Excerpt: Cursed with Claws
Every transformation was torture. Sinews broke. Bones snapped. Skin blistered. There was nothing that did not change. From his size to his shape to his organs, the magic stripped him to the core and remade him. Twice a week for ninety-eight years he had suffered the same torment. This was no just punishment for his crime; this was his own personal circle of hell. There was no end in sight. As far as he knew, he would live under the shadow of this nightmare curse forever.
The last of the shivers trembled through him and he dropped to the ground. His breaths came in ragged gasps as he sought to calm his racing heart. Sweat drenched him, streaming down his forehead and dripping to the floor in a steady plip-plop. Although no physical pain remained, the echo of it was raw enough to keep him frozen in place awhile. Only once the stone beneath his knees and palms became too cold to bear did he stagger to his feet, leaning against the wall for support as he reacquainted himself with his human limbs.
As always, it took a moment for the memories to return, but when they did, he stumbled down the winding passageway, towards the central chamber. His heart hammered with the achingly familiar blend of fear and hope. He could not understand why he allowed the latter to take hold. After all these years, he should know better. He supposed the desperate dreaming at least proved he was still more man than beast.
Arriving at the heart of the mountain, he shielded his eyes against the glare. The gold covered every available surface, rising and dipping like shimmering hillocks, the coins tinkling against one another as he crunched them underfoot. Not for the first time, he considered finding some way to block the opening above that let the sunlight pour in, illuminating the hoard. However, it was an impossible feat in human form and neither the remembrance nor the desire stayed with him when he transformed.
He crossed the cavernous chamber as quickly as possible, ignoring the riches, heading straight for the dark room on the far side. His steps slowed as he drew nearer. Perhaps he should not enter. Maybe it was better not to know, not to see. He cursed his cowardice. He had no choice; he had to face what he had done. With this resolve, he quit the golden sunlight and stepped into the gloom.
Despite the darkness, it did not take long to spy the body. Amice—or what remained of her—lay in a crumbled, blackened heap in the corner. Scorched bones outlined her shape, with shreds of flesh lingering here and there. Her empty eye sockets stared reproachfully at him. The two neat rows of teeth offered a sinister, damning smile. A lingering scent of charred meat filled the air. It seemed fresher and stronger than on other occasions. Had he nearly made it to the end of the week this time?
He dropped to his knees beside the remains. What did it matter if he had staved off the hunger for five days or six? It made no difference to Amice. Either way, she had suffered a hideous death. Had she known it was coming? Had she tried to run? Had she screamed? Not that running or screaming would have done her any good against the monster. He hoped it had at least been quick and she had not passed in agony. She had been sweet. So fresh-faced and innocent, he had not even attempted to entice her to his bed that first night, regardless of his fierce desire for her soft, warm flesh. She had quit this world a maid, and he did not doubt that she was now in heaven with the angels. Closing his eyes, he offered a brief but fervent prayer for her soul. Then he set to work.
Although he would gladly forgo the knowledge of what he had done in his altered state, he was thankful that this day allowed him to care for his victims’ remains. The monster would leave the carcasses to pile up; at least he granted them a decent burial. It was less than they deserved, but it was the best he could do.
He carried Amice to the makeshift crypt he had set up in one of the farthest chambers and interred her bones with those of the previous ninety-seven sacrifices. A tiny crevice in the wall acted as a natural vent, carrying the stench outside. It was the reason he had chosen this spot for his mausoleum. He murmured what few words he could yet recall from the Latin burial chant and then departed. Ninety-eight deaths now weighed upon his soul. No, ninety-nine. He must never forget the first, the one that sent him plummeting into this nightmare. Next winter would mark his ninety-ninth year since the curse took hold, and the season would bring with it his one hundredth murder. Surely no one who had claimed so many lives had any hope of escaping the fiery pit when their own time came.
In truth, he was uncertain whether or not he could die. He had lived all these decades without the slightest sign of aging. Perhaps facing eternity was worse than going to hell. Once or twice he had considered taking his own life. On one occasion he got as far as lifting the blade, but his trembling hand had sent it clattering to the ground. He was an abject coward; he lacked the moral fortitude needed for a noble sacrifice. And so the bodies piled up around him.
He returned to his hoard and settled down amidst the glistening coins, gleaming crowns, and gilded chalices. Though there was no outward sign of it, the gold was bloodstained, corrupted, the lingering reminder of the death of innocents. How he wished he could be rid of it, but the monster would not sanction its removal. Nor would the curse. Every time he had tried to fling the coins and cups down the mountainside, they had bounced back, their descent halted by the invisible barrier that also kept him here. He always paid the price at each attempt, for his next transformation was invariably more painful than usual. There was nothing to be done. The gold had to remain in place, a constant, glimmering accusation.
At least the worst of the horror was over for another year. The months would pass in their accustomed cycle while he remained within his mountain prison, every week bringing six days as a monster and one as a man. Wet spring would become warm summer, crisp autumn would give way to chill winter, and twelve months from now, a new offering of gold would appear at the entrance to his abode, hauled up the mountainside by those who dwelt in the valleys below. This chore completed, the villagers would depart. All but one. For all men knew it took more than gold to appease a ravenous dragon.