I did call the others, one helpful spirit after the next, but none of them knew the dark creature’s name any more than the air spirit had. There were all, however, absolutely delighted by my daughter, and most- if not all- stayed to coo over her as I called and questioned still more of their ranks.
At last I had called them all, every last name my mother had taught me- and all had sadly shaken their heads.
“Not that one,” they said, time after time. “That one has no truck with us.”
The hope I’d fought so hard to keep from rising began to fall, crushing my heart beneath it. My eyes burned and filled, and at last the tears began to fall. I had no more wisdom, no more tricks- nothing else. I had failed. I would lose my daughter- and any others that came after.
“Aw, no cry lady! No cry, no cry!” I was swarmed by dozens of spirits, some no larger than my pinkie, others as large as a hare, all patting me in comfort.
“But you were my last hope,” I sobbed. “The creature said no mortal knows its name, so I thought perhaps one of you…” I couldn’t continued, and instead hid my face in my hands.
Suddenly a warm, crackling sort of voice said, “We don’t know that one’s name, but we may know one who does.”
I looked up and saw a spirit made of flames sitting on a rock. Its features were difficult to make out, dancing and shifting as they were, but it appeared to be somewhat reptilian in form. All around it the snow had melted, and it cocked a maned head as it considered me from its perch.
“We have seen that one- it loves to play and hide in the darkest shadows we cast. We have never heard it utter its name, but we have seen it dance with another of its kind. Perhaps that other one knows that one’s name.”
I stared at the flame spirit, hardly daring to open myself up to this new thread of hope. Another creature! Would it know its compatriot’s name? It might! But what would it demand, in exchange for such a precious boon? Pain, of course- but what pain could I offer it that would be greater than my current pain?
Nothing. Anything I offered, it would know I must not actually value… I must trick it into asking for something, as the first creature had. I hadn’t known how much future pain I was trading- I must trick the new creature into thinking I remained naive to the nature of pain.
“Can you bring it here?” I asked slowly. “Will it come in the daytime?”
The flame spirit fluffed itself up, then sleeked itself back down, much as a bird might. “Yes yes, that other one will come. It is already drawn by your pain, but our presence keeps it at a distance. We do not like that other one, no more than we like that one. And it knows it.” The little paw-like hands hands stretched out and I saw what looked like little claws kneading at the rock, leaving scorch marks in their wake.
“Would you… would you all disappear for a bit, so I can talk to it? Please?”
A few of the spirits disappeared immediately, but more scowled and slunk about my skirts, making noises of disapproval.
“Lady should not trust that other one,” came one voice from among the many. “It is just as bad as that one.”
“Oh my friends,” I gave a shaky laugh. “I do not trust it, not at all. But I need it. Please. I need to save my daughter.”
One by one the others disappeared, until at last only the flame and air spirits remained. The flame spirit stretched, gave it’s mane a shake that sent sparks flying, and then eyed me knowingly.
“Lady must be wise, like lady’s mother,” it said.
“I know,” I said. “Thank you.” It leaped into the air, and was gone.
Now only the little air spirit was left, and its stance was worried.
“Careful, lady, careful,” it said, and kissed my cheek. “It will want what is most precious,”
“Well it can’t have it,” I said as reassuringly as I could. “But it can have the next-most-precious thing, if it likes.”
“Careful,” the spirit whispered again, and zipped away into the sky.
I was alone again, save for my now-sleeping daughter, and the sun had risen high above the horizon. The pond was liquid one more, and I watched the wavelets sparkle in the clear winter’s light as I thought about what my next-most-precious thing might be.
“Come out now, please,” I said to the cold, sharp air. “I know you’re nearby, and I know you can… help me.”