Cold Colorfilled Skies
rating: +7+x

You step out of the Way and stumble a little.

It’s easy to take the perfect weather of the Library for granted. The ground is always perfectly balanced, with nothing to trip over except for piles of books, even if it slopes in strange ways that never seem consistent with how you were taught physics worked. Obviously, it’s silly to apply your old fashioned and outdated senses of logic to the magical place, but old habits die hard and whatnot.

The Library is a strange place, but it is an easy place. Despite the bizarre patrons with their inhuman shapes that always remind you of your own twisted biology and the creepy Librarians, the place is comfortable. This place is perfectly natural, apart from the way. Yet, it’s far more dangerous.

Your companion puts their flesh hand on your shoulder, steadying you, and you hear the soft jingle of the charms on their silver bracelet. Each one is shaped like a different plant. Your biology teacher would’ve only recognized a few of them, with most from other realities or foreign lands in this one. The clasp is snakelike, forming an ouroboros.

“You okay?” they ask, their words lightly accented. You nod. Their magic keeps the cold from sinking into your bones and surrounds you with air to compensate for the altitude, but that doesn’t mean the heights are comfortable. You exhale, your white breath visible for a moment before dissipating in the harsh wind and pull your hands down from the sides of the cave.

Once upon a time, you never thought you’d see anything outside your small town, all your dreams of the world left as faint memories to fade away as the morning passes.

Inside these stone walls, you might navigate with your hands and your feet against the ground, the walls, the ceiling. You might even see a waterfall, partially frozen that bright cobalt in the Norwegian frost. Outside is an expansive landscape of endless cliffs, with the pale blue sky reflected in the darkest navy waves. There are barely any clouds, and the sun is bright, even if it is far from warm. You could see forever, watching the few cotton candy puffs cross the horizon, and walk to new heights.

You could leave right now, back to the comfort of the alien residence that’s still somehow warmer than the one you were born into.

“You sure we still on Earth?” you ask as a joke, but Casey takes you seriously, stepping outside and surveying the local ley lines. “I was kidding.”

“It’s good to double check,” they say after a few seconds, apparently satisfied with whatever details confirmed their landing. “There’s another one a few dozen miles away that the Bookburners have under surveillance.” They gesture vaguely north.

You step back, closer into the cave and away from where they’re looking.

“And you couldn’t have mentioned that before because…?”

“Don’t worry, we had a better chance of ending up in an alternate version of this place than over there. I’ve done this for a while now and only gotten lost a few times. And look, I’m still here, right?” You sigh. They’ve been with the Hand for two years and was aware of the weird for far longer than that. They’ve long since accepted the strange danger and beauty of the world and can sometimes forget you’re not as experienced.

“Let’s just stay well clear of them.”

The landscape is gorgeous, like a painting come to life. You don’t think you’ve ever been this high up before. You’re torn between walking closer to the edge and running back through the Way to hide under a pile of books. It’s not actually too dangerous, considering the magic both you and Casey wield, and going somewhere simple, like a city, for your little trip would be a lot riskier. As much as you’re annoyed that didn’t mention the Bookburners before coming, you know all the different organizations have set ups globally.

It’d be hard to find somewhere completely free of any of them, and “a few dozen miles” is probably as good as you’ll get. At least it’s not the Jailers or the Madmen. Even alternate realities can be infested with them, according to some of the more adventurous folks you’ve met, though visiting one of those was never on the table. Too much, too quickly. Maybe in the future, but for now, you’re sticking to this world and this world alone.

“You wanna explore the caves or stay outside?”

You consider it, decisively landing on the outside. You know they can guide you away from the tighter areas, but you’d still rather avoid feeling confined. Your claustrophobia wasn’t ever easy to handle but… You don’t want to risk a panic attack, even with Casey there.

“Outside.”

“Cool, cool,” they say, picking up their bag. “Don’t be afraid to tell me if you want to head back. I’ll keep going till I collapse if you let me.”

“Quetz made me promise to bring you back before that happened, so I’m sure you’ll be fine. I have no interest in getting on their bad side.”

“They’re really something, huh.” If you’d said it, something would mean terrifying, but Casey blushes as they say it, so you think something in their mind might mean hot. You shake your head as they start walking and start following them.

The area directly around the Way itself was clear of snow and ice, probably caused by one of the spells cast on the entrance to the cave. You couldn’t quite sort out what they all did, though you did identify one that was designed to discourage people who didn’t already know it was there from looking too closely. There was also the much more mundane sign of use: the carvings, ranging anywhere from surprisingly realistic depictions of snakes to the names of romantics. At least wanderers aren’t prone to littering, you think.

Outside of the relatively frequented area is an entirely different story. The soft snow beneath your winter boots is practically undisturbed, with only a few animal tracks marring the pristine sheet. It’s surprisingly deep, and you find that taking a single step through it feels like taking three. Casey is usually much faster than you, but they’re barely ahead of you here. It’s only thanks to the enchantment on the shoes that you feel safe enough to put your feet down at all. Beneath the snow is ice, and you feel the magic resisting the reduced friction.

The path is skinny, barely wide enough to be considered a path at all, and you grab ahold of the stone walls just so you can feel stable. You’re ascending slowly but noticeably. There’s a strange disconnect between what you imagine a normal person would experience traveling this way and what you feel. It’s kind of funny. All this time, you’ve felt like the last normal person in a crazy world. You know you’re not, you know that the crazy world is what’s been normal this entire time, but… you can’t help how you feel, you suppose.

The landscape is different every time you stop and look. The water is constantly shifting, crashing against the ice. Birds fly overhead, landing, hunting, and leaving. Every time you blink, it is a new world, and yet it is the same. The same blue and white.

There are no humans here except for the two of you, and neither of you really count as fully human anymore. If you look away from your feet and the path for just a second, you can imagine that this is the entire world. Simple. There is nobody hunting you. There are no memories at the edge of your vision, ready to overwhelm you if you let go of reality for a single moment, and there is no fear. Just water and stone and beasts for as far as you can see. It feels like you can see forever.

“Eve!” Casey shouts from ahead of you. They’re barely audible above the sound of wind, and you startle, pieces of the stone at the side of the path crumbling at the shift of your weight. You suck in a breath, scrambling to a more stable position as the path flattens out into a clifftop, which is much safer for you to examine the scenery from.

The cold bites at your skin, not sharp enough to hurt but enough to remind you of where you are. You can’t drift into thoughts. You have to be alert. Every movement has to be sharp and deliberate. Quetz might be terrifying, but their advice on “not dying while doing stupid shit” was worth listening to, considering the amount of said stupid shit they’d done and survived.

“Sorry!” you shout back, carefully catching up. “Can’t stop thinking about stuff!”

“Want to go back!?”

“Not yet!”

You stick closer to them. Gravity tries to pull you down, and you keep resisting it, one step at a time. It feels good to climb— to do something, anything. The wind gets harsher and the air colder as you ascend, and you keep pushing through. It’s exhausting work, but you love it.

The area around your eyes has long since been stained perfectly white from all the colors that’ve fallen down your cheeks over the years, but you still feel the shades sinking into your skin, spreading out inside you like ink dropped into water. Casey must know, but they don’t say anything. They’ve fought enough of their own demons to tell the difference between tears of pain and ones of relief.

When you step into the light of the sun at the peak of the mountain range, you don’t shield your eyes. You can see the ultraviolet rays across the sky, and they are so beautiful. It is blue and white and it is so much more more. There is magic in its light, magic that only you can absorb, both metaphorically and literally.

Ley lines stretch across the horizon, intersecting at angles that seem odd to you but make perfect sense to Casey. You are sometimes jealous of their mathematical ability, especially considering that you never finished high school, but you are reminded that they cannot see the waves of colors that you can.

“It’s beautiful,” you say, and they agree, nodding. The sun is beginning to set, ever so slightly curved toward the horizon, and the gentlest hints of pink starting to peak up. They’ve seen so many things across the different worlds they’ve walked, but this still is lovely to them. It is mundane. It is magical.

Sitting down, you tug Casey’s bag and pull them with you. The adrenaline junkie grudgingly obliges, settling next to you. Once they allow themself to rest for a moment, the stress drains out of their body. The change is palpable. Shoulders sag. Casey closes their eyes slowly, not blinking in their usual rapid flicker, and when they open them again, they’re unfocused. Drifting from sight to sight without a target in mind. The gears in their mechanical hand slows their ticking as they unclench their fists.

You rest your head against their shoulder and feel their tightly knit dreadlocks against your skin as they adjust for your presence, tensing and relaxing in a course of moments. It’s an unconscious reaction, you remind yourself. They embody their skin so much that even the slightest stimulus will prompt a violent instinct. Quetz says it used to be so bad that even coughing to get Casey’s attention would end with their fist in someone’s face and that’s why they’re so fast. It’s hard to understand, though, because you’re the opposite. You are barely tethered to your flesh. It takes effort to show what you feel. When you force your mouth upwards, it feels like a facsimile of something real. But, like Casey, you’ve gotten better. You don’t laugh at jokes yet and are certainly not grinning from ear to ear, but there’s the slightest hint of a curve in your lips and amusement in your eyes.

You sit there and watch the clouds go by. Gradually, Casey curls into a ball, and their head falls into your lap. It’s not long before you realize they’ve fallen asleep. It’s flattering to know that they trust you this much, but it leaves you alone at the top of the world. It is a lonely place but a beautiful one.

Time passes strangely. Ten minutes could've passed as easily as ten hours. The skies are painting themselves ambers and golds. Casey stretches, curling and uncurling their clockwork limb. Testing their weapons systems. It’s an idle thought, but it makes you wince. Poor phrasing.

“How long did I sleep for?”

“Not sure. Didn’t exactly bring a watch with me,” you gesture at your bare wrist, “and we can’t all tell the exact time of day by calculating the variations in ambient solar magic,”

They turn their head to glare at you with carefully calculated scorn.

“Kate needs to stop telling people that story out of context.”

“Yeah, probably. Do you want to head back?”

“I was about to suggest as much myself.”

Casey gets to their feet and takes a long sip from their water bottle. The light catches on the gears in their left hand. Some of the pieces are so small that they make you wonder how they were carved in the first place. Beneath their sleeve, the metal reaches up to their elbow, and there’s a number of secret compartments worked into it, along with varying extendable weapons and tools. The side of the thumb is slightly disfigured from when Casey decided they couldn’t bare having their former employer’s logo on any part of their body, even the mechanical one, allegedly. There’s definitely something weird in its construction, because, although you haven’t seen normal prosthetics in a while, you’re pretty sure that most of them don’t look like something out of a steampunk novel.

You rise as well after a few seconds spent staring off into the distance. Regretfully, you massage your legs— they ache like sin. The consequences of spending years in secret paramilitary organizations, although, to be honest, you were never that active in the first place. Your sore limbs make you eye Casey’s muscles enviously one more time. They’re not as tall or as bulky as Quetz, but they’re incredibly sturdy, even in the case of the body parts that aren’t made of an unknown-but-probably-magic metal.

You can’t help but groan at the effort.

“Do you need me to carry you?” Casey asks, and you aren’t sure if they’re joking or not.

“I’m good.” You’ll never get stronger if you give up on a little mountain climbing this easily. Besides, going down is supposed to be easier, right?

You learn rather quickly that going down is not, in fact, easier. Although you’re grateful to learn it uses different muscles, you find that keeping a stable footing is even harder. Every step feels like you’re just one second from tumbling off the cliff, and even though your magical protections would keep you alive, they won’t protect you from the terror of falling such a far distance or the lecture that’d certainly follow. You grasp ahold of the stone walls to aid your descent and resist the urge to crawl just to feel safer.

Meanwhile, Casey seems more confident going down than they did before. They keep almost flitting out of your line of sight, and you keeping preparing to shout before you almost catch up again. They’re probably not doing it on purpose, but that doesn’t make it any less infuriating.

“Slow down!” you holler eventually. “I don’t wanna trip because I’m trying to catch up to some show off!”

“We’re almost there anyway!”

"Bullshit!”

“No, really, it’s right around the corner! Just come down here and see!”

It was not, in fact, right around the corner, and if you weren’t on such a treacherous path (and if you were capable of catching up), you’d punch them in the shoulder. You settle for flipping them off, and they make a gesture that you assume is similarity rude in some way. The hostility is a joke, you’re sure, though there’s still a kernel of doubt in your core that you pretend isn’t there. There’s no point worrying— you know they like you.

You know they like you because they’ve said as much. They think you’re strong. Not as strong as they are, that dark corner of your mind that you fear might be the real you adds, unhelpfully.

Again, you ignore the thoughts. There are some things you don’t need to dwell on, things that, by dwelling on, you’ll only make worse. You try to remind yourself that it’s beautiful out and that you’re somewhere new and strange, but all your mind wants to focus on is the questions you have about Casey. Why did they save you, instead of the other people you’re sure must’ve been trapped at that place? Did all the people they’d injured in their breakout recover or were they dead because of you? And, of course, the worst one of all: What did they do?

Their eyes are as hard as the worst of the researchers and soldiers, the ones that never stuttered over their strict words or accidentally looked at you like you were human, and they’re covered in the same sort of scars. Some nights, when you can’t sleep, you hear them repeating what must be pieces of memories. Bits of your friend’s life before the Hand are delivered sparingly but from what you’ve heard of the Madmen, you don’t think you want to know more.

You don’t want to know more. You bite down on your lower lip hard, but you don’t draw blood. The pain is nothing, in comparison to the presence settling in your chest. Casey doesn’t notice. You don’t say anything. You don’t let your discomfort show. If you did let it show, they’d notice and might try to help. And you might ask those questions. They’d hate you for it, or, even worse, they might answer you.

The cold is supposed to help you think, right? It’s so sharp. When you inhale, it cuts at the inside of your throat. Your nose is bright red, irritated from the wind whipping across it. It hurts, but it doesn’t bring you any clarity. You’ve never been this cold before. Never seen the snow at all. Maybe if you had, you’d know this is nothing worse than a normal winter day in a north eastern city.

It’s beautiful. It hurts. You’re tired.

Casey keeps walking until they suddenly stop. You’re far away enough that you don’t stumble into them, but it does take you a moment to register and a moment after that to stop as well. They turn back, noting the soft drops of color on your skin. You reach up to touch them and realize they’ve frozen when they don’t stain your fingers further. If you push hard on one, it shatters and dark red runs down the finger you used to pop it.

You’re free, right? Why aren’t you happy?

Why are you still broken?

“We’re here.”

They step inside the inlet just as you reach the area right by it. You stand there, looking inside. It’s visibly warmer there. Magical light radiates from crystals scattered across the floor, illuminating the different names scratched into the stone walls. Casey crouches away from the entrance, not quite obscured by the tunnel but not quite visible either. You don’t cross the threshold until they gesture for you to come in with a distracted half wave.

The heat is sudden. The areas that’d felt frozen thaw with a sting, far from enough to make you scream but equally far from the gentle shift you expected. Nothing like going from an air-conditioned room to a muggy summer day.

“What’re you doing?” you ask.

“Look,” they gesture, stepping away from the wall. When you step closer, you can see the names Quetz R, Casey, and Katerina Hue engraved there. There’s a heart in between Quetz and Casey that’s been crossed out and rewritten a few times, as well as a single spade that was much more empathically crossed out.

“You don’t do that at every Way, do you?”

Casey shakes their head.

“No, only a few. Maybe seven? Ask Kate.”

“Should I….” You trail off, not sure what word to use. You’re not even sure how they got their names on the wall.

“If you want. There are a couple people— you’ve met Aron— who don’t do stuff like this but’ll fight with us and call themselves Pythons if anyone asks.”

You shake your head. Aron might be a Python and might’ve helped break you out, but he also didn’t get invited to game nights and never offered book recommendations. He didn’t sleep in the same pile of cushions, pillows, and blankets as the four of you. You were pretty sure it was his choice but still. Kate, Quetz, and Casey were the first friends you’d had in…

In…

“I do. Is it magic?”

“Not this time.” A compartment on the bottom of their forearm swings open with a click of the gears and reveals a Swiss army knife that they tug off.

“And that thing’s not magic,” you say under your breath. They raise their shoulders in a shrug, which could’ve meant anything from it is totally magic to it’s a part of some vast unknowable eldritch abomination that I ripped off and attached to my arm to it is a perfectly normal prosthetic, it just happens to be made by tiny mice from another reality. You’ve thought about the nature of the universe a lot these past years, and you think you’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not evil or cold, good or compassionate: it’s stupid.

You take the multitool and note the painting of a snake on the outside, almost dropping it when you realize that it’s moving.

“Sorry,” Casey says.

“Is it alive?”

“Probably not.”

It takes you a few minutes to figure out how to pop out the right knife and a few more minutes to figure out how to angle yourself, but eventually you manage to scratch a messy E into the rock beneath Kate’s impressively neat cursive name, followed by the V and an E again. It’s kinda of mess— you loosened your grip when you were writing the middle line in the second E the knife slipped, making it way too long, and the two sides of the V go past each other, almost making it look like a lopsided X that’s out of line, but it’s your name.

It’s your name.

It wasn’t picked out for you as a baby, prescribed without any thought to who you would become. It wasn’t reinforced in its wrongness with every day spent introducing yourself, writing it on paperwork, in response to assumptions made about you because of it. It wasn’t a designation forced onto you by default, just another item in an endless list.

You’re set in stone.

The warmth of the cave settles in your core, and as you look at Casey, you think you feel the hint of a natural smile creep onto your face. They take the Swiss Army knife back by taking ahold of the hand you left it resting in, their palm opening to absorb it. The movement is ticklish against your skin, but you don’t push them away once it closes. The metal is chilled but not anywhere near as cold as it should be, considering the temperature you were both just exposed to.

With their metal hand in your stained rainbow one, you ask, “Home?”

“Home,” Casey affirms.

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