Warm My Heart
rating: +15+x

Zanna sat at a small desk, drawing. Home had never given her much chance to try, but this Library… A quiet, creative space. It was perfect. She tried to focus on the details. Even accounting for all the details she still wanted to add, she was sure that she could have this done by the end of the day. And maybe, if she could just keep her focus, her mind wouldn't have to be anywhere but here. Anywhere like home. Could she even call it home? Could home be somewhere where all of your suffering took place? Zanna's pencil jerked and her drawing was ruined as she was yanked back in time-

Barbed wire. As far as she could see. Zanna had thought she would see no more of the cursed material, since leaving town. The officers carried lashes made of it, and looked for every opportunity to whip its greedy tongue across soft, cowering flesh. Yet here she was, at apparently the dumping ground for the surplus. Of course the bloody prison factories wouldn't stop working, even if there weren't any more lashes to make, or any more compounds to protect. So everything that wasn't used came here, to the border. Every three miles, a fence festooned with the stuff, eight feet high. Between them, in each no-man's-land, there were long coils strewn on the ground, entangled with one another at random points. Crossing the fields demanded constant vigilance. You could not just absently walk, you had to be ready. There was always steel, reaching for your legs and arms. The fences were true barriers, so that you had to climb each one, each time, and you were guaranteed cuts and lacerations, everywhere on your body. Tangled balls of serrated metal string bounced and rolled along the plains, like malevolent tumbleweed. Sometimes one would blow so close by that she could see the blood of some poor soul caked on the rusty thorns-

"Wake, my friend." Zanna spasmed into a somewhat upright position at the desk.

"You were thrashing in your sleep," said the Wanderer, removing his hand from her shoulder. "You're as cold as ice. Can I fetch you a blanket or some thicker clothes?" Zanna shakily dismissed his concerns and thanked him for waking her, and he began to walk away. The stranger paused and looked at her drawing, a half finished dog with a dark pencil gash across its body.

"That's a lovely creature, and it'd be a shame for it to go to waste. Any bibliomage could undo that last stroke for you." She thanked him once more for the advice, and he left. She looked once more at the dog, its eyes trusting and innocent even through the paper. I couldn't take him with me, Zanna reminded herself. If he wasn't barking first thing in the morning like every morning, then my head start would be gone. They would know something was wrong. She stared at the black gash across the dog's flank. Zanna got up and left the drawing there for someone else to find, unwilling to think about what that gash probably represented. As she walked away, she once again couldn't stop the thoughts and regrets and possibilities clouding her mind. I could have taken him, I could have thought of another way. No, she needed the head start. I could have run faster, he would have kept me going. There wasn't any such thing as faster through those damned fields. I failed him, I left him, and he's probably dead because who would feed a dog when they already can't feed themselves? But she didn't have to leave him again. Zanna sprinted back to the table, past a disapproving looking Docent, and retrieved her drawing. She smiled at it, then slipped the paper into her pocket, so her dog could be by her side once again and forever more.

She was browsing the shelves the next day when it happened again. She pulled down a book with a ripped cloth binding, and froze, staring at it, unable to move. The book became the back of an old man, his shirt and skin slashed open in the same shape, leaving a very old scar visible to the world-

As Zanna crested the hill, she saw something below that none of the rumors had spoken of, but whose existence made sense. It was the City of the Torn. Less of a city, and more of a collective shelter, spread out below her was a ramshackle collection of scrap houses. All the structures were a cobbled mixture of driftwood and sheet metal, bound together by yet more barbed wire. As she walked the streets and paths, she saw that most of the people were wearing tattered and bloodstained clothes. Zanna looked down at herself, realizing she looked much like one of them already. These were her predecessors. They had all heard the same legend, come to the same place. They all had the same look in their eyes, broken, surviving because their animal instinct told them to, just as trapped outside the razor fields as in. They were all living here because they had been warned, or they had failed, or they had watched someone fail. If you must try to go, they said, sit by the central fire for a day and a night and a half a day again. We will provide your meals. You need to stock up-

Zanna shook awake. She was in front of a hearth fire. She was in the Library. I'm cold. She was safe here. I'm always cold. She didn't remember coming to this room. I'll never not be cold again. The fire should have felt warm, but it didn't. Shivering, Zanna drifted away again. At least asleep she wasn't cold.

We don't think you'll be able to feel the point of no return. Nobody has ever succeeded. Torches go out. If you live, you'll never recover. We don't know how much it needs. We don't even know if it's real… The advice and warnings of the Torn ones bounced around her head during Zanna's solitary trek through the valley. It wasn't even really a valley, just a narrow crack between two mountains. As she walked, looming stone walls on either side, the air got colder. It got much colder, much faster than the passing of the sun below the mountain to her left could account for. The walls began to show frost, the ground became hard underfoot. She could see her breath in front of her, looking for all the world like her soul was trying to take flight from her stiffening body. By the time she reached the block of ice she was shivering to the core.

Whispers and rumors had told of a door in the North. An escape from this world and its ever shifting yet unchanging regimes of terror. A Way. A path to somewhere else, some other world, full of freedom and knowledge. Somewhere safe. The stories had said the door would demand a sacrifice. Some had even said it wanted everything from you. Zanna had been fine with this; she was desperate, and the willingness to sacrifice is what desperate means. So now, staring at the words melted into the wall of rock-hard ice, she knew what she had to do.

~Warm My Heart~

"No!" Zanna shouted as she pulled herself back awake. She would not go through that again. As she steadied herself, she realized there was someone in front of her. It was Emma. The kindly old Wanderer who had found her and gotten her settled into the Library. Emma was sat in the chair across from her, and was looking at her with that wise, concerned gaze.

"What is troubling you, dear?" Emma asked. "What in your dreams are you refusing to experience?"

"My past," Zanna admitted. "What I had to do to get through the Way I… I will not be forced to relive that. I control my mind."

The old woman considered this for a moment, then said, "Perhaps you have not passed fully through the door yet. Perhaps it is not through with you."

"What would you have me do? Go back, and do it again?"

"Well, perhaps your dreams are the second step. Perhaps you paid the price to enter the Way, and it demands that you pay the same price to truly leave it."

"So I have to let the dream finish."

"I wouldn't know," Emma said. "Does that feel right to you?"

It does. Of course it does, Zanna thought, and nodded.

"I'll watch over you," Emma assured her. "You will be safe."

Zanna put her head in her hands. Please don't make me do that again. But the old woman was right. She could feel herself to be still stuck in the doorway. It would not let her go until she gave it what it wanted. She had to experience that frozen hell not once, but twice. So the heavy-hearted Wanderer laid her head down once more to sleep, and pay the Way its due.

Zanna's journey replayed from the beginning. Hearing whispers of the Way from the town storyteller. The only one in this whole world, he had said. Reading old forbidden history books, and even in them finding only hints of the door. The one common point was North. She experienced again the terror of sneaking past the border patrol, hours and hours of waiting for a chance to move a few meters. She climbed again all thirteen of the grabbing and cutting fences, getting caught on and bleeding all over most of them. She argued with the Torn to give her a straight answer, threw a screaming fit when all they did was stare at her like they had seen this a hundred times. She felt the heat of that central fire biting at her exposed and lacerated flesh, for a day and then some while she sat, preparing. She walked down that accursed valley through that accursed fog to that accursed wall of uncompromising ice. She reached out, thinking once again that she was prepared, and once again being very very wrong.

The coldest things never feel cold at first. Zanna had one moment to think, maybe she was wrong about the door, before she ceased to be able to move. A feeling which "cold" fails to properly describe moved up her arm and into the rest of her body. Every extremity felt like it was crystallizing into a statue version of her body. Her eyes froze open, and a layer of frost formed over them, so that all she saw for the next hour was that blue-white light. During that hour, her hand pressed into the stark crystal wall. Millimetre by millimetre, a hand print formed in the ice. Zanna reached into the cold, and the cold reached into her.

What it wanted was Heat.

The Way, whether it needed it to charge up, or was designed to be sadistic, or just because this was the nature of an absurd reality, needed every last drop of energy in her body. Her palm reached a metal surface behind the ice. Her hand had melted an unknown depth through the door, and what movement she could muster in her brain thought that maybe it was a handle, if only she could close her hand to grab it. What she could not know was that the metal thing was a heart. It was still, it had been for centuries. But as she touched it, her own heart fluttered. The last bit of motion in her body, the one organ keeping her alive, missed a beat. And it missed another. And each time her heart skipped, the metal against her hand pulsed. Soon, Zanna only had ownership of every fourth beat of her heart, and that continued for a very long time. She wanted to die. She begged the door to take the last of her, and be done with it. Then, at long last, the last flutter of her consciousness slipped away and went dark, frozen.

Zanna snapped awake, breathing hard. A single tear tracked its way down her face, and it didn't freeze like all the others. Emma was smiling at her.

"Congratulations dearie. You passed through the Way." Zanna held her hands up to her cheeks and breathed deeply with joy. She wasn't cold anymore. She smiled gratefully and moved to embrace the old woman. But then she stopped, because the old woman didn't look quite so old anymore. There was a new light in Emma's eyes. It looked like… Satisfaction. Her hair was longer, and black instead of grey. She sat tall in the chair, poised and strong. Zanna raised her hands to her face once more upon realizing, she didn't feel warm either. She slid her hands down her face to her neck, instinctively going for the warmest place on the human body, but stopped again. She had no pulse. Emma continued to smile at her, with a new life in her smile and everything else about her.

"You," Zanna breathed, less than a whisper. "Why were you in a broom cupboard when I came through?"

"Why, I was there to catch you, of course," Emma said sweetly. "Can't have you in pieces all over the floor."

Zanna tried to stand up, but found that she couldn't. Her muscles, they wouldn't exert any of the force they needed to to raise her out of the chair. No, she thought, I have come too far, suffered too much, just to give my life force over to some half formed door-spirit.

"You're perfect, you know. Just barely strong enough to do what needed done, not strong enough to live to tell the Tale." Emma stretched her arm out in front of her, enjoying her newly steady hands.

Not strong enough. Is that all I am in this story, the firewood? No! I refuse. Zanna thrust herself upright, out of the chair. Emma's eyes widened with fear. Probably her first time ever feeling it.

"You have enough left in you to move? But that should be impossible."

Zanna took a shaky step forward. She stretched out her arms, intending to reach the spirit and strangle her, if she could. "No matter where in this Library you run, woman, you will stay in one place too long, and I will catch you. And I will take back everything you stole from me."

She took another step forward. Forcing her body to move with so little energy in reserve made her almost hazy with pain, but Zanna had been through worse. Twice. Another step.

The greedy spirit held stock still as Zanna approached, like a snake unsure if it had been seen. Zanna took one more step forward, her hands now hovering a foot from its throat. Perhaps she really could take back her energy, if it was still in transition. Emma seemed to come to a decision. It whipped its hand up between their faces, clutching something. Zanna could see metal between its fingers, but not the exact shape of what it was holding-

"I kept your dog," it said, lightly shaking the object in its hand. Zanna halted her persuit. How could this thing have her dog, or even know about him?

"He followed you, you know. Through or over all the fences, across the Valley of the Torn, he followed your scent. I was touched so… I kept him. Would you like him back?"

I could have him back. I could redeem my failure to save him. Zanna felt a burning in her throat at the thought of seeing her best and only friend once more. She reached for the object, and Emma obliged her, lowering its hand to her outstretched ones. Zanna pushed forward and seized it with both hands-

It didn't take an hour, this time. It took a second. Zanna dropped to her knees as all of her strength left her in a flash. Frost covered her body, and ice replaced her flesh. She didn't even have time for a final thought of regret or revenge. In a moment, she was nothing but a curiously detailed ice statue. Kneeling, perhaps in prayer, its outstretched hands clutching a beating metal heart.

Zanna took a shaky breath and recovered its poise. It glided forward, softly cupping the statue's face with one hand. And in a voice smooth as old cloth and warm as barbed wire in the sun, it said,

"Thank you for everything, my dear. Your bravery today has truly inspired me. I'd even say you warmed my heart."

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License