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It was the only house for miles around. There was simply no other choice.

I hobbled up the walkway as fast as my crooked legs would carry me, placing most of the burden on a trusty walking stick. All around me, monstrous forms loomed, caked in the heavy whiteness of winter. The snow dampened all sounds but the crunch of my steps and the howl of the wind. Such a dark and bitter night, it was.

The house's little door was in reach at last. I pulled my shawl tightly about me, took a deep breath, and rapped gently. It was only a moment before the door creaked open, revealing the pleasant, heart-shaped face of a young lady. So beautiful she was that, for a moment, I forgot myself and simply stared. She radiated purity, not least from her sweet, ocean-colored eyes.

"Can I help you, madam?" she asked.

I came to my senses in an instant. "I'm so sorry to trouble you, Miss, and on such a night," I said, "but might you have a bit of food to spare for a weary traveler?"

The young woman was silent for a moment and her eyes took on the distance of consideration. Soon, however, she was back and smiling warmer than before. "Of course," she said. "Please come in and warm yourself!" And with these words, she stepped aside and allowed me passage.

Inside was a modest, all-purpose room lit only by a low fire and a few flickering candles. The young lady ushered me over to one of the two chairs that flanked the hearth and bade me sit. "Rest by the fire," she said, "and I'll fetch you a bit of soup."

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"Lord bless you, my dear," I said, clasping my hands. She smiled and hurried to the other end of the room to find a suitable vessel.

As she busied herself with her search, I realized that we were not alone. My eyes landed on the tiny cradle which had hitherto been hidden from my view behind the opposite chair. Now, fully aware of its presence, the sound of the child's soft babbles rose to my ears. So sweet, thought I.

The child's mother returned with a sizable bowl and doled out some of the liquid that steamed in a nearby pot. This I accepted gratefully and took a first soothing sip.

"You have a child," I said.

"Yes," said the woman, reaching down to rock the cradle gently. "My precious Peter." She looked down at her little love, her eyes glistening as only a mother's could.

I pressed on. "I may assume, then, that you are married?"

The woman frowned for the first time. "My husband... he... he is no longer---"

"Forgive me, sweet child," I said, needing no further explanation. "Accept my humble apology. I shouldn't have asked."

She was silent for a moment. "It's all right," she said at last. "After all...." She looked once more at her child. "I count myself blessed still."

A lump rose in my throat, such was the beauty of this tiny family, cut off from the rest of the world on such a cold and unforgiving night.

"My dear," I said at last. "Tell me: do you believe in things magical?"

"Magical?" she repeated.

"Yes," I answered. "Things which defy explanations put forth by the natural world."

The woman seemed to think for a moment. "Yes. Yes, I should say I do."

"Ah," I said with a smile. "I am glad to hear it, for I am sure that our meeting on this night was not mere chance. I have something for you---a gift to show my gratitude." I reached into the pouch I kept tied about my waist and produced a tiny spyglass. "This," I said, "is a tool of miraculous power. Many a mother has found it to be of great interest."

"Many a mother?" she asked, leaning forward seemingly in spite of herself.

"Yes," I went on. "It can offer you a glimpse into your child's future."

"My child...."

"Indeed," I continued. "You will see the man your Peter will become. Isn't that something you'd like, my dear?"

I watched those eyes go distant again as the smile returned to her face. I could very well have guessed the things she imagined for her precious Peter: a trade, a wife, a house full of children. Happily ever after. Every mother's dream for their child. I held out the spyglass, and with a breathless expression of gratitude, she seized it from my hand and trained it on the baby in the cradle.

Almost instantly, her smile faded. She pulled the instrument away from her eye as if it had sent a shock through her body. She sent a quizzical look my way which I answered with one of solemnity. I believe that was the instant she knew at least some of what I knew.

Slowly, and with great trepidation, she placed the spyglass to her eye once more and pointed it toward the child. After a moment, her lip began to quiver. The quiver spread throughout her whole body. At last, she yelped, perhaps startled by something only she could see. The spyglass was thrown back into my lap as both mother and child began to wail. Though she buried her face in her hands, I could still hear the words she choked out: "Such violence and blood! So many innocent people!"

I stood and approached her slowly. "There, there, my dear," I said, and placed a delicate hand on the back of her head.

At this, the girl shot up. I staggered back, withered by her stare of wild terror. "Witch!" she shouted. "Devil!"

The child bellowed louder. His mother rushed to him and took him in her arms. "You mean to take him from me!"

"Please, you must listen to me!" I asserted.

"Silence, witch!" she shouted, bouncing the child up and down in her arms. "I've heard of your kind, stalking these parts, looking for children! What would you have? My boy for a meal?! Never!"

"Karina!" I shouted at last. The room fell silent. Only the cruel wind could be heard beyond the window pane.

"How... how did you---"

I did not allow her to finish. "I am here on James' behalf," I answered. "That was your husband's name, wasn't it? James? A cabinet maker?"

"How are you doing this?" the woman asked. "You really are a witch!"

"I am not a witch!" I insisted, silencing what would have been another frenzy had it been allowed to start. "Karina," I said, "you must listen and believe. Just as that most blessed of virgins was visited years ago, so you are now.... though I wish the circumstances were as joyful." I bowed my head until the weight of my task. "Please, Karina. Hear me," I begged. "The fate of many people depends upon it."

After a bit more convincing, the child was replaced in the cradle at last and Karina once more sat across from me.

"My dear," I said, "there are things the dead can know that the living cannot. Things they can see that we cannot." I paused. "Your husband has been forced into an agreement with the Almighty---a kind of deal, if you will."

"What do you mean?" The flames' reflections danced in her wide, wet eyes.

I breathed in deeply, summoning all the strength I had. "By now, you have seen what horrors your child will wreak upon the world. He must be stopped before he can begin. If he is... destroyed... now, in his most innocent form, then both he and your husband will be admitted into the garden of our Lord."

"Both?" she asked, a tear rolling down her cheek.

"Yes," I said. "Your husband waits there now, kneeling outside the gates of Heaven like a poor beggar. Only once his son is with him, wholly clean of innocent blood, can they both be given entrance."

A shudder overtook the poor girl. "What must I do?" she asked, perhaps for lack of any better notion of what to say.

I rose and moved toward her once again. Upon reaching her, I placed a hand softly on each of her shoulders and looked straight into her face. "There is only one way the child may be sent to his father. Since the tortures of Hell may not have his soul...." I breathed in, searching within me for the strength to continue. "They must have run of his flesh." Karina shivered violently as the full weight of my words came down upon her. I followed her gaze to the flames that crackled nearby.

The putrid smell of charring flesh had filled the little room by the time I had to depart. I opened a window as wide as it would go in the hope of alleviating the odor and oppressive heat. The gust of cold soothed my skin, but left my aching heart untouched. Wretched though I was, I knew my pain was nothing compared to that of the poor soul who lay sobbing in a heap on the floor. In moments like this, my one comfort is the knowledge that, no matter how bleak this world might seem, at least the peace of the next one is a certainty.

I prayed in that moment, as I have each day since, for Karina to learn and believe such things. And thus, I bid her a silent farewell before dissolving my bodily form and allowing the winter wind to carry me back from whence I'd come.

Written by Jdeschene
Content is available under CC BY-SA