To Burn A While Longer
rating: +7+x

You limp into the forest, slogging through snow which rises past your ankles. It is nearly evening, and soon you will need to set up camp for the night. You have no need of matches or wood to start a fire, but you would much rather make use of those physical objects than resort to the dangerous, costly, and unpredictable alternative.

You had known it would be cold when you set out this morning. It was not a naive sort of knowledge, where one thinks of cold merely as the opposite or absence of heat. You understood the nature of the cold, having trekked north for several weeks through gradually dropping temperatures while donning gradually thicker clothing. The cold was a slow killer, one that could sneak up on the unaware but never threaten the adequately prepared. Your winter garments and well-laid plans were all you needed to protect yourself from the snow and ice. At least, that's what you thought this morning.

You could not have have predicted the afternoon blizzard, how the skies would go from clear to cloudy to blinding white in what seemed like moments. You should have known how quickly the heat would be torn from your body by the harsh winds. Removing a glove for but a moment risked numbness, frostbitten fingers, or worse. You had taken the sun's warmth for granted, a small comfort in a hostile wilderness. Now a drop of water falling from your bottle would freeze long before it hit the ground beneath the merciless grey skies.

And yet.

And yet you continue. You push on, because there is no other choice. You can feel the sacred knowledge burning in your mind, a determination beyond mere human motivation. You know the way you must go, the direction your feet will carry you in until you reach your journey's end or die trying. Unwavering, undoubtable, the knowledge is something between faith and background noise, as if the notes of birdsong or the rustling of the wind communicated divine, inescapable truths. Ever since it found you, it has lead you onward. Like a compass carved into your consciousness, the guidance it provides leads you towards your true destination regardless of space or time. It has sent you in a straight line through this icy, barren, unforgiving wasteland, with nothing more or less than the absolute, unshakable faith that your arrival is inevitable.

And yet.

And yet you are still human, and a human in your pitiful present condition must find warmth soon, no matter where they are going or why they are going there. Your feet and hands and face have long since become numb, the cold robbing your extremities and exposed skin of any trace of warmth and life. You can barely move your fingers even within the insulation of the gloves. Your feet feel like stones, and ice clings to your nose. You feel as if you want to sleep, but you know if you close your eyes now that you will never open them again. You remove your gloved hands from your pockets, pull your hatchet from your belt, and hack a rune of protection into the bark to ward off those things which roam the northern forests at night. The sound of metal against wood feels out of place after hours of the quiet hisses and sloshes of boots on snow. Your work on the ward is sloppy, but it will suffice. When it is done, you let the hatchet fall to the ground. You will not need it to start a fire, and if you cannot start a fire soon you will not have need of anything ever again. You feel very, very cold. Your gloves have already begun to freeze solid, forcing your hands to remain shaped as if they were still holding some tool. Distantly, you recognize that your fingers might become frostbitten if you don't warm them soon.

You fail to recognize how the slow onset of hypothermia has already begun to dull your mind.

You wander into the woods in the fading afternoon light. There is dry wood on the ground, perfect for a fire, you think.

And then it is sunset, and you are somehow even colder than before, and there is a pile of wood in front of you, and your gloves are covered in snow. You must have gathered it, placed it there, but you cannot remember doing so. Memory escapes you, the concept of the past leaking from your mind. The only things in your world are the pile of sticks, the cold, and the sacred, unforgettable knowledge. You stare dumbly at the twigs for a while, until somewhere in your slowly freezing body a lone synapse desperately fires and you move once again. You fumble with your pack, pull it off, struggle to open it. Then the pack is open, and you can see inside. The matches are there, in the bottom. You try once, twice, three times to pull out the maddeningly small box of matches. You forget what the box is for a moment, only knowing that it represents your last hope for survival.

The pack is open.
You need the matches.
The pack is open.
You're cold.
The pack is open.

You gaze mindlessly into the pack, and then violently shake your head to clear your mind for the last time.

One more shot.

In those precious moments of lucidity, you gingerly try to pull out the matches. You know you will only have one chance, one opportunity to survive. And the box is opened, and the matches spill onto the dark snow. You do not see where they land. The matches are gone. Despair, until you look inside the box and see a lone match left inside, your last hope. You carefully put it into you hand, struggle to grip it with the last hint of strength in your dying fingers, and strike it. It lights for an instant, and then snaps in two in your clumsy grip. The pieces fall to the ground, one aflame, one icy, before they are both swallowed by the shadowy snow.

You stare uncomprehending at the ground.

There are no more matches.

Death. Cold, alone.

Resigned to your fate, your ultimate failure, you fall back against the tree you had so hopefully carved the ward into in hopes of surviving another day. A wave of warmth washes over you, and you do not have the mental capacity left to realize how impossible the sensation is. You relax into the falsehood of heat produced by your brain in the last stages of death by hypothermia, and slide slowly to the ground. As your head sinks into the snow, it's peaceful. It's quiet. No more treks across fields and forests, braving the cold and frost. You close your eyes. The image of the broken matchstick, of fire and ice, lingers in your mind.

And, miraculously, you remember there is something else in your mind. The knowledge, the glowing purpose burned into your soul. It violently reminds you why you have ventured to this place, and how you got here, and what you must do.

It will not allow you to rest. You open your eyes.
It will not allow you to despair. You rise to your feet.
It will not allow you to fail. You step forward.
It will not allow you to die. You reach out.

If you had been granted time, and dexterous unfrozen fingers, and the capacity for more complex thoughts, you would have executed this more carefully, planning it out well beforehand. Ideally, the ritual should have cost nothing more than a few drops of blood, some strength, and a trivial memory or two. In the right hands, those small sacrifices could easily have created a slow-burning fire that would have kept you warm for the night. But you are freezing to death, and you can't move your fingers, and your mind is being immolated by the inexorable urge, not to survive, but to move towards your holy destination. Right now, it is all or nothing, and somewhere between all or nothing you must find something, anything, to give up in order to keep yourself alive and fulfill your only goal.

You reach out your hand, focused by the indomitable, divine will overtaking your mind, and offer yourself to the spell.

A blast of heat sends you reeling as the magic extinguishes the last of your strength, consumes half a liter of blood, destroys the memories of your childhood home, and obliterates a literal handful of your frozen digits, which silently wink out of existence one after another. You collapse, completely drained, before the inferno. It burns larger than your exhausted mind can comprehend, fueled by the tiny sticks at its center and the eternal, irreducible promise in your mind. As you crawl closer to the heat of the flames, your eyes fall upon your right glove. It is turning red with blood, and you pull it off to look at the stumps where your fingers used to be on your ruined right hand. The warmth slowly enters your brain, and only then do you slowly begin to grasp what has happened.

You accept it. Without question, without regret.

You are one day closer to the place you must go.

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