Like cold, dead fingers, the mist grasped at her slender frame as she struggled on, stumbling at times, through the black mire. Skeletons of trees, tall and foreboding, emerged one after another out of the gloom. She breathed quickly and shallowly, her breath feeding the grey vapour which clung to her, seeking refuge in the folds of her clothes. It penetrated her emaciated body, feasted upon the meagre warmth within her core, sucked away her life; slowly, relentlessly. She hugged herself with thin arms, trying her utmost to prevent her precious heat from being carried away by the icy fingers, yet she knew that doing so was fruitless.
She smelled its rancid breath before she saw it – the shadow loomed ahead of her, it’s bestial shape gaining clarity with every step. She felt relief wash over her; she knew she had finally arrived at the end of her journey. She had dreaded the thought of perishing in the woods, had dreaded being carried back on plumes of silver to be scolded and to be told that she should have listened, to be told that she should have stayed where she was.
She gritted her teeth and clumsily removed the sword from the sheath on her belt, the weight of the blade pulling her forwards. With all the strength she could muster, she lifted the steel with both hands and pointed it at the direction of the animal. As if in response, it turned to face her, its cruel muzzle black against the swirling gloom. It breathed deeply, seemingly gaining strength from the mist, and uttered a low growl, grey swirls convulsing around it as it did.
Suddenly, with no warning, it took off towards her, its loping gait seemingly unaffected by the mire beneath. Dark plumes were thrust up by its claws as it rapidly closed in. She saw its eyes, its cruel, bloodshot eyes, those eyes of terror, yet she stood her ground, just waiting, biding her time, for the right moment. And then all too soon it was upon her. She was carried forwards helplessly, driven by the beast up against a tree trunk which creaked and moaned its protests. Winded, she crumpled to the mud, followed by the creature, which collapsed on top of her slender body.
She felt the chill of the mud on her back, felt the hot spurt of the beast’s blood on her bare thighs, felt its wiry fur, sharp against her, as it shook and writhed, gradually slowing, slowing, as it succumbed to its wounds, her sword having found its heart.
She remained on the ground for what seemed like an eternity, unable to muster the strength to rise, her body gaining some sustenance from the creature’s residual warmth. Yet all too soon that warmth dissipated, and she once again felt the mist’s fingers, lifting her, carrying her home to them, as the chill closed in. Not now, she thought to herself. Not now, while I’m so close. I have to finish this.
She wormed her way from out under the corpse of the beast, and rose to her feet; painfully, with great effort. She felt a warm trickle down her side; her own life blood. The beast had caught her as it fell. Yet she felt no pain.
There was only one challenge remaining. She remembered what they had said, those who had tried their hardest to impede her progress throughout her journey, who had begged her tearfully to return at every step. They had tugged at her, wrenched at her, those innumerate wispy fingers, wanting her to fail, wanting her to come home to them. They had warned her about the pain of the final task, warned her that if she became one of the few who reached that stage, that she would never return, that she would die out there, that her very existence would be erased. The mist formed rings around her wrists, in a vain attempt to stop, yet she shook them off and continued, half stumbling, half crawling, past the spot where the beast had waited patiently to intercept her.
The trees thinned in front of her, and somewhere up ahead shone a warm light, a light she could vaguely recall from somewhere. The mist tugged on her in desperation, trying to stop her reaching her destination, her final challenge. She could almost hear them cry now from the forest, voices of sorrow, voices of heartbreak. They knew, as well as she did, that she was nearly there.
She felt her eyes well up with tears as she stumbled the final few metres into the light. She wasn’t going to turn back now, to give in to their calls. She passed through the mist into the warmth; it enveloped her senses, her taste, her touch, her sight. She felt the fingers of mist behind her, flailing at her, willing her to step back, to come home, to come back to them. She gritted her teeth, feeling the increasing pain of the light on her skin, a burning, searing light.
She edged forward; slowly, tentatively. A wave of pain shot through her senses. She slumped to her knees in agony, the light inside her mind as well as on her skin, flaying her, scourging her, sapping her will, sapping her resolve. She screamed as the images flashed before her; a young man, his body riddled with bullets, dying at the side of the road. She briefly became that man, felt his pain, his physical and emotional torture; all he could think about was his love for his dead mother. The image vanished and was quickly replaced by another; a young girl, crying fitfully as a filthy man crushed down on her. She could smell the smell of alcohol on his breath, she felt the pain as he thrusted again and again inside of her. She screamed and tore at her hair, which came off in bunches and dissolved into the mist around her. The images continued. A teenager, dying at the wheel of his first car, as flames danced around him, burning him, burning him alive. An old woman, dying in her home she had lived all her life, dying of the cold. Dying alone.
She crawled back towards the wall of mist, her burning flesh falling from her bones with every movement. The mist offered her a wispy hand, encouraging her to retreat, to come back home. She thrust out her own hand, which was rapidly decaying in the light, and edged forwards with all her remaining strength, closer and closer to the mist. She could feel its cool tendrils brush against her face, feel it relieve her torment. Just one more step, she thought to herself. One more step is all I need to take. Then I’ll escape this pain. Escape it forever. I’ll be with them again. With them forever.
But no, she thought, stopping despite the agonising pain. I’m here for a reason. I’m not ready to be with them just yet.
She let the light finish its work, watching as her skeleton became visible; the flesh dripping off her and dissolving in the light. She gritted the remnants of her teeth as more of the thoughts flashed by, terrible thoughts, the terrors of what it meant to be back there, the pain of humanity, the pain of life. As the light ate into her very bones she knew that she had made the right choice, the choice to return. The pain finally ended; the light faded, and she slipped into unconsciousness.
The heart of the girl on the operating table once again started beating. Weakly, irregularly, but it was a pulse nonetheless. She was alive.