Death hung heavy in the air that night.
The stench of rot, waste, and sin was carried through the forest by a hot and humid breeze. The woods were still. Every living creature, from the birds to the lone bear that called it home, had fled the moment that scent had touched their noses. But the woods were far from silent. A cacophony of noises unimaginable to the sane echoed between the trees. The woods were remote, the nearest town over a dozen miles away, but more than one person woke up that night with sweat stained bed sheets and a deathlike chill in their veins.
The source of the noise lay in the very center of the woods, in a vast clearing where eldritch shadows churned like storm clouds that had been tethered to the ground. The new moon hovered over the clearing, invisible, as if God himself had covered his eye to block out the unholy scene below.
Suddenly, light flooded the glade, illuminating the nightmares it contained. To call them creatures would have been an insult to all other living things. Monster was the only word that could sufficiently describe them. They stood between six and seven feet tall each, made even taller by the skeletal antlers that jutted from their skulls. Almost-deerlike noses sniffed the air hungrily on the ends of almost-deerlike snouts, above their gleaming, massive, aN-deerlike fangs. Beady yellow eyes rolled madly in their sockets, and the beasts anxiously clawed the ground, whining, growling, and howling as they fought to keep control of themselves.
Before them lay the cause of their rabid frenzy: twenty men and women, stripped naked and chained by their necks to the ground like dogs. A feast.
The captives who weren’t struck dumb by the sight were frantically trying to break their chains, not knowing that their frightened tears were only salting their flesh.
The light came from an enormous mansion situated at the far end of the clearing. Its back door swung open, and the temperature in the forest immediately dropped by several dozens of degrees. Frost formed on the windows and the grass near the door. Three figures emerged into the night. The first was a man who could more accurately be called ancient than old. He was seated in a wheelchair and dressed in a fine red bathrobe and pajamas, as if he were going to bed rather than into a horde of unspeakable horrors. In his lap sat a small cage, but the light wasn’t strong enough to illuminate whatever was desperately clawing at the bars.
The second figure, who was pushing the first one’s wheelchair, was dressed in a fine black suit and a red bowtie. He did his best not to look at the nightmarish creatures that filled his master’s backyard, but nothing could stop him from feeling their eyes crawling all over him.
The third figure was just a boy, no more than fourteen. The old man held the young one’s hand in his own, like a grandfather taking his grandson on a late night walk. The boy didn’t seem to know how to feel. Fear, revulsion, and a strange, morbid excitement flashed across his face in equal measure.
The horde growled. They knew the butler was off limits, and they would sooner eat their own hands than lay them on the old man. The boy, though? Tonight was his test. If he showed the slightest hint of weakness, if he took even one step back towards the mansion, there wouldn’t be enough left of him by morning for anyone to find.
The three of them stopped, the captives acting as a crying, whimpering barrier between them and the monsters. At a nod from the old man, the butler turned and made his way back to the house. He didn’t run—that would have been more than the beasts could stand—but they could all read the barely contained panic in his stiff movements.
The old man looked at the horde, his horde, and spoke.
“My friends, tonight I am happy to introduce you to Michael.”
His voice belied the frail body it came from. It was deep, loud, and rang through the night with authority. Every ear in the clearing perked up, their attention forcibly torn from the squirming men and women on the ground.
The old man looked at the boy. Michael was clearly terrified. His entire body was shaking. But beneath that fear, the old man could sense a more promising emotion.
“Michael,” he asked, “why have you come here?”
Michael opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He paused, swallowed, then said in a voice that was barely a whisper, he said, “B- Because I want to be strong.”
“Go on,” the old man said, giving him an encouraging nod.
“Everyone…hurts me,” Michael explained. “My parents. My brothers. Even the other kids at school. I want to be stronger s- so that they can never hurt me again.”
The old man’s eyes gleamed. “And?”
Michael looked at him, then said, “And I want to make them hurt instead.”
The horde growled in approval.
“You’re willing to do anything for this?” the old man asked.
Michael looked out at the nightmarish beasts that had gathered for him tonight—and this time, there was no missing the desire in his gaze.
“Yes,” he said.
The old man smiled. Taking the cage sitting in his lap in both hands, he raised it into the light. It was a tiny thing, the kind of cage that would hold a pet hamster. Inside, scraping and gnawing at the metal bars, was a single brown squirrel. The horde became animated, licking their chops and making unintelligible noises. The old man’s hand went to the cage door, unlocked it…
The squirrel bolted. It burst through the door like a bullet, hitting the ground and making a mad dash for the forest. As it ran, it began to change. Its body grew several times larger, and it sprang up to run on two feet instead of four. Its brown fur and tail remained, but the shape of its body was suddenly, and undeniably, human.
It made it less than half the way to the trees before the horde caught up to it. No fewer than eight of the monsters descended on the squirrel-thing, and an all too human scream came from it.
“Bring it here!” the old man commanded. “Alive!”
The monsters froze, and then all but one stalked back to their place with the others. The one that remained had the squirrel-thing in its clutches, wickedly sharp fangs an inch from its throat. It hesitated, but then did as ordered, dragging it back across the lawn while giving the old man a resentful glare.
Michael got a good look at the squirrel-thing for the first time, then. Whatever it was, it was a child. Perhaps half his age. It—or she, he realized—was crying now. Tears stained the fur on its cheeks. For a moment, he couldn’t help but feel sorry for…
A growl came from the old man, even deeper than his normal voice, and Michael snapped his head to look at him. The old man’s entire body seemed to be straining, and his veins were pushing out against his skin. Hair as black as midnight began to sprout from him, and his muscles swelled beneath his clothes. With a rip, he burst free of them and stood up, already more than a foot taller than he had been before. His face contorted, stretching into a muzzle as his teeth grew longer and sharper. Twin fountains of blood erupted from his forehead, spraying the horrified captives in front of him, as antlers the color of bleached bones grew in.
The old man—a man no longer—raised his head and howled. The rest of the horde howled along with him, but their combined voices were completely drowned out by the old man’s. Michael clapped his hands over his ears, but they were still ringing when the last echoes faded away. The beast that had been the old man stood more than eight feet tall now, taller than any other monster in the clearing. He was like a living shadow, seeming to fade into the darkness itself whenever he stayed still for more than a few seconds.
With a bony, clawed hand, he reached down and plucked the squirrel child off the ground—and then rammed his other hand into her chest. The squirrel child managed to let out a single squeak of pain before the light faded from her eyes. Without a moment’s consideration for the life he’d just taken, the old man tore the girl’s heart from her chest, showering the horde—and Michael—in gore.
Then he held the heart out to Michael.
“Eat this,” he said, his voice more like an animal’s growl than human speech.
Michael stared at the bloody organ in horror.
“Eat it,” the old man said again, “and all the strength and power you desire will be yours.”
For what felt like an eternity, Michael couldn’t bring himself to move. What insanity had possessed him to come here tonight? He wanted to be strong. He wanted to be powerful. But was it worth this? Was he really so desperate that he…
His father’s voice echoed in his head.
“Stupid! Worthless! Little! Prick!”
The sound of a blow landing accompanied each word.
“No son of mine gets beaten up at school! Aaron, Blake, help me beat some pride into your brother!”
The ghost of every punch, slap, and kick echoed across his body. That wasn’t the first time his family had beaten him like that. It wasn’t even the most recent time. But that time had been the one that’d pushed him to the edge. Coming home from school with two black eyes and a missing tooth, only to be beaten again by his father and two older brothers, something had broken inside of him that day. He had decided that he would never let them do that to him again.
No matter what it took.
With a shaking hand, Michael reached out and took the heart. The old man grinned, baring his fangs in wicked delight. The wet, warm blood coated Michael’s hands and wrists. He squeezed it, making even more blood ooze out. And then…
Closing his eyes, Michael stuffed the entire thing into his mouth. The taste exploded on his tongue, salty and gamey, and he had to fight the urge to throw up. This was his chance, his only chance, to put his father, brothers, and every bully who’d picked on him at school in their place. He couldn’t have chewed the tough organ even if he’d wanted to. Instead, screwing his face in concentration, he swallowed the entire thing whole.
The pain hit him the instant it went down his throat. The strength in Michael’s legs went out, and he fell flat on his face before the old man. What felt like fire and nails shot through his veins, originating in his stomach and radiating outwards until all of him was engulfed. Agony! Every cell in his body was tearing itself apart. He couldn’t move. He screamed in anguish, but what came out of his mouth wasn’t his voice.
What had he done? No amount of power was worth this! It would have been more merciful to kill him then and there than to let him suffer through this for another second.
Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. Michael opened his eyes. The light from the mansion, which had been bright before, was nearly blinding now. He clamped his eyes shut again and sucked in a lungful of air—and gasped when a world of new sensations flooded into his brain. Even with his eyes closed, it was like he could see everything through their smells alone.
“Rise, Michael,” the old man said, his voice crisper and clearer in his ears than anything had ever been before. “Join your new family!”
Michael opened his eyes again, and this time he was able to keep them open. Everything seemed…sharper…than before. He looked up at the old man, and with a jolt he realized that he couldn’t just see the old man in his beastial form above him—he could see everything beyond him too. The leaves in the trees, even those where the light didn’t reach, were as much in focus as the old man himself.
His body still shaking, Michael put his hands beneath himself—hands that now sported ash colored fur and obsidian claws—and pushed himself onto his feet. The old man still towered over him, but there was much less of a difference now. Michael looked at his hands again, and then down at the rest of himself. His clothes lay in tatters on the ground, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He was tall now. Taller even than his father. His body was lean, but well-muscled. As he experimentally flexed his new muscles, he could feel the strength they contained—that he contained. This power…it was almost more than he could…
The hunger struck him with the same speed and intensity as the transformation itself had. With an animalistic moan, Michael grabbed his stomach and doubled over in pain. It was unlike anything he’d ever felt before! Even when he’d been forced to go a week without food—a punishment for forgetting to mow the lawn—was downright soothing compared to the overwhelming, mind shattering emptiness inside him. It was like his stomach had become a bottomless pit, and no amount of food he poured into it would ever be enough. But he had to try. He had to, or else he was going to go mad! He could already feel his sanity fraying under the all-consuming starvation!
“How do you feel, Michael?” the old man asked. “Do you feel strong?”
With a supreme effort, Michael was able to say, “H…H…Hungry!”
The old man nodded. “That is our curse. We have been gifted with incredible strength and nearly endless life, but the hunger…” His own stomach growled. “Once a month, you will have to feed on human flesh if you want to survive. If you don’t, you will die—if the hunger doesn’t drive you mad, first.”
“Make it stop!” Michael begged.
“It can not be stopped,” said the old man. He looked at the captured humans, who were no longer fighting or crying, all of them staring in horror at that which had once been a teenage boy. “From now on, the hunger will be like your conjoined twin. It will never, ever leave you. But it can be…diminished.”
Michael turned mad, yellowed eyes on the captives—the sacrifices—and needed no further encouragement. He pounced on the one closest to him, a plump middle aged man, and sank his new fangs into his shoulder. Delicious blood poured over Michael’s tongue, and he savored the taste and the scream of agony the man gave in equal measure before tearing a hunk of meat from his body and swallowing it whole.
All around him, the rest of the horde had descended onto the feast as well. Even the old man had let the primal urge to feed overtake him, and was already licking the inside of a young woman’s skull clean before moving on to the rest of her body.
Death ruled the forest once again.