A boy, no older than five years old, ran happily along the beach. He was a inquisitive child, as they all were at that age.
"Mamma, look what I found." He held the sea-weathered bottle up as evidence.
His brown eyes widened with curiosity. After all, he was pretending to be a pirate, and he'd just found treasure.
"Be careful, Cody, let me see that. You can't just pick up random objects that have washed up on the beach. Honey, show it to me."
His mother, a beautiful Spanish woman of barely twenty-five, took the battered looking bottle from her son and inspected the contents with caution.
Little Cody, bounced impatiently on the balls of his feet, anxious to see what was inside. "What's inside, Mamma?"
His mother, who was just about ready to discard the bottle as litter, gasped in realization. She looked beyond the scuffed glass, with keen intrigue.
"You've found a message in a bottle." She exclaimed. "Give me a second, I'm going to try pull out the stopper."
She struggled to remove the wax seal that had set hard over the years. Finally, with an extreme amount of effort, she managed to peel it away with her nails, allowing her access to the cork that sealed the opening.
"Read it, Mamma!" Cody squealed with excitement.
His mother managed with her slender fingers, to pull the faded parchment from inside the bottle, carefully uncurling it to reveal the inked message inside. "Here we go. It's a little faded, but I'll try."
Her brown eyes scanned back and forth across the lettering. The message was written in Spanish. Her native language, much to her relief.
"My name is Carina Perez. If you are reading this message, please send word to my Papa, Emilio Perez, from the village Balaeter. Tell him that I'm safe and well. Tell him not to worry about me, and tell him please, please, please, do not try to find me. Tell Mama, and Maria, to be strong. I will love them always."
50 years earlier..............
"Maria! Carina! Don't wander too far ahead." I heard my father yell to us as my sister and I raced off along the beach.
Our long dark curls flowed freely behind us as we raced. The muscles in our lean, tanned legs, flexed with each impact our bare feet made with the sand. Maria won as she always did, stopping before the fishing port to turn, panting, grinning, raising both her arms in triumph as I slumped, clutching my stomach in defeat. Her deep, brown eyes, the same colour as mine, sparkled with delight.
As sisters we were competitive. We played together, we fought one another, sometimes quite frequently, but most importantly, we loved one another completely.
We were similar in looks, deemed beautiful by many. Despite Maria being a few inches taller, we shared the features of our mother. Caramel skin, high cheekbones and soft, womanly curves.
I however, was closer to my father. He often took me fishing with him on his boat. I was an enthusiastic child, keen to learn and sharp as a whip he'd say. I was resilient, resourceful, as well as able to keep a clear head in a time of crisis. Great advantages when you're on a fishing boat way out on the rough open sea.
Today is my birthday. I have spent the whole entire day with my family. It was supposed to be a celebration, a happy occasion, but it felt more like a goodbye.
I had a strange feeling deep inside me that I couldn't explain. For some reason, it felt as if this was my last day here with my family in Balaeter.
We were out walking along the beach on the outskirts of our small village. Something I have done every week since my older sister Maria and I were little.
We weren't fighting which made a change. Usually, we would quarrel, but today was one of those rare occasions when we got along. We made ourselves busy by collecting shells so that we could turn them into necklaces, something our mama taught us.
We would then sell them at market to the many people passing through our small fishing village, which was right on the outskirts of Almeria, along the southern coast of Spain.
Our parents walked a few feet behind us, talking amongst themselves with worry and concern etched across their faces. There was every chance that we would be separated this very same day. I prayed for that not to be true.
The hunters always came on the last day of summer. It was always a frightening time of year, and no matter where you ran to hide, they would be sure to find you.
Papa spotted a large ship sailing on the horizon. A merchant ship. A sign that the hunters were coming here to snatch maidens. Usually, they would wait for the cover of darkness, but they were early this year. It was unusual for them to arrive before nightfall.
"Girls, quickly. We need to hurry home!" My papa shouted, fearfully. I watched in horror as the colour drained from my fathers face. He was a proud man, so calm and composed. I wasn't used to seeing him so panic-stricken and terrified.
We made haste towards the village, warning everyone that we passed. "They're here! Run...spread the word! Warn everyone you can!" Papa shouted, banging on doors as he went.
A man we knew stopped us, "Emilio, they will be here for Carina and Maria, you must take them and go! Now! I will sound the alarm. Protect your family!"
Papa turned to us, his eyes were wide with fear. He was the type of man that would protect his family at any cost. Although faced with a group of armed hunters, he knew he wouldn't stand a chance. We had no weapons here in the village, we barely had the means to survive. We relied solely on the fishing trade as our only source of income.
"We don't have much time, bring with you only what you need, leave the rest behind. Hurry home now!" Papa ordered.
Mama sobbed while we ran as if our lives depended on it, she was muttering in Spanish about demons and devils.
"Demonio! Diablo! Estan aqui!"
We reached the house and frantically raced inside, taking to the stairs at a run.
Maria and I ran upstairs to our room to pack a change of clothes. A pounding on the door out front made us freeze to the spot with fear.
I turned to my sister with desperate eyes. Surely, they hadn't gotten here already? No ship could sail so quickly.
We crept silently across the landing, exchanging terrified glances, and praying we were wrong.
"Do you think...?" I asked trembling and terrified, clutching at the wooden bannister rail which creaked under protest.
"Shhh! I can't hear what they're saying!" My older sister, Maria whispered, silencing us.
"What is Papa saying?" I asked in a shaken voice. I could feel my body convulse with tremors. Tears pooled at the edge of my eyelids blurring my vision.
Mama's hand gestured the sign of the cross, she finished by kissing the crucifix that hung from the rosary beads that were clasped firmly in her hand.
My body trembled to the point that my teeth started to chatter. It felt as if my heart was going to burst through my chest at any second.
"He's telling them that he has no daughters, only sons," She replied, trying desperately to keep the tremors from her voice.
I bent my knees and crouched next to her whilst straining to listen to the raised voices downstairs. My pulse was pounding in my ears, deafening my hearing and marring the hushed whispers below.
"I scent females in this house. He's lying! One is worthy, the youngest, the other two have been spoiled," I heard a man growl in a deep raspy voice.
The men from the island had indeed come back. Each year they arrived here, and each year a female was taken. Not only from our village, but from the surrounding towns and villages that scattered the south, and perhaps even beyond.
They seek out women of childbearing age, no younger than sixteen. They only accept the purest of maidens. None that have ever laid with a man by choice would be chosen.
Intimacy amongst un-wed couples in our strict Catholic religion was prohibited. Although there were few, my sister included, that had sought out comfort in the arms of a man in order to escape being faced with running the Labyrinth. I kept her secret. She had found love with a local man from our small village and was soon to be married.
It's every young girl's worst nightmare. Papa wouldn't allow such talk, but Mama told us stories in hushed whispers before bed one night. She told me that monsters indeed exist and go by the name of Lycanthropes.
They all reside on a secluded island in the middle of the ocean, far from the mainland. It is they who request the maidens each year, none younger than sixteen, and force them to run through the Labyrinth. They are then hunted down like cattle for the Lycans to sate their pleasures upon.
Today is my sixteenth birthday.
It was the sound of my papa's pleading voice that had my nerves on edge. I fled back into my bedroom as the rumbling sound of boots filled the house below. I could feel the vibrations of heavy footsteps through my body, as I lay hidden under my bed.
"Please, no...I beg you...Please...I'll do anything you ask...Just spare my little Carina!" My papa begged.
I gulped silently as my eyes widened with fear. My face inches away from a booted foot. The soldier had halted at the side of my bed. I lay trembling, placing a hand over my mouth as I held my breath.
I could feel my beating heart on the wooden floor beneath me. I could hear the deafening echo of my pulse in my eardrums.
Just when I thought I couldn't hold my breath any longer, a hand plunged towards me, pulling me out by my cotton dress.
"There you are, little kitten. You can't hide from us. I could smell your fear all the way from the shore. Its what led us here." The hooded figure taunted.
A scream tore it's way up through my throat as I desperately attempted to claw myself away. He dragged me out with minimal effort. My fingernails left shallow grooves as they scratched into the wooden floorboards.
My mama was crying hysterically, begging and screaming for them to not take her baby. "Por favor no mi bebe!"
Extending my arm with an outstretched hand, our fingertips barely brushed together before I was abruptly pulled away. I cried out in anguish at the sight of her collapsing to her knees whilst being dragged from the room.
The hooded figure holding onto me growled and swung me around to face him; I crashed against his solid chest before he held me abruptly by the shoulders and growled in a raw guttural rumble.
I caught a glimpse of his appearance under the shadow of his hood. His features appeared to morph from a grotesque wolfman with sharp, canine teeth, fur-coated skin and claws for hands, back to a more humanoid appearance. His deep, piercing eyes went from a glowing yellow to a more normal shade of brown.
I gave out a blood-curdling scream, expelling all the air from my lungs. Just in time for a foul-smelling, moistened rag to be pressed over my airways, giving me no choice but to inhale. The chemicals that filled my nostrils made my eyes roll backwards, stealing me from consciousness.
The room around me grew smaller, fainter, as I slipped into darkness.