Murikeer stepped through the shimmering curtain of magics which defined the entrance to his cavern one last time, setting his bow and quiver down upon the pile of provisions he would need for his journey. He thought he would need, at any rate. He suspected he had far too much of some things and far too little of others, but what he had would have to suffice.
Kneeling, he lifted the last large stone from what had been a pile to one side, and turned back. Walking to the shimmering illusion of vine and moss encrusted granite, he shoved the stone atop the others already stacked up in the entrance. They did not seal his home, but they created enough of a barrier to keep out larger forest creatures and curious Lutins. The illusion merely masked the artificial look of the heaped stone, and he further masked that by pulling the branches of a bush across the entrance. He had carefully left that bush alone over the past years, tying branches out of the way rather than cutting them. Handy foresight on his part had warned him that he may need the camouflage of those branches one day.
Such as this day.
Stepping back, he examined his home. It no longer had the appearance he had become so used to over the past two years. The dark crack between the towering granite boulders was now gone, masked by magic and nature to appear a seamless part of the smaller boulder. Only the slab of stone jutting out of the hillside some thirty feet away made the clearing familiar to him. The slab upon which he had meditated countless times, in sun or rain or when he simply felt too cramped; lost and forgotten in his cavern home.
Not that the stones would miss him. GrimShori did not even come at his call, to bid farewell. He was mortal, a spark in the endless time of her existence. Keletikt would quickly understand the meaning of the bush and stones if he came visiting, knowing Muri to have left... either for a brief time, or forever. The illusion would never fade while life flowed through the bones of the land, bound to the small node of energy under the meditation stone.
Muri bent and gathered up his belongings. A bandoleer, since his hips were no longer suitably conformed for the use of a belt. The bandoleer held his knives, rope, and other things he felt he might need at a moment's notice. He shrugged into his pack, which held everything else. Food, bedding, spare bits of esoteric items he needed for his magics, one of his precious tomes, spare tips for arrows and spears, and balms for sore feet and shoulders.
It was going to be a long walk, he knew already, and he would be needing those power enhanced salves. Slinging his bow over his shoulder and taking up his walking staff, he paused and looked back once more. His heart seemed to shrink, sending an ache through his chest as a feeling of loss crept into him. He did not know how long he was going to be gone, and this was the only place that felt like 'home' to him, the only comfort and stability he had been able to find since the first days of his change.
And it was his, utterly and wholly, like a friend and boon companion; yet he was leaving it behind at the behest of an apparition in a dream. Still he felt the insistent pull left by that dream, unerringly tugging him to the north and west, irregardless of his own feelings.
Suppressing the lump in his throat and the ache in his heard, he faded with ghostly silence into the underbrush surrounding his clearing, the black and white tip of his tail dodging a quick flick before vanishing into the shadows.
Unseen upon the stone slab, a man sat with his legs crossed, hands resting palm up and loose upon either knee. A wild mop of tangle, windblown hair whispered around his weather-beaten face as he nodded slowly and smiled, green eyes glimmering once like twin emeralds before he too faded from sight, leaving the clearing as it had been found, two years past; silent and empty.
For days Murikeer trudged doggedly north, his path curving slightly toward the west. He walked with his head up and alert, dark eyes watching the forest around him for any sign of danger. Giants had become far more common in the past months, as had Lutins, though he never saw them. He only knew the presence of Lutins by their forgotten firepits and the circles of trampled ground left by their camps.
He gauged he was covering perhaps six leagues in a day, pushed on by the nagging, eerie sense of impending doom that tingled through his nerves, heightening his awareness and speeding up his step. Like a ghost he moved through the dim shadows beneath the thick oarwood canopy, following game trails to mask his footprints since he was moving too swiftly to do so himself. He left those areas that were familiar to him after three days, passing into territory only partially known and very seldom traveled. He slowed then, becoming more cautious.
The insistent sixth sense warning of danger and destruction screamed through his body, urging haste, but he knew haste would be fatal in its inherent carelessness. Eventually he grew used to the constant urge to run, subjugating it, forcing it from his perception with the tight mental control he had learned both from father and mentor.
Then, on the fourth day, he came to the edges of the Murk.
He was not sure of the true name for the place, if indeed it had a name. Here the forest became darker, oarwoods giving over to ancient and twisted oaks and alder, ghostly pale aspen and birch. An eerie, haunting pall hung about the place, the trilling songs of birds giving over to the disquieting croak of ravens. Crows scolded him from the branches of a birch as he slowed, then stopped.
The draw pulled him directly toward the depths of the Murk, a place he had never before traveled. His father had described such places in the forest to him, where oaks make great, dark caverns with low slung limbs and dangling mosses. The haven of the dark creatures, the kracken, the darkstalkers and moondogs. Followers of Lilith or simply those too twisted and sinister to find the shine of the sunlight to be comforting. Dark clerics dedicated to the shadows came to these places to make benedictions to gods best left unnamed, to pray with the blood and pain of innocents.
Here the energy ran dark and twisted, surging through the earth in fits like the breathing of a dying man. It felt wrong to Muri's magical senses, corrupt, like a sickness upon the land. Yet these places existed to balance, he knew. Where there was light, there must also be darkness. The Murk, for all its sinister darkness and corrupted air, was merely another aspect of nature's balance.
Yet it was a place he would not travel, no matter ihown sharply the draw pulled and tugged and screamed through his nerves. He ignored the raucous calls of angered crows, turning directly west and setting off again, keeping to the lighter shadows of the oarwoods. His senses were even more alert, his caution trebled, for here he skirted the lands of Lilith, the nemesis of the goddess he followed. To be enraptured by her sinister call was to lose one's very soul.
After a few hours of skirting the very edges of the Murk, Muri happened to glance down, coming to a sudden halt at what his eyes crossed. It was nothing more than a single arrowhead forged of gleaming steel, unblemished by rust or tarnish. It was a peculiar arrow, but one he had seen before. Keletikt had shown him a few, calling the Keeper's arrows. They were forged in Metamor, the keep guarding the southern end of the only passes through the mountains, and often used only by them. Those that the Lutins managed to scrounge were turned into other things; trophies usually. Sometimes they were smelted and forged into other things.
What one was doing here, lying atop fresh fallen leaves in the center of literally nowhere, came as something of a surprise to Muri. That he should actually find it was an even greater surprise. It had not been there long. A few hours, perhaps, less than a day. Muri took a step back and looked at the ground around the fallen arrowhead to determine who may have been carrying it, and how many there were.
The first things that came to him were the ruts left by a heavy wagon, then the hoofprints of the two animals that pulled the wagon. The wheels were shod in iron, by the pattern of the ruts, and the horses shod as well. Along either side of the wagon ruts were large, deep footprints. Giants, five of them, and another horse. Lighter than the two drays, but shod, and not carrying a great deal of weight, most likely a single lightly armoured rider.
Suddenly he stood, his gaze following the direction of the wagon's travels... which led into the Murk. Turning, ignoring the sudden icy shiver that raced down his back, urging him to turn around, toward the north. His goal was not to the east, it was not in the Murk, but east he went anyway. Something else, something altogether different from his dream induced directives caused him to change his path. From that day until the day of his demise, he would never know exactly what turned him east... but he would come to find out why.
Quelling the unease that settled into his very bones as he moved deeper into the forbidding shadows of the Murk, Muri stepped off the path left by the wagon. It was a rarely traveled path, he could tell, but it was a path created by many years of occasional use. No bush or weed choked the narrow defile through the closely growing trees, no branch came lower than the height of two men across the path. It seemed as if this pathway was protected and fostered by the very forest itself, an impression that did not sit well with the nervous skunk.
He walked off the pathway, following to one side through the forest, ducking from huge oak to oak, hiding in the dense shadows. Huge, fat spiders filled the gaps between the trees with their thick, cloying webs, forcing Muri to hold aloft a branch to clear them away. Small, unseen things rustled away at his step, chittering or hissing at him from shadowed holes. He moved in a crouch, his hackles rising as his tail twitched and darted behind him, every hair standing on end. The sharp, acrid bite of his musk filtered through the trees around him, heightened by his own gnawing fear, but he would not turn back.
Eventually he found the wagon. He had come so far into the Murk that each step was a challenge, the urge to turn back was almost more powerful than the urge to go forward was. When it seemed he might finally give in, he spotted the quiet, still silhouette of the cage. He could only see the top, thick undergrowth barred his sight any lower. Stopping where he was he stared at the rather drab, dark roof of the wagon, which did not move. He could smell the horses, the fitful breeze whispering through the trees favoring him.
He could also smell the telltale, pungent odor of giants, of wood and axle grease. But he heard no speaking, no movement beyond the bushes save for the occasional stamp of a heavy hoof. The wagon team, still hitched to their load. Muri carefully set aside pack, bow, and quiver. Glancing up, he spied a sturdy, low hanging branch and carefully pulled himself up onto it, then another slightly higher. Each movement was slow, his attention divided between moving and watching for activity around the wagon.
There was none. He ascended to a height that provided him a view of the wagon from roof to earth, and crouched there upon that branch as silently as any mouse, and examined the scene. One hand grasped the wood between his feet while the other rested against the trunk of the huge oak, his tail tucked down, loosely circling the branch upon which he stood.
He saw but one giant, seated against the side of the wagon, chin tucked to chest, arms crossed over his ponderous gut as he slept. The huge, midnight black creatures that were hitched to the wagon looked like horses well enough, but the strange inkiness of their coats and the hard lines made him think they were something far, far more sinister. And when he spied one of their eyes, he shuddered, for it was as vivid orange as a hot coal and seemed to burn with a fire of its own.
Within the wagon was a mink.
Muri may have passed that over after a single glance, but something about the creature curled in the bottom of the massive, secure cage made him look again. It appeared, as it had at first glance, to be nothing more than a rather large mink. He watched, silently perched in the tree, ravens occasionally croaking their raucous cry from deeper into the forest. Several long minutes past before the mink moved, its head coming up and peering out between two bars. It's nose twitched, whiskers angling forward, then folding back as the wind shifted, swirling around the small opening in the forest in which the wagon was parked, taking Muri's scent toward them.
The giant never noticed, deeply asleep. The horses snorted and champed at their bits, ember eyes rolling as they tossed their heads and looked about. The mink stood up.
Not like a mink should, not on four legs. Rather, it stood up on itwon legs, and very nearly sent Muri toppling from his perch in amazement. The mink was not a iminkn, but rather a mink like Muri was a skunk. It... she, was tall, slender, and rather amazed to peer into the forest to see him perched in the tree a stone's throw away. Their eyes met and locked, both freezing where they were, both equally shocked, for several long breaths. Then she glanced down at the giant sleeping below her cage, then back up to Muri, who had yet to move.
She was... she was an animal, just as he was. Not truly an animal, but not truly a human. Changed just as he. It was true, then? Had what Heiorn told him been the truth after all? Was there indeed an entire kingdom populated with those who had been changed just as he had?
He blinked, dashing those thoughts as they chased themselves around his head like a manic dog chasing its own tail. She stared at him, then rolled her eyes at his apparent stupefaction, making an expansive gesture down at the giant, then her cage, looking exasperated. Muri blinked again, then nodded, and dropped silently from his perch.
Backtracking his steps a short distance, he stepped out onto the cart path, holding his pickaxe in one hand. He figured that whomever had been driving the cage had gone further into the forest for some reason, leaving one guard... and taking the only key to the wagon with them. So he was going to need help opening the cage to free its prisoner. He cleared his throat, leaning on the haft of his pick.
The giant did not stir. The lady mink looked at him as if he were mad, then cast a look over her shoulder, further into the Murk. Muri chittered to himself and stepped closer.
"HAI!" he barked loudly, the voice coming out sounding like a shrill burr. The giant flinched and grunted a bit, then settled back into his rest as the mink rolled her eyes and made rapid hand gestures at him for silence. Muri moved closer, "You there, stupid!" he snapped, picking up a small stone and tossing it at the giant, "Wake up!" he burred as the stone plunked from the giant's cheek.
The hulk stirred then, bringing a hand up to his cheek and blinking his eyes open. Those huge, stone grey orbs settled immediately upon the skunk standing imperiously some fifteen feet away, glaring at him. With a curse and a grunt, the giant heaved himself to his feet and snatched up the huge mallet propped against the front of the wagon. Waving it threateningly, the giant advanced.
Muri smiled and nodded, grinning wide enough to show most of his teeth, and backed slowly away from the giant, waving his own, much smaller, weapon in return, "That's it you big brainless dope, come get me." he taunted, circling toward the side, his tail swirling behind him as if he were an agitated, monochromatic squirrel. The giant roared and took a huge... startlingly huge, step toward him and swung his mallet with enough force to crush the skunk.
Had the skunk been standing there to receive it, at any rate. Muri hopped to one side, the whistle of the mallet stirring his fur as it passed ineffectively short. Muri grinned up at the bruin and hopped back a bit as the giant recovered from his swing, bringing the mallet back for another go. Muri ducked and made a short dash toward the wagon. He came up short and hopped back as the mallet made a crater a couple feet deep directly in his path, "Not bad, moron." he burred as he turned, his tail flashing in a circular arc as he bent at the waist and gave the giant a small example of what skunks do best.
The giant let out an angry bellow and staggered back, slapping at his chest where Muri's spray had contacted. The sharp reek quickly filled the air as Muri dodged for the wagon, avoiding the now very agitated horses as he clambered up one wheel. Grasping the bars, he smiled at the rather startled mink, who covered her nose and shifted to the far side of the cage, watching the giant, "Heyla." Muri smiled, watching the giant recover out of the corner of his vision. He waved the fingers of one hand at the mink as her gaze came back to focus on him, "Murikeer." he chittered amiably as he sidestepped along the outside of the cage, turning his attention toward the giant who had recovered his mallet and was advancing rapidly, cocking the huge weapon back over his shoulder.
"I'd duck." he advised as he turned an open mouthed hiss at the giant, turning as if to spray again. The giant was not going to give him the chance. Raising the massive mallet over his shoulder, the giant brought it swinging down and across, intending to make pate~ out of the annoying creature. Muri let out a long, trailing string of animalistic curses and leapt from the cage a mere heartbeat before the mallet struck home. Wood groaned and snapped, the iron bars letting out tortured squeals as they bent and were ripped out of their brackets. The sound of clattering metal filled the clearing as Muri hastily scampered under the protective cover of the wagon, coming to his feet on the other side.
His task completed, the giant was a liability. The expression on Muri's muzzle went from taunt to pure determination as he darted out from the opposite side of the wagon, brining up his pickaxe. The giant, rather chagrinned at the destruction he had wrought upon the wagon, barely looked up in time as Muri closed on him. Trying to disengage his mallet from the wreckage of the cage, the giant's arms were occupied, and he never had a chance to raise them in defense as the pick came in. Swung from below, aiming upward, the pointed tip of the weapon caught him in the center of his chest. A bright flash and a loud crack accentuated the sounds of metal and wood as the giant bellowed, staggering back and clutching at the bloody ruin that had been his chest.
Muri pursued, whispering a rapid incantation as he brought the pick up for the final strike. Runes glimmered brightly as the incantation was reattuned to the weapon, ready once again to split stone. Or bone, as Muri would have it. The giant crashed back against a tree, the life already fading from his eyes as his life'sblood poured from the cavern in his chest. Muri's second blow was aimed more precisely, striking the side of the giant's head as it slumped. Light flashed and the sharp crack of the discharged magic covered the last gurgling cry of the doomed giant.
Muri jerked his weapon free, regarding his victim for a moment as his breath sang through his nose and whistled past bared teeth. He heard movement from the wagon and turned, raising the pick in preparation for an assault from a guard he had not seen. The horses squealed and jerked at their traces, but the wagonbrake prevented them from dragging the shattered contraption into the forest. The mink was pulling herself through the ragged rent in the side of the cage and Muri hastened over to lend a hand.
"Yeah, okay." she muttered as he helped her down, staring at the giant in amazement, "I'm... I'm Llyn." she offered without looking at him, extending a paw. Muri looked down, amazed to see five fingers where a mink's paw should have been. Five furred fingers, admittedly, blunter than his own, but likewise tipped with short claws and sheathed in fur, but fingers nonetheless. He clasped her hand and nodded.
"Well met, miss." he churred as he glanced back at the giant, still slowly slumping against the tree as his body relaxed in death. At least the blood had ceased flowing, which was a small blessing. The stench of it already permeated the clearing, driving the horses into a frenzy. "We need to go."
She blinked, then nodded, moving to the rear of the wagon and digging through a pile of odds and ends. Eventually she brought out a rough leather jerkin, a swordbelt, and a shortsword. Muri finally came to the rather amazed conclusion that, like him, she was wearing no clothing. Whether she did that of her own choice, or because her captors had removed it, he had no idea.
Considering her current appearance, he felt he should have looked away while she rooted about the pile of oddments for her possessions... but he found he could not. She was... stunning. Not like any human woman he had ever seen, and he had seen quite a number of them as an apprentice mage. Illusions and minor alterations were all the rage in Sathmore, to make the bland look beatific. Whether for a brief function, or for life, they came to Heiorn and begged his boon.
As a highly placed apprentice, Muri had been a target of endless attempts to get into Heiorn's graces by coddling up to his subordinates. At the time, Muri had been young, but not entirely unwilling to be thusly used, and had a great store of book knowledge that he soon made practical.
But this... this female, was something altogether different. And far more beautiful in her way than any of the vain sycophants that orbited Heiorn's small demesne. Slightly taller than Muri, she was far more slender, but had muscle where muscle was required, and curves where they served the best use. Muri found himself staring, and thusly found himself lost in the deep, dark brown of her eyes when she turned back to him, shrugging into her jerkin.
"Oh, bloody hell." she muttered, waving a paw in front of the skunk's slack-jawed muzzle. Muri blinked, and staggered back a step. Had he been able to, his blush would have banished the shadows for miles. As it was, his short, round ears were pinned back against his head as his whiskers folded back against his muzzle, his expression contrite. "Lead the way, my savior." she breathed in a soft, jokingly helpless lilt as Muri came back to himself with a physical start.
Wordlessly, Muri crashed through the barrier of underbrush to where he had left his items. He collected them nervelessly, his mind still shadowed by what he had just laid eyes on. A goddess.
A goddess who was standing in the middle of the cart path, watching the forest where her captors had entered, and tapped the grownd with one of her toes impatiently. Muri returned a few moments later, slinging his bow. He moved to the front of the wagon and disengaged the wagonbrake. With a shrill cry he slapped one of the beasts upon its haunch, which sent it into a frenzy. Muri quickly stepped aside as they two blood-panicked animals lurched, forehooves pawing air as they sought to get some momentum into the wagon behind them. With a clatter of falling bars and shattered wood, the wagon rumbled and jerked into motion.
Muri turned and quickly began to trot back down the wagon trail, tail held straight behind him, fur drawn close, eyes riveted forward. He made himself not look at the lady mink watching him, wearing naught but a leather jerkin and a swordbelt. Why the jerkin, he wondered, the thought racing around in his skull like a mouse in a bowl.
They ran quietly, wordlessly back down the trail as swiftly as their narrow, digitigrade legs would carry them, the mink proving to be much slower than the skunk. Her legs were shorter, her torso longer, owing that she could run as easily upon four legs as two. Muri would have to alter himself to a more animalistic form to run effectively on all four limbs. It took the better part of an hour to escape the close, cloying shadows of the Murk, leaving behind the twisted, tortured trees and raucous croaks of ravens disturbed by their swift passage.
The sun was nearing the far horizon when they at least left the last sight of the dark forest behind, finding themselves once more surrounded by the huge, straight trunks of oarwoods and the shorter, denser maples which grew under them where ever there was enough sunshine. They slowed to a walk, both panting freely. Only then did Murikeer once more look upon his companion.
"How come you to this wood?" he queried as he found a shallow section in a stream they were following, and crossed. Unconsciously, his steps turned northward, alongside the opposite bank of the stream.
"I'm a scout." she responded, pacing him from the stream, pausing when she found a large rock to sit upon and massage her paws. Muri stopped when she did, and watched for a few moments before deciding to sit as well, on the bank.
She looked at him incredulously, one eyebrow quirking upward as her whiskers twitched, "Metamor, of course. Where did you think?"
Muri shrugged, his tail curving up behind his back into its normal posture, "I don't know a great deal about lands south of here."
"You don't know Metamor?" she asked again, sounding rather shocked. Whiskers folded back against her muzzle as she regarded him, "Where'd you change then?"
"Change?" he queried, tearing his gaze from a spot of sunlight glimmering from the side of her muzzle, looking into the shallows of the creek and watching minnows dart about, "It started in Sathmore." he offered, "My mentor bade me flee north, and here's where I ended up." he waved a hand at the forest surrounding them. A mockingbird challenged him from across the stream, mantling its wings as it hopped about.
"You never went to Metamor?" the incredulity faded from her voice, replaced with something akin to concern as she stopped attempting to ease the soreness from her paws. Muri simply shrugged and shook his head. "Why not?"
"I was hunted, all the way north from Sathmore... I did not think that Metamor would accept me any more than the rest of the humans did." Muri unslung his bow, resting it across his knees as he leaned back a bit, watching her from the corner of his eyes. The play of her dark reddish-black fur, the twitch and wave of her tail and the sparkle as the sunlight traced across her whiskers.
"The humans at Metamor are not by one shred similar to those south or north of the Keep. They're changed, just like you or I, but differently."
"Into animals?" At this point Muri was beyond incredulous, considering what he was seeing and talking to.
"No." she shook her head, stirring the water with one of her paws, "Only about a third of us were transformed into animals. The rest were either gender switched, or age regressed." Muri could only blink and furrow his brow. He had not heard in any great detail about what calamities befell Metamor toward the end of the war, save that several powerful spells of transformation were leveled upon the defenders. And even then, what he learned was only told in haste as he was leaving. It was a taboo subject to speak of for the most part.
"Those who remained human were either switched from man to woman, or vice versa, or they were made into children. Counterspells mitigated the worst of the spells, but only about half way. We animals regained some portion of our humanity, while the age regressed were locked at right about puberty. They can become total babies, though, just as we can become total animals."
"And those gender switched?"
"They remained so."
"Ouch." Muri commented as he examined his bowstring between two fingers, idly feeling for nicks and burrs, watching the mockingbird as it apparently gave up its scolding and darted off after a quick snack.
"We've all come to accept our fates in one way or another. Some better than others admittedly, but overall things are stable." Llyn smiled as she slid off her stone with a splash and waded across to the bank where Muri was seated, "And I, for one, like being a Mink." she smiled as she scrambled up the bank. Muri quickly got to his feet, re-slinging his bow over his shoulder as he settled his possessions around him, "Before the change I was altogether rather homely."
Muri said nothing as he mounted the bank behind her, both of them reaching the crest at approximately the same moment, coming onto a narrow deer run. Muri immediately turned north as she cast her gaze around, at the sun and mountains, and turned roughly south. Starting off, both made several strides in their respective directions before she stopped and turned about.
"Where are you going?" she called as Muri paused, turning to look back over his shoulder. His tail swayed slowly as he nodded his head in the direction of travel.
"Because I must." he shrugged one shoulder, shifting his bandoleer with one hand as he watched her. The song of the urge tingled through his nerves, drawing him onward. He knew that even should he want to, he could not guide her south until his purpose were fulfilled. A puppet of some fate he did not know, he mused, a pawn for a ghost.
Llyn stood half in the shadow of a spreading maple, it's limbs mostly bare due to some wood disease. The sunlight painted her fur with an auburn translucence like honey, leaving the rest of her dark fur even darker by comparison. She watched the muscular mephit for several moments, remembering what ishen had encountered in the north.
Lutins, and worse, like a swarm across the land, leveling all in their path with great steel saws. Giant... ithingsn she could not identify moving the earth. That she and her compatriots managed to make it past the thick Lutin patrols had been an amazing feat. She had not been able to make it out though, getting herself captured instead. One of the other scouts, a Boar by the name of Garnid had tried to crash the lines, but never made it.
She was still rather remorseful at that, though he had been an amazingly irritating, chauvinistic, bellicose pig. He had a good sword arm and could move quiet enough for being a boar. The only other member of their small band had taken wing, and Llyn hoped that she had escaped the Lutin's magic and arrows. Jylian was a bat, and swift for all of being forty pounds soaking wet. Hopefully she would make it back to report.
Llyn new that her rescuer, for all of his quiet competence in the forest, would find himself hard pressed to get through the Lutin lines to the north to perform whatever task he had set for himself. With a last wistful look toward the southern mountaintops, she turned and walked over to where he stood silently appraising her.
At least, she thought, his appraisal was not loathsomely lustful as Garnid's had been. "The Lutins are swarming as thick as locusts north of here." she offered as she shifter her swordbelt into a rather more comfortable position upon her hips. She thought his bandoleer a better idea, since her hips were rather more narrow now than when she had been human.
With a slight smile pulling at the corners of his muzzle, Muri merely nodded and turned to continue his northward trek, his tail dancing amiably behind his back, occasionally lowering briefly to swish across his footprints, obliterating them. Inside, though, he was beaming, his heart as light as a summer cloud.