The ten-year-old child stumbled backward, his eyes wide with fright. His father’s commanding voice shook him to his core.
“Run, son, go quickly!”
“No, Father. I don’t want to leave you! Father, please—”
“Go now!” Sebastian Mondragon clutched his stomach and fell to the ground. His hands and fingers curled into two twisted balls, and his body contorted in an agonizing spasm. The transformation had begun. Writhing in pain, the once fearless warrior panted the warning a third time. “Napolean…son…please, run! Hide!”
Napolean heard his father’s words as if from a distance. He wanted to flee, but he was frozen in place. Mesmerized by the horror that surrounded him, he swallowed hard and simply watched as the thick, inky fog swirled around his father’s writhing body. Long, skeletal fingers with hooked claws and knobby knuckles clutched at his father’s throat, raked deep gashes along his chest, and dug mercilessly toward his innards. Blood seeped from Sebastian’s mouth as, inexplicably, his canine teeth began to grow, assuming the shape of—
But it was his father’s unrelenting cries of agony that finally forced Napolean’s retreat.
Napolean ran like he had never run before, his little heart beating furiously in his chest, the need for air burning his lungs. He weaved through the morbid courtyard, dodging fallen bodies and clasping his hands to his ears to block out the endless wails. All around him, males fell to the ground, cursed, and moaned. Some died immediately from the shock…or pain. Others drew their swords from their scabbards and took their own lives. Still others succumbed to the brutal torture, helpless as the darkness embodied them.
They were being punished.
Transformed into an aberration of nature by the ghostly spirits of their victims.
The Blood Curse was upon them.
Napolean focused his eyes straight ahead, never losing sight of his destination: the imperial castle, a would-be fortress. He and his friends had hidden there so many times in the past, playing hide-and-seek, avoiding angry parents, hoping to catch a glimpse of a member of the royal family. Napolean knew the grounds like the back of his hands, and so he pressed on, desperate yet determined to get there, resigned to hide as his father had bid him.
At last, he arrived at the familiar gray castle gate.
He scurried into a small hole beneath the fortified wall and drew himself into a tight little ball. He tried to become invisible. Although he could no longer see the carnage in the village, the haunting cries continued to batter his ears like thunder against a stormy sky.
Napolean shook, remembering the moment Prince Jadon had emerged from the castle, his dark onyx eyes glazed with fear. He had gathered his loyalists to his side to explain the pronouncement—their punishment—what was soon to become a new way of life.
With so little time to prepare his men, Jadon had tried the best he could. Napolean had understood none of it, save one thing: The followers of Jadon needed to pledge their loyalty to the twin monarch as quickly as possible, before the transformation began, or they would meet a much worse fate.
Though Napolean’s father had served for years in the royal one’s secret guard, fighting to defeat the ever growing armies of Prince Jaegar, Napolean had been too young to join. Consequently, it had been imperative that he formally align himself with the right twin—for those who followed Jaegar were to receive no mercy.
And so, like all of the others, Napolean had knelt to kiss Prince Jadon’s ring—recited the sacred pledge of loyalty before it was too late—and braced himself against what was to come…
Napolean shivered, bringing his attention back to the present moment.
He wanted to be brave, but fearful tears stung his eyes.
Then all at once, he heard cruel, disembodied laughter, the sound coming closer and closer, assaulting his ears.
“No. No. No,” he whimpered, drawing further into the hollow cavity for protection, quivering so hard his bones rattled in his skin.
The fog swirled into a miniature cyclone, rose up from the ground, and dipped low as if it had eyes that could see…
“You think to escape, child?” the ghostly aberration hissed, laughter ricocheting through the small cavity. Flames exploded from the center of the darkness. “Die, little one! And be reborn the monster that you are!”
Napolean screamed so loud the sound became a cosmic explosion in his ears, yet the fog kept coming. It wrapped itself around his meager body, entered his mouth, and descended into his chest.
And then the pain began.
The excruciating, unrelenting, unbearable pain.
Acid flowed freely through his veins. Fire consumed his internal organs. Bones reshaped. Cells exploded. His entire composition changed, transformed…died.
He heard his own shouting as if it belonged to someone else, someone wretched and pitiable. He clawed at his skin, hoping to tear it from his body. He bit through his hand and pounded the ground. He writhed, thrashed, and tried to crawl away, but nothing stopped the assault.
Dear Celestial Gods!
He prayed for death, but it wouldn’t come.
How much time had passed before the agony subsided, he had no idea. Had it been minutes? Hours? Perhaps days? It could have been a lifetime for all he’d endured before it had ceased…and the craving had begun.
A gnawing, all-consuming, primal thirst.
It was the craving that had brought him out of the hole, crawling along the ground like an animal, stumbling through the darkness, searching for his father.
Now, as bitter tears stung his eyes, he absently wiped them away, only to find smears of blood on his hand.
Great goddess Andromeda, what had he become?
Finally reaching the village square, he staggered to a halt beside an aged stone well. As his vision adjusted to the darkness, he caught a shadow out of the corner of his eye: No, it couldn’t be.
Please gods, no!
The grisly scene unfolded in slow motion as Jaegar Demir, the evil prince, hunkered over his father’s body. The prince’s eyes were wild with insanity as he bent to Sebastian’s throat, tore into the flesh—as if it were mere parchment—and drank his fill of…blood. Napolean could neither move nor turn away as the macabre scene unfolded before him. As the evil prince drained his father’s already gored and tattered body of life.
Horrified, trembling, and defeated, Napolean watched like a coward as Prince Jaegar withdrew his sword and took his father’s head.
When at last the terror released him, he fisted his hands and howled at the heavens.
He shouted until his throat bled: “Father! Father! Father! Father…”