n one night alone, when autumn is dying its colourful death to make way for the chill paleness of winter, all the Mohrior vanish. The food left out for them remains untouched until sunset of the next day and those few magi who have managed to form bonds with the creatures find themselves lost and alone in the woods when they try to follow previously known trails. Children pass the shadows in corners and under heavy evergreen trees without a second glance, and in keeps and towns they go from door to door in costume, asking for treats.
The reaction to my desire to search out the Mohrior on this night that they disappear has not been particularly positive. The High Mages have told me to leave well enough alone and that one night without the Mohrior is a blessing, but I can't keep myself from asking why. I believe that everything happens for a reason and I intend to find out what that reason is, no matter how mad my fellow mages might think me.
Through research in the library and correspondence with magi in other keeps around the world, as well as my own observations, I have come to the conclusion that the Mohrior must gather someplace secret and hidden from our eyes. This may not be so different from their normal behaviour, but I believe that this place they go to on the cusp of the cold dead days is a special one that even Mohrior themselves cannot go to except on this one special night. I will find out what they do there--and why.
On the morning of the autumn festival I eat breakfast alone and bring my scraps to the Serendin that guards my workshop, giving it an absent scratch under the chin before I pack my notes, some warm clothes, and an extra blanket. When I leave the keep, after fetching food from the kitchen, the sun is halfway up in a cloudless blue sky, but its pale light offers little warmth. Hitching my pack higher on my shoulders, I start on the trail that leads into Silva Forest, ducking my head against a gust of cold wind that swirls bright leaves around my legs. A group of children, already in costume, run past me with shrieks and giggles, followed by a motley pack of direwolf and Tenera dog puppies. There are still food offerings set out for the Mohrior; no one trusts their absence, no matter how many years it has happened.
The bustle fades behind me as I enter the outskirts of the woods, passing under heavy branches still laden with red and gold leaves. A few drop past me and I brush one off my shoulder, kicking through another pile that has drifted across the path. The silence is welcome at first but begins to weigh heavily on me the further into the woods I go, once the sunlight is mostly blocked by the thick canopy. If I was the type I would whistle or sing to myself, but I am not; and it would frighten off the creature I have come to find.
I sit in my usual spot on an old stump, easily wide enough to serve as a table, near the creature's den, and settle in to wait, wondering if the Mohrior hatchling I've been feeding will appear today. It is shy at the best of times, staying in the shadows and appearing just long enough to snatch up the food I bring it, making no attempt to befriend me.
Despite the cold I doze off, my chin dropping onto my chest, and when I drift back to consciousness, stiff and sore from my hunched position, I become aware of a solid, disturbingly warm weight in my lap. I open my eyes to find the skeletal head of a jet-black foal resting across my thighs, closed eyes sunken and cheeks hollow. The rest of its body lies stretched out across the stump, thin tail draped over its narrow flank. When I jerk back, startled despite myself, it opens one glowing yellow eye and rolls it towards me, nostrils flaring pink in the thin muzzle.
Moving away from me, it gets its feet under it, straightening up awkwardly on crooked hocks. It backs away until its dark body fades mostly into the shadows, leaving little more than the yellow of its eyes visible, its nostrils flaring against as it audibly sniffs. I'm a little horrified to find my hand shaking as I reach into my pack and toss the Mohrior some of the food I brought; only a little, enough to keep the hatchling's attention and leave it wanting more--though Mohrior always want more.
A glance up at what sky is visible through the tree branches tells me that the time is creeping towards mid-afternoon. The sun will start to set soon, and if I'm lucky the Mohrior will leave at dusk to join its brethren and it will allow me to follow it. Shifting my weight gingerly, I toss the Mohrior another little scrap and wait, pulling my coat close around my shoulders. The rest of the afternoon passes slowly but I don't dare sleep again; those glowing yellow eyes in the steadily deepening shadows do well to help keep me awake. The sun finally begins to sink down towards the horizon and the Mohrior stirs, stretching out its long neck. A shiver travels through its skinny body and its skin drops away to reveal the shaggy black form of a starving, slavering wolf with a hunched back and hipbones jutting out through its fur.
It slinks away into the undergrowth and I hurry to follow, knowing that this is the moment my plans could all go to waste. The Mohrior glances back at me with glowing red eyes, then continues into the forest, slipping in and out of my sight like a ghost, always just on the edge of my vision. I'm forced to concentrate so hard on the Mohrior that I don't see the tree root until I trip over it and sprawl on my belly hard enough to knock the air from my lungs and drive my teeth into my lower lip. I think I've lost the Mohrior when I look up and it's no longer there, but as I push myself to my feet and spit out blood from my torn lip, I see the glimmer of its red eyes and the shine of its teeth, as though it's laughing at me.
It leads me on and on as the night deepens, until I stumble in exhaustion, aware that I am deeper into the forest than I have ever been before. The trees are huge and ancient, towering above me like dark sentinels, only their uppermost branches gilded silver by the light of the moon, now drifting in and out of dark clouds. Everything below that only grows progressively darker and I have to stop, breathing hard, when I can no longer see much more than a short distance in front of my face. Sweat trickles down my spin and I shift my pack, telling myself that I am not afraid, even of being left in the deep woods in the middle of the night, knowing that there are Mohrior out there.
I look around at that thought, wondering if I've only been led here to be left lost, then spot the gleam of the Mohrior's eyes, beckoning me forward. I follow and reach the edge of a clearing so suddenly I can barely stop myself from stumbling out into the open. I catch myself on a tree and watch my guide trot out to join the others of its kind where they lie sprawled around in the open, under the intermittent moonlight. None of them look towards me, though I have no doubt that they are aware of me and have been since even before my graceless near-entrance. Taking a deep breath, I try to calm the butterfly flutter of my heartbeat and settle in to watch, excitement beginning to replace the nervous tension gripping me.
Nothing happens for so long that my eyes grow heavy. I'm beginning to think that nothing will happen - that the Mohrior simply spend this night communing in silence deep within the forest, when one by one they begin to rise, shedding their wolf skins to reveal long-legged hares with crooked ears and staring blue eyes like lightning across a black sky. The moon drifts out from behind the clouds and I see it glow on the dull white of bones scattered around the clearing. Between these bones the Mohrior begin to dance, stilted steps on their hind legs, long teeth bared to the light of the moon.
I take a step out from the shelter of the trees, my legs moving in jerky motions to carry me forward, whether I want to go or not. The Mohrior move around me and I fall to my knees, turning my face up to the cold eye of the moon where it stares uncaring from the starless night sky. All around me the Mohrior dance, nodding and bowing to music I almost think I can hear if I only concentrate a little harder. I close my eyes to listen, feeling the Mohrior press in closer, thick heavy fur brushing my skin, covering my nose and mouth and eyes and ears until all is black and silent but for the distant lilt of the music calling me to it.
When I open my eyes again, dawn is breaking over the tops of the trees. We stir and begin to fade into the still-heavy shadows beneath the surrounding trunks. There is a mound of clothing and an old pack near me, torn to shreds, and for a moment I think I see long, pale fingers beneath them before I lose interest and make my way into the forest.
It is a long way back to the keep.
And I am so hungry.