In very much the same way the boy heard things in music, he heard voices others couldn't. Only these voices were not so kind. They told the boy that he was worthless, that he should do violent things to himself and to others. He was terrified by them. Somehow his father always knew when the voices spoke to him; he would take the boy's hand in his and say to him, "No fear." He would say that the voices were jealous of the boy's warm and compassionate heart and that the only way they knew to deal with that jealousy was to lash out at him. As his father said those words, the voices would always quiet down and fade into nothing.
The boy was devastated when his father passed away suddenly. His great pillar of strength and light crumbled before him. He was lost. The voices couldn't have been more pleased. They said cruel things about the boy's father and that he deserved to die. Whenever the voices spoke to him he would tell his mother and she would hold his hand and say to him all the things his father used to say. But every time it would only make the boy cry. The voices would persist.
The boy marveled at how quickly the seasons changed. It had only been a day since his meeting with the musician and already the trees had shed their leaves completely. Soft snow covered the ground and fell in white wisps. The boy passed his day meandering under gray skies, muted sunshine and cold winds. It was nighttime now. Every once in a while a bright star would peak out from behind the many clouds, only to be swallowed up again.
It seemed strange to the boy that he managed to pass an entire day in solitude. In the back of his mind there was the slightest feeling – almost a fear, but not quite – that he wasn't alone, that something was stalking him. He ignored it and wondered if maybe the people of the Forest hibernate. Then he remembered the squirrel and the elk by the lake when he first came. He would have kept wondering had he not noticed something ahead of him.
Walking slowly towards him was a figure wrapped in dark cloth. It wore an elaborate mask painted with sorrow and tears upon its face. Never before had the boy seen anything like it. He looked on at the figure, his mouth slightly agape. Gradually he could feel a profound sense of loss pervading through the trees. As the two neared each other he felt the desire – no, the need – to reach out to the faceless person.
"Excuse me," the boy called out. "Why might you be wearing such a mask as you are?"
The figure froze, silent and still as a statue. Then, with a weak voice, "O' traveler, would you listen to a dying man's tale?"
Taken aback by the question from the mask masked man, the boy said curiously, "I would," The figured beckoned him closer.
"Let us walk," the man spoke. "I am restless and cannot bear to sit still. My nights have been fitful ever since my beloved wife left me." The snow crunched beneath them as they walked back the way the boy came, now side by side. The boy cast a sidelong glance at the figure. The masked one stared solemnly ahead.
"Have you ever lost anyone dear to you?" came the voice from behind the mask.
"I have," said the boy.
"Then you should know well why I wear this mask." The figure walked with a most level gait; his body did not rise nor fall as he moved. He may well have been floating for all the boy could tell.
"Forgive me, but I am a foreigner and know not the ways of the Forest. I have only just arrived two days ago. At least, I think I've been here for two days." The mask tilted forward, a slight nod.
"It is tradition. When a loved one passes, those who are left behind must don masks like mine for twenty-seven moons. During that time, the aggrieved are not to remove their masks for even a moment. They must fast in silent prayer for the safe passage of the souls of the deceased. My twenty-seven moons have since come and gone. I continue to wear my mask for I am grieving still. My wife and I met and fell in love while we were still young. She is in even the faintest memories of my youth. To put it simply, I would not know how to live without her. Her death was a terrible blow for me."
"What happened?" the boy asked.
"She fell ill very suddenly. I can remember it with agonizing clarity. She became tired, dull and listless. She wouldn't eat. She just withered, like a flower, until she crumbled into dust. I held her in my arms during her last moments. She fell past my fingertips like sand."
"I'm sorry," said the boy.
"Not nearly as sorry as I am," said the masked man. "My wife was pregnant with our first child when she passed." A silvery tear glistened as it slid its way down the mask.
"Is that why you still wear it?" inquired the boy. The man was silent for a great long moment.
"Not quite," said he. "For my beloved wife I wore the mask for twenty-seven moons. For my unborn child, twenty-seven more. Those days and nights were the most painful of my life. When at last I removed the mask from my face and went to wash myself in a stream I saw the most wretched countenance reflected over the water's surface. My grief and bitterness had changed me. You can see it plain as day upon my face."
"What do you mean?" asked the boy. The masked man stopped and for the first time turned to face him.
"Allow me to show you," said the man. With a painful slowness he raised his hands to his head and lifted the mask. The boy wished he didn't. Underneath the mask lay a face scarred and mottled. Wrinkled with age and pockmarked as though he too were diseased, the man's face could hardly have been more painful to behold. Dried pus from a broken blister stained his cheek. One of his eyes was nearly swollen shut.
"All this from misery alone?" the boy gasped.
"Such is the power Grief," the man wheezed.
"Then if you were to be happy again, would you return to the way you once were?"
"I suppose. But that is no longer possible for me. My blood runs cold through my veins. There is no happiness left for me in this world."
"Don't say that!" the boy exclaimed. "You're still alive, aren't you? You can't give up hope like that."
"I told you before I was dying, did I not? My burden is too great. I have no will to live anymore" the man rasped. "There is but one desire of mine before I pass on: to face my wife's murderer and avenge her death."
"But you said she fell ill," said the boy confusedly.
"Did I not? But it was Grief that befell her in the first place." The bitterness in the man's voice was clear, though his words were muffled by the falling snow.
"I do not understand you," said the boy.
"I forget you are unfamiliar with this place. Grief is a living, breathing entity that thrives off the suffering of others. It is a harbinger of death. Since my wife died I have been stalking it relentlessly. I will not rest until I find it and make it pay for the precious lives it has taken. I am close now. I can feel it."
The boy was frightened by the notion. To confront a living death was beyond his imagination.
"What could you possibly do to a creature like that?" asked the boy.
"I can drag it with me to the other side," said the man through gritted teeth as he returned to walking.
"There must be another way," pleaded the boy. "Please don't do this." He stepped quickly in front of the man, barring his path.
"Out of my way," the man said gruffly, and shoved the boy aside with a deceptively strong arm. Surprised by his sudden forcefulness, the boy stood in place as the man walked past him.
The boy thought for a moment, then said, "Let me come with you."
The man laughed an ill-humored laugh and said, "This is no errand for children. I know well my folly. Let me die alone. Grief will be more than enough company to the afterlife."
"I know what it is like to lose someone sacred," yelled the boy. "That's why I'm telling you not to throw your life away! You can be happy again. All it takes is time." Then the boy remembered there was no such thing. He wondered how to heal a wound of the heart without it.
"I won't turn back," said the man.
"Then let me come with you." The boy stared fiercely into the man's dark eyes.
"Fine," said the man, putting his mask on again. "But don't blame me if you get yourself killed."
"I will live," said the boy adamantly.
The man made a noise of assent and said, "We travel east." And east they went.
They made their journey in silence but not in peace. Every so often the masked man would double over in a violent fit of coughing. He would raise his mask halfway and spit on the ground, cursing himself for this or that. A harsh wind kicked up, whipping at their eyes and covering them in frost. The clouds darkened overhead and threatened to rain ice.
They crossed hills and valleys and a small stream. All around them the trees looked the same; thick, brown trunks towering over with twisting branches stripped bare. The boy wondered how the man knew which way he was going. A crow cawed in the distance and the boy jumped. That was the first sound he'd heard since the running water of the stream.
"That's it ahead," said the man. "I knew I was close."
"You mean Grief is a bird?" asked the boy.
"Oh, you'll see what a great beast it is," the man scoffed.
They pressed on, through the hills, through the trees. The air grew thin as they travelled, though they were not very high up. The air was colder here. Something vital was being drained away. The trees grew sparser as the duo made its way to a clearing in the center of which stood a great red tree, stretching far above the others. It had no branches; it was alone in itself, a solitary pillar reaching beyond the sky. And sitting atop that pillar, so far above the horizon, stood Grief.