It was easy to find her.
“Can’t you feel that?” Ed said to Marisol as she followed him through the woods.
“Other than the fact that it’s freezing out here, no. I can’t feel anything.”
“That’s what I mean,” said Ed. “It’s cold everywhere. Except that way.” He pointed deeper in the woods.
He could feel the cold all around him. It was wrapped around every inch of his town and his woods. Except for one spot. One spot that burned a hold though his awareness like a lit charcoal in the snow. That’s what he saw when he looked at Kristen. It’s what he had always seen. The only warmth that could penetrate his armor of ice.
Ed trudged forward. Marisol followed.
It was dark. The sky was nearly black and there was no moon. It had been months since Ed had seen the moon. Maybe Kristen and her friends really had bottled it. It didn’t matter. Ed had never needed light to walk through these woods.
He heard Marisol’s footsteps crunching through the frozen snow as they walked. Only her footsteps. His didn’t make a sound. He wondered if that had always happened, and he just didn’t notice. It didn’t matter. They kept walking.
“We’re nearly there,” said Ed some time later.
“Good,” said Marisol. Ed heard her teeth chattering. He realized she must be freezing.
“You should go back,” he said. “You’re going to freeze to death.”
“Nice try,” said Marisol, her numb tongue slurring her words. “You need me. Besides, I wouldn’t know how to get back from here anyway. I am thinking about hot chocolate, though. Hot, scalding, delicious chocolate.”
Ed smiled, but didn’t say anything. He kept walking, one silent step after another.
“Hello, Ed,” said a voice from ahead of them.
“Hello, Arnaud,” said Ed.
“I knew that bastard was still alive,” said Bagel’s voice from out of the darkness. “You owe me ten bucks.”
“I’m glad he’s still alive,” Ed heard Razor say. “That means we get to kill him. I wonder what his blood tastes like?”
“You don’t have to do this,” said Ed. “You can walk away.”
“No, Ed,” said Arnaud. “We really can’t.” Ed heard rustling from a nearby copse of trees, and Arnaud’s hulking form stepped out. The starlight was too dim for Ed to make out features, but he could see an outline. Enough to tell that whatever had happened to Arnaud had gotten worse. His chest and shoulders were lumpy and distended, like he was covered in tumors. And he was enormous. More shapes came out from the trees to join him.
“She woke us up,” said Bagel. “Kristen did. Do you have any idea what that feels like? How can we go back from that?”
“Woke us up…” Marisol said from behind Ed. He had forgotten she was there.
“Kristen can’t be disturbed right now,” said Arnaud. “It’s a delicate period. If you insist on coming forward, that means we have to kill you. There aint no other way.”
“Metalic, I bet,” said Razor. “And cold. Like chilled Sancerre.”
“Alright,” said Ed. “I guess we do this, then.”
“Damn right,” said Bagel. “Killing time!”
Marisol groaned. “Killing time? Seriously? You’re going with that?”
“What’s wrong with killing time? I thought it was good. Was it not good?”
Ed didn’t wait for bagel to finish. He stepped forward and got to work.
There wasn’t anyone to see how it went down, there in the lonely darkness. It occurred to Ed that it would probably have been something to see. Hiss body knew what to do, and he didn’t see much reason to get in its way. Huge fists smashed into him. Something wet and sharp that must have been Razor’s tongue cut along his neck and the inside of his thigh, looking for a vein. Looking to draw blood that wasn’t there. Tiny blades slashed into his arms and his chest and his face.
None of it hurt. None of it mattered. Then it was his turn.
It didn’t take long.
“Ed?” said Marisol after a few moments of silence.
“I’m here,” he said. “It’s done.”
“I don’t know,” said Ed. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go.”
They walked on. They were no longer in a part of the woods Ed recognized. It didn’t feel like his woods anymore. This was Kristen’s territory. Whatever the hell that meant. Her lackeys must have been guarding the entrance.
“It’s warmer,” said Marisol after a while. “A lot warmer.”
Ed nodded. “That means we’re getting close.”
“You’re closer than you think,” said a voice. “Hi, Ed!”
It wasn’t Kristen.
“Marcy?” said Marisol. “Is that you.”
“Yep!” said Marcy. “Hi, Marisol!”
She leapt out of a group of shrubs. Ed could see her eyes. They were huge. Bigger than the entire rest of her head. And her mouth was stretched all the way around behind her neck. He realized he could see her. It had gotten lighter. It didn’t look like sunlight. It looked like firelight. But he had no idea where it was coming from.
“What are you doing here?” said Marisol.
“I’m here to talk Ed out of doing what he’s about to do,” said Marcy.
“Your friends didn’t so that so well,” said Ed.
“Yeah,” said Marisol. “And there were a lot more of them.”
Marcy shook her head. Her eyes jiggled like they were full of jello. “I’m not here to fight you. I’m here to warn you. She’s going to kill you.”
“She already tried that,” said Ed. He touched the knife hole in his jacket. “It didn’t stick.”
Marcy giggled. “Oh, she didn’t really think that wouldn’t work. That was just a sacrifice. Heartsblood. It still counts, even if, you know, you didn’t die. And there wasn’t any blood.”
Marcy stepped forward. She reached out and poked Ed in the nose. “She just need to borrow some power. And get in touch with the head honchos. They thought the fire would be enough. Apparently not. She knows what can kill you, now. She’s shaping it. Making a weapon, just for you. Don’t you feel lucky?”
“She’s stalling,” said Marisol.
“Huh?” said Ed.
“Don’t you see. She’s stalling for time. Kristen’s working on this weapon or whatever, and it isn’t done. Ed, we need to hurry!”
Ed’s eyes widened. He moved forward to push past Marcy. Marcy’s mouth opened, and kept opening. She started to laugh. A high, staccato sound that bounced sharply through the trees.
“You’re fucked, Ed!” She screeched as he and Marisol went past. “You were fucked from the moment your cold, dead seed was born into this broken and exhausted world! You fucked everyone you ever touched, and now the universe is fucking back!”
The voice cut into Ed’s mind, and he could see Marisol clutching at her ears. They moved faster. But they could still feel that voice, that laughter. It sliced into them like it was inches away.
“You’re all fucked! Isn’t that glorious? This will all be made right! The shattered secret will be whole!”
It was a long time until they could no longer feel the laughter. By the time it died away the scene around them looked very different. The snow was all melted, now. And the trees were all burned. Some of them were scorched trunks that still jutted into the sky, but many had been reduced to cinders. Ed saw Marisol take off her coat and drop it on the ground.
“I’m not going to need it,” she said.
Ed kept his on. He felt warm, but it had nothing to do with what he was wearing. Only one thing made him feel warm. And they were nearly upon it.
They saw it long before they got there. A bonfire. It looked nearby, but it was a trick of perspective. It was much, much larger than it looked. All of the bonfires of the world, burning as one. It lit up the sky, like a dying sun barely warming a lifeless planet somewhere in the dead reaches of space.
But it wasn’t a fire. Not really. Ed knew that long before they got close enough to make it out.
It was her. She was resting. Waiting for them. Whatever she had been preparing, it was finished.
“Hello, Ed.” It sounded like her, but also it didn’t. The human voice was a trickle amidst the roaring waterfall.
“Hi, Kristen,” he said.
“I can taste the cold of your skin,” she said. “And what lies within it. Are you ready to die?”
“No,” said Ed. “Not really.”
“Good.” He saw a tongue of flame dance inside the conflagration. Like a wicked smile. “Then let’s begin.”