Frost covered the dead leaves that lay scattered along the edges of the sidewalk, catching the light from the full moon so that it sparkled and glowed with a blue tint; it was the same shade as Muriel's frozen breath that hung heavily in the air around her, stinging her lips with every breath.
Muriel wore a gray polyester coat with a pink wool scarf, that only partially protected her from the weather, and faded blue jeans with torn and muddy hems that dragged on the sidewalk and hooked underneath the thick heels of her cheap black boots. She couldn't remember when her feet had gone numb, and she didn't know how long it had been since she left home – she had left her cellphone behind to prevent herself from being found. On her head she wore a cabled beanie that she had knitted herself out of chunky gray wool, covering her soft wavy brown hair, and her cheeks were flushed beneath red, teary eyes. Muriel's hands were bare, and almost purple from the cold, but she clutched the straps of her gray backpack with grim determination to never let go. Everything she owned in the world was inside that bag.
It was going to start snowing soon; she could feel it in the air. Somehow, it seemed, that was the only thing that she could feel.
She had to keep going. She didn't know where she would stop, but that didn't matter as much as getting as far away as she could. If she stopped, Muriel felt sure that would be the end of her, and the ache in her chest wanted to keep throbbing for as long as it could. As she crossed the street, she could feel how slowly her numb and tired legs were carrying her, and she wanted to start crying again, but she had to keep going.
An unexpected sound, guttural and unearthly, caught her footsteps and forced her to a halt. She was standing directly underneath a streetlight, and couldn't make out anything in the darkness beyond the circle of light surrounding her, but the sound sent a different sort of cold piercing through her, hurting her throat and her heart, choking and silencing her. It terrified her more than the possibility of freezing to death out there alone. She couldn't see the source of the sound, but she knew it was there, watching her. Waiting.
Suddenly, it felt as if her body was being ripped apart, and she fell to her knees, unable to scream out in pain. Did she still know how to breathe? Darkness pulled at everything inside of her, taking her sight, her blood, her voice. Soon there would be nothing left of her.
Then light began flowing around her, lifting her up and encircling her, breathing for her, like a beautiful song, and her heart began to beat again.
Was this death?
It was sweeter than life.
The light receded and the cold crept back in, leaving her lying on her back on the concrete, staring up at the stars twinkling above her. The streetlight above her was dark ghost against the night sky.
She turned toward the voice that had sounded like velvet masculinity, and found herself looking into a man's face that was foreign, yet familiar, with bright blue eyes that was surrounded by white-blonde hair. Slowly and shakily she pushed herself up then asked with a weak and broken voice, "What happened?"
"You were beset by a Grim," the man replied. "It took a large portion of your soul."
The words sounded strange and didn't make much sense. Muriel didn't know what a Grim was, or what losing her soul meant. "Is that death?" she asked.
"Losing all of your soul is," he answered, looking into the darkness in front of them for a moment, before continuing, "but souls can fragment. It's normal to lose a piece here and there from overwhelming events in life; usually not so much."
"I lost a lot?"
Muriel's stomach churned and moved up into her throat. She didn't know what that would mean for her, and it scared her. Was her life shortened? She felt dizzy, but, although she wanted to cry, she couldn't find the ability to do so. A dull pain blocked her voice, preventing her from expressing anything.
The man pulled a small knife from his belt and nicked his finger, then drew something on Muriel's forehead with his blood. "I pledge my life to Muriel Gardner, as her servant and protector, until her soul is returned to her," he vowed.
"What?!" Muriel gasped, disbelieving what she had just heard.
The man put his knife away and held out his hand to her. "Come, it's not healthy to lounge around outside in this weather."
When she didn't move, he grabbed her arm, and hauled her to her feet, taking a moment to steady her before letting go.
"How did you know my name?" she asked. "Have we met before?"
"In a way, we have. I am from the Light." He paused, then added, "Like an angel."
"What's your name?"
Muriel shivered, and he gestured for her to follow him. He didn't ask if she had anywhere to go, and she didn't say that she was alone. Somehow Muriel knew that her fate rested in the hands of this stranger with the pretty blue eyes and oddly familiar face, so she went willingly and unquestioningly with him. It seemed as if she was watching herself walk with the man, clinging tightly onto his arm for warmth, from somewhere far above them. Behind them the streetlight flickered back on, as clouds began to fill the sky, and small flurries began to fall, and it looked like something out of a dream.