The police found the tire tracks. That was easy enough; the area was still crunchy with fresh-strewn snow, and the perp had skidded all over the place in his haste to get away.

They found the spot where the car had idled for a while, melting the snow beneath it and leaving a quartet of tire impressions in the night’s heavy snowfall.

That was the easy part. And it was easy to see that they hadn’t missed anything. There were no tracks leading away, no footprints, and no trace of the $5000 stashed in a garbage bag from the holdup.

The problems arose when they had to ask where, exactly, the truck and its occupant had gone.

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Snow begins with shadow.

Sharp, frenzied cries pierce the dark. He is running now, his friends forgotten, through calf-deep drifts. Even when the cries have stopped, he can hear and he can feel.

Snow finalizes shadow.

There was no warning. Darkness given shape and form had risen up and battered the campsite to ash. Only the screaming blanket of wind, which siphoned warmth in lieu of gifting it, remained.

Snow is shadow.

The shape was behind and in front, a marriage of dark and light. Everywhere and nowhere, looming. He falls. Blood from the gaping injury completes the snow, speckled across a surface that it returns to ancestral water. Darkness devoured the ice. It shone in the rising moon, as the shadow upon its surface receded.

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White white. Endless frigid, colorless expanses, its desolation sparkling in crystal. All the more pale, all the more cold, all the more colorless for the few shades that try to color it, snowy white wearing fresh-ground dirt. Endless in all directions, the doom of the ill-prepared.

What’s that? A blizzard? No, I was talking about the Oscars.

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Drops of the endless frigid rain beat upon the windows of the tiny cabin, whose fire offered no warmth and whose dryness only inflamed the misery of being sodden with dryness a dim and fading memory.

“I’d have thought,” said Ellis, “that the rain would somehow be better than the snow. But, somehow, it’s worse.”

The man of the cabin, who had not offered his name, shook his head. “That expectation is exactly why the rain exists and why it never ends,” said he. “The promise of relief only makes the suffering keener for being unexpected and felt in place of relief.”

“It seems like a waste,” Ellis replied. “If suffering is what they want, why cloak it? If they want me to ache, put me on nails and pour acid in the wounds and be done with it.”

“Don’t you see?” the cabin-man sputtered. “Suffering is the why, and the how. It’s the only reason the route to the down below exists, because our suffering is the most exquisite draught, and it is carefully cultivated with the patience and skill of a master vintner.”

Ellis shook his head, thoughts of his wife and child close by. “Suffering can be withstood. There’s always hope.”

“Always hope! That’s the carrot that leads people down here, and before they know it they are in the unseen hands of a craftsman who has been making misery since the earth cooled to embers.” Ellis’s host raised his voice, speaking with the sudden conviction of a street preacher in the throes of a sermon. “Shall I tell you about the woman who found her husband, returned this way with him, only to have him dissipate into mist within sight of the Mount? Or the man who was attacked by what he thought was his son, forcing him to kill who he most loved?”

“They were fools,” Ellis said, faking a certainty he did not feel. “I’ll do better.”

“Against a foe that can move mountains, sink canyons, and extract the rarest suffering from any of us like a gourmet sucking marrow from a split bone? No. For every angle you think you know, they know a dozen you don’t. For every strategy, a dozen countermoves.”

Ellis glared at his host. “If you feel that way, why are you here? Why not leave?”

“Because if I leave, I cannot warn others. I cannot relate the stories of the lost. I am a sin eater of sorts here, resigned to my suffering in hopes of lessening that of others. It is the only succor I have found in this place, and at times I fear that even that is but another illusion.”

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The shadow’s voice dripped with irony-laced joy, its words battered with equal parts honey and poison. “Do you really think that such a thing is possible? The ritual of key and coin is a farce, a trap! You came willingly to the down below, as have many before you, seeking the impossible, only to find yourself in the same trap as those you would rescue.”

“That’s not true!” Ellis growled between teeth clenched against the chill of the down below. It was no only a cold that knew no warmth, it was a cold that suggested warmth was a lie, that it had never been, that it was a pleasant dream scattered upon the winds of wakefulness.

“It howls at you, doesn’t it? Tears at your very soul, ribbons it into threadbare rags, this idea of yours that there’s something that can be done for your lover, your brat,” continued the shadow, ever in the periphery of Ellis’s vision and never in the center. “But every lead, every whisper, every ley line you followed was just a way to bring you into the down below. To rip at you with ice and rock unending, to cut at you with wind that will bear no warmth and light that is neither day nor darkness.”

“You would have me lay down in the snow and subject myself to this forever?” spat Ellis, the moisture condensing to ice upon his very lips.

“I would have you face reality. It was all just a way to bring you to the despair that never would have been yours had you allowed things to proceed as they were, to take your rest as it came. In trying to reach beyond it and break the order of things, you have condemned yourself as surely as those you seek to save.”

“I still have hope.”

The shadow laughed gleefully amidst the flurries and driving snow. “And that, that false and misguided hope, is as the sweetest of rare wines to me, to mine. Do you not see? Whether you suffer, whether you hope, or whether you do both, it matters not. You are but a battery, a soul in chains, and every move you might make will only bring us pleasures untold.”

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Sun Anne-Wen tapped her staff to life against the ancient and abandoned stonework, drenching the area in a light as bright as it was cold. Each breath froze in the air as she moved, and the chill was enough to cut through her carefully prepared outfit as if it were nothing.

Such was the power of the phantom snow; it was a cold not of the body but of the mind.

Indeed, Anne-Wen was able to move through the knee-high drifts without difficulty, as if they weren’t there at all. Her parka kept the real cold of the place at bay, but it was only a matter of hours–perhaps less–before the warmth was sucked from her soul and she lay down to let the elements claim her. It didn’t happen much anymore, not since the Ru-Alim academicians had puzzled out the nature of the phantom snows that had sent Anne-Wen’s ancestors fleeing from the very halls she now walked.

Emerging into a great rotunda, Anne-Wen knew that she had arrived in the place Smith Ling-Harold’s notes had described. The upper portions had collapsed, spilling masonry and stone columns into the broad arcade below, and a ring of statues honoring distinguished men and women long forgotten (except by the most obscure and learned of the Ru-Alim academicians) maintained a lonely vigil over the choking phantom snow.

But in the middle of the chamber…Anne-Wen had to pass her hand through it in disbelief. Lit by a beam of cold sunlight and sprouting impossibly from an outcrop of solid rock forced through the floor by one of the great old earthquakes…

A single, luminous flower.

Inspired by this.

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The few that had gone and returned left tales, naturally, and those tales spread far and wide on the lips of tellers who never had and never would see the place with their own eyes. They said that what you found down there reflected who you were as a person much more than any external, metaphysical reality.

Ellis wasn’t sure what a vast wasteland of frozen mountains and snow said about him. Maybe he didn’t want to know.

In the world above–say, in Antarctica–trekking through such a wasteland would have required more supplies than Ellis could possibly have carried, and far more survival training than he possessed. But that wasn’t the way down below. He got hungry but never had to eat; got thirsty but never had to drink; got cold but never had to build a fire. One might have thought that the removal of those things would have made the journey an easy one.

Instead, Ellis found his pain and suffering focused to a thin, white-hot edge. If there was no death at the end, no unconsciousness, then the pain simply brooded and grew far beyond what was possible–or even conceivable–above. Forget the stories of torments unnumbered, or even other people. The suffering of an unforgiving environment with no company but memories was infinitely worse.

There was no night and day, only a constant gray haze. As Ellis struggled through waist-deep snow and up naked rockfaces savaged by high winds, he occasionally tried to take shelter in a crevasse or eat a little snow to dull the pain. It didn’t work; the snow quenched no thirst, the deepest caves and crevasses were canvassed by the same howling polar winds, and the memories were omnipresent above them all.

Those same dilettantes, seated by cozy fires above, said that the pain down there wore away at a soul until it obliterated every trace of memory and left them to wander infinitely in their own personal “down below.” Ellis wouldn’t let that happen. He’d had no inkling of what was ahead when he had performed the ritual of key and coin to venture down below, even after all the interviews and research and preparations.

But even as the pain threatened to devour him, even as the snow and solitude made him question whether he had ever really seen another living being, Ellis pressed on.

Annemarie and Cassandra were out there, somewhere.

And he had to bring them back.