The stones chimed, the wall behind Osh burst into light, and Vash was briefly deaf and blind.

Nevertheless he knew Kraaia was not there.

Nevertheless he knew Kraaia was not there. The chord that rang in the rocks was high and severe, neither a peal of joy nor a sepulchral gong. Osh had found nothing. Kraaia was neither alive nor dead.

The sound faded into a hum that let Vash hear the tramp of his own feet in the crystalline dust, like a whispered, “Osh… Osh…” with every step.

He stopped, startled, as another stone hissed from ceiling to floor and spat a mist of blue light behind Osh’s head.

He stopped, startled.

Osh slumped and sobbed weakly, “Kraaia!”

Flakes of light fell over him like snow and melted in the darkness of his mighty shadow. The walls rang with cackling echoes of her name.

“We will find her, Osh,” Vash murmured. His promise seemed oddly inaudible: the ringing walls scarcely reflected his voice, and it faded in the air.

Osh only glanced at him, and then he leapt over a low rock and hurled himself at the crack in the depths of the cave.

“What’s back here?” he wailed. His cry rippled down the ribbed walls and echoed back as a warbling bird-​​chatter.

'What's back here?'

Vash yanked him out before he had stuck more than his arm and shoulder into the hole, fearing the earth itself would yield to his desperation and let him pass, only to close over his despair and hold him forever.

“She isn’t back there,” Vash soothed. “She can’t possibly fit through there. Paul and I tried when we were younger than she.”

'She isn't back there.'

“But she’s so small!” Osh whimpered.

He held out his finger and thumb to pinch an imaginary miniature girl between them; and once he had seen how absurd that seemed, he held out his two hands to cup something of the size of the face of an imaginary little girl.

Vash pulled him close and stared until he saw it too.

Vash pulled him close and stared until he saw it too.

“So small,” Osh whispered. Even his whispers were echoed by the cave like water hissing over sand. “And she believes she is so big.”

The throbbing glow of the walls haloed his shadowy hands like moonlight shining between the dark branches of firs. The only color in the cave was the blue of her eyes.

“So small…” Osh repeated. He lifted a cupped hand almost to Vash’s lips, as if to make him drink. “She slips through my fingers, every time, every time I get this close.”

He choked, and his hand slid around the back of Vash’s neck to pull their heads together.

He choked, and his arm slid around the back of Vash's neck to pull their heads together.

Vash tightened his arm around Osh’s shaking shoulder, but his other limbs were leaden. One of the muscles of his throat seemed to have slipped its mooring; he swallowed and swallowed and its tightness was uneased.

“We will find her,” he whispered.

His lips brushed Osh’s sleeve, recalling childhood sorrows cried into into Osh’s shoulder. He reminded himself sternly that this was Osh’s night to cry, but he went on lipping the fabric even after he had finished speaking, trying to find his old childish comfort there. Now that he was grown his stubble scraped over the weave.

Osh whimpered shakily, “The world is so big…”

At the sound of his voice veins of quartz tinkled like frost expanding in the walls. Mothlike sparks of blue whizzed and darted out of the glow and fizzled in the dust at Osh’s feet. Vash stared into the blinding light until he saw something he had not seen.

Vash stared into the blinding light until he saw something he had not seen.

“She was here, Osh,” he whispered.

Osh lifted his head. “How do you know, my boy?” he asked wistfully.

Vash pointed.

Gradually the weight of Osh’s body was lifted from his shoulder, but Vash did not move until Osh gently pushed him off. His shuffling feet hissed through the frost.

A wheel of cheese lay proudly upon the bowl that Vash and Kiv had pounded into a hole in the rock when they had been younger than Kraaia.

A wheel of cheese lay proudly upon the bowl.

“You don’t suppose we forgot it here last time?” Vash asked.

Osh snorted. “You forget cheese?” he scoffed.

The stones multiplied the echoes of his soft voice into laughter. Flocks of mothlike sparks flew up and dusted Vash’s cloak with their luminous wings.

Vash reached out and touched the cheese so carefully that the wobbly bowl failed to wobble. Its cut surface was furred with a fine frost, but he could feel the liquid moisture in the heart of it, and even a faint, waxen warmth.

'It's not been here long.'

“It’s not been here long,” he announced.

He picked up the cheese, making the bowl clank in its socket, and held it between his hands as he stood.

“No more than…” he began.

He found he did not need to finish. Kraaia had been missing for four or five hours. By the time Vash and Osh had reached the cave, enough snow had fallen to erase even the traces of her trace. If she had not found other shelter, so much snow had since fallen upon her head. If she did not find shelter, so much more snow would fall upon her body by the morning.

So much more snow would fall upon her body by the morning.

“Why didn’t she stay?” Vash whispered. His throat was beginning to ache. Its many muscles were slipping off their stays. “Did she think I wouldn’t come?”

“Perhaps she feared you would,” Osh said gravely.

“Then why did she leave this?”

He tapped the heavy cheese against his palm. It was the sort he liked – hard and salty – but the back of his throat seemed to have turned to cold stone.

“Did she truly believe I could eat this?” he squeaked.

Osh murmured, “That is not why.”

'That is not why.'

“Then why? I don’t know how I shall ever eat cheese again.”

“That is why.”

Vash glanced into Osh’s face, but he looked just as quickly away. He decided he did not want to know why.

He rubbed the cut edge of the cheese until the frost began to melt and his fingertips were oily.

“Perhaps she left it for my gods,” he said. “She thinks this is an elven church.”

'Perhaps she left it for my gods.'

He realized he was speaking loudly, as she had, to hide her fear.

“Perhaps I should put this back,” he added.

For a moment he imagined he would: he would lay the cheese so carefully down that the bowl would not wobble, and back quietly out of the cave; and in a few hours the wind would have erased their footsteps in the crystalline dust, and the snow would have filled in the hoofprints of their horses. In no time at all the light would have died.

'She does not believe in your gods, my boy.'

Then Osh tugged on his sleeve and pulled his ear close.

“She does not believe in your gods, my boy. She believes in you.”

“But I never asked her to!” Vash protested.

“One does not ask for that.”

'One does not ask for that.'