• T.R. Slauf

Prologue



The wolf masks moved quickly, creeping through the gutters and back-alleys, overflowing with filth. The first light of dawn shone faintly over the dismal village. This was the opportune time; they never struck at midnight, that was the hour the filth was most active. Too far past dawn and the villagers would be awake. They couldn’t operate when anyone was awake, if they were seen the village would be alerted to what they were doing and what was to come. They villagers would try to flee or fight back, and they couldn’t have that happening.


Kristor’s plans were foiled in Gunderson by the scar-faced man who called himself a Huntsman. After that he had to revise his strategy, and now he’d perfected it.


Kristor’s eyes narrowed, peering through the grimy windows. His vision was unhindered by the crude mask over his face. He knelt in the gutter and the putrid smell of human desperation filled his nose. This is why he was here.


He watched the Red Cape inside the house intently, studying her every move. Her customer finished defiling her and left moments before, she was the last one still awake inside. Her body was undernourished and covered in disease. She wrapped a tattered quilt tightly around her naked body. Blowing out the last candle she curled up on her stained mattress, its stuffing spilling out from ripped seams.


Their dusty grey cloaks made them one with the shadows. Their masks haunted the darkness as they lay in wait. They were to be this village's redemption. They were to be the bringers of salvation to these wretches.


Kristor gave the signal. Countless people emerged from the darkness, their cloaks billowing behind them as they infiltrated the house.


Kristor opened the window and noiselessly leapt through. He stood inside the hovel, the den of filth where his prey slept unaware. Unwashed bodies lay curled in ripped rags and stained cloaks, empty liquor bottles littered the grimy floor between them.


Grinding his teeth, Kristor seized the woman he’d been watching. As he raised her from her slumber by the roots of her hair, her eyes blew open and her spindly arms flailed. Her feeble form landed pathetic blows on Kristor’s chest. With a ragged breath her eyes rolled back and she fell limp against him. Kristor wondered when she last ate.


Kristor told himself he was delivering the Red Cape from a wretched existence, from her pathetic life of misery. Binding her wrists and gagging her mouth, he tossed the Red Cape over his shoulder. Going back into the alley, he waited for the others to finish.


The other wolf masks dragged their prey into the brisk morning air; the Red Capes were always too drunk or feeble to put up a fight. Their task was completed in under fifteen minutes.


They took their quarry into the town square; one for each of them, no more, no less. They tied the Red Capes to posts they erected earlier that night for this purpose. Stripped of their clothes and blankets, the Red Capes stood shivering in the faint orange glow of dawn.


The wolf masks faced these people, who were covered in warts and sores of disease, marks of their depravities. They deserved this and everyone knew it, even if they were too afraid to say it like those fools in Gunderson. But Kristor had the last laugh.


The Red Witch came back to Gunderson and slaughtered all of the wretches there. This is what inspired Kristor to move on to other villages, spreading his reverence for the Red Witch and her wolves while ridding the gutters of filth. They learned along the way, they adapted and soon their methods were flawless. Now the wolves always came when their sacrifices were ready.


He fervently spread word of how the Red Witch was cleansing them. Through blood sacrifices to her children, their lands would be free of wretchedness and depravity. With every village they visited, news of Gunderson spread, frightening many into their ranks.


They grew from a mere six to thirty-five devout followers. Kristor hoped more from this village would join them—more lives would be saved from the gutters.

Kristor stepped forward.


“An offering of flesh and blood to the Red Witch and her children,” he called out six times, his voice ringing clearly through the empty streets. Villagers were awakening, poking their heads from their windows, they watched him.


“Please accept this offering and cleans us of our wretchedness. Lift us from the gutters of depravity. Have mercy on us and spare us—us who are your devout followers.” Kristor watched in glee while more curious faces came to the windows and doors.


“You need not be afraid; join us and you will be shown mercy by the Red Witch and her children. Pledge your allegiance to her, and you will be allowed to live, to atone for your depravities through offerings of blood.”


Three wolves emerged from the village streets. They stalked the shadows of the alleys, all converging at the town square. The wolves sniffed the Red Capes hungrily before sinking their teeth into their flesh in a brilliant display of power. Kristor smiled. There were more wolves here, he could hear them moving through the village side streets, just like last time.


“Join us—or perish.”


The villagers stared at him, their dirty faces wide in terror or devoid of emotion.


A lone villager tentatively walked into the town square, standing next to the other wolf masks. Then three more came out, then five more. Each was given their own grey cloak and wolf mask.


Kristor smiled to himself. Their ranks were growing.


“Join us—or you shall perish under the teeth of the wolves as these wretches have.” Gesturing to the bloody posts where the dead Red Capes lay, he warned the villagers again.


When no more came to stand with them, a wolf in the square let out an ear-piercing howl. Its sound chilled you to the bone and haunted your every waking hour till death released you, and Kristor loved it. The wolves sprang into action, breaking into the houses. Screams filled the air and blood flowed through the cobblestone streets. The slaughter had begun.


Thinking of the humiliation they suffered in Gunderson, Kristor laughed. It was a deep guttural sound of uncontrollable joy. They were vindicated.


He relished in the screams echoing through the air, and he savored the blood flowing through the streets. Every villager sacrificed meant more were saved; meant he was justified. Rising his arms high, he looked to the morning skies, letting the villagers’ fear wash over him, strengthening his spirit. He laughed harder.


With the slaughter complete, Kristor lead his followers from the village. Walking across the dewy fields, he saw something. Squinting as the sunrise got in his eyes, he gasped.


Kneeling to the ground, the others followed his lead, placing their masked faces to the dirt in reverence. A woman in a red cloak approached them, and the wolves from the village came to stand at her side.


Kristor trembled with delight. It was her. She’d finally come!



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