The trees were so tall and the snow fell so thickly, Jezzabel could not see their top branches. Her muscles no longer ached, but the stiffness in her legs drained what little energy she had left. She pulled her bearskin cloak tightly around her, crossing her thin arms across her ribs. Her limbs felt oddly thick and she could not feel her joints when she dropped to her knees in a drift too heavy to climb.
Upwards she peered again. The cold breeze on her face seemed to go through her cheeks and behind her eyes. She let out a quivering breath and would have cried had her tears not frozen to her eyelashes. She had tried to climb alone, the results would have been better had she done it alone. Now, though, the choice was only to accept assistance or die.
Death. It was only a fortnight ago she had found herself so quick to consider it and she would have ended the world then and there but for a whisper in her head of another way. No, she would climb and she would do so alone. The tiniest glimmer of hope that the Apex could maybe give her what she sought kept her alive if only for a short while. But, as she climbed, her hope grew stronger. What began as a half starved hope of a determined girl became the determined hope of a girl half starved.
A shadow approached from beyond the snow, its steps slow, rhythmic, and with purpose. Jezzabel realized she was laying on her back. She blinked up at the creature, her stiff eyelids failing to wet her frozen corneas. Her lips twisted, though she wasn't sure if she was smiling at her fortune or grimacing at her defeat. Meekly, she reached upwards and the head of the beast lowered down. Her fingers curled around its antlers, hard, thin, velvety, and warm and was lifted into the air as if she weighed no more than a fallen leaf. Grabbing hold of the thick blue-gray fur of the beast's shoulder with one hand, she was able to pull herself onto its back. She let her cloak fall open and pressed her chest and cheek into its fur. So warm, it was, that she felt the stiffness in her melt away and she suddenly felt foolish for accepting the beast's help. Now, with just that moment of warmth, she felt she could complete her quest alone. But it was too late, she had climbed onto the beast's back and would ride it for the remainder of her journey.
The gentle rocking of the beast's shoulders soon sent Jezzabel into a deep sleep. She dreamed of a crow laughing as it flew about pecking at the head of an ogre as he clumsily swatted at it. She was the crow and the ogre both. When she awoke, she lifted herself up to peer between the beast's antlers The snow had stopped, but the wind whipped the freshly fallen into a thick white mist about them. There was a darkness a short distance ahead and it would seem they had come to a cave. The beast took her into the darkness and, once past the snow which had blown inside the wide mouth, laid down.
Jezzabel slid off the beast, pulling her cloak about her once more with one hand, still grasping its fur with the other, and looked into the darkness. The beast shook its mighty head, which the girl took to mean she would have to let him go. The moment she did, she felt the white coldness from behind rush back into her and she shivered, hurrying to tighten her cloak about her tiny body. Disappointed and relieved, on the verge of tears, she sighed shakily and stepped forward into the dark warmth of the cave.
The Apex was ahead of her.