When the sixth child was born, they were horrified to see that it was a boy. Others told them that they were foolish to fear the curse that they feared would fall upon their son. All did seem well for a while, and they hoped that they were indeed foolish. But in his thirteenth year of life, Adrian began to show signs of transformation.
A terrible transformation of body, heart, and mind. The child’s soul would be unaffected at first, remaining pure, but trapped. But in time, his soul would be affected, infected, and corrupted, and the transformation would become everlasting. The child would become a creature of claw and fang, with no higher sense, no purpose but a singular drive to hunt and to kill. Scraps and shreds of memory would remain, drawing the creature to settlements. The creature, without pity or remorse, burning only with rage, would terrorize the people, until it was put down.
There were protections, ways to stave off the transformation, for the sixth child to live, at least for a short while, as a human.
One was to stay clear of crossroads.
Even roads that had been wiped away, or covered over, could trigger the transformation. The child then had no choice but to remain confined to his own home.
There were potions that might be drunk, chants that might be spoken, and talismans constructed from those in the family who loved the child and would bend their wills toward the child’s protection. So long as their love did not waver, the talisman would hold. All who made such talismans believed their love would not waver.
None truly understood that the love they promised was not to a child, but to what the child would become.
Adrian’s family made such a talisman, and had it blessed by the holy midwife who delivered him into the world. It was a necklace hung with seven lockets, each one containing a likeness of each member of his family. His mother, his father, and his five sisters.
For many years, even after the chants and potions lost their potency, this talisman held back the transformation.
From the beginning, Adrian was the favorite of his middle sister, the third child. Nadia took it upon herself to be his fiercest protector. He was scared of her when first he was placed in her arms as a baby, seeing the bright light glinting off her spectacles, startled by his own reflection perhaps. But he came to love her best as well. And she did not fear him. Even when he dug his nails into her arm in anger. Even when he told her that he dreamt of shadows whispering to him. Even when he drew monstrous beasts in the dirt. She did not fear him, for she was bigger and stronger than him for a long time.
With his talisman on, he was able to leave his home, and even travel through crossroads, though he would always complain of feeling a terrible itch rippling through his skin, and a hunger and thirst. His parents would stop once they passed the crossroads, to feed him and give him water to drink, and to check him for signs of transformation.
His mother and father searched for a cure, and some whom they found told them they should have left the boy to die in the cold caves by their village, or even given him that mercy themselves. Now that he was grown, they would say, it would be difficult, but they still might do it, before he grew out of their control. Such advice always filled his father with despair, and his mother with rage.
Then there were those who promised a cure, and charged dearly for one, and even as they paid, the boy’s mother and father knew that they were being duped.
The eldest daughters found someone once who said she had a way. It would cure the boy, but there was a chance that the effort of fighting off the curse might kill him, no matter how strong and stout he was of body, mind, and heart.
His mother and father tried to conceive another child, a blessed seventh, who might protect their brother with their goodness and purity. But they could not conceive. Cruel were the rumors of why this was so.
It was as if he had salted the earth of his mother’s womb on his way out.
Many a time would his two older sisters argue against their mother and father, asking why they had a sixth child if they knew he could be—would be—cursed. And their parents would answer back, often through tears, that if they’d had another girl, she would have been spared, would have likely been blessed. They longed for a boy, but hoped he would be their seventh child, likewise blessed. If even one of the first five children had not been a girl, their brother would have been spared. But girls they were born. And girls they remained. If Adrian had been a girl, he would have been spared.
But a boy he was born. And a boy he remained.
And so, in this thirteenth year, the curse began to show itself.
He woke one morning, bleeding from his mouth. A new tooth had grown in, sharp and cruel, tearing through his gums, nicking his bottom lip.
Adrian despaired. He would have learned of his own curse from whispered conversation between his parents. But Nadia told him of it first, gently, revealing the story little by little as he grew older. She told him it was why their oldest sisters had gone away to study, and why the rest of them had moved to another town, one where none knew there were six children. Five sisters, and a cursed brother.
“Astra has chosen the study of medicine,” she told him. “She may yet learn of some new cure. And Talia has chosen the study of history. She may yet uncover a cure that was found and then forgotten.”
Nadia bolstered her brother as best she could. In the beginning, she succeeded. But when Adrian began to see the signs of his curse for himself, he began to fear his own self.
Whenever he felt anger, he held it back and pushed it down. He spoke and walked gently. Nadia warned him that it was bad to let anger fester, that he could yell and rage in her presence. But she did not lie. She admitted there might come a day when she would fear what he became. But she would not fear him.
“Even if I sprout claws and fangs?” Adrian asked, on the morning he woke with the strange new tooth.
Nadia grinned. “There is little to fear from a creature with claws and fangs, if that creature considers me a friend.” She tapped the tip of his nose with her finger.
“But when I transform, I will forget you are my friend. I will forget that I only want to protect you!”
Nadia peered at him. “If only there was a way that you wouldn’t forget.”
The notion stuck in Nadia’s mind. Though she was too young to be sent off to study, she began her own search. But she did not search for some way to break the curse, or reverse it or undo it. She sought some way to bend the curse, to twist it, to trick it.
She wrote to her older sisters, entreating them to help her. Both wrote back. They did not discourage Nadia from her pursuit. But they would not join her. Astra and Talia were set upon their own paths, and they would hear of nothing but an absolute cure.
“All of you must keep me at the center of your thoughts,” Adrian remarked one day, his fingers playing with one of the lockets that hung from his talisman. “But all thoughts of me are sad ones, fearful ones.”
Nadia looked over at him, for the two were in the kitchen completing their chores. She noted that he flinched when he caught his reflection in her spectacles, as he often did those days.
“Not all of us,” she reminded him. “We are all—you included—protecting Diana and Rosa from such sad and fearful thoughts.”
After the family had moved to a new town, the rest of them never spoke of Adrian’s curse in the presence of the two youngest sisters. Diana and Rosa had learned little of the curse to begin with, and they seemed to have forgotten even that little. Knowing only that their brother was sick, they at least could pretend that their family was typical and un-cursed.
And yet, it was the youngest sister who first saw and screamed at the sight that would curdle his father’s stomach and turn his mother’s blood cold.
Nadia came running into the room first when she heard her little sister’s scream pierce the evening air.
Adrian was in his fifteenth year of life.
He stood in a corner of his room. Rosa stood frozen at the doorway.
When Nadia appeared, her sister clutched her and tried to pull her out of the room.
Nadia looked over at the corner, where in the shadows, her brother’s eyes glowed red.
A red that flickered as he blinked.
There are many frights that can be forgotten in time.
Rosa never drew near to her brother again. But she came to not be afraid of him. Her sisters made it so, in the four years that passed.
Nadia had not gone away for her studies as her older sisters had. But all three older sisters had succeeded in finding other means to hold back their brother’s curse. Adrian’s eyes never glowed red again. And when more peculiar teeth erupted from his mouth, he hid them from all but his middle sister and his mother. For even his father could not bear the sight and the fright.
And so Rosa came not to be afraid of him. And she and her sister Diana walked with him one day into town on an errand.
It was the eve of his nineteenth year. Their father was away, visiting his kin. But their older sisters had come home. And their mother was set on baking for Adrian his favorite cake.
He was wearing his talisman, as he always did. They came upon a crossroads.
Adrian felt a familiar rippling under his skin when he passed through the crossroads. His stomach clenched. An unnatural hunger seized his mind. A reckless rage flared within his heart.
He stopped, unable to take another step.
His sisters noticed. They too stopped, and turned to him. Diana’s frown was only the beginning of her concern. But Rosa’s eyes were fixed upon his own. And Adrian knew why a sudden horror shone in her eyes.
He clutched at the talisman about his neck.
“Run,” he said, barely able to utter the word, and yet the sound was deep and vicious. “Hide…”
Rosa stood frozen, as she did in one of his most sorrowful memories.
But Diana grabbed her sister’s wrist and dragged her away.
It was the last sight he saw before the curse took him.
Bones grew and bones stretched, piercing muscle and flesh, bleeding, clotting, healing, scabbing, and piercing again. He was barely able to gasp enough breath. He collapsed and crumpled to the ground. No force remained within him to cry out, or even groan.
He was pried apart and fastened back together again. Only when the pain began to subside did he begin to feel it again, pulsing through every part of him, eyes to toes. And he roared with rage.
The sky was red. The clouds dripping red. The road was red.
The pain was fading, fading. But his muscles still pulsed. And someone had to pay for what he had suffered. Someone had to be pried apart as he was.
Adrian rose upon two limbs, then dropped to all four.
Dusk was darkening into night.
But Nadia went out to the crossroads that her youngest sisters had fled. She found Adrian’s talisman in the dirt. And she found his blood, and bits of bone, gobs of flesh.
This was the gore of his own body being rent by the curse.
She had to find him before he spilled someone else’s blood.
For if he did, it would be her own fault.
She had been feeding her brother a brew for the past year, chanting spells of anchoring to keep only his mind from transforming. For if his mind remained his own, he might hold back the curse on his own. There had been no way to know if her efforts had any effect, because knowing that would require a full transformation.
Nadia did not find her brother. But she did find a sheep farmer who warned her to take shelter. He had shot a bolt from his crossbow into the chest of some demon that came at his flock. From behind him came whines of pain from one of the farmer’s dogs. The dog had flown at the demon, been thrown back, and broken a leg. But not before he had bitten the demon. Dog and farmer had both drawn blood.
She followed that trail of blood. If she had her own dog, she might have followed it all the way to her brother. But they had never kept dogs. For none could bear her brother’s company.
She did not find Adrian.
Neither had her sisters, for Astra and Talia had also gone searching.
But as it was, their brother found them.
When Nadia returned home, set on gathering her sisters and searching together, Diana told her that something that she thought was their brother now chained within their shed.
Her sisters were already gathered in the shed, all save Rosa, who was too afraid. Diana had sent her into the house to tend to their mother, who was herself seized by a shock.
Nadia entered the shed to find a creature wrapped in layers of thick chain, lying upon his side. He had dark fur, a wolf-like face and hind limbs, but no tail. His eyes were closed, but she was sure that beneath the lids, they were red. A pool of blood was drying at his feet, which were shackled to the stone floor.
Adrian himself had purchased the chains, and secured that metal loop into the floor.
“One of these is more than sufficient to put down a man his size,” Astra said, holding up what appeared to be a small dart. “I had to shoot him with three.” The hand holding the dart began to shake. “I feared I might have killed him.”
“Did you treat his wounds?” Nadia asked.
Talia gestured to a shelf that was strewn with bloodied strips of cloth, bottles, and a basin. “Roughly, and I don’t know how we’re going to change the dressings.”
“He’s breathing,” Diana said. She knelt to the ground, not close to the creature, but peering at him with interest, as she often peered at animals that interested her. “Is it truly Adrian? He looks like a wolf, doesn’t he?”
“You didn’t see him transform?” asked Astra.
“It’s best that you did,” Nadia said. She brought a hand to her chest in a futile gesture meant to steady her nervous heart. “My brew has failed him. How long will he sleep?”
Astra drew in a deep breath. “I can’t say. And I can’t say if those chains are sturdy enough.”
“Which one of us lost faith?” Talia asked, glancing among her sisters, her gaze landing upon the small window that looked upon the house.
They all turned to the sound of the voice. It was Nadia who had spoken, and she was staring down at their brother.
“First he only feared himself,” she said. “But he was growing to hate himself. I thought I had helped him to change that, but I failed him there too. He must have been hiding it from us. And I did not see that the talisman was failing.”
Talia frowned. “How could it be him? He’s the cursed one. It must be one of us.”
“A wolf needs a pack,” Diana said, seeming to agree.
Nadia stepped closer to the sleeping form of her brother. “We have feared him, and we have doubted, but all throughout, we have loved him.”
“Then the talisman should not have failed.”
“I’ve studied the way of talismans, Talia. And curses, and potions. They all work in subtle ways. They must. And they all require the cooperation of the one who is subject to them.”
“This is why I sought a medical cure,” Astra said, scratching her brow with two fingers. “A medical cure would not require faith.”
Nadia shook her head. “This is not an illness. It’s a curse. And medical cures also work in subtle ways, do they not? A cure that works on one person, does not work on another. And even with a medical cure, the one who is subject to them must cooperate in some way.”
“If I were to break my leg,” Astra said, nodding, “then I would need to bind it and rest it. But if I were to walk upon that leg, put weight upon it before it was healed, then I would break it again. At best, it would not heal properly. At worst, it would never heal.”
Talia raised her brows. “Our brother has been walking around on a broken leg, you say. Why?”
“Because, as you said, Talia, he has lost faith. And I cannot say I blame him.”
“There’s no need for him to have faith,” Astra said, “only patience.”
“Then it would seem he’s run out of that as well.”
Talia huffed. “What can we do?”
“He stirs,” Diana said. She rose to her feet and backed away from their brother.
But Nadia knelt toward him, answering his weak summons.
“Careful,” Astra warned.
Talia reached for a long-handled shovel and held it aloft as a weapon
“What is your name?” Nadia asked the creature.
But he had fallen unconscious again.
They waited through the night. Diana brought them food and drink. They ate only enough to stave off the growling of their bellies. Each elder sister only left one at a time, to relieve themselves, check upon Rosa and their mother, and rest their limbs and watchful eyes for a few moments.
Nadia was there when the creature woke.
He spoke her name again. And when she asked, he spoke his own. And he asked, in what seemed sincere fear, if he had harmed anyone.
His eyes were indeed red. His claws were sharp, and his fangs were long, too long to be hidden. His voice was rough as if rolled over gravel. But by the manner of his speaking, the sisters knew it was their brother.
“I thought my brew had failed,” Nadia said. “But you speak to us now as Adrian.”
“Maybe it’s a trick,” Talia said, locking her gaze upon those red eyes.
“Indeed, why should the brew be working now if it didn’t work when he transformed?” Astra wondered aloud. “Perhaps the transformation was not yet complete.”
“I do feel like myself again,” Adrian said, “in my mind anyway. In my limbs, there is a…”
Diana peered at him, noticing the flicking of his ear. “A what?”
“A pulsing,” Adrian growled.
“While you’re in what seems to be your right mind,” Nadia said, “we must determine how best to secure you, until we’re certain the brew is working. Only then can we can unbind you.”
Nadia’s brew worked long enough for them to release their brother from his chains, though he remained shackled.
It worked long enough for them to release their brother from the shackles, though he remained in the shed.
It worked long enough for Adrian himself to fortify the shed with the stone and metal that his sisters brought for him.
Many months passed in this way. Seasons passed.
And just when Adrian himself dared to hope that he might join his sisters in their search for his cure, he felt a snapping in his skull.
Nadia was in the shed with him. And Diana.
Adrian woke shackled to the floor, wrapped in thick chains. His mind was his again, but he did not know for how long it would be so. His body remained transformed. He despaired.
“Release him, you foul spirit!” Talia cried at him.
Nadia stood beside her, shaking her head. “Can you not see? There is no foul spirit. This is our brother.”
“How can it be?”
“Do we all have such a monster within us?” Astra asked, peering at him.
Nadia stood before Adrian, but at a distance. “The brew has failed,” she said. “I am not surprised. It was worth trying. The brew is like a tether, and we know the tether works. But we can’t anchor your mind to itself. That’s like anchoring two ships at sea in a storm. Both will go down. But if we anchor your mind to one that is steady, one that will not transform, then it will keep your mind steady too.”
Adrian knew his sister well enough to know what steady mind she intended to use to anchor his.
“I will bring you down,” he said. He did not mean it as a threat, but he noted Talia moving a protective hand toward her younger sister.
“You must help me,” Nadia said. “Hold your side of the tether when I hold mine. If this too fails, we will find another way. Astra is right, you must have patience. Not just with us, but with yourself. Are you willing?”
For her sake, he was.
He remained chained and shackled that night. But she promised he would need not spend another in that shed if she succeeded.
When next Adrian woke, he felt pain.
But the pain was not his own. His mind was his own. The curse loomed over it, hungering to transform it. He did not see it. But he felt its weight. The curse was held back. Another mind shielded his own.
But that mind was in agony.
Adrian looked for his sisters, but did not see them. He soon realized that he was not awake in his body. His body still slept, eyes closed. He was awake in his mind. He opened his mind’s eye.
He envisioned his sister.
Nadia appeared, crouched before him. Her face was taut, wincing. She held something in her right hand. A sharp implement. With her left, she held a glowing cord.
The other end of the cord was wrapped around Adrian’s left arm. He saw himself in the reflection of her spectacles. He was no longer shackled. No fangs filled his mouth. His eyes were not red. They were a circles of black and brown surrounded by a white that was lined with pink vessels. He was his old self, a man.
“Nadia!” he called. He tried to step toward his sister, but could not.
The color was draining from her skin, her hair, her clothes. He heard the thudding of her heart, growing faster and faster. Too fast.
“Nadia, stop!” he cried. “Stop! You’re killing yourself!”
Nadia raised the knife whose hilt was inscribed with the anchoring sigils. In her mind’s eye, she envisioned the cord that connected her brother’s mind to her own. She envisioned the knife. She severed the cord.
Her pain vanished. She opened her eyes to see Adrian recoil.
To see his eyes grow wild and then wrathful.
He threw back his head and growled.
She was already kneeling. She crumpled to the ground, and heard her sisters rushing toward her.
It was dream she dreamt while her mind recovered from touching the curse that possessed her brother.
“You won’t…kill me?” he asked.
“Not today, little brother. But if you break my spectacles again, I might consider it.”
She smirked at him. But she saw, in his red eyes, that the words she meant as a jest struck her brother hard.
“I know what it is you fear,” she said. “I won’t let you hurt anyone.”
“What if this calm doesn’t last? What if these shackles can’t hold me? I remember what I felt, what I wanted to do.”
His gaze flicked to the old scars along her forearm, where he had dug his nails into her when he was only a boy. She had gone still and waited until he released her, before she went and cleaned her wounds.
That trick would not work with the beast he had now transformed into.
“We haven’t come to the end,” Astra said gently, holding Nadia’s hand in her own, “but we have come to the end of this effort.”
Nadia was in her bed. And she noted that Talia too was sitting beside her.
She glanced between her older sisters. “Who’s watching Adrian?”
“Mother and Rosa have joined Diana,” Talia said. “They’re frightened, but we have been keeping him asleep for the most part.”
“It worked,” Nadia marveled.
“No, dear, it didn’t,” Astra said. “Neither of you woke once you started, and when you finally did, you collapsed, and he…transformed.”
“It will corrupt his soul,” Nadia said. “You cry ‘patience,’ Astra, but we don’t know how much time we have.”
Her sisters tried to stop her from rising, but Nadia did not feel weak or drained. They told her she’d slept for three days. She believed them.
“I was not ready the first time,” she said. “I admit I was overwhelmed and drained. But now I know what to expect. I can fortify myself and try again.”
Her sisters exchanged a glance.
Talia sighed. “I told you she would be set upon trying again. Very well, then, little sister. We have your fortifications.” She held out her hands.
Nadia glanced between the two.
“We have an idea,” Astra said, “but we have been waiting for you to wake, because we don’t know if the idea would work.”
“Can more than one mind be used to anchor the unquiet mind of our not-so-gentle brother?” Talia asked.
“What about us?” Diana asked.
Nadia conferred with her older sisters as they all stood outside the shed, five sisters and their mother.
“Five make a star,” she whispered. “That is a powerful symbol.”
Astra shook her head. “Rosa is too frightened. We must not ask it of her.”
Talia tilted her head toward their younger sisters. “But if Diana wants to join us, why refuse her?””
“No, Astra’s right. We three should try first. And we should expect pain. If we succeed, there’s no need for—“
Nadia stopped talking, for their younger sisters now approached.
Rosa spoke first. “I want to join you,” she said, pressing her lips together, summoning her courage. “I’m afraid. But I want to help Adrian.” She reached out and took Nadia’s hand, squeezing it to show that she need not be coddled by her elder sisters this time.
“And I want to join the pack,” Diana added.
They set their mother to watch them all, and tend to them if they should all collapse as Nadia had the first time.
“You risk much for my son,” their mother said, her voice thick. She blinked away tears and assured them she would care for them all for as long as she was able.
The sisters stood in a wide circle around their brother, who sat upon a chair wrapped in chains and shackled to the floor.
Nadia raised the knife, hoping she would not need it this time.
And she began to speak the chants of anchoring.
Her sisters repeated her words.
They closed their eyes.
Their minds were joined. And in their minds’ eye, they saw each other and their brother. He sat upon a chair. He did not look like a man, but like the beast into which he had transformed, but when he opened his mind’s eye, five cords appeared on his wrist. The other end of each cord was wrapped around each sister’s wrist.
Adrian startled when he saw all five of his sisters around him.
He understood at once what they were doing. The others had joined Nadia, to share her burden, and their only brother’s burden.
His sisters were straining, but they did not appear to be in pain.
The cords around his wrist began to unravel. He felt the curse, beyond the radiance that his sisters had summoned. It whirled around them and struck at them. Rosa screamed. Talia gasped. Diana and Astra teetered and trembled. They held on to their cords. But now he feared for them.
Nadia called to him. “Adrian! It will not work if you don’t join us! We cannot do this for you. We can only help you. You must shift the transformation of your mind and heart yourself!”
Adrian grasped at the ends of the cords, but he couldn’t catch them. “I don’t know how!”
“I can guide you up to a point,” Nadia said, “but beyond that the work is for you to do.”
Adrian did as his sister instructed. The cords around his wrist stopped unraveling. They twisted around his arm, and began to sink beneath his skin. His skin felt taut. His muscles strained, and then relaxed.
Adrian felt the thrumming of his mind, and he found the thudding of his heart. Nadia had told him that he could not stop the transformation of his mind and heart, but he could still thwart the curse by taking over that transformation, directing it into a shape that he wanted.
He pictured his mind and his heart transforming, shimmering at their surfaces, in their chambers and their folds, like glass, like mirrors.
The curse loomed around each organ, trying to find a way inside, confused by its own reflection, tiring from the effort of seeking, shrinking as it weakened.
The transformation of Adrian’s body began to reverse too, but the curse resisted, as if it were a living thing that was throwing all its effort into defending this last bit of territory that it refused to yield.
All six siblings struggled. Nadia called to them, starting with Adrian, and they agreed.
To preserve the rest of him, they would let the curse reside in Adrian’s body.
When they opened their earthly eyes, they found their mother pacing around the circle of sisters.
Adrian blinked and under his chains, his shoulders relaxed.
“I can feel it,” Nadia said. “We are linked.”
“We are a pack,” Diana said, grinning.
Rosa strode forth. She placed her hands under her brother’s ears and bent to kiss the space between his red eyes.
Astra and Talia clasped hands and threw their arms around each other’s shoulders.
Nadia removed her spectacles and wiped her face with her forearm, frowning at the damp stain that her sweat left on her blue sleeve.
She replaced her spectacles and stepped toward her little brother.
Adrian’s fur bristled. And he shuddered as Diana and Rosa released him from his chains.
“Maybe you should leave them on for a while,” he said.
Nadia placed her hands upon his shoulders. “This is no cure, Adrian. Every day, every moment, you will have to remain steady. It will be difficult sometimes, especially as you still appear frightful to most. The curse may regain its strength and come at you again. When we are with you, we will help you. And if we cannot help you ourselves, we will find someone who can.”
Adrian nodded. “But I must also help myself.” He looked among his sisters, his gaze resting on his mother, who remained silent. “Do you think I can do it?”
“Are you willing?” Nadia asked.
“In this moment, I am.”
Nadia smiled. “That, little brother, is a triumph worth celebrating.”
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel