The blizzard was raging.
It paid no attention to a lone figure, gripping her dark cloak tight and holding up a lantern to light her way. Snow soaked past the white socks and black flats she wore and the wind whipped the pink and red dress she wore. The only protection of her Halloween costume was the white sweater she wore under the dress. She let out a grunt when the wind pushed her back, but she continued.
A loud yell made her look up. The blonde let out a yelp, dodging a black mass. She turned at a groan.
The enchanted crow looked up at her voice. "Mabel! There you are- where's Lennox?"
Mabel frowned. "I don't know. You...you should go home. Your family's worried about you."
"No! Not until we can find Lennox."
The two stared at each other. Mabel finally let out a sigh. "Okay." She grabbed the crow and lifted her up. "Did you see any sign of him?" With a wing, a direction was pointed. The girl set off in that direction, struggling against the storm.
It felt like hours, fighting against the fury of snow and winter. Mabel looked up when the wind stopped. The sky had gone dark and the blizzard had stopped. The forest was silent. Snow crunched under her feet as she walked, the sound too loud.
She entered a clearing.
A strangled cry escaped her when she saw the sapling. It was slowly growing around a young boy, dressed in dark pants and vest and a white shirt. Dark bags stood out from his pale skin, frostbite starting to set in. Mabel ran to her brother, Audrey perching on one of the branches. She managed to press her fingers against Lennox's pale throat, a steady beat reassuring her. He was still alive.
"We gotta get him out of there."
She stood. Before she could reach out and grab the branches, a groan caught her by surprise. She turned to see a grey-haired man, dressed in the clothes of a woodcutter, fall to the ground. "Woodcutter...?"
Mabel looked up.
A dark shadow stood over the old man, two glowing eyes staring at her. The landscape had darkened, leaving only a circle of light in the clearing. The creature- no, the Beast, spoke. "Give me my lantern, girl."
"Your lantern?" She snuck a glance at the silver lantern. It looked like any lantern- four large windows providing plenty of light and a door that swung open. There was a spout to provide oil. Little stars had been punched out in the top. It looked normal, it looked... innocent.
"No way," Audrey said. "We need this."
"Yeah, I'm keeping this. I have to get Lennox home."
The Beast watched her. "Your brother is too weak to return home. He'll soon become a part of my forest." Was that just her, or was there relish in his voice?
"I won't let that happen!" This was her fault after all. Her and that stupid song's fault...Lennox didn't deserve to pay for her mistakes. He didn't deserve any of this.
There was a moment. "Well then. We better make a deal."
Ignoring the quiet gasp from the Woodcutter, the Beast continued. "I can put his soul in the lantern. As long as you keep the flame lit, he will live on inside." Mabel glanced at her dying brother. He was so pale... "Take on the task as lantern bearer?"
She bit her lip and then sighed. "Okay."
"Good girl. Come here."
Mabel quietly stepped forward, Audrey watching with horror-filled eyes. The branches around Lennox had stopped their growth. She moved to set the lantern down when a thought hit her. "Wait. That's dumb."
"That's dumb." She continued. Don't believe his lies... "I'm not going to wander around the woods for the rest of my life."
He spoke, anger trembling through his voice. "I'm trying to help you!"
"No, you're not!" Strength entered her. "You just have a weird obsession with keeping this lantern lit. It's almost like..." She stopped, realization entering her. She turned to stare, wide-eyed, at the lantern.
The Beast tackled her. Mabel let out a cry as the lantern slipped from her fingers and everything went dark. It was like she was blind. She managed to get to her feet, hands waving in front of her.
"Here!" Audrey cried out desperately from the darkness. "Mabel, we're over here!" The girl headed in the direction she called from, hands finding the sapling. Much to her horror, the growth had started again, this time much faster. The crow-girl had been trying to stop them with her beak. With every moment, Lennox was further trapped. Mabel immediately began to pull and kick- what she should've been able to break off easily had the strength of stone.
She began to search the darkness desperately. The Woodcutter had an ax, she could use it- how far away had he fallen? Mabel couldn't even hear his pained groaning anymore. In the time it would take her to blindly search for the ax, would it be too late for her little brother?
Her head snapped back to the tree. Tears, born of anxiety, sprung to her eyes, blurring her vision of the small boy. Nonononononono, please, no...
There was no time to think.
"I'LL DO IT!"
The growth ceased.
Several seconds of silence.
Then anything remaining in Mabel's vision bled away, leaving her in a dark void.
Then the void was filled with a booming voice.
"YOU'LL DO WHAT?"
She shuddered, wiping her tears on her arm. She stared into the abyss with red eyes, trying to look somewhat collected. "Look..." She began. "You and I both know what's really in that lantern. You need the oil-" Oil made from the dead dying again. "To fuel it." She took a gulp. "I'll help you. I'll cut the trees. I'll grind out the oil. I'll fuel the lantern. You don't need to lie to me about the lantern or the trees or the song, just...just let me take my brother home."
Then light came flooding back, leaving her dizzy. She looked up.
The Beast, lantern in hand, stood in front of her. Audrey, completely still, and the Woodcutter, still on the ground, stared at her in horror. The latter's eyes were bouncing from her to the demon she was selling her soul to.
"...You may take your brother home, safe and alive." His tone was solemn. A hand reached out, gnarled smoothness tracing over her cheek to cup her chin. "But you will not go back with him. Your life for your brother's."
She took a gulp of air, swallowing thickly. "Deal."
"NO!" The Woodcutter yelled, struggling weakly in the snow. The two ignored him. The Beast slunk back into the shadows, giving a short nod to Lennox before disappearing entirely. Mabel immediately rushed to the boy's side, not noticing a new path with a light at the end.
Much to her relief, the branches that had been full of life were dead and brittle. They crumbled under her touch. The boy let out a loud gasp and fell into her arms. He remained unconscious as she hugged him tightly and cried into his shoulder. Audrey struggled for something to say.
"Come with us." She said, hoisting the small but alive boy into her arms.
"I..." She looked down. "I gotta go home too. It's time to tell my family that it's my fault they're all birds." She looked up at a small cough. Mabel held up the golden matchbox with a small smile. The crow flapped upwards in surprise. "What?!"
"The matches. They'll make you human again, right?"
"You had them all along?!"
"I used them to escape Mary and yeah, I was sorta mad at you."
The crow couldn't help her tears anymore. "Oh, you..." She flew up, perching on her shoulder to hug her face. "You wonderful, wonderful girl." Mabel brought up a hand to hug Audrey back, then held out the matches. She took it, flying into the shadows. She only looked back once.
"You fool!" The Woodcutter yelled from the snow. "Don't you realize what you've done?"
She sighed with a slight tremor as she glanced back at him. Mabel was too tired to shed any more tears. "I know what it's saved." She turned away and began her trek on the path, noticing how the light at the end seemed to swallow them up.
She took a deep breath, gripping Lennox...
And swam upwards.
The river in the night shimmered around her as she swam up. Only a meter from shore, her leg snagged on something. She threw Lennox to the surface, watching as he floated upwards. There was a small cough and a pair of hands pulled him out. A smile tugged on her lips.
Lennox was home.
He was safe.
The snag on her leg yanked. She tried to swim upwards, a small sliver of hope whispering she could save herself, but she was only dragged further down. A fire began in Mabel's oxygen-deprived lungs as her vision began to tunnel, but she saw two white lights.
She had the faint sensation of falling into someone's arms.
Drowning wasn't supposed to be this peaceful.
She let out the breath she'd been holding.