The scrape on Maria's shoulder was itching more than ever. A tear just beside the collar of her forest green dress revealed the shallow cut in her skin. Despite her remarkable fighting skill and all of her best efforts, she hadn't been able to stop a mob of jealous werecats from getting the better of her Their claws and fangs had been dripping with contamination, and a single erratic slash from one of the creatures was all it had taken to administer her with a generous dose of the same poison that had created them.
Maria briefly scratched at her shoulder to fight off the latest tingling sensation. Her best hope now was deep in the castle's alchemy lab, assuming its storeroom had the right ingredients and she could concoct the necessary potion in time. Despite the overwhelming odds, she didn't linger on her doubts for long. She had to cure herself. She would never be able to save Richter from whatever evil magic was controlling him if she gave up now.
Unfortunately, the ominous signs of Maria's approaching doom had almost finished adding up. It had started a few hours after she was first infected. Osca, a pet owl she had raised in her childhood, randomly became spooked by her for the first time in his domesticated life and fled for higher ground like any bird trying to escape its natural predator. Later, she noticed the werecats in other parts of the castle were becoming eerily more peaceful toward her each time another crossed her path. Then her stomach started to rumble with a sudden craving for roast merman meat when she was near the waterways. And now, in the middle of a courtyard that connected the chapel to the castle library...
Oh God. The moon is out.
As Maria continued to stare toward the sky in frozen horror, a single cheerful voice caught her attention.
"Hi! I'm Chelsea!"
She turned to see the quintessential werecat peering down at her, crouched on its haunches and perched on a square stone along the castle wall. Half woman, half feline, a strategic layer of gray and black striped fur was all that prevented the full details of the creature's chest and groin from being put on display. The image of an oversized tabby cat staring at her intently caused Maria to question if what she was seeing could even be real... until she remembered she was looking at exactly what she was destined to become.
This werecat wasn't part of the group that had originally attacked her, but it was another one of Dracula's monsters all the same. Maria's hands clenched into gloved fists as she shouted back.
"What do you want, demon?"
Her observer seemed to only grow all the more interested in her when she became angry. A tiny amount of caution now lingered in its girlish voice.
"I'm just trying to get to know you a little better."
It jumped down to a closer ledge, tilting its head in curiosity once it got a better look at the human traveler. It paid especially close attention to Maria's shoulder injury.
"You don't really want to fight, do you? With a scratch that bad, I bet we're going to be sisters pretty soon."
'Pretty soon' turned out to mean right now.
Maria suddenly gasped in pain and clutched her hands over her heart. It felt like it was trying to burst out of her chest as the moon inched higher and higher into the night sky. Chelsea lounged on the wall above her with an excited smile.
"Looks like it's time."
Maria toppled over when an invisible force began twisting and pulling the muscles of her legs. Seconds later, her shoulder was bombarded with a new wave of sensation. It started with a teasing itch that focused on the spot where she had be scratched, but then it grew into a scorching fire that rapidly spread across every inch of her skin. Fever set in once the fire reached her head, and fever soon led to delirium.
Her fingernails were the first things to visibly change. A set of retracting cat claws tore through the tips of her cloth gloves. She cried out in pain when she felt similar claws struggling to grow out of her more rigid shoes.
Amidst her agony, she could still hear Chelsea's playful voice speak out from some faraway viewing spot.
"I hope you don't mind if I watch. This is the first time I've ever seen someone change."
The heat was unbearable. She tore away what remained of her gloves, shredded her dress and underclothes to pieces without the slightest thought of decency, and desperately ripped the shoes and socks from her feet. She still failed to find relief even when there was nothing left to stop the cool night air from directly touching her skin.
Her emerald hair ribbon came loose and fell to the ground. Her wavy blonde hair straightened, grew outward, and formed a short mane around her head and neck. More hair erupted from the millions of tiny follicles that budded across her body. The cartilage of her ears sunk inward, climbed the sides of her head, and re-emerged as two triangular lobes sitting on top of her scalp. The color in her irises drained away and changed to a golden hue that glowed dimly in the dark. The soles of her feet callused and formed thick leathery pads that replaced her need for footwear. Her spine flexed, stretched, and extended from her lower back to create a long tail.
Maria's fangs grew in as she rolled her head back and offered her despair to the moon. Her voice gradually transitioned from a human's painful screams to a cat's frightened meows. In place of clothes, a coat of smooth, silky fur now covered her from head to toe. Its pale yellow color mildly resembled the head of golden hair she had when she was still human.
With her cursed transformation complete, she collapsed onto a bed of grass in exhaustion.
Maria remained curled in a small, rising and falling ball for several minutes. Her fur shimmered softly under the moonlight while her tail occasionally twitched across the ground. Chelsea leapt from her ledge and landed just beside the newly spawned werecat in perfect silence. Looming forward on all fours, she poked Maria's outer thigh with a clawed digit.
"Hey, you're not trying to take a nap already, are you? You should save that stuff for the daytime."
Maria slowly uncoiled, pushed herself away from the ground, and sat up on her knees. When she raised her arms and arched her back to stretch, she could feel every muscle hidden under her fur had been pleasantly toned and refined in her transformation. She was more flexible than any ordinary human could ever strive to be, and the increased strength in her arms and legs gave her the potential energy of a loaded spring.
Maria stared downward and studied both sides of her hands in silence. Overwhelmed partly by fear, and mostly by uncertainty, she struggled to find the appropriate thing to say.
Chelsea happily leaned over her shoulder and helped her complete the thought.
"You're a werecat now. You're definitely one of the prettier ones around here, if it makes you feel any better. What's your name?"
She could remember much of her human life, but only in the way someone would remember reading about a character in a book. She was a third person observer to her own memories. The landscape of her mind had changed just as much as her body, and she couldn't imagine herself acting like the heroic girl she used to be. That way of living just seemed so... boring.
She spoke once she was able to fish an answer out of her swirling mind.
Chelsea perked her ears, bobbed her head in acknowledgement, and waved her tail in a hypnotic pattern.
"That's a nice name. I think you're going to like it here, Maria."
Maria's new instincts decided Chelsea was no longer her enemy. There was no way she could see it with her eyes, but her heightened sense of smell also told her there were countless others like her in some secret lion's den somewhere in the castle. She was a stray cat in a hostile world, an impure and incurable freak of nature scorned by all mankind, and these were her closest allies. With nowhere else to turn, she accepted her new home.
Chelsea was glad to see a relieved smile cross Maria's lips.
"Come on. I'll introduce you to the others."
Richter sat in a luxury seat overlooking Castle Dracula's indoor gladiatorial arena. One of his hands held a wine glass, while the other formed a fist under his chin. Although he was the sole spectator to an empty battlefield, something deep in his thoughts managed to keep him amused. A scheming grin crossed his face as he drank.
The outline of a naked young woman with a few peculiar anatomical features approached Richter from his left. He knew the stranger's identity even before she slipped out of the shadows cast by the balcony's pillars. There was obvious disappointment in his voice when he spoke in her direction.
"Maria. I told you to stay away from this place and watch after Annette for a reason."
She stopped in her tracks once she reached the foot of the throne. Her ears folded down submissively and her tail dangled limply to the floor as she lowered her head in remorse.
Richter reached for her chin, calmly petting a patch of fur under her jaw before lifting her face toward his. His tone took a more friendly approach.
"Don't punish yourself over the matter for too long. It's partly my fault for thinking you wouldn't come slinking after me like you usually do, and I suppose without me watching over you it was only a matter of time before curiosity finally killed the cat. I would say fate was at least gentle on you, considering some of the other things that could have happened to you."
He sat back, briefly lifting his cup again as he crossed his legs.
"In any case, now that you're nothing more than another servant of this realm, I might as well make some use of you."
Something devious began to glow in his eyes.
"We're getting ready to throw a party for our newest guest. He'll be here any minute, and I would like for you to help with the festivities."
Two more shadows appeared to Richter's right. Maria watched with a thoughtful expression as the two figures stepped toward the light, revealing themselves to be a grinning werewolf and a stoic minotaur. Although the minotaur was by far the larger of the pair, they both easily overtook the werecat in height and had hulking, muscular bodies in contrast to her much more compact and curvy frame.
It didn't take long for Maria to grasp Richter's plan. If the three of them fought together as a unit, her smaller stature and superior agility would be a deadly complement to the other beasts' brute strength.
The werewolf sniffed the air before he placed his full attention on Maria. His eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"This one's still got that new catgirl smell, and I have a hard enough time getting along with the little beggars who've been here a while. Can we trust her?"
Maria's mouth twisted into an offended scowl before she shot back.
"You should talk, you filthy mutt. Maybe if you weren't always drooling on yourself we wouldn't think you were so gross."
The werewolf snarled.
"Don't get smart with me, kitten. It's only a matter of time before Dracula figures out he should just throw the whole lot of you in a box and drop you into the sewers. There's something unnatural about your breed, even by this place's standards. How do you keep multiplying faster than us when there isn't a single male werecat to be seen?"
Maria hissed in stubborn opposition.
"Maybe it's because we prefer to live equally and actually like to take care of each other. Werewolves have no one to blame but themselves when they're always tearing each other apart just so whoever survives can claim to be the Alpha Dog, until someone bigger and stupider comes along to chew their throat out."
Richter leaned into his armrest and rolled his eyes at the argument. He brought things to a halt just before his subordinates had a chance to lash out at each other.
"Enough! Can we please have just a few moments of peaceful co-existence? The two of you can get back to your interspecies squabbling as soon as you've dealt with your common enemy."
The two therianthropic rivals instantly ended their debate and offered their master their master their full attention. Richter rewarded them each with an appeased glance.
"Better. Now, personal bias notwithstanding, I'm afraid your associate raises an important point. Do you think you're capable of defeating the son of Dracula in your current state, Maria?"
Maria enthusiastically waved her tail and nodded.
"Of course, Lord Belmont. As long as you're master of the castle, all nine of my lives belong to you."
Richter chuckled out of the corner of his mouth. He saw the werecat disease had been busy teaching her all she needed to know in the field of etiquette while it was tainting her blood.
"Very good. I'm looking forward to your performance the most."
He took another swig from his chalice before waving his hand.
"The three of you, go. The coliseum awaits."
Maria followed her two monstrous companions to the castle's fighting arena with no further complaint.