The Werewolf's Curse
by Derek Paterson
Available on Amazon.
Being the 3rd story of the adventures of Manfred, which began with
The Kaiserine's Champion and continued in The Vampyre's Kiss.
Sizzling flesh; indescribable pain. I didn't scream, as much as I wanted to. I refused to give my torturer the satisfaction. Instead I clenched my teeth until I thought they must shatter with the pressure.
The monk took the smoking iron away and thrust it back into the brazier fire. He leaned in close and whispered in my ear: "This is your last chance to confess. Your final chance to save your soul. Cleanse yourself of your sins, or burn in the fires of damnation forever."
I'd never really had much time for holy men. This one was no exception. I so very badly wanted to choke the life from him with my bare hands, but the thick ropes that bound me to my chair limited my options somewhat. The chair was reinforced with iron and bolted to the floor. It was almost as if this place had been prepared to contain someone whose strength far exceeded that of a normal man.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked.
He took another iron from the brazier and inspected its bright orange tip. "Why? Why? I should have thought it was obvious. Only by peeling away the human mask can I reveal the demon beneath. And we both know there is a demon, don't we, Master Manfred?"
I could not have been more surprised had he slapped me in the face with a wet trout. How could he possibly have guessed such a thing? Not even my closest friends in High Sazburg had known my secret. I'd guarded it jealously, for good reason.
"There was a demon," I admitted cautiously. Given these dire circumstances I was prepared to detail my recent misadventure with the arch-vampyre Count Bobo Adelhaben and his evil consort, Monika von Drache, which until that moment I had been doing my best to forget. "It has already been exorcized and cast into the abyss."
The monk, in a sudden rage, threw the hot iron across the chamber. It clanged off the wall and thudded to the floor. "You think me a fool? You think I don't recognize the sulfurous stench of sorcery that rises from your flesh and fills this room?" He paused to gasp for breath. When he spoke again, his tone was more measured. "You bear all the signs of darkness. I only have to look at you to know you are a servant of the Horned One. And I... I am the sword of shining righteousness, forged to battle the evil that seeks to overwhelm our world."
Mad as a hatter. I didn't hold out much hope for a good ending to this story.
"I should like to save the man and destroy the demon," he said, choosing another hot iron. "But this is not always possible. Sometimes one must perish in order to destroy the other." He sounded genuinely apologetic. He turned to face me again and advanced with the glowing iron. "I pray that you understand the necessity. I take no pleasure from this."
That makes two of us, I thought, wishing I could somehow travel back in time to the previous evening and warn myself about this madman. Alas....
I remember asking von Kurtz who the man in the black robe was. The adjutant-major made a sour face before answering. "His name's Razputin. He's a monk, or so he claims. He accompanied the Moskovian trade delegation that visited last week. They went back home, he stayed. The Graf has not yet seen fit to explain why." Von Kurtz drained the contents of his glass. "And it is not my place to ask." Evidently I'd hit a sore point, without realizing.
The orchestra played a pleasant melody over the hubbub of conversation and laughter that filled the ballroom. Tonight everyone in the Empire was celebrating the Kaiserine's engagement to Good King Johnnie, benign ruler of Albion. Even Wentgarten, far from the Prussian capital, on the Eastern March facing frosty Moskovia, was no exception. We men all looked our best in our formal dress uniforms, and the ladies were beautiful in their finest evenwear and glittering jewelry. Outside, cannons were firing and bells were ringing. The orchestra played louder.
Von Kurtz snatched another glass from a passing servant's tray and tossed the startled servant his empty glass. We'd struck up an easy friendship almost from the moment I'd arrived here unannounced, having escorted one of the Graf von Krazny's daughters home to Wentgarten after some highwaymen waylaid her coach. Von Kurtz had been the one who'd suggested to the Graf that the Border Guards XII Corps might benefit from my services, since their previous swordmaster had hospitalized himself—somewhat ironically—by nicking an artery whilst shaving. At first I'd been reluctant to accept the job, but it was working out rather well. My honorary rank of captain forbade the Graf's guardsmen from challenging me to personal duels and thus reminding me of recent fatal events in High Sazburg, which I was keen to put behind me.
"Hadn't you better ease up on the sauce?" I suggested to von Kurtz, only half-jokingly.
"Strange times, Manfred, strange times," he said mysteriously. I assumed he was referring to Razputin, who was speaking to the Graf at that very moment. Whatever the monk said made the Graf nod in agreement. But Razputin's gaze was fixed upon me, which I didn't like one bit. His pit-black eyes held a sinister power that touched me from across the room. For a moment I wondered whether he might be vampyre. But my senses told me no, he was not. Nonetheless I remained wary of this man, and I resolved to press von Kurtz for more information later.
A house guard officer approached von Kurtz and they leaned together to talk in whispers. While this was going on I found myself being admired from the other side of the room by a young lady. Her striking beauty and raven hair suggested she might be another of the Graf's daughters, most of whom were of age and most of whom had, one way or another, either bluntly or with knowing subtlety, expressed an interest in me. I blamed it on the uniform: while the Graf's men wore his distinctive black-and-purple colors I still wore Duke Wilhelm's livery, scarlet trimmed with gold, which made me stand out in the crowd. I also like to think I have rugged good looks, though upon sober reflection I am probably deluding myself. What man does not? Meanwhile the young lady smiled at me and I smiled back, trying to guess who she was. Constanz, perhaps, or possibly Shari, whom I had not been introduced to yet. The problem was that the Graf had so many daughters, all of whom bore a striking resemblance to their equally beautiful mother. But while such beauty was tempting, I'd heard mess gossip about misguided young officer cadets who'd allowed their passion to overcome their common sense and had ended up aboard the next transport Zeppelin bound for The Front, which fate I neither envied nor desired. Thus I chided myself for returning the lady's smile, which might be seen as encouragement, and by sheer effort of will turned my attention back to von Kurtz instead.
He placed his empty glass on a servant's tray but didn't take a fresh one this time. "Don't look at anyone, don't say a thing, just follow us," he said. Without waiting to hear my response he set off through the crowd in pursuit of the house guard officer. I went after them, as requested.
The lady moved to intercept me. We met just as I reached the door and she pressed something into my hand. She really was quite attractive, and now that I'd seen her up close I realized she wasn't one of the Graf's daughters after all. "My most sincere apologies, my lady," I said, "duty calls." Surprise and disappointment showed in her eyes. Hopefully she'd still be around when I returned. I saw she'd given me a white silk handkerchief, embroidered with the letter "V" in gold thread. I pushed it into a pocket and caught up with von Kurtz.
We left the grand ballroom, crossed the hallway and descended a flight of steps into a wide cellar stocked with barrels and bottle racks. Then we passed through a busy kitchen full of steam and clattering noises. Cooks and their assistants hastened to get out of our way. We climbed another stairway and emerged into an enclosed courtyard, one of many such within the sprawling collection of buildings and towers that comprised Schloss von Krazny von Wentgarten.
I'd been told that some parts of the castle dated back to the time of the first Eagle Dukes. The courtyard's crumbling walls and a skewed arch gateway hinted that this might be one of those original areas. The castle looked solid from the outside but here the reality was far different. A good storm could bring this section down.
Lantern light revealed a half-dozen guardsmen gathered in the far corner of the courtyard, their backs to us. As we approached they parted to admit von Kurtz. I recognized most of them; I'd been training these men and had got to know some fairly well. Usually when off duty they were full of good humor. Tonight their expressions were grim and their eyes wary.
I kept my distance until von Kurtz beckoned me closer. I wished he hadn't. The body that lay face-down in a flower bed was that of a young woman who wore a pale yellow dress and matching slippers with silk straps around her slim ankles. The Graf's daughters were all raven-haired; this poor girl was blonde. Her arms and legs were unnaturally twisted, as was her head. The pale yellow dress was spattered with blood and so were the walls behind her. I looked up, prompting von Kurtz to do the same. There was no ledge above, no bridge between the castle's towers or wings. She could not have fallen, presuming she'd had business up there in the first place. Someone had murdered her in this spot. Someone with brutal strength and fury; a madman.
"Everyone move back," I said. They obeyed without question. I took one of the lanterns, crouched and examined the earth. "Did any of you step in the flower bed?"
"No, sir," a young lieutenant named Gustav said with certainty. "None of us did. It was obvious, sir, that the lady was beyond help. I sent Schotzie here to alert the duty officer." Schotzie, beside him, nodded to confirm this.
"Do you see any prints?" von Kurtz asked me.
"No," I lied. "Not a thing. But it was worth having a look."
Von Kurtz addressed the guardsmen. "I'm pleased to see that none of you has so much as a spot of blood on his uniform. Judging from the mess on the walls, whoever is responsible for this ghastly deed may not be so clean. You will give your names and company numbers to the duty officer. Then you will pair off, split up, and take a casual stroll through the castle. Without appearing to do so, you will examine everyone you meet—officers, guardsmen, servants, maids, cooks, stable hands. Should you find anyone with blood on their clothing or boots or under their fingernails, one of you will remain to observe that person while the other reports at once to the duty officer. If you make no such discovery within the next hour, find the duty officer and do whatever he tells you. During this exercise you will not discuss what you have seen here with anyone. Is this understood?"
"Yes, sir," came the chorus. Von Kurtz nodded his approval and the guardsmen dispersed, most going back inside via the cellar stairs while one pair disappeared through the skewed arch gateway. Von Kurtz and I were left alone in the courtyard with the corpse of the unfortunate girl.
"Do you recognize her?" I asked him.
"No, I do not." Von Kurtz wiped his hand down his face. He looked drained and weary. "You should know that she is not the first." The words had come tumbling out, as if this were something he didn't wish to tell me. Or was not supposed to tell me.