The mayor, a florid and weary looking man, looked over the trio with barely concealed trepidation. "I'm sorry, I thought I was merely hiring your own services, Mage Anya, not a whole adventuring group."
Draco crossed his arms and leaned against the wall of the mayor's office, their daughter Nefra standing on the other wide of the room opposite him, both looming properly while Anya did the talking. Nef took her olive skin color and dark green hair from him, but thankfully had her mother's gentle features, even if she wasn't terribly gentle in any other way.
Anya, skin pale and hair white, smiled at the mayor. "A mage can hardly travel without bodyguards. I assure you though, their presence will not affect our agreed upon fee. Now, your courier did not provide many details of the problem you contacted me for, beyond that there was magic that affecting your citizens. Do you think you could expand upon that?"
"Let me show you." The mayor stood up, leading them out of his office and into the street. Draco let his gaze wander over the citizens walking, or scurrying rather, along the cobblestones. Though it was midday, there was hardly anyone about, unusual for a town of nearly five thousand people. He led them along to a small, fortified building, with thick stone walls and no windows on the first floor, the ones on the second guarded with iron bars. A jail or small prison, for dealing with malcontents short of execution. A guardsman stood at the top of a set of spiral stairs in the back of the building, which no doubt led to the cellar, giving the mayor a concerned look as they approached. He was dressed in a uniform tunic, but had the look of part-time militia, not a dedicated soldier.
Farmers with axes, not soldiers with swords, Draco thought uncharitably.
"It's all right, Jase. This is the mage we hired and her, er, bodyguards."
"Sir." The guardsman gave a stiff salute, then stepped aside to let them pass.
The cellar was cool, despite the warm spring day, and had two cells in the back, created by riveting flat iron bars in a grid. In one lay a body, smaller than a human or elf, heavyset judging from the shape under a dirty sheet.
In the other there was a boy.
He was perhaps ten years old and dressed in filthy rags, skin and nails dirt encrusted, hair perhaps blond, but now dark, oily and lank. But it was his eyes that were most arresting. They reminded Draco of soldiers who had spent months or years in battle, who stared out at nothing, their world having no future, only a path that led inevitably to their bloody death.
"Why is that child in there?" Anya demanded.
"Because we don't what to do with him," the mayor said. "His name is Phillip. He disappeared eight years ago in the woods on the west side of town. One our lord's game wardens found him, and the thing in the next cell over, a few days ago. He killed the creature, and took Phillip back to town as soon as he recognized him."
"Recognized him, how?" Nefra asked. "If the child had been missing for eight years he would have been only two when he'd last been seen."
The mayor ran his hand through his thinning hair. "That's just it. He was ten years old when he disappeared, and he's ten years old now. He hasn't aged a day." He gestured towards Phillip. "He doesn't speak and hasn't eaten a bite of food or taken a drink of water in the week since he was found."
Draco glanced at Anya, who was frowning deeply. "Magic?" he asked.
"What else?" she replied, her expression turning unusually dark. "Let me see the body."
They stepped into the other cell. Anya drew away the stained canvas sheet, revealing the body. Part of its lumpish shape could be attributed to the salt crystals packed around it to preserve it. The rest was natural, if such a term could be used for creature. Thick heavy brows overhung small, piggish eyes, which sat over a nose that looked like a flattened potato. It wore no clothing, but thick, bristly black fur covered its entire body, from a heavily muscle.
"What is it?" Nefra exclaimed, her hand reaching unconsciously to grip her sheathed sword.
"A bear, once," Anya said, her hand moving down, but not touching, the bod, her eyes focused inward as she examined it. "It's a construct, an ordinary animal twisted by magic into a humanoid shape to serve its master."
"So there is a sorcerer about?" the Mayor asked.
"Most likely, and a powerful one." Her gaze sharpened as she looked the Mayor over. He stepped back a pace under her scrutiny, before she asked, "How many other children have gone missing, without explanation?"
He swallowed once, then admitted, "A score, over the past dozen years."
"A score!" Draco exclaimed. "And you waited until now to ask for help?"
"How could we ask for help when we had no idea what was happening? You don't go into the woods. That's been true since before I was a boy. Then when the children began to disappear, we thought anything powerful enough to leave the woods, and never be seen, never leave a sign of passing, we didn't want to anger."
"So you just let it keep snatching..."
"Thank you," Anya cut in smoothly. "Well, we should be able to take care of the problem, I think."
The Mayor gave a her brief, grateful nod, as Draco settled back to do some proper looming. "Can you do anything for Phillip? Do you know why he hasn't aged?"
"I have a suspicion." She began to pace as she explained. "Certain kinds of magic require 'life' for lack of a better term. The sort that involve blood sacrifices for one, or abnormally extending one's life, or some even less savory. This is different than what is more usually thought of as magic, drawing ambient energies from the world to work one's will. Young Phillip here appears to the victim of such life magic. Essentially all of the growth he would have experienced in the past eight years, physical, emotional, ect., has been stolen to augment whatever work the sorcerer is doing. His current unnatural state of requiring no food nor drink arises from a simple tap into the world's magical energy field, which sustains him while the sorcerer sucks away the maturation that should have been his."
"Can you release him from it?" the Mayor asked.
"Not without killing him. The only means to successfully free him is to track down the sorcerer and unravel the spell at the source. Unknotting the tangle rather than cutting the strings. It would be a relatively involved process."
The Mayor's shoulders slumped. "Then there's no hope. You'd have to go into the woods to do that, and you've got no idea where this sorcerer is anyway."
"Oh, I do." Anya smiled slightly, making a plucking motion with her fingers. "Phillip is still connected to the sorcerer you see. That means I can see line leading straight back to them."
"We will hunt this mage down for you, sir," Draco said, glancing at the unnatural, dead-eyed child in the cell. "Then they will pay for what they have done."