The forest was cold and dark, and the bags they carried were heavy. It had been a good outing, and the bones clattered softly as they jostled with every step. He looked over at his partner. The younger man seemed unsure of how best to carry his load.
“This is your first time, right?”
His partner nodded. “Yes.”
“Was it what you expected?”
Another nod. “Just like it. The elders prepare us well. And these bones will help us through the winter?”
“They always have. The shamans use them in rituals. I do not understand it myself, but I do not have to.”
The moonlight glinted off of something in his partner’s hand.
“What do you have there?”
“This?” He held up a smooth white stone.
It took a second or two before he got over the shock enough to speak. “Where… where did you get that?” He asked the question even though he knew the answer.
“Just back there, where we got the bones.”
“What?! Did they not warn you to disturb nothing but the bones?”
“Yes, they did. But something like this should not matter, should it?”
Panic began to rise up the back of his throat. “We have to get rid of it. Throw it back the way we came. Now!”
His partner didn’t move, just looked confused. “Why? What is so bad about this little stone?”
“We are allowed to take the bones for our village, but nothing else. Especially not that.”
Peering closely at the stone, his partner asked, “What is it?”
“It is the soul of the person whose bones you took. It should never be moved. That is part of the deal that was made with the realm of the dead. Did they teach you nothing? Get. Rid. Of. It!”
Even in the gloom of the forest, the whitening of his partner’s face was evident. He needed no more prompting as he cocked his arm back and threw it as hard as he could into the forest. Both men jumped when the stone seemed to bounce off of something and flew right back at the younger man. Only a quick reaction allowed him to block it and keep it from hitting him in the face.
“It is too late,” he muttered as he slumped against a tree.
The stone thumped against the ground where it fell. His partner dropped the bag of bones and ran off wildly. It wasn’t long before the stone rose off the forest floor and flew off after the young man. A scream of pure terror filled the night and was abruptly silenced.
It did not take long for the stone to float back to him and land at his feet.
“The boy didn’t know what he was doing. It was a mistake.” At first, he wasn’t sure the darkness heard him, but after a few moments a voice came from the trees.
“It does not matter.” The sound was that of bones crunching. “The pact is clear. It was violated. All who violate the pact are forfeit.”
The darkness took on a vaguely human shape and began walking towards him.
“I did not violate it!”
“But you were there. You dug up the bones, too. You share the responsibility.”
He tried to think or something that could save him, but it was too late. The darkness was upon him. Pain shot through all of him. He heard himself scream, and then it all faded away.
* * *
As the first rays of morning streamed through the trees, a wizened old man walked through the forest with a hand cart. He collected the fresh bones, leaving those in the bags alone. He gathered up all three white stones as well. They all needed to be buried before night fell again. He whistled tunelessly as he went about his appointed task.