"Blackwind, is it you?"
Claude rushed to the black wolf.
The howling turned into a low growl. The wolf lowered its body, ready to pounce, but relaxed when Claude removed his raincoat's hood.
Looking at Claude, the wolf jumped backwards and ran to the shack. After taking a few strides, it turned back and stared at him. It whimpered and stamped its paws anxiously.
"Want me to follow you?"
Claude's heart sank. It seemed something had befallen the girl. Otherwise, the wolf wouldn't be in such a rush to look for him.
"Lead the way."
The wolf darted off again, though it paused every now and again to check that Claude was still following.
The rain was slightly lighter under the forest canopy. But the rain was so heavy when they left cover he couldn't open his eyes. Even with the beastskin raincoat on, he was completely drenched. The coat was only good for blocking the cold wind.
The trail was hard to traverse, especially during such weather. He couldn't see beyond ten steps. He held a Luminous Pearl in hand to help illuminate his path. As expected, the wolf was leading him towards the witch's part of the forest where the girl lived.
The pearl that could light a room for about two hours in normal conditions dissipated in less than half an hour in Claude's hands. Its mana had run out completely. It wasn't that Claude himself didn't have the mana. Instead, the spell formation he traced out in the rain caused the mana to disperse quickly. It worked the same way how magic essence in ripples dissipated quicker in the rain.
Had the wolf not been leading his way ahead and called out to him periodically to guide him, he was certain that he would never be able to find the witch's forest himself. He would most likely go lost in the mountains.
He had fallen for the nth time after slipping. Rolling on the ground so often had covered him completely in mud, but they washed off after a while in the rain. He only relaxed when he finished a difficult climb up the ridge. The forest was finally in sight.
He practically rolled down the ridge in a haggard fashion, drinking quite a bit of rainwater in the process. When he was near the wood, he used Eye of Appraisal. He noticed the forest was no different from others. It was a black blur.
He slapped his forehead. There was no way the girl would set any magic traps in the forest in this weather. Given that even ripples would dissipate in rain, the traps wouldn't hold for long either. Just like his Luminous Pearl, it would disappear after a while. There wasn't a point in setting them.
The wolf's impatient whimper echoed back through the downpour. It had advanced even further in the moment he'd had hesitated. He cast another Luminous Pearl and walked towards the deep part of the forest. Soon, he reached the muddy, empty plot. As he expected, the shack was deathly quiet and not a single trace of light could be seen inside. The closer he approached, the stronger the smell of blood he picked up.
He kicked the shack door open and tossed the ball of light. The sight completely shocked him.
In front of the broken table by the left corner of the roof was the wall; flat on the ground. No wonder the wolf gotten in despite the door still being closed. A large, black bear also lay bound by a jumble of green vines. The bear's blood mixed with the rainwater and made the whole shack smell of rust.
The girl lay, unmoving, on the wooden log bed -- drenched as much in blood as rain. Blackwind sat beside her, nudging her with its head incessantly. She did not react. The wolf glanced at Claude pleadingly.
He kicked the black bear. It was dead. Rigour mortis had even started setting in. He breathed a sigh of relief and made it to the side of the bed. He first touched her forehead and found it slightly warm. Then, he bent down and put his ear against his chest. Fortunately, he could still hear her heartbeat. Relieved, he continued his inspection only to find that her chest was still bleeding.
Casting away all modesty, he undid the patchwork fur she wore. She wore the male linen undergarments he'd given her underneath. The shirt was crimson. He could see three gouges claws had made on her torso even through the linen. Blood bubbled out of them even as the rain washed the blood away.
Why had a girl like her tried wrestling a bear? Claude could only shake his head. He tore the undergarment and exposed her upper body. There was a gash half an inch wide on her left breast.
He subconsciously reached out for his back, only to remember that he hadn't brought his backpack. He only had a bayonet. The girl was severely injured and needed immediate treatment, however, but he didn't know if she had medicine, and he couldn't wake her up.
He stood up and searched the broken table. Only food. He recalled the shelf on the wall where the bottles sat. Just as he reached out for it, he found that the shelf was gone. The bear had probably knocked it away along with the wall, but it had paid the price with its life.
The wolf growled and whimpered. Claude turned around and saw it covered in blood beside the girl. He had not noticed the blood before and thought it was just wet. It was in no better condition than its master.
"Know where the medicine is kept?" Claude asked.
The wolf laboured to its feet and stared at the table, before slumping down again. Having no choice, Claude took a clean undergarment from the bed and tore it into pieces and wrapped her up with the mat on the bed before removing his coat and putting it over her. Then, he found a rope and tied her on his back.
"I have to take your master to the camp. Can you hold on a little longer? If you can make it back as well, I can treat you, too." Claude said as he cast another Luminous Pearl and prepared to leave.
The wolf stood up and barked lowly, before stepping out of the shack -- back into the rain. Claude grit his teeth and followed on.
This journey was far harder than the previous one. Thankfully, the rain was lighter than before and he could see slightly farther. He deftly avoided the potholes and tried his best to keep his balance. He was carrying the unconscious on his back, after all, and wasn't travelling alone like before. He had only crudely wrapped her injury. He was concerned the journey would worsen her condition.
But no matter how careful he was, he would still slip and fall. He tried his best to prevent the girl from getting hurt even further. The front part of his clothes was completely covered in mud as it would be if he rolled in a puddle.
After much difficulty, he finally made it back to the camp. The guards on duty had switched shifts. The guard only recognised Claude after some wide-eyed scrutinising. "S-sir... Why are you out in such heavy rain... and there's a... a wolf behind you..."
The soldier panicked and reached out for his gun, but the tight space of the outpost and his shivering prevented him from aiming it. By then, the black wolf was already beside Claude.
"Don't panic. This is a wolfdog my friend owns. It helps with hunting. My friend on my back here got attacked by a black bear and I'm going to help with treatment. Open the gate and go to Mazik for punishment tomorrow morning. You left your gun where you know it shouldn't have been, and, on top of that, you didn't light your slowmatch... It's fine if you want to play fast and loose with your life, but you're risking the others' lives as well. That's unacceptable!"
The guard shot him a regretful look. "Yes, Sir, it's my bad. I will see Sergeant-Major Mazik tomorrow for my punishment."
The guard opened the gate. "Blackwind, come with."
Since he couldn't leave the wolf outside, it'd be best to bring it into his room. Otherwise, the soldiers would wake up with a fright and might shoot at it in a panic. He had to treat its wounds anyway, so he'd let it sleep with the girl in the same room.
Claude's rushed footsteps woke the sleeping Myjack. When he opened the door, he stuttered, "Wolf... wolf..."
Only after that did he see Claude. Claude didn't waste any time. "Myjack, get me two bottles of healing concoction for external injuries and one for internal ones. Don't get me the military supplied ones. I want the better quality ones you bought from town. Oh, and bring some bandages and blood-clotting paste as well."
Myjack stared at him blankly before looking at the figure wrapped up on his back. Claude kicked open the door himself and entered with the wolf the size of a calf following him in.
Myjack finally snapped out of his stupor and said, "Yes, Sir. I'll get you the things immediately."
Claude untied the girl and removed the soaked coat before stuffing her into the sheets of the bed. He touched her head and found it still hot. But it was good enough for him that she was still breathing at all. The wolf crouched down beside the fireplace.
Myjack soon came to the door and knocked. "Sir, may I enter?"
Myjack came in with a first aid kit and looked at the wolf before turning to the young girl in bed.
"She's the daughter of a hunter and lives up in the mountains. This black wolf is her pet, Blackwind. I got to know her back when I travelled to the mountains. This time around, she got attacked by a black bear and was injured. Blackwind ran here and howled, and when I went to check, it led me to her home. I found her unconscious there and brought her back for treatment. Any other questions?"
Claude made his excuse heard first before he was even asked anything. He had thought it up on the way back.
"B-but Sir... I heard the villagers say the one who lives in the mountains is a witch..." Myjack said gingerly.
So he'd heard something from the villagers after all.
"Does she look like a witch to you? It's just what the villagers think. She fled into the mountains with her family to avoid the baron. The villagers think she's a witch because of their ignorance. She merely picks herbs and makes them into medicinal paste to trade for food. Blackwind helps her with the trades, that's why they think she's a witch! It's a baseless rumour, you understand?"
"Y-yes, Sir," Myjack stuttered as he handed over the first-aid kit.
"Alright, you may leave. Prepare a tub in the guest room and fill it with hot water. I will take a bath after treating her and Blackwind. After you're done, get a few meaty bones from the kitchen for Blackwind. He eats them cooked, not raw," Claude instructed.