It was the cage’s stench of rusted iron and rotted flesh that woke him from a dark, dreamless rest.
He opened his eyes again. Moonlight touched his face. He was out of the forest, and to his pleasant surprise he was no longer being dragged by fingers that dug into his ribs for a better grip. Then again, he was back in his cage—the intended destination—and that wasn’t much better. It rose as tall as two men, and was as wide enough that he could pace in it. The cage was at the edge of a road overrun by long, soft grass. On the opposite side there was a four story house of an impressive design with candlelit windowpanes. The dark wood captured a haunted beauty, with hooded silhouettes drifting in and out view periodically.
If he hadn’t known who those silhouettes belonged to, the house would have seemed inviting.
Next to it was another, smaller dwelling with four rooms and two chimneys, meant for the high priest of this particular village. It was lavish, but still significantly lesser than the main house, which contained the dormitories for the cultists, a kitchen, training rooms, and a dining hall at the very least; beyond that, he could only guess.
There was a red hand painted on the door of the smaller cottage, which he could not keep himself from staring at. He still couldn’t discern whether it was paint or blood. However one thing was certain: the healthy patches of grass on the road didn’t sprout from rain alone.
Looking at the floor of his confinement, he noticed they had removed the splintered bones that had previously been scattered there. It was a shame: they made for good lock picks.
This made him chuckle to himself, only for that lonesome sound to subside into a sad silence. Before long, he was asleep again, without the mercy of even a dream to help distract him from his impending end. There was only darkness, the cold wind in the trees, and the thought that some tall, shrouded figure would come soon to take his head away, as if it were merely an errand for some unfeeling god.
The hinges on the door of the main house groaned and roused him from sleep. Soft light from the inside spilled out, then winked away as the door shut again. The cult member who came forward wasn’t wearing his hood. His long, sharp ears curved behind his head and waved slightly in the breeze. Keys jingled in his hands as he played with them.
This one’s eyes were slightly different than the rest. Though he wasn’t certain, he perceived they had a softer look to them, as if they expressed sympathy, but a Hand with pity in his heart was as rare as coal with gold at its core. Although his eyes still had that terrible red hue like the rest, he still let himself trust the elf, even if the only thing they had ever spoken of were execution dates; even if the only reason he trusted him was to feel the comfort of blind faith in someone who, he knew, could never help him. He had been held prisoner for nearly three days. The only Hand courteous enough to talk with him without spitting insults was this one.
When he was close enough, the key keeper mumbled, “Tonight.” He tried to meet his eyes, but the elf was looking away, though it did little to hide his nervousness.
The iron shackles clinked together as he got to his feet. “What?” His voice was sharp, in disbelief, though in the back of his mind he knew it had to be tonight. In all honesty, he wasn’t sure why they didn’t kill him when they first discovered him lying in a corner of the Duskenwood Forest not far from here. His kind didn’t sleep in inns or taverns; sometimes the elements are more forgiving than people.
The captive looked up, and for a moment there was something like sadness in the elf’s eyes. They were not glinting with tears, no, but they were far from hateful. “Tonight … now,” his voice muffled by the cloth over the lower portion of his face. “I was just told—”
The prisoner threw himself against the iron bars, causing them to tremor and shake. The Hand, flinching, looked more fearful than the man himself. “What am I to do, then? Simply die?” It didn’t seem to him those words left his mouth. His mind was already detaching from his body, the sensations were going numb again.
Although the cultist wore the same clothes and was armed with the same weaponry, he didn’t look beyond sixteen—likely half the age of the prisoner. The cult was having troubles indoctrinating cruelty into this one. Then he lit up with a bitter laugh. “What do you mean, ‘What are you to do?’ There’s nothing you can do. Pray to Calan or Morros if it eases your worries. Perhaps you can beseech a lesser god who’s not so hassled by the rest of Netherway; they might not be so powerful, but they have more time on their hands. But I don’t—“
“Gods curse you. You’re just like the rest. Stop talking nonsense and for the sake of the stars help me,” his pleads were nearing shouts. “Of all the gods and their mercy, help me!”
“And what then? What mercy? We both run into that damned forest to get hunted back like dogs?” He paused for a moment after the insult, surprised to feel guilty. “Or have you learned nothing from your escape? I trust that wound wasn’t from a low-hanging branch.” The elf pointed at the fresh scab on the man’s scalp.“Not that it matters … none of us has a choice in these matters, leastways me. I’m just another Hand, another child of the High Priest.” Tears welled in his eyes, maybe from rage or even sorrow, but mostly from confusion. “You’ll be dead soon.”
The captive’s heart skipped.
The door of the main house opened once more, this time spilling out the rest of the contents inside: the followers and their restless feet. The key keeper wiped away the tears hurriedly, opened the cage, and barked, “Get out! Now!” mumbling an apology afterward.
Lowering his voice to the faintest of whispers, he shook his head and murmured, “No, no, no,” like a madman. “You won’t do this. You can’t do this. You’re better than these sick-minded inbreds.”
“I am one of those inbreds,” he replied. The cult continued to pour from the house, creating a massive circle in the road and solidifying there like dark wax; some were bearing torches while some brushed their fingers against the arrow fletchings in their quivers. All of them wore a dagger of fine quality and similar design at their waist. Most of Netherway supported the Crimson Hand, even if their business was ugly … their enemy was uglier.
The turnkey led the captive towards the crowd. His feet were moving, though he scarcely realized he had stepped out of the cage. His mind left him with only rudimentary thought, leaving him to recognize the feeling of the soft grass against his leathery feet.
A shudder went down his back, and he gazed up at the stars. The keeper shoved him forward, then muttered another apology so low and abrupt he barely caught it. A few of the Hands had turned their heads to watch him approach while the rest stared forward silently. They, like statues with ruby-studded eyes, stood upright and silent.
Nearing the edge of the gathering, two of them forced him into the middle of the circle. He stumbled, landing on the side of his knee. Hiding the pain on his face, he forced himself to glare back with a fire in his own grey eyes.
The thick circle of hooded figures stifled the air around him with their blazing torches and the collective anticipation of his execution.
A familiar anger simmered in his blood.
Amongst them was their High Priest. Standing a head taller than the rest, his presence was strangely calming, however the captive felt an ominous shiver, for he realized he had not seen the tall elf ever leave his house that evening. The only one unmasked, ribbons of scarlet were tied to his dark hair, flowing down his back.
Emerging from the folds of his robes was a longsword. Simple, elegant, but fearsome. A silver pommel, in the shape of an open hand, reflected the firelight.
He grasped the soft leather of the handle and drew the blade from its sheath. The hiss of the steel made his spine crumple, with his grey eyes flickering from the shimmering metal back to the wielder’s bloody stare, all the while his heart skipping like a stone across water.
He tried to confidently return the gaze. “You want to kill me like some wounded animal?” he questioned with a trembling voice, hardly standing on his feet.
“You are an animal,” one of the followers snickered. The remark earned a small wave of chuckles.
With the tip of his longsword resting in the ground, the High Priest looked at them all disapprovingly. “Quiet,” he said with a voice so calm and liquid that the prisoner almost didn’t believe it came from someone who inspired so much fear.
Now the wind, wailing like a banshee torn from her favored haunting grounds, was all they could hear.
The Priest ran his hand over the fuller of his blade with a discomforting look of affection. With the same hand he then removed his cowl. His garments were like the rest, except that where they wore fitted trousers he wore robes that flowed in layers of black and scarlet.
It was not submission he felt. Not acceptance of his death so close at hand. And certainly not a quiet resolution and peace …
It was fear, so overwhelming such that it transmuted into anger, and from the anger into something much larger than himself. Something larger within—an animalistic will. The captive forced himself to breathe as the pain started in needles at his fingertips, clenching his fists.
“Shamus. Bring forth the stump,” the High Priest commanded, eyes still fixed on his victim. His right hand held the longsword as easily as the rest would hold a dagger. It was a sinister blade, as wide as his neck with an edge sharpened enough to cut a tree in two.
Shamus scurried through the opening, this time hooded, and disappeared to the edge of the forest. The grey-eyed man felt a stab of betrayal; it was the key keeper who left. The young elf returned with an old tree stump in his hands, the decaying roots furled upwards. From the ground, it rose up only about two heads from the soft dirt. The wood had a hue like fading blood. He caught a sniff of the scent from it, and suddenly he was queasy. It was blood.
“Blessings, Shamus, but stay there. I may need use of you later. Now, beast, to your knees,” the High Priest ordered.
Pale, heartless expressions surrounded him. Not a morsel of pity was there. Not even in Shamus—nearly as shaken as he was—who kept a straight face beneath a forehead moistened by cold sweat.
The High Priest sighed. The only tendency that hinted at a spot of normality in his being. “Shamus, if you will,” he said, motioning to the grey-eyed man glowering at all of them.
Unquestioningly, Shamus forced him to his knees.
The Priest then gestured lazily at the stump. A second, sharper shove drove his temple to the dead wood, forcing him to inhale the pungent scent of blood, stronger now, he felt the rumbling of the Curse deep in his chest. It hurt to breathe, as if his lungs knew they were nearing their last breaths.
“Sorrowful creature,” the High Priest intoned, “you’ve been marked by the gods, both lesser and greater, with the Lupine Curse. Your existence serves only Siflos, Afimer’s unholy brother. It is here that we present your soul with this mercy. To purge it with—”
“Afimer be damned along with your mercy. I spit on your pitiless gods. They have the same names as my own, but they aren’t mine.” Aghast by these blasphemous words, a burst of whispers and curses overcame the congregation.
He fought back a grin, having bought himself a few extra seconds.
“Quiet,” the High Priest said once more, but something malicious melted the calm tone in his voice. “If you would prefer a quicker rite … ” He raised his sword above his head while the flames danced in the reflection of the polished steel; he closed his eyes, lips moving in silent prayer.
“I hope you feel it, blasted cur,” someone behind him leaned in to whisper.
They were the words of a stranger, yet they breached him, they pierced through. It was the spark he needed. Although his ribs protruded through his chest, and his eyes were sunk in the hollows of his skull, as if he’d already been buried, a fire still burned in the heart of him; a flame only death could extinguish. While his hands trembled, he realized tonight would be the flame’s last. But he wouldn’t fall to a sword. The transformation would take what was left of him.
When the High Priest finished reciting the prayers, he noticed it heaving, its hands shaking from something more than fright or shock. “Shamus, where is the elixir?” he asked with an inconspicuous hint of fear. “I must complete the rite. Where is the elixir?”
Shamus stood there stoically, unintimidated, and deathly silent.
“Well, where is it? Speak up!”
Shamus remained motionless, hearing the pleas echoing in his mind as if he was back at the cage again. He’d thrown the elixir as far into the forest as he could when he was called for the stump. It was a suppressor meant to keep the beast from shifting.
“Damnable fool,” the Priest cursed, shoving the elf back into the ranks of the others. “This mistake will not go unpunished. No matter,” he added curtly as he lifted the longsword higher.
Rage and trepidation, weakness and vulnerability, they swirled together in the veins of the man contorting in the dirt. The ground fell away beneath him, crumbled like pieces of loose gravel while his consciousness drifted away, a ghost to watch from afar.
He drove his legs into the ground, diving from the blade precisely before it fell upon his neck like a guillotine. Convulsing on the ground, writhing with pain while his bones cracked, shifted into a new order, all the while he scrambled away from the stump, with dark hairs pushing themselves through the pores of his skin. Shamus stepped back—as afraid as the werewolf as he was of his Priest. The rest of the followers put their hands on their hilts, some felt for their bows, though none had the sense to do anything. They had slain werewolves before—even in their worst, most vengeful states—but seeing one turn was too grotesque and mystifying to ignore. They were enthralled by the gory scene.
Shifting faster than he ever had, leaving behind a pile of his human body laying like a pile of old clothes. He was digging into the dirt with claws, trying to tear away the excess skin that once resembled human hands.
The High Priest struggled with tugging his longsword from the tree trunk while he issued commands at his followers. But none of them moved, simply frozen with a horrid fascination.
Shamus stared at the beast. It had only been moments before when he was human, breathing nervously and frail as a dried leaf. Now he emerged from that weak skin, shredding himself apart to grow stronger while the limbs grew, stretched …
One follower had seen enough when the man’s face give way to a black, bristled snout. And still the beast’s body grew, enlarging and elongating.
“Die, demon!” a cultist shouted as he unsheathed his dagger and charged.
Shamus protested in meek cries, unable to hold back the pity in him. He shoved followers aside, knocking down a few torches while he stumbled through the dark crowd. The elf, no older than a boy, sprinted at the devout follower with a drawn blade. The rest of the cult was too confused to understand what was happening.
Before the Hand could bury his dagger into the creature, Shamus swiped at his fellow cultist’s neck. Something warm, and dark red misted Shamus’ face before he could realize what he’d done.
The body toppled to ground, wordlessly and incapable of uttering a last curse or threat.
Shamus, like all the others, was frozen and aghast at his own action.
Someone’s torch dropped to the ground. Two more. Daggers were drawn.
The captive stared at Shamus through wolfish eyes. The soft, grey color was now a pale fire.
Before he could even utter a sound, a shower of knives descended upon Shamus. The beast looked away, backpedaling on his hind legs, a deep growl shaking his snout.
“Simpletons and cowards!” their leader shouted, startling them. A chip of wood was flung wildly as he finally succeeded in yanking his sword out of the trunk. The werewolf faced him on all fours. All his human flesh surrounded the two corpses. Now he was a hulking beast two heads taller than the Priest. His charcoal colored skin shone with blood, and saliva dripped off the bared fangs. “Nock your arrows, archers!” the Priest commanded. A flurry of shafts were readied on bow strings. Then the High Priest sprinted at the beast, striding in for a broad swipe that bit into the creature’s left forearm.
The werewolf roared. And the archers that held their ground had their bowstrings drawn. They let the arrows loose, and they thudded into the creature’s chest. The fletchings quivered when their arrow’s found their mark. The werewolf grasped the edge of the blade still in his arm and tore it away from the Priest’s hands. The steel gnawed into his paw before he managed to toss the weapon aside. Defenseless, unprotected amongst his cult, the Priest scrambled back to this cottage.
The circle of followers had scattered. They had assassinated werewolves before, and yet, looking at this one now, standing so close, eager to die in battle … many of them had already fled towards the house.
Several assassins feeling brave enough ran to attack the beast’s hindquarters. Before the werewolf could get his claws around the High Priest, a second volley of arrows studded his body, stopping him short.
Looking around at the follower’s advancing upon the creature, the High Priest opened the door to his cottage, slipping in before anyone could realize that he had fled.
Still with the mind of the man within, the beast wanted nothing more than to tear the door off the cottage and drag the elf out. But the blades were coming faster now, and more Hands were garnering courage to join into the skirmish.
Two of the cultists jumped on the werewolf’s back as it put its attention on the archers. One of them sustained a gash to the face that made the world around him dim, while another’s neck was grasped and clung to like a doll’s. More bodies fell face first into the grass, their eyelashes fluttering like moth wings before beating their last.
The elves on his back grabbed onto tufts of fur and dug their daggers into him with wordless cries. The werewolf reached back and found one of the cultist’s arms, pulling it off him and making him dangle in the air in front of him. A skull-cracking crunch later, and the elf fell to the ground. The other on his back had the sense to abandon his dagger, stuck in the beast’s body, leaving to sprint for the main house.
Those that remained were the most seasoned of the Red Hand’s assassins. They were a growling, cold-eyed group that believed every scrap of doctrine that had ever been crammed into their skulls, followed their Priest like dogs to an owner, and would fight to their last breaths to avenge the already fallen. It seemed with their movements there were a dozen of them, but they were quick and as sparse as five. Two archers were left. They dodged the attacks deftly, rolled under the werewolf’s legs, and were meager with their returns: favoring patience over adrenaline-fueled stupidity.
Torches lay beside bodies thrown about the yard, flickering and winking out like the departed souls.
When another set of arrows had found the werewolf’s arm and side, the creature decided it had had enough. It clawed through a small line of assassins, swiping wildly and snapping its teeth at them. Two elves rolled away, dodging narrowly. But one was caught in the chest, the claw tore away a layer of muscle. He went to his knees and screamed. Cursed.
The massive shadow bent on its paws and sprinted away from the Red Hand settlement. A thick trail of blood followed it. The beast was heavily wounded, but it was not finished with its rampage.