Once upon a time, a town that sat nestled near the foot of a mountain, surrounded by forest evergreen, ran out of food and fuel in the midst of a deadly winter. They were not poor, the people of this town. They were not foolish with their provisions. The winter had just lasted far longer than any in the realm had expected. Every season of that year was winter. Many perished.
At last, a few came forth, challengers to winter. They offered to the town elders that they would leave the town, bundled against the cold and carrying only the sparest of provisions. They would travel in different directions in the hopes of finding aid. To protect themselves from the wild spirits that lived in the forests, they wore talismans crafted by the elders and took their faithful dogs with them. In those days, it was believed that dogs could sense the presence of such spirits, or rather the shadows of spirits that were known as umbra. There was no fanfare. The townsfolk knew nothing of the endeavor. With no end to the storms of ice and snow, the five who embarked one morning in the last month of the year were certain to succumb before they reached any aid.
But they did not succumb. They triumphed.
All five succeeded in reaching help, and the town was saved. When asked, the challengers proclaimed that they were aided by kind forest spirits that inhabited the bodies of their animal companions, and spoke to them, comforted them, and guided them through dangers. No more did the town suffer harsh winters. Winters became mild, even warm. The town grew and prospered for a while, and then settled into a comfortable state of constancy.
Many, many generations hence, the town still honored the tale, the five heroes and the ancestors who survived. Five were chosen each year from those who submitted their names long in advance. The fortunate five with their own dogs or dogs lent to them were sent out to repeat the journeys that were taken by the five heroes of old. The exact paths were not known, but were surmised by the town’s scribes and scholars in that year.
Anise was only in her eleventh year (though almost halfway to her twelfth), but she had volunteered at the first new moon ceremony of the year. All those who had reached their tenth year of life were old enough. After that, the only requirements were being able of body and having a dog willing to go along on the travels. Some of the paths were easy, some were still arduous even when not covered and cased in snow.
At the mid-year feast, Anise had learned that she would be one of the five challengers for that year. She and Cane, the dog who was like a brother to her. Her mother had nodded to her with quiet pride. Her father had proclaimed the fame and renown of his daughter to all who would hear him at the feast. Her young brother, who was still a toddler, had screamed, thrown his arms around her, and kissed her with a mouth smeared with summer berries.
Anise had gotten her heart’s desire. At first, she was happy, but by the end of the night, she was miserable, for she feared it was all a dream or mistake. Then she was nervous the next day, avoiding any encounters with the town elders, who decided on the challengers.
As the months passed, Anise began her preparations, along with the other challengers. Her fear and nervousness passed, swallowed by determination and excitement. Her only remaining regret was that her grandmother had not lived to see Anise become a challenger. She was her grandmother’s namesake. The senior Anise had also tried for many years to be a challenger. But she was never chosen. She had not even lived to see Anise submit her name, though Anise felt her presence. Her grandmother had passed before that name, their name, was chosen.
Anise believed in the old ways. She kept all observances that she could. After her grandmother passed, she had lit a candle every day to guide her grandmother’s spirit home. According to the old ways, the spirits of the departed remained upon the earth, watching over their loved ones for some time. It was a part of every spirit’s duty to do so. To keep the spirits anchored, their loved ones lit candles to guide the spirits back home. When the spirit was ready to move on, the sign to their living loved ones was that the candle would not light.
For many nights, her grandmother’s candle had been flickering after Anise lit it. A fortnight before her journey was to begin, Anise watched the candle flame flicker and then grow. Behind it, a mist appeared. It swirled and thickened. It took form and when Anise saw what form it took, she grinned.
“Grandmother,” she said.
Her grandmother’s spirit had come to visit her on the cusp of her challenge.
“I have so little strength, and so little time,” her grandmother said. “I feared you would not see me. You can still see me?”
Anise nodded. “And hear you.” Her grandmother’s voice was clear, but it sounded hollow, as if she spoke through cupped hands. “Do you know what has happened, grandmother? That I’ve been chosen as challenger? Have you come to see me off?”
The ghost of her grandmother wavered. “I have been trying to reach you for a long while now. I almost made myself known to you before, once or twice.”
Anise’s eyes widened. “When I gave my name as challenger!”
The ghost nodded. Then the bright form seemed to dim. “I cannot walk into the forest with you, and I am afraid.”
Anise smiled. She lifted the lid of her writing desk and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I have a map of the path I’m to take. Mother has already walked it with me. It’s one of the easier ones, but I’m not disappointed. I’m not strong enough yet for the hardest paths.”
“My dear little leaf,” her grandmother said, and Anise’s heart warmed at the sound of her pet name. But she saw that her grandmother was in earnest.
The candle flame brightened as the ghost spoke. “I must tell you the true tale, now that I have learned it. The true tale of the five challengers. Listen, my little leaf, to the tale I tell. For when it is done, I will ask of you a favor, and I pray you will say ‘yes.’”
Anise almost said ‘yes’ to begin with. For what favor could her grandmother ask that she would not gladly grant? But it was her grandmother who had taught her to be cautious. So she only nodded and listened.
The tale that all in the town accepted, of the five heroes and the kind forest spirits, was false. The heroes had indeed set out in their separate directions. They had indeed taken their dogs. But there had been six of them. They knew what awaited them in the forest. There were hungry things and not just beasts. There were wild spirits called umbra who could thrash and devour. They did not know that they had been betrayed before ever they set foot outside of their town.
The elders of the town had entreated the umbra, turning to the forest to summon them. Six umbra answered the summons, and the elders made a bargain with them. Each year, the town would surrender one willing soul for each umbra if the umbra would preserve the town and all other souls in it by melting the unending winter. The umbra held power over the forest and if the forest warmed, then the town would warm. The umbra did not feel heat or cold. But they hungered as any other being hungered. And while they could sustain themselves on animal flesh, they would still starve unto oblivion if they did not consume the flesh and spirit of conscious beings.
The umbra were not as strong as they were when they first came into being. They needed offerings of the willing. They were often too weak to fight against the unwilling. And even when they did manage overcome the odd wayward traveler, the flesh and spirit of those who fought and resisted was sour and sickening.
Scarcely had the six challengers left the gates of the town, when they were set upon by the umbra. Most people in those days guarded against spirits by keeping to safe paths and keeping indoors after dark. Talismans were gotten at dear cost and even those who had them were not eager to test them. The six challengers believed they wore powerful talismans that could weaken the wild and wicked spirits that wandered the world. The talismans were granted by the town elders and crafted by one among them.
But the talismans that the challengers bore had been crafted not to ward against bad spirits, but to invite them. There was no way for anyone to know otherwise. The secret symbols of the talismans were known only to the elder scholars.
The elders expected that the six would be killed and the umbra appeased until the following year. They did not expect that any of the challengers would return. As it happened, only one of the umbra killed and devoured his offering. The others, though equally hungry, thought of how they might ensure that the elders would keep their word. Somehow, perhaps because of the talismans, the challengers did not need to be willing. Rather than devour their offerings, the umbra possessed them.
The umbra who had devoured his offering, possessed one of the dogs and followed the others. They tried to visit the nearest city before returning to the town, but they found they could not. Even though they were now clothed in flesh, they were bound to the forest. They could not travel far away from it. They began to melt the frost within the forest, collecting wood and meat as they went. They returned to the town. At first, they pretended to be the original five challengers, and the elders accepted them and announced the endeavor to the town. A few of the challengers had found and brought back food and fuel. Others had found omens and signs that the winter would soon pass. The town rejoiced.
The elders soon came to realize what had happened. They tried another bargain, but could think of no way to be rid of the umbra. Inhabiting human bodies, the umbra no longer starved. They could feed upon human food and only needed a soul once or twice every generation.
But the umbra soon discovered that human minds could not bear the possessing. The strife within led most to madness and death. The umbra were cast out as the bodies they possessed died. At last, only one remained. He did not go mad or die an early death. He pressed the elders to create the tradition that abided to the present. The yearly honoring of the five heroes was meant to be a way for the umbra to search for new hosts to possess, hosts that would survive the possessing.
“It wasn’t the dogs who failed, poor souls,” the ghost of Anise’s grandmother said. “Cane’s ancestors carried a burden that was too great for them. For they, like their companions, were betrayed.” The ghost shook her wispy head. “But I cannot blame the desperate elders for grasping at a way that some might survive. They were delirious, weren’t they? With hunger, thirst, and despair. Just as the umbra were. The elders did not foresee that they would be overthrown. That they had handed their town over to the wild and wicked umbra. That the cost of their bargain would not be quick heroic deaths by willing offerings, but broken souls and murders in the night. Few could survive possessing. So the umbra have often had to return to possessing the beasts of the forest, until the time of the challenge comes again, as it had now.”
As her grandmother told the story, Anise’s gut had begun to lurch and wrench. A sickly cold had seeped into her chest, lingering in her heart.
It could not be.
Her grandmother would not lie to her, nor would she play such a vicious joke. But the tale she told simply could not be.
The ghost fell silent, letting Anise consider and contemplate. Anise began to think back on some of those who had made the journey over the years that she had been conscious of it. She thought back to some of the stories her mother, father, and grandmother had told. Some of the rumors they had been whispered when they thought she could not hear. There had always been rumors about some of the challengers. About how some of them changed much after their journeys, perhaps because of the great burden, the attention. Never had anyone mentioned possession by umbra.
“Ghosts have appeared to the strongest men and women in the village,” her grandmother said. “The ghosts of their ancestors, to warn them and instruct them, as I do to you now. It has been so for many generations. But it has become so rare for a spirit—whether good or bad—to be seen. Many have come close. But never have any succeeded in defeating the umbra.”
Anise still could not truly believe what she was hearing. Her mind was swimming with thoughts. But she remembered that her grandmother had said she would ask a favor of her.
“Those who have learned the true story have tried to banish them, destroy them, trap or imprison them,” her grandmother said. “We have watched them and watched them to learn what their weaknesses might be. We have tried to make different bargains with them. But we have failed to be rid of them. Each time we failed, we revealed our knowledge to them, allowing them to further bolster themselves against any future attacks.”
Anise frowned. She did not understand what the word “bolster” meant exactly, but she gathered the meaning from the rest of her grandmother’s words.
The ghost of her grandmother chuckled. “It means ‘strengthen or support,’” she said.
“Are you reading my mind, grandmother?” Anise asked, raising her brows.
“No, little leaf. I’m reading your face.”
For a moment, fond memories of stories and lessons filled Anise’s heart, bolstered her. But the moment passed quickly, and Anise felt a great weariness come upon her. She had wanted so desperately to see her grandmother, but now she wanted only to lie down, fall sleep, and escape the burden of knowledge that her grandmother had brought.
“Now, heed me, little leaf. You will be possessed. Those spirits who are wiser than I am have seen that you can survive it. So I beg of you, you must go to your mother and father, and tell them that you will not complete the challenge. The elders will choose another.”
Anise sat up straighter. “But…if what you say is true, it will not matter if the elders choose another. Won’t the umbra still come to possess me?”
“Not if you are well protected, against all six umbra. There may be a way, and I mean to lead you to it. There may still be hope of defeating the umbra one day. And you may be a part of that hope, but not now. Perhaps when you are grown—“
“No! I can’t turn back now that I know. Grandmother…” Dread filled Anise’s throat. She could speak no more.
The ghost of her grandmother reached out with wispy fingers, but she could not touch Anise.
“There is courage and there is foolishness,” her grandmother said. “You must turn away from the challenge.”
Still filled with fear, Anise shook her head. “I don’t want to die, grandmother. I don’t want to be possessed. Will you help me, grandmother?”
A sudden and terrible moan filled the air. It came from everywhere at once and Anise was afraid the umbra were coming for her. But as her grandmother’s form began to fade, she realized that it was her grandmother who had moaned.
The mist reformed. Her grandmother’s face appeared again, more well-defined this time, white and yellow from the candle flame.
“I tried appearing to your mother, so I could tell her to stop you. I knew you would be too stubborn to step down. But she could not see me. If I cannot stop you, granddaughter, then I will help you.”
Anise came to attention, for her grandmother only ever called her “granddaughter” when she was imparting profound knowledge or wisdom. Her grandmother advised Anise not to wear the talisman that the town elders would give her on the day of her departure from town. The elders of the present day were innocent of the ancient bargain. They thought the talismans were only for tradition.
“Wear green, little leaf, for they abhor the color. In their spirit forms, you may slip through their attention. Their eyes once saw nothing but green in the forest. Now they are all but blind to it.”
Her grandmother told her to bake cakes with her own hands so she would make them correctly. Cakes laced with silver and laden with ginger in them so the umbra could not smell the silver. Whether beast or human, when those who were possessed by the umbra consumed silver, the umbra would be cast out from the body and weakened. Though weakened, the umbra might lash out and possess the nearest living being. If Anise was near, then she would be that living person.
There were talismans in the town, carved in secret by the same elder who carved the talisman to summon the spirits. The secret talismans were meant to work against the umbra, but none who now lived knew how. The art of carving talismans and of reading their meanings had been lost. Anise’s grandmother told her where she might find the talismans. Their location was changed often so the umbra would not find them, for there was always at least one townsperson who was possessed of an umbra in any given generation. That one person always seemed to find his or her way into the ranks of the town elders.
Anise asked her grandmother to come with her when she went to go fetch the secret talismans the next morning.
“I cannot move beyond my anchor, little leaf, lest my spirit gets lost and wanders.” Her grandmother hesitated. “Some even say that is how umbra are born.”
But Anise had an idea. The next morning, she tested her idea by carrying the lit candle outside and down the street. As it was morning and there was no need of light or warmth, Anise did earn some puzzled glances. But no one seemed able to see the ghost of her grandmother hovering beside her. Her idea had worked. Her grandmother could move wherever her candle moved.
Her grandmother praised Anise’s cleverness. She instructed Anise to put the candle inside of a torch and carry that for light on her journey. Anise only had a few miles to walk for her challenge. According to the story that Anise now knew to be false, one of the five heroes had stumbled upon a grain silo that had been forgotten. She was to travel to that silo. Though she wanted her grandmother with her, Anise was worried about anchoring her grandmother to a torch that might get lost.
“Carry me into the forest,” her grandmother insisted. “I can dim or brighten the torch, and I can watch over you and Cane.”
Her grandmother told her how they might trap the umbra one by one.
The day came at last, and her mother and father could see that Anise was troubled, but they only thought she was nervous. Had they known what she was to face, they would have faced it with her. Her grandmother had urged Anise to tell them. But they would not be allowed to go with her. Anise had to travel the journey on her own. The path was not a dangerous one and still within the land owned by the town. Anise had walked farther, even on her own.
It was morning when she began. She followed her map carefully and faithfully. Once she was out of sight, she lit the torch. Her grandmother’s spirit appeared, but was wispier than it was when it appeared in the evening after dark.
“Follow where Cane guides you,” her grandmother had said in a whisper that Anise barely heard. Then the ghost seemed to vanish. Anise hoped that her grandmother was still there. Perhaps the effort of manifesting was greater than anticipated, and her gran was saving the task for when they were deeper into the forest. Anise put the torch out, resolving to light it when it grew darker.
When Anise stopped at the first crossroads, she remembered her grandmother’s advice, and asked Cane which way they should go, he merely looked up at her. Her grandmother had said she should stray from the path if she wanted to arouse the interest of the umbra. With a deep breath, Anise left the path.
A gazelle approached. It froze upon seeing Anise and Cane. It was beautiful and its distinctive horns were twisted in an elegant braid. Cane did not bark, but he gave low quiet growl. Anise had many ginger cakes, but not enough to feed every beast she encountered. She felt no fear, no eerie sensation. She hoped the gazelle was just a gazelle, and that it would dash away. In her basket, she carried the cakes. Beneath the cakes, she carried the talismans, covered in a cloth that was marked with sigils meant to conceal the talismans’ powers.
Her grandmother believed that if Anise wore the secret talismans, she may be protected from all six umbra. But she was not certain how these talismans would work. And as soon as Anise used them, the umbra would know about the talismans. They would thereafter be on their guard. They would find a way to gather the talismans and be rid of them.
She reached into her basket and pulled out a cake. She knelt down, keeping her eyes on the gazelle, and placed the cake on the ground. She backed away, signaling Cane to do the same.
The gazelle came forth. He craned his delicate neck down and nibbled at the cake. Anise held her breath, for if he did not eat the whole cake, he might not swallow enough silver to expel the umbra. But the gazelle suddenly lapped up the cake entire and swallowed it.
Suddenly, the gazelle reared back and kicked the air. His dark brown eyes began to burn with an angry blood-red glow. Anise readied herself to run. But then the gazelle stopped moving and bowed down his head. A dark green mist began to pour from his mouth and nostrils.
Anise did not know how long the cake’s effects would last. She had to move quickly. She drew the talismans from her basket, and when the gazelle, and the umbra that was still possessing it, looked upon the talismans, his eyes burned redder still.
Anise did not know which talisman to choose. She hoped it would not matter. She stepped toward the gazelle and gasped when she felt a tug at her dress. It was Cane. He was pulling her back. She glanced with renewed alarm at the gazelle, but he was still frozen. Suddenly Cane leapt at her, making her drop the talismans so she could catch his forepaws. He dropped down right away and sniffed at the talismans. With his mouth, he separated all six talismans out. Then he looked at the gazelle, circling it. Anise let the talismans lie, curious about her companion’s behavior. Cane sat down before the talismans and laid his paw on one of them.
Anise lifted the chosen talisman. She quickly wrapped the rest back up in the coverings. She did not want to come close to the gazelle or touch the sickly mist that was draining from his face. It was a warm day, but the sweat upon her skin now was the cold sweat of fear. She tied a ribbon around the talisman and dangled it inside the green mist. She felt the mist begin to condense below her hand. She dropped the ribbon and pulled her hand back. The talisman did not fall to the ground.
Almost at once, the mist began to transform, growing tall, sprouting limbs. It turned into a man wearing a braided cord upon his brow. All the color leeched from the man until he was a stony blue. The talisman weighed upon his neck. It too was leached of its coppery color. The man did not move. His eye did not glow. They did seem to look upon Anise and Cane. But their expression was blank. For they were made of stone, and so too was the talisman, now a part of the statue.
The gazelle lurched back as if sleepy or drunk. After a few unsteady steps, the poor creature found its feet and bounded away.
Anise wondered why the frozen umbra had taken the form of a man. It was still too early to light the torch and ask her grandmother. She knew that she and Cane had just trapped their first umbra. And now she knew what the talismans would do, if all worked the same as the first.
Before too long, Anise and Cane came upon two rabbits who hopped closer to Anise. They had encountered birds and squirrels and other rabbits. But Cane barked and chased those others. This time, he only growled so low and quietly that Anise could barely hear it, just as he had with the gazelle. She gave him a ginger cake to eat. He gobbled it up. And when she left two more for the rabbits, so did they.
The rabbits froze just like the gazelle. Green mists poured from their mouths and nostrils, just like the gazelle. Cane picked the talismans for them. When Anise placed the talismans, the mists formed the figures of two young men whose scalps were smooth, like those of the devout temple men. They too were leeched of color. They too bore the talismans on their chests. Anise feared what would happen if the other umbra found their fellows, frozen and hung with binding talismans. She feared that they might find a way to remove the talismans and revive the gazelle and rabbit umbra.
Twilight had fallen, and Anise could wait no longer. She lit the torch and waited for her grandmother to appear. It was only a few moments, and the torch burned brightly, but Anise was ready to give up on seeing her grandmother, when the wispy form began to appear and take shape. Anise told her grandmother about the three umbra she had trapped, or hoped she had trapped. Her grandmother nodded and told her to keep the torch lit.
They walked for a long while, then Anise’s grandmother told her that she had seen two more umbra, but they were keeping their distance. Perhaps they had seen their frozen companions. Umbra traveled fast in their spirit forms, as fast as the wind. If the two umbra who were following her now had seen Anise’s work, they no doubt sought vengeance. But they also would no doubt be cautious.
Her grandmother had an idea. She bid Anise to plant the torch in the ground. Then Anise spread some of the meat she had brought for Cane’s provisions around the torch. Anise climbed up a tree and watched, while Cane hid nearby, unhappy to have lost his food, but trusting his companion nonetheless. The umbra sensed a human spirit by the low-burning torch, and they smelled the meat. They were cautious and might have resisted the ginger cakes. But in their current forms, two wolves, the meat was enough to tempt them and lull them. Only three paces from the meat, half a dozen ginger cakes sat upon the ground.
The wolves, one snowy white and one black as night, sniffed and sniffed the cakes. Anise held her breath, wondering if she had sacrificed Cane’s dinner for naught.
Then one of the wolves gulped down a ginger cake, then another. The other wolf watched, and Anise knew that she was defeated. For the second wolf would see what happened to the first, and she would flee.
But then Cane came bounding into out of the woods. He made for the cakes, but the wolf who had eaten none growled and yipped at Cane, who tried again to steal the cakes. The wolf gulped them down before Cane could try again. She had been too occupied with the dog to notice that her companion had frozen in place and the umbra within the first wolf was oozing out.
Anise scrambled down the tree. She watched as the second wolf froze. Cane lapped up the one ginger cake that was uneaten. He indicated the talisman that belonged to each umbra, and Anise placed the talismans into the oozing shadows.
The wolves leapt away from the shadows. They turned to Anise, with a look of thanks it seemed, and then they turned and raced off.
The umbra took form, turning solid and stony. Both were woman, one quite young, whose hair shown black until the color drained from it. The other was older, her hair so bright and white that turning to stone actually seemed to impart some color into it.
This time, her grandmother was there to see the turning, and to see the statues.
“Well done,” the ghost said.
Cane lolled his tongue and wagged his tail.
But all three knew it was not yet done. One more remained. It was not long before they came upon the last of the umbra.
It was full night, and despite the near-full moon, the forest was all shadows upon shadows. Anise had stopped when she saw Cane stop. The stood at the edge of a clearing. On the opposite side of that clearing, a hulking shape emerged from the wall of shadows. Anise froze, but Cane padded forth and placed himself between her and the shape that was three times his size at the least. The torch’s light grew brighter and the moon’s light shown down into the clearing and onto the great golden cat with honey-golden eyes.
Anise felt a shudder in her very soul. She had never seen such a cat. She was transfixed by the cat’s eyes. She could have moved, yet she did not.
The cat’s movements were deliberate and easy as he circled her. Cane walked alongside him. Anise followed the cat’s eyes. Suddenly, the cat stopped and faced her. His muscles tensed. He leapt and Cane leapt. They collided and fell to the ground. Cane was no match for the cat. It would crush him, tear him into tatters. Anise heard a voice crying out at her. It was her grandmother, telling her to throw the torch. Anise turned to the ghost and it cried out again. Dog and cat tumbled across the forest floor, swiping and biting.
Anise drew back her hand and threw the torch at both. “Cane!” she cried.
Cane rolled away as the torch struck the golden cat in its neck. The flames brightened and the cat dashed away. Anise ran to Cane. There were red gashes along his left side, but he seemed unfazed by them. He bounded after the cat.
Anise stopped to gather up the torch and the basket containing the last talisman and the last of the ginger cakes. She ran after Cane.
The golden cat was nowhere to be seen. Anise found Cane growling at a figure who lay against the roots of a great oak. Cane’s growl was no longer a low and quiet growl, and every so often, he barked. The figure at the roots of the tree was a woman. Her robes were the color of sunset, or had been before they’d been charred by fire. The skin of her bare arms was burned, raw and red. The left side of her neck and under her chin were likewise badly burned.
“The cat was an illusion,” her grandmother said as she appeared beside Anise. But Anise had reasoned that out for herself.
The woman looked familiar. Anise recognized her as one of the town elders. She was also one of the challengers of winter. She had taken the challenge many years before, when Anise’s mother was the age Anise was now. The woman had risen to the position of town elder before Anise’s mother and father met.
She had been one of the umbra all along.
The woman pushed herself up against the trunk of the tree, keeping her eye on the most dangerous being she now faced, Cane. Her golden gaze flicked up to Anise for just a heartbeat. Then she looked down at Cane again. Anise pulled the talisman out of its covering, and now the woman looked up at her, eyes wide and flashing with desperate rage. She was cornered. So she tried to run.
She only managed a few steps before Cane leapt and knocked her down. The woman cried out. Anise ran over, dropped to her knees, and pressed the talisman to the woman’s throat. She tried to think how she might force the woman to eat one of the ginger cakes. The woman reached up, grasped the talisman, and threw it aside.
“This host is dying,” the woman said in a gruff voice, her golden eyes flashing. “I must possess another.”
Anise had a ginger cake in her left hand. The talisman was out of her reach. She readied herself to cram the ginger cake in her mouth in the hopes of blocking the umbra from entering.
But the woman turned her face toward Cane, who still sat upon her, pinning her shoulders to the ground. The woman opened her mouth wide and craned her neck up toward Cane’s snout, as if she would breathe fire upon him.
Terrified, Anise jammed the ginger cake into Cane’s nose. He jerked back, then caught the cake before it could fall. In the midst of their battle, Cane joyfully ate the cake in three chews and licked the crumbs from his nose.
The umbra turned her face away from Cane and back toward Anise, who fell back and reached for her basket. She felt the breath leave her, and something else filled her lungs. Something cold like mist, thick and sticky, like sap. But she could not see it. If the umbra was leaving the woman’s body, Anise could not see. She flipped around and searched for the basket. She saw the torch first. The flame was extinguished, but she crawled toward it and grasped the tip. The flame burst to life and a soft yellowy white mist formed before her. Around her appeared a shadowy green mist. Anise understood, the green shadow was the umbra. The warm yellow mist was her grandmother. She felt her lungs empty of the sticky mist as the umbra was pulled away by the whirling vortex of her grandmother’s ghost. Anise gasped for breath.
Cane padded up toward her. In his mouth was the final talisman.
A yellow face formed with the battling mists. The face struggled to emerge and form into a head.
“Around my neck!” her grandmother said. “I cannot hold him for long!”
Anise feared her grandmother would be trapped in stone with the umbra. She found the basket with the few remaining silver ginger cakes. She packed the cakes in the dimly burning torch. Hoping to somehow help her grandmother, Anise jabbed the torch into the umbra’s swirling shadows . A flame burst out so bright and hot that Anise jumped back and held her hand to her chest. The shadows began to condense and take form. Holding the talisman, she plunged her hand into the shadow and pulled it out as shadow turned solid, leeched of color, forming into a bearded man whose expression was not angry or wicked, but only thoughtful.
“Gran!” Anise called. There was no sign of her grandmother in the stony blue statue before her. But she still feared.
Cane barked and Anise turned to him. She followed his gaze, for he seemed to be looking at nothing. When a swirling of yellowy white mist appeared in the clearing, Anise caught her breath.
Anise and Cane watched the mist for a long while. The ghost of her grandmother must have been greatly weakened by her battle with the umbra. Anise packed mud against Cane’s wounds. They were shallower than she had feared. At last, the buttery yellow mist took shape, a most welcome shape. Cane barked and wagged his tale as he circled the ghost.
“I only just defeated an umbra,” the ghost said. “Now I am beset by mud monsters?”
Anise wished she could embrace her grandmother. A great weariness descended upon her. She would have lain down on the forest floor to rest if that stone statue were not nearby.
“How can we know if they are truly vanquished?” Anise asked, watching the statue.
“That you cannot do,” her grandmother said. “The forest must reclaim them. But we will know that you have succeeded in stopping them, little leaf, when the weather turns wet and cold again. They made a world of spring and summer, for it was their pleasure and it was in their power. Now what they held back will return.”
Anise peered at the candle for a long moment before trying to light it. She had Cane with her in her room. She had been trying to light the candle for three nights. It would not light. The candle had been bent and broken from all the times she had dropped the torch. Anise had repaired it, but she still wondered if she had done something wrong.
Or her grandmother had passed on. A flash of light burst in the sky. Thunder cracked, and Cane released an involuntary whine. Anise stroked his head as she watched the rain pour down outside her window. She had never before seen such a downpour. The days were growing colder. Anise felt a chill in the air she had never before felt. It was not a gentle chill, but it lifted much of the burden that Anise still felt upon her soul.
She had first noticed it, with worry and then delight, when Cane panted. His hot breath formed white mist when it met the cold air. After a few more days of trying to light the candle, Anise would have to accept that her grandmother had passed on. But the cold had given her a way to remember.
She opened her mouth and panted like Cane. She smiled as she watched the white mist form. Cane barked and his breath formed more mist. Anise laughed and silently bid her grandmother well on her next journey.
Copyright © 2016. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Umbra” by Sanjay Patel.