Liona was a good and cautious girl, and when she gathered cherryberries in the Drizzlewood, she always obeyed her Grandam’s command to be home by nightfall. She’d been especially careful for the past fortnight, ever since the Brangdon boy’s bones had been found gnawed clean. Two days later Goodwife Hannah, a hale woman of 25 years, went missing during a night hunt for mushrooms. Her husband and the other frantic searchers hunted the woods and found, too, her bloody bones. And just a few days ago, Old Andy from the village of Griddle’s Hollow said the miller’s boy had gone missing after sneaking out for a midnight swim.
But no one had yet gone missing in the day, and if Liona was just dying for cherryberries, she knew everything would be all right as long as she got back to Drizzlezan by nightfall.
But now, the scraps of sky that showed through the treetops was a sullen purple, and here beneath the trees, all was washed in gray shade. She’d fallen asleep beside one of the countless brooks that meandered down to the Phloon. No sooner had she closed her eyes – just for a moment, she told herself – than she opened them again to see the sun had raced across the sky! Her Grandam would be furious.
Liona’s footsteps crunched on the new-fallen leaves that covered the path from the High Valley back down to Drizzlezan. Always moving downill, the path wound in and out, back and forth, and it would have been difficult to run if she’d tried. Yet she hurried as best she could, casting fearful glances into the trees on either side of the path. She’d heard many a tale about children who disobeyed their Grandams and came to a bad end.
Suddenly a wretched, rag-covered man stepped out from behind a pile of tumbled boulders. He strode into the path and stood there, blocking it, his hands on his hips, a look of smug contempt on his face.
Liona stopped and slowly backed away. The man’s lurid grin spread across his face as she backed up into another man, who grabbed her arms and whirled her around to face him. He was filthy, with shrunken skin stretched across an overlarge nose and cheekbones.
“Hello, girlie,” he hissed, spewing foul breath. Liona shuddered.
The other man came up behind her and pulled her arms down behind her back. “You’ll make a fine treat,” he growled, “and you’ll serve us well before we eat you.”
“We hasn’t eaten in days,” sighed the boney faced man, sliding a knife from his rags. Just as he was about to slide it into her bodice and pop the seems, he fell away, pushed by a white blur. He was already dead by the time Liona realized what happened, and a huge white wolf, red blood dripping from his fangs, stood before her, head lowered, menacing. Her blood froze.
“Easy, doggie,” the man behind her said.
Liona screamed as the beast leaped fully over her head. She flinched, ducking, raising her hands up instinctively. As she did, she felt her captor’s grip release and his gurgling scream tear through the night. Turning, she looked down in horror at the white wolf, who had ripped open the man’s throat.
The white wolf turned to stare at her.
Liona was frozen to the spot. Every nerve in her body strained to run, but she could not move.
The wolf stared at her for a moment, then, turning, dashed into the trees.
Liona immediately lurched into a run, stumbling several times on the downward-winding, darkened path. Her knees and the heels of her hands were scraped bloody by the time she reached the sour oat field of the Hannigan’s farm.
Out from under the forest eaves, she looked up into the stars and caught her breath in the twin glow of the moons. Everything would be all right now.
The white wolf, obscured behind tall shafts of sour oats, watched the young girl until she reached the wooden palisade of Drizzlezan, where her mother shrieked in relief and wrapped her in a great cloak. A single militiaman stood watch, and lectured the girl on the dangers of the woods at night. He closed the ponderous gate behind him. Only then did the white wolf turn and run back across the Hannigan’s farm to the edge of the Drizzlewood.
It was not the white wolf, but the man Dacian, who emerged from the stand of sour oats. It was his tall, leather-armored and green-cloaked form that jogged back up the path into the Drizzlewood. The wind rustled in his long brown hair; the moonlight occasionally glimmered in his melancholy eyes.
Dacian paused at the scene of the attempted abduction, long enough to get the scent of blood. Once he had it, he resumed the form of ithu delnab, the white wolf, and followed it back the way the miscreants had come.
He was exhausted. Though he possessed endurance far in excess of a normal man, Dacian had run here over the past few days, all the way from Metrozium. There, a young Velvet Knight called Matthias – little more than a boy, but already brave – told him of a message he’d just received from Drizzlezan. Folk had been taken. And, seemingly, eaten. The villagers looked for a beast, Matthias said, but he felt certain it was something else.
Dacian was well-known to the order of Velvet Knights, who were sworn to protect the land of Cytherea. He himself possessed an older calling to a higher power. He was one of the shepherds; men who lived to help the helpless.
He had no time now to ponder his origins – only to fulfill his mission. He had arrived in Drizzlezan this very afternoon, and had taken a meal in the tavern to hear what he could hear. Every tongue in the Drizzle Inn wagged about the disappearances. Every tongue placed the blame on a wolf, a bear, or even worse – a monster, some foul aberration of Nezeb. Dacian watched the girl leave the village and followed from a discreet distance in wolf form. Part of him was watching out for her as shepherd, but another part was using the tools that presented themselves: in this case, bait. When the girl napped by the brook this afternoon, the white wolf watched over her, and followed her home.
Now, Dacian followed a trail of footprints and other signs that grew more obvious the further he followed it – up, off the path, across a sloping hillside strewn with gigantic moss-covered boulders. The trees covered all, letting through little of dim moonlight. But the white wolf needed no light, and it was the wolf that gained the far edge of the sloping hillside to discover a sudden valley gouged into the highlands. Its lower end opened onto the plain that watered the distant Phloon, the mists of which could be seen even now. The upper end of the valley, to the wolf’s left, was a rocky tumble of scattered boulders and strange rock formations. Dacian knew the place of old, and had half-expected the trail to lead here. The earliest Cythereans had called it Giant’s Quarry, for it opened onto a series of huge subterranean vaults. Folk said they were made by the Bolg, the giants who ruled Cytherea long before the age of men.
The white wolf prowled close to the valley’s upper end, through columns of twisted rock and around huge, half-submerged boulders. The red-orange glow of firelight loomed in the darkness ahead, leading the wolf to the verge of a huge arch-shaped hole in the hillside, surrounded by steep bluffs on three sides.
Inside, a pitiful creature crouched, hugging his knees. A few strands of hair were plastered to his pate with greasy sweat. His eyes bulged, staring into the darkness, and yet the man never saw the white wolf, even after he reached up to staunch the flow of blood coming from his jugular, wondering what had knocked him to the ground.
Leaving the sentry dead at the archway, the white wolf entered a shaft of shadow and emerged as Dacian. He followed the firelight into another cavern. It was large and chaotic in shape; no sane quarryman would dig like this. Several fires burned on various sloping platforms, illuminating the great chamber but leaving vast regions of shadow. Moving between these pools of shade, Dacian moved through the chamber, which, despite its fires, seemed deserted. And yet he could sense that more men were present, deeper in this ancient complex.
Beyond the great quarry chamber was a ramp leading farther into the earth. It was broad, with a pool of red light at its bottom.
Then Dacian heard a voice.
“Seekers after knowledge,” it said. It had a croaking, frog-like quality, and carried clearly up to Dacian. “You are gathered here to thank your father for the bounty you are about to receive. You will feast and you will praise his name. Let the power of this young life flow into you; let the wisdom of Nezeb be yours!”
At the words “young life,” Dacian rushed down the ramp, but moved quietly, running almost tiptoe in his soft leather boots. Crouching at the bottom of the ramp just long enough to get his bearings, he saw a great square chamber with a sloping roof; in the center was a crackling bonfire on a large central dais. A small figure stood upon it, speaking, face eerily illuminated from below by the flickering firelight. He was emaciated, stick-thin, and his high, domed, bald head seemed overlarge. His thick, waxy lips were a contrast to the rest of his shriveled body. He was naked but for a scrap of loincloth, yet he bore a large, gilded staff that was totally out of character with his appearance. Its golden gleam reflected the firelight, and the bright crystals embedded in its tip sparkled and sent off bright shafts of reflected light as the creature waved it about.
Dacian grimaced. It was a gnome – the horrid children of the evil god Nezeb, who made them in his image.
Below the gnome slumbered a plump boy in a peasant smock. Dacian realized the child must be drugged.
Beyond the dais were some dozen emaciated humans; men and women, gazing on the scene, licking their lips, stomachs growling hungrily.
As the gnome made no immediate move toward the boy, Dacian took a few moments to familiarize himself with the terrain and seek out other exits. There were none. The gnome continued his tirade.
“When you eat the flesh of your own, you give your body the tools it needs to unlock the secrets that your father Nezeb has placed inside you! This glory would be no secret if the liars and hypocrites of the usurper god Xerxes had not blinded you! Eat of your own, and let the doors of perception be thrown open!”
Dacian needed to hear no more. Whipping his elven bow from his shoulder, he sent three shafts flying, straight for the torso of the preaching gnome. Each stopped short in midair about a foot from the creature, and the crystals in the gnome’s staff suddenly brightened at the same instant.
The gnome’s eyes finally fell upon Dacian, and, raising the staff above his shriveled skull, cried, “An intruder! Enemy of Nezeb! Kill him, and feast upon true power!”
The crowd rushed Dacian, who flung the bow back upon his shoulder with one hand and drew his longsword with the other, rushing forward to meet them. As they crashed together he swung the blade in a great figure-of-eight, slicing up through the belly of one cultist, across the throat of another, back down through the shoulder and chest of a third, and removing the thigh of the last. The others leaped back, aghast, and hovered at a distance in a cowering way, casting quick glances at their gnomish master.
But the Nezebite merely laughed.
“Witness the power of Nezeb!”
From a blue crystal on the staff, a shaft of light arched out toward Dacian. It crackled with energy. He threw himself to one side, and in so doing, pushed another cultist behind him. The magical wave struck the hapless fool in the back, and he immediately lapsed into huge, body-wracking spasms as blue light shone from his eyes, ears, and mouth, before falling dead with smoke coming from those holes.
At this, the cultists scattered to the far edges of the chamber. Dacian leaped onto the platform between the gnome and the drugged boy. The child turned over and snored.
“You cannot penetrate my mystical shield,” the gnome croaked. “The power of Nezeb protects me!”
“Then why are you backing away?” Dacian asked. Indeed, the gnome slowly retreated before the longsword, backing toward the fire. “It is not the power of Nezeb that protects you, but that staff. Where did you get it? It has the look of far Ramtanagar about it. I’m sure it’s quite a prize. But in the end, it’s just a toy. It may protect you from fast-firing arrows, but as we both know…”
By this time the gnome was gnashing his teeth as he backed up to the very edge of the flames.
“…it is useless against a slow-moving hand.”
He dropped the longsword and with his other hand, slowly reached out and pushed the gnome into the fire.
The thing screamed and writhed, and made to leap out; but Dacian strode almost into the flame, put his foot on the creature’s chest and held it there. The flames seared his boot, and the flesh beneath it, and crawled up his thigh. Dacian grimaced against the pain but held steady, even as the smell of his own roasting flesh assailed his nostrils. Soon enough the gnome was a charred husk, all life burnt away.
Dacian pulled his leg out of the flame, turned, and knelt by the boy. Ignoring the cultists who cowered at the edge of the scene, horrified, Dacian closed his eyes and willed his flesh to heal. The cultists were awestruck as light filled Dacian’s burned limb. He felt the pain subside, and his leg showed clean and pink through his burned and tattered leather leggings. He scooped up the staff from where it had fallen, and snapped it over his knee. The sound of thunder echoed through the chamber, and the light in the staff’s crystals was extinguished.
Dacian scooped up the sleeping bow in his arms and stepped down among the cultists.
“You have not yet eaten of the flesh?” he asked.
“No, lord,” cried one of the women, tears streaming down her cheeks. The others nodded furiously. Something in their eyes made Dacian believe them.
“But others have,” he said.
“Yes, lord,” she said.
“A dozen, lord, just like we are…were.” She gazed, fearful and wide-eyed, at the pieces of her fellow cultists that lay in a pool of blood nearby.
“Where are they now?”
“Walking about in the land, lord, sowing the power of Nezeb within it!”
Dacian sighed. “I should kill you all,” he said.
“Oh no, lord! Please! We was bewitched!” said one.
“Taken from our beds in a trance!” said another. They all nodded together once more.
“Get out of my sight,” Dacian said. “Go back to your homes and do no more evil. If you do, I will know. I am no man. I am your shepherd.”
“Like those spoke of in the stories?” said the woman.
“The very same,” Dacian said. “If you relapse into wicked ways, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
With that, he strode past them, carrying the boy out into the night.
The next morning, the villagers of Griddle’s Hollow crowded around the doorway to the miller’s house. Inside, the plump miller’s son lay abed, his family crowded ‘round him. His eyelids fluttered.
“He’s awake!” his mother cried. “Oh thank the Gods he’s awake!”
“Son!” the miller said. “We found you here, in bed, when we woke! The Gods have returned you in the night!”
The boy reached for water, drank a sip, and sat up.
“It weren’t the Gods,” he said. “It were the white wolf.”