Well, I have been working on getting a new short story done, but it will be a while before I can get the flow right. In the meantime, here’s another update. I think the length of this upcoming one will satisfy the most greedy of you- in terms of the chapter I’m actually on– well, let’s just say that the one I just finished is larger than any other chapter in this novel so far. I can’t wait to post it.
(24) Red Ivory City
The sun dares to set, and it does so slowly, a red ball in the distance. Invisible in the Barrier, a disc of ruddy light here. It doesn’t seem as important as the city that now stretches before Summer as she steps down onto stone.
“Humans,” She breathes, barely daring to believe it. “What in the Cycle-”
Of course, two spears are pointed right at her face, but the men holding them relax when they see her face. Summer can’t for the life of her remember them.
“Ah, Glory. With your hair, we didn’t really recognize you,” one of them volunteers. “Sorry.”
Their armor is bronze, and the spear heads are black rock- probably lava glass. Her late incarnation’s tastes tended on the overdramatic. It wouldn’t surprise Summer at all if that were the case.
Thomas steps through after her, brushing grit off of himself and staring around blankly.
Summer catches a glimmer of movement, and is reminded of where she is again.
Buildings, of ivory and red ceramic, stretch out almost as far as the eye can see. In all directions. To either side of her, pillars of marble, and above her an immense granite block. So. A portal, or a gate.
How they had missed it at all escapes her. Some magic or glamour perhaps.
Wait, had they just called her Glory?
Her attention snaps to the guards, who don’t seem to even look at Thomas as he steps through. “Where is this?”
“Lady Glory?” This guard has red hair. It isn’t often seen on men, Summer finds herself thinking. Or on anyone. But lately she’d been seeing a lot of that. Thomas, with his mousy brown hair, doesn’t seem to notice. He glances back at her and waits.
“I’m not Glory,” Summer says quietly. “I am Summer-Heat-Rising. I don’t remember you, I’m afraid.”
The guard frowns at that, and then shrugs. “Well whoever you are, you made it here okay so you must have known where we were. Welcome to the city of Wheel. And my name is Corwin, miss.”
Summer wrinkles her nose at that. “Weird name.”
“No worse than Summer,” He replies, and smiles.
Summer hates him instantly.
Just keep moving. People are people, not toys, Summer.
“Yeah, yeah,” She replies, forcing her temper cool.
She steps down after Thomas.
“Are you going to go find an inn? I don’t fancy the idea of staying outside all night,” Thomas says quietly.
“Night?” Summer asks, feeling a little lost. “What?”
“The sun goes down,” Thomas replies.
Summer stares up at the sky and the sun, then shrugs. She’d heard the word before. And of course the sun went down. She just had never associated the two things.
She begins to get the feeling that she’s been in this body too long.
“You can have your turn now,” She mutters.
Aww, is it getting too hard for you, sister?
“You probably don’t even remember what it’s like,” Summer hisses, as Thomas leads her down crowded streets. People aren’t paying her any mind, really- well, no undue attention. Her eyes catch flickers of movement from men in saffron robes, though. Robes… Saffron robes. Where had she seen those before?
She remembers now that her clothing consists entirely of a shirt made of gossamer strands of heat and pants made of twisted light.
“Well, maybe you do,” She mumbles distractedly. She hadn’t heard Winter reply.
There’s something missing.
Thomas stops in front of moderately sized building. “What do you have for coin?” He asks Summer warily.
“Coin?” Summer asks, before she can stop herself. “What?”
“Money for trade,” Thomas explains patiently. “What do you have for money?”
“Uh,” Summer starts.
“Nevermind,” Thomas says quickly, and sighs heavily. “Just as well I’ve got some on me.”
It strikes Summer that she should- and Thomas too, of course- be extremely hungry. And so she is.
Thomas leads her into the building, stepping past the wooden doors and into a room nearly empty.
A thin-looking, dark-faced man looks up and smiles at them. “Welcome to the Wheel’s finest inn and hostel.”
“Really?” Thomas says skeptically, staring about him. The floor seems fine enough, but the sign outside had been faded, and the paint, thinly applied and gaunt as the man behind the counter, seems to be peeling in places. Though it is a calming pink and blue.
Thomas stamps on the floor once. The boards are made of ironwood. Not metalwood, Summer notes. But ironwood of some kind. Possibly a strong oak. The walls and ceiling seem to be made of… ivory? Summer finds it hard to believe that such a wealth of the material exists.
“Your girl knows the truth of it,” the man replies, and gives Summer a wink. “Got yourself a regular witch there, don’t you?”
“She’s not mine, sir,” Thomas replies sharply. “She’s her own.”
The man’s eyebrows shoot up as if spring loaded. “You don’t say! A wild one, then?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Thomas says cautiously. “Is that bad?”
“If your money is good and you don’t start trouble, what business is it of mine who shares your room? And who would dare call the Guild on such a lovely lady? Certainly not I,” The man replies quickly. Summer feels that he even means it, the poor fool.
But the Guild… if it reaches out this far… Robes. Yes, the Guild wears the saffron robes. Now she remembers.
Thomas pays the man without incident. It surprises Summer, but Winter doesn’t seem to find it strange that they- the humans- have their own currency.
You spend so much time thinking about yourself it’s a wonder you notice anything about the humans whose lives you ruin, Winter grumbles. If you paid more attention to them you’d learn they weren’t so different from us.
“This from my memoryless sister,” Summer snaps.
Summer looks up at the innkeeper. “Just talking to myself,” She says casually. “Didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
Thomas rolls his eyes, takes the key from the innkeeper with a smile and a murmured thanks, and tugs Summer away to the stairs.
He drags her up to the top floor of the building. The stairs are smooth and hard underfoot.
Polished ivory shines even as her gritty feet and Thomas’s boots stamp on it. Small wonder, too. Summer can feel enchantment on it, can taste its tang in her mouth. Along with a vicious hunger.
Thomas walks past a few elaborate- if faded- doors. The key hums in his fingers suddenly, and he blinks, stops, and pushes the key into the lock of the door on the right.
But Summer is drawn to the one on the left- for it stands wide open, and inside there is red, a sea of it, red and ill omen both smelling so strong that it threatens to send her reeling away. She practically falls into her own room after that. Thomas didn’t seem to notice, and how could he, pathetic, weak little human that he is.
She shakes her head, trying to clear it. Her eyes snap back to the present, lingering on the door across the hall. It’s closed. Closed. It was never open.
Summer collapses on the bed, while Thomas starts setting up a pallet next to it. She looks over at him as he uncovers a mat. How he’d hidden the bedroll in his pack for so long is beyond her.
“What are you doing?” Summer asks, staring at him. This whole place feels alien somehow. She’d never seen, or felt, so many humans gathered in one place. Here she feels alone, and it frightens her into curiosity.
What does it look like he’s doing? Winter asks.
Thomas looks up at her, eyebrows raised. “Begging your pardon, milady Summer, I’m setting up camp.”
“Come up here and sleep with me instead,” Summer whispers.
Thomas shakes his head, though he smiles a little. “Sorry, miss, but I can’t do that. You’re beautiful. But I’m a gate guard. Besides that, you’ve got someone out there whose already made you theirs, right? You were with child not that long ago.”
“You really are simple, aren’t you,” Summer snips irritably.
“Simple I may be, miss, but smoking pile of ashes I am not,” Thomas replies quietly. “I’d rather not risk your lover’s wrath. I’m sure he is a much greater man than me.”
Or had you forgotten that you’d had a baby? Winter chides. What’s wrong with you?
She had forgotten. Now she feels ashamed for it, so she rolls over and stares at the wall, not answering Thomas, and not willing to let him see her tears, either.
Surely more days and nights had passed. But she couldn’t remember them. It isn’t so much that she feels alone… just that she feels like she couldn’t be with someone even when they’re right in the same room as her that rankles. She closes her eyes, though, in the night, and lets time pass.
It seems like an eternity slips by before she’s finally beginning to drift off. The bed is so huge and dark- truly it was meant for two to share.
She rolls onto her back as Winter dozes in her head, then sits up as she hears a creak at the door…
Her eyes pierce the darkness and find nothing there, not a shape, not an image or a hint, and the nothing moves into the room, raises sharp claws, and leaps at her.
For a moment she doesn’t register it, she can’t fathom it. Her heart pounds in her chest, she’s wide awake, and her hand is lifting, slowly, too slowly. The nothing passes right through her and keeps going.
Summer, shudders, lowers her shaky hand. She’s drenched in sweat. Was it a waking nightmare? A vision?
There’s something sticky between her thighs, and after a moment she reaches down and her fingers come up covered in red.
Her other hand- she can’t feel it. A stump! She lifts it up and stares at it as blood soaks her wrist and pours down her arm, as the slash on the back of her leg reopens and soaks the sheets. Her head pounds, her body aches all over and she twists, turns, stares into a grinning skull not three feet from her face- Jane’s skull, a serpent’s skull- and…
She screams, eyes snapping open, gasping, taking in a shuddering breath. Another.
Lord Autumn. Horned visage, terrible rage, crackling power, raised hand.
Jane, dead, dying, torn to pieces. So many pieces. Putting her back together would be impossible.
Summer hugs herself, steadying her breathing, not daring to move. All this power.
She stares at the hand she’d lost, at where a stump should be. It’s started to regain its former color.
She snaps her fingers, quietly, summons the Rose to her, hand clenched around it tight enough to draw blood. It glows in the darkness, ruining her night vision, but she doesn’t mind. Its presence, the sting of its thorns in her hand… they’re familiar things compared to the frightening dark.
Compared to the dreams.
Summer breathes out, shivering, though not from cold. Her heart slows to a reasonable pace. But… the hand holding the rose, the fingertips are stained red, still, and her thighs still feel sticky.
She blinks at that, wondering. That had never happened that she could remember…
How much do you know about your own body? Winter asks quietly.
“Enough,” Summer answers weakly.
Who made you- you know- pregnant?
“I don’t know,” Summer whispers.
Will you find out here?
Summer shrugs helplessly, staring at the Rose in her hand and the blood on her fingers. “I don’t know.”
“I was certain before.”
…Now nothing is certain.
“Now I’m not certain,” Summer agrees, and she slips out of bed. Using ambient life-force from all around her, drawing on the energy from everyone near her, she fashions a glowing skirt and tee, dons them both, and steps over Thomas to reach the door.
As if from a long way away, she sees herself reach for the handle. Her fingers close around it, and she tugs the door open. A voice in her head drowns out Winter’s alarmed question. It issues from everywhere, but paints a clear line- the doorway to the room filled with red.
Summer takes another step out and, when the handle before her refuses to budge, closed and locked, she presses her hand against it and pushes, harder and harder until the hinges finally give and it slams into the polished floor.
It’s so dark. Had she woken in the night? They had gone to sleep so early.
The polished ivory here is awash in red.
It’s old, stained into the floor and the walls, covering everything in a dizzying sheen. Her eyes penetrate the dark, and she hold the Rose aloft like a torch regardless, as blood runs down her palm, forms a drop and splashes on the floor to join the sea.
The discarded bodies, five, six, seven, eight- they lie in a pile before her, stacked aimlessly against a window, a sacrifice to nothing. A sacrifice to everything, the beckoning night and the horrible darkness.
Summer finds her legs shaking, but she strengthens her resolve and takes another step into the room, even as dread bites at her heart. The throats, the wrists, the ankles and thighs of each victim- neatly slit, neatly cut to let the blood flow the better. Her eyes catch on runes on the floor, and in the presence of so much death, even her Rose seems to dim as the darkness around her closes in.
Nothing surrounds her, then, in saffron robes. She can feel them on their way, to investigate her intrusion, but it’s the innkeep who arrives first, stepping into the room, covering his nose.
“By the gods- what IS this?” He shouts, momentarily forgetting himself. His eyes fall on Summer, whose hands drip red, but thankfully he has a moment of sanity. The corpses here are obviously old.
“How-” He starts, taking a step forward. An immense force slams into him, eliciting a mental shriek from Winter. He stumbles into the room, whirling, hand dropping to cover a wound on his side, red leaking from his fingers and falling into the wash of it. In the other he draws a weapon like a cross with a string. He aims it at the doorway one handed.
Summer, still frozen, watches the string flick forward. Watches the razor bolt as it leaves the nock, watches it disintegrate midair. Into nothing.
A figure stands in the doorway, surrounded by terror, a cloak of it that rushes forward and seizes her heart, seizes the innkeep’s heart.
It squeezes hers until she feels it burst. But it’s the innkeep, nameless and now forever unnamed, who drops forward onto the floor.
She forgets herself, forgets who she is, instead, with Winter finally heard over the drowning whispers of the dead, she screams.
It explodes out of her. It flees her fingers. It erupts from her hands in a wall, a bolt, a blast of fire, a sheet of it that washes the walls clean white with heat.
But the darkness sucks it back in again, and the Rose in her hand drops from nerveless fingers. The figure takes a step in, runs at her, fingers like talons reaching towards her, a mouth visible in the dark, razored teeth bared. An unnameable shape that screeches something primal.
It’s Winter who moves her, who forces her forward to meet it, taking advantage of lifeborne strength to reach out and grab the creature’s neck and, empowered by panic and terror, twists its head off. The severed part falls to the floor, smacks it soundly.
Shaking, weeping in fear, Summer stumbles out of the room.
A man in saffron robes meets her, whirling in front of the open door to her room. His eyes, shocked, in his hand a sword. He has no room to swing it, so he draws it back for a quick stab.
His mouth frames ‘Witch!’.
Summer doesn’t see it, or him, but her hands seem to. Her fingers find his throat and she chokes the word before it leaves his mouth. Chokes it out of him one handed.
Summer feels her heart slow again, feels the terrible fear leave her in a wave. Her hand feels weak, but she tightens her resolve and her grip, watching the man’s eyes bulge in a mixture of fury and wide-eyed fear.
She studies him, fury boiling in her now, as horrible as the fear was. She can still smell the corpserot from the room behind her. She can feel the man’s thoughts, but they give her no hint. He was holding a blade, and whether it was meant for her, Thomas or the innkeep she cannot say and does not care.
She reaches down, grips the steel, and gently twists it into a loop. The screeching it makes soothes her frayed nerves. Her hand finds his arm and, using two fingers, she twists it like a green twig, feeling it bend and then snap. Her hand chokes the noise, though, and-
An irritating voice in her head demands something of her, but she pays it no mind as the man’s face turns blue and then spotty purple. His mouth is open and his tongue is lolling and she can’t help but feel it’d look so much better if she just tore it right o-
Her hand is fighting her suddenly, unclenching, letting the man drop unconscious.
Summer wants to kill, she was scared and now she’s angry. She can feel the energy gathering in her, she needs something to kill now, and her body is fighting her every step of the way. Her nails dig into her palm, her fingers grinding at the holes where the Rose pierced her skin.
Bronze and pink, her arm and hand slowly fall to her side.
Summer feels the breath come in and leave her in a sob, feels the tears as they run hot down her face. She shakes, all over.
She can’t answer, won’t answer. She will not answer. The dead have no hold over her.
Summer. Calm down. It’s over. It’s okay. Calm down.
It’s different when you’re in the body and feeling the deaths. It’s different when you know that every time you kill someone you’ve shut their potential, shattered them whole. It’s different, nothing like she remembered, nothing like the thrill Glory had taken, that she had taken from it. And the terror!
The fear, the stark madness that gripped her!
Had she been exhilarated by it at one point? Had such things made her happy, excited even? Had she ever taken pleasure from slaughter? She had! She had been Summer, mistress of heat and storm, capable of reducing mere mortals to dust, of taking anything she wanted when she wanted it!
Summer, the Heat Rising. Summer-Heat-Rising. That’s who she is now. She’s sure of it. Not Summer-Glory.
Bile rises in her throat, and she forces it down again. She hadn’t killed this time. Nothing human.
And she can’t face the thing she had killed. Not right now.