May 30, 708 CR
The cracking of the northeastern sky ten days past had left a somber glow through the cool Spring night; it cast the foothills of the Barrier in strange colors and bathed the moon in an unhealthy sheen. A blood moon, Essen's companions called it, and made signs to ward off evil to gods most had long abandoned. There were few gods of light thieves and brigands could call upon. And besides, at best the moon had a yellow cast and not the red of blood.
Essen did not fear. Draconia was situated outside the boundary of Metamor's Curse, and they frequently slipped within to pilfer farms of their livestock and to harass the travelers from Starven or Poltizen who risked the dangerous road south. With the Haunted Wood on their southern doorstep, they were as safe as they could be from the ravages of Lutin tribes and the armies of Metamor. Obeisance to first Nasoj and now Lilith protected them from worse things. Only the ghosts in the woods and the Curse of Metamor were to be feared.
And now Essen only feared the ghosts. Five months past the wall of light showed him what the Curse would do; he greedily accepted it. Few risked the Curses because in a den of thieves where only strength and cunning kept you alive almost all the results made you weaker. The weapons, the warmth, and the shape of a massive brown bear made him stronger.
The blood moon gave the bear-man enough light to see the forest by, and his ears and nose gave him the rest. His companions feared his claws and jaws and though they welcomed him on raids, he did nearly all else on his own – though they did take perverse delight in sampling the women he'd bedded to see if they could make them scream as loud. He enjoyed such frivolities almost as much as he enjoyed hunting game. There was something almost spiritual about crushing the life from a deer with his own jaws. Blood tasted good.
Essen carried a buckler with knives and slung his bow and arrows across his back but he bore nothing else. Bears had no need of clothes. He crept about on all fours, nose checking the ground for the trail of game. An hour past he'd scented does and now followed along the ruins of the old dike. There were at least three and possibly a fawn or two among them. And they were close. He lifted his head, flecked his lips as he sniffed, small eyes scouring the moon-lit woods.
He could not see as far as he once had, but his eyes, when guided by scent and sound, were able to notice far more. Perhaps fifty yards to the northwest he spotted them through the dense maze of trees. The gap was too narrow for any arrow, and so he cautiously returned to all fours and began to wind his way to his prey, ever taking care to stay downwind.
Yet the closer he came, the more the fur along his broad back tingled. He lifted his head to check his quarry – still there, three does and two fawns – and then stood on his hind-legs to glance about, nose sniffing. He shifted from his full bear shape and plucked daggers from his belt. The weight of his bow and quiver settled on his back, but the fur would not. There was nothing in the air but deer, and yet something was there. He wondered if another animal-cursed brigand – and there were others like him in Draconia – followed him with dread purpose. No matter what any bard sang, there was no honor among thieves; if they sought him in secret they intended to kill him.
Essen made a show of dropping to all fours, but kept his man-like shape and the daggers balled into his fists. It made walking uncomfortable, but it might trick whoever stalked him into thinking him unaware. He lumbered to the north a dozen paces, still downwind of the deer, until he passed behind a large, stout oak whose trunk was as wide as five men and bark full of burls. Essen paused to listen, but whoever followed was silent and downwind. He flecked his lips in delight at the hunt, put the daggers back in the buckler, and then scrambled up the trunk of the tree. He'd practiced climbing in silence for the last few months and felt a smile cross his snout at how well he'd done; not a branch creaked nor bark scrapped in his ascent. He settled in a nook of branches sheltered from the full moon and waited.
A minute later the deer all lifted their heads to stare in his direction and bolted with white tails raised. The chirping of insects and the calling of owls dwindled. An eerie silence settled over the woods and Essen felt his heart tighten. He felt a yearning to scramble down and lumber through the woods as far and as fast as he could.
How foolish! You are not an animal. You are a man with the strength and power of a bear!
Chiding himself kept his body still, but could not keep his fur from raising, his nostrils from flaring, or his heart from racing. Something was downwind, but what? None of his companions, no matter their forms, would spook him so. Could it be one of the ghosts? But they had never come so far north! Surely not them!
Essen trembled and hated himself for it.
And then, after several fearful minutes he heard them. A soft rustling in the underbrush emerged from the stillness, and then in the clearing beneath the oak, two wolves appeared. Their heads were lifted and staring to the west where the deer once trod. They did not sniff the ground, nor did they glance into the branches. Essen held his breath but felt a grin crease his snout and cheek ruff. He flexed his fingers and their long claws, waiting for the wolves to pass. How strange a mere pack of wolves caused such terror.
They moved without haste but with focus beneath the tree. As soon as their tails were past, Essen jumped arms outstretched, ready to rake their backs to ribbons.
Both wolves bolted forward as one, turned, bodies shifting upward, furred-hands emerging from their forepaws to greet him. A blaze of light struck Essen in the chest like a fiery boulder. He smacked against the tree, bow and arrows cracking between them, before slumping to the ground to catch his breath.
Something else jumped on his back, claws digging in through the fur and fangs grappling the back of his neck. Essen tried to roar as he lifted one arm to swat the creature away, but there was no air to escape his throat. His first swipe missed, and then the first two wolf-creatures were upon him, bolts of light knocking him aside again.
He landed sprawled on his back, muscles tightened in pain, as the third creature, partly wolf like the rest, climbed atop his chest. Essen could only stare in horror at the face above him. He had a rumpled shock of dark hair mixed with lighter-hued fur and triangular ears atop a human forehead, the pockmarked cheeks of a youth on the cusp of manhood, cleft lips and dark nose like a wolf, and slavering jaws with a long tongue between cruel fangs. The eyes glimmered a pearly blue with no trace of the boy. A clawed hand touched by snatches of gray fur stroked down the wolf-boy's back with an odd tenderness.
Essen's snout turned toward the figure standing at his side and felt his blood run cold. He stood on two legs like a man, but the legs were those of a beast and a long lush tail swayed between them. His chest and arms were man-like though touched in patches with gray fur peppered by black. He bore a massive wolf's head, his golden eyes briefly alighting upon Essen before returning with affection to the creature pinning him down. The one hand curled about the beast's ears as a subtle smile played at the edges of his jowls. The other wrapped about the end of a knapsack slung over his shoulder. Something tinkled like river stones within.
The voice was a growl, but the words were intelligible. “Very good, my little pup. You have done well. You have all done well. Now feast; we must keep up our strength if we are to reach Metamor.”
A trio of jaws dug into his fur and ripped out his neck and innards. Essen tried to scream but only blood came forth. He stared into the sky past the mocking wolf's smile and beheld the moon. His companions were right. It was red.