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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