The air was still and cold. Every breath kindled a bloom of crystalline agony in her chest, as if hoarfrost stretched achingly cold and beautiful fingers from Yuki-onna’s rime-sheathed heart to her lungs. A hand at her brow shielded her eyes from the brilliant but warmthless midday sun as she searched for a familiar, hoary oak tree.
Possessed of an ancient wisdom gleaned from weathering generations of unnatural winters, what few vermin remained in the wood had taken to deep burrows. Yuki-onna could sense their fiery hearts hammering in the darkness as they lived small brief lives defined by hardship and fear, unraveled by a flash of fang or talon. A blaze of warmth quickened in her veins as an errant thought snuffed the nearest. Its tiny mote of life-energy staved off the all consuming hunger that drove her to ever greater heights of madness.
Still she searched, never finding. She consumed, never sating. Beneath her feet lay a path of ice, and in her wake stretched a glittering wasteland steeped in silence unbroken save by the whisper of creeping frost.
Lori picked her way through the undergrowth to an unused path leading deeper into the woods. One hundred and seventeen years had spurred much change to her ancestral home, but the contours were familiar and she had no difficulty finding the rough-hewn schoolhouse of her childhood. Cedar shakes, now gray with antiquity, dangled from the collapsed moss-covered remains of the roof.
Her best friends stood talking quietly beneath the massive oak where they’d made their pact as girls all those years ago. So much time had passed and the world had moved on for everybody but these women. Their oath and sacrifice secured perpetual youth.
“So what happened?” Lori asked as she walked up. Melinda looked guiltily at Sharon, but said nothing.
“It’s Yuki…she might have gotten free,” said Sharon. Melinda fidgeted with the brass clasp of her bracelet.
“How could she get out? Who slipped up, or do I even have to ask?”
Melinda spoke up finally, “I’ve never understood how you two could be so strong for so long. I’m so sorry, but a couple months ago this guy moved in next door and I…”
“Stuff it, Melly. You know what’s at stake! How could you be so careless?” screamed Lori. “You may have let Snow Woman out for the sake of a dalliance with a stranger?”
The Oath that imprisoned Yuki-onna demanded chastity in exchange for longevity. Lori never figured Melinda would be the one to screw it up. Melinda tended to be bookish and awkward around men. Her long black hair was usually pulled into a severe bun. She always seemed to be about a decade behind the latest style.
With the Oath broken, Yuki was almost certainly free. A chill wind stirred the trees. Lori shivered and pulled up the collar of her jacket as she thought about the coming winter.