I found myself in a little boat, rowing placidly. I lifted my head. My vision took a moment to focus. A group of other embers rowed some distance ahead of me. My canoe bobbed rhythmically in the slow-moving current. The gap between my boat and the group ahead grew steadily. What was the hurry? We were all ending up in the same place. Inevitably.
My chest hurt. But only for a moment. Soon, I would rest.
The group stopped ahead. They’d reached the gate. Its stone face stretched up as far as I could see, covered in carvings of the Campfire. Little blue birds perched on its columns. They looked down at us inquisitively. The Campfire was near!
The leader pulled a lanthorn from their satchel and blew a short, melancholy tune. The etchings in the gate illuminated, the birds scattered, the rock crumbled slightly… and the gate slid open. The group rowed on, without so much as a glance back at me.
Yet, my strokes remained unhurried. One bird landed on the bow of my canoe. I smiled slightly, setting my oar down for a moment. I reached out a hand to touch its feathers—and the bird took to the air. I fell back with a small gasp, startled by its sudden movement. My canoe rocked. In an instant, my oar was gone.
After a horrified, frozen moment, I jumped to my feet, gripping the side of my boat as I floated helplessly past the gate. I leaned over the side to paddle with my hands. I teetered alarmingly, and I was lucky it was just my hands that plunged into the shockingly cold water. I rolled back into the center of the boat, breathing hard, trying to shake the cold from my fingers. The others, who either didn’t notice me or didn’t care, continued on to the comforting light of the Campfire. I could only watch. A new inevitability approached.
Before, the light had beckoned. Of course, it hurt when I thought of… before. What little I could remember of them, through the single-minded fog driving me forward. But even that pain had been softened by the thought of finally resting by the Campfire. I kept my eyes on the light as long as I could, squinting through the dark branches creaking to life around me. Their spindly fingers seemed to grow before my eyes, reaching up, up, up to choke out the light.
I huddled in my canoe as the light dwindled—perhaps my light as well—and the cold in my hands seeped up my arms, into my body. The darkness made the air thick. It pressed all around me. Why, why, why…? I traced the pattern on the hem of my red cloak, seeking comfort in the familiar shapes, but it was getting harder to see.
I covered my eyes. Perhaps mercifully, my racing thoughts were silenced.
And all was dark.