About a mile further on from the stream, it began to snow - soft, gentle flurries that caressed my cheeks like frozen kisses. I moved on, inconsiderate of the present in my newfound obsession with the past.
It seemed to me that I was dreaming - or that everything up to that moment had been a dream. Once-cherished memories had begun to squirm and shift away from my mind's eye, the details as vague as my future. The streets of Riverbend disappeared from my mental catalogue - and not just the cartography. I strained to recall what simple sensations I could - the smell of fresh bread, the chirping of crickets, the splash of water buckets emptied onto cobblestone streets.
With a shock I realized I had forgotten my mother's face.
I was Jerek no more. The farm boy was well and truly dead. Who I was now - that was an open question.
The old man had remade me. But in whose image? I had no idea, and even less idea if I could kill this Hermit, whoever he was. Wherever he was. To my chagrin I realized there was no way to tell which way I should be going - or even, in the darkness, which way I should be going.
I stopped moving. The hopelessness of my situation had just begun to dawn on me. I was alone, miles from anywhere. I had no food, no money, no possessions of any kind. Even if I found the other side of this forest, there was nowhere I could go. I had started this trip intending to kill myself, and it looked as though I would fully and finally succeed.
The snow was falling harder.
I sat down at the base of an old oak tree and leaned against it. I was exhausted. My failures had been building for years now, I realized. I hadn't understood Amanda, or saved her when she needed me most. I hadn't brought the butcher to justice. I hadn't even killed myself right. It would be easier, I realized, as I settled deeper into the old oak's rooty embrace, never to try anything at all.
I closed my eyes. The snow fell hard all around me, big, fat, yawning flakes. Each one made a tiny puff in the still air as it landed around me. It was soothing. Still. Quiet. The way I liked my winter nights.
I yawned. There would be no going back if I closed my eyes. By the time I woke up, the snow would have buried me alive.
I closed my eyes.
In my dream, I was floating on a bed of feathers. The feathers carried me up, high, into the clouds. Then it turned cold. I froze, and the feathers became snow. I fell, as a snowflake, and in every other snowflake I could see the face of someone I had disappointed. Chilled and hungry, I reached the ground. My clothes melted away and the snow became laughter - vicious, taunting, jeering, mocking laughter that burned at me like acid.
And I woke up, and I was still burning.
The laughter hadn't stopped either, but now it was of a more piercing, high-pitched, maniacal variety. I opened my eyes to the most terrifying sight I had ever beheld.
It was a man - or something like a man. He was angular, short and scaly - what I could see of him, that is. My view was obscured by his thick fur coat and the massive fireball heading straight for me.
I yelped. The strange half-man took no notice. The flames, I realized, were part of a stream being blasted out of his coat by some infernal mechanism.
"Hold still!" he shouted as I cringed from the blast. "You've still got some on you!"
"Some what?" I yelled back, taking a big gulp of hot air that scorched my chest in the process.
"Snow!" barked the half-man, and he proceeded to hose me down with flaming gases.
I was too busy on my knees coughing to point out to him that I knew the snow was there, and I preferred it to a crazed demonic midget with a penchant for burning things.
"You're attracting the most Worry Snow I've ever seen in one place," the half-man said. "We've got to get you inside. Come with me."
"But I don't -"
"You're coming," he said, so authoritatively that I was up and walking before I knew it.
"Where are we going?" I asked, when it occurred to me.
"That's the question, isn't it?" the half-man mused. "Can we ever really know where we're going? Arguably, random chance plays a greater role in our destinies than any action we ourselves might take."
"I meant, where are you taking me?"
"Ah! I misunderstood."
The half-man was silent. I did not ask again.