Jeez, What Am I Doing

Yeah, what’s UP with me, anyway?

Well, to make a short story shorter: life has been up with me. I AM done with chapter twenty eight! It’s not that so much as the lack of time between classes that’s been getting me down. Yeah, I’m a bad writer etc etc, woe is me and such.

I’m really sorry guys. I do try! It’s been a long, long coupla weeks, but I can’t even really promise anything as it gets busier. I’ll just do my best and see what I can put out there- I’ve not given up and I’m certainly still alive, and as long as I’m still alive I’ll never put down the pen- or the laptop.

Thanks for your continued readership and support. Hope to have something out soon!

PS: My laptop’s death is also a part of why there’s been a lack of activity. Now that that’s fixed, I can hopefully work more and whine less! Woo!

Unyielding Blue

Unyielding Blue

A short story by Sam Oliver

(Eris)

Weightlessness, a warmth, a queer floating feeling, as if enveloped by cloud- if clouds could be warm. A bubble surrounds her, and at its edges there are hundreds of other bubbles, floating, transparent, all visible before her eyes. Deep blue eyes with red pupils, half-open, half-closed, barely looking out at anything at all. Engrossed with something, with nothing, pleased to be here, pleased to be gone.

Something is eating at her awareness, some small, dangerous thing, something she can’t quite credit with existence. Her arms and legs float beside her, drifting. She turns, sculling with her hands, twisting around in her timeless bubble, in the warmth. Is she upside down now?

She stares out beyond the film of her bubble, of her life, gazing down on upon rows and rows of bubbles just like hers, transparent, showing things, green things, red things, yellow and white things. Blurry through the film, but nevertheless there.

And next to her bubble, something blue, like her eyes, something safe and separate from her.

Time passes, and there is nothing but the warmth. A flicker in her eyes, something changes. She blinks, eyelids fluttering, open, then panic. She flips herself, panic slowly fading to wonder, gazing out at the bubbles, really staring at them.

Green slowly forms in her vision, becoming trees. White becomes cloud. Yellow becomes sun or fire and flickers hazily, grey forming smoke. Smoke which she breathes in, chokes on. She coughs, and the bubble around her begins to crack.

For a moment she doesn’t believe that it’s real that it happened, and then, as her eyes open fully and everything dissolves, she really doesn’t believe that it’s real.

Wind is streaming past her.

She is falling. She doesn’t know why she isn’t screaming. Instead, she’s laughing, even as she tips, even as her eyes fall on the ground rushing up to meet her, even as she slams into the ground face first and her skull knocks against stone. Cracks spiderweb through it. The force of the blow seems to shatter every bone in her body- she can feel the tortured twang of nerves set aflame by her impact.

For an eon she lies there, facedown, flat, unwilling or unable to roll over to get more comfortable, doing nothing but lying there, breathing unevenly through bruised lungs and cracked ribs. Each breath sets her body aflame. But there’s a… a fierce joy in her, so great that it makes her want to burst out laughing.

Her hands- blackened hands, brown hands, skin like charcoal- press down on the ground, push her up to her knees. Her eyes, wide and aching from harsh light after being closed for so long, turn to the ground around her, marveling at every detail in the cracked stone surrounding her, and at the bruised and broken skin on her body. Her mind loves the pain- and why? A word comes to her- perverted? Is she some twisted creature, to love this agony?

No.

She stretches out from her knees, then slowly rises to her feet on numbed legs. Her hands clench. Unclench. She throws her head back, gasping, smiling helplessly, happily- and at nothing, at the grey smoke surrounding her like mist, at the basalt beneath her feet. Her breath comes deep and deliberate, the stabbing pain welcomed. And another word comes to her mind, on the tail end of a thought so powerful it causes her skin to tingle all over. She shouts it, the word, a word in a language she hasn’t used in ages escaping all at once.

“Alive!”

She spreads her fingers, standing up straight and reaches up for the sky, grinning. Every part of her aches, but her mouth forms the word again, whispers it. “Alive. I am alive.”

The euphoria lingers for a time, buoying her up despite her aches and pains. Then a cold wind blows and brushes her body, washing over her all at once and making her gasp with the suddenness of it. Without quite realizing why, she turns, and immediately her happiness is replaced with a sudden, cold fear.

The girl feels alone and she doesn’t have a name. To her the latter matters more, and she finds herself hoping one might solve the other. Without any real direction to travel in, she walks off, stumbling slightly, trying to find her balance once, and then twice.

Her feet trip on stones hidden in the rock, but as time passes she can find her way easily, one foot in front of the other. It seems as if forever goes by as she walks. Finally though, her feet take her to a part in the grey smoke, to a place where it suddenly stops and, not five feet from her, blue begins.

As the smoke hisses away from her and her heart thumps in her chest, she spreads her hands, and the grey mist around her rises.

To reveal a curtain, a wall of unending clear blue- an incredible, shining crystal wall of- water. Fear vanishes, replaced by awe- the wall stretches on into the sky. Every part of her screams that she should run, but the water simply stays there as if there is- some barrier that prevents it from crashing down on her. She can see it flat against something- the wall of water is pressing up against something it cannot pass- the wall before her, the blue rising into the heavens can’t fall on her.

For a time she simply stands there, gazing into the depths of blue, her heart skipping beats, then slowly calming down as she eyes it, as she gets used to the idea of it. She lets out an nervous laugh, a relieved sigh.

She works up her courage slowly, but eventually begins to walk along the wall- for it seems to stretch on into the horizon.

She reaches an ebon hand out to touch the wall as she walks, tentatively, and gives a pleased, wondering gasp as her fingers slide through something with the consistency of glue, and then on into the water. It’s cool- pleasantly so against the aches of her hand and wrist.

She leans forward, pushing her hand through the invisible barrier and into the water, up to her arm…

But as she does, she looks down into a murky shadow, a blotchy patch of darkness down below her, over the edge- edge?

The basalt here drops off completely beyond the invisible barrier, leading into nothing but blackness and oblivion. The girl shudders and pulls her hand back from the water. And no sooner do her fingers pass the barrier between water and smoky air something enormous darts up from the black, a blurry shape all dark grey, with white ivory teeth flashing at her in a savage, saurian grin.

The shape brings memory to her lips and lets it out in a stutter. She stumbles back away from the invisible wall, catching herself on her hands.

“D-dragon,” She breathes, to no one, to nothing.

Its mouth opens further, a long scaled snout, sinuous, lithely scaled, its tail stretching down into the depths, its eyes flashing at her, cold, cold blue in the clear water, making her shiver. And then it speaks.

The words are in her head.

“Little demon girl, you are lost and alone.”

For a moment, she doesn’t understand that it addresses her, and of all the questions she has, her first feels stupid the moment it leaves her mouth.

“Demon?”

“You have horns and cloven hooves, a long charcoal tail and burning red pupils, girl.”

Its tone hurts her ears- its voice is loud in her mind and echoes around her head. And for the first time, she also can feel her tail. Her toes, which she’d thought were rather hard, are shaped into hooves, and her hand, trembling slightly, reaches up- she can feel horns, one above and behind each ear, curling around under them and ending in points. It seems odd to associate them with herself.

“Who are you?” She asks quietly, her voice trembling.

“My name is Ashrinael. I am the Lady of True Depth, the realm you attempted to enter.”

“Who am I?” the girl asks, then, pushing herself up onto her knees and gazing at the creature curiously- now that it doesn’t seem about to snap her up. “What do you want of me?”

“I have waited for someone to indebt themselves to me for a time- few brave the depths anymore. I have… a task which need be done, that I myself cannot do.”

The girl nods slowly. She doesn’t quite understand, but she feels a tingling in her limbs. Her gaze wanders up to the massive expanse of blue rising above her.

“What do you require of me?” She asks quietly. “And what might I take in return?”

“Daring to assume you are allowed to ask a favor in return. You are faster than the others. But that is not important- you will be rewarded. I shall give you a name as payment before you start your task.”

“Done,” the girl says quickly. She suddenly doesn’t care what the task is- she’s felt a, a burning need for a name for a time now. Since she dropped.

“I will take you to what need be done, girl. Are you brave enough to enter the water?”

The nameless demon stands, walking to the edge of the barrier, hesitating. “How will I breathe?”

“Are you afraid?”

“No,” She lies, the word slipping out sharp. Her whole body hurts still from her fall. “Of course not.”

“Then come, little demon.”

The girl takes a deep breath, lungs stinging, ribs aching, and presses beyond the barrier into the cold.

The water presses all around her like a vice- and a current tugs at her a mere foot away from the barrier. She struggles in it for a moment, panics when she realizes she can’t swim, and begins to sink for a few awful seconds. A blue blur arcs through the water, sending a barrage of bubbles into her face, and then something long and sinuous wraps around her wrist. There is a brief tugging sensation, and then, abruptly, blurred, fast movement with water sliding around her, over her, drenched, towed behind an immense blurry shape, so fast that the water streaming around her forces her eyes shut.

Her mouth opens and she tastes saltwater, loses air, feels it hissing past her in a stream of bubbles, and with nothing to cling to, she’s helpless to steady herself and stop its escape.

It goes on. Her lungs ache to draw air in.

Presently, it stops, and she dares open her eyes. For a time now she realizes that she’s felt nothing around her, no water. Just cool- then freezing, the wind taking the heat from her bones. And there is much wind here.

She spits out her mouthful of salt water, coughs reflexively, feels it dripping down her chin. Her lungs have stopped aching, and she realizes that she no longer feels the need to breathe either. She lets the breath out again in a rush, but this time doesn’t draw in any air to replace what remains. Her lungs and her chest feel empty.

Her vision, blurry with salt, clears, and her heart pounds at what she sees. The wind isn’t all that is cold here. She kneels on a plain of pure ice that stretches out, obscured by heavy snow mist. Something wrapped around her waist- blue and comparatively warm- drags at her attention, and she hears the Lady of True Depth speaking in her mind again.

“This is as far as I take you, Emberais. That is your new name- take good care of it.”

The tail unwraps from around her waist- it is long, tipped with a spade- and where it had gripped there are the marks of scales on her charcoal skin. As the last of it unravels from her, the voice speaks again before she can voice an answer.

“Wings for the dead, breath for the dying, souls for the soulless- you are not the only hope, but you are a hope, Emberais. You must create an imbalance in order to restore it.”

Then the tail disappears, sliding into a pool of water- she must have been pushed through it!

The ice surrounding it is warmer than it should be, so she lingers near it while she tries to get her bearings.

Just like the smoke, though, the snow surrounds her on all sides, and there is no way for her to understand where she is. Was she pulled up or was she pulled down? It seems a bit irrelevant, but she’s curious.

She can feel her limbs warming on the ice, and the sheer contradiction of it makes her smile through the chill of the snow on her arms and legs. Ice should be cold.

She doesn’t know why she knows that.

Emberais, as she is now called, stands. She flexes her fingers, stretches out on her hooves, wobbling a little, unused to the way they stick to the ice. Her eyes still burn from the salt, but no matter how she stares into the snow she can’t see anything. Still, she isn’t breathing. She should probably be dead, but she doesn’t want to let that stop her. She owes a favor for being taken here and being given a name.

Everything else can wait until after she finishes this favor, whatever it is. She steels herself, gathering her strength, staring out into the snow until her eyes sting. She takes a deep breath, out of habit, and steps out into the white mist.

A time passes. She doesn’t know how long. The dragon’s words are ringing in her head nonsensically, in bits and pieces.

Wings for the dead. Souls for the dying, breath. Breath for the dead? Wings for the dead, breath for the dying, souls for the soulless. Souls…

Eventually, she comes across an immense rock structure- it fades into view slowly, as she approaches, barely more than a hill of snow in the mist until it becomes apparent that it is open, and that inside it is warm. She is cold- Emberais can feel her frozen hooves ache in sympathy for the difference in temperature. Already she can feel her fingers melting away.

Melting…

She looks down at her hands and gasps- her fingers have curved into wicked talons!

She stares at them for a few moments, then carefully steps into the cavern, and the heat. Steam rises up around her- she’s beginning to understand the pattern. First smoke, then snow mist, now steam.

It feels good, soothing away the ache of the boneshattering cold. It feels incredibly good, in fact, and it’s only when she looks down that she realizes the steam here is near solid, swirling around her, caressing charcoal skin, along tail and her arms, shoulders and calves with an almost impish purpose.

To her further shock, it forms a shape in the air- a pair of glowing green eyes and a mocking smile.

Outrage boils in her blood. She can feel it pushing the last remnants of frost away, and set a sick tinge to the pleasing touch of the steam.

“Stop,” She says quietly. The eyes, staring at her still, do not budge. Her heart- had she ever felt it before?- is not beating, but there is a tingling, an undeniable sense of power in her blood, urging her on. “You have no right.”

Her voice is steady, without a tremble. She has stopped as well, staring the green eyes down, taloned hands clenched, tail flicking back and forth without her really willing it.

A voice in her mind, slick and cool where the dragon’s was overwhelming. “Why should I obey you, little half-blood?”

A taloned hand rests on her hip while she replies, eyes narrowing, still staring steadily. Something makes her say it, and she isn’t sure why it comes out, but her lips form the words before they even enter her mind. “I bring wings for the dead.”

“You’ve come to set me free?” The voice is eager, but also taken aback, as if it couldn’t fathom her purpose- the purpose that had sprung from her mouth full formed. The tendrils of steam stop toying with her.

“I suppose,” She concedes, still wondering at her own words. Is that why she is here? But how could she do such a thing?

“HAVE YOU COME TO SET ME FREE?”  The voice is unspeakably loud, and the entire cavern seems to quake, setting her aquiver, confidence shattered.

“Yes!” She replies in a shaky shout, above the rumbling of the cave. “I have come to set you free! I just- I don’t know…”

“You do not, but I will show you the way.”

“Can I trust you?” She asks, suddenly suspicious. The change had been so immediate it hurts her in her bones to try to switch from defiance to distrust. It’s moving too fast for her. “Wait-”

Her mind is set aflame. Her body- every part of her is jarred by something- something immense forcing its way into her, her head and body shaking with its passage. Her nerves are fire, boiling her blood away into steam- the steam that rises around her, dizzies her senses and rattles her bones.

She collapses to the wet floor of the cavern, panting, trying to gather her bearings and failing. Taloned fingers dig into stone with insolent ease, screeching as a razor drawn down glass.

The presence is there- slippery, cold, calculating- and dead. She can feel it resting in the back of her mind, and she feels thrice again as heavy as before, and thrice again as strong. Wondering at it, she finds- she feels– heavy wings on her back, feels her body larger and stronger than before, thick hooves now cloven and tipped with spikes that dig into the stone as her fingers had.

Her tail is longer now, charcoal still, but tipped with a red spade and with two long spines. The rest of her feels about the same.

Marveling at it, at the power as her tail flicks this way and that and she stands- struggling, spine curved slightly under the weight of wings that can’t be for anything other than ornamentation. She experiments with them, trying to fold them this way, and then that.

“What are you waiting for?” The amused, cool voice asks. “Give me wings, little demon girl.”

Emberais shivers. But she knows where she needs to go. First smoke, then water, then snow, then steam… She walks into the steam without thinking about it, and the heat dries her new, drenched wings. Slowly, the scales harden, and she can feel the strength running through them- ornamental?

No. Not a chance.

Gradually though, after what seems an eternity, she can see an end to the cave. Her wings, stiffening in the heat, fold as she stretches. Then unfold again, a dry wind blowing over her, boiling hot against her skin. It smells of spice- thyme, dried mint. Good, the voice whispers. It seems to be filled with a form of ephemeral satisfaction.

“Good?” She asks back, wonderingly. “I did nothing!”

You are the vessel.

“But what does that mean?”

You are the vessel!

Emberais sighs, hooves clacking on stone that gradually gives way into sand- pressing through another glue-like air barrier. Grinding hooves into grit.

Can you find the dying?

Emberais shrugs. “I found the dead, how much more difficult could it be to find the dying?”

And in her ears, an unholy shrieking and the screech of metal on metal is heard. Clangs, hisses, howls. The unearthly sound of combat whispers to her on the dry, dry wind. It chills her to her bones in a way the snow could never have done. But here she can see for miles, and the combat does not seem to be anywhere- just open plains of striped yellow sand for as far as the eye can see.

Impatiently, she feels her wings flicking, opening up, stretching out. Without warning, her heart jumping in her chest, they flap, reacting with her thoughts. If she could just fly.

And she does, her legs bunching under her, pushing off of the sand awkwardly, wings flapping down, fanning out- the ground drops away and she gasps, nearly squeals with a mixture of delight and stark terror. Her wings seem to know what to do even if she doesn’t, flapping once, twice, rising on a thermal. The rapidly receding ground vanishes from her mind, replaced with something else- a sort of abnormal determination, alien and foreign to her. She wants- needs- to go somewhere, and her wings are taking her there.

She doesn’t even need to think about what she is doing or where she is going. Her body makes all her decisions for her.

When it releases her, when her body is her own again, she feels herself touch down on stone, lime and rock together. Her nostrils flare, and she totters forward, then back, reeling from the smell of blood, rot and filth. It’s strong- so strong.

It makes her weak in her knees, but her hooves clack on the stone as she steps forward, staring into the sandy mist. Finally her eyes comprehend what she’s seeing, and the sight deadens her heart.

Men lie on the ground, sightless, soulless, staring above at nothing. Blood-soaked stone, cracked, hewn by blows from hammer or sword- shattered pieces of it lie scattered all around, glimmering faintly in the light of midday, in the heat of some glowing thing that scalds her back. Emberais steps forward uncertainly, kneels- with some difficulty, her hooves refusing to curl- next to one of the dead men.

Breath for the dying.

But these men are dead. She can feel them- they have no pulse, her fingers can feel no heart beating in their chests, their eyes are glazed. Yet the sounds of combat still carry to her ears. She pushes herself to her feet, standing again. She leans down, stooping to pick up a dropped hammer, but recoils, hand burning as if stung when she touches the metal handle.

Her fingers ache as she leaves it where it lies, wondering at it. Why did it hurt?

Breath for the dying!

It’s more of an urge, more of a need now. She stumbles off towards the sounds of battle, following metal on metal, treading sandy tracks in stone.

Her weaving path leads her to another clearing, stone and sand, nothing but stone and sand. Columns here, broken by some immense force. And two men, lying, glaring hatred at one another, weak and snapped hatred, but hatred all the same. Both have clapped hands to what can only be mortal wounds- the blood, the ragged, shallow breaths that pass their lips.

They freeze, though, almost in unison, turning their respective gazes to her with fear.

She walks closer, stands directly between them- they each sit with a back to a column, one with hand to chest, the other with fingers to his shoulder. Red drips down arm and belly respectively.

She can scent death on both of them, can smell it, almost taste it, and can feel the presence in her mind- the dead- yearning for them. She swallows hard, but fights down her fear and sits between the two dying men.

Words come to her, forced from her mouth by the urge in her breast.

“Two souls lie here in mortal agony, two souls. To one I give breath so that he might live, the other I’ll take as my own. Who will be a soul to the soulless, and which of you might live so the other will die?”

When the words are through, the force holds her tongue, and again she feels helpless, she is aware of her body fighting her, but helpless to stop it.

The balance must be broken before it is fixed.

“So ye are the judgement t’ be passed down on us,” The first says. She sees he has white skin, his eyes are blue and his hair as white as first snow. Wrinkles have only just begun to mar otherwise near perfect skin. His chest is a mess of red, and his hand is tense with pain. Weathered hand, veined hand, tired of battle.

Still, she doesn’t know how to- and cannot- respond to the man’s statement.

“It has the look of a devil!” The second hisses. She notices his tan-darkened flesh, the horrible broken mass of bone that used to be his shoulder and the wound on his chest also, a nasty puncture that seems to cause him immense pain with every drawn breath. His eyes are brown, and his hair is blacker than night. “Surely it is here for you, not me?”

“That no’ be my decision,” the elder one replies. “She be a valkyrie. Tis up t’ her who goes and who is left behind. Chooser o’ th’ slain, so she is. My part be over.”

“That is not so,” Emberais finds herself replying. “You must choose. What is more, you must agree.”

“Agree? To let some succubus wench of a devil decide my fate for me?” The man hisses.

“No,” Emberais replies stonily. Her voice is not her own. “You must agree with the man before you, your former enemy.”

She can say no more. She isn’t sure what she would say even if she could say something, but she does not like this feeling.

“Th’ day I let garbage like him decide wha’ our fate is t’ be is a sad, sad day indeed,” the older man grunts, laying back fully, wincing.

“Then you will stay here forever,” Emberais says quietly, and she realizes that no one forced her to say it, taking comfort from that. “You must choose.

“Who are you, demon?” The black haired one asks. Fear makes his strong voice tremble.

“My name is Emberais,” she replies warily. “Or at least, I am called Emberais. Who are you two, and what brought you to fight?”

“I be called Soulshatter, the White Hand,” the white haired man states, and for a moment he seems to regain some of his composure. “Champion o’ the Frozen Halls. My true name be yours already, aye?”

Emberais feels herself nod. And then realizes she does know his ‘true’ name- it tingles as it settles in her mind. “It is.”

“Some call me Bladebreak, the Grey Hearted,” the dark haired one says quietly. “I’ll not tell my true name to any demon.”

“You don’t need to,” Emberais says into the silence that follows. “I know of your true name already. All Carriers need to know this. Why are- were- you fighting?”

“Why? Are ye daft?” the white-haired man, Soulshatter asks sharply. “He be on th’ other side o’ me! He be th’ Champion o’ the Southland Fells.”

“That I am,” Bladebreak replies moodily. “You neglect to mention that the fight began because of your rather unchivalrous behavior.”

“If yer enemy can’t see ye and ‘e dies from ye attackin’ while he’s blind, th’ fault rests with ‘is corpse, no’ yer own. History t’ th’ victor,” Soulshatter grumbles. “None o’ tha’ “chivalry” shit. Ye know it all amounts t’ the same.”

“Craven bastard,” Bladebreak snaps. “You have no honor!”

“There is no honor in war,” Emberais says quietly, but her voice is lost as the two men fight, with words rather than blades.

Around them, the sand and wind pick up at once, blowing back and forth with each stinging volley. Emberais, caught in the middle of it, frowns at first, then as sand stings in her eyes and grit chafes at her wings, stands up and flexes them stamping a hoof, cloven points digging into the stone with a screech and a crash.

“Enough!” Emberais snarls, temper flaring. “Your arguments are both flawed. The land you knew is dead and gone! Here you are judged, and you behave like children!”

The air around her suddenly trembles with heat, the stone under her hooves smokes. “You are both near dead,” She says flatly. “You have not made any headway in centuries now!”

The knowledge comes to her- the dying’s eternal struggle with one another, the inability for them to choose- a challenge, an ordeal for warriors greater than any other.

“Before you give in and die, you must make this choice! Do you mean to run away, to postpone judgement forever?” Ember asks harshly, her eyes flashing. “If so, I will leave you to your respective fates now.”

This pointless bickering makes her angry- her angry, not the voice inside that seizes control. She had moved, had acted on her own. On memory that remains only as a blur…

Soulshatter stares at her, then stares at his feet, looking cowed. Bladebreak grumbles, but subsides, gaze falling as her piercing eyes meet his.

To her amazement, Soulshatter rises, leaning back against the column, sitting up straight and sighing heavily, raggedly. “Lass, ye strike th’ point squarely. We ‘ave been arguing for so long, be it any wonder the Fates ‘ave finally seen fit t’ send their angel?”

Bladebreak doesn’t respond, but she sees him lift his eyes, his mouth a twisted mess of emotion. He nods to Soulshatter, then shakes his head and stares at the stone again. After a time, he finds himself again and speaks. “When this- I can’t imagine being here forever. I suppose I always knew I was dead- from the moment I got this wound. I just did not think that I would ever… die. But I have been here with this abominable pain for what seems forever- I can’t remember when it happened any longer, and truth be told, I’d forgotten where I hailed from. Soulshatter has a much better memory than I.”

“Aye lad, but ye sell yerself short on combat,” Soulshatter replies, smiling a little. “Ye bested me.”

“No, I believe you bested me,” Bladebreak replies ruefully, smiling. “It should be I who gives this woman a soul.”

“Ye can’t mean tha’?” Soulshatter asks, incredulously. “She’s- well, ye know. She’s a she- er, no offense, yer angelship. Bu’ she no’ be of- her shell- ye canna expect t’ be you-!

“Souls are souls,” Bladebreak says quietly. “If mine is a price to pay for yours, then so be it. It is time to tip the balance, so to speak. It has been an honor knowing you, though I did not want to admit it. This demon- if demon she is- has… opened my eyes more with a few words than ever I could alone. I should be angry, but she is telling the truth. I owe it to her to provide wholeness now, a life debt.” He chuckles, coughs painfully and grimaces, hugging his shoulder.

“Do you find this agreeable?” Emberais asks of Soulshatter.

“Ach,” he whispers weakly. “Aye, tho’ it hurts t’ say it. I ‘ave no intention o’ becoming a woman. No offense meant, again, yer angelship, but I ‘aven’t got th’ courage t’ lose myself for ye, fer all that ye obviously be strong an’ brave. Best o’ luck t’ ye, Bladebreak of the Grey Heart.”

“Goodbye, Soulshatter, the White Hand. Good fortune until our paths cross- but truly, I hope they do not cross again,” Bladebreak says quietly.

Emberais reaches out, then, moving on instinct, and in a flash of light and a hissing, popping, crackling noise, Soulshatter disappears.

In her outstretched hand, Emberais holds a tiny figurine carved out of ice- strangely warm ice, that doesn’t melt in the intense heat. It is exquisitely detailed, a replica of Soulshatter down to the apologetic, slightly bewildered smile on his face as he’d disappeared.

“Keep it safe,” the dead whisper in her ear.

She turns to Bladebreak, who holds up his hands in weak protest, plainly horrified. “Where did you take him?”

“He is with me until he is to be reborn,” she replies, voice soft and soothing. “I have him here- see?”

She shows Bladebreak the figurine, but, far from making him relaxed, he seems to tense up further, eying her suspiciously.

“You’ve made your choice,” She reminds him.

It seems to ease his panic slightly. “I have. I am ready.”

“You are,” Emberais says quietly. She knows somehow- though she’s no longer questioning it- what to do, walking over to him, reaching down and settling her fingers against his forehead, palm flat against his skin. Black on tan.

There’s a tingling, queer cool sensation, and she closes her eyes but a moment. When she opens them again, Bladebreak is gone.

But she can feel him in her, dwelling there in a part of her, she can feel something- like an inner fire, an inner warmth that wasn’t there before. And the memory washes through her in a dazzling flood- violence, blood! Battle and glory!

Celebration in victory, a wife and children. Tragedy, deaths of the family, long, bitter struggle against the clans in the North, ice and steel leveled against friends….

She takes in a breath, stunned, and feels him- no, her- feels her own exultation at it, joy a hundred times more intense than at the pain of being alive, of being there. For the first time, now- she can feel her- her – thoughts. She can call them her own, rather than shades, half-memories. The feeling of the sand on her is uncomfortable- the wind beating at her stings like little specks of fire, her hooves grinding into the stone- it all adds into one true feeling.

Living. The pain is real.  The memories are real. She feels as if she is here above all else.

And while she can’t hear his voice, his story lingers- Bladebreak is here with her. She hadn’t realized what he was giving to her- willingly or not. Now… she could never, ever give back what he gave up.

The knowledge makes her tremble.

Are there tears on her cheeks? Salt on her lips, salt and sand.

But something still pulls at her. Even with everything completed- a soul for the soulless, breath for the dying, wings for the dead…

She has one last task to complete, and it’s one which is ingrained in her very bones. Turning, hooves biting into the stone, she sets off into the grit again, following her heart.

The cavern is near empty. A lone desk sits in the corner, and the clerk is obviously busy poring over a book. Near the northern end lies an immense pool. It’s exactly what Emberais has been looking for. Days ago, she would be thrilled to have found it. Now she is simply tired. Too tired to even experience her amplified excitement.

“Name, please,” A bored looking woman asks of her, not even looking up. Reaching over, Emberais taps the sheet of paper, forcing the woman’s eyes up to meet hers. The woman’s skin goes white, and she fumbles. “Ah- you-”

“I am here to give my regards to the Lady of True Depth,” Emberais says quietly. “Tell her I have finished what she needed done, and that I have braved the bureaucracy of seven different Planes in order to find her. Tell her I wish to receive my reward now.”

“Er- race?”

“I’m a demon,” Emberais replies smoothly. “Carrier type. They don’t tell you these things, you know,” She adds grumpily.

“I don’t, er, actually know,” The woman says, one hand tossing golden curls behind her head. “I’m not, uh, dead.”

“Neither am I,” Emberais says cheerfully. She flashes the woman behind the desk a tidy smile.

The woman gives her a strange look, but then nods. Her finger traces a burning sigil in the air, and as the strange rune disappears, there’s a near instantaneous boom that comes close to rattling the walls. Some dust floats down from the cavern ceiling, and the clerk sneezes noisily, blushing and hiding her face. “She’ll be waiting,” The woman says quietly.

“Finally,” Emberais mutters.

A week of searching- to have the end in sight should make her feel something.

She walks over to the immense pool of water and, very carefully, sits down near the edge of it.

“So, my little pawn. Come back?”

Her voice doesn’t hurt the way it used to. Emberais folds her arms and stares down into the pool. She can make out the dark shape of the Lady- of Ashrinael. It makes her apprehensive, of course, but she doesn’t tremble in fear.

“I am no one’s pawn, Lady,” Emberais answers. She isn’t sure if it’s her newfound soul that gives her this courage, or if it is her own heart which strengthens her. She had found both in her journey, so why is she angry?

It had been what she learned when she started her search. Why did it matter what she did?

Because giving a demon a soul was unprecedented. Word of mouth had spread. Because her new soul was no longer allowed to enter the Cycle. The balance had been tipped, and then broken the moment she had taken her first breath. And the orchestrator?

Swam in a pool below her.

“Yet you have done exactly as I wished!” Ashrinael hisses, excitement in that cool voice. “With any luck, now the entire system may change! It must change! You cannot fix what was not broken.”

Emberais shrugs dispassionately, even as anger churns in her stomach. “It is not my business anymore.”

“Really? And where will you go without me to protect you? Do you think that you can simply walk away?”

A sense of motion, a startling burst of speed, and the creature hisses in front of her, snarling at her, the Lady of True Depth rearing up out of the pool with claws to either side of her.

Emberais feels small and weak- all of her trembles, but a part of her roars back.

“Yes!” She shouts back, so that the word echoes in the cavern. Heat flares around her, evaporating water as it cascades down over the Lady’s scales. “I do! My life! My soul! I will do what I want, and no one can control me or manipulate that! I am not your servant, and I am not your slave! I did this task for you, but I have found myself, and I will never lose that!”

Ashrinael blinks at her, tongue flicking out, serpentlike, smiling, sinking down onto her scaled elbows and staring Emberais in the face.

“Good,” The Lady hisses softly. “Go then, daughter, and be free.”

She slips away then without another word, the flukes at the tip of her long dragon tail slapping the water as she dives. The shadow of her disappears, swallowed by the inky black of her domain.

The demon girl, still shaking, stands and regains her composure. She’s about to turn, when she realizes that she never was given her true name….

but it occurs to her that one’s true name lies with the soul they have. She knows the true name of Bladebreak, and, in knowing that, in knowing this one secret, and in being sent by Ashrinael- who is also apparently her mother- on this quest, she learned it- remembered and gained it- all on her own.

Emberais walks to the edge of the cavern and pauses for a moment, staring back at the clerk, who is reading her book, and at the silent pool of water. She doesn’t know what the truth of the matter is, but now she wants nothing more than to find out and to learn for her own sake.

With this in mind, she steps out onto the endless plain, and the wind below her accepts her wings as she takes flight- into the unyielding blue sky.

Demimind: Chapter 27

…and I am an awful liar. I wanted to get done with Unyielding Blue this week, but it’s proving a toughy. Here, you can have this piece of work while you wait.

Enjoy, as always,

-Eris

PS: This is probably the biggest chapter in the history of ever.

(27)Homecoming

Winter knows this place.

It feels familiar, resonating with her in her bones and her memory. She doesn’t remember where it is, in the same way that someone can’t remember exactly where an old haunt is in relation to the world- as if it were outside of time and space entirely and existed only in their memory until they discovered the path that led them there the first time.

But she does remember it. It seems as though it’s been forever since she last set foot here, and in some ways perhaps it has been. In the last few weeks she has changed- Summer has changed- they have both changed so much that it seems almost impossible to imagine it happening in so little a time.

But two weeks prior to this, who was she but a tiny voice in Summer’s head? Less a sister and more of an annoyance.

So her memories remind her, what little she can recollect. Something else presses at her.

“If you could use the gate, before, when we first came here- why did we need to use the stone one to get to the Shrine?” She asks quietly. The still dust in the room she is in- her old sanctuary of stone, all spells of defense broken- swallows the noise. But Summer hears her.

Idiot. My spells are short-range. The city we were in held enough life to power a jump to Spring’s shrine, yes, but to get back would require more life than that tiny village held. It isn’t so far from the shrine to here- and it took negligible life-force in order to come here. Use of pocket worlds takes just a little too long.

“And drains our life-force.”

Right.

The pillar is silent and still when she catches sight of it, picking her way through junk- shattered crystal from the guardian, broken shards of glass and equipment, torched books and ruined pages. The first thing Summer had done on arrival had been to set up a defensive ward. The second thing had been a strange locator spell, a simple search for Lord Autumn to be sure of where He was. After that she had fallen unconscious- the power required for both had been beyond her, in this place devoid of life.

Surprisingly, she had found herself again in Winter’s head.

Where are you going? Summer asks as Winter rounds a corner and opens a door leading out of the main hall- the main part of her sanctum.

“I don’t know,” Winter replies. “I don’t remember this place.”

She doesn’t, she realizes, the words true as she says them. This is a part of her sanctum she simply can’t remember existed. She steps over the broken crystal arm of her former guardian and steps through the door she opened.

It comes to her.

Her heart freezes in her chest, and the bitter clutch of memory drags at her breast. She clenches her fingers and creeps forward, numb with disbelief as all around her snow falls indoors.

This section is little more than hollowed rock. But grass grows- or grew- frosted over with snow and ice, enormous, thick plates of ice. Her feet stick to it. It’s comfortably cold here, in a way that grinds at her bones and soothes the aches of the day- or rather, of the night she switched with Summer.

Something had gone awry in her plans, somewhere. She had never meant to end up here.

She takes a few hesitant strides into the cavern, the room making her nervous. There’s something so familiar about it… Yet…

Her mind will not focus.

The whole thing feels off, as if there is something horrible going on beneath the surface. Something is trying to gain access to her mind, had been from the moment she set foot in the room. It disturbs her greatly- here in her sanctum she should be safe. Winter frowns, stops in the middle of the room- as far as she can tell. She is surrounded by tall, winter-touched trees. Is it this place that stirs up memory…?

Give in.

Without thinking, Winter lets the presence invade her mind, and all at once she feels a flood- no, a torrent of memory. So powerful, so strong is it, that it drives her to her knees. Winter covers her eyes. It doesn’t help, but it makes her feel better. It rages in her soul, tearing into her mind and changing everything she thought she knew.

Winter? Summer asks worriedly. Of course she can’t know.

Memories. They flash through her head. A phantasm appears before her- she can feel it there, it’s Silky. Her eyes are shut, tears streaming down her near-human face, all eight hands- claws- clenched, lips pursed. She bares her fangs suddenly, and her expression is one of rage and pain, eyes snapping open, staring at Winter. Agony in that gaze, in her eyes.

“Why? Winter- why?”

Winter hears a voice, then, and shudders in shock when another phantom appears in front of her- she can feel, taste the scent of herself, and when her eyes snap open she realizes that she just passed through herself, as well.

“I- I don’t-” Her old self- Frost- whimpers. “I don’t k-know- Silk, I’m sorry, Summer told me to-”

“You’ve killed my people! Brothers, sisters, children-!”

A hollow feeling, her heart freezing solid, her mind, her body tense as a rod, Winter watches memory unfold.

Long-Frost steps away from Ever-Widowed, who chases her, striding towards her, claws outstretched. Her form is twisted in pain, her eyes streaming tears. Every part of Silk is clenched with grief.

\\We assumed you must not have been in control at the time.

A lie.

This is what really happened. And I’ll show you one day, because I- and you- must remember this always.//

Summer’s voice cuts in. Winter!

Winter ignores it.

Frost raises her hands to ward the vengeful Queen off, falling to her knees and sobbing. But Ever-Widowed reaches her and scoops her up in four strong arms. The gesture might have looked tender if not for the razor sharp claws. If not for the claw at her throat, and the claws in her hair, forcing Winter-Long-Frost to stare into Silk’s eyes. The irises are vibrant red and the pupils are split. Her eyes are alien, and frighten the life out of the fourth season. Frost shuts her eyes tight.

“Look at me, Frost!” Silk shouts, her voice tight with anger. The claws clench, drawing red lines along Frost’s bare skin. Frost opens her eyes again. Her voice is weak, begging, almost.

“S-silk-”

“No. You will not call me by that name. I am Ever-Widowed, and you have betrayed me- you have betrayed all of my people. You cannot begin to comprehend what you have done! You’ve single-handedly killed off my entire race, all of my people are gone! Were it not for the eggs I carry- how can you not see? Are you so blind?”

“Silk!” Winter/Frost’s voice is trembling, almost a wail. “It hurts-”

“As it should!” Silk snarls, her grip tightening. Red drips down Winter-Long-Frost’s legs.

Frost begins to cry, sobbing helplessly in Silk’s grip. The Spider Queen’s fierce gaze softens, at the sight of Winter’s tears. Even so, her grip remains hard, rough, even as her limbs shake with rage.

“S-summer made me d-do it,” Winter whispers weakly. “D-don’t you k-know what it’s like? S-she hurts me in my h-head! I’m s-so s-sorry-”

“There is nothing you can say that will heal this ill deed, Winter,” Silk whispers. “To repay this monstrosity, you must pay with blood of your own. When you have a child, bring her to me.”

“W-what will you do-” Frost struggles in Silk’s grasp, but the Spider Queen shakes her savagely, and with a clipped sob of terror, Frost holds herself still again.

A clawed hand sets itself against Frost’s belly, against her womb. “She will be mine. Blood for blood.”

“You don’t know that my baby will be a girl!” Frost says weakly, but fiercely. She doesn’t know why she focuses on this.

“I do. Your child will be a woman, just as Summer’s shall be a boy. It is a part of the pattern, as sure as you will have four children between you. You cannot dispute it. You cannot argue with it. What will happen will happen, Long-Frost! As an immortal, you cannot fight your fate.

“You’re an immortal too!” Frost whimpers. She hates herself for being so weak. “Why are you fighting yours?”

Silk’s eyes turn cold, and they freeze even Winter to her very core. “I am no immortal, Winter-Long-Frost. One day my children- my beautiful, lovely children- will feed on me, and the one who consumes my heart shall become the new Queen. When my body fails- and it will fail…”

“I-”

“Silence, Winter-Long-Frost! You will be quiet when I am speaking!”

“Y-yes-”

“Yes who, Frost?”

“Y-yes, miss Silk.”

A claw swipes Winter across the face, delivering a ringing slap and leaving a stinging track.

“Try again!” Silk hisses.

“AH! o-ow… y-yes, Ever-Widowed-”

“As I was saying- when my body fails, My child will take my place.”

Silk’s grip loosens, and she suddenly holds Winter close to herself. The girl sobs against Ever-Widowed’s chest, blood on her cheeks smeared by her tears. Something vital has changed in the Spider Queen’s stance, in the way she holds herself. As if the bite has gone from her entirely.

“Why have you done this to me?” Silk asks softly, her voice bare of edge. “Why, Winter, my love?”

“S-summer-”

“Had nothing to do with this, Long-Frost. I’ve told you, I’ve cajoled and pleaded with you not to listen to her, sweetness. And now all I’ve been taught, all tradition demands your blood and, curse you, I can’t do it. I can’t kill you to save my honor. I can’t punish you for doing  what Summer told you. She is all you know.”

Frost sniffles and bites her lip, nestled close against Silk’s warm body.

“You must break away from her, Winter. She is a hard, awful monster, this Summer-Glory. She laughs in your head, and she won’t show herself, she won’t fight me.”

“I’m s-sorry-” Frost whispers.

“No. Do not be sorry. Become better. Become better than her, Winter. Don’t let her push you around! If I were anyone else, I would kill you! Do you understand now that Summer-Glory has nothing in mind for you but pain?” Silk’s voice is soft, but fierce all the same.

“I ha-hate her!” Winter blurts out, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her body is wracked by the tears, her sobs shaking her wretchedly. Her vision blurs and then her eyes shut again. “She’s s-so horrible!”

“She is who she is, Winter,” Ever-Widowed whispers. “I hate her as well. Do not let her tell you who to be, Winter, my heart. You are so much stronger than that. I will have my payment from you for this betrayal, and from Summer, too, but…”

“I love you, Silk,” Winter says, so softly she’s not sure if the Spider Queen can hear it.

But she does, because her hard, sharp gaze turns into a smile, and Winter knows that even if everything isn’t right yet, maybe it will be again soon.

“I cannot forgive you yet, but I understand why you’ve done this, Winter. I love you, too.”

Winter pants, blood dripping down her legs, her arms and her cheek. She’d fallen to her knees. She pushes herself up to her feet unsteadily, swaying, barely daring to believe that the memory is over. Winter?

Summer’s voice is worried, shaky as Winter feels.

Winter!

“I can h-hear you,”  Winter-Long-Frost whispers, barely audible.

What happened?

“Memory,” Winter replies shortly. “I’m okay.”

Like hell! You’re covered in cuts!

Winter looks herself over, hands clenched. Everywhere, little scrapes and nicks cover her. Her fingers relax- she realizes her body may be cut, but it isn’t dead of blood loss yet, despite the trickles of red.

“I’ll heal,” Winter says with a sigh. “It was not a good memory.”

What was it about?

“Nothing.” She’s not sure how she’d feel about telling Summer any details. Or anything at all. She isn’t sure what she feels about anything, really.

Silk lied to her, Summer lied to her. Didn’t Summer share the same memories with Summer-Glory? It made sense. Of course she did. And yet….

Why had she lied?

Winter walks a few steps further into the white of the room, until the door behind her becomes obscured by snow falling, and a voice nothing like her sister’s echoes in her head. It sounds different, like a shadow of her own voice, all new frost and bitter cold.

\\If you want to learn the truth, keep walking, Winter-Long-Frost.//

Her hands shake for a few moments at the thought of another memory similar to the one she’d just experienced.

\\Coward.//

I am no coward, Winter thinks to herself weakly, curling her fingers into fists. She closes her eyes, and takes another step forward.

The world is spinning. Her head hurts, her hands and feet quake. She can smell something, a crisp, sickly sweet smell in the air. It nauseates her. She pushes herself back up to her feet, hands cloaked in uncertain frost. Fall stands before her, staring at her- staring at part of her. What’s wrong? From his face…

Slowly, with a growing feeling of dread, Winter looks down at her stomach, where Fall’s gaze lies.

The sight makes her reel. She sways where she stands, feeling the frost dissipate as she loses control, as she drops to her knees, as Summer screams in her head.

No! Winter, you idiot!

And Fall, staring at her coldly now, coldly, she realizes. His eyes are boring into her. She sways again, on her knees. Her hand comes away from her middle, covered in red. Her whole body shakes helplessly. She stares at Fall, uncomprehending, her mouth moving to frame a word.

Why?

Winter? Winter!

And inside, a quiet, quiet voice whispers, so softly she can barely hear it: This is the way I will end. This is the way all of us will end.

Winter sobs, her breath coming out in a long, drawn out whimper. She realizes that here is an agonizing, burning pain in her middle, and part of her feels it needs to act- now.

There’s a heat in her belly, agonizing, hot, sticky, covered in blood- she can see it on her fingers, though she forces her eyes away from the hole where her stomach used to be.

Winter! Summer hisses. What the hell is going on? It feels like my- your- stomach- AAH. It hurts!

Winter’s hand glows with frost as she presses it against her awful wound. It takes mere moments for the pain to numb and the horrible flow of blood to cease, but those moments feel an eternity. Winter totters where she stands. Her lips feel numb, her head is filled with a hundred needles. Her vision blurs, and she pushes her hand further into the nasty hole where her belly should be, as much to remind her she still has a hand as to numb herself further.

What have you d-done? Summer whimpers.

Winter shakes her head grimly, and forces herself another step forward. Blood is dripping around her hand now.

Winter?

Winter-Long-Frost takes a deep, shuddering breath, sending spikes of pain into the frayed nerves near her stomach. After a moment, that pain is gone too, and the cold overwhelms everything. Swaying, unable to steady herself, the fourth season staggers off through the snow.

Her crunching footsteps stop as she finds a door. She doesn’t dare remove her hand from her abdomen, but she reaches out with her free hand, grasps the handle, and tugs the door open.

It creaks, the hinges shuddering, then giving way, grinding into rust as she watches. In her dizzy vision, flecks of metal fall onto snow dappled with red. Her eyes half-shut. She feels cold the likes of which she’d never felt before consuming her. Her very bones ache with it.

She makes it through the door and into this new room, her breathing heavy, ragged at the edges. She doesn’t close the door after her- with the hinges gone, what’s the point?

The scent of iron is thick here. All around her it presses in, suffocating her, making her head spin. Where is she?

Her mind wavers, crumbles under the abuse, and she collapses to the floor.

Visions come and go. Voices work in and out of her awareness incessantly, sparking in her mind in flashes, sounds. Sometimes she opens her eyes, but she can’t see anything but the cold- a blue haze that crackles and hisses. Sometimes she thinks she can hear Summer calling her name.

The hissing darkness strikes at her, a snake of shadow biting at her head. The burning sensation in her stomach is getting worse as she loses concentration. She can feel her heart pounding in her chest, drumming away. She doesn’t remember dying.

But she doesn’t remember how or why she got here, she doesn’t remember where she is.

In the dark as she lies there, with no sense of time, her sickened thoughts turn again to Jane, to Silk, to the girl she left with the Spider Queen.

To Spring, who seemed so set in the future he refused to believe in the present. To Fall, who had hounded her and Summer both relentlessly as far back as she could truly remember. To the confusing, dizzying thought of death, of being reborn, of losing everything she had learned.

What had she learned?

She trembles, rolling onto her back, hand clutching a belly whole but drenched with sweat. Her eyes are open but see nothing, the crushing dark pressing in all about her like a vice.

The scent of it, so thick in the air- she can smell the earth, the tang of iron- her blood, or the room? It nauseates her. She rolls over onto her hands and knees, retching, and surprises herself by feeling something sticky on her hand as she reaches up to wipe her lips. The taste of blood and bile makes her cough.

Her hands burn. Her whole body burns. The ground here is iron- she can smell it!- and she feels her magic seeping away. Why did she come here?

Where is here?

Slowly, every moment a torturous eon, she rises to her feet. Her hands and feet feel blistered where they touched the ground, her knees feel raw and her fingernails feel split.

How long was she lying like that? An hour? A day?

She feels ravenous.

Not simply hungry, but starving.

There’s a searing pain where the cuts on her legs, arms and hands had brushed the iron on the floor. She can feel the burn of the poison metal running in her blood.

And above it all, she feels a queer cold enter her mind, familiar, clear and rational, and it says: unless I receive medical attention, I am going to die.

“Why did I build this place?” Winter whispers to no one, her voice without strength.

Her legs feel weak, but she finally decides to look for a lightsource. Groping blindly on the wall, her fingers touch the familiar plastic nub of a switch, and she presses on it desperately.

There’s a hum, and then she’s momentarily blinded by stabbing pain as the lights flare, and her eyes adjust. For a strange moment it feels as though she’s back in the circle of thorns, her first memory of the heat and the terrible light. But it’s cooler, calmer here, even though she feels dizzied and sick.

Despite the agony of her wounds and the unintentional iron cramps in her arms and legs, she feels safe. It’s ludicrous, but she feels completely secure.

The metal shines below her- she is indeed standing on a metal floor, an iron floor- the grey surface is ruddy, and shiny with both her sweat and the blood smeared on it. Her blood.

And, mere feet from where she lay, the floor ends abruptly and turns stone, like a cave. She totters towards it, nearly collapses as her legs try to trip her, ends up on her hands and knees again- this time on blessed rock. It’s smooth and cool on sorely abused skin. But it isn’t cool enough. She feels her skin- it’s burning up. Her whole body feels aflame. A shiver runs through her, and she fights down another wave of nausea.

There’s a desk, a stone desk set in the far wall, and before it, a chair. Wood, metal, stone. Living rock, worked marble, a metal throne and floor. She can’t wrap her mind around it. It just seems too much to bear.

Summer is dormant in her mind. Her mind-mate seems to have blacked out entirely from the pain of the metal. But not Winter. Had she always been this strong?

All along?

The hum of the ceiling lights- she wonders what powers them- is equaled only by the pounding in her head and chest.

Slowly she pushes herself to her feet again, gathering her strength. There are papers set on the desk. Paper. Not parchment. Why is that significant?

More important even than the paper is the trapped glow, and the feeling- waning with the poison of iron- of life. There are things in bottles on the desk, and she can feel- something. Stored something. Life.

In the bottles.

She stumbles, catches herself on the seat of the metal throne- it’s long and rigid, black metal that doesn’t feel like iron should. If anything, it feels the opposite. Cold. Calming.

She sits down and lies back for a few moments, catching breath that she didn’t know she had. The cool of the metal brings peace, soothes aches. But how can that be? She wonders. What type of metal is this?

The clear part of her mind shakes her. The papers have words written on them in a language she knows. They’re written in English. She’d written it down in English instead of Eldritch. And they are hers. She remembers writing them- albeit in a blurry fashion. The words grab at her.

It is clear now that my brothers have gone mad…

Her eyes don’t believe what they read. She can’t make sense of it now- the part of her mind still thinking clearly suggests she should drain something. Anything. Even the things in the bottles might do.

What are they?

She looks at one, a bottle all covered in designs- hexagons of crystal patterned into the glass. The label on it says something, and as she looks closer, she can see the glow inside of it pulsing at her as if alive.

And it is alive. She can feel it. It’s calling to her.

Paper. It’s important. The label says something, written in English again.

The human language. Or one of them.

[Distilled Life]

(Soul Energy)

Winter closes her eyes.

She only means to close them for a second, but when she opens them again, the world is spinning and her head is pounding worse than ever. The burning sensation has spread to her insides as well, she feels as if she is boiling from within.

Her whole body afire.

She feels sparks jumping on her arms and her legs, down her belly and back. They tingle as they pass over her, through her. Her eyes shut again.

Distilled life. She can feel it still, so close to her. It’s powerful. She should take it.

It would heal her. Help her heal. She needs it.

Without thinking, her hand slides around the crystal of the bottle. She reaches out with her mind, brushes the life in the bottle tentatively. She hasn’t fed in a while- not since before Summer’s turn came. Her fingers shake, tremble as she opens the conduit.

The life-force feels… strangely familiar. Her mouth is alive with the taste of lavender- and- and… the life energy is flooding her.

Feed, she thinks, as strongly as she can, letting her thoughts guide her desire and her power.

Her whole body is suddenly cooler. Her aches, her pains vanish- her fingers and toes are tingling, her eyes snap open. The sparks on her skin are blue. She feels blue, electricity flashing through her veins- pure, cold power.  Her heart is hammering out a wild rhythm in her chest, and the force of the strength in her limbs makes her cry out- she can feel her body stiffen. She curls up into a ball and waits for the eruption of energy to subside.

Finally, after what seems like forever, she carefully lets her limbs relax.

Her body feels incredible. Every part of her- from her hands to her feet- feels strong. It’s more powerful than the orb she absorbed, more powerful than anything she has ever felt before- but it’s so familiar.

And it strikes her now, as she stares at the bottle and the glow within. The vial she’d taken- the potion she’d drunk from- it had tasted similar to this energy. Almost the same. That’s how she had taken Black Refuge.

This is the power from her memory. Her very fingertips crackle with it. As she starts to stand up- she realizes that her scars are burning, standing out lividly from her body as her magic fills her up. All she can hear is the sound of her heart beating and the slow crick crack of fresh frost on the metal near her.

Her mind is clear as crystal now. She can feel it. She’s at the peak of mental and physical power.

It takes an effort of will to stop herself from screaming out with it.

She almost stands, but reminds herself of the paper. Her words wait for her comprehension, written down as a note to herself. Whether a dire warning or mere field notes- she feels the urge to know more fresh in her heart.

Slowly, settling back down in her seat, fingers trembling with restrained energy, she spreads the papers before her and begins to read.

Demimind: Chapter 26

All I can say about this one is that I’m sorry it’s late! I know, I know, falling behind and that- but it’s been pretty busy at the college and at home. In attempting to write and get ahead, I have written and gotten behind. Enjoy- I should have a new short story, Unyielding Blue [Working Title], out in a week or less. That’s what’s caught some of my attention.

-Eris

(26)Bargain

“Why are you-” Summer begins, but Autumn cuts her off, pleasant demeanor vanishing.

“I don’t have time to play games. The illmetal bead, now. I’ll take it from you by force if I must,” Lord Autumn snarls. “Now give it to me.”

Summer tries feigning ignorance.

“You can’t be serious- illmetal? Why would we have-”

You were conscious when she stole it from me. You must have been. Give it to me or die, sister.

Fall’s voice is loud enough to shake the whole world. Summer feels her legs tremble, despite herself. She takes a step back, and Fall takes a step forward.

“I don’t have it,” Summer snaps.

Fall’s hand strikes her cheek, snapping her head to the side. Summer takes another tottering step back. All her power seems to have fled her, and the slap burns on her cheek, ice and fire.

“You lie,” He hisses. “How could you not? You are the same as Winter. Illmetal is the single rarest element there ever has been, I need it for one simple deed and then I will be done. I will never bother you again. Give it to me.

Summer wipes her cheek with a trembling hand, glaring at her brother. This close and without rage to fuel her, He seems far too strong. Every part of her body feels filled with lead, and her hand fights her, by her side. Her heavy feet want to run.

“I am not, brother,” She answers quietly, with calmness she doesn’t feel. “How could I be the same as her? We are one being, but divided in this form, for better or worse. You saw to that.”

Autumn snarls at her. “Are you saying you don’t have the illmetal bead?”

“I already said that, but you didn’t believe me. Ought I say it again?”

Lord Autumn’s hands clench, unclench in fury. “You-!”

“I don’t have it, brother! Think about it! Her body is separate from mine- if she had it in a pocket, where would it go? Do you think you can simply tear it from my mind?” Summer asks, voice rising. “If you wish to continue making a fool of yourself, by all means! Every second you waste is another you could be spending trying to find the other beads.”

Autumn pauses, at that. “Other beads.” It isn’t a question.

“Look around you, Lord,” Summer says mockingly, desperate to hide her fear. “This city is filled with humans. Surely the creation of a bead wouldn’t be so difficult here.”

“You would know how to do something like that, would you?” Autumn muses. “And what’s to stop me torturing you to find out what I need to know?”

“I don’t know how. But there were tomes in Season’s Refuge that might teach you what you need to-”

“Stupid bitch,” Autumn hisses. “I’m not about to fall for that. You could be a hundred leagues away by the time I returned.”

“If I’m right, why would you need to return?” Summer asks slyly. “If you need proof of my goodwill, I’ll tell you another secret. In a grove back in Evercold Forest, there was a bead of illmetal in a thicket near where spiders spin their webs.”

“With the Spider Queen. How do you know this?” Fall asks sharply. “Did you see it?”

“Yes, we visited there for a time. It was there while we were. Someone may have taken it after we left,” Summer says simply, eyes showing nothing. She can see Lord Autumn wrestling with Himself.

You dirty, lying little thief, Winter whispers. I love you. I hope you know what you’re doing.

The Lord of Season’s Refuge narrows His eyes. “I’ll take your word on faith this one time, Summer, but know this- I’ll always know where you are. There is nowhere you can run and nowhere you can hide- because all fall prey to decay eventually.”

His smile is horrible to behold. Summer matches it with a shining one of her own. “Fuck off,” She snaps, smile evaporating. “You don’t have time to fool around here.”

Lord Autumn turns on his heel, carves a hole in time and space, and disappears. The hole shimmers in the air for a moment before it curls in on itself and, like Autumn, vanishes.

Summer’s trembling legs near drop her, but she staggers up the steps to the portal and leans against it for support.

You need to get to Spring, Winter says quietly. We need to get to Spring. He said to meet him at the Shrine- well, now seems to be the time.

“Right,” Summer manages. She’d faced fire and death and heard the bitter sound of the guardians of the dead, but she had never- and never would again, with any luck- felt quite so helpless as she had been standing in front of her brother. Fall’s presence had struck her like a ton of stone, crushing her. What was the difference between the power He’d had in the cavern and the power now? He had been so strong she could barely move.

She feels rage stirring in her chest like fire, and with one trembling hand, smashes the stone on the dais, rapping a few sigils quickly, from memory.

Everspring appears in the gateway.

“Time to get some answers,” Summer growls, and strides through.

After she leaves,  a few saffron robed men step down from the guild’s shattered entrance and approach the enormous stone dais. Their steps are cautious, as if daring more legends to appear before them. When none come forth, they just stand there, one staring at the ashes that had been their second-in-command and the other warily approaching the shimmering portal.

“What in the Cycle was that all about?” the leader asks, peering into the gate where Summer can be seen storming up to the city.

“Politics,” The other replies. “I’m going to go have a drink.”

“Borigg is dead,” The mourner says hollowly. “Who’ll be Master now?”

The leader turns to him and shrugs. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? When monsters like those two are running around, it sort of brings your own insignificance into sharp perspective, right?”

It takes no time at all to find the Shrine. She stalks past the drowsy gateguard, who pays her almost no mind. The couples in the street, and the warm breath of eternal spring are not so comforting anymore. They seem to only cloud matters further for her, and it irritates her that her elder brother could be so frivolous. Carefree.

She storms up the walk into the courtyard of the Shrine, and there, to her surprise, stands Spring. He gives her an apologetic smile and spreads his arms. “Summer. You’re late, and- my goodness me, what’s happened to your face?”

“I’m right on time,” She replies grimly. “And don’t give me that, time-traveler. You know very well why I’ve got this.”

Her jaw hurts, a frozen burn. She’s surprised it doesn’t smoke. There’s a livid scar across her cheek, she’s sure and while normally she’d want to look at it, right now she’d rather forget she got it.

“Very well. Why are you here, other than the reason I called you?” Spring asks wearily. There’s a sort of exhaustion to his features, a fatigue that goes so much deeper than the skin. It seems to cling to the very bones of his frame, and as she looks at him, it seems to her that he looks much older than when last she saw him.

“I want to know more about who we are,” Summer says sharply. “Winter and I, I mean. Nothing has been explained. We’ve just been running, learning nothing, using knowledge we didn’t know we had- what are we? Why are we?”

“Well, that is a long tale. Shouldn’t we go inside?” Spring asks, chewing on his lip. “No? Hmm. Where to start.”

“I find the beginning to be a good spot,” Summer says dryly. Spring doesn’t seem to hear her.

“At the beginning of all things, after the final war was fought, the Cycle was made, and everything was in peace and harmony, four beings were created to govern the Laws, as their personifications. In this new universe, created by… er… whoever created it… there would need to be four original beings. It was to function on laws entirely unlike the universe before it. The original four beings, Sense, Wave, Space, Time, created more sub-beings to govern different sections of different worlds. For the world as we know it- named, rather unimaginatively, World, there are many such personifications. We four, the Seasons, govern only a relatively small part of it,

“First, there was me. Er. Spring. I was made to govern renewal and regrowth, as well as time, to a certain extent. I was the first created- but only by a few seconds. Summer, you were made next, and due to some form of cosmic joke, you were tied together with Winter when she was finally created. You were life incarnate, filled with conceit and arrogance and joy. Your job is- and was- to make every living thing understand that it was alive. Of course, no created creature can be perfect, it’s one of the fundamental laws of the universe. So occasionally you make a subconscious error and allow things that were born to be created without that spark of life.

“Then, there was Autumn, who was declared lord of decay, entropy and misery. Not to never know joy, of course… but to see to it that it remained in order, and that, when the time came, everything was to fall to pieces as it should. Of all of us, Autumn was to be the one most aloof from the others… And I think that may have been a mistake.

“Finally, of course, there was Winter, and you know her as well as I do, I’m afraid. She’s a bit of a strange one- not only does she govern death, but also, I believe she is responsible for the cold in the world, and, being tied to you, also is tied to every living being in a different way. It is up to Winter to see to it that everything dies, and to guide- subconsciously, of course- every soul to the continuation of the Cycle.”

Winter wonders at that, but Summer is more vocal about it.

“So what does that mean? Why is Winter bound to me?”

“It is as I said- there was a mistake. Her creation- and thus each incarnation afterwards- was imperfect. Lord Autumn feels that it is His job to correct that- for that He seeks the illmetal bead, so He might complete His Refraction and take over both Winter and His own duties.

“Unfortunately, if He were to do that, He would likely go completely insane. I believe that it is unavoidable at this point. It is only a matter of time until he seizes the illmetal from you, Winter. He will try to come for it as soon as you change again, Summer, though I doubt He knows when exactly that will be.”

Spring pauses, then stops completely, sighing heavily. “If only I had completed my research a day or so sooner.”

“Research,” Summer says flatly. “What were you researching?”

“The process by which you and Winter were created,” Spring replies ruefully. “I felt that if I were able to correct the mistake that caused you two to be created together…. well, we could somehow solve everything at once.”

“How?” Summer asks sharply.

Finally, some answers, Winter mutters.

I hope we can trust them, Summer replies silently.

“Firstly,” Spring says slowly. “We would need to create a shell for Winter- or separate her shell from yours. Then it would be a simple matter of transferring her soul.”

“That doesn’t sound so hard,” Summer says cautiously. “So what’s stopping you?”

“The amount of power it takes- well, I was researching easier energy sources,” Spring replies, equally wary now. “Ones… less costly… than what the spell originally called for.”

Make him tell us what the original sources were, Winter says grimly. I have a bad feeling about this.

“Spring,” Summer says quietly. “What was originally used?”

“Life force,” Spring says edgily. “Er.”

“How much life force?” Summer presses.

“You’ve visited Barrier,” Spring replies sadly. “How much do you think?”

Summer doesn’t get it at first, but Winter suddenly goes cold in her sister’s head. “What do you-”

The original spell to create us stole the life from everything in the Barrier. It wasn’t a wasteland before. That’s what he means, Winter says distantly.

Summer rocks on her heels, as if from a blow. “What?” She asks weakly. The prospect of that much death shocks even her- so much life snuffed for their sake? Who could possibly make such a call?

“Barrier is miles- leagues long, and at least a third as wide. It wraps around this patch of the world and isolates it near completely from the rest. So many creatures died that there is a permanent gateway from Barrier to the Pockets of the Dead. To draw on that much energy again would be unforgivable,” Spring says grimly.

“What other energy source did you research?” Summer asks hastily, changing the subject before it dizzies her further. “Didn’t you find anything else?”

Spring nods grimly, and then holds out a hand. “Summer, in order for us to accomplish this transfer, I will need the illmetal bead you have.”

Winter snaps back, thinking hard.

“I still have more questions,” Summer says quietly.

“They aren’t important,” Spring presses. “The bead, please. When the transfer is complete, we can worry about answering your questions.”

“What about my child?” Summer asks.

Spring hesitates just a second too long. “Safe. Of course it’s safe- in the Shrine.”

“Let me see him,” Summer says grimly. “When I have my child, then I’ll give you the bead.”

Summer… Winter whispers. What are you doing? I hate to say it, but isn’t this a little more important? He’s safe. Don’t worry.

Summer ignores Winter, just gazes at Spring steadily.

“I-” Spring stares at Summer’s expression, again looking old and weak. He stares at his feet, green hair waving gently in the breeze. “Sister- the truth is that your child is gone.”

Summer’s heart freezes, her hands and legs shake.

“What?” She asks blankly. Had she heard him correctly? “What do you mean?”

“Shortly after you departed the Shrine the first time, Lord Autumn came and-” Summer isn’t even listening anymore, cold, terrible rage wreathing her in flames. “He stole my baby,” She says, voice flat. “He came and took my child.”

“He said something about it being insurance. Sister- oh, I fear this is all my fault,” Spring whispers. “I told Him about the baby, you see. I didn’t know He was that far gone…”

Summer shakes her head. She hadn’t really known her child at all. But the baby was still- is still- hers. To leave him in Lord Autumn’s hands for any longer would be sickening. Especially not when she thinks she can do something about it.

“You’re a fool,” She snaps grimly. “How could you have been such a fool? If He is after me, of course He would take my child. Now I have no choice.”

“What are you going to do?”

“When I have my boy,” Summer repeats slowly. “I will give you the illmetal bead. Not a moment before.”

“Don’t do anything rash,” Spring chides. “Summer, if you strike at Him now He will not hesitate to kill you or your offspring.”

“Then I will die,” Summer says simply. “And I will deserve it.”

From the way her shoulders are set, the way her eyes flash with an internal, unquenchable anger, Spring can see that she means it. He’d seen this look in several Summers from the past, on many different incarnations. It frightens him now.

Summer turns away from Spring. “If you desire to see me return with the bead then you will give me anything you have that might ease this task.”

“I can give you only information,” Spring replies warily. “But it is good information. Fa- Lord Autumn… He cannot harm you with spells as strong as Words, for fear of destroying the illmetal along with you. He will fight you in a weaker state until forced to lash out. It… should be noted that the place He currently resides- in Season’s Refuge… It’s impossible to teleport within ten miles of the place. He has shielded it thus to keep our enemies out.”

Summer cracks a smile, which Spring can’t see. It’s a hollow smile indeed. “We’ll see.”

She pauses. “There is a girl and a man- Thomas. Take care of them while I am gone, brother. I have a few places Winter will need to go. This is my last day, and I mean to make it count. I have a few things I need to do…”

Summer frowns at that. The first place she needs to visit is Winter’s sanctum. There isn’t a doubt in her mind that some of her brother’s servants will lie in wait for her, if he even has servants.

Spring shrugs and sighs. “I’ll be busy enough, but I will take care of the girl. And Thomas can resume employment as my gateguard if he wants. I told his partner that he was gone, never to be seen again, so I imagine this will be good news- and Summer?”

Summer turns slightly, pausing at the gates.

“Be careful,” Spring says quietly. “Autumn may share your blood, but that only goes so far. In the state He is in, He may kill you before you have a chance. Take care of your sister, too.”

“I will.”

Summer, displaying restraint very unlike her, carefully opens the gate and steps out of the shrine courtyard. The air is thick with the smell of rain, but there isn’t a drop ready to fall anywhere- the only drops falling struggle their way down Summer’s face and drip down her chin.

But her formulae are clear as crystal as she works her way through a gate spell. She tears a shimmering line through the air in front of her, a single finger peeling back the layers of space one by one. When she steps through, it closes behind her.