(8)To All A Light Devoured
“You’re a monster.”
Winter stands, facing Summer with arms folded. The latter of the two takes a step back from the heat of that strange-eyed gaze. It’s one they share, though Summer’s is mirrored to hers- one green and one blue. They stare, not like accusing orbs, more like accusing suns.
An accusing son.
He stands there now too, by Winter’s side. The concentrated force of their eyes makes her shrink away. The boy’s eyes are pale white. Blind?
Where did she learn that?
“Will you pay for what you’ve done?” The boy asks. His voice is like a dagger, cutting at her belly, its razor edges parting her skin, and now blood covers her lower body. She’s drenched in it, it cascades in a flood, a dam that has burst, dripping down her thighs and onto the cold, unforgiving nothing. Oblivion. She is standing on the edge of oblivion now, watching the blood spiral away into nothingness, the nothingness she’ll fall in, she’ll topple in if she gives way even for a moment.
She teeters, waves her arms for balance, but a hand reaches out of the slit in her belly and pulls her forward, grasping her neck, stretching impossibly long. Spring’s hand, Spring’s head has also slid forth from the cut in her womb and it grins at her, baring razor sharp fangs, no, not Spring, it is the Spider Queen, it is that fell eight armed monster and it hurts, it hurts so badly, she can feel her muscles tightening, tightening until they threaten to snap.
She pitches forward into oblivion, and for a few moments, hangs there.
Then she drops, a stone, a stone with a strangely aching cheek, as if something hard struck it, like a stone, like herself. For she is a rock. She is falling as a rock.
And now she is falling.
And now, she is falling.
“Now!” Spring says sharply. And his hand is already swinging when she opens her eyes, so he strikes her cheek. Her gaze is a glare. It startles him so much he jumps, loses hold of the blade and hears a thunk as it slides to the hilt into a crack between the floorboards, missing his already sore toe by a hair.
And there she is, lying on the mat in front of him. It’s Winter. Her cheek stings, Spring can feel it stinging, he can also feel his belly slit open. He glances at Winter’s belly- it’s whole, and decidedly unpregnant, for which he is grateful. He isn’t certain if unpregnant is a word, but he’s certain that it’s what he would use to describe her condition.
He breathes a short sigh of relief, letting go of some of his tension. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath. If Winter’s eyes are open, she’ll be awake soon, and with some luck she’ll also respond to the cold favorably.
No twins, then. He stares at the bundle wrapped in the cloth, wrapped in the grasses from the skirt and shirt, the woven magics of Summer. He strokes the baby’s hair absently. Strangely enough it doesn’t seem inclined to cry. It breathes, though, so he doesn’t need to give it a swat. Besides that he’s not sure if that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. He’d only done a few births that had worked out. What happens if it doesn’t work out?
Summer nearly died. There had been more blood than Spring could’ve credited, it had taken the combined magic strength of the wand and the heat from the whole of his territory to provide enough magic power to heal her again. She’ll still have a scar.
Is it a boy? He studies the baby carefully. Or is it a girl?
Its skin is what worries him. Its skin is bronzeish peach from the waist down and incredibly pale, like fresh snow, from the waist up. It reminds him of Summer’s skin- the bronze, that is, and the pale could only belong to Winter. Very curious. In all his time pretending to be a doctor he’d never seen anything like it. Generally babies resembled both father and mother, but not having seen the father Spring can’t fathom what he looked like.
He decides it’s just a mystery. No sense finding out now. As his grandfather had always said: “It’s nothing to do with the money, all I really want is a drink, so here’s a hundred coins, go out and buy me a damn good drink or I’ll lop your ear off.”
Actually, when he’d got older he’d just sort of learned to take the coins and buy himself the drink. After his grandfather was dead, anyway. It’s not like he was going to use the coins. But ah, the mind does wander in old age. What was he thinking about?
The baby, that was it. Summer and Winter’d probably notice the difference in skin color and have a row, but it’s no big deal to Spring.
It’s not his baby, after all.
Winter stirs on the mat, and he starts, staring at her again. Will she wake?
Her eyes snap open, and she sits bolt upright, rubbing her arms, and sweating profusely already. Her eyes wander about the room until they lock onto Spring.
“Who are you?” She asks sharply.
“My name is Bringer-of-Spring,” He says smoothly. “You are Winter-Long-Frost, I suppose. We’re brother and sister.”
She seems to think about this for a moment.
“Yes. My belly feels sticky.”
She looks down at her belly, then turns and seems to notice the redness that soaked into the mat. Summer’s blood.
“Is this a hospital?”
Spring thinks for a moment about how he should answer that. “Yes and no. It’s more a refuge for the faint of soul.”
Winter, ever sharp, shrugs and sighs. “What’s going on? Why is it so hot?”
She focuses then, stares at the bundle in Spring’s arms. “That’s Summer’s baby,” She says flatly. “Why do you have Summer’s baby?”
“Well, aside from giving her hospitality, she had a forced birth on the mat you’re sitting on,” Spring replies dryly, all cheerfulness replaced by the tired feeling of explanation. “And, since you ask, I am holding this baby because Summer, obviously, cannot hold it herself.”
“It’s hard to think,” Winter says blearily, though it’s unlikely she heard herself. Her eyes are drooping for some reason. It’s the heat. Yes, that’s it. Heat saps her strength. She remembers that now. “It’s very hot.”
Spring blinks, then smacks his forehead and snaps his fingers, murmuring a word which drops into the air like flash-ice. Immediately a cool breeze floods the room, blowing in through a window and over Winter, clearing her thoughts and blasting through the heat fog.
“Ah!” She cries. “Summer’s baby! Is she hurt? Summer is bound, I can’t take care of her baby for her! I don’t know the first thing about it!”
Spring rolls his eyes and gives her a lopsided grin. “Well actually I think I’m the one meant to take care of it. Seeing as I helped to birth it and have a degree in medical science. Not that science is really valid here, I suppose. But if it were then I would be overqualified.”
Winter’s eyes narrow. “A bit overeager, aren’t you?”
“My dear woman, my sweet sister, why would I lie to you?” Spring asks quietly. His voice sounds as weary as Winter looks. “Think.”
“Well,” Winter begins, and then stops. “I don’t know. Who are we? Are you my brother? Really?”
Bringer-of-Spring stands up, easing tension in first one leg, and then the other. “Yes. We are related by blood. Only Summer knew of it. Well, technically only Summer is related to me by blood, but you’re both in one package.” He smiles. “You are related to me by mind.”
“That,” Winter says slowly. “Is a bit of a stretch. I barely know you and it’s a bit of a-“
“What I mean is,” Spring interrupts hastily. “We’re alike because we are both outshined and outmatched by our older siblings. Well, to be frank, your older sibling. Not your body-mate- in that you are sisters by coincidence.”
“My older sibling?” Winter says, though there’s a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach and she can’t say why.
“Better known by his name and title, Fall.”
At the precise moment that Spring utters the name, there is a rumbling beneath Winter’s rear- beneath the foundations of the shrine itself. Before she can react, everything is twisting and trembling.
The entire shrine is shaken to its very rafters, the lamp hanging from the wall guttering, the flame finally doused by its violent shaking and in a flash of sparks, a crash as it strikes the floor. It burns there, a tiny flickering fire, before a cold wind douses it again.
After the aftershocks fade away, and Spring relights and replaces the lamp, and only after that, does he talk again.
“Sorry, ah, He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains,” Spring says sheepishly. “I forgot.”
“How the hell do you forget something like that?” Winter asks irritably, rubbing her head where it smacked into the floor. She sits up again.
Spring’s only response is a shrug.
“Hey! You changed the subject on me!” Winter accuses. “Why are you so eager to look after Summer’s baby?”
“Why are you?” Spring snipes back, cradling the baby as if it were truly his own. “Tell me that, eh?”
“I’m not,” Winter snaps. “I’m just-“
“Excellent! Then I’ll do it!”
He rushes over to the desk on the far side of the room, picks up a quill from its surface and begins to write. There isn’t a chair for him to sit in, but it doesn’t seem to bother him.
“So what do we do?” Winter asks, peering over Spring’s shoulder. Her mind-brother shrugs again, flashes her a grin.
“That all depends on what you’re willing to give up,” He says quietly. “What would you do to have Summer unbound?”
“Would it solve my memory problems?” All Winter can think about is how nice it would be to have her memory back.
“Yes and no,” Spring hazards. “To be honest, I have no idea what it will do. I’ve never had need of it before.”
“How encouraging,” Winter mutters to herself. She glances again at what Spring is bent over. On the desk in front of him, the baby cradled in one arm, he draws frantically with a quill in what she prays is red ink. From the smell, though, thick in her nostrils, it’s probably something closer to liquid red licorice. The scroll he writes on is almost smoking, and his hand is moving in a blur she can barely even see.
“Why aren’t you using a pen?” She asks. She picks one up from the table and stares at it. Something about its length, about the words written on the plastic catches her eye…
“Put that down,” Spring answers without looking up. “They’re much more dangerous than mere pens, or I’d have more than two of them. It’s a wand.”
Winter arches an eyebrow, but says nothing, setting it back. Part of her feels uncharacteristically sharp, and she can’t put her finger on it…
I’m here, you doofus.
“Oh,” She says, very quietly. “I wondered when you’d wake up again. Did you know you had a baby?”
Yes. Spring is holding it.
“So you have paid attention,” Winter says, more dryly than she means to. Her belly is boiling with something like anger. It also still hurts, as if she’d been cut instead of her sister. “Why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant?”
I didn’t think it’d come up so fast!
“Well how much time were you going to allow for it?
Look, I never thought that time would progress for me while bound. Sure I was on the brink of bearing when I challenged He-Whose-Name-Shakes-
“You knew about the baby and you still decided to fight him?” She shouts, and then stops. Spring is giving her a queer look.
“Ladies,” He says softly. “Please calm down. You’re scaring the baby, and if it wakes up and decides it’s time to cry, if I get one rune wrong, this entire shrine could explode. While I’m sure I’d be fine, it’d hurt the townsfolk and probably kill you and Summer in your weakened states. Kindly save the shouting match for later. Thank you.”
His voice is quite soothing, so Winter decides to force a smile and a nod. On the inside she’s stone cold, and every single part of her trembles with barely contained fury. Summer had the nerve to talk to her as if she had no right! Clearly the woman has no sense of honor or duty or anything, always going on as if she can…
Her memory buzzes for a moment, hisses in her ears and her mind. There’s a splitting sharp pain searing through the top of her head. It drops Winter to one knee before it passes. What happened? What was she thinking about? As the pain fades, she straightens and leans on the desk. Suddenly her thoughts are worse than ever. But…
Yes, Summer. She really had no right to the baby. Winter is sure she can take care of it just as well as the woman in her head could. Which is a full change from before when she was equally sure she couldn’t, but she’s not about to admit it.
What is she going to do about Summer, anyway? How could she go about getting rid of her? The woman has been nothing but trouble so far, after all. Nothing but… trouble.
Winter stares at the desk, and at her hand splayed on the desk. Her vision swims, and for a single moment, her skin flashes bronze from pale white.
“Steady! Winter!” A voice says sharply, near her ear. She sways, is unsurprised when an arm wraps around her waist and a too-hot hand covers her mouth for a moment, forcing something between her lips.
Whatever it is in her mouth feels like a red hot coal, but she swallows it without thinking and lets it burn. At least the horrible chill will leave her for a moment. She’s so cold in a moment she’s sure she’ll be shivering. And so angry.
The arms release her. Her vision clears and her head stops spinning. She shakes herself to clear the feeling as well, but the cold doesn’t quite leave her. Which is right. She’s Winter, yes?
She turns and glances at Spring, who is shaking off frost and snow. She glances down at the floor of the shrine and notices, for the first time, that snow and ice have taken root in the floor- for want of better word- snaking in lines wherever her feet touch.
“Do try to stay calm,” Spring pleads. “It’s best for us all when I don’t have to touch you in order to keep you from going bonkers.”
“Oh,” Winter replies stupidly. “Well then. What have you made?”
“It’s… a latent ability preparation system. Or LAPS for short.”
“Laps,” Winter says flatly. “Really?”
“Oh shut up,” Spring snips irritably. “Anyway, it’s a pill which will keep you from needing to switch places with Summer for seven days. At the end of the seven days it releases the energy built up and allows Summer to function in her body for seven days. Then the cycle should, in theory, repeat.”
“What, forever?” Winter asks suspiciously. “What’s the catch?”
“The catch is that Summer’ll have to let you out at all,” Spring says dryly. “The only reason I’ve developed this at all is because it’ll piss her off to know she’ll need to allow you any time. And because I know it’s best to let Summer out as well as Winter. You can’t have one facet without the other- it damages your memories. This device-“
“It’s a pill,” Winter points out. “You can just say ‘pill’. I had it. Tasted like a burning hot coal.”
“-will make sure that you don’t go insane,” Spring finishes, ignoring Winter’s interruption.
Now that piques Winter’s light-headed interest. “Insane?”
Spring sighs. “When one of you is trapped, the other one gets all the stress of being confined. You’ll feel caged and it will get on your nerves to the point where you eventually snap. You have to feel both Summer’s and your own emotions, as well as the terror of being trapped which Summer can’t feel because the chemicals in her body aren’t active. Only yours are, so only you will feel it. Don’t ask me why it works that way, our brother is responsible for it,” He finishes smoothly. “As for why Fa- er, He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains- did this, I have no idea. I’m sure Summer could tell you some things.”
Winter listens carefully. She understands completely, of course. It all makes perfect sense. She nods when Spring seems to have finished. “Okay. I think I’ve got the idea. Thanks!”
Spring rolls his eyes and stands up straight. “It’s the least I could do, really. My sisters, now I need your help.”
Awfully to the point, isn’t he?
“You remember him, does he usually do this?” Winter hisses back.
Yeah, pretty much.
Spring ignores this and waits.
“Well, you did help us. What do you need?” Winter asks warily.
“A drop of blood,” Spring replies, suddenly sheepish and not looking at Winter’s face.
“I should think you got enough of Summer’s,” Winter says flatly. “It’s all over the mat.”
“Yes, yes,” Spring says hastily. “No, I mean I need some of your blood in particular.”
“How can Summer help with that?” Winter isn’t feeling so comfortable about this. But the man did help her, after all.
“She already has,” Spring says. “No, all I really need is for you to hold still and hold your arm out.”
Winter lifts the limb and stares at her brother warily. “What are you going to AH-“
She immediately tugs it away, clutching a hand over her arm, crimson seeping out between her fingers. Spring didn’t appear to move. One moment she’d stood there, arm out, the next Spring is holding up a vial filled with her blood and she’s clutching her cut limb.
And then as Spring returns to the desk and gently replaces the vial back on its surface, Summer notices the silence.
Something is wrong. It’s day still, isn’t it? There are no crickets, no birds. It’s dead quiet out there. And look at the windows!
Winter glances around. Darkness has flooded the world. It can be seen through the bare windows of the room. While never exactly bright, the shrine is now so shrouded in the black from outside it reminds Winter of the cave, back with her Servant. She hadn’t noticed at first. Her eyes had just adjusted to the gloom. She’d assumed night had fallen…
But even then there’d be owls and similar making noises, right? But there’s not a sound from outside, and as Spring straightens and turns back, she can see that his smile has turned to a tight-lipped frown.
“Night comes awfully early around here,” He says quietly. “But it most certainly does not come this early. Something else is at work-“
The lamp flickers and gutters as another cold breeze hisses in through the windows. Spring moves to close it and reels back as another gust of wind hurls a flood of red and yellow leaves into the shrine. “Oh,” He says quietly, adjusting the baby in his arms. “Well.”
There’s the distant sound of the double gate guarding the entrance slamming open, then footsteps on stone.
Moments later a man bursts into the room, and Summer, still watching from Winter’s head, recognizes him as Thomas the gate guard. The baby, quiet until now, decides it’s time to cry.
“Bringer-of-Spring!” He shouts, panting for breath, trying to be heard over the baby’s wails and Spring’s desperate attempts to get it to hush. “A man, hooded, has appeared at the gates! He claims his name is forbidden and that he seeks a woman- by short name name of Winter! What should we do?”
Spring’s eyes lift from the baby- which hasn’t stopped crying- and pierce Winter, nailing her to the spot. Her blood runs hot under the pressure of that gaze. “I think it’s about time you told me why you’ve got your brother’s binding upon you in the first place, Winter,” He says grimly. “And I don’t even care which one of you it was who provoked Him.”
Outside and on cue, the wind howls as it tries to tear the shrine down around them.