Kent tried hard not to glare at the people staring at him and huddling together out of some faint herd instinct when he walked down the street. All he wanted was a roof over his head until the storm disappeared, but everyone in this little town took one look at him and fled. Some even made signs of protection, their hands moving frantically, as though he would attack if they didn’t go through the motions fast enough. He snorted, lip twisting into a snarl. He was cursed, not evil. Didn’t anyone besides mages know the difference anymore?

He ducked down a side street, hoping to escape the stares and whispers. The street was just narrow enough that the roofs of the buildings offered some small protection from the rain. He limped down the alleyway until he found a spot far enough away from the main streets. Dropping down onto all fours, he curled up against the flank of a building, trying to make himself as small as possible. Mud squished between his oversized paws and the building’s stone exterior was cold, leeching heat away from his body, but Kent was too exhausted to care. If he could only sleep for a while, maybe then he’d be able to figure out what do, where next to go so that he might finally have some relief from his curse.

Kent had just gotten comfortable, or as comfortable as he could get, and was in the hazy state between sleep and waking when something struck one of his paws. Startled, Kent scrambled to his feet, his disoriented mind taking a few moments to process what he was seeing.

Someone had tripped and fallen over him. A mage, judging from the scent of magic, so strong it overpowered all other scents, even that of the rain and the mud. Perfect. It was just his luck to run into someone capable of cursing him even more than he already was.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” the mage chanted in a soft voice, getting to his feet, sliding a little on the rain-slick cobblestones.

“My fault,” Kent said without thinking, wincing when it came out as more of a growl. Then again, his snout and large teeth made it difficult for him to say anything and not have it sound like a growl. It was one of the reasons he’d stopped speaking unnecessarily. The mage’s head snapped up, the hood of his dark cloak sliding down onto his shoulders, allowing Kent to see his face.

No, Kent realized a moment later, her face.

Her brown hair was pulled back into a simple ponytail, low at the base of her neck, revealing pierced ears, each bearing a small diamond earring that glittered as though lit from within. Her face was somewhat pale, dotted with faded freckles born of summer’s sunlight, but her cheeks were flushed and her nose was red from the cold. Her lips were pale as well, and chapped, the bottom one deeply split, a line of rust-red running down its center. But what caught Kent’s attention most were the mage’s eyes, blue-gray and rimmed with bright fuchsia pink.

Most mages had oddly colored eyes. Barthay, his father’s head mage, had brown eyes that burned crimson, like fresh blood, when he was working his magic, and many of the mages Kent’s father had sent to his chambers over the years, trying to remove his son’s curse, had had odd eyes, bright with such eerie power they made Kent shiver, even after so many years.

Unnaturally-colored eyes were a sign of a mage’s validity, as only people born with the innate ability to conduct magic had them. Furthermore, there were very few spells that could change a person’s eye color because the cost of failure was too high; often, a mumbled word could change a spell’s entire purpose, and for very delicate spells, such as those needed to change eye-colors, even blinking at the wrong moments could lead to permanent blindness or worse.

“Oh,” was all the mage said, the flush draining out of her cheeks. Fear suddenly joined the scent of magic. “S-sorry!” she squeaked, then dashed down the alleyway, disappearing around a corner.

Now that he was wide-awake, Kent was distinctly aware that something had been unusual about that particular mage. His Beast nose was much more sensitive than a hunting hound’s, and there had been another scent mixed up with the mage’s fear and magic. Kent couldn’t identify it, and, a week later, it was still preying on his mind like a wolf at a herd of sheep, rushing in when Kent was close to sleep to upset his thoughts and make rest impossible. People’s reactions were always the same: terror, and the occasional soiling of undergarments. But that mage…for lack of a better word, she was different. At least, Kent hoped she was.

Tracking the mage’s scent was easy. Kent had gotten a good sense of what her magic smelled like when she’d tripped over him, so it was a simple matter of putting his Beastly nose to the ground and letting instinct take over.

He travelled between dusk and dawn to avoid being seen and causing a panic, his night vision allowing him pick out other travelers and avoid them; he had to circumvent many towns and villages, but usually found the mage’s scent before too long. The rolling hills of the south made him feel exposed, vulnerable, but were easy to cross thanks to his Beast form’s unnatural endurance. Kent covered more distance on all fours, and alternated between walking when his hands hurt and a steady lope he could keep up for hours without tiring.

He went farther north, the hills gradually morphing into steep fells, crisscrossed with rocky paths that cut his paws; forests became more prevalent, making it easier for Kent to rest and hunt during the day without fear of discovery, though the harshness of the landscape meant long hours of travelling up and down the mountains. The climate also changed; it rained more frequently and became colder with the approach of winter.

It took him just over four months to track the mage to an isolated cottage near the northeastern edge of the Dragon’s Forest, a forest that no man, however strong or brave or clever, ventured into for fear of waking the terrible dragon said to live in the forest’s heart. Kent had no use for such stories, and stayed in the forest that night, chancing upon a fallen tree and scraping out a hollow beneath it, barely large enough for him to hide in. He slept soundly, safe in the knowledge that he was completely hidden from human sight. He wasn’t worried about anything attacking him; the scent of magic on him kept most animals away, and he was large enough to take on most large predators, even bears.

The sun was just rising, the pale sky streaked with orange and gold, when Kent crawled out from his hiding place. He yawned, stretching to alleviate the ache in his muscles. After relieving himself, he returned to his fallen tree and sat on top of it. Using his claws to comb the worst of the dirt out of the stripe of stiff fur running down his spine, he thought about how best to approach the mage.

It’d probably be best for their second encounter if Kent acted as nonthreatening as possible. He snorted derisively at the thought. ‘Nonthreatening’ was the absolute last word anyone would use to describe him in his current state. Beast curses mixed all the most fearsome aspects of the animal kingdom with the mind of its human victim, resulting in a terrifying combination of the two. Like all Beasts, Kent had bright yellow eyes, a mouthful of large fangs, paws tipped with claws the length of daggers, and a tail he could barely control. But what made him unusual was his size; even by normal Beast curse standards, Kent was a walking wall of hard muscle and coarse brown fur; even when he was down on all fours, his shoulders were the same height as those of a tall pony.

Kent hesitated at the low dry stone wall bordering the mage’s garden, crouching low enough that only his head remained above the wall, just staring at the cottage, eyes roaming over the gray stone exterior, the thatched roof, the narrow, arched windows. In the cold air of early morning, he could smell the smoke from her chimney, the herbs growing in her garden and around the house. He couldn’t hear or see anything from inside the cottage, but his nose was twitching maddeningly with the scent of the mage’s magic. He sneezed once, twice.

A sudden wave of hopelessness seized him, making his heart pound and a chill sweep down his spine. Barthay, his father’s head mage and the most powerful in the kingdom, had tried valiantly to remove Kent’s curse, eventually giving in and calling upon scholars and mages specializing in curses. Kent had endured all manner of spells and potions, most of which resulted in bone-deep pain but left him otherwise unchanged. What chance did this backwater mage have of helping him?

Like everyone else, she had been terrified. It had been raining, the alleyway had been dark, and she’d just fallen unexpectedly; what sane person wouldn’t be afraid if they realized they’d stumbled over a shadowy creature that towered over them and then growled?

And, fear aside, it was entirely possible that the mage had honestly not recognized that Kent was cursed. Beast curses had once been a popular punishment, but the curse was advanced magic, difficult to complete for mages of any rank, so it had fallen out of fashion in favor of less complicated spells. Consequently, very few mages, even some of the older ones, had ever actually encountered a Beast curse outside their magical history books.

But Kent remembered the difference in her scent, the something…other tingeing the edges of her fear.

His mind made up, Kent sprang over the wall in one easy movement, and padded up to the front of the cottage on all fours. The front door was narrow and arched in shape, runes Kent didn’t recognize carved into its frame; the runes glowed a faint gray against the wood, which was so dark it was almost black in color. A little plaque with the words Silverdale Cottage engraved in it was installed on the door, directly below the simple metal ring knocker.

The last thing Kent wanted was to intimidate the mage by reminding her how much taller he was than her when standing on two legs, so he sat down on his haunches with his tail tucked neatly against his flank, rather like a cat or well-behaved dog. Hoping to make a good impression, he carefully rapped his knuckles against the door a few times, noting that although the door shook, it did not break or split beneath his paw as other doors had done in the past before he’d learned to control his Beast strength.

The mage opened the door a few moments. She stared at him blearily, eyes clouded with sleep, not really seeing him. Kent stared back, not sure what to do; if he spoke, what should he say? More importantly, how could he say anything without it turning into a growl?

The mage straightened, like someone had jabbed her spine with a hot poker, all traces of sleepiness gone.

“Oh,” she breathed. Pungent fear suddenly clouded Kent’s nose, and he could feel the mage’s magic flare, saw the violet rimming the blue of her eyes brighten to fuchsia. The two of them stared at each other, motionless.

Feeling that he had to do something, anything, Kent took a deep breath.

“Morning.” His voice was a rough croak, and when he tried to clear his throat, he instead coughed, feeling like he’d just swallowed shards of glass. How long had it been since he’d spoken? He tried again.

“Morning.” It was easier this time, and, thankfully, didn’t sound like a growl.

The mage’s magic settled.

“Good morning,” she said quietly, regarding him warily, like she was prepared to slam the door in his face. It would not be the first time such a thing had happened to him. “Who are you? What do you want?” she demanded harshly, suddenly brave despite the fear still lingering about her like a fine mist.

“I’m Kent.” A cough caught in his throat, and he found that he couldn’t pronounce his own last name. Not that it would make any difference; he was exiled, a traitor in his homelands. Perhaps it was best if he finally forgot his family name and gave himself a new one. But the memory of his dear little sister, her blonde hair shining in the light of her little courtyard where she had gardeners care for exotic plants from other countries…he could not and indeed would not, forget her. “Can you…” His too-long tongue scraped, useless, over his fangs for a moment. “Help me?” He gestured to himself with a paw.

The mage stared at him intently, eyes narrowed, jagged veins of fuchsia creeping through her iris like cracks in ice. A faint ringing filled Kent’s ears, and he felt exposed, like the mage had stripped away his fur and skin and muscle until only the very core of his being, his soul if the curse hadn’t yet corrupted it, remained.

“Sorry,” the mage said at last, relaxing. Fuchsia darkened back to purple. “Had to be done.” Kent looked at her expectantly, but she offered no explanation. Despite all his time with mages at home, outside the research he had done on his own curse, Kent knew very little of magic beyond his own curse, and didn’t care to know, either. All he wanted was to be human again. “Please, come in.” She opened the door wider and stepped aside.

Kent moved past her, and waited while she closed the door again; he heard the clack of metal on metal when she turned the key in the lock. The mage shivered, and grumbled under her breath about faulty heating charms, pulling the red woolen robe she was wearing a little tighter around her body. When she saw Kent watching her, she flushed and quickly looked away.

“Sorry,” she said again. “Please, follow me. We’ll be more comfortable in the kitchen. It’s the only room with a fire going right now,” she added. Kent followed her, his heavy footsteps muffled by the rugs on the floor.

In the kitchen, a fire crackled from the heart of the large open fireplace, arched in design and made of pale red brick, that dominated one wall; the fire’s heat washed over Kent, just hot enough to make his skin prickle, when he walked past it, his claws clicking on the deep orange tiles of the floor. The fireplace was set into the wall, and bookended by shelves on the right and tall cupboards on the left; the shelves and cupboard were flush with the fireplace, making the kitchen surprisingly spacious despite its limited square footage. Near the tall windows of the far wall was a round pinewood table, surrounded by matching ladder-back chairs.

“Sit down at the table, and I’ll make us some tea. Problems are usually easier to deal with after a nice hot cup of tea,” the mage said, flashing Kent a quick smile before turning to fuss over a black kettle hanging from a hook over the fire. She was suddenly alive in a way she hadn’t been at the doorway, cheerful and no longer afraid, and Kent relished the change; everyone before her had remained afraid of him, their fear souring the air no matter how demure he had acted.

Kent, still on all fours, went to stand next to the table, hyper-aware of his bulk. Unsure what to do, he watched the mage get a mug out of the cupboards next to the fireplace and drop an acorn-shaped metal tea infuser into it, then pour in the hot water from the kettle. She poured the rest of the hot water into another mug Kent hadn’t noticed sitting near the edge of a shelf of bricks above the fireplace.

“Sit down, for the gods’ sake,” the mage said when she turned back to face him, mugs in hand, and saw him standing there. But she was still smiling, and her words were without bite. “My chairs will hold you just fine. They’re sturdier than they look, I promise,” she added in a softer voice, setting the mugs down on the tabletop.

Slowly, feeling more awkward than ever, Kent rose so he was standing on two legs, hunching over to avoid bashing his head against the exposed wooden beams of the ceiling. The mage’s magic flared, bright and strong for a brief moment, like a log disrupting the coals when tossed into a fire, before it settled down again.

Kent hesitantly lowered himself into the chair, wincing when the straw seat squeaked beneath him. But, to his surprise, it didn’t break.

“See?” the mage said, smirking triumphantly as she sat down at the table next to him. Kent wanted to smile back at her, but didn’t dare to, in case the sight of his fangs spooked her. After years of being treated with contempt and fear, the mage’s apparent friendliness was a rarity Kent was desperate to prolong.

“You want your curse removed,” she said, still smiling despite the somberness of the subject. Breaking curses was a difficult business, often painful for the curse’s victim, as Kent had found out when the first mage had tried to rid him of the magic.

Kent nodded.

“I thought so,” she said, nodding as she sipped her tea. “Not many people want to stay a Beast, unless the curse has gotten to their minds and made them more animal than man. But that hasn’t happened to you yet. You’re able to stand on two feet, you can talk, and, most importantly, you still think intelligently. How long have you been cursed – Kent, was it?”

Kent nodded. He realized he didn’t know the mage’s name.

“You?” he asked, voice cracking like a boy’s. He coughed, and tried again. “Your name?”

“Hmm? Oh, I’m Dria, Dria Spelkson,” said the mage, flushing a little. “Sorry, that was rude of me. I should have introduced myself earlier.”

“It’s fine,” said Kent. His voice sounded strange in his own ears. Dria smiled at him, embarrassment forgotten.

“So, how long?” Dria asked again.

“Seven years.”

“The longest I’ve heard of a man staying sane when under a Beast curse is four years. How have you lasted this long?” she said softly, though Kent heard her as clearly as if she had spoken normally. She’s staring at him, openly amazed in a way that reminded Kent of the curse scholars Barthay had hired to break his curse. Kent had quickly grown to hate the scholars, who had always looked at him like he was a magical experiment gone horribly wrong.

“Sorry, that was insensitive,” Dria said, wincing, and all at once, any resemblance to Barthay’s scholars disappears, because now she’s looking at Kent like he’s done something incredible. “It’s just that you’re now the longest known survivor of a Beast curse. You must have an amazing strength of will to withstand the curse’s effects,” Dria said, making warmth bubble in Kent’s chest; it had been many years since anyone had looked at him like that.

“As wonderful as is that you’re still sane, I’m not sure how I can really help you,” Dria said, frowning and dropping her gaze to the mug in her hands.

“Why?” Kent asked. Feeling his throat tighten, he quickly lapped at his tea with his tongue, hoping that it would make speaking easier. “You knew about the curse,” he said a few moments later. “Many don’t.”

“But just knowing about a curse doesn’t mean I can reverse it. See, I’m not a very good mage,” Dria admitted unhappily, still frowning down at her tea like it had personally wronged her.

“I’m sure-,” Kent started to say, but she cut him off.

“No, really,” she insisted, lips quirking up into a thin smile. “I’m a mage who’s bad at magic.” She let out a short, humorless laugh. “What proper mage needs a wand to help her perform spells other mages can do in their sleep? Only new mages need wands,” Dria sneers in a nasal voice, obviously imitating what someone had told her.

When mages graduated from their training academies, they were ranked according to the degree of control an individual mage exhibited over any spells cast; the greater number and level of spells a mage could control at one time, the higher the mage was ranked. Nine was the highest rank a mage could attain. Barthay had been one of the three nine-rank mages in the kingdom, and the only one who wasn’t a scholar at the capital’s mage university.

‘New’ mages were the lowest-ranking mages, usually children, because they had very little control over their magic, which was subject to unpredictable ebbs and surges of power. Calling an adult mage ‘new’ was insulting, implying that the mage in question had no magical control. Kent had the distinct feeling Dria had been called new many times in the past. His ears folded back against his skull and he could feel rather than hear a growl building deep in his throat.

“You must have seen other mages, better ones,” Dria says, still not looking up from her tea. She sounds resigned. “And if they’ve failed…”

Kent doesn’t know how to respond.

“What rank are you?” he finally asks to break the uncomfortable silence between them.

“Hmm?” Dria startles, jerking her gaze away from her tea and looking at Kent like she’d forgotten he was there. “Oh, um, six,” she says distractedly.

Kent knows that six is quite a respectable rank. A majority of the mages who had tried to break his curse had been seven or eight-rank mages.

“Wait, why did you want to know my rank?” Dria asks. “I just told you, I’m not-.”

“I can’t pay you,” Kent interrupts. A growl is still threatening to burst out of him, but it isn’t aimed at Dria, but at the academy mages who’d scorned her, who’d insulted her.

What?” Dria yelps, shocked.