Back on schedule. Let’s end the week with something special.
(9)Flight or Fight
Winter explains the fight with He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains insofar as she is able to recall. Summer is helpful too. It’s hard to speak around the lump of dread in her belly, but she finds the strength to tell Spring exactly what happened, leaving out only such uses of her own power as seem necessary to make Spring believe Winter was the only one capable of using it while Summer was bound.
He nods when it’s finished. “Yes, that does make sense.” He pauses, standing and rocking the baby, who had quieted at the sound of Winter’s voice. “Go, then. You’ve given me your blood, that’s all I needed from you. I won’t ask you to stay and fight Him in your condition.”
Winter stands, hesitates when she sees Spring and the child. “Come for it in seven days,” Spring says, his voice like stone. His face and his strange green skin are both lit by a cold, dread light from the window, as from the moon. It was midday when they arrived. “It will be here, if not in the shrine, safe in the ruins of it. Go now, before He finds you here and kills you. I will keep Him busy for as long as I can, but if He is driven there is nothing that will stop Him. Come for your baby in seven days- you cannot afford to slow down now!”
Winter dresses herself in frost, taking in power from the two men she murdered- so long ago, it feels- and expending it just as quickly, pushing her power into the shape of jeans and a shirt made of glittering cold. It conforms to her shape slickly, feverishly clinging as it was feverishly made. She looks around and spots the bead on the desk. She’d almost forgotten it. She strides over to it and snatches it up, puts it in her pocket with shaking fingers.
Thomas, never one to be left out, blinks in surprise. “She’s the one that man is after?” He says incredulously. “Winter?”
“Go!” Spring says, sharply now, ignoring Thomas. The light is much brighter outside now- still moonlight, halflight. And it’s wrong. Everything is quiet- no wind blows, no voices call, it is silent in the shrine, as if all the world were dead and this were the only refuge.
Spring pushes Winter towards the wall behind his desk, slaps a hand against the wood. It parts for her, pulling her through the newly formed portal into the outside. Not knowing what else to do, she runs.
Winter is quite experienced at running. In all her short memory, it feels like she’s done several lifetimes worth of running. It surprises her that someone is keeping up. She turns her head for a moment to regard Thomas, the gate guard, keeping pace with her, sandaled feet slapping the ground. “Let me go with you!”
She doesn’t answer.
The light from the sun is blocked by an oppressive darkness. The very ground under her feet feels hidden from her, though she can see it. It sneaks into her senses, outlining everything in gray. When she glances back- Don’t look back, dumbass! Keep running!- she can see the blinding light of a miniature sun- or a moon- shining at the gates. Past the gates, it strolls down the street, and she can almost hear the cloven hooves striking cobbles and stamping down on grass.
Then she tumbles, trips, but terror and adrenaline push her to her feet, the reflected light off her shimmering jeans and shirt cast over a tree root, and the bottom of the wall surrounding the city. When she looks up she can see it stretching high, dream-like, towering over her. No hope to climb it. But fortune favors her today- when she reaches out she finds a crack.
By sheer luck she seems to have come across a gap large enough for her. Spring, Summer says quietly.
It must be Spring, for the wood is bending out of her way, curling away from her as she slips through, Thomas following after her. Somehow, as with the spider-creatures and Jane, she can hear a voice, noises, fluttering on the breeze. She grasps at it, trying to hear it as she leans back against the wall, catching her breath. A few yards distant she can see the slope upward towards the forest and safety.
The noises- she can hear words in them. Some part of her knows it’s Eldritch- if a different dialect than with either Jane or the spider-women. It seems somehow more formal.
-Brother, so good of you to come! What can I help you with?-
The first voice is simple to decipher. It feels like the taste of honey mixed with bitter dandelion stems. It is Spring in a way that he could never hope to achieve with his body alone.
-As it happens, I came looking for our shared sister, Winter. Have you seen her?-
The second voice is pleasant, silky and sweet, but it feels like the taste of dead leaves as well, falling down and landing wet on the ground, of snow that fails because of the warmth, and plants that die because of the chill, leaving only slick sleet and empty bellies in its wake. It is extremely loud in her mind, and she clutches her head while Thomas can only watch helplessly.
-I have indeed. But we can discuss that over tea, surely?-
-Alas no, I am in a great hurry.-
There is one more word after that, in the same pleasant tone, but it coincides with a noise like the heavens shattering. The sound is so loud it is felt, all over Winter’s body, it picks her up and tosses her like a frightened leaf, end over end until she slams into the ground a good twenty yards distant. Thomas, when she rises, is nowhere to be seen.
Her feet shake under her.
She runs. Her feet carry her, wrapped in her own personal hoarfrost. The chill comforts aching bones as she pushes herself forward and away from the town where two brothers fight. Fight for her.
Fight because of her.
Her hands clench, but she stumbles along until she finds it- until the circle of heat, of eternal spring, seems to come to an end. She pauses a few moments, standing there at the very edge of frost’s breath.
And then, with Summer cursing her in her head the entire time, she turns. Descending from the sky towards her, towards the outskirts of Spring’s realm, there are lights, cold orbs of light that flash and pulse in the air, filling her with a dread, the sight of them making her mind weep in panic. They are like the lights she saw descending through the ceiling of the cavern, so long ago, the ones that slew Jane, and the memory makes her heart hard and chill with sudden fury.
Even as she trembles in terror she notices Thomas there lying in the grass a good hundred feet distant, and notices an orb’s light pause over him. And Summer, curse her, is uncaring, vicious, trying to seize control and pry her eyes away, but Winter beats her back, an internal strength borne of fury pushing her down. She staggers back down the slope she fled up, back into the valley of Spring, back towards the town, but mostly towards Thomas, who trusted in her sister’s words and wanted to come with her for answers that he might never get, who was willing to run with her and risk losing everything.
Who is about to lose everything.
Summer screams in her mind, but Winter reaches Thomas just as the orb descends, just as it’s about to brush one tantalizing tendril of light across his terrified face. The oppressive darkness closes about Winter.
A companion. Someone to help her where Summer can’t.
Does she deserve him? The answer doesn’t matter.
Winter reaches out. Summer had shown her the way before, the only thing she knew how to do, the only thing she had learned. She shuts her eyes and extends her fingers, her hand, lets the gap open. Her mouth utters a word in a language she doesn’t recognize, but one she heard before- though it had made no sound.
Her hand widens, time and space distort while she concentrates, she focuses on the orb, on its light, on the taste of it as she imagines, of dead leaves and cold, bright power. Her fury opens the floodgate and sucks the orb’s power inside whole, the power from it twisting, writhing as it’s dragged away into the vacuum of Winter’s space. The very fabric of reality seems to stretch, twisting, distorting the image of the light in its grip. The ribbon of force from the orb shines bright blue as it ripples through the air into her hand and is siphoned away.
Her foot strikes a root as the last of the power fills her.
She stumbles in her run, drops down onto the grass, hands splayed to carry her tiny frame’s weight. Sheer power floods every limb, radiates frost from every single pore, seeps from her into the ground, instantly flash freezing the grass around her, the chill spreading like a cold wildfire, so freezing it’s hot in her. Summer is gone in a flash, in a second. Her mind vanishes, blown out in a fraction of a moment, leaving Winter alone in her head.
And Winter pulls herself to her feet alone, closing the last few feet between herself and the prone Thomas. The orb has fallen from the sky and thunked into the grass, lifeless. She notices that it seems to be a swirling sphere, filled with more spheres- glass. She reaches down and hesitates. She can’t lift Thomas like this. Not brimming with power like she is- instinctively she feels if she does she’ll snuff His life out in a moment, in a breath. She’s so very cold now that nothing, surely nothing could survive her presence.
Does she even like Thomas? The power makes it hard to think. She remembers him only vaguely from Summer. Yet as a keening fills the air, as a hissing cascades through the sky to land squarely at her feet and raise a horned head to gaze at her, she takes one step forward and stands directly in front of Thomas’s prone figure, arms apart and fury steady in her belly and chest, wiping away her terror.
Power crackles all over her, she can feel it. A breath of winter.
Her breath makes the air freeze- but just standing here in the cold light of her brother is making her legs quake. It gets worse as He rises to His full height and regards her, as His expression turns from detached interest to a kind of horrible anger, as His skin shines ruddy red in the light of His own power. She notices His feet, which are cloven, like a goat’s hooves, studies- in a terrifyingly calm way- the shape of His horns where they meet His head and curl.
“I’ve found you, my wayward sister,” He says, his tone amiable despite his expression of complete fury. “Now, why haven’t you fled, I wonder?”
Winter, without realizing it, stands in a circle of bitter cold, an almost palpable wall of antiheat separating her and Thomas from the horned man’s light. He paces around it now, circling her in a way reminiscent of a shark, or a tiger.
“Surely,” He says quietly, without waiting for her response. “You can feel my power.”
She can. She trembles, it makes her legs weak. Her heart, however, is crystal. It won’t move, it’s stopped beating, and slowly, as she stands there, she feels her trembling stop.
“Why?” He asks simply. “Now I am curious. Oh, I am angry as well. I can’t help that. But that can wait-”
Footsteps, crunching on frozen grass.
“Can it, brother?” comes a voice, and it surprises her as much as him that it comes from Spring, who stands, still holding Summer’s baby in one arm. The other hand is empty- no weapon, no glittering power like what simmers in the palm of their mutual brother. Instead it seems his hand is scarred, weathered and wrapped in vine. It smokes, suggesting it was burnt by something.
Fall arches an eyebrow, His glare falling on Spring, and then- though it’s only a for a moment- softening when it rests on the child. “Did you think that bringing a whelp would stay my hand? Our sister will give me back what she’s stolen with or without your interference.”
Spring raises his own hand and shakes his head ruefully. “I know I cannot stop you. I’m merely curious as to what she took from you, to make you so angry.”
He pauses, then smiles. “And perhaps a little curious as to how she could be defying you.”
“Were this not your domain, I’m sure it would be a simple matter,” Fall snarls. And it is a snarl, His voice taking on an almost bestial rage, fell and terrible. “As it stands, she has the advantage, being in a domain that stands close to her own. Rather, you have made your home nestled deep in the center of her dominion! Were Summer unbound I would kill her in an instant, here- as to what she took, she’s stolen the illmetal bead from me. It is that bead I seek.”
“Was the bead not hers from the start?” Spring asks slyly.
“Of course not-” Fall starts, straightening and turning. Winter strikes. A Word snaps into existence from behind He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains, dropping from Winter’s mouth and flowing for a moment before lashing out: Bolt.
The bolt of cold is made of almost pure winter power, focused and coherent. It screams, banshee-like, tearing the air to pieces as it passes before it slams into Fall from behind, washing over His back and knocking Him face first into the grass. He slides a few meters before coming to a rest.
For a few moments, nothing happens. Winter’s hand remains outstretched, her expression one of determined fury. She isn’t actually entirely sure how it had happened. No one looks more surprised than Spring, whose eyebrows have raised to the point of disappearing, and whose freckled face opens in awe, eyes wide.
He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains slowly pushes Himself to His feet. Frozen blood winds a small trail down His side, but it heats in the light shed by His radiance.
The blast has woken Thomas, who groans and, stiff from cold, manages to push himself to his own feet, swaying slightly. Winter almost reaches out a hand to steady him when she remembers, and so she urges him away from her instinctively, guiding a soft hand of frozen air to tug him out of her circle and out of harms way.
It’s just in time. Fall returns a burst of power, and Winter lets out a sharp cry. Instinct again takes over. She gestures at the ground, and her voice shapes a piercing whistle, in which a single Word is heard: Wall.
It springs into existence, ice and frost leaping high to shield her. She feels some of her power trickle into it, though the power from the orb still fills her up. The blast of Fall’s power washes off of it without even denting the swirling blizzard.
She hears, above the wind and frost swirling around her, another word of power. Fall’s Word, in his sickly sweet voice.
There’s a sound like the smell of thunder, like the taste of lightning, a flash of heat that feels like it singes her hair from her skull, even behind the veil of frost she’s created. It swirls around her as well, an impenetrable globe of pure cold. She shuts her eyes, and behind them she can see the red glow. Her heart of crystal thumps slowly in her chest, but she stands firm. The hissing of steam, the explosive heat… it causes Summer to stir.
You- you’re fighting Fall! You idiot! Run!
“He knows where I am!” She shouts above the noise. “I can’t just run!”
Yes you can! Here, I’ll show you the way!
And Summer acts. Winter’s hand points behind her without her quite willing it. Summer guides her finger in an unfamiliar pattern. Lucky we’re so close to a Fount here- no wonder you’ve got so much power!
There. The rune is ready. Touch it and you can go! Come on!
Winter risks a glance at the rune- and it is indeed there, hovering in midair, so solid it hurts to look at it.
And, Cycle curse him, Thomas is trying to push through the veil behind her. She can actually feel him, feel him pushing through the curtain of sleet and frost that surrounds her. She touches him, but only for a moment, and without hesitation.
She grabs his wrist and forces his hand to touch the rune.
After a moment of temporal uncertainty in which Summer can be heard quite clearly, Winter vanishes as well, and her wall of frost likewise disappears.
You complete and total dumb-…
And then there is no trace of either Winter or Thomas.
In their place, a small puddle of water soaks into hungry burnt grass.
Still one second later, Fall stops His own casting, closing His hand into a fist and dropping it to His side. Steam rises from His body, and the ray of power vanishes. He turns His gaze to Spring, who shrugs.
“Women, eh?” He says, seemingly genuinely cheerful. “Want a bite to eat before you go, or…?”
“I have work to do,” Fall replies shortly. There is a bright flash of light, and the moon swallows Him whole.
Day comes quickly as the darkness follows Fall. The sun returns to shine as brightly as it had an hour previous, the birds again singing in the land of eternal spring. It’s possible, if one listens very closely, to hear the distant chittering of squirrels and the happy giggling of townsfolk caught up in the joy of life.
Bringer-of-Spring blinks a few times to clear his vision. He looks around hopefully, wondering if perhaps Winter had survived or maybe stuck around, and then sighs heavily. It looks like it’ll be a lonely walk back, then. He cradles Summer’s child, rocking it back and forth slowly. It just now has begun to wake- how on earth it managed to sleep through the duel is beyond Spring.
On the whole, he decides, that could have gone worse. He’d better go and tell the gatekeeper the bad news about his former partner. Thomas, right? Now why had he gotten involved too?
Spring kicks the dirt, suddenly feeling moody. Well. He’d have to ask about that, in seven days’ time. In his arms, the baby smiles.