Karl Wilhelm’s left arm was the first limb that was smashed. The executioner’s club shattered it with enough force so that witnesses in the back of the crowd could hear the cracking sound clearly. He cried out in agony as he lay across the span of an old wagon wheel. His limbs were tied fast to the wheel’s edge, and its spokes supported his body. The wheel itself was atop an old, unused well, and Karl stared heavenward as the executioner, encouraged and energized by the whooping and cheering of the crowd, dragged the large club along the ground as he positioned himself at Karl’s right side. With all of his strength, the masked executioner brought the heavy instrument up above his head, and as the club reached its apex the crowd paused in anxious anticipation. The club fell down, and Karl’s right arm cracked under the blow. The crowd cheered uproariously.
The man in the mask moved along to each of Karl’s legs, breaking them both above and below the knee. Bone protruded through the torn skin as blood dripped through the ruptures and into the well below. The crowd screamed their approval and threw rotten fruit at the condemned man. The executioner removed his mask and raised his arms to encourage the crowd to cheer further. His last strike landed on Karl’s chest, breaking several of his ribs. Blood erupted from his mouth and nose. With that, the executioner dropped the club and stepped away from the well.
From the back of the crowd, a boy of about ten studied Karl’s gasping form. “He’s still alive,” the boy said to his uncle.
“That’s all part of the punishment, Victor,” his uncle responded. “He’ll lay there in pain. Death will take him when it’s ready. I’ve never seen a man who lasted past sunset.” The boy continued to study the dying man through the other onlookers, many of whom were taking turns spitting and urinating on Karl.
Victor recalled the list of charges that Karl Wilhelm had been accused of. “What is lycanthropy?” he asked of his uncle.
“It means he can become a wolf. It’s the mark of a wicked man.”
Victor nodded his understanding. “Can we stay and watch him die?”
“I have work to do, but you can stay until sunset. Don’t forget I need your help tonight at the tavern.”
“I’ll be there,” Victor assured him.
As his uncle walked away, Victor could hear the broken man plead to the crowd with strained breaths, “Please, just kill me.” This only encouraged the horde more, and they jeered and roared at his predicament. However, as the afternoon heat began to take its toll the excitement of the crowd began to wane. One by one, the men and women left for their cottages and hovels until only Victor and a few others remained.
The boy stepped closer to the dying man with uncertainty apparent in each step. When he was as close as he dared, he pursed his lips and launched a phlegm projectile that struck Karl between his eyes.
With great effort, Karl turned his head to where Victor stood. The two made eye contact. “So... thirsty,” Karl rasped.
Victor stared at the face of the accused man. Each of Karl’s brown eyes reflected the swirling white clouds above him. Longer and longer Victor stared, losing track of time and relinquishing awareness of his surroundings. He had no idea how long he maintained eye contact with Karl Wilhelm, but when he finally broke his stare, it was almost sunset, and the village square was nearly empty. Victor backed away from the wheel and its man, and as he headed off to his uncle’s tavern, he felt a twinge of regret that he had spit on someone so defenseless.
His uncle’s prediction, that Karl would be dead by sunset, proved to be entirely wrong. Those who lived nearest to the old well had their slumbers disturbed throughout the night as Karl screamed and moaned. His pleas for mercy and death went unanswered as the village residents held pillows and blankets over their heads in an attempt to drown out the horrid sounds of the dying man.
All through the next day, Karl continued with ungodly shrieks and screeches as death refused to take him. Residents, who just a day earlier had made merriment at the man’s suffering, soon found themselves anxious and disconcerted as his cries carried on throughout the day and into the next.
“Go get the executioner,” some of them demanded. “Have him finish his job.”
Others argued against that. “No, he’ll die when he’s supposed to. No mercy for the wicked.”
On the third night after his supposed execution, Karl Wilhelm still appeared to be very much alive, as proven by his unceasing cries of pain and requests for mercy. From his uncle’s tavern, Victor could hear him clearly between pauses in the conversations. Frazzled patrons lined the bar and occupied all the tables as Victor weaved in and out, bringing mugs to the tap for refilling and then returning them to the customers. Various discussions about the man outside dominated the night, and fear punctuated the dialogue as the men nervously proclaimed to understand what was going on.
“Hell doesn’t want him, that’s why he won’t die!” proclaimed Peter the shoemaker. Others raised their mugs in nervous agreement.
“I don’t think he’s guilty at all,” came a response from across the room. The men all paused and looked at Conrad Becker, one of the village’s oldest men. “We’re being punished - forced to listen to the cries of an innocent man until we ourselves go insane.”
“How could he possibly be innocent?” others demanded.
“I looked him in the eyes, and I know the stare of innocence.” The tavern became hushed as Conrad Becker spoke. “And why should we believe the allegations against him? Did anyone observe him turn into a wolf?” The men all looked at each other, waiting to see who among them would stand up as a witness. “The judges on the counsel are only interested in making a name for themselves, the truth doesn’t concern them.”
Victor’s uncle spoke up. “Then who tore apart Walter Earnst? And who ripped his daughter’s head off? A giant wolf was seen walking on two legs outside of Karl’s farm, and his hatred of Walter was well known. That’s close enough for me. Who else could it have been?” Cheers of agreement supported him.
Conrad protested. “That’s not real evidence! Lots of people didn’t like Walter Earnst! Some of them are in this bar right now!”
“Then who is the lycanthrope if it’s not Karl Wilhelm?” the men asked as they began to break into smaller discussions amongst themselves.
They argued late into the night. Most seemed to agree that Karl Wilhelm was indeed guilty, but a few maintained his innocence. As the crowd dwindled, Victor said goodnight to his uncle and headed home. His trip was interrupted by the moaning of Karl Wilhelm. Victor’s paces stopped, and after a moment’s hesitation he turned and walked toward the well, the wheel, and Wilhelm.
As he approached, Wilhelm’s ears twitched and he seemed to sense Victor’s presence. “Water,” came his strained request.
“So thirsty,” Karl said in a raspy voice that was barely above a whisper.
Victor viewed the pathetic form in front of him, and a stitch of sympathy took hold. He looked to the dewy ground and saw a small dirty puddle where the night’s condensation had collected. Glancing behind him to make sure no one was looking, Victor made a cup with his hands and bent down to gathered as much of the water as he could. He carefully stood up and moved his hands over Karl’s mouth. As he loosened his fingers, the water flowed down and dribbled into Karl’s delirious maw. He repeated the act of mercy two more times, until the puddle gave no more water.
“Thank you.” Victor noticed that Karl’s voice was noticeably less raspy.
Karl stared up into the starry night and enjoyed the sensation of a wet throat. Eventually, he spoke again to Victor. “My father taught me to never let a debt go unpaid, but I have nothing I can give you except for advice.” He paused for a moment to think. “Always remember that the world exists in shades of gray.”
Victor contemplated what was told to him but failed to understand what the man was getting at. Without saying anything more, he backed away slowly and left for home. Soon, any relief that had been visited upon Karl was gone, and his screams and wails started up. In their homes, the residents spent another night trying their best not to hear it.
Karl held strong throughout the next day. His pleas were ignored but not unheard, and nearly everyone within earshot was noticeably on edge. His gangrenous legs, chapped skin, and sallow features made him appear as something other than human to those few who wandered over to look.
That night, many of the residents again gathered within the tavern, thankful that the activity of the crowded room was able to drown out the noise from the man on the wheel. Ironically, they spent most of their evening talking about the very man they were trying to get away from.
The arguments from the previous night were far from settled, and Victor listened as the inebriated men took up their positions once again.
“Only a wolf-man could survive out there this long!” some claimed.
Conrad Becker, the primary defender of Karl’s innocence, shot back, “If he was a wolf he would have changed into one by now! Clearly he’s just a man, and only a man.”
Victor tuned them out. The beers he brought to the men kept them slaked and heated at the same time. Soon, the air in the room grew thick, so Victor was glad when his uncle allowed him to take a break. He stepped outside into the fresh air and took some deep breaths. The first thing he noticed is that the night was quiet. Curiously, he walked over to the village square to check on the condition of Karl Wilhelm. The man was still breathing.
“Victor? Victor is that you?” the condemned man asked as he approached. Victor hadn’t realized that Karl even knew his name.
“Yes, it’s me.”
Victor reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a flask that he’d earlier filled with water. He opened it and held it over Karl’s mouth, allowing the liquid to slowly dribble its way down.
“That tastes good,” Karl said. The two of them waited in silence as the man slowly regained some sense of humanity. “And now I must repay you." He stared at the heavens thoughtfully. "You will be better off in life to forgive past transgressions.”
Victor considered the advice and then took his leave before anyone saw him talking to the living dead man. Karl’s screams began again shortly thereafter.
Day broke, and the residents tried their best to carry on with their normal activities, but they found themselves becoming more and more irritable as Karl’s moans pierced their ears and penetrated their minds. A small group of men, led by Conrad Becker, gathered in the village square. A few of them believed in Karl’s innocence, while the others had simply had enough of his loud suffering and were anxious to see it end.
“That man should be put out of his misery,” Conrad declared with an axe in his hand. The men nodded and hummed their agreement. With raucous cheers they headed to the wheel.
Victor, who was preparing his uncle’s tavern for the night, heard the unfolding scene and went outside just in time to see Conrad lift the axe above his head, poised to strike down on Karl’s skull. Even from across the way, Victor could see Karl’s muscles relax, relieved that a finishing stroke was only moments away. Before Conrad could bring the axe down, the thunder of fast approaching footsteps was heard.
“Don’t you dare end that man’s life!” came a scream from behind Victor. It was Hans Stein, a prominent village leader who had sat on the counsel that had found Karl guilty of lycanthropy. He was accompanied by several other men.
“Can’t you see what’s in front of you?” Conrad protested as the second group made their way toward the well. He hesitantly lowered his axe. “Look! This is no longer a man, but a miserable wretch! Have you no mercy?”
Hans arrived at the well. “I agree that this is no man, but a wretch he is not. He’s a wolf, and God or the Devil will take him when they’re ready.”
Conrad gave a once-over to the tortured man in front of him. Flies buzzed above the rotten flesh on Karl’s legs. Deep cracks spread out over his skin like spider webs, revealing dried musculature underneath. His eyes appeared to have sunken deep into his skull, and his limbs were contorted at odd angles.
With resolve, Conrad lifted he axe back up with a shout. “Death is his only choice now, and the quicker the better!”
Before he could land a strike, two burly men came up from behind Hans and grabbed onto him, slamming him to the ground. The head of the axe fell onto Conrad’s leg causing a long gash to form along his shin.
For a tense moment, it appeared as if the two groups of men were going to come to blows, but the determination of Conrad’s group wavered as they all took turns waiting for someone else to act first. In the end they only stared at each other ashamed.
Hans took advantage of the lack of leadership within the rival group and spoke loudly, “There will be no intervening! All of you leave before you’re arrested.” He directed the two burly men to drag a semi-conscious Conrad away from the well.
“Please...” came the scraping voice of the man on the wheel.
Hans ignored the pleas and waited while the group dispersed. When he was sure the mob had disbanded, he too left, and Karl was alone in his agony. His pained moaning began yet again as the sun beat down on him.
Victor had watched the scene unfold with conflicted feelings, but soon he retreated back into his uncle’s tavern where they were preparing for the nightly crowd.
“Uncle, Do you really think that man is guilty of being a wolf?”
“I believe in the counsel,” his uncle replied. “They say he is guilty, therefore he is guilty... and good for business,” he added with a chuckle. He looked closer at Victor. “You don’t think he is innocent, do you? You just take those concerns and bury them if you do.”
“Yes uncle,” came the reserved reply.
Karl Wilhelm was indeed good for business, and that night the tavern was as full as it had ever been. It was only in the late hours that Victor had a chance to slip away. He stepped out of the tavern and into the cool air. Across the square, he could see Karl lying across the well. A low hum was emanating from his lungs, but it ceased as Victor approached.
“Victor? Is that you?” Karl asked with a wheezy whisper. His eyes, which were pointed directly up into the sky, were completely dried out and lifeless.
Without saying a word, Victor removed a flask and attempted to pour some water into Karl’s mouth.
Karl shook him off. “Save it. I’m beyond thirst now.”
Victor lowered his arms dejectedly, and both the man and boy remained silent in the cool night air. Victor could hear the crickets chirping for the first time in days. It was almost entrancing.
“Victor, do you know where my house is?” Karl asked to the surprised boy.
Victor took pause at the odd question, but affirmed with a murmur that he knew where the house was.
The visit from the boy seemed to energize Karl, and he spoke clearly. “Good. I have one more favor to ask of you. In the corner of the bedroom there’s a loose floorboard. If you lift it up, inside you will find a common belt, just like the one you’re wearing to keep your pants up.”
Victor glanced down at his leather belt.
“Please, will you retrieve it for me?” Karl asked with a cough.
Victor scratched his head. “What do you want with a belt? How can it help you?”
“It was made for me by my wife nearly twenty years ago, right before she died. It’s one of the only things I still have that remind me of her. I believe she’ll find me and guide me into the afterlife if I wear it.”
The boy looked at the pathetic man in front of him who wanted nothing more than to die, then glanced back at the tavern, where the libations were still flowing freely and he knew he was needed. “I can’t leave right now.”
The sounds of vigorous arguing filtered through the walls of the tavern and littered the night air. Karl allowed the sounds to envelop him before speaking. “I promise, those men inside won’t be angry with you.” Then, Karl sweetened the deal. “There are some gold coins hidden alongside the belt, they can be yours.”
Victor considered his options. He knew his uncle would be upset if he was gone too long, but the promise of the coins intrigued him. “I can get it for you later tonight,” he offered.
“I’ve waited here long enough, Victor. My house is only minutes away if you run fast.”
The moon shone down upon the two of them as Victor finally agreed to the request. He wasted no time as he bolted off. His feet carried him quickly to the outskirts of the village, and then beyond. Down the trail he ran as the trees and thickets grew denser around him. Soon he found Karl’s farmhouse, which had been abandoned since his jailing. He pushed on the front door, which creaked as it slowly opened. The house was completely dark inside, which forced Victor to inch his way to a window and push aside the ratty curtains. Bits of moonlight streamed into the room; barely enough for him to see. He crept further in until he made it into the back room of the home.
The rickety floor bent under his weight as he shuffled to the only unfurnished corner in the room. He knelt down to feel for a loose floorboard while the smell of dust kicked his nose. He methodically felt each board until a loose one moved in his fingers. He eagerly moved it out of his way and jammed his hand down into the murky hole. His fingers felt the belt immediately. He pulled it out and put his hand back inside, looking for the gold coins which he’d been promised, but he felt nothing more within the hole. Disappointed, he reached further in, feeling along the dirty crevices. There was only emptiness.
Victor knelt in the darkness mulling over his situation. Had Karl lied to him about the gold, he wondered, or had someone already come along and taken it? Either way, he knew his uncle was going to be furious, and he had nothing to show for his absence. He grabbed the belt and inched his way out of the gloomy dwelling and pushed through the woods on his way back to the town.
He arrived back at the village square out of breath and exhausted. On his run back, he’d made the decision to bypass Karl and return directly to the tavern, but as he approached, the renewed moaning from atop the well gave him pause. He still had sympathy for the tortured man.
The moaning stopped as Victor approached. “Do you have the belt?” Karl asked.
“There was no gold!” the boy sputtered.
“I’m sorry. I lied to you about the gold,” Karl replied between obvious bouts of suffering. “I had no choice.”
Disillusionment crept along Victor’s face.
“Please forgive me, Victor. I ask one last thing of you - put the belt around my waist.”
Victor, who only wanted to go back to the tavern, decided to give the man his one last request and then be done with him for good. He climbed on top of the well and reached his hand under the man’s back, threading the belt under and then over him. He closed the buckle and then jumped down from the well and started walking back toward the tavern.
“Victor!” came the suddenly much stronger voice of Karl Wilhelm, “Have you thought much about the advice I gave you?”
The boy stopped in surprise at how much stronger the man sounded. He ran through his previous conversations with Karl... shades of gray, forgiving past transgressions – he wasn’t sure what it all meant.
“You see, Victor, I was a good man, but I still wanted to see Walter Earnst dead. He attacked my wife many years ago and never paid for his crimes... he was too close to the village counsel.”
Victor returned to the well, and noticed that Karl’s eyes were no longer sunken into his skull. In fact, his entire face looked much healthier.
“So I called to the Devil, and it took years, but he answered. I wanted Walter Earnst to pay for his deeds in the most horrible way.”
Karl’s deflated muscles began regaining their form.
“It was he who gave me the belt, not my wife. Again, I’m sorry I had to lie to you.”
Victor took a step back as he saw the broken bones in Karl’s legs straighten out and heal.
Karl continued, “and when the deed was done, I was ashamed of myself because I had killed his daughter too. When they came to arrest me, I allowed it. I could’ve gotten away.”
The wheel began cracking under the strain as Karl’s growing limbs pushed against its rim.
Karl’s voice grew deeper. “And I laid here for days, waiting for a death that refused to come. It finally became apparent to me that God won’t have me, and the Devil thinks I still have more work to do.”
In the moonlight, it appeared to Victor that Karl’s very face seemed to be contorting into something different.
“So I’ll do HIS work.”
Coarse gray hair began growing upon his body as Victor sat frozen in fear.
Karl’s voice had attained a deep, animalistic growl. “You’ve done me one last favor, and as before I can only repay you with advice.” He turned his head and stared at the boy. His eyes were yellow. “Run.”
Victor fell backwards onto his bottom and crawled away. When he heard the wooden wheel begin to break apart, he finally stood up and heeded the advice, running away beyond the boundary of the village.
The wagon wheel splintered to pieces as the man attached to it doubled in size. His body contorted to a wolfen shape as he stepped down from the well and howled. Walking on two feet, the beast approached the tavern, while inside a sudden confused silence fell over the men. For the most part, they were the same ones who had laughed at Karl, the same ones who had spit and pissed on him, the same ones who had allowed his suffering to go on unabated. Karl owed them for five days of torture and agony, and as he entered the tavern through its only door, the single thought on his primitive mind was that he should never let a debt go unpaid.
Written by Creepy Thomas O.