The snow deepened as the weeks passed. Several people had already died from exposure already and many livestock had been lost. All in all it was turning out to be the coldest winter that anyone could remember. After the third woodcutter was found frozen ten strides from his door after an especially fierce snowstorm, River was forced to surrender her summer garb in favor of some more seasonally appropriate articles.

While Mag watched on with vast amusement at River's expense, she struggled into her heavy leather boots. Heavy gloves hampered her normally agile fingers, causing her to fumble continuously with the laces. With a curse she threw the offending item across the room.

"You know you could just take off your gloves," Mag pointed out on the verge of a fit of giggles. The miffed look she received confirmed her guess that her friend had never even thought of that.

"That would be too easy," River muttered retrieving her shoe and setting about to finally accomplish her task. With a triumphant grunt she displayed her laced up boot for her friend's inspection.

"Well, finally. I thought we were gonna have to wait till spring, and by that time all this effort would have been for nothing." Mag laughed and gave River a hand up. Together they trooped out the door of Mag's room, where she had been living ever since a tree had crashed through the barn where she had previously been living. She hadn't been the only one that the tree had struck; Luca had also experienced the terrifying occurrence of a tree crashing on top of her.

How Mag had convinced her domineering mother into allowing her to stay, River barely understood. All she was aware of was a threat pertaining to never marrying on her friend's part. With that Cyrentha, Mag's mother, had capitulated and River found herself sleeping on a spare bed in Mag's room.

Outside their breath formed vaporous white clouds about their heads. With each footfall the snow crunched underneath and threatened to overflow their boots. Few people were brave enough to venture outside so business at the tavern had been pretty sparse as of late. Still, every day, the girls would trudge outside in the marrow-chilling cold to reach a place that was nearly deserted. And everyday River found herself stuck in the same room as Shalna whose tongue became more poisonous with every winter day. After years of enduring the continual degradations and vicious verbal barbs, her immunity had risen. Some might say she was dead inside and the only emotions she was capable of feeling were negative, and she would agree. How could one feel things that had never been experienced? And send those people to the hells for having the nerve to talk about her.

While traversing the path between Mag's house and the tavern, River noticed the aged priest of Order busily hammering up a notice on the town's meeting platform. Under his breath he seemed to muttering something about it being "about time that something finally happened." On the platform was a group of soldiers and outside priests.

River stopped moving and stared at the scene unfolding before her eyes. Heedless of the snow slowly melting into her boots and garments, she watched as people began to hesitantly converge. Something of interest seemed to be happening there, but what she couldn't say.

"Hey Mag, look at that," she said, pointing to the spectacle while holding onto her friends sleeve. "What's going on?"

"Don't know, but it must be important for those soldiers are from the main island as well as those priests," Mag replied, scrutinizing the bunch.

"Let's get closer and get a look at whatever they're doing." Recklessly she plowed through the snow while Mag followed at a more sedate pace, using the path that River was incidentally clearing for her.

Suddenly the announcement bells rang from the temple's roof. As if on cue the entire population of the village poured out from every opening. As one being they converged upon the square and surrounded the platform. For the first time River noticed a hunched figure trussed up at the head soldier's feet. It was the village Necromancer. He shivered pathetically in nothing but a thin tunic and trews. A baffled muttering rose up at this sight from the villagers.

"Well, what do we have here?" demanded a sweetly venomous voice. River didn't have to turn around to identify the owner of that tongue; it could be no other than the illustrious Luca Larshaw. Sighing in resignation she turned to confront the irksome girl. Luca was decked out in an ebon fur-lined cloak with matching muff and two servants, in the house livery of green and silver, clearing the path for her.

"What?" was her automatic, nonplussed response.

"Do you think I was referring to you iu'Kren, don't waste my valuable time. Magara, I was wondering why you insist on totting around that useless baggage?" Luca batted her lashes innocently as if she hadn't just called Mag's friend a travel bag

Before River could speak up to defend herself Mag shushed her. "What do you want Luca?"

"Oh nothing. Just thought I'd get friendly with the locals, but I'm afraid I can't stay, you being associated with riffraff and all. Really you might catch something from that." Luca gestured airily in River's general direction.

"Excuse me? I'm a person here! You have no right to ignore me!" River cried angrily. There was only so much she was willing to take before her resignation turned into anger.

"Oh you're right," Luca replied demurely.


"I should my servants put you out of your misery. Personally I don't see why you insist on filling this otherwise pristine place with your vile and repulsive presence. No one wants you here, not even your mother. Why don't you march yourself off into those woods and never come back? Or maybe jumping off the nearest cliff? You'd be doing us all a big favor. Besides if it wasn't for you, maybe Magara would have a chance at making a decent matrimonial match." A malicious smile played on Luca's elegant face and a dark light pulsed in her deep brown eyes.

"Luca you are such a–"

"That's enough you two," Mag cut in before River could make a stinging comeback. Anger flashing in her blue eyes, Mag rounded angrily on Luca. "Luca Larshaw if you do not cease with your unprovoked harassment of my friend, River, then I will be forced to reveal to the Council of Festivals why exactly you wouldn't be fit to be the Spring Maiden for the Spring Festival."

The servants hastily tried to smother their giggles while a vibrant red bloomed on Luca's cold-pale cheeks. Her perfect mouth fell open in outrage, causing her to give the impression of a landed fish, before she audibly snapped it closed.

"You are going to regret this transgression, Resvan. I am going to destroy you, your family and your little 'pet' and I will enjoy every moment of it," she snarled baring her teeth in anger. With a scornful laugh she flounced away, the servants following meekly in her wake.

"Well that was exciting." Mag glanced with amusement at River, who was staring after the loathsome girl with heated anger.

Before Mag could make a witty rejoinder the head soldier cleared his throat. Like puppets on a string everyone's eyes snapped to him where his charismatic personality held them prisoner.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, by orders of our illustrious and magnanimous Emperor…" he then proceeded to rattle off a long-winded speech about the Emperor of Wyuvlo, the wonderful kingdom of which the island of her residence was a part of. Everyone seemed entranced with the overly glorified description of the Emperor's lineage that, incidentally, lead all the way back to the Divinity, all of which had nothing to do with why the village Necromancer was tied up and why they were there. The only part of the whole monologue that sparked an iota of interest in River was when such-and-such Emperor assisted in the banishment of the Sons of Death. The brief mention did nothing to fend of the impending and overwhelming tide of disinterest.

"…Tryer the Golden Crown of the Order. From our ruler of such a distinguished lineage has come the decree that all Necromancers, of great or insignificant gift, are to be caught and executed for reasons that people such as yourselves need not be concerned with. Trust in our Emperor and the Divinity for together they shall guide you to the true path of Order." There was a moment's silence before the gathered crowd exploded in cheers of jubilance.

Well obviously this meeting had nothing to do with the fact that no one in the village had paid any form of taxes in the last twelve years. Long ago they all had been forgotten as other towns on other islands swelled with people and trade. On their secluded island in the northern nothingness they dwelled apart from the rest of the kingdom. No one from the main island had bothered to come since as long as River could remember. For all intents and purposes they were a forgotten outpost–until now.

She ignored the priest that followed the soldier and the preaching on the great sin they had committed by giving shelter to a blasphemer and worshiping the darkness, and on and on and on. Such nonsense, utter and complete nonsense that seemed to enrapture everyone else, save herself.

"…Therefore, it is better to sacrifice a hundred innocents to catch a murderer than to kill no one and let the killer run free." She raised an eyebrow at that statement. It didn't seem very fair that the Emperor could issue a command that left a large gap for false accusations and fallacious testimonies.

"A reminder for all of you, an industrious ledger keeper has noticed discrepancies in the tax record from your village. We recommend that you fix it before we force you to." With a haughty bow the priest stepped aside so that the leading soldier could again speak.

With quite deliberation the man assessed the reactions of the crowd before him. It was obvious that they were most displeased with the result of the Emperor's messengers. As the only person working who wasn't paid, she felt fairly confident in her immunity to the tax. How could they tax her if she had no money to give them?

"I know this concerns you, but have no fear for the empire will not forget you again and, though taxes might seem a heavy burden, the rewards and influx of trade shall surely pacify all of your concerns," the soldier told them reassuringly. It seemed a great sigh of relief swelled within everyone to be released as one. "Furthermore, our efforts to capture and execute necromancers shall benefit all who confess any knowledge of any activities related to this. Thanks to Seager, a faithful acolyte of the true Order, we have captured this miscreant," carelessly he waved to the bound man, "I am sure that all of you are more than willing to contribute your resources to our holiest of crusades. If any of you are aware of any necromantic activities in the vicinity, you must come forth now. It is better to remove the viper before she, or he as the case may be, can lay her poisonous spawn."

"I have seen one," a shrill voice cried above the sound of applause. The villagers parted to reveal a distraught and triumphant Luca, the two servants trailing unobtrusively behind.

"Every night when the moon has just sunk below the horizon and the sun has not risen, I have seen a figure head towards the graveyard. This person glows with a hellish light as it raises the dead from their cold slumber. It terrifies me even to speak of such blasphemous deeds and to have seen them with my very own eyes…" She gave a dramatic shudder.

"Did you recognize the possessor of this figure?" the soldier demanded eagerly.

"I…I cannot tell you…I can't!" With a sob she burst into tears, covering her face with her elegantly gloved hands.

"Do not worry, child, you are safe here where the omniscient eye of the Divinity sees all. No harm shall come to thee from this heathen traitor," the outside priest soothed.

"Are you sure," she asked tearfully, lifting her face so the wan winter sun glinted off her crystal tears. River would have applauded her acting, if she hadn't caught the devious sparkle in her deep brown eyes. Both the priest and the soldier assured her that they would protect her from whatever it was that she had seen.

She seemed to visibly brace herself before speaking, "I saw…it was…her!" River gasped, stumbling back, as she saw that claw of a finger aimed directly at her, her silver eyes wide with uncomprehending shock. She? A necromancer? Never!

Jabbing her finger repeatedly at her, Luca shrieked one name repeatedly. "Magara! Magara! Magara!" Suddenly River realized that it wasn't she who the vicious girl accused.

"No," Mag whispered reeling from announcement, horror written deeply into her fine features. River turned desperately to her dearest friend, crying for her to run. Shaking her head sadly, blond hair swirling around her face, Mag whirled around and launched herself back through the deep snow.

Time seemed to slow to an agonizing crawl, as River turned around to confront the soldiers spilling off the platform in pursuit. She wouldn't let them take her friend without a fight. Glancing back she saw her friend floundering through the snow. Then she turned to the steadily advancing armored men. With a cry of rage and desperation she flung herself at them, heedless of her own safety.

"You can't have her." Cursing they tried to beat her down only to find her springing back to attack. One them viciously wrenched her arm back. She screamed, striking him with her hand. From the corner of her eye she saw something and in slow motion she turned.

It's so brilliant, she thought as the sun glinted off polished steel. Slowly she saw the mace descend, intent on striking her. I could duck, she realized with a dawning knowledge that came to late.

She didn't even cry out as the iron ball smashed into her head. Stars exploded across her vision and suddenly the snow-covered ground slammed into her cheek. In a dreamlike trance she turned her face away from the smothering whiteness to witness the soldiers bringing down her friend. Her mouth formed the protest, but her voice was dead. Black spots swam before her eyes condensing and spreading.

With a soft sigh she fell into the darkest corner of her being.

She was drowning again. Her lungs burned horribly as the skeletal fingers dug deep into her windpipe. Choking, she clawed desperately at her unknown assailant. Slowly the darkness cleared and found herself being attacked a horrible monster, its ghastly mouth opening and closing in an attempt to communicate. Her cries came out as hoarse croaks as she scratched at the horrid face.

"…Slut!" With a pop her hearing came back and with it her rationality. It wasn't a monster who was trying to choke her to death, but Mag's own dear mother, Cyrentha. The brief flash of relief quickly disappeared for she truly was being choked to death.

"This is all your fault, you whore!" the woman screamed, spraying spittle. Her survival instincts intact despite the cruel blow to the head, River fought desperately against a woman whose strength was fired by fury and hate.

Her vision narrowed and she felt herself slipping away again. Her arms fell slack at her side. With a dark feeling resignation she stopped fighting.

"Stop it, Cyry," a voiced yelled from far off. The weight vanished and sweet air flooded her starved lungs, a painful ambrosia.

Gasping she saw Mag's mother struggling furiously in the sure grip of her husband and son. River sat up clutching her abused neck, only to collapse as a throbbing pain exploded in her head. Groaning she lay there ignoring the crowd forming and the angry woman foaming at the mouth.

Leaving his wife to his son, the husband confronted River, a sorrowful expression on his haggard face. The laughter had died in his pale blue eyes. Now they were empty and bleak.

"I think it would be for the best if you left the house as soon as possible." Turning around he took control of his wife and led her away.

Gingerly the girl sat up and, for the first time, felt tears threatening, as she saw the world turning away from her. Now she was truly alone.

"So angry." River shrugged her shoulders petulantly. "Well, you shouldn't be."

"Why?" she demanded heatedly.

"There's no point. It's a meaningless waste of energy that could be put to some other use."

"How can you talk?"

"How?" Mag countered, her form flicking in and out, "I'm the one who was burned, River." Mag laughed lightly as if her own death was unimportant.

"And that is why I'm so angry. You shouldn't have died. Luca should've said it was me. No one would've missed me!" Mag gave her a sympathetic smile as she drifted closer. She seemed almost transparent and yet she was there.

"It couldn't be like that," she replied, cupping her hands around a blue sphere. The orb grew until River could see clearly. She wanted to look away from what she saw, but some greater force held her head immobile.

The hungry red flames teasingly licked at the bound and beaten Necromancer before consuming him. By his side Mag was similarly tied, her body a mass of bruises and lacerations. First her dress caught then her fair hair, as she screamed and writhed in the burning embrace of the purifying fire. The sickly sweet stench of charred flesh and burnt hair filled her nostrils, suffocating and horrible.

"No!" The scene disappeared and Mag's hands were empty. River met her friend's sorrowful blue eyes, her own filled with pain.

"I'm sorry, but there was nothing you or anyone could do. It was my fate," Mag informed her friend with bemusement.

"I can't accept that. I should have done something!" River cried her denial, as she pressed her hands over her temples, head throbbing strangely.

"River, you have to listen to me," Mag urged with great need as her ethereal form faded out for a moment. River regarded her friend in mild alarm.


"Destiny had ordained your birth, my birth and my death. There's no power that could've changed it. Everyone's fate has been determined before their conception. How they live and how they die. We may think we have free will, but that is a lie that we maintain to feel as if we have control over our lives when we don't. I have accepted my fate and so should you. I'm not exactly thrilled, but there is nothing bad about death.

"We all do what fate makes us, predicted before the creation of the world. All but you, River. Of all the people on this planet your destiny was never written by fate. You possess a power never recorded in all of history. You're conception and birth were predicted by the lord of this realm: Death. He was the only one to know and shared it naught with anyone outside of the truly dead. This is the secret we hold, but neither we nor the ultimate destiny knows what you will do."

"What do you mean?" River demanded shrilly. This was confusing and yet she feared that she understood the rhetoric of her dearest friend.

"Don't interrupt, River. You must understand this: when the Sleeper awakens, and it will, if it's brought to realization violently, I believe it will shatter your mind. Whether your mind shall ever recover is not known. So little of you is understood by anyone."

"The Sleeper? What–"

"Hush!" Mag snapped harshly. "I have much to tell you and little time in which to enlighten you." Obediently River closed her mouth and stopped the flood of questions on the tip of her tongue. Mag was never sharp except when it was critically important, but even then she apologized.

"This is a time when everything is perfectly balanced. The sides of dark and light have been recruiting minions for the past two hundred years in preparation for this moment. You have heard from the village priest of the continual struggle between good and evil, neither side gaining the advantage for long. Some believe good shall be triumphant and others believe evil, but both act according to their beliefs. And there are still some that maintain a balance between all things. As of now they are in their element, although they are unaware of this.

"Being dead, the knowledge of the universe has been revealed to me and I am going to tell you all that I am permitted too. Like I said before, there is a perfect equilibrium, but that is going to change. You are going to change it. As the only one who possess true free will, you are going to be the weight that tips the balance and determines the collective destiny of this world. Your choice will decide which side, if any, shall emerge from the cataclysm triumphant."

"How can I not have a destiny?" River asked breaking into the monologue of her friend.

"Picture time and destiny as a pond and you are the stone tossed into it. You create the ripples, other people's destiny, but the ripples do not create you, the stone. You were tossed in at the beginning of destiny and the only fate you have is to be born and bear the Sleeper to full existence. After that we can only guess."

"Ok, I guess." The younger girl massaged her throbbing temples. This was too much to absorb at once. It couldn't be real. She would doubt it completely if it wasn't coming from the ghostly mouth of Mag.

"Now understand this, gods I hope you do. You are a Necromancer of the highest order, unique even to those of your power. It is this power that calls out to everything. From all over the world you are attracting the attention of both the good and the evil, and, though they don't know the full scheme of things, they have an inkling of what is going on. Power calls to power and yours is summoning those who will help and those who will use you. You must beware for everyone, even I, will try to manipulate your final decision." Crystalline tears seemed to be streaming down the phantom's pale cheeks.

"The dead fear you, my friend. Out of all the Necromancers ever born you have the ability to trap our souls in the rotting corpses that you raise. If you go to the dark side, I fear that you will use this power recklessly and we, the dead, cannot allow that."

"What are you talking about? Me a Necromancer?" she demanded, bewildered with the events occurring.

"There are more things to fear then being dead. Being dead and trapped in a decaying body is far worse. It would be the vilest of limbo to live dead. We have been trying to gauge your inclination through your dreams. Unfortunately the dead are less subtle and often forget the fragility of the living's sanity. I apologize for us, but we needed to know if you would be trapping us."

"I would never do that, Mag. Never."

"We didn't know and still don't. I am ashamed to tell you this, but I am one of those who are going to try to push you in a direction. In the interest of all I will try to persuade you to the light side," Mag admitted ruefully. A resounding boom echoed through the nothingness they floated in. Wildly River tried to find the source in the darkness, but it was empty.

"I have to go now, River. I guess my time is up. I have one last thing to tell you: you are closer to Death than any of us."

"What do you mean?" she demanded as her friend withdrew slowly.

"I wish you could remember this, but you won't. Don't be angry for nothing could have changed this!"

"Mag, wait! Mag I don't get it. What does this mean?" The girl surged forth to grab her friend back, but the older girl had almost completely disappeared. Mag said something else then, something that was critical, but she was gone and River was alone again.

Always alone in the cold void.

The fat, black and white sow regarded River quizzically before turning away to resume dozing. She sat there shivering as the frigid winter air blew in from the cracks in the sty's shelter. The reek of manure and animal clung to her skin like some vile perfume, but her nose had long since stopped protesting. It was relatively warm so she was content.

Except the pounding headache that dogged her every waking moment. Carefully she felt around the wound, wincing and biting her lip to keep from crying out. Blood had caked thickly into her black hair after it had stopped bleeding profusely. She was concerned that, with her minimal medical knowledge, there was something more seriously wrong.

Sighing she sat up straighter and regarded the silent darkness outside with a musing look. Her dream, which she was unable to remember, had left her with a sense of both calm and urgency. How two conflicting emotions could emerge from one dream was a puzzle. Well whatever it was, it was unlike the terrifying dreams she recalled with perfect clarity. Those were disturbing, but she never felt as conflicted as she did now.

"Jump," she whispered to the darkness, the chasm looming before her mind's eye. Jump and it would be over, no more agonizing over the consequences. She had worried that there might be something worse residing there, now she couldn't care less.

Mag was dead, had been since she was cruelly burned at the stake by the Emperor's soldiers and priests. She didn't deserve that. It should've been River twisting and screaming as the incinerating flames consumed her. Mag had so much more to give to the world than her. What could an illiterate and illegitimate child contribute to a prejudice world of recriminations? Nothing that was what.

She should jump, but not over the metaphorical chasm. An iced-over river nearby would provide a solution to everyone's problems. How fitting since her name was River and she would be dying in a river. She laughed humorlessly at this morose thought.

Beside her the fat sow snuffled in annoyance before turning over. She laughed again, mocking life, the hog, everything. It made no sense; it wasn't funny. In fact it was quite sad, but still she laughed uncontrollably.

It had been so nice of Mag's father to relent and allow her to live in the hog sty. It was damp and the stench was overpowering, but it was shelter, albeit horrible shelter. And she, a human, though a rather pathetic one, lived with animals and hogs no less. If Mag were there she would be laughing!

But she wasn't there and never would be. That thought sobered River immediately. Sorrow settled on her features, in the dark circles under her bleak eyes and the skeletal hollows of her cheeks. She hadn't been eating well, even less than usual. There really was no point; nothing had a point. Life was pointless.

But there was still something she had to do. One last thing before she ended the pain, both physical and emotional. She didn't need this life, didn't want it. It wasn't fair. But there was Mag, or at least her charred corpse left outside in the cold, snowy winter night. So alone, like River was alone. She owed it to her for being unable to save her. She would give her friend a proper burial in the consecrated ground of the graveyard instead of the four corners of the earth like the priests of the Order planed.

River unwrapped herself from the cloak she used as a blanket during the night and crawled out. She slept in her clothing every night to combat the chill that crept like a thief through the many chinks in the shelter. She brought the cloak with her and the small bundle of clothing she owned. From underneath a snowdrift she uncovered the small shovel she had "borrowed" from the Resvan household. She removed a candle stub from the sleeve of one arm and a small tinderbox from the other. Carefully she lit the wick and sheltered the feeble flame in a half-broken bottle. It made a rather good lantern if she did say so herself.

Trudging through the knee-deep snow, her legs chilled beyond the point of numbness, she battled the fierce wind that blew while protecting her only source of light. She knew where her friend's corpse lay besides that of the village Necromancer. She also knew that there would be no guards watching over them for no sane person would dare venture out in such harsh weather. But River would.

An eternity later she arrived at the small circle where the two unfortunate victims had been immolated. Nothing remained but the charred stakes hammered deeply into the frozen ground and the burnt remains of her friend and the Necromancer. At the sight a fiery anger ignited within her. Silently she vowed vengeance upon Luca who had wrought this tragedy with her vindictive ways.

Carefully the girl placed her makeshift lantern in the snow and removed her leather gloves. She would let there be no barrier between herself and her friend, not even to save her fingers from frostbite. She deserved the pain; it was the only worthy sacrifice she could give Mag, who had suffered unnecessarily in the tormenting pyre.

Singing some half-remembered ditty, she placed the remains in her cloak. Most of it crumbled at her touch while others stubbornly remained frozen to the ground. Everything was covered in a fine dusting of frost and snow. With great determination she scrapped up every last remnant with her bare hands. The pain was refreshing, exhilarating.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered repeatedly, in a small child-like voice. Maybe if she said it enough, she would be forgiven.

Rising she slung her burden over her shoulder and picked up her shovel and lantern. Quickly–or as quickly as knee-deep snow would allow–she made her way to the graveyard, navigating the thick darkness with only the wan light of the nearly spent candle to light the way. The wind howled around her, angrily flinging harsh slivers of ice at her. Gritting her teeth against the biting cold, she continued relentlessly even though she was chilled to the bone. Was the cold any worse than the heat that Mag had faced?

The stiff wind blew damp flakes of gray snow to coat her lashes and hair. She stared at the silently mournful stones poking up haphazardly through the white blanket. Overhead boughs creaked and groaned under their icy burden. The wind died to a lonely whisper and then faded into the suffocating silence of the night.

Absently she rubbed her throbbing temples, as she knelt down and began to dig into the icy snow with her stolen shovel. Time slowed down to the rasp of metal against frozen dirt and the stinging drip of sweat into her eyes. Her arms burned from the exertion. Each muscle throbbed in protest and the blinding pain in her head increased.

The shovel's handle shattered in her hands and she didn't stop, didn't even pause. She forced her numb fingers into the dirt and clawed out handfuls of dirt and rocks. Small grunts and cries emerged from her pale lips, incomprehensible words and rage filled oaths. Her nails broke and ripped off, her fingers bled profusely as she dug them into the hard dirt and scrapped off the flesh. She couldn't feel any of this above the numbing cold in her hands and the chaotic winds of rage sweeping through her unstable mind.

"Dammit." She gripped her throbbing head and doubled over. Tiny knives dug through the tissue of her brain and ripped open her skull, or that's what it felt like. She picked up the broken shovel handle and slammed it into the side of her head. For a moment the pain vanished, but then it returned with thunderous force.

Screaming and crying tearlessly, she placed the remains in the small hole and covered them in bloody dirt. The agony in her skull drove down into her stomach, from there it sent sentinels out into her very nerve endings.

Too much, everything hurt too much. She dug her bloody fingers into her cheeks and screamed again. The sound echoed about her and then came back to bombard her ears.


From the depths of her mind something stirred, opened one omniscient eye and blinked. It gathered up the pain like a fisherman pulling in a net and wound it into a tight ball in her lungs. With great patience the eye awaited her decision. Would she use the gift it had bestowed and how?

An insidious voice that seemed to crawl forth from a great distance called her name and whispered of powerful secrets. All she had to do was release…something, no she couldn't. The voice told her to remember the killer of her friend, her mother and all the cruel people in the village.

"Take your revenge. Raise the latent power."

The eye watched her, oblivious to the voice and impassive to the girl's plight.

"Use it, girl. Release it."

"Stop it."

"Hurry. It's time."

"Be quiet." The sphere of pain, of power, lodged in her lungs jumped in response to her rising emotions.

"Do it!"

"Leave me be!" She threw her head back and shrieked the final word. The orb shot forth from her open mouth. She stared at it in surprise as her pain floated there, pale blue swirls flowing across its glow. She reached out one trembling hand and touched it.

A horrible, wrenching howl filled her startled ears. The graveyard exploded with light as the ball burst. Dozens of slumbering corpses shifted and stirred and she could feel each one. The voice laughed and the eye closed. Again she was alone, but the earth seethed with the combined efforts of mindless cadavers.

Skeletal hands thrust through the frozen earth and all she could think of was her dream. They had finally come for her, finally come to take her back. Ivory bones hauled themselves to the surface and attempted to organize into some semblance of the creature they had once been.

"No…No! Please gods, no!" She scrambled up and dashed through the churning sea of partially assembled skeletons. Several bony hands ripped into her ankles and calves, but she plowed forward, odd little noises seeping from her stretched mouth.

She stumbled through the eerily silent forest, shrieking as the branches snagged in her wildly flying hair and thinking that it was the grasping fingers of the dead. Shadows became menacing adversaries trying to ensnare her and the silence drew taught wires of fear about her lungs.

"Mommy! Mommy!" River called out to a fairytale fantasy from her childhood. In her mind's eye she saw a woman who vaguely resembled her mother, but was warm and kindhearted. The woman would open her arms, face all smiles, and welcome a frightened child with reassurance and love.

She hurtled herself into this image, surrounded herself with it.

The ground fell away into the thinly iced surface of the river. The girl plunged heedlessly into the frigid waters, a blissful smile on her face. Where she was no cold would reach.