Coldfire was the name they gave her when they gave her armor and a sword, when they knew she could use the dark to kill. It was better than her name and larger than life, and it made her a myth. It made her a hero.
Cimeries’ greatsword glistened with blood.
Alichino looked at her, his face a mixture of pain and awe as he stumbled backwards. She touched the dark blood that dripped from The Maw and lifted her fingers to her lips, licking the liquid off. She forced herself to laugh instead of cry. He had been like family to her, but he had betrayed her. More importantly, he had betrayed his wife’s undying trust; Calcabrina never saw his duplicity because she had loved him. Alichino stumbled into the cold, sacred waters he had drowned her in a few minutes ago.
Since she had been trained to fight, Cimeries identified herself as someone who fought for revenge. He deserved this, she told herself. She needed to believe it.
Pain shot from her shoulder where her chestplate and pauldron separated to allow her more mobility. Cimeries felt the cold blade pull out of her flesh, but the nerve it had hit made her drop The Maw. She spun and took her attacker down to the ground. Queen Yaal looked up from beneath the soldier, wide-eyed, as if she were surprised she had hit Cimeries at all. They began to scrabble on the floor of the throne room, each trying to find purchase on the other, trying to squeeze harder than the other.
Just as they started, Cimeries heard a voice calling to her. It didn’t say her name, but she knew it was calling to her. It reminded her immediately of Calcabrina, but– no, it couldn’t be her. She was cold and dead and gone and so was her husband. The queen bit Cimeries’ wrist as they tussled; she fought dirty. Cimeries could easily have won, but she thought it would be amusing to let Yaal believe she had a fighting chance. The warrior chuckled, thinking about the shock that had painted Alichino’s face. He had thought he had a fighting chance, too. The people she came for hardly ever expected her; Alichino thought that once Calcabrina was good and gone, that it would be over. That he had won.
He was wrong, of course.
A lot of this was Flauros’ fault, really. If he hadn’t kept his pants so loose, Cimeries wouldn’t have had a reason to kill him. She wouldn’t have known that she could draw on the divine shade for strength. The strength to put her hands around his neck and squeeze. His skin and blood was under her nails for days after. The anger turned to fear turned to helplessness in his eyes was something she could not– and never wanted to– forget.
She had been just a kid, then.
He had betrayed her trust.
She could still feel the heat of his hands on her.
He had to die.
And so he did. Along with countless others over the years between then and now.
Alichino had killed his wife for Yaal, this greedy bottomfeeder whose family had driven thousands of others soundly into the dirt. She got to live in smooth-walled halls, feed on the finest creatures– Mother Moon, she hardly had to lift a finger in her day-to-day– while others starved or worked away their lives or gave them up on the battlefield. The century-long-war between Cimeries’ people and the starry-eyed southerners was just a game to the queen. She played warmonger when she felt like it, not because she wanted to save her people.
Cimeries would be remiss if she didn’t acknowledge that her own family’s fame came from the enduring war, but they– at least, she and her brother– sought an end to the blood and fire. To the raping and killing. To the screaming.
But the queen couldn’t fathom it. She wouldn’t let it happen. They were lowering the draft age from sixteen to twelve, and conducting cruel experiments on children to find if they had powers like Cimeries.
The thing about this shadow power was that it was only awakened in great need. Calcabrina could use shadow to speak across miles to deliver messages; she discovered that when she was a young pup and lost her mother in a crowd. Cimeries was fourteen when she killed Flauros, using the power of darkness to wring the life from him.
Yaal scratched Cimeries’ neck. Enough of this, Cimeries thought. She was done playing games.
The voice called out to her again from the shadows. It didn’t use words, but it punctured Cimeries’ mind with feelings. She knew she had to choose between killing Yaal or… or following the voice. She knew Yaal was planning to torture those kids, knew she was grinding their country to nothing, but something about that voice was convincing her to leave. The curiosity alone burned within Cimeries. But Cimeries didn’t know how to travel by shadow; all the stories she had grown up with only ever showed one person having one power.
Cimeries didn’t have time to keep dwelling on the impossible. She knew what she could do: the darkness clung to her as it strengthened her. She dug her hands into Yaal’s throat. There was a cacophony of noise, only a third of it truly audible. First was Yaal’s sounds of exertion that osciallated between grunts and screams. The other was, of course, the voice that hearkened from out of the darkness. And the third was more of a nagging in the back of her mind; a thought that was not entirely her own. It was Cimeries’ sword, begging to make the final cut that would end Yaal’s life. It– she– they– hungered for unrighteous blood to spill.
There were too many things vying for her attention. She was losing her focus, losing herself in all the rage around her.
Cimeries’ skin started to burn and she realized that the sun was beginning to shine through the skylight. Alichino had left it open earlier, to show her the moon, but they had been here for so long that the sun had crested the horizon. Yaal screamed as the light touched her, too. This was really dangerous compared to Yaal’s pathetic fighting. But with the sun at her back, Cimeries created her own shadow, darker than before because of the additional light. She wasn’t used to seeing sun-cast shadows. It had a depth that was unfamiliar to her. Like it was alive, like she could stick her hand in it. She let go of Yaal’s throat for a moment, the queen misunderstanding the move as the killer conceding but–
Cimeries touched the darkness and it gave way to her. It was soft, but it was cold, startlingly so compared to the burning of the sun. It was the cold of the bottom of the ocean.
Then everything was gone. Cimeries was surrounded by shadow. She reached out into the darkness, and her arm moved slowly, as if she were cutting into water. The voice told her to follow the sound of it.
She knew this was a bad idea. It was stupid. She wouldn’t exactly call herself someone with a good intuition.
But she followed it anyway. As she walked towards what she thought was closer, the darkness became heavier. She had a hard time telling the difference between where she ended and the shadows began. There was a woosh of air beside her and she jumped. It occurred to her that if she couldn’t see herself, she couldn’t see other things out there, either.
Silence fell amongst the shadows again.
She kept walking.
And kept walking.
She reached a point where she knew she was moving her legs, but there was nothing in her surroundings to confirm she was moving at all. Nothing else wooshed by her. The Maw was quiet.
After a long time of walking, the voice finally took shape in words.
The way the void said her name sent a shiver down her spine like it was a whip being cracked. That voice… It was so familiar. It was just out of reach. If she could remember…
“You’re here. You can come out now.”
But she couldn’t
she couldn’t separate herself from the darkness.
It clung to her like clothes heavy and wet
with water or blood, she didn’t know.
“Come back to me, Coldfire.” The voice had command in it. Not just a suggestion or a request but command. Cimeries wanted to obey that voice more than she had ever wanted anything. Coldfire was the name they gave her when they gave her armor and a sword, when they knew she could use the dark to kill. It was better than her name and larger than life, and it made her a myth. It made her a hero.
She sought anything that wasn’t shadow. She couldn’t see anything but the darkness but she
The world returned as she emerged from the darkness. Something was wrong. Cimeries felt out of sync with her body, like she was watching herself from a different perspective, rather than from out of her two eyes. She lifted a hand– her hand– and looked at it. It looked like it wasn’t hers, but it was. Those were her scars. Her torn hangnails. Her fingers connected to her hand, to her arms, to herself, but none of it was her, was it?
“Cimeries.” The voice! There was a woman before Cimeries with violet skin similar to hers, bundled in dark furs. This woman’s hair, however, was the color of red ochre. Cimeries had never seen anyone with hair that color before; it was only ever black, if you could wield shadow, or white, if you couldn’t. Well, there were some exceptions to that. Cimeries had never changed her hair from white to black. It gave her an edge; people underestimated her.
“Here,” the woman handed Cimeries a fur blanket. It was then that she realized how cold she was. It was hard to connect her feelings to herself. It was as if she were one step out of touch. If she could just get back into alignment with herself, she’d be fine. She’d be fine.
“First Travel is always the hardest,” the woman says. The command in her voice was gone, replaced with a sultry languid quality. Cimeries felt like her head was stuffed with cotton, so she just said,“what?”
“Your first Travel by shadow. I’m sure you feel strange right now. You’re likely experiencing derealization.”
“Is that what this is?”
“Probably. It’ll pass soon. You just need to stop thinking about it.”
But how could she? It was unnerving and uncomfortable and overwhelming. She couldn’t just stop thinking about the wrongness she felt. She was shaking. Cimeries, Coldfire, Arm of the Maw and Prime Mover of Nedové, was fucking shaking. She was trying not to panic at the feeling, but this weird woman wasn’t helping.
“Cimeries.” There was no command, again. It was just noise. “Tell me about the south. About the capitol.”
Green eyes and green hair swam in her mind’s eye at the mention of the south. Cimeries didn’t say anything. She didn’t feel like talking about the capitol or anything, for that matter.
The woman took Cimeries’ head in her hands and tilted it up. It occurred to Cimeries that she looked familiar, but where could she be from? Cimeries would remember that hair, those eyes, that mouth.
“Think.” The woman said, “Remember. Tell me.”
“The…” Cimeries swallowed. Her throat was dry. “The buildings in the outskirts of Dielstad are poorly built. They’re above ground and they all lean on each other for support. The people down there are all warm colors. They’re not navy and purple like us, but brown and tan and pink. The sun bothers them, too, but not like it hurts us. They even long for the warmth of Sibling Sun’s light. Their roads are paved with even, flat stones near the palace, but the further you get away, the more uneven they get, until eventually they’re just dirt, like ours. There’s only one way in and out of the palace and it’s a long and narrow bridge from the mainland to the castle above the water.”
Cimeries stopped as the woman abruptly let go of her. She realized she was back in sync with herself. She looked at her hand holding the fur blanket. That hand was hers. It felt like hers. She unfolded the blanket and wrapped it around herself.
“Better?” The woman asked.
Cimeries nodded once. “Who are you?”
The woman smirked, as if she was just waiting for Cimeries to ask. “Onoskelis.”
Cimeries’ breath stuttered at the name. She and Onoskelis had grown up together in Tanarovi. She was unrecognizable now. Everything about her was different; it had been eight years since they had last seen each other. Ono, as far as Cimeries knew, had been kidnapped during the raid on their village. Now she was here, before her, completely different but still the same. Yes, that sparkle in her eyes seemed familiar now. The cadence of her voice was more or less the same than it had been.
“You’ve changed,” Cimeries said softly.
“So have you.”
“Andro’s dead.” Cimeries’ brother was killed in battle.
“He’s at peace in Ecco now.”
“Do you really believe that?” The bitterness in Cimeries’ voice stung them both. Ono just shrugged.
“So, why am I here? It’s nice to see you and all, but I was in the middle of committing regicide.”
Ono scoffed. “You were in the middle of deep shit, is what you were. If you hadn’t Traveled, what would you have done? Waited to burn in the sun? For the guards to come and see you over Yaal’s dead body? They love you, Coldfire, but not that much.”
“I didn’t ask you to do me any favors.”
“You’re right, you didn’t. I didn’t even mean to, but hey, it worked out nice for you, didn’t it?”
“Why am I here? Where the fuck is ‘here’? And how did I Travel? You only get one power and that’s it.”
Ono rolled her eyes. “I know. We were raised the same way. But I need you to believe me when I tell you, that isn’t true.”
Cimeries knew that now. If she hadn’t Traveled through shadow herself, she wouldn’t have believed it. But here she was.
“Where are we?”
Cimeries crossed her arms. “Oh, wow. I didn’t realize.”
“If I told you, that would potentially put us both at risk–”
“Be fucking serious, Ono. You’re talking to me.”
“I am serious. This is the only home we have.”
Ono recoiled as if she had been hit. Her eyes were wide and Cimeries could see the whites all around her irises. She looked like a startled horse.
Cimeries sighed and waved a hand. “Forget it, it hardly matters. Let’s move on to why I’m here.”
“I Called you because I have an offer for you. A choice. To change your fate. Andromalius is dead. Your parents are, too. An unimaginable number of us have died in this war with the south. We aren’t getting anywhere. Yaal was looking in the wrong places for a solution. We don’t need more of you. We just need you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You can keep fighting with The Maw. Mowing down and snuffing out life after life. That’s what Andro did. No armor would have saved him in the end. You don’t have to go like that. Things could be different if you learned how to Travel without feeling apart from yourself. We can work together to make it better. You might be able to unlock all the Sisters’ faceted blessings. If anyone could, it would be you. The tide of the war is turning, and we both know that it is not to our benefit. Either way, it’s up to you. I’ll leave you alone to think.”
Ono gave Cimeries a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder before turning to walk away. The cave was simply a mouth of darkness in the direction she went, and the other way was the beginnings of a pool. Cimieries knelt by it and ran her hand through the icy water. Ono wasn’t the first person to tell Cimeries that her way of life was unsustainable. There was someone else in Cimeries’ life who had urged her to stop fighting. But could she give up what defined her in order to save herself? She snickered at the thought: killing her livelihood to save her life. The Maw nagged at the back of her mind again, telling her it was a foolish train of thought. Cimeries would be lying to herself if she said she didn’t like the feeling of… of taking lives. She relished in having that kind of power over others. In fact, she nearly praised herself for how responsible she was with it. She could have killed Yaal, but she didn’t. There were so many others who she had shown mercy to in what would otherwise have been their final moments.
That doesn’t make you a good person, she thought.
That same curiosity from earlier simmered in her. Cimeries looked down at her hands and flexed them. If she disappeared for a while, that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? She hadn’t been lying when she told Yaal that the country needed her, but she also believed that they would be okay without her for some time. Besides, there were probably consequences for that whole scene in the throne room. Cimeries didn’t want to deal with that just yet. She decided she would take Ono up on her offer for now. The Maw would get restless at some point; she couldn’t stay in these caves forever.
But until that time came, she would learn and she would think.