Because of a Cough by John R. Canter

It had barely been even a day since the volcanic eruption. Most of the streets were still deep with soot. At least, those streets that weren’t completely buried or burned by active lava flows. I had survived, somehow, thanks to this curse. I didn’t dare take shelter with any others, and that turned out to be a good thing. I can usually handle stress, as a medical doctor, but in a life-or-death situation, I can’t always prevent the change that comes with being a werewolf.

As it turns out, had I gone to the left down the hall I would have burned alive with all the other doctors. Instead, I turned right, and hid in an interior closet, where I panicked and turned wolf. Stronger and tougher, I survived the destruction of the hospital. It must have been the transformation back to human: I knew a change could heal some wounds, but it will still take some time before the burns don’t hurt.

After finding meager clothes (tatters, really) is chose to stay in the city. Bruciato is my home, volcanic or not. And I am a doctor; I took an oath to help the injured. I found myself working in the only-partly-damaged brick building that was now the first aid center for the survivors. There were too few other doctors there, and too many dying.

“Dr. Nascosta,” another woman, acting as a nurse as best she could, called over. I went over to her, where she was tending to a young boy. His hair was burned away on one side, and he already had scarification on his face and body where the burns were starting to heal. He would be disfigured for life, and he would be one of the lucky few. He coughed while lying on his back, not even on a proper cot: a man’s trench-coat had been thrown over a long crate to fashion a make-shift bed for the patient.

I looked him over. “What’s your name, little one?”

He coughed. “Esco, miss,” he whispered out hoarsely.

“Tell me where it hurts,” I asked him.

More coughing, then hard swallowing. “Mama …”

I told the nurse to see if his mother could comfort him during examination, but she shook her head. I saw her eyes dart to her left for just a moment, in the direction of the growing pile of body bags outside (the one thing we had full supply of), too subtle for the struggling boy to pick up. I nodded. “Then let me provide what comfort I can.”

I treated his wounds, and with creeping relief the boy fell asleep. Or he passed out; he was stable, but exhausted. I could feel exhaustion stalking me as well. In every direction was a gloom, a haze of ashen cloud and a pressure of ruin. I knew my heightened senses were working against me – the coughing fits of enough of the others around me meant they too could smell only the soot that was thick in the air, but for me it was like close walls. All I could smell was soot, all clothes and people and water and air was soot and soot and endless soot. It muted all other sensation, while at the same time pressing in on my brain, the burning smell telling me one primal fact: danger.

I must have stood still for a minute over the boy I was helping, eyes closed and concentrating. My teeth did not grown sharp nor my mind feral – I held back the wolf again, but it was getting harder each time.

When I opened my eyes again, there were no other doctors, patients, or acting nurses in the room. It was just me and the unconscious boy. And a man, approaching.

“Is this your son?” I asked the man, looking up. He wore a heavy coat, one that seemed only partly blackened, and had a white cloth over his mouth to keep out the soot.

He paused for a moment. He had something in his hand, and I wondered if maybe it was a pocket watch. But no, it gave off a yellow light, but not like a gaslight flame …

… instead it was a silver trinket that glowed like the moon. I felt faint.

He closed the door and drew a gun. “No. Say nothing, and step away from the boy, monster,” he commanded quietly. His voice came through muffled, but even from behind the face mask I recognized him now: Scorretto. Most knew him as a woodsman and a hunter, but to me and other werewolves, hiding among uncursed men and women, he was the Wolf-Slayer. For a long moment neither of us moved. I kept my gaze fixed on him, as I was hunched over the child. He had me pinned with his stare, eyes unblinking, cold like knife-steel in winter and pistol-hand steady as a rock. He was stoic, present. I was frozen, trapped.

I nodded, slowly. I got up from tending to the boy, standing strait, hands visible. All the while I kept my eyes on him. He still did not blink, even in the sooty air. His gun was pointed at my chest, and loaded with silver bullets, no doubt. One shot would be certain death. My hair began to stand on end, as I felt death approaching fast.

The boy coughed, and then laid still. Scorretto reflexively looked, and blinked.

In that instant I lunged – no, the wolf lunged out. Fangs bit into his arm, and he dropped his gun. No gunshot. At the same time I muffled his scream with a clawed hand, and then bit into his throat, twisting with teeth. No cry.

All silent.

I had to regain composure. By the time I was human, I realized that it could be any moment until someone walked in. I cleaned myself of the blood with some alcohol and pocketed the gun, silver bullets and all. I procured a body-bag and closed up the corpse inside. I had to work very quickly. After Scorretto’s body was stored, the boy had awoken.

“Mama,” he cried out with a cough.

“It’s okay,” I told him, still reeking of cleaning alcohol. He calmed down, and looked over at the body bag.

“What happened?” he asked.

“… Someone died. You were asleep when it happened.”

“You couldn’t help them?” he asked worriedly.

“No,” I told him.

“Am I going to die?” he asked.

“No, Esco, you’re going to survive.” He calmed down. “Just rest. I need to take care of something.”

Looking out the door and seeing that the coast was clear, I hefted the corpse out of the room and down the hall.

“What are you doing?” a voice behind me exclaimed. I turned and saw that it was another one of the women nurses. She was staring at me carrying the dead body. Then I remembered the situation we were in as she came and lifted half the weight.

“Carrying this dead patient by myself, can you believe it?” I remarked. “I mean, I know we’re short-handed, but we gotta clear out room, you know?” She bought it, and together we added the corpse to the pile, then went our separate ways to return to another set of patients.

In the end that is what did in the Wolf-Slayer. A doctor and a boy, not feral assassins. Killed not because of a premeditated retaliatory plot by the werewolves, but because of a little boy’s cough.

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