The Thief's Task
© 2009 Meghann McVey
Daefol awoke to the thick scent of blood and the biting winter air. Pain like he had never known ground his leg in its jaws. The thief fought paralyzing dread as he gazed down the length of his body. Once lean and hard from penury and near-escapes, it was now covered in snow-colored fur. His hands were white and shrunken, and a metal trap gripped his leg.
"Keep making noise." The raspy voice belonged to Berizon, the wizard Daefol had tried to rob earlier in the city of Meingdin. "Then they will come more quickly."
"Them?" Daefol wanted to say, but when he opened his mouth, only a growl came out. Berizon must have turned him into a beast and fed his leg to this trap! Traps, Daefol remembered in gut-twisting horror, meant wilderness, white hills, and ice-stricken trees.
The wizard ducked behind a tree and vanished.
Silent as descending snow, three figures clad in white buckskin approached. So, Berizon wished for him to be eaten by the savages who dwelt outside Meingdin. Daefol strained at his leg, causing red specks to fill his vision. He did not dare move again.
One of the savages knelt. Daefol shut his eyes, bracing for the killing stroke.
"Poor creature. Such lovely white fur it has." Her voice was as fine as the peal of a glass bell. When Daefol dared to look up at her, he saw a most unusual savage. Despite her buckskin and braided ice-silver hair, the girl's eyes were dusky brown. Through a haze of pain, Daefol thought he saw his younger sister gazing at him in curiosity.
Then a man spoke; his voice was the cracking of ice underfoot. "Don't look at it, Isi." Daefol's memories fled. "It will suffer much before the end."
"The great spirits would want us to free it from this metal trap, Fahnivar," the girl said to her other companion.
"A raccoon is no pet, Isilindas," Fahnivar said. "You barely do your share of chores as it is."
Isilindas stared at him with pleading eyes. Already she smoothed Daefol's fur as though he were her own. Daefol shuddered at her petting touch. Through pain and hunger, he seemed to feel Ro's fingers. When Ro had been born, he had marveled at how small they were. And as that fateful winter seven years later had stayed on like a lingering malady, Ro's fingers had become smaller, until he could see the shape of her smallest bones through her waning flesh.
"You shall have your way, willful one," Fahnivar said at last. "I will not have you tell Father I made you cry."
Their companion snorted. "Oh be quiet, Elaker," Fahnivar said.
"Thank you, Fahnivar!" Isilindas said.
"Your brother is too soft," Elaker declared. "Were I the chief's son and you my sister...."
Rolling his eyes, Isilindas's brother opened the trap's metal jaws.
Daefol tried to inch away, but Isilindas scooped him up. His head sagged against her shoulder. "See? He likes me already."
"I think it's just dazed," Elaker said.
Fahnivar elbowed him in the chest. "Come on, now. There are still many snares to check."
Isilindas pouted. "I don't see why we have to set traps when the great hunt is going on. Doesn't the Spirit Canon forbid taking more than one needs?"
"They never said we weren't allowed a little extra help," said Elaker. "After all, the snow deer don't always move in predictable ways."
The three of them checked almost twenty more leather snares before returning to their longhouse.
The sight of the wooden palisades sent a jolt through Daefol. Berizon could not have chosen a more fitting punishment for one who had never been outside Meingdin.
A pack of dogs bounded out to greet Isilindas and her companions. Their barks of brotherhood quickly turned to hungry whines. Several sniffed the snow, reddened by Daefol's blood. Fahnivar lured them away with a squirrel carcass.
The savory aroma of cooking meat and herbs filled the longhouse's interior. Every few feet, a fire pit smoked, surrounded by posts hung with meats and skins. As Isilindas warmed herself, a young woman approached her.
"What is that?" She wrinkled her nose at Daefol.
"A new friend," Isilindas said. "Which reminds me, I want to bind his wound."
"Isilindas, I warn you, as your big sister. People will think you peculiar if you continue to lavish such attention on these pets of yours."
"He's so calm," Isilindas said, as though she hadn't heard at all.
"Probably it's about to die," her sister said sourly.
"Lirdha!" Isilindas's eyes widened in hurt. The sight pierced Daefol's heart. So many times he had seen Ro's eyes do just that, usually when he yelled at her for crying if there was no food that night. There had never been enough food after their mother died.
"Stop playing and help me with dinner. We have to make last week's catch and the meat you found today last. Something is delaying the hunting party's return."
Isilindas gathered some seeds and fragrant dried herbs in a mortar. Daefol stared at her, wondering why Berizon had brought them together. What did a city wizard have to do with a savage?
While Isilindas ground them with the pestle, a tall young man stopped to watch her, blinking frequently from the smoke. His brown hair hung loose to his shoulders. A frown gave his pale face a dour, unhealthy look. Daefol would have thought him a prisoner from Meingdin if not for his startling eyes, one green, the other brown. The green surely meant he possessed some savage lineage. Those savages' pale eyes, the blues and greens, were starting to turn Daefol's stomach.
Isilindas did not notice until she got up to add water to the mixture. "Ah, Moirn." She flushed.
"Hello, Isilindas." His expression did not change.
"Have they been antagonizing you again?"
"It is as constant as snowfall." Moirn sighed.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Isilindas said. "I will speak to Fahnivar again."
"I doubt it will make a difference." His downcast gaze traveled to Daefol. "What's this?"
"My new friend."
Daefol tried to edge away from Moirn's unsettling gaze, but Isilindas held him fast to apply the dressing and wrap the bandage.
"There. Your leg will be better soon." Daefol had never seen such a smile; even the edges of Moirn's dour mouth twitched in sight of it.
Isilindas's brother and Elaker entered the longhouse. As they approached the fire pit, Elaker barged into Moirn.
"Elaker! Didn't you see Moirn standing there?"
"What's wrong, Isi?" Elaker said. "He is a Nothing Man."
Isilindas's face turned pink. "Don't treat him like this! He doesn't deserve it!"
"The Spirit Canon decrees that a family's sins pass to its living members. Moirn, like all Nothing People, must redress his father's crimes," Fahnivar said. "Iskel does and is none the worse for it." So saying, he, too, shoved past Moirn.
"You always treat Moirn worse than the other Nothing People."
"If he weren't so sullen and actually helped with hunting or gathering firewood, we wouldn't," Elaker retorted.
"I don't think Moirn's sullen," Isilindas told Daefol when Elaker had moved on. "Just misunderstood. He's quiet because he's afraid to be made fun of. He talks to me. Sometimes we have quite good conversations, in fact."
Daefol blinked. His pain and fear had begun to subside. He now saw that Ro and Isilindas were different people. However, Ro would be about Isilindas's age by now. Perhaps if there had been enough food, Ro would love someone secretly, too.
As Isilindas prattled on, Daefol wished he could talk; he would put her love-struck illusions in perspective. However, he could still yawn, and yawn he did while Isilindas defended Moirn.
"Oh, you must be tired after your ordeal. Let me put you to bed." Isilindas carried Daefol to the wall and spread out a pile of blankets and animal hides. He didn't rouse until that night when Isilindas joined him beneath the covers. Daefol, finding it impossible to sleep beside her, wandered outside. He proceeded cautiously, the memory of the hungry dogs still fresh in his mind.
"You have done well."
The unexpected voice sent Daefol scrambling for a tree. The thief-turned-raccoon didn't look down until he reached a branch halfway to the top. Below, Berizon chuckled at him.
What are you talking about, old man! Daefol thought at him. Hot blood seared through his veins.
"My name is Berizon. You ought to remember; I told you before ... when you were a little taller."
Very well, Berizon. Daefol bared his teeth. Why did you transform me? And into a white raccoon, of all things?
"You tried to rob me. This is how I punish all thieves unfortunate enough to cross me, by turning them into beasts and setting them loose in the forest. Usually I don't give them such distinct coats, but I wanted to be able to keep track of you."
What a typical busybody wizard. I wouldn't have hurt you.
"I know." The old man's voice was thoughtful; with his heightened hearing, Daefol thought remorse tinged the carefully even words. "You weren't like the typical thieves I've dealt with. Most of the time you don't corner people, I suppose?"
I don't need to. Mine are the fastest hands in Meingdin. But how did you know?
"Your threadbare clothes ... and your stomach growled when you made your threat. I was going to let you go with only a warning."
Daefol sank his claws into the tree branch. "Then why didn't you?"
"You will understand best if I start at the beginning, when I was a younger wizard," Berizon said.
Daefol's first inclination was to climb out of earshot. But there was something compelling in Berizon's voice, an odd admission of powerlessness that gave him an undeniable, if demented, charisma.
"To obtain the highest secrets of the arcane, I spent one year in these woods. I also met a lovely tribeswoman," Berizon began. "We couldn't understand one another very well at first, but mutual interest broke the barriers to our communication. She bore my child."
Isilindas! So that was how the savage girl had the dark eyes of a city dweller and a savage's cloud of silver hair. Daefol cringed. Meingdin looked down on savages and avoided doing business with them if possible. And tribesmen, in the name of their fanatical religion, killed city folk and their own members who tainted the tribal bloodline. The strange part was that they harbored their own half-breeds, even as they hated them. So the stories said.
"Isilindas," the wizard confirmed.
If Isilindas is your daughter, why don't the tribesmen cast her out?
"I suspect Isilindas's mother used her dying wish to spare her daughter the Nothing status."
"Tribal tradition permits the dying to ask one favor. The year Isilindas was born was a hard one for Meingdin and the wild lands. Her mother died in childbirth.
"But Moirn ... his father fled the tribe to live as a highway man along the roads between cities. His mother was a citizen of Meingdin, with no power to remove the taint from his name. Around Moirn, I can feel resentment gathering like blizzard clouds. He will soon lash out against the tribe by destroying Isilindas. I am powerless to stop him because the tribesmen kill Meingdin city-dwellers on sight."
Turn yourself into a raccoon, then.
"The spirits they worship heighten their senses. I do not dare approach in any form because my magic aura will give me away. You, on the other hand, have no magic. The spirits will overlook you."
Spirits? You mean savage superstitions, Daefol scoffed.
"They are real," Berizon insisted, "as you shall see."
Will I? Daefol's fur bristled at the old man's presumption. What makes you think I will help you?
"You have no choice!" The wizard's thunderous tone shook the entire tree so it was impossible to hang on. Daefol plummeted into a snowdrift, followed by several branches' worth of icicles. These fell, points embedded in the snow. There, they grew, seeming to draw ethereal sustenance from the white, until they towered above Daefol like cage bars. "I can understand that you are angry, even afraid. But you have my word as a wizard that I will restore your human form when Moirn is no longer a danger."
The statement was so unexpected that Daefol sat up and listened intently.
"I wish to overcome Moirn, preferably when he is alone. That way the tribe will suspect nothing."
Won't his death be suspect anyways? Daefol asked. Moirn is a healthy young man.
"Perhaps, but if no one sees him fall, there is no way to prove his death was not the will of a spirit." With a wave of his hand, Berizon made the icicle cage bars vanish, then pressed an ice-silver coin hanging from a leather thong into Daefol's paws. "Hold this coin and think my name to summon me." The old wizard looked to the sky, his gaze weary. "Dawn. I'll be waiting for your call, thief."
As Daefol trudged back through the snow, he thought about the task Berizon had forced him into. He had no choice but to remain with Isilindas. Wilderness survival was as foreign to him as the savages' customs.
The thief-turned-raccoon returned to the longhouse and crept back to Isilindas. She had the covers pulled tight up to her chin. Try as he might, Daefol could not free them. At last he curled up in a shivering ball at her feet. In addition to the disturbing things that Berizon had said, Daefol was hungry. He passed the time before dawn in and out of dozes.
At last Isilindas sat up with a yawn. "You're awake!" When there had been enough to eat, Ro had been similarly cheerful and energetic in the mornings. Daefol could never stand them, himself, because he spent them in the butcher houses all day, carving meats too fine for his home. In the last days, Ro had stayed in bed all day under every covering Daefol could find, even discarded rags blowing around the streets. It had never been enough; Ro had always been cold. Sometimes when he'd come home reeking and covered in blood, Ro still hadn't roused. Daefol forced away the memory of her eyes too weary to move about the room and see that he had returned.
Searching for anything to distract him, Daefol glanced about the longhouse. Across the way, someone else was rising: Moirn. Daefol tried to race after him, but Isilindas was quicker. Once she caught him, she held him as though he were a cat.
So much for that opportunity, Daefol thought as Moirn disappeared outside.
"I bet you're hungry." Isilindas took a sack from a shelf and poured some yellow kernels in her hand. Though Daefol's raccoon senses insisted that the savage food smelled wonderful, he still sniffed it hesitantly.
"Try it; you'll like it!" Isilindas insisted.
"I think you talk to your pets more than you do to people."
Daefol and Isilindas's heads shot in the direction of the sound. "Lirdha! You startled me," Isilindas said.
"Don't you know your own sister's voice?" Lirdha rolled her eyes.
"I think this raccoon needs a name." Isilindas unwrapped Daefol's bandage. Her poultice had worked wonders on his leg. "How about Imradnai?"
"Imra for short." Lirdha winked.
While, Isilindas helped Lirdha and the other women make breakfast, the dogs frolicked at their feet with wagging tails. Daefol hung back until Isilindas insisted that the dogs no longer considered him a potential meal.
After breakfast, Daefol found Moirn slouching outside on a tree stump near a longhouse wall. Daefol inched closer and took up Berizon's coin. The old man had never said how far Moirn had to be from the longhouse, only that he had to be alone. Beri
"Imra!" Isilindas called.
Had Daefol retained his human form, he might have remained still, even under this pressure. However, his raccoon body started. Moirn's eyes locked with his. Daefol attempted to scurry away, but in one swoop, Moirn had him. Remembering Berizon's warning, the thief-turned raccoon went limp. As Isilindas rounded the corner, Moirn held out the white raccoon to her. "Lose something?"
"Why, Moirn. Imra must like you!" Isilindas clasped her hands in delight, then held them out to receive her raccoon.
Moirn handed Daefol over without a word, then turned his back on Isilindas.
"Isilindas!" Lirdha called.
"I have to help clean out the firepits." Isilindas kissed the top of Daefol's head, then set him in the snow. "You can come with me if you like."
Daefol cocked his head, his habit as a human while thinking. Suddenly he was conscious of Isilindas staring at him.
"Sometimes, Imra, I wonder if you can talk," Isilindas murmured. "It always seems that you understand me."
Daefol would have loved to tell Isilindas everything. However, Berizon had enchanted him so any attempt to talk came out as chatter and clicks. Still, Daefol gave it a try. Isilindas tilted her head, trying to make sense of it. After a time, her eyes went dark and unfocused as she mused to herself. "I wonder where Moirn goes. He's so mysterious. Maybe he wants to be alone to pray for his father."
"Isilindas!" Lirdha shouted from the longhouse opening. Her hands were on her hips, and a long wooden spoon stuck out from one like a sword. "Stop daydreaming!"
"Don't stray far, Imra," Isilindas told Daefol. With that, she was gone.
Daefol remained outside for a while, remembering the day he had found Ro dead. She had been sick for weeks, too feeble to eat what little food he could afford. He had come home with potatoes, hard bread, meat that was little more than foul spots and fat. Ro rarely spoke in those last days, so Daefol's habit had been to start a fire and eat in silence. Tears had been his meals for days when he'd discovered her little body would never move again.
No one Daefol knew, not thieves or thugs, and especially not the self-righteous poor who were once his people, believed that the gods gave second chances. In so many ways, Isilindas was different from his younger sister and she was a savage! Yet, there must be a reason he was remembering Ro every time he looked into her eyes. Perhaps, as Berizon had insinuated, their meeting was destined.
With a strange sense of purpose overcoming him, Daefol began to follow Moirn's tracks. As Daefol proceeded, a vile stench invaded his sharp raccoon's nose. The farther he proceeded, the stronger it became. By the time he could hear Moirn's footsteps ahead, Daefol almost couldn't walk. The overpowering reek gripped his lungs like a fist. Suddenly the footsteps ceased.
Daefol peered over a log between him and Moirn. As the Nothing Man knelt, Daefol heard a voice that raised every last inch of his fur.
"Welllcome, Moirnnnn. I ammm gladdd offf your returnnn."
Reckless, relentless curiosity drove the thief-turned-raccoon to scale a tree. Daefol stole as far down the overhanging branch as he dared. What he saw below made all his senses prickle with dread.
Before Moirn, a frozen pond shone with uncanny black luster. From an oozing hole at the pool's center rose a hideous creature. A cluster of tangled water-logged weeds all but covered its slimy blue face. Its large green eyes roved with almost feverish intensity, faster than Daefol's deft, thieving hands. Instinct warned Daefol that should the thing look upward, he could not help but reveal himself. No living creature could remain still under such a gaze.
"As you requested, I have brought the Spirit Stone from Chief Takin's tent."
"Excccellent! Now my ssspell shall be complete! I ssshall choke off their ssspirit connection! Magiccc and ssspirit power will die in thessse woodsss. Only miiine, the namelesss, ssshall remain."
Daefol tensed. If Berizon's magic power were cut off, would the old man be able to restore his human form?
"But that isss not enoughhh to pay backkk what they have done to you," the spirit said. "Take thisss knifffe."
"The girl will be the first to die." Moirn gazed enthralled into the blade, the same black as the spirit's pond. His voice was devoid of emotion, as though his soul had drowned in the knife's depths.
Daefol leaned forward to see more, but the branch cracked under his weight. He fell tail-first into a snowdrift. On the way down, his head glanced against the side of the log.
"What wasss thaaat?" The spirit's hiss broke his daze.
Daefol's thief instincts took over. Frantically, he burrowed deeper into the snowdrift. Snow crunched nearby, and Daefol stopped. He took a deep breath, then resolved to be motionless for as long as it took. Seconds crept by. Daefol's chest began to ache. At last the Nothing Man said, "It was only a tree branch."
Several more agonizing minutes passed before Moirn left. At last, Daefol emerged from the ice burrow and held the silver coin over his rapidly beating heart. Whether the wizard caught Moirn this time or not, it was crucial to inform him of what he had overheard. Although Daefol thought of the wizard with all his might for nearly an hour, he remained alone in the woods. The snow started falling faster.
At last the thief-turned-raccoon gave up. He had to find his way back to Isilindas and hope Moirn had not yet plied his new weapon. It was nearly nightfall when Daefol reached the longhouse. Apparently Moirn had taken a longer route home, for he arrived after Daefol. The minute Daefol crossed the longhouse, Moirn followed and stepped over him.
"The Nothing Man returns," Elaker said.
Fahnivar promptly flung his load of firewood toward the doorway. One of the logs grazed Moirn's cheek. Blood started from the scratch. "Pick that up!" Fahnivar commanded.
"Fahnivar!" Isilindas exclaimed. "As the son of Chief Takin, you should set a better example! As Father said, 'The Nothing People are without honor, but are not to be abused!'"
"Father only addressed that part of the Spirit Canon out of love for you, Isi. Everyone knows that." Nonetheless, there was no mistaking the sheepish note in her brother's voice.
"Then why does no one make the effort to follow it, even when I am present? Perhaps it is your fault Moirn is unlikable, because you've treated him so terribly. And he has been a Nothing Man his entire life, when the burdens of most are lifted after they reach adulthood!" Isilindas's cheeks flushed; her eyes shone with love that pained Daefol to see.
"Moirn will never fulfill his penance in this lifetime," Elaker said. "Who knows how many other crossbreeds his father has planted in the loins of city women?"
Isilindas gasped. Moirn smiled as though Elaker's reminder of his father's crime pleased him. A festering stench tainted the air. Daefol recognized it at once as the evil Moirn had chosen, manifesting in the savages' camp. For a long while, Moirn stared at Elaker and Fahnivar with his mismatched eyes. Then he left them with the wood pile.
"Come back!" Isilindas's brother commanded. "Didn't I tell you" Elaker followed him back outside the longhouse.
"Poor Moirn." Isilindas's tears tore at Daefol's heart.
Daefol looked up at Isilindas, willing her not to go after Moirn and the others. For a long time, Isilindas stared after them. At last she scooped up Daefol and wrapped her fur blankets around them.
Daefol rested against her chest, thinking. Neither city dwellers or tribesmen could escape starvation. In Meingdin, innocent children with empty bellies faded like stars at dawn and were then forgotten. And in the tribes, they were forced to shoulder the weight of family members' sins. Without love, they were frost-stricken flowers. After a certain point, no amount of love or food could save the children of tribesman or city dweller.
If he had not met Berizon, Daefol knew, he and Moirn would walk the same path. And so Daefol despaired for the Nothing Man's broken spirit and, in doing so, came to understand a little better the love Isilindas bore Moirn. Nonetheless, long experience with life's inequities warned him that both of them could not be saved.
Later that night, the tribe raised bonfires outside their longhouses. In their light, the snow shone as live coals and embers. The women, their cooking done, danced to thank the great spirits for their bounty. As Isilindas spun, her hair flashing silver, she seemed more and more distanced from Daefol, who watched from the side.
The thief-turned-raccoon wondered if the sight were a premonition. Three times since he had returned to the longhouses, he had attempted to contact Berizon. The wizard had neither appeared nor given any sign that he had heard. Daefol tried one more time after the bonfires had died, but still he remained alone in the dark. At last he gave up and went inside to Isilindas.
That morning, Daefol awoke to screams. Isilindas, however, was still beside him. The sight filled Daefol with relief.
"Blasphemy!" someone yelled.
In minutes the entire tribe assembled at the outcry's source: their mangled, murdered dogs. Only their tracks and clumps of bloody fur in the snow permitted recognition of their original forms. As to their killer, however, its tracks were nowhere to be found.
"Even an enraged she-bear could not do this," Fahnivar said, white-faced.
"Could it have been a spirit?" Elaker asked.
Daefol fairly twitched with impatience, willing the savages' stares to turn to the Nothing Man. Hadn't Moirn and the dogs always despised one another? The poor brutes may even have died to save Isilindas. However, the tribe ignored Moirn as completely as ever. Daefol couldn't believe it. He unleashed what would have been a string of curses in his human form.
Chief Takin appeared then and gathered the tribe to say a few words about their noble slaughtered beasts. There was no accusation in his address, only sorrow and the warning that the tribe may have angered a spirit. A Spirit Council was in order to determine if this were so.
"What a strange raccoon," Fahnivar muttered after the gathering had dispersed into little knots. "Don't they usually stay awake at night, Isilindas?"
"Perhaps it's his nature," she said. "You don't see many raccoons with a coat this color, either. As white as the snow." She kissed the top of Daefol's head. "I'll never let any she-bears or angry spirits get you, Imra. I promise."
Even as Daefol wondered what good her frail form would avail against Moirn, he could not help but feel protected. At the same time, a powerful need to guard Isilindas awoke within him, a need that had nothing to do with regaining his human form. Rather, Isilindas had become one worthy of defending for her own sake.
The entire afternoon, Daefol stayed at Isilindas's side, something a delighted Isilindas pointed out to Lirdha and the other tribe women. At dusk, the huntsmen brought back the steaming snow deer carcasses that enabled the tribe's survival during the winter. Seeing the bloodied creatures turned Daefol's stomach; he thought at once of the Meingdin butcher houses. Later he learned that the tribe's approach to preparing and eating the animals was completely unlike the city's methods. Isilindas and the other women gathered around the beasts while the men sang and danced around three bonfires lit outside the longhouse. The men threw powder on the fire that filled the air with a scent like cinnamon and spices from distant lands. The ritual cutting of the carcasses lasted long into the night. The entire time, Isilindas and her people proclaimed their thanks to the spirits.
At last the meat was packed in snow so it would keep. Chief Takin announced that the tribe should not partake of the spirits' great gift until the Spirit Council concluded. Isilindas and the other women went back to the long house. Under the supervision of an elder, the children had melted pots of snow over the fire pits. Isilindas was the last one to wash the blood from her hands because she was the ritual's youngest participant. As she scrubbed it off with a bit of pumice, a long shadow fell over her and Daefol.
"Isilindas." Moirn's whisper halted Daefol's blood. "I've seen him!" From the uncanny light in Moirn's eyes, Isilindas could not mistake the one of whom he spoke.
"The one who killed the dogs?"
Moirn nodded vigorously and seized her hand. "Elaker and Fahnivar are fighting him! You must come with me."
"I will alert Father and the tribe immediately!" Isilindas said.
"There is no time!" Moirn pulled Isilindas to her feet. "They will find out at their Spirit Council and then meet us."
"But what can we do?" Isilindas protested.
"We shall create a disturbance with noise and lights. He will think that the entire tribe has come. Now hurry!" Moirn grabbed several lanterns used for checking traps. Then he and Isilindas set out in the snowy darkness. Daefol followed at a distance. Moirn's forgetting about him would be advantageous, but he feared it would be inconsequential if the situation became a battle.
Just as Daefol suspected, Moirn led Isilindas to the spirit's frozen pond. Blood spattered the snow; Daefol recognized the scent as that of the hapless dogs.
"This must be the place," Isilindas whispered, tightening her grip on the lanterns and pots she had brought. "But where is the blasphemer?"
"Right here." Moirn bared his teeth. The thief-turned-raccoon hoped he never saw the like again. It was a smile absent of soul and feeling, a grimace inviting the recipient across death's threshold.
The pots fell from Isilindas's hands. "Moirn." Isilindas's voice trembled. "Elaker and Fahnivar were never here, were they?"
Moirn advanced, baring the spirit's weapon.
Isilindas backed away unsteadily, as though she would faint. Lantern light swayed around her in dizzying patterns. Daefol uttered a curse that emerged as a raccoon's bark. Then a gleam caught in his eyes: Isilindas's knife from the ritual cutting! She let her lanterns fall. Before they shattered in the snow, Isilindas jabbed her knife into Moirn's arm. Black blood fountained out, but Moirn never slowed down. He lunged at Isilindas and grabbed her wrist. She screamed as he snapped the bones.
Daefol leaped at the tall man and sank his teeth into the wound Isilindas had inflicted. Moirn gasped and flung the raccoon into a snowdrift. Something hard struck the back of his head.
Dazed, Daefol remained lying in the snow. Footsteps crunched at the far end of the clearing. Daefol raised his head to see Berizon leaning heavily on his staff, a lantern in his free hand.
"Who are you?" Isilindas whispered, staring at the old wizard.
Before Berizon could answer, the spirit spoke, a voice more biting and powerful than winter's harshest winds. "You!" In the shadows' recesses, Daefol glimpsed a ragged midnight patchwork hovering over Moirn. Upon it, he could discern no features, save two rows of needle-like teeth.
Then the spirit began to laugh. "Your magic, wizard, and that of the tribe, is blocked!" The spirit held up two bundles, flat stones wrapped in hair and flesh. Daefol's hair stood straight upon seeing them. His nostrils burned from the foul scent emanating from the spirit.
Berizon's voice remained even. "I supposed something like this would happen. That is why I came on foot."
"Fool! What can you possibly do?" the spirit hissed.
Something glimmered in Berizon's hands, drawing the spirit's attention. It couldn't be magic, not with the evil aura Daefol sensed. Then he smelled it: flash powder. The spirit set down the two packets on a tree stump. When it did, its smoke-like body expanded. Daefol's nerves writhed with panic. Inwardly, he warred with his human and raccoon halves. With the spirit distracted, Daefol inched toward the tree stump, keeping close to the snow.
Isilindas's scream shattered the quiet of the winter night. The spirit had lifted the old man from the ground. Somehow Daefol forced himself near the tree trunk, compelled every few seconds to look back. Isilindas cowered on the ground, unable to help or look away. Moirn stared on with murderous triumph.
As Daefol's paws closed around the packets, he heard a thud, followed by a groan. The spirit had flung Berizon against the hard surface of the lake. Daefol raised his arms and dashed the stones against the lake's stone-hard darkness. There was no change in the evil aura clinging to the area. Daefol tried again.
"Stop!" the spirit rumbled, gliding toward him.
Daefol thought back to the day he had seen Moirn communicate with the spirit. The spirit stone he had brought was smooth, gray, oval-shaped. Daefol sent it skidding across the lake. The spirit turned to retrieve it. As it did, Daefol bit into the bindings around the other stone, a stomach-turning combination of leather, hair, and sinew. On the other side of the lake, Berizon's staff, a frozen tree limb, flared like snow under a full moon.
Daefol rushed to the old man's side.
Berizon moaned but managed to open his eyes when Daefol nudged him. "Take this staff, my boy. I'm sorry for involving you in..."
"I am no wizard! What am I to do with it?" Daefol demanded of the dead man. The staff fell from his paws and clattered against the ice. Daefol stared at his paws, then realized they had become hands. He closed Berizon's eyes and took up the wizard's staff.
As Daefol stood, Moirn lunged at him. His knife flared with non-light that solidified into a cruel blade of tightly wound briars. Daefol barely dodged in time. A single drop, clear like water, fell from Moirn's weapon. The snow sizzled from its touch.
Daefol raised Berizon's staff and brought it down in an arc. Moirn sneered at his opponent's inelegant technique.
Looking at Moirn and the spirit in the undying light of the staff, Daefol knew the strength of their bond and the peril he faced in trying to sunder one from the other. Too, he sensed a way to victory would reveal itself.
Moirn renewed his sword assault. Daefol parried, yet neither sought nor forced an opening. The spirit had cast a spell that focused Moirn's intense hatred and suffering, and Daefol's new instincts, bestowed on him by Berizon's spell, warned that he could not attack Moirn and survive. But he could use the man's power against him. And so Daefol waited, making his blows less frequent and limiting his efforts to return them with Berizon's staff. Moirn pressed his advantage.
The final showdown found their weapons locked. "Nothing Man," Daefol whispered to his opponent. Inwardly, he whispered a prayer for the gods' forgiveness and Isilindas's.
Moirn broke his stance. His sword whistled through the air and smashed against the staff. Doing so left him open and exposed. Daefol dodged easily; however, the staff shattered under the sword's impact. Light erupted from the staff's splinters. Moirn screamed as the magic flung him backward. He struck a tree with a sickening crunch. In the light, the sword split into pieces. Daefol flung himself into the snow. However, the thorns were too swift to dodge and buried themselves in his flesh.
Isilindas rushed to Moirn's side but stopped when she saw the thorns burning through the snow. She remained at the center of the clearing, clutching her broken wrist.
The spirit, meanwhile, howled its defeat. As Moirn's life and hatred died with him, its form faded. At last, a wisp of black smoke drifted back toward the pond. There it would await another wayward soul to feed it with angst, suffering, and hatred.
Daefol inched toward Isilindas, the swift poison raising a mutiny in his blood.
"Imra," Isilindas whispered. "I don't want to lose you, too."
Daefol longed to comfort her, but his throat was twisted too tight. As he lay back in the feather-soft snow, he thought he saw Isilindas coming closer. But that was impossible; the danger was too great, and he no longer had raccoon sight to permeate the darkness. But it was not Isilindas he saw. Radiance enveloped this figure, which seemed to have a timeless quality about it, seeming at once child and ancient, maiden and mother.
Then the figure extended her hand, and hearing her voice, Daefol knew her at last for Ro.
His younger sister extended her hands to him. Daefol started to raise his; his pained breaths came faster with longing. As he nearly touched Ro, Daefol drew back. "You must hate me..." The words came easily, unhindered by his wounds. "I was supposed to look after you when Mother died. But I wasn't enough."
But Ro only smiled as the light of eternity played about her face. "The time of suffering is over," she declared. "For both of us." Her voice imparted more than words; simply hearing it, Daefol realized she understood his grief and guilt yet had forgiven him for it long ago. He gave a final sigh and surrendered himself to her light.
The tribesmen, led by Chief Takin and Fahnivar, appeared as Daefol's eyes closed for the last time.