The sky was alight with fire and the ground beneath my feet was hardened with frost. It barely occurred to me that I was responsible for one of those anomalies. I wanted to scream. Or cry. Or collapse. Or melt like the ice dripping from my red-tinged fingers. Or all of them simultaneously. Yes, I think I would have liked to do them all.
I could hardly bear to walk, to put one foot in front of the other. Again and again. With every step, bones snapped beneath the weight of my steel-plated boots. A dreadful crunch followed my every move, sickening enough to curdle blood. But I couldn't hear the brittle cracking or even the squelching shriek of the mud that sought to suck my feet into the earth. Those sounds couldn’t contend with the roar of blood in my ears — the hammer of that organ in my chest that stubbornly refused to stop beating.
Even when I wished desperately that it would.
I paused briefly, surveying the space around me. The skyline was red with the haze of bloodshed, streaked with the hue of heartbreak, smudged with the taint of tears both spilled and yet unshed. The heap of fallen soldiers was so dense here that the ground itself couldn’t be seen beneath the layers of flesh, blood, and pungent mud. So much death, so much ruin, with no end in sight.
Rains had passed through here, torrential and relentless, pounding like bullets against the ranks of men and women. The humid scent of those heavy clouds still lingered just beneath the coppery tang of blood. But the war hadn’t yielded because of the weather. It didn’t yield because of anything. And it never would.
Unless I could keep my promise.
He was relying on me to end this war.
But it was so hard not to turn that dark cold inward — wield it against myself — when I wished so fervently that every clash of swords and every blast of powder would be my death blow. I could remember a time when I hadn’t wanted to leave this world. It hadn’t been that long ago. It had only been a few weeks since that day, since that stand on the battlefield when I was supposed to die and didn’t. But living through it, witnessing what I did… that might have been a worse fate to endure. It’d certainly felt like I’d been run through with a sword. And that pain had lingered in every breath since.
I glanced at my hands, which trembled slightly from the adrenaline still coursing through me. Today’s fighting had only just ceased. My breath still came in steaming puffs that twisted around my head like a halo. Cold still emanated from me, pulsing like a heartbeat. That cold, that ice — it wasn’t enough.
I wasn’t enough.
I’d grown so strong, trained so hard, learned so much. I could freeze half an ocean while hardly breaking a sweat. I was the master of my power, my element. I was the most powerful rifter to have ever existed. Yet I was still too weak. Too weak to shield what had always protected me. If I was too weak to stop that day from transpiring, how could I be expected to halt this entire war in its tracks? How could I emerge whole at the end if I was already broken beyond repair?
One battle at a time.
I stiffened, sucking in a sharp breath as the words rang clear through the polluted air, though I knew they were in my ears only.
Just think about it one battle at a time. That’s how you survive.
My eyelids shuttered as I released that held strain of air. I pressed the pads of my fingers to my temples and transferred the coolness lurking within my skin to soothe the dull ache throbbing behind my eyes. The calming mantra repeated once more, urging me, lifting my chin higher. I could do this. I had to do this.
One battle at a time, Ice Queen.
The faintest shadow of a smile ghosted across my lips, which were tainted blue from the cold lurking within me. He wasn’t beside me as I’d prayed he would be, but I knew where he was, waiting for me. “I know, Alex,” I murmured softly as I turned and started to pick my way across the sea of corpses, some of which had my ice in their hair or beads of my frost clinging to their eyelashes. It was easier to focus on those details than on the eyes themselves, open and glazed with the specter of death. “I know.”
I held out my palm, stared at the embers that had gathered there within mere seconds, remnants of fiery artillery blasts and scorched skin. They steamed and dissolved upon contact with my cold touch. I watched for a moment longer. I watched until I was too weak to gaze upon such a sight any longer, until my stomach churned with a sickness I couldn't allow myself to yield to. I clenched my fist and rendered the smoldering ashes to delicate snowflakes. Soon, a light, white powder dusted the ground like a coating of sugar.
As if sugar could ever disguise a pile of shit.
Strengthening the force of the flurry, I flushed the field of its filth. I cleansed the stench of blood, sweat, and warm bodies cooling as corpses in the wake of battle. But the odor of death lingered stubbornly. I suspected nothing would ever purge that scent from this godforsaken place. And a small voice within me thought, Good. Let them remember what happened here. Let them
never forget. But I knew this act of mine was a display of weakness — a feeble attempt to erase the memories that would never leave me.
The sun sank low in the sky, kissing the horizon intimately, grazing it with a lover’s touch. Within the hour, it would be dark. I sighed as I raised one hand to shield my eyes from the fiery rays. One more day of fighting. One more day alone, without him at my side as he should be. But I could survive this. I would survive this.
I trudged wearily over the carpet of bodies, each step heavier than the last, until the shuddering feel of soft skin beneath my feet finally relented, and I knew, without looking down, that I was no longer on the battlefield. The other commanders were waiting for me and my report at headquarters. I could already imagine their scorn for being so tardy, but those strategizing cowards didn’t spend their days in the killing grounds like I did, so they could shove it for all I cared.
Headquarters loomed ahead, poised like a gleaming metal beast in striking contrast to the dreary destruction all around it. It was a temporary structure, constructed of fortified titanium plates. Sturdy, yet easy to disassemble. The perfect burrow for the two-faced foxes that were my fellow commanders.
The formidable iron gates were locked, but I didn’t break stride as I approached, undaunted. My graceful, still-frigid fingers slid into my hair and seized the pin I always kept buried amidst the white-blonde locks. The pin itself was carved in the likeness of a twisted branch with a tiny, porcelain song bird perched on one end, too pretty for the world around it. The hair piece might have even been normal if it wasn’t unusually long and pointed. A lock pick. Promise me, Shawna.
Alex himself had given it to me nearly seven years ago, before this war had ripped our lives apart, before I’d even been identified as a rifter. An enrollment gift from him to me, though he’d been nothing short of mortified when I’d informed him of my plans to enlist in the Human-Rifter Alliance Military, which he himself had been a member of since he was fourteen. We’d both been seventeen when I had joined the force.
Seventeen. A mere girl. But I’d wanted to fight, as if I’d known even then what I really was.
“Since you’ve only confirmed that you’re a stubborn ass, I won’t try to dissuade you, though I’ll wring your neck if you manage to get yourself killed,” he’d said to me with a grin, though the humor hadn’t reached his eyes.
I’d found it so endearing that he really cared enough to be nervous for me. But then his face had brightened as his gaze had met mine, and I’d thought the world might have stopped spinning as I saw that beautiful energy radiating from him.
“I have something for you,” he’d whispered close to my ear as he’d pulled the pin from his pocket. “Always be prepared to make hasty, emergency escapes, though I pray it’ll never come to that. I couldn’t live with myself if I let my best friend go into battle unequipped.” And he’d slid the pin into my hair right then and there, giving me a dazzling smile that had weakened my knees when he’d pulled back to look at me fully. “It looks great on you.” But that smile had faded oh so quickly as his expression had grown grave and serious, and he’d taken my face in his hands. “Promise me you’ll be careful if they ever send you into the fields. Promise me you’ll come back to me every time. I can’t lose you.”
Please, Shawna. Promise me.
I’d known I loved him right then and there. With his hands warm against my skin, his lovely present in my hair, and his eyes so full of concern, I’d realized that I would always come back to him. “I promise,” I’d replied rather breathlessly. The first of many promises I now wondered if I could keep. He’d just grinned again and slid his arm around my shoulders.
Seven years ago. I’d loved Alex for seven years, not one day of which had passed without that pin in my hair. I’d carried a piece of him with me everywhere.
I twirled it through my fingers now, deftly slipping it into the lock and twisting until a click reverberated through my bones. The gates flew open on silent hinges. I slipped past and sealed them securely behind me, sweeping my gaze over the grounds to monitor for threats before I stalked into the building.
The other seven commanders prowled at the drawing table in the war room as I’d known they would.
Their heads lifted as I glided in, the hem of my commander’s cloak swishing around my ankles. I schooled my face into a mask of imperial authority as I came before them, my expression stony and my demeanor as frigid and harsh as the ice I could summon. Posture and power were everything to them. And no one in this room was more powerful than me. No one alive was more powerful than me.
Even as I felt like crumbling to pieces.
I took my seat at the head of the table and surveyed my peers. Most of them wouldn’t meet my gaze.
“Heavy casualties today. Three entire battalions were swept clean off the field. The bulk of our forces are being flanked, attacked from all sides. But our rifters are dealing significant losses on their end as well. Tolls are great on both sides. It’s a massacre out there every bloody
day,” I asserted, unprompted. I didn’t have the heart — nor did I care enough — to give a full-length, formal, official report. If they had any qualms about the haphazard deliverance, they could join me on the field. See what they had to say about my crude, blunt manner and ineloquence then. War was barbaric. Etiquette was reserved no place on the battlefield.
I paused, faltering as I debated whether or not I felt bold enough to voice my next thought. “Our strategies aren’t working. And… and we need to change our formations.”
The commanders stirred, quiet murmurs passing along between them. Brash bitch. I heard the words as if they’d been spoken aloud. Nearly as loud as the words rifter trash. I knew well enough that every one of these fools was thinking as much.
“Why?” one commander queried, her voice rising sure and steady above the others.
“Our current positions are endangering the rifters among our ranks,” I replied, hoping I appeared firm rather than merely tired. My limbs felt unbearably heavy, like someone had mixed cement into my blood. I could barely hold myself upright in my chair. I forged on nonetheless. “They stand around the edges, front, and rear like a barrier between the enemy forces and our human soldiers in the middle of the squadrons. We’re suffering severe rifter fatalities as a result. They are, forgive me, our most versatile, competent, and effective men and women on the field. They deal the significant majority of the damage to our foes. I’m not saying to disregard the importance of our human members, but the rifters should not be left so exposed and vulnerable. Certainly not all of them. This current formation is quite literally killing our army.”
Rifters — people who breached the gap between the natural and the supernatural. People who served as junctions between the known and the unknown. People like me. The title had emerged from a rumor that these mysterious people with inexplicable powers had entered this world through a rift in reality. The truth was human reality bent around rifters, warped to
accommodate their inhuman powers and capabilities. Rifters tended to be stronger, tougher, faster than the average human. They could heal at quicker rates. They were more resilient and could stand up no matter how many times they were knocked down — an ideal most humans could only dream of.
Every rifter had a unique domain. While I could conjure freezing temperatures and ice, others dealt with heat and flame, wind and air, rock and mountain, dirt and mud, water and rain, forest and glade. There were infinite possibilities for power in this world. Levels of mastery varied as well. Weaker rifters could make only minimal changes to their environments. Stronger rifters could reduce lush fields to barren wastelands or desolate entire cities. But I…
I could send the entire planet into an ice age.
I was the strongest of the strong. I had power, influence, and control like no one before me had ever possessed. I was praised. I was feared. I was unheard of — an anomaly. I was an abomination.
Even among rifters there were whispers, rumors. Some claimed I was not of this world. Others claimed I was dangerous. A threat. And perhaps they were right. I couldn’t help but wonder.
He was the only one who didn’t tread carefully, who didn’t tiptoe around me, who didn’t treat me like some rabid animal frothing at the mouth. Alex had never been afraid.
My comments spurred more whispered dissensions around the table. No one spoke. They just whispered to each other like gossiping schoolgirls. I ground my teeth, fighting to restrain myself. “As a fellow commander and member of this council, I feel that I am entitled to hear your thoughts on this matter,” I proclaimed through tightly pursed lips.
They startled as if they had forgotten I was there.
“While we understand your concerns,” one began, speaking in a gentle tone as though I was a child — or a frightened animal, “We must express our own concerns. You see, as you acknowledged earlier, rifters are far more adept on the battlefield than most humans. They are therefore able to defend themselves far more efficiently.”
For a moment, it seemed as though I’d had the wind knocked out of me. I couldn’t seem to breathe in enough air. I felt as though I’d been blindsided. That was their argument for justifying the treatment of rifters as living shields?
I blinked back the red haze in my vision and forced my voice to emerge level and calm. “That is certainly true. However, I can assure you that rifters are just as mortal as humans and just as susceptible to enemy blades.”
“We cannot risk the enemy diminishing our number of human soldiers—”
“But we can risk them slaughtering our rifters?” I rasped.
The commander stopped, fell silent, averted her eyes. Coward. You can’t even look at me as you say it.
“Allow me to reaffirm that I am not undermining the capabilities of humans, but our rifter population is the only thing that has enabled us to fight this war for as long as we have. We would have been defeated and eliminated without their contributions to our efforts.”
Another commander took up the flag and resumed the arguments of the first. “Allow us to reaffirm that we understand your feelings and potential bias on this matter. However, in the best interest of the success and prosperity of the alliance—”
I slammed a fist against the table. “You claim to be an alliance of humans and rifters, yet you treat your rifters like dirt! We’re cannon fodder to you! Never once has a rifter been congratulated or awarded for their bravery and heroism on the battlefield. Have you noticed only one rifter holds court among the leadership? Of course you have, you designed it as such! Among nine commanders, only one is a rifter, though nearly half of our military force consists of them.”
An unsettling, unbroken quiet descended upon the war room like a fog.
Finally, one of the commanders cleared his throat. “Eight commanders. You said nine. In light of a recent incident that has rendered one of our peers unfit to serve, we are now a council of eight commanders.”
One of our peers unfit to serve.
My breath hitched in my throat. My vision filled with red until I couldn’t even see who had spoken. It didn’t matter. It was all any of them could think about. After hearing what I’d had to say, their only comment had been a meaningless correction. A meaningless correction that meant everything to me because they’d spoken about what had happened to Alex so casually, with such a lack of concern. How could they not be concerned? How could they not be torn apart like me? It was Alex. The perfect soldier, the perfect commander, the perfect best friend.
They didn’t care about Alex, they didn’t care about the misrepresentation or exploitation of rifters, they didn’t care about the lives lost to this damnable war. They didn’t care. They were petty, vain, and vile. A flock of rowdy, squabbling pigeons pecking at each other over a handful of breadcrumbs. I gritted my teeth and scoffed in disgust. Disgraceful. Good men and women — both rifter and human — were fighting and dying every day, and this was all they had to say. I stood, upsetting my chair with the sudden motion, and spat on their precious little drawing table — the symbol of their authority.
Strong leaders didn't rely on inanimate objects as proof of their worth.
“Tell me, what do you think would happen if I was suddenly found to be unfit to serve? Do you think your ranks of rifters would continue to follow your orders? To obey you without hesitation? They don’t trust you, and they’re sure as hell not loyal to you. I don’t think you realize how fragile the balance of this alliance is. Because there is no balance. You’ve ensured that. They will revolt, they will abandon you and this fucking war. They only stay because they have faith in me and my powers. They have faith that I will guide them through this.” I paused and measured the time I remained silent, the time I allowed my words to hang suspended in the air. No one spoke. I clenched my hands into fists, feeling the tremble of a thinly-leashed ice storm within me. “You can’t afford to lose me. And Lord knows you can’t afford to lose this war. I advise you to mind your tongues in my presence. Don’t forget who I am.”
I meant to appear strong, indestructible, imposing. But my knees felt weak, and my feet ached, and my bottom lip had started to quiver. With a flourish of my cape, I turned my back on the circle of sniveling cowards that called themselves commanders and strode out of the room before the first tears could fall — before I could collapse in front of them. I left them to preen themselves. They could waste their own time and breath, but mine was far too valuable to expend on reports they didn't bother listening to.
I kept up a relentless pace as I stomped down the corridor, moving quick enough for my surroundings to blur around me. Frustration crept up my throat like a scream, and I released it in small bursts of frost with each painfully heavy step, leaving a trail of frozen footprints nearly as thick as my thoughts behind me.
Balance, I’d spoken of. I knew better. This alliance was only a pretense. It was a desperate bid to control and manipulate the rifter population. Any rifter worth their domain knew that. But in this time of war, what choice did we have? What choice other than to subject
ourselves to the injustices of a brutal, biased system just for a chance of survival in an even crueler world? This entire war was an attempt to disrupt the alliance and eradicate rifters altogether. Options were a liberty we didn't have. Live to fight another day. Pray to see an end to the bloodshed. Or lie down and die.
Hell of a choice.
But Alex had believed in the alliance. Like a fool, he’d had faith. Like an even bigger fool, I’d followed him this far.
Now, even lifting my feet required more energy than I had left in me. I was weary of the destruction and death and devastation. I'd grown numb to the carnage, and that disturbed me more than anything else. This war was consuming me, rendering me unrecognizable, transforming me into a vessel of blood and battle and ice. It only occurred to me now that I'd been limping from a wound in my thigh all day. I couldn't even discern which leg was injured. Perhaps they both were. I didn't know.
But my feet didn’t stop even when I’d left the war room far behind. They kept moving, kept walking on their own accord. They took me where I needed to go. To him. To Alex.
The corridors seemed to constrict around me, winding like a snake through the elaborate layout of the alliance base of operations. Time seemed to keep moving around me while I stood motionless and stuck. Or maybe the roles were reversed, and I was still moving while time slowed to a stop. My breaths were becoming shallow and strained, and the sound of my own pulse was a dull roar in my ears. Perhaps I’d faint before I could get to him. Perhaps I wanted that to happen.
I wanted to faint and awaken to find him crouched beside me, shaking my shoulder gently, his face hovering bare inches over mine, a look of concern twisting his lips into a pout. What I’d do and give just to see the way the skin around his eyes crinkled with the traces of a smile whenever his gaze met mine.
What I’d do and give to see him open his eyes.
It was suddenly impossible to breathe. I considered the possibility that I’d suffocate right here in these hallways with no one to bear witness. Would that be so terrible? It would be quieter than dying on the battlefield or succumbing to my internal anguish. It would certainly hurt less.
But I couldn’t. The war. Thousands of rifters relied on my leadership and strength. And I’d promised him I’d win this war.
You’ll make a liar of me yet, Alex. I cringed as soon as I’d had the thought. Doubtful sentiments were a weakness I could ill afford.
Miraculously, I kept moving forward without incident. And though I wasn’t entirely sure how, I didn’t stumble, fall out of step, or break pace as I neared the quarters where Alex was being contained. As always, a guard was posted in his chamber, protecting him in his vulnerable state. Supposedly. Really, the guard’s role was to monitor his fragile condition lest his sluggish heartbeats cease altogether. Every soldier in this base figured he was bound to destabilize eventually. Ice could only maintain a person for so long before they rotted away to nothing.
I’d threatened to cut out the tongue of any person who dared to suggest such a thing. “Leave us,” I said stiffly, brushing past the stationed guard without even a glance in her direction. My voice emerged like wind blowing through reeds, raspy and hollow — hoarse from the raw emotion constricting my throat. The words were strained, sour-tasting, and painful.
The guard stirred, discomfort and uncertainty bleeding into the edges of her expression. I understood her unease. She was on duty, and it was her job to preside over him and protect him. But her sense of duty was needless now that I was here. No one could protect him better than me. Though, perhaps that wasn’t true. He’d been beside me when it happened. I’d failed him in the moment when he’d fallen.
I shut the thought out before it could consume me.
“Leave us!” I barked gruffly, firmer this time, a command. And I was a commander. The poor, unfortunate guard had no choice. Reluctantly, she shifted her stance and marched out of the room, never dropping her soldierly posture. Once I’d assured myself that she’d gone, I turned and stared at the yawning hole in my heart.
Because the hole in my heart was really a hole in his. A gaping wound where a spear had torn through his flesh and punctured his most vital organ after he'd placed himself between me and the tip of that blade.
On the battlefield, someone had made an attempt on my life. But he'd intervened, protecting me with the ultimate sacrifice — his own life. That fatal blow had found him instead. He'd fallen and I'd held him. His blood had pooled in my hands, slick and hot between my fingers.
The only way to save his life had been to preserve his body in my ice. Ice could staunch the flow of blood and slow his heart without stopping it, affording him precious time to heal. So I’d fashioned him a small iceberg of my own making with him at its crystalized center. I'd encased him in a frozen tomb and I’d been maintaining that casket with a small sliver of my power every day since.
Perhaps he was just dying much slower. The cold delayed his body’s ability to heal itself — there might never be enough time for him to recover. It was a distinct possibility that I was only prolonging his inevitable death. But it was a chance. It was a chance to see life in his eyes again. It was a chance to bring him back to me.
Unbidden, his voice emerged from among the racing thoughts in my head, just as it had every second of every day since the spear had brought him down. I thought of all the things he’d asked of me, everything I owed to him.
Promise me you’ll never stop fighting. Promise me you’ll win this war for me if not for yourself.
A promise I was still trying and failing to uphold.
I clenched my teeth so hard that my jaw ached as I remembered the day I’d been identified as a rifter. I’d been so scared of myself and of the powers I’d begun to present. But he hadn’t been afraid. Never him. Not of me.
Promise me that you’ll never lose sight of yourself. They can tell you what you are, but they can never tell you who you are. You decide that. And you know I’ll stand by any decision you make. It doesn’t matter what they call you. I’ll die standing by your side, Shawna. An oath he’d unknowingly fulfilled. Tears pricked my eyes.
And, of course, louder than artillery blasts and the screams of dying men and women was the plea that I’d never stopped hearing.
Promise me you’ll come back to me every time.
“I promise,” I whispered to the man frozen in my ice, the man who’d cared enough to throw himself in front of me, the man I loved enough to kill for. They were the same words I’d said to him seven years ago. The same words I’d said to him a hundred times in the following
years. The same words I’d said to him another hundred times in the two weeks since he’d taken the blow intended for me. The same words that sustained me every day. Because if I could stay true to my promise and end this war, maybe he would open his eyes and see the day that I did. I pressed my hand to the frozen monolith that encased him.
I imagined how warm his skin would feel against my palm, so different from the biting cold of my ice.
I envisioned the moment when his eyes would find mine once more.
I swore to live for him. And to love him forever.
Shawna, promise me. Please.
“I promise, Alex.”
Kim Heinzelmann is a 17 year-old and a junior at Gettysburg Area High School. Kim lives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and has always loved to create stories. One day, Kim wrote one down on paper, hoping other people would be able to see the world she lived in within my head. She has not been able to stop since.
"Ice Cube and Salt" by FotoGrazio is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse