He didn’t know how long he’d been walking. He started at first light. The last light was rapidly giving way to night, now. The skeletal trees stretched their bare limbs to the skies as if reaching for the last bit of warmth.
The snow was several inches deep, even in the wood. His legs burned with every step. His feet felt nothing. They grew numb hours ago. He paid it no heed. What good are warm feet if the rest of him is dead?
It was no good. He dropped to his knees. His hands sunk deep into the wet snow. It burned his fingers. The sensation served to help clear his dampened mind. Good.
Light began to creep back across the blanket of snow. He suddenly felt warmer than before. No… That’s not right. He sat back on his ankles and stuck his hands into his armpits.
His grandfather taught him long ago that the worst thing you could do is feel warm in such a situation. He’d told him that he’d seen men smiling at their new-found warmth even as they lay dying. But there was something else.
There was the light.
Grandfather had never mentioned this. Was he dying? Hallucinating? He looked up. Hallucinating, then. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen stood before him.
Her body glimmered in a vivid blue-white light. Her eyes shone pure white. An angel? “Yes, an angel.” The woman responded to his thought. “I’ve come to guide you.”
His father had warned him of false prophets, as well. “How can I trust you, spirit?” His voice was a ragged whisper. He coughed crimson onto the pure snow before him.
“How can you not?” The spirit raised an eyebrow and her right hand. She offered it to the fallen traveler. He reluctantly took it.
Half a day’s walk away, a young woman of similar beauty but normal radiance watched the events unfolding in an ornate scrying mirror. “He trusts her!”
The woman beside her, perhaps twenty years her senior, smiled gently as she held a gnarled wooden wand before the mirror. “Does he? Or does he trust that he’ll die otherwise?”
The man found it startlingly easy to stand. The warmth he felt was slowly worming its way into his body like tendrils. The sensation was both welcome and somehow disgusting to him.
The spirit woman’s eyes opened wide, the light within them bathing his face. He squinted his own. Cold tears ran from them. “Please guide me.”
“As you wish.” She gently placed her other hand on his cheek and caressed it. The last thing he saw was the white glow of her eyes turn blood red.
The serene look on her face turned to one of malice, contorting her features into a demonic mask. The hands holding him became twisted claws. The man did not resist even as she grasped his head and pulled him closer.
She closed her eyes and leaned forward, as if to kiss him. Instead, a thin white mist began to pour from his mouth. She drew it into her own, allowing his lifeless body to drop to the ground. Her features returned to normal as she stepped back.
“That was amazing.” The young woman looked at the witch with a mixture of awe and fear.
“It’s a gift.” She began to smile. “It’s one you possess. Would you like to learn how to wield it, child?”
Something dark and hungry laid just behind the woman’s widening eyes. “Yes, please.”