An updated revision. A story about Jimian, a sixteen year old girl who has finally arrived at vengeance for her murdered sister.
We were always one step behind the men who had used an icy dagger to slit my sister’s throat. So many years had passed since I’d watched her turn white in the snow. The image never faded from my mind. I saw her face every day, saw the blood which had turned black when the moons came out, the pale emptiness of her skin. I dreamt about it all the time, felt the cold and loss every day. I’d been so small when I’d set out after them, just a little girl. I was hardly more than that now at sixteen. At least I wasn’t alone in this ice age of a world.
The slavers left others dead in their wake—mostly girls and women, sometimes a man who crossed them in a tavern fight, or caused a transaction to go wrong. I saw her in every one of them, the person I’d lost, my family, and the guilt piled on top of us with each one until it became its own monster. This guilt-monster followed Janessa and me all over the frozen nation of Carema, whispering shadowed words in the back of my mind and causing nightmares that made me scream in my sleep.
“Jimian. Jimi, wake up!”
My breath froze in my throat as my eyes snapped open to see Janessa looking down at me, worry laced into her features. She seemed to tremble in and out of existence until solidifying before me. The fire in our room had gone low. The glow of the embers reflected off her skin and made her dark eyes burn.
“Are you okay?” she asked, leaning away as I sat up, her voice airy, barely there.
“I’m fine,” I brushed my tangled mess of white and black hair away from my face. I shivered and stood, brushing past Janessa to stoke the coals and throw more logs on the fire. Outside, deep night lingered, empty as could be and colder than death. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen stars, but the sun would return soon and burn off the haze of cloud that blanketed the world. Everyone could feel it.
“I’m worried about you,” Janessa said, folding her hands in her lap. “Have you thought anymore about that woman’s offer? I think it sounds nice. She is helping us, after all.”
I glanced back at her. The frown on her lips was harsh in the flickering firelight. She’d said the words unhappily, her tone more fed up than worried. I knew she deserved an answer from me; I couldn’t muster one.
“If you don’t deal with this stuff, Jimian, it’s going to kill you. You have to find some way to confront it. We can’t drift on the fringes of society forever.”
“I am confronting it,” I said, re-wrapping my scarf more tightly around my neck. “And yes, I’ve thought about it. It sounds more like a fable than a village. She’s probably just a trickster who’s looking to traffick us or sell us to the slavers. Besides, we’re closer than ever now. Once this is over the nightmares will stop. I know they will.”
“But what if they don’t? Then what will you do?”
“Janessa.” My patience was worn thin. I hated myself for being short with her. The bones of my legs itched to move, the muscles bored from the stagnancy of waiting. “After five years, now you’re beginning to have doubts? I’m not giving up. Not after this long.”
“I don’t have doubts. I know what we need to do, I’m just afraid—“ she pressed her lips shut, shook her head. “Nevermind. We’ve had this conversation too many times already.” With a weighted sigh, she stood, returning to her own bed. “Let’s just get a little more rest.”
I could never sleep after the dreams, though. A lot of the time I didn’t even see my sister, but rather one of the other people we hadn’t be able to save; mothers and siblings crying over dead bodies, animals creeping out of the frozen woodlands to pick and scavenge whatever they could. Growing up, our parents told us stories of the old world, how there were once buildings as tall as mountains, endless fields of green grass, technology more advanced than the primitive weapons and tools we used now… would that I could dream of the old world. The only life I ever knew was snow, smoke, blood, and metal.
A knock interrupted the silence of night. The familiar bloom of edginess erupted in my stomach and made my skin feel too tight. I drew my knife from my belt before I opened the door just a crack.
It was the woman, Saelyn.
“May I come in, Jimian?”
I shut the door and unhooked the latches, opening it once again so she could step through. She had just been outside, I could tell by the cold drifting off of her and the redness in her cheeks. She went immediately to the fire and removed her gloves.
I looked over to see that Janessa had already drifted off and then turned my gaze back to Saelyn. “Have you come to work me over again or did you find them?”
“I am not trying to convince but encourage,” Saelyn replied in her smooth voice.
I couldn’t deny that there was something about the sorceress that pulled me in. She was full of heat and promise, confidence and intelligence, and a mysterious beauty. A part of me wanted to go with her, no question. Maybe I just didn’t want to admit that I could find a better life for myself.
“I’ve located the men you seek. I know you have no sight beyond their deaths, and I think you should consider this if you’re going to move forward.” She warmed her long fingers in front of the flames.
“So, what, you think I should just let it go? Revenge isn’t the answer?” I spoke quietly, though I knew Janessa could not be woken. “Save it. I get that speech way too often.”
“Absolutely not. They must atone for what they’ve done.” Saelyn paused and met my eyes. “Jimian, you are young, strong, determined; you are the type of person I want to build my community out of. It will be difficult for me to take no as an answer, but if you truly believe you will be better off on your own, then I will not force you to join the Wolfena.”
“I don’t co-exist well with others,” I insisted.
“You can learn,” Saelyn smiled. She rubbed her hands together and tucked her fingers back into the gloves. “The slavers will be at the eastern gate at sunrise, yours for the taking. I will see you soon.”
I dipped my head in a nod, having no more words to say.
After Saelyn left I watched the fire for the rest of the night. Janessa woke up a little before dawn. The sky was just beginning to turn blue-grey when we stepped out of the inn and into the crisp air. The snow was soft, our footsteps but wispy puffs as we trudged towards the back gate of the village, hiding between domas and domais, the half-sphere buildings created from scrap metal that had kept humanity alive through this goddess-forsaken ice age.
As we rounded the stables I spotted them, walking towards the open gate on foot. There were five women lashed together behind them, their forearms wrapped in layers of cloth and rope, binding them until the next destination. I kept my breathing even, though it wanted to freeze in my lungs. I finally stepped out of the shadows while Janessa lingered in them, out of sight.
“Be careful,” she whispered.
I kept my crossbow strapped on my shoulder as I called out. “Oi, you two going somewhere?” Heat erupted at the center of my chest when they stilled and looked back at me. My fists clenched.
There were no village-guards at this gate, no one to tackle me or lock me up. I almost drew my bow and loosed the bolt right then. But I didn’t want to kill them yet, not quick and easy and from this distance. I wanted to see their faces. I needed to see the light leave their eyes. No longer could I keep my breathing measured.
They grimaced at me, faces showing through their thick headwraps. The sight of them stirred the bile in my stomach. Images of my sister, dead and pale, flashed through my mind, more vivid than the dreams. I felt myself shift into a predator with claws and teeth bared.
“Is there a problem, woman?” one of them, the taller and thicker of the two, asked through rotted teeth. There was a glimmer of greed in his eyes. I knew he was having thoughts about tying me to the small harem he had gathered and selling me along with them.
“There is, actually,” I said. He came closer, and closer, while the other man watched on. “A big problem, for you, anyway.”
“What are you on about? Shouldn’t you be cookin’ breakfast for your man?”
I snatched my crossbow from my shoulder in a whisper of leather. Through my years of failure, I had become faster, stronger, quieter. It had taken me so long to find these two, to leech them from the brood of slavers that covered the continent. Within a few heartbeats I had loaded a bolt and pressed the trigger. The arrow shot forth to sink into the throat of the man further back who held the rope which bound the women. There came a shriek from one of the prisoners as he sputtered and collapsed, spurting red, and the rope fell from his hand. I hardly heard the cry or thud of him dropping through the pulse in my ears.
I reloaded and launched the next bolt into the man in front of me before he could veer away, deep into his chest. The force knocked him backwards into the snow and the sight of him going down set my blood on fire like it was cut with oil. I stepped towards him and just before I pounced a heavy kick came up to collide with the back of my knee. He pulled a dagger from his belt as I went down to one leg, snarling as pain radiated up my thigh and down into my foot. He launched for me and my bow was tossed aside at the same time I drew my knife, twisting my body to avoid the oncoming slice of metal. There wasn’t time to feel the pain as he nicked my chest through the layers of wool. Before I could get up his elbow collided with my jaw, but I managed to block the dagger again and my own blade hurtled into the nearest flesh of his leg.
I sliced through his hand next and scrambled from his grip as he cried out. I pushed myself to my feet. When he tried to stand I stepped forward and slammed my boot down on the feathers of the bolt still sticking out of his chest, dark satisfaction filling me when the wood snapped and he roared. Bloodlust drowned any pain I felt. He screamed, though not nearly as horribly as my sister had. He slashed at me once more, feebly, and I caught his arm before the dagger could land.
“Jimian, wait—“ Janessa’s voice registered minutely. Red and black filled my vision. I tasted the metallic tang of vengeance in my throat. I held tight to his wrist and kicked his arm. The crack of bone preceded another scream.
“Please, lady, I done nothing to you!” he sobbed. He was just as weak as I always knew he would be; a coward, whose only talents were killing and hiding. “I done nothing let me go!”
I reached down to pick up his dropped dagger, the one he’d used on her, on my sister. Five years of chasing, scraping, dying, and the hilt was finally in my hand. Blood was showing in his teeth, rising from his pierced lung. It wouldn’t be long before the bolt killed him. I brought the metal close to his eye, and slashed his cheek. “You don’t remember my face, do you? You wouldn’t. The last time you saw me I was a child. But I remember you. I see you every day, every night, everytime I close my eyes.” My voice was so far away and hollow it twisted my gut with fear. I cut his other cheek. “After today, when I see your face, it’ll be like this—cold, covered in blood, and with no life in your eyes.”
“Mercy,” he cried, “mercy, please.”
I had none for him. I pulled the dagger across the skin of his throat, opening two sections of dark flesh that immediately flowed like a crimson spring river. I felt the warm wet cascade over my hand. The only sounds were the frozen snap of wind and the wet rasps of him drowning in himself. From somewhere far off, Janessa said my name. With a last shuddering gasp, he went still beneath me. I watched his dead face for a few heartbeats before I stepped away, limping, blood warming the wound on my chest, and picked up my crossbow again. My bare hands were blue with cold and red with death.
I looked up, expecting to see Janessa standing close by, but instead my eyes met Saelyn’s. I felt a strange shock run through me.
“When did you get here?” I breathed, shivering anew. I hadn’t noticed it was snowing. My mind was blank and dizzy. I was vaguely aware of the five tied-up women moving towards us, confused and scared.
Saelyn stood in front of me and touched my arm with a squeeze meant to be comforting. “It’s okay, Jimian.”
I looked to Janessa, standing a few paces behind Saelyn. The first rays of morning light streamed over her figure. Tears glistened in her misty eyes and a horror latched onto my ribcage like clinging vines as she seemed to flicker, like the dappled shade of a tree blowing in a breeze. I dropped the weapons and started towards her, forgetting the sorceress and the slaves. The snow seemed deeper, thicker now, and I couldn’t get to her; she was fading away.
“Janessa. Janessa, don’t. Don’t leave me. Don’t you leave me again!” I was screaming, like I had when I was eleven years old, screaming for my sister to stay with me as she merged into a backdrop of white. “Janessa!”
“I’m sorry, Jimi. I’ve been here too long already,” her voice was faint on the trails of wind.
As the sun finally forced its way through the clouds I watched Janessa dissolve--my sister, my family, my life, dissipating into the specter she was always meant to be.
Somehow I ended up on my knees. My fingers had turned purple. There were no footsteps in the snow where Janessa had stood and the sight of it opened an abyss in me. A chill seeped into my core until I felt hands on my shoulders give a comforting squeeze.
I’d known I couldn’t carry my sister with me forever, yet somehow I had never expected her to leave.
I would have to go with Saelyn, blind into her promises; I could not be alone, not after this. The nightmares would follow me in waking and in sleep, as they always had. Saelyn’s presence flooded me with warmth as she stepped up behind me and a pair of thick mittens filled my blurred vision. I reached up to take them and looked up to see her cutting the bonds from the wrists of the stolen women.
“It’s time for us to go home. All of us.”
I pulled the mittens onto my bloody, shaking hands, and somehow managed to rise from the cold white ground.