Demimind: Chapter 19

Now that you’re back, where will you go? And where did Goliath get to?

Things just seem to be getting weirder and weirder…

-Eris

(19)Servants and Dragons

Winter and Summer lie together for a moment, panting. Goliath is nowhere to be seen. The stone beneath them is cool and comfortingly hard, bereft of magic and torment that the world before had been full of. Mistress of death and mistress of life hold each other, clinging like twins, blind and hurt but neither willing to admit it.

After a while, Summer pushes herself upright, out of Winter’s clinging grip. She reaches up and touches her neck, tracing a long, jagged scar, proof of her sacrifice for her Servant. She turns, stares at her sister, at Winter, who lies still on the stone, moving only with her breath.

As Summer watches, the girl shimmers and fades, turning into a hundred sparks and dancing lights.

“Wait-” Summer starts, moving towards her, but by the time she reaches Winter’s physical form, the process has near finished. Touching her yields nothing- she is as insubstantial as a breeze. She smiles in her sleep- and seems completely at peace. Summer can feel the sparks joining with her, and finally, again she can feel the presence of Winter in her mind. It’s a relief- though she finds herself wondering why Winter couldn’t just stay out of her head for a while. But it’s a good thought. They’re back.

Summer sits there, shocked for a moment, then hits herself in the head lightly. “You scared me, you dope!”

Sorry. I think I scared me a bit, too. I guess it just takes a moment for me to rejoin with the piece of myself I need to leave here, Winter says uncertainly. Really we need to talk to some experts about this. We’re just stumbling around right now. But who…?

Summer shakes herself, standing up and brushing herself off. Her muscles feel stiff from lack of use… how long was she gone? But she knows who has the answer.

“Spring.”

What does he know about it?

“I think it’s time we figured that out.”

Fine. Where’s Goliath?

“When we brought her back, she was reborn. She won’t be useful until much later, but at least she’s alive now. She’s probably with the other Servants.”

Okay. But why were we not just ‘reborn’ too, then?

“I get the feeling it’s a bit different for us. We’re… not a part of the Cycle like she is,” Summer replies dryly. “But I’m not sure. We’ll need to talk to Spring, and soon.”

Summer feels along her thigh where Fall’s sword had bitten into it, ages ago it seemed. Sure enough, there’s a jagged little line along the back of her leg. Her shoulder aches still, dully, where the bolt of her brother’s power had struck it. The skin had boiled and blistered, but now it is calm- another scar to add to the set.

Summer walks towards the exit of the cavern, snapping her fingers and dismissing the wall of fire.

She nearly walks right into the woman standing beyond it. She wears full leather armor and levels an earthmetal spear right at Summer, who just stares at her.

“Lady Summer,” She says, her voice trembling slightly, though her grip remains strong on the haft of her weapon. “Stop.”

Summer, in no mood to play games, reaches forward and grabs the shaft of the spear, and in one smooth motion, tugs the woman towards her, literally pulling her off her feet. “You’re in my way,” Summer says cheerfully. “You know who I am, what do you hope to accomplish?”

She pushes the woman back, wrenching at the spear one handed. The girl, though heavily built and far from weak, is flung backwards and smacks into the stone of the wall, grip broken as easily as that. Summer bends, then snaps the spear in two with just her fingertips, carefully avoiding the metal of its tip. The two halves clatter on the ground.

The woman draws a dagger from her belt sheath desperately. Summer, grinning, grabs the woman’s wrist, twisting, and-

Stop.

-pauses, the woman caught, her eyes shut tight, Summer’s thin, strong fingers forcing her hand to the very brink of breaking, so that tendons creak. So that a tear forms on the edge of the woman’s eye and drops down her cheek, though she doesn’t make a sound. She’s breathing hard, frightened to death.

Summer. She can’t hurt us- leave her be!

Summer lets go reluctantly. “It’s better to finish what you start,” She mutters, and leaves the woman to nurse her hand.

It’s better to not have to fight at all.

“So I’m told,” Summer murmurs with a weary sigh. She continues down the hall, back the way she came.

The way up is blocked, two men standing there, iron long blades held nonchalantly down by their sides. Neither of them seems surprised to see her. They are wearing half-plate- straps of metal and chain and leather, all over to provide adequate protection from blade or arrow. The one on the left has blonde hair, long and unhelmed, the other wears a metal cap for protection, and appears bald in any case. His eyes, though, are grey and sharp. The plate does well to hide their musculature- they’re both likely to be incredibly strong, if chosen to keep her in.

Summer has no armor except for her skin.

“Did you kill her?” the blonde one asks casually.

She stares at him. “No. Stand aside.”

“By your own orders we are not to let you pass, Lady Summer,” The grey-eyed one replies grimly. “We will draw swords on you, though we’ve been loyal servants for years. You are not yourself.”

And memory trickles in. How the thoughts of servants fade. Like that man, so long ago, who had confronted Winter- though he had been misguided and thought her one and the same with her sister. It had never been that simple, and even that scheme would be far off for herself now, so far in the past she’d stepped. How the memories fade.

She can’t even remember their names. Both of these men are blank, dolls to her now. Dolls threatening to hurt her, but guided by her own hand. A display of idiocy she’d set up for herself. How to kill herself in the future? The mindboggling stupidity of it serves as a buffer between herself in the past and the now.

It is the test of time that she rails against, and the doings of herself in the past. At the time it had probably seemed just. Or at least amusing. Now it just seems pointless.

She could kill them without moving, but instead she just walks by them. If they try to touch her, her skin would melt their blades. Earthmetal, while effective against her in theory, would never reach her.  And certainly not in the hands of these fools. She takes the first step onto the stairs, and an arrow bursts into flames as it passes her face, hisses into ash and sprinkles down behind her. The trail it leaves almost makes her sneeze.

“One more step, lady, and the next one strikes your eye!” A voice calls from high above her. There, at the top of the stone steps, five figures, each holding strung and nocked bows. Where is her dragon friend? Probably ran off.

Or dead. She feels bitterness at that. Had Summer saved her only to have her die here? How meaningless.

She looks up at the figures again. She raises a hand, aiming directly at their feet, squinting to make sure she has the angle right-

Don’t kill them! Winter hisses. They’re following your own orders!

Pff. Well. Summer wrinkles her nose and aims lower. Spell formulae rise and fall in her mind, and then click together to form one word: Wall.”

A sheet of flame roars upwards, rising perpendicular from the floor. Power rushes through her again for a moment. She hears shouts from behind the crackling barrier. There’s a twang, and then an arrow, on fire, hisses to ash a few inches from her nose. She does sneeze this time as it crumbles against her face and sprinkles down in a gray cloud. Unmoved, Summer continues upwards, climbing the stairs slowly. Behind her, she hears the spell of her presence break as the two men reach for their swords.

She hears one clattering step behind her falter. “Lady-”

The blonde one’s voice.

“What?” She asks, without turning to look.

“Who are you?”

She doesn’t deign to answer that. They already know who she is or they wouldn’t have been guarding for her.

As she approaches the top, she hears nothing but silence beyond the roaring flames. No voices are raised.

She steps through the flame barrier, shunting the heat away from her briefly to keep Winter awake. This far from the Servants she feels their power fade a little. But all around her, living creatures have taken up positions, bows shaking in their hands, spears held unsteadily, swords held in limp fingers down by their sides.

She lets the curtain of flame snap out, and she’s left in the center of the silence, at the top of the stairs. She takes another step out, and the ring of people around her takes one step backwards as one. Grass, sparse though it is, burns at ten feet from her, smoldering.

“Well?” She asks, and her voice is hot like a flame.

A man with short red hair and an officer’s suit steps forward from the press of soldiers around her, salutes shakily, and seems ready to bow. Summer just stares at him until he seems to get the message.

He settles on a trembling smile. “Good evening, Lady,” He says weakly, just barely managing to keep the tremor out of his voice. “Your humble servant of the Eastern City greets you. We did not expect you to rise from your resting place so soon.”

“Resting place?” Summer asks blankly.

“Yes, Lady. You said you were going to rest for a while, and that if you were to attempt to come forth too soon, we were to detain you.”

“How long am I expected to ‘rest’?” Summer’s voice has caution in it now, picking slowly.

“We were told not to tell you that, Lady,” The man says wretchedly. “Um-”

Summer sighs. This could be difficult. Winter doesn’t want her to kill anyone, and she owes Winter for a few things now- saving her life and helping bring back Goliath. She figures that if she makes it out of this alive, Winter will be satisfied.

Truth be told, Summer realizes she doesn’t really want to kill anyone either. It’d be the sort of thing she’d do. Glory would probably torch the lot of them and be gleeful about it.  Summer would be denied her servants if Glory were in her position. It’s the sort of thing she’d think of- the deaths of a score of humans serving her past sister? What would Glory think of the past, if she were Summer now? If their positions were reversed, Glory would kill them all. She wouldn’t even think about it.

Whether it’s a test, or Glory vastly underestimates Summer’s power, it’s also almost an insult. Humans standing in Summer’s way. Without Winter to hold her back…

She’s still thinking about it when she feels something like a hundred blazes boiling in her, and a mental roar.

HOW DARE THEY?-

She can feel leathery wings above her, beating against the air…

Summer has just enough time to cross the distance between herself and the officer, and Winter steals her lips for a moment to shout: “Don’t!”

And then the whole world rains acid. It evaporates before it even touches her- how could it be near her at all? Her power creates an impenetrable dome of heat around her.

It’s bright yellow, it sticks to the skin, it burns like fire and boils flesh and bone away to nothing. Several soldiers are caught in the first blast, and after a few mercifully short screams, they are reduced to nothing but half-melted armor.

The rest throw down their weapons and, as one, run. Several stumble and fall as their legs melt away in the wash of it, and they drop without a sound.

The officer is left, stunned, and as the dragon lands in front of him, rears back and spits a stream of the corrosive bile, she pushes him behind her and says one word, lost in the roar.

Her outstretched hand diverts the flow, causes it to split and run around her in a stream, in a wave. Formulae and nature collide, and nature gives way. The officer picks himself back up and stands as close to her as he dares. He doesn’t question it, doesn’t dare say anything, breath coming in frightened gasps as the stream hisses around them.

Finally it’s over, the acid melts into weathered stone and sand, and the dragon- not hers, though its scales are black, hisses at her lengthily, at the human who stands there and defies it.

-WHERE IS SHE?- It snarls.

Summer lowers her hand patiently, waiting for the roar to subside. The man behind her is stock still with fear- and sweat. Being so close to her is as dangerous as the acid.

Asking after her dragon friend? Careful, Summer… you could end up killing yourself here. But then, she’d never been good at subtle.

“Dead,” She replies flatly. “Or missing. I don’t know which.”

The spiny tail of the creature flicks out. Summer falls to her knees as a flash of fire licks along her legs and one arm. Her blood drips down in twin trickles, and the dragon hisses its fury at her.

“Kill me and you’ll never see her again,” Summer says, her voice calm even through the acid pain that eats at her resolve. “I’m your only link to her.”

Winter is trying not to scream. The pain comes in sharp waves, crippling even her thoughts. She can’t imagine what Summer must be feeling, to be directly linked to it.

Summer rights herself again and stares directly into the dragon’s burning red eyes. “Well?”

The draconian beast regards her silently, staring at her until her knees feel weak. But she keeps herself upright while it looks her over.

-YOU WILL COME WITH ME,- It roars in her mind. It occurs to her that it might not be speaking loudly on purpose.

“Where are you- we- bound?” Summer asks quietly.

-THAT IS NOT OF YOUR CONCERN, MORTAL.-

“May I have a word with my companion, then?”

-THAT IS ACCEPTABLE.-

Summer turns- albeit shakily- to the officer, who doesn’t bother saluting. He just stares at her.

“There is a woman at the entrance of the lair who needs medical attention, along with two shaken soldiers. I don’t care if you make a run for it now, it’s fairly obvious that I can’t protect you, and Glory… well, she’ll want to see you dead for failing to stop me. Just run. Take your friends at the bottom of the steps and go,” Summer says softly. “In the Barrier there is a city calling to you. Wander long enough and you will find it. It isn’t much, but it’s not owned by any Season.”

“That will be enough for me,” The man replies weakly. “Who are you, really?”

“Summer. Summer-Heat-Rising.” She pauses, then smiles. “I hope to see you there when I return. Tell Fall… Tell him I’m sorry. That we’ll be on our way soon.”

“Fall, Lady?” He asks, uncomprehending. It’s clear he doesn’t understand her interest in him either. Which is good. Summer isn’t sure she understands it herself.

“You’ll know him when you see him. Goodbye,” Summer whispers.

She turns and nods to the dragon, who had been waiting impatiently for the two mortals to stop their pointless conversation. Now it stares at her, gives her a draconic grin, black lips curled away from razor sharp teeth.

There’s a crackle, a snap of magic around her, and then a sudden impossible pressure forces her into blackness, crushing every piece of her until she is nothing at all. The last thing she sees is those teeth opening wide and snapping forward towards her.

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