitive wounds.
Beneath the unrelenting headache, his mind was in disrepair as well. Flashes of memories flickered in his head, but nothing of substantial importance. There was no concept of how long he had been in this place, nor how much longer he would be subjected to such a horror. His eyes could barely make out more than fuzzy, unfocused shapes, but in his mind the man grasped onto two images to concentrate upon and to numb out the pain. He knew his consciousness would be brief, as it always was, but he could not allow himself forget his reasoning.
The first image was of a monster; of a beast in human form. The true creature that was the hunter Larian Paul, whom he had first encountered in Aralan to solve the problem that he would later find out was his own daughter. The man who had ambushed him upon the trail without warning and without mercy. A dark soul in dark clothing. A man he should've ended to truly protect his family.
His regrets were all that mattered now; his mind couldn't take the stress of the guilt he felt about letting his own daughter leave unaccompanied from the town. His own precious Erin, all alone in the wilderness with men like the hunter; how could he have even considered such an option. Thomas knew he had failed his flesh and blood.
Blood. He coughed up more of it as pain shot through his chest. "Err-" he spoke, his bruised vocal cords emitting a raspy tone. "Err...innn. Err..in," the mill worker continued; the bright and beautiful face of his daughter filling his mind and erasing all else.
"You stay quiet!" came an unfamiliar voice. It was different from the throaty and proud voice of the hunter Larian Paul, and to what his mind could piece together, it was also different from the young voice he had heard a few times before in his place of capture. What poor souls would ever think to work with such a terrible man?
"Errr...inn-" he managed to say once more, before more blood came up.
The voice came again. "You're not getting any sympathy from me, so you might as well stop trying." The masculine voice paused for a moment, before deciding to continue. "I don't want to hurt you, but Mr. Paul says I have to do what I must. And I swear by all that is holy, if your daughter lays a finger upon any of my people, I don't think I can be such a nice guy anymore."
His daughter...hurting somebody? Never. Thomas Helms knew that her good soul was not one that would allow her to intentionally harm anybody. He only hoped that how he had abandoned her that night in Aralan hadn't shattered it.
"Errrr...innnn," Thomas wheezed again, reaching out with his hand to the vision of her in his mind.
"Aaron!" came another voice: the dark tone of the hunter. Thomas could feel the wagon jerk to a stop. "Cease talking with that abomination's father! We have a bigger worry on our hands."
"What's wrong, Mr. Paul?" spoke the voice known as Aaron. There was a pause.
"Your home lies right ahead of us, and the girl's tracks brought her this far, but they're gone. She left the woods, stepped out partway through the field towards your gate, and her tracks vanish. Nothing in any direction: no bent long grass, no imprints in the dirt, no overturned rocks. Not even the daylight reveals anything new. It's as if she grew demon's wings and took off to the skies!"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes I'm sure!" yelled the hunter. "Do you mistake me for some kind of idiot? For an amateur?!"
"Then stop questioning my words and save your breath. We must find this little bitch and do it quickly. Get us into your town."
"Err...innn..." Thomas coughed, letting the hope that his daughter had evaded the dirty clutches of this man fill him with a small joy. The werewolf's father fought against the pain his muscles ached with to make a slight smile as he could feel the darkness of unconsciousness returning to him.
"I...love...you..."Dried blood graced the mouth and chin of Erin Helms; its red hue encircling her once fair skin which now bore the markings of life spent alone in the wilderness. She sat in the corner of an empty Kylot storehouse using the shadows as a blanket, clutching her newly obtained possession: a dress.
Her bones had healed quite nicely since her unique entrance into town two nights earlier. The moon had been helpful in that aspect, allowing her body to heal in a way she never thought possible. It would still be some time before the next cycle of the full moon, but until then the moon's power could still help her, even at its weaker times of the month.
Using one of her fingertips, adorned with a rugged nail, she scraped the dried red substance off her skin around her lips and brought it in front of her so she could remind herself of what she had done just last night. Her tongue still tasted of flesh.
Day by day she was becoming more of an animal. Day by day she cared less about it. The love of family and friends, she kept reminding herself after every nightmare since the Moon Fever, couldn't protect her anymore. She remembered how much it had killed her inside after the deaths of her two friends by her other side. Erin even felt guilt after killing Marcus on the trail, despite the man having deserved it. There was only so much guilt she could hold before it finally just became another numb emotion.Hiding from the daylight, she had felt her soul withering slowly each passing hour. Erin had finally realized what it cost to protect herself. The young woman smiled and gave a brief laugh.
She was just about sure by the time of the next full moon, she would have no soul left to protect.