Ghaleon's pointed ears perked as he sensed something beyond sight or sound. It was just a feeling, but a restless one. Perhaps it wasn't a good idea to come up to this part of the mountains. He had never been here before. His small valley in the rolling foothills of Caldor Isle was normally more than enough to care for the grazing of his sheep. He had managed his flock there for as long as he could remember, which was not a very a good estimate at all considering he could not recall anything of his childhood. He had always been careful about the number of sheep he kept. When the flock grew too large he would go to town to sell the excess. But this year, the ewes had given birth to an unusually higher number of lambs, and it was not yet time to go to the fair.
In order to prevent them from overgrazing his valley, he had taken them up to the mountains in search of a temporary pasture. It meant he would have to sleep out in the open for a few weeks, but he did not mind. The stars were wonderful to see at night. Besides, it was a chance to explore, to do something other than what he had always done. Truthfully the thought scared him almost as much as it excited, but he was tired of watching sheep. He had always watched sheep, without even understanding why. But at least he was not alone.
Ghaleon slowly raised himself from the rock on which he sat. The rounded stone had served as a comfortable seat to one who had been standing all day, but now the rock seemed unbearably hard. He clutched his ironwood staff tightly in his hands, bringing it to bear in front of him. Something was disturbing the sheep, and he would warrant it was no wolf. This was not the time to get caught sitting down no matter how much his muscles ached.
The giant saber-toothed cat laying beside him lifted himself into a low crouch, uttering a low growl. The great feline sniffed the air cautiously, and his ears twitched forward.
"You sense it too," Ghaleon murmured, stroking the tawny shoulders of his long-time friend. "But what is it? What does it want?"
The cat gave no answer other than a bristling of the fur on the back of his neck. For an agonizing five minutes the two of them remained completely silent and vigilant over the flock of thirty or so sheep grazing before them.
One of the sheep let out a long baaa of agitation as she shifted her weight from one side of her body to another. The next ewe over flattened her ears back and held her head close to the ground. She did not graze or even mouth the blades of grass so close to her lips.
Ghaleon squinted at the forested backdrop of Caldor Isle that surrounded the rocky meadow. Despite his inhuman abilities of perception, his catlike lavender eyes could not detect anything out of the ordinary.
His cat growled and stalked forward a few paces. The feline stopped suddenly, narrowing emerald eyes into near slits as he flattened his ears against his head. His fur bristled, standing on end as he bared his teeth and tensed himself for a spring.
"What-" Ghaleon clipped his speech short as the wave of cold slammed into him. He shuddered, stumbling backwards and almost crying out in pain. He wrapped his arms about his body, squeezed his eyes shut, and hoped that his deerskin tunic and leggings would prevent him from freezing to death in the middle of spring.
The chill disappeared nearly as suddenly as it came. Ghaleon glanced up with a youthful look of surprise. There was some bluish thing standing out there scaring the sheep spitless!
"Hey! You!" he shouted. He rubbed his arms feverishly with his hands, trying to restore the warmth to his limbs. His staff felt like ice, but he would not drop it.
Ghaleon swallowed tightly as the thing turned towards him. It didn't even look like it was solid. A hint of the shapes of the trees beyond could be seen just through the misty blue sheet. It drifted towards Ghaleon; a wispy flattened torso with long arms as thin as paper, but as wide as an oaken tree trunk.
The shape passed straight through an ewe as if nothing was in its path. The sheep uttered a frenzied cry from the cold before collapsing, eyes frozen wide open in death.
Ghaleon's cat growled, taking up a place between the ghost and his two-legged friend. "No, get out of the way!" Ghaleon told the cat. He staggered off to the side in an effort to keep his legs under him. His cat glanced at him and bounded beside him.
The strange blue being kept walking as if Ghaleon hadn't changed his position. Its path remained straight, and it passed through the clearing without so much as a turn of its lumbering body. Ghaleon kept watching in its direction, half expecting it to float through the trees and return at any minute. It did not.
"I don't know what to make of it." Ghaleon stoked his campfire with some more kindling as the first stars began to appear in the night sky. "Do you?"
The great cat silently regarded him with emerald eyes that seemed to glow all the hotter for the firelight. He rested with his body perpendicular to the fire, curled slightly to enjoy its warmth, and head resting on folded paws.
"I suppose I shouldn't worry," Ghaleon continued. "You're not. And I'll move us all down the mountain to another pasture tomorrow, someplace away from that thing." He speared a tuber with a spit and staked it by the fire to cook. Several others were already being warmed. "Come to think of it, we haven't seen any animals up here, have we? They must all have been frozen by that thing."
Ghaleon stood, looking up around him at the trees lining the clearing's perimeter. "But the trees are all right. The thing passed through them without killing them. Only the ewe died. It probably would have killed us too if we didn't move. So why only animals?"
The cat's eyes narrowed slightly, still observing the fire.
"It turned to me when I shouted at it," said Ghaleon, gesturing as he faced his his friend. "But it walked right past me like I wasn't even there. Why? Is it blind?"
His companion snorted, clamping his jaws completely around a finished tuber. The cat kept his head low to the ground, pinning the spit down with a massive paw, and yanking the potato free. His throat muscles bugled for a moment as he swallowed the thing whole.
Ghaleon smiled. "I'm sorry. I must be boring you. Yes, eating's a good idea right now. I'm sorry I don't have any fresh meat to give you, but I'll stick some salted venison on the fire."
A sheep bleated in the darkness beyond the fire. Ghaleon hoped the flock had gotten over the frozen ewe of this afternoon, but he couldn't be certain. He never rated the intelligence of sheep very highly, no matter how long he continued to work with them, but some aura of the blue apparition remained in the air. Ghaleon knew he had done the right thing dragging the dead ewe from the clearing and hiding it in the brush beyond where the sheep couldn't see it. He supposed he could have tried cooking it for dinner, but the smell of it wouldn't have improved the flock's temperament any.
After a hearty dinner he put out the fire and laid back on the grass, propping his head against his cat. The whole length of the nine foot feline was full of warmth. He wouldn't need a blanket. But despite his physical comfort, Ghaleon could not sleep. He lay looking up at the stars for a long long time.
Just as he was about to drift off, the thing came again.
He could see it, its blue body glowed in the night. The misty figure floated in an easy gait along a straight path through the clearing, thankfully on a course that would not strike any of the sheep. Despite its leisurely pace, the flattened torso swung purposefully to either side as though looking for something with a head it did not have.
Ghaleon felt the chill now, though it did not startle him nearly as much as it had before. The intensity of the initial wave seemed weaker, if that was possible. Perhaps it was because the night was already cold.
He lay perfectly still, trying to watch to the creature without drawing attention to himself. His cat continued to doze behind him, ribs expanded and contracted in an easy rhythm. Ghaleon hoped his cat would not sense his discomfort and attempt to drive off the ghostly figure.
The ghost paused for a moment, sweeping its long arms repeatedly across the ground at the edge of the clearing. It reached slowly at first, as though to scoop something up, then clawed with a greater frenzy. Nothing came up with each swing, not so much as a clod of dirt. Ghaleon could not see far enough in the darkness to make out what it sought.
Finally the ghost raised its arms to the sky as if in supplication and uttered a low moan. The sheep bleated, stumbling away, and Ghaleon's cat leaped on his feet in an instant, hackles raised and teeth bared. Ghaleon fell back on the grass, knocking his head against the hard ground as the cat no longer supported him. He gritted his teeth and suppressed a groan.
Ghaleon shifted himself into a crouch, rubbing his head as he reached for his quarterstaff with his other hand. The glowing figure did not head for any of them though. It walked out of the clearing with the same measured stride with which it entered, as though nothing had happened.
"Look after the sheep," he told his cat as he stood up. "I'm going to follow that thing."
The great cat snarled and shook his head.
"I'll be careful."
The fire in the cat's emerald eyes dimmed slightly. Without another sound he bounded after the scattering flock.
Ghaleon cast a look after his friend then hurried down the path the ghost had taken. He wished he had a better means of protection than his staff, but he doubted the sword he left back in his cabin would fare any better against this unearthly being. At least his staff would not chill as easily. He jogged up to the edge of the clearing where the ghost had stopped and took a look at the ground.
There was no sign of the ghost having been there, not a single disturbance considering the fury with which the thing had moved. The grass showed no signs of passage. Nothing seemed out of place. Ghaleon frowned and kicked a dead branch aside.
He moved to go on then halted in mid-step. He looked back at the branch--it was a large one, as long as his staff and just a little thicker--and he recalled the curious scooping motions the ghost had made. There was nothing else in the area, nothing but the grass and the earth beneath it. The thing wanted the branch?
Ghaleon turned back to where the ghost had gone. It was out of sight and if he did not hurry up he would loose it altogether. Determined to discover the reason behind the thing, Ghaleon broke into an easy run, moving through the trees nearly as silently and effortlessly as his cat could have done. He bounded over exposed roots and small trenches formed from the mountain's folds. After a minute of running he spotted a flash of translucent blue light ahead of him. He redoubled his efforts until he could make out the shape of the flattened torso and its two arms.
The thing was moving for higher ground, for the bare rock face of the mountain where it sloped too greatly for any conifer to grow. Much to Ghaleon's surprise, there appeared to be a path coming from around the other side of the mountain and leading in a roundabout fashion up the slope. The path had suffered for disuse though. He could see the small dark forms of weeds and loose rocks beneath the light of the Blue Star.
Ghaleon slowed his pace to something of an extended jog as he broke through the trees and out into the open. Now that he had it in sight he would not have to move as fast. The thing kept its speed constant and did not go much faster than Ghaleon could walk.
The ghost began to ascend the mountain. Though it had no legs and probably would not care what manner it climbed, the ghost abruptly turned to follow the path upon intercepting it. It did not appear to be aware that Ghaleon continued to follow only a short distance behind.
He wished he knew what he was doing following this thing. The ghost could freeze him outright if he accidentally got too close. But he sensed that there was something to it, that the fact it wandered around here was not a part of some bizarre life cycle. The image of it scooping at the ground replayed itself again in his mind. The ghost appeared to be blind, but not wholly without senses.
He kept close as the ghost went around a sharp bend, then nearly tripped over himself to avoid colliding with the thing. Ghaleon nervously stepped back and dropped to a crouch as his heart pounded in his chest.
The ghost, if it noticed him, paid him no mind. It stood still, turned towards the near vertical mountain face beside this part of the path. Ghaleon got the impression that it was looking down at the small crevice in front of it. Something was crumpled in a heap beneath the ghost, and the ghost knew of it. It reached down at the heap, again appearing as though it attempted to grab hold of something. But the ghost's manner was far more demure that it had been in the clearing. It only scooped its hands twice, and when nothing came up it merely stopped. The ghost reached out into the crevice with one of its long paper arms and held it there for a moment. Then it slowed turned away and continued its climb up the mountain.
Ghaleon got to his feet and scrambled over to the crevice, looking up the mountainside at the retreating figure. Much to his relief, the ghost did not turn back. He turned his attention to the small heap at the crevice's entrance and shortly after wished he had not.
It was a skeleton, too tall to be a child's yet too small to be an adult's, wrapped in the remains of winter clothing. The skeleton held a long stick between its hands and lay so that its skull faced the opening of the crevice. The remains had been here for at least a year, if not many more. The bones were too clean for the person to have died here this past winter.
Ghaleon avoided stepping over the skeleton as he found a place to kneel and peer inside the crevice. It wasn't too large for him to enter if he crawled in, but as the light of the Blue Star came in behind him he could see why he would not want to. The floor dropped at a steep angle for several feet. Once down he would not be able to climb back out by himself. He sadly noted the second smaller skeleton crumpled at the base of the stone slope inside the crevice. This one was dressed in the rotting remnants of a fur-lined dress.
Ghaleon shook his head, looking down at the skeletal remains beside him. He mentally measured the length of the stick against the distance to the bottom and tried to visualize how high the smaller skeleton would have been able to reach. He believed they came relatively close to arm's length from the opening, but apparently not close enough. "You wanted to get her out," he murmured to the ragged heap. "You're the ghost aren't you? But why didn't you leave and get help?"
He stood up and turned away. Ghaleon looked up at the Blue Star, shivering, but not from the cold. He remembered the ghost's long arms, how they tried to pick up the branch back at the clearing and then the stick by its body. "Your arms are long enough now, aren't they? But you now can't pick up worth a damn to save to her."
Ghaleon closed his eyes, feeling the night wind caress his cheek and billow through his long silver hair. He sighed and threw himself back to lean against the mountain face as he decided what next to do. He felt his shoulder bump against the rock, but there was no support anywhere else. He bounced and slid to the side and began to fall back into the darkness. The crevice? He was too tall to fall through the crevice like this! Ghaleon opened his mouth to shout but the voice that came out was not his.
Ghaleon woke with a sore bump on his head and found a small girl of about nine or ten years curled up beside him. He sat up with a start and then looked around him. He was at the bottom of the crevice. But the opening? It wasn't any larger than before. If anything, it seemed even smaller. Snow spilled in through the crack in great gobs and was rapidly making the opening invisible. Though the patch of sky outside was gray, he believed that it was too light to be night.
"The skeleton," he murmured, realizing that the fact it was not here was as obvious as the fact he fell through a hole too small for him. "What was I saying?"
"Jayna! Jayna! Are you down there?"
Ghaleon looked up and saw the snow around the crevice being cleared away. Outside a blizzard raged. Then a young face appeared in view. It belonged to a boy of around fourteen years.
"Jayna!" shouted the boy. "Come on! Mom's gonna kill us for this! Jayna!"
Ghaleon wondered if the boy could see him, then tentatively reached out a hand to touch the girl's shoulder. His hand passed right through her. But the girl stirred nonetheless.
She sat up, rubbing her head in the very spot Ghaleon had hurt his. "Thrace, I'm down here!" She waved a mittened hand. "Can you see me?"
"Hold on!" he replied. More snow came tumbling down. "Yeah, I can! Come closer to the opening! Boy, it's a long way down there. Hold on a bit and I'll see if I can find some help."
His face disappeared from view and the girl came as close as she could, wading through the mounds of snow at the end of the steep slope. She tried finding handholds with which to climb the wall, but the snow and ice had made the rock slick and dangerous. She collapsed to her knees with a sigh and began to play with the snow around her. Ghaleon sadly closed his eyes and shook his head.
A chill wind swept in, biting his face and threatening to freeze his lids shut if he did not see where it came from. He opened his eyes slowly and found himself outside. He was off the path and sitting securely on a ledge not far above the mountain path. Ghaleon looked down and saw the boy tramping valiantly waist deep through snow. The boy slapped his hands against his arms, trying to restore warmth to them and complained bitterly beneath his breath.
Ghaleon listened to every word, ignoring the howling winds and the falling snow. Perhaps because he understood this was not really happening to him, the cold did not bother him nearly as much as it should. He learned that the boy and his sister had gone to the mountain to collect herbs for their father's sickness. The possibility of a storm was almost nonexistent, so their mother let them go. She believed her son to be old enough to take care of them both, and the boy regretted that trust bitterly.
The boy slogged through the snow to find his way blocked halfway down by a rockslide. Perhaps if the two of them were together they could have made it over, but he could not by himself. Ghaleon watched remorsefully as the boy turned back and began digging through the snow-covered underbrush in search of something with which to pull his sister out.
He came up with a long dead root. The boy looked experimentally at it, judging its length. Ghaleon knew it was too short and that it was not the stick he held in his hand when he died. But the boy kept it. Perhaps it was the longest of its kind down here. The boy turned back and slogged back up the hill through the rapidly vanishing path he had made on his way down. Still the snow continued to fall.
Ghaleon slid down from his perch and followed the boy. When they reached the crevice the boy dug his way down into the snow and reached as far into the crevice as he could go without falling in. Outstretched in his hand was the root he had gotten.
"Jayna! Can you grab on to this? Jump, Jayna!"
Over the boy's shoulder, Ghaleon saw the girl scramble up the slippery slope in an attempt to reach the root beyond her grasp. She sprang as high as she could, trying to get a handhold long enough to pull herself up another couple of feet, but each time she failed, sliding back to where she started.
"It's no use," she shouted to him. "Can you get anything longer?"
"I'll try!" he yelled back.
Ghaleon stood by the crevice, watching again and again as the boy returned with different lengths of branches and roots. Some were no better than before, even worse, but finally he got one that looked as though it might work. The girl meanwhile became colder and colder. She only barely managed to raise her head the final time the boy came to here.
"Come on, Jayna! You can reach this one! You've got to try!"
The boy's face was pale and he moved with a limp, frostbite beginning to take hold of his extremities. He leaned into the crevice, straining to reach down as far as he could with his newest stick. It dangled a little over three feet above her.
The girl braced herself and tried jumping. She reached out, but missed. She tried again, and again. The third time she came within a couples inches of its tip.
"Come on!" he shouted. "One more try! You're almost there!"
She shook her head. "I can't! It's still too high! Can't you get it any lower?"
"My arms aren't long enough!" The boy leaned dangerously further into the crevice nonetheless, almost certain that if she did grab the stick now they would both be pulled into the crevice. "Here, try it now!"
The girl nodded her head and took a wobbling step back. She sprinted and leaped at the stick. She stretched out her hands, finding first rock beneath the palm of one, and reaching up with the other. Her fingers brushed the tip of the stick and then she fell, sliding against the ice-covered slope.
She landed in an ungainly position and cried out. As she wriggled against the snow beneath her Ghaleon could see that her ankle had been twisted.
The boy slumped listlessly back from the crevice. Tears began to freeze against the rims of his eyes.
"Thrace..." she called weakly. "Don't go."
The boy showed his face to her. "Don't worry," he said, though he could not hide his tears. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm not going anywhere without you."
Ghaleon found himself back in his own time. The night sky was clear and the air no longer horribly cold. He leaned back against the rock face of the mountain. The small crevice was beside him, as was the boy's skeleton.
"I'm sorry," he murmured.
A sudden chill hit him from further up the path and he turned his head in time to see the ghost drifting down towards him. He straightened himself and bowed to the approaching figure.
The ghost slowed at Ghaleon's voice, began to inch hesitantly towards him.
He continued to speak. "You can't see, can you? You don't want to freeze me like you did the sheep. That's why you're moving slower. It's okay, you can come a little closer. I'll tell you when to stop."
The ghost drifted a little more confidently until he told it, "That's enough." The bluish figure came to a halt and hovered expectantly.
Ghaleon shook his head, at a momentary loss. "I know you want to free her, but you can't pick anything up. So what can you do? You wanted to go get help. I? Am I your help?"
The glowing figure continued to hover silently, but he felt a positive emotion coming from it.
Ghaleon nodded. "All right. I'll help. But I don't think I'm the one meant to pull her out. I am only the instrument, aren't I?" He took a couple steps back, putting the crevice between the two of them. "You know where you are right? Even if you don't know where I am. Here. Step forward. I'll help you. Your sister waits."
He bent and gently slipped the stick from the skeleton's hands. He offered it with outstretched arms to the ghost. Though blind to him it seemed to sense the presence of the stick. The ghost drifted closer, almost freezing him with its nearness. It reached out a thin hand and wrapped it about the stick. Ghaleon waited grimly as the ghost retracted its hand. The stick went with it.
The ghost slowly turned its body to the crevice, lowering itself against the ground. A boy's voice whispered, "Jayna, I'm here! I got help."
"You did?" replied the girl, voice echoing from the depths of the crevice. "I knew you wouldn't leave me."
The ghost slid in the stick, using the full distance of its long tree trunk arms. After a moment the girl's voice murmured, "I got it. Pull me up." And the ghostly figure retracted its arm...
Ghaleon could not recall having fallen asleep that night, but when he woke he found himself still up on that mountainside. It was morning, and the sun was well on its way to reaching the pinnacle of the sky. He turned his head to one side and found not one but two skeletons huddled together a sort distance from the outside of the crevice.
He smiled softly to himself, certain that the ghost had found its final rest. With a small yawn he stood up and stretched his arms over his head. Ghaleon looked about the path and noted the loose rocks that dotted the area. Some were quite large. He picked up his ironwood staff and moved to the largest of them. It was big enough to do. He propped his staff beneath it and leveled it in the direction of the crevice.
It took him some time and effort, but he rolled the rock into place before the hole so that no one could ever fall down there by accident again. Then he used the smaller stones to build two small cairns over the bodies. It was past midday when he finally finished. He was sweaty and tired, but he knelt quietly before their graves and clasped his hands in prayer. They were with Althena now.
He did not know if their family still lived, but the next time he went into town he would ask about a boy named Thrace and his sister Jayna. Those who knew them deserved to know their fate.
With a final look at the twin cairns, Ghaleon took up his staff and headed back to his flock.
Back to the Library of Vane.
Back to the Shrine to Ghaleon.