Demimind: Chapter 31

What? You say my character Winter falls unconscious too often? Pshaw.

-Eris

(31) Duet

White on black, like the threat of a supernova, deep, deep in space. White, like a flash in all spectrums, flooding everything and burning into Winter’s mind, into Summer’s mind.

It seems to Winter that it comes in symbols, and she reads them without thinking. They are written in Eldritch, and they are the meanings that they portray rather than merely conveying them. The twisting sigils twist and turn and spark in her mind.

Once apart, then joined, once whole, then broken- without one, the other is meaningless, without both, the world is gone. Find the balance between one, and you shall find the balance for the other.

Summer hears a voice, instead, and it seems to her to be made up of a strange mixture of every voice she had ever heard herself, Winter, Fall and Spring speak in, with echoes and overtones spread throughout, intertwined with and dependent on one another.

“The lightning strike carries life, death, regrowth and decay all in a single blow- separate the elements, the seasons, the rules and the laws are all for nothing. If you cannot find the balance between these forces, there will be no balance forever. Remember, apart you appear stronger, but only together are you whole.

“Stop this now before your chance is lost.”

“I don’t know what you just did,” Spring is saying, his back to Winter as her eyes open. “But I’ve had enough of this.”

He strides over to Winter as she lies on her back and, reaching down, pries her fist open, fingers an inch from closing on the illmetal bead within.

Thin, bronzed fingers wrap around Spring’s wrist.

“You killed Thomas,” Summer whispers quietly. “That was your first mistake.”

Spring’s eyes have time to widen in shock before Summer’s other hand closes over his throat in an iron grip.

The Second Season, Summer-Heat-Rising stands over her sister’s fallen form. With a sledgehammer strike, she slams a fist into Spring’s diaphragm and tosses him aside. His frail body lands a few feet away heavily, and then, coughing, wheezing and gasping for breath, he pushes himself upright, eyes blazing with anger.

“We had a deal!” He snarls. “What are you doing?”

“Do you think I’m deaf, dear brother?” Summer hisses back. “What deal do you suppose we had when you led Fall to bind me within Winter permanently? Where is the deal when you handed over my own son to Fall?”

The ground trembles at her younger brother’s name, and seems to quake even more as her next words escape, snapping into the air like licks of flame.

“You snake-tongued bastard!” Summer growls. “I’ll-”

Winter reaches up and grasps Summer’s hand. Summer blinks, looking down at her. Her little sister’s grip is like ice.

“Together,” Winter whispers. “He has too much- power. You can’t… face him without me.”

“Cute,” Spring snarls, rubbing his throat. “Oh, too cute. The kind-hearted cripple and the righteous whore. I’m shaking, truly.”

He raises his hands again. The ground seems to ripple around him, just as Summer pulls Winter to her feet.

“We’re not running this time,” She says to Winter, and her sister cracks a grim smile in response.

“Right.”

Hand in hand, the two stand their ground. Winter lifts her hand up. Her chest feels as though it’s on fire, and her hand is burning where it touches Summer, but in a good way.

It reminds her that she’s alive.

There barely seems to be enough power between them to do anything though, and Winter can feel Summer trembling.

“Toughen up, you wuss,” Winter whispers. “Or we’ll both die.”

Summer nods, almost imperceptibly.

“Life for life,” A familiar voice purrs quietly. “Do you understand?”

Winter doesn’t dare turn her head. Summer does, though. “Silk?” She asks incredulously. “What?”

Spring stares openly. Then he curses, snarls at her. “Twice now, doubly crossed by you. Wretched spiders spin their webs and more fool me for walking into them. No matter!”

“I crossed no line that you have not yourself stepped over many times now, Bringer-of-Spring. I’ve simply come to see the end.”

“And you’ll have it!” Spring sneers. He throws a hand forth. A pillar of the earth descends on the spider queen, who stands there unmoving. In a flash, though, the pillar is shattered into a hundred pieces.

A woman stands there, hand outstretched, side by side with Silk. Her eyes burn with hate, and her skin is ebon as night. Her hair is wild, but her form is younger than Aura. Summer takes a wild guess in her mind, but keeps quiet about it.

“For the crimes against my people, we hold and condemn you, Spring of the Four Seasons. Your reckless war against your brother has cost too many of us our lives for us to forgive you. You’ll excuse the lack of trial, Summer, Winter?”

Summer shrugs, then gives the woman a grin. “Yeah. I suppose I will. How the hell do you even remember me?” Seeing the girl’s expression, Summer adds, more than a touch bitterly, “Weren’t most of your ‘people’ dead shortly after I came and went?”

“If you hadn’t asked me to give you a ride to the Lair of Servants, I would be dead along with most of the Council,” Corevin replies steadily. “Instead I was captured. But that isn’t important. What’s important is that this worm-” She jerks her head towards Spring. “Is brought to justice. Fulfill your destiny, Summer of the Four Seasons. Then we’ll talk.”

Winter leans against Summer a little, and Summer takes her weight without comment.

“Are you ready?” Summer asks of her sister quietly.

Winter nods. The time Aura’s daughter Corevin had bought them by appearing along with Silk had no doubt been spent well. Winter seems better ready for the fight ahead, and after a moment she takes her weight herself, standing a little unsteadily.

Spring stares at the pair of them with obvious disdain. Winter notes his arrogant posture- he had yet to strike at them. With so much power, he was letting it rule him- and with good reason. Winter can’t think. She can’t come up with a strategy.

Spring, who has power over time, who can step into the past, probably already knows everything they are about to do.

“No time to worry about that now,” Summer says quietly.

“I’m waiting,” Spring taunts. “Do show me what the power of friendship is capable of, little sisters!”

He’s mad, Winter thinks plainly, suddenly. He’s completely mad! Why is he waiting for us to attack?

Summer hardens her stance and, drawing a hand back, gathers her power. Hot-headed Summer.

“I’ll wipe that grin off your face, you smug bastard!” Summer snarls, and snaps out at Spring with her power, a thin ray of pure heat scalding cobbles, glassing the dirt around him. But it doesn’t touch him. He just stands in the midst of it, laughing.

“Is that all?” Spring sneers. His normally kindly face has changed almost completely, almost bestial in its unlimited fury. But Summer can see sweat beading on his face, and she isn’t fooled. Before she can act on it, he seems ready to get serious.

He claps his hands together and pushes them towards Summer and Winter. A ripple forms in the ground, and it moves like water towards them, rising up and cresting like a wave of stone and earth ready to bury them.

Winter goes cold inside. Summer freezes.

“Move!” Winter shouts.

It’s Winter who shoves Summer aside as the earth crashes down, it’s Winter who propels them both out of the way on a stream of ice, sliding along the ground together. It’s Summer who picks herself up first, Winter who coughs, clutching her chest, spitting out grit and blood brought up from the fall.

Summer hurls another bolt of heat Spring’s way. The nearly invisible blast washes over her brother without even touching him. Again he laughs at her.

This time he makes a sharper wave of his hand, a flick of his fingers. It sends sharp spears of stone arcing from the ground up through the air towards Summer and Winter.

Summer freezes again, mouth open, unable to fathom why her attack hadn’t worked. Winter, on her knees, throws her hands up, closes her eyes and forces her power into a field around the two of them.

“Shield!” She whispers fiercely. The formula clicks into place and falls into cold being around her- the air thickens to the consistency of iron, so cold it makes Summer shake.

Razor sharp stone punches through her shield and hisses to a halt barely a span from Winter’s face, near an inch from Summer’s open mouth.

Summer gulps in the silence that follows. Winter shatters and redirects the energy of her shield, forcing her power out, in a stream towards where Spring was last.

As the stone spears are flung away and her vision clears of ice and sleet, she realizes that Spring is standing right next to them and that now all her power is streaming from her in a roaring- but ineffective blizzard.

“Oh,” She mumbles weakly.

“Yes!” Spring replies cheerfully.

His long leg snaps out, blurring with speed. Summer doesn’t even have time to blink, and Winter doesn’t even see it move.

Suddenly she’s gasping, arms around her chest to stop blood from oozing from the newly cracked ice holding her insides in.

Summer yelps, then snarls something. From her vantage point on the ground where she’d rolled, Winter watches her siblings fight. It’s surreal, and her eyes flick back and forth between the pair.

Spring and Summer exchange a few titan blows- and after a blackened eye and the wet crack of a rib breaking, Spring steps back with a grunt that echoes in Winter’s ears. That’s right, Winter thinks weakly. Summer has the advantage close in.

Her vision swims. In it, she can see a hazy Summer advancing on Spring. She sees Spring withdraw something from a pocket, a long, slim something- wand! Hears his voice, low and threatening. Summer’s bitter retort, then her scream.

Winter tries very hard not to black out with the pain, her shattered ribs aching horribly where Spring’s foot had struck them.

Her eyes close for a moment. If she could just be with her sister… now she’s sure she knows what she needs to do. She summons her power, one last time.

On the ground, Winter disappears.

And now she feels what Summer feels.

Summer feels the line of magic carving into her, and for a panicked moment she forgets herself and blood trickles down her belly. Then, with one smooth movement, she reaches down, yanks the tendril of it away and crushes it. Her fingers sting and her abdomen is a line of fire, but she stands firm again, warily as Spring, holding the wand unsteadily, grins the manic grin of a man truly at his wits’ end.

“You should just give in,” Spring hisses. “Even without Winter holding you down you are no match for me.”

Summer’s eyes narrow. Suddenly she can’t breathe for her anger. “Holding me down?”

How can she fight, though? Her anger is a weak one. She is tired.

Rose, Winter reminds her. The Rose!

Summer blinks as another line of magic lashes at her, hops back as Spring flicks the wand at her again, dangerously, conjuring stinging lashes of cutting power- of his own power.

Summer holds out a hand while Spring laughs madly. “That’s right, Summer! Even with your pathetic waste of a sister gone you’re helpless before true power!”

The flicking tendril of his magic carves a line along her arm and then her shoulder as she shifts to avoid a killing strike. It’s pain she barely feels through the pure, fiery anger burning in her body, burning all over.

“Who says she’s gone?” Summer whispers. Spring freezes for one moment.

His eyes dart, then, to where Winter last lay, and then widen. His mouth opens, and Summer moves.

Her Rose snaps into the air at her side, and then shatters as she drains all of its energy at once- the thorns dig into and then melt into her hand as she crushes it. All of a sudden she’s impossibly strong, impossibly fast, and impossibly furious.

In a flash, she moves, staggering towards him with speed borne of fury. Spring takes a step back and slashes at her with the wand. The tip draws a line of white pain along her arm as she grips him by the throat, lifts him up, and then slams him down into the ground hard enough to rattle his teeth.

“You fucking bastard!” She whispers. “Winter is-”

She kneels on his chest, one hand wrenching the twisted magic around her arm free, the other squeezing Spring’s neck until his face bulges. “-and always will be-”

“My sister and my friend. How- dare you!

Her fist rises, then falls, a bare inch away from Spring’s face, trembling with her restraint.

Summer blinks, feeling the blood run down her arm and her shoulder. Feeling her killer instinct subsiding. Feels Winter in her mind with her, one with her. Watching. Feels the cold of Winter’s power in her fist along with her own heat, her own blaze.

Feels Winter gently guiding her fingers away from her brother’s throat, looks down and sees the tears streaming from Spring’s tightly shut eyes.

Then there’s a spark inside. Something missing is returned, something like lightning jumps through her, from the tips of her toes to the breath she breathes in- to scars- all over- glowing bright. It fades after a few seconds, but sparks of errant power still jump over her- the pure life energy from Winter and the last of the Rose’s strength joined together, one and the same.

When Summer’s voice returns to her and her mouth opens, the sound is like a mix, like a harmony between Winter’s and hers.

“More than that,” Winter/Summer says quietly, smiling, suddenly sure. “We’re always together. How can someone who’s been with you always ever hold you down? We know each other too well. And you should too! You’re our own brother!”

Spring’s sob comes out choked and raw. “You b-bitch. I was so close!”

Sumer/Winter still kneels on his chest for a moment, but slowly she moves away, stands again, staring down at him with something like pity. “In attempting to remove Fall from the Cycle, you would only perpetuate it. Your belief in the Cycle’s imbalance is correct, but the way you’re going about it is wrong. The Cycle is flawed, yes, and inherently, by design. We can’t deal with that by killing one another!”

“I suppose you think you’ve found the answer in your notes,” Spring growls weakly, pushing himself up. His hair is withered completely black now- the last of his power totally spent.

Winter/Summer shakes her head. Then, as if it had just struck her, she remembers the urchin, she remembers Thomas.

It turns out the former had watched the fight in relative safety- she’s crouched behind rubble and trembling in fear when Summer/Winter reaches out to find her.

Thomas is lying still.

His heart has stopped. His eyes are glazed. His fingers are closed and curled. He isn’t breathing. His head is twisted at an impossible angle and his hair is spread in a pool of blood. His long body is broken, another mortal killed senselessly, and for whose benefit? Worse, he was her friend.

Spring steps up behind her. “So your boyfriend is dead.”

Winter/Summer straightens. Then she smiles. “Not for long.”

“Rebirth and regrowth is my domain,” Spring snaps. “I’m powerless thanks to you, and there’s nothing you can-”

He stops.

Winter/Summer is not listening. Her eyes are closed and her pale-bronze skin is glowing- scars all over her, Winter’s scars- are glowing white with sudden, impossible, unfathomable power.

In it, there is the scent of new flowers blooming, and growing. In it, there is the laughter of children and the taste of sunshine. In it, the soft chill of winter and the warmth of the sun, the heat and the sheer, limitless power of life itself. It gathers around Winter/Summer, and streams from her fingers down into Thomas. There’s no Word of Power, there’s no eldritch gesture- it’s as smooth and natural as if it were meant to be.

Before Spring’s eyes, the man coughs, sits bolt upright, neck slowly turning back into position. It isn’t flawless- he gasps for breath and his heart is beating too fast, his eyes are wild, then narrowed in fury and shock as they rest on Spring. His hand scrabbles for his spear, but finds only the broken shaft.

“You-!” He starts. But his eyes fall on Winter/Summer, on the bronzed tan against the pale of her skin, on her freckled face and her warm smile, and his jaw drops. His gaze wanders a little too long before he forces his eyes closed.

“Summer? No- Winter! Hold on- you’re both, aren’t you?” Thomas finishes weakly. He tries again, opening his eyes and looking away. “You… you brought me back.”

“A bit more efficiently than last time,” Summer/Winter says dryly. “Cut out the middleman in your case. For some reason your soul didn’t want to scatter. Something keeping you here, maybe?”

“That’s extremely unlikely,” Spring grumbles quietly. “He’d have to have some impressive willpower to keep himself together for longer than a few seconds.”

He stares at Thomas for a moment, then shakes his head, sighing heavily. “But then, you shouldn’t be alive at all regardless even of that. What have you done, little sisters, to surpass me in my own field?”

The rage seems to have left him now that he’d been beaten. Without enough power to go back and fix his ‘mistakes’ it seems the fire has gone out of her brother.

His gaze is still hate-filled as it rests on Fall, though, and Winter wonders at what happened between the two of them to create such a gap in feelings.

Summer/Winter fingers the jagged scar along her neck idly. “We’ve grown. You’ve stayed the same, dwelling in the past instead of the present. Why do you have such a grudge against Autumn?” She asks Spring. “What has He done to you? Did you ever stop to think about it?”

“Of course I think about it!” Spring snaps. “He’s a murderer. Down the generations He’s killed-”

“I didn’t ask you what He’s done to other people. We both know that Refraction creates in Him an uncontrollable imbalance. I asked what He did to you.”

Spring is silent, so it’s Fall who answers, laughing weakly.

“Sisters, oh, so clever. No, it’s nothing I did. He simply blames me for a certain attack on his village oh so long ago- an attack by dragons, I believe.”

“Dragons you sent!” Spring snarls. “I-”

“Idiot,” Summer/Winter whispers. “In meddling with the past you’ve broken your own future. When did the dragons attack your village? Before or after you struck back at them and used their souls? Past, present, or future?”

Spring stops for a moment, caught off guard. But he is not slow. His eyes shut, then, and his face contorts in bitter anguish. “I’m such a fool,” He whispers quietly. “Cycle around, but I am such a fool.”

“Hah,” Fall says bitterly. “You are the fool? Had it not been for Winter restoring my senses- had it not been for the cold and for seeing you here attacking her- I would not have seen myself reflected in you, brother. If you have been foolish, I have been more so. I chased her and struck at her for what? The solution was in front of me all along. Blinded by power, and now without it, I think I finally see.”

Fall shakes His horned head, pushes Himself up one handed, slowly rising with the creak of ice on His limbs.

“Alas,” He says morosely. “I fear that this bout of clarity is short-lived. I can feel the darkness of my power returning to me, and in time I think I will descend again into madness. Sisters, if you would?”

Winter/Summer stares at Him. Then she lifts the illmetal bead and smiles.

The column- yes. Now she can see what it meant. So long ago when she touched the column, she was really touching the earth. Earthmetal then, was the key. She looks around at Thomas, who, standing next to her- silently watching the exchange- gives her a tired smile. “I could really use a drink,” He says weakly. “Food, too, really.”

“Give me your spearhead, Thomas,” Winter/Summer says quietly. “I think I’ve solved a puzzle.”

Thomas stares at her for a moment, then nods. It takes him a while to find it, but after searching fruitlessly for it on the ground, he picks it up and holds it out for Winter/Summer.

Winter/Summer takes a deep breath and folds her fingers over Thomas’s. Instead of being blazing hot or ice cold, he notices that for the first time they’re simply warm, like any human hand.

They shake when they touch the earthmetal spearhead- the iron stings Summer/Winter’s palm.

“What are you-” Fall starts.

“Winter!” Spring says sharply.

Silk just smiles, and next to her Corevin looks on with disdain.

Winter/Summer can feel the power building in her.

But as she lets her breath out in a gasp, something jumps from her into the bead in her palm. She can feel it humming like a part of her, can feel it aching for her command. She only has one, and her wish flees her heart and explodes outward from the bead in a nova.

The Four Seasons stand, two in one body, two in their own, and for a few moments they’re outlined as the light envelops them.

Then the white light overwhelms and swallows them.

It is many incarnations before, and many incarnations back.

The four Seasons stand together and apart. Fall and Winter, Summer and Spring stare at one another, distant in a loose circle.  The field around them is dead- blistered from old and intense heat, scarred by magic and battle. The bodies of the fallen lie, rotting.

None of it touches the four Seasons, though. The stench is dispelled by a cool breeze, the light around them bright enough to make the world beyond their little circle seem muted and grey, for all its morbidity.

They seem to be debating something.

“What did you do?” Spring-Eldest-Season asks sharply.

“Made things right,” Winter says softly. “This is how it should be. If we’re all apart, we can’t hurt anyone anymore.”

“That’s stupid, Winter,” Summer-Fire-Heart snips. “And anyway, I haven’t been hurting anyone lately, have I?”

Fall blinks, as though coming out of a trance. “I… I don’t understand. Why are we separate?”

“This isn’t the solution.” Spring’s voice is grave. “In fact, I think, sister, that you may have made things worse.”

“We’ll see in time,” Winter-Pure-Snow replies, and she smiles.

Winter-Long-Frost straightens, and opens her eyes. They seem to be her eyes. She can feel Summer stir in her head, and she takes a deep breath. Everything is as it should be if her sister is in her mind again.

Spring stares at Winter. His hair is green again, his whole body seems rejuvenated, and his mouth opens, then closes. “You… you gave me my power back.”

Winter almost giggles at him. “That’s not all I gave you.”

I could get used to this, Fall whispers in Spring’s head. The lack of murderous rage in particular is very nice so far.

“You-!” Spring starts, astonished, outraged.

“Don’t you understand?” Winter asks quietly. “You can stop any time you want. We’re meant to flow together. We’re meant to be together, to be able to meld and bond and share our power. We’re the Seasons. If we’re all apart we’ll bicker and fight. Have we ever been a true family before?” Her eyes flash, laughing at him.

Despite being, well, Winter, she has elements of Summer’s body- she’s bigger, her skin is a lighter shade of bronze than Summer’s, and her hair is longer- though still white.

“It’s too late for this nonsense,” Spring snaps irritably.

“It’s never too late for family,” Winter responds lightly. “We never were a proper one before.”

She has a point, Fall says quietly. Together maybe we can check one another’s power and prevent each other from growing out of control again.

“I know that,” Spring gripes. “I may acknowledge that you never started that attack, but that doesn’t mean I forgive you yet.”

He closes his eyes, then seems to gather himself. When they open, they’re filled with tears. He takes a deep, shuddering breath, and tries again.

“Why would you do this?” He asks Winter. “I tried to kill you and Summer not twenty minutes ago. I killed Thomas.”

“I’m still alive, actually,” Thomas says cheerfully. “And I figure, after you paying my wages for so long and, you know, giving me a living, I probably owed you a bit anyway.”

Spring isn’t sure he believes that at all. In fact, he’s not quite sure what he believes, or if he believes anything.

Winter shifts to Summer in a flash of heat. It seems that some of Winter’s figure has rubbed off on Summer as well- she’s thinner than before, and her hair is shorter than usual, though still blonde-white. Her eyes spark with amusement, and she smiles. Thomas, familiar with the expression, takes a step back.

“Spring, brother dear…. For being the eldest of us, you know Winter the least, so let me tell you why she wants us to try this. It’s a big secret, so get ready,” She says sweetly. She pauses for dramatic effect before going on.

“Winter is a softie,” Summer says quietly. “If it were up to me, I’d pulverize you. But for once in my life, I’m feeling soft too. We’re just going to be all giggles and cheer. Believe me, you’ve got a lot of ground to make up, and if you slip, we’re going to tear you to pieces. You have a lot of explaining to do and a lot of apologies to make, and we’re ready for every single one. Winter wants us to live in harmony, and if you spoil this for her, I will break you.

Summer’s fingers twitch at the last words. Spring nods weakly. It had been no less than he expected.

Is that even right? Winter asks. I thought I said I wanted us to get along!

“Baby steps. We have to trust one another before we get along, right?” Summer replies simply. “And I have ideas about that.”

She grins, rubbing her hands together. Spring, to his credit, makes an effort to smile.

Oh boy, Fall whispers. Can’t wait.

“First,” Summer says quietly, staring Spring, and thus Autumn, in the eye. “Fall is going to take me to my child.”

Demimind: Chapter 30

I’ll save the rant I have about this for another time.

-Eris

(30)Reckoning

Thomas gives a shout, of relief, of terror, as Winter appears. He reaches down and picks up the girl on the ground and drags her back with him to stand next to Winter. The former gateguard is shaking visibly.

“I knew you’d come, sisters,” Fall says, his voice rank with decay. “After all, who can resist the bonds of love?”

Winter takes a step towards her mad brother cautiously, staring at him with a mixture of pity and her sister’s pent up fury. Summer steals her lips. “Give me my son.”

“No,” Fall replies simply, smiling. “I don’t think I will.”

“Give him back!” Winter shouts- and for a moment, just one moment, Summer shouts with her. Their voices intertwine, and their power mixes. Summer can see it flowing out from Winter’s- her- lips. She can see it twisting, coiling around Fall and seeding itself in Him, flowing into Him.

It staggers Fall for a moment, the sisters can see that. Winter watches Him struggle- and as He does, she watches the baby stir. Her heart melts a little, her breath escapes in a sigh, and Fall takes full advantage of her weakness.

He recovers from her magic too quickly. Rippling, sickening colors surround an outstretched hand. With the other, He pushes Summer’s sleeping child into a hole which, after appearing, disappears just as rapidly, swallowing him.

“No!” Winter gasps, starting, taking a step forward.

Fall flings the technicolor power gathered in his fingers right towards her, and it descends on Winter with a noise like a hundred tortured wasps of light.

Winter doesn’t have time to think, doesn’t have time to scream.

It’s Summer who reaches out as the blast washes towards them, and it’s Summer who forms the formulae that Winter had taught her and taps into Winter’s power to form a calm area around herself- to form a zone where no tempest- no matter how powerful- could touch her.

Shield!” Summer shouts through Winter’s lips. Winter’s power floods her consciousness with cold.

She shudders inwardly, then cowers as the flood of her brother’s power slams into the shield. Even with the power of the Word behind it, her zone of calm shudders and shakes under the strength of the mighty blast.

Redirect it! Summer shouts at Winter. Come on! Snap out of it or everyone is dead!

Winters eyes dart to Thomas beside her, to the girl. Then up to her brother and the sparkling, howling helix of energy he’d directed at her, to his expression of anger and contempt.

Then, drawing on a reserve of energy she’d felt inside since she’d fed on the energy back in the hut, she slowly pulls the decaying magic inside her shield, takes it between her fingers and palms, and grinds it into nothingness.

She can see where the blast had really been directed. She can see Fall’s eyes fixed on Thomas.

Her hands burn coldly where they grasped at Autumn’s attack, but her heart screams bloody rage.

She focused, gathering the strength inside for a killing bolt, gathering her power at her hand, forcing it to listen to her, forcing more and more energy into a single, deadly blast. When she can barely control it, when her magic power shrieks for release, she hurls it forth, powering it with a Word, twining it around another.

Ice Bolt.”

The words twist her tongue and her throat raw. They leap out from her and coalesce in a sheath around her hand just as she lets her power free towards her brother.

Unlike the ripple he’d thrown towards her before, this power is pure hoarfrost- it shines in the air so brightly and so blue that it’s almost white, and as it streams out from her, the ground under its passage flash freezes.

Her brother raises a hand and smashes it aside. The blast keens, curves, and strikes a house, from which there isn’t even a scream- only the tinkle as bits of ice and frozen wood crumble to the ground. There’s a clean hole through the structure, and the rest of it seems likely to disintegrate under the pressure.

Fall isn’t smiling. His is a dark and terrible rage. Sweat has broken out on His skin, and His whole left hand is frozen blue.

“You mean to kill me,” He says flatly. “When I know where your son is being kept. Who is the mad one?”

“Don’t talk to me of madness, brother! You chase me from one end of the world to the other for this?” Winter shouts. She holds up the illmetal bead in trembling fingers- it appears there as if always meant to be. “Don’t plead innocence when the proof of your guilt is locked in my heart!”

“With that bead, I could set everything right again!” Fall hisses. “Don’t you understand? I could undo so much evil!”

Winter falters for a moment. Her brother is staring at her, pleading with His eyes even as the rainbow power of His entropy magic gathers in His hands, even as He readies himself to kill her.

Her resolve, hardened until then, wavers.

A thin streak of cold, visible as a hiss, a ripple in the air, snakes out from Winter’s fingertips and just barely grazes the rock face they’d been using as a target. It isn’t even close to where she’d been aiming.

“You need to want to use your power, Winter. You can’t just sit here and wish for things to happen- if you don’t have clear intent, you can’t do anything with all the magic you have.”

Winter backs away from Fall a few steps, then turns towards the rock wall again and gives him a shy smile. “How do you know so much? You’re younger than me an’ Spring an’ Summer.”

The boy’s brow furrows. He shrugs. He’s not spindly, like Spring, but has the beginnings of muscle definition, even as young as he is.

“‘unno. Guess I just… know.”

Winter giggles at the contradiction. “That’s stupid,” Summer says through her mouth, and Winter frowns at her sister’s intrusion. “No it isn’t,” She argues irritably. “You’re stupid.”

You’re just mad ’cause you like him. You should let me talk to him. You don’t have the guts to do anything cool around him. He’ll never like you.

“That’s not true!” Winter snaps. Fall, blinks at her, taken aback.

“What’s not true?” He asks. “What’s she saying to you?”

“She says I’ll never do anything cool. She’s so mean,” Winter gripes, then wipes her eyes hastily to hide tears. “Not that I care,” She adds quickly.

“Winter,” Fall says seriously. She looks up at him. “Everything you do is cool.”

He grins, and Winter grins back.

For a few moments at least, everything is okay.

Winter’s power crackles around her again, so strong that Thomas drags the girl further away from the Season, his hands trembling, numb.

“Miss Winter,” He starts. “I-”

“Go, Thomas,” Winter whispers. “I’ll come for you when this is over.”

“Not this time,” He replies quietly. “This is something I want to see. And frankly, miss, I don’t think it’ll matter if I’m a mile aw-”

Winter catches Fall’s lazy blast with one hand, and, gasping for breath, crushes it as before. There’s a terrible screeching noise, hellish and high, and then the power evaporates into nothing.

Winter studies Fall carefully. She can’t help but agree with Thomas’s assessment of the situation, now. If he were to run, Fall would just track him down. At least here he would be under Winter’s protection. Winter’s hands are shaking with shock and rage.

Thomas has done nothing wrong. The only reason he would be a target for Fall is his affiliation with Summer. Her anger rekindled, she directs a flurry of bolts at Fall, taking a step forward.

Fall, however, isn’t there. A blow like a hammer falls against her cheek, snapping her head to the side and burning like comet ice.

She reels, knocked aside, and Fall again takes the opportunity to gather a bolt meant to turn Thomas to dust.

Winter reaches out, gathers the bitter bite of an arctic wind- with none of the chill- in her fingertip and lets it jump, head spinning.

Somehow her aim is still true.

Something like white lightning draws a bright track along Fall’s chest and hurls him back. His raiment shreds under the force of the power. It had struck like a blade. There’s a long, curving- and puckered- scar along his shoulder now, and it bleeds even as it shrivels and fades, dripping blue for a few moments before the wound closes and becomes nothing but a long, fine white line.

Entropy! Decay! If Spring is the abundance of time, Fall is the inexorable crush of it!

“Translation?” Winter whispers, staring at the scar, wanting to flee but frozen to the spot in defense of Thomas and the girl.

He’ll heal anything in an instant! His magic can make things age to death in seconds- that includes wounds! Summer warns urgently. Be careful!

She doesn’t have time to be careful.

Fall whips a tendril of beautiful colors at her, flicking it towards her face, legs, and midriff, forcing her to take a step back or be struck.

She trips. Her ankle twists, pain jarring her slightly- the sudden crack startling her as her foot is caught in a hole- and she stumbles, staggers back throws a hand out to catch herself and suddenly finds a blazing tendril of color hovering directly before her face.

Her mouth opens to scream, too slowly, terror suddenly wiping out all thought.

Her brother stares down at her, face calm, eyes laughing.

It strikes.

“All of us make sacrifices for the ones we love,” Silky whispers to Winter quietly. “Isn’t that true for you, too?”

“I don’t know.”

“Winter, do you know anything Summer doesn’t tell you?”

Urgh. That really doesn’t feel good, Summer groans in Winter’s head.

Winter thrusts a hand out, lashing without thought. Cold seizes every part of Fall’s body, trapping Him as surely as a moth in amber. The air around Him is so thick with frost that he can barely even move. She tightens her grip when she comes to her senses, pouring the pressure on until she realizes that the whimpering is coming from His lips rather than hers, that she’s breathing hard, that cold fury has found an outlet, and it’s her brother that she’s killing.

“AH!” She gasps, when she can find her voice.  Her entire body feels as though it’s being eaten away. What’s worse, it feels familiar.  Her skin feels as though it could slough off at any moment.

She shudders, shaking where she lies.

“C-cold,” Fall whispers, and for a striking moment, she sees Him as He is- not a good man or an evil monster, but as a scared child, staring at her in blind terror of death and an end, of power He can’t possibly understand. “S-sister-”

Entropic energy crackles over her skin as she stands, and for a scary moment she can’t find her feet. Then her toes dig into the ground, her whole body burns, and she straightens unsteadily.

Share it.

“What?” Winter breathes weakly.

Redirect it to me! Let me take some of it, or you’ll die!

For a moment, Winter can’t understand what it is her sister is saying. Then a part of her pulls the words apart and picks at the meaning underneath. As her skin is eaten by the corrosive energies running rampant through her body, she gathers some of it in a wrap of her own power, and pushes it towards her sister, towards Summer in her mind. It’s as easy as sharing a thought.

Summer’s yelp in her mind frightens her for a moment, but it feels much better to shove that awful magic away from herself, so she respects her sister’s sacrifice. Between the two of them, they weather the entropic storm.

Blood is running, no, coursing down her body from where her skin and blood vessels ruptured. She takes a deep breath, skin crimson with it, her lungs aching.

You have the p-power, Summer stammers, voice weakening in Winter’s mind. Stop bleeding!

She flash freezes the blood and the wounds on the outside of her body, forcing her decaying power out on a sub-dermal level and wrapping herself in ice like a cloak, like a skintight suit.

Fall, wrapped in ice himself, closes his eyes. Winter guesses that he probably passed out.

Idiot! We… we need him for something… Summer’s voice is weak. The magic from Fall hurts her deeply- Winter can feel it eating away at them both.

“Your son,” Winter whispers.

Yeah… my… son… um…

Winter walks over to Fall, releasing her power from Him. Predictably, He springs at her, eyes open, face a snarl, mixed pain and triumph in his eyes.

Winter catches His fists with hers, and with the strength and force of grinding stone, pushes Him back to the ground.

“I have a bone to pick with you, brother,” She says lightly. “Understand?”

“G-give me the bead,” He whispers weakly, powerless in her grip, joints frosted over. “Please.”

“You don’t frighten me,” Winter replies sadly. “Not anymore.”

“Sister- you don’t understand,” Fall breathes, eyes half-closing. “He must be stopped.”

Winter’s expression changes. With slow, grim realization she closes her own eyes and pulls back.

Who? Summer asks woozily.

“Spring,” Winter says quietly. Then, “Spring, Spring, Spring!”, the name like a curse. It falls from her lips over and over, an echo. It almost drowns out the crunch of feet on dried grass next to her, and it almost drowns out the whisper of the wind in her ear.

She turns and faces her eldest brother. “Me!” He says simply, flashing her an exuberant smile.

The cold flicker in his eyes makes her take a step back, but it doesn’t stop the earth from rippling, forming a stony fist and slamming her under her ribs. White fire licks across Winter’s consciousness and tortures her body, all along a chest that seem to have cracked, a spine that seems to have given way.

Pain lances through her and pummels the breath from her lungs.

Winter blacks out.

“I knew you’d choose him over me,” Spring-Eldest-Season growls. “You’re as traitorous as Summer in that regard. Your love is commendable, if completely misguided.”

Pure-Winter-Snow opens her eyes and regards Spring where he stands. Even with all of his power over time he had been completely unable to stop her from freezing him in place.

“I didn’t choose him,” Winter says quietly. “I just didn’t choose you. You’re becoming dangerously unstable, Eldest.”

His arrogance had led him to first face her without once stepping into the past. Her predecessors had left her notes to help her fight him. Now had been different than before- she’d decided to face him first and foremost, rather than attempting to strike a bargain with him. A bargain he had faithfully broken every time down the Cycle.

Spring. His hair, withered black and dry, his eyes almost literally blazing with fury. She wants to cringe away from that gaze. As the youngest of the seasons, perhaps she should.

She doesn’t. Winter stands tall and resolute- as tall as she can.

“I already know why you want this, why you need this power,” Winter says slowly. “I already know why you want to kill Fall, to erase him from the cycle altogether.”

“Do tell, while you’re in the monologuing mood,” Spring hisses quietly. “I’m hardly in a position to ignore it.”

“You want his power,” Winter says simply. “The truth of it is you’ve become as corrupt as him.”

“Wrong, dear sister,” Spring replies. But Winter isn’t listening.

“All the lies and deceit, all the things you told me- none of it was really true, about wanting peace, about wanting the Cycle’s balance to be restored…”

“It’s amazing you’re still alive, really,” Spring says without moving his lips.

Winter pauses, staring at him. “After all, that blow shattered your ribs,” Spring’s voice continues. “No doubt you’re bleeding to death on the inside. I wonder what you’re dreaming of?”

The memory dissolves into white agony.

When Winter surfaces from the oblivion of unconsciousness, the first thing she sees is Spring’s hand above her face, waving almost comically, as if in an attempt to get her attention. Only the magic sparkling at his fingertips hints otherwise.

Her whole body screams at her as she rolls, and her shattered ribs clatter together in her chest as she forces her hands into the ground and shoves herself up onto unsteady legs.

Spring’s eyes flash in amusement. “Oh, faster than usual, sister dear.”

Winter! Are you… are you okay? Summer pries.

How long was I out? Winter asks weakly.

I dunno, a coupla seconds! Listen, you have to pull yourself together! Spring isn’t going to be an easy fight!

Tell me something I don’t know, Winter replies bitterly.

“Come now, I expected more of a fight than this! Or has Fall already worn you down?” Spring taunts.

Winter closes her eyes for a few moments to shut out the white pain. Summer screams a warning.

Instinctively, her body moving to the infinite protest of her chest, she ducks out of the way of a tendril of stone that makes an audible whoosh as it misses her face.

Spring’s arms are up, his hands working like a puppeteer’s, glowing green. His hair is blackened, but not totally dead, like in her memory. Winter wonders at that.

“All the better for me if he has,” Spring hisses quietly. “Be a dear and hold still.”

Winter stares at him for a few seconds. She isn’t sure she could move if she tried. Her eyes catch a glimpse of movement behind him, though, and maybe it’s that which gives Thomas away.

Spring whirls in an instant, and a tendril of the earth reaches up and snaps Thomas’s spear in two with a single blow. The tendril reaches up then and the crack it makes when it smacks into Thomas’s skull is sickening.

Summer uses Winter’s voice to scream.

“No! NO!

Spring whirls on them, grinning, triumphant. “Yes!” He shouts, and suddenly Winter can barely breathe, a sense of foreboding, washes over her and freezes her to the spot. Her muscles won’t move an inch. Summer strains at it, trying to force Winter’s arm to move, to raise, to fight.

An instant later, though, she sees why.

Sparks of green are climbing up her body from the ground, a trail of them leading out from Spring’s hand- still pointed at her. How?

Time! Summer whispers, voice choked. Damn it! He has all the time he needs to learn our moves, to learn what will happen! How long has he planned this?

Was it pointless from the beginning? Winter wonders. The pain in her shattered ribs threatens to drop her again, if her body would allow her to drop.

A movement catches Winter’s eye. Still covered in frost, Fall moves. Winter sees His eyes snap open. For the first time since Winter had seen Him after the Refraction- since the first time she had seen Him- He grins. Not a smile, not the calm, self-assured visage He usually exudes, but a sheepish, shy, almost apologetic grin. He raises one frost-coated hand, almost painfully slowly.

“You can’t best me,” Spring says quietly. “Not in terms of experience. Not in terms of anything, little sisters. You should have just done as I asked! You should have given me the bead! Getting Fall to bind Summer inside you was the smartest move I think I’ve ever made, Winter.”

“And that, elder brother,” Fall begins quietly. It’s clear to Winter that it’s taking almost all of his strength just to stay conscious. “Is exactly why they’re going to kick your ass now.”

For a moment she thinks He’s lapsed back into unconsciousness as his eyes close. Then there’s a jolt, a blinding flash of scintillating light. Something familiar about the energy- smelling of sweet lavender and the bitter-honey taste of decay. It’s Fall’s! She can feel it!

Spring’s yelp of surprise is cut short by an overwhelming wave of silence and deep, deep darkness.

Demimind: Chapter 29

Extra short. But in a reasonable fashion, and a reasonable timeframe after the last. Almost done with chapter 30. Let’s try to at least get a chapter out a week, hm?

-Eris

 

(29) Resolution

“Silk-” Winter starts quietly. There’s so much she wants to say now she could burst. The overwhelming feelings are turning her legs to jelly.

“You are a child,” her old friend replies sternly. “You meddle with powers you don’t even know how to control.

Winter says nothing to that, holding still and letting the Spider Queen talk. It takes everything she has to bite her tongue, and hold her words back.

“I can tell you what you need to know, in return for something.”

“What do I need to give you?” Winter asks immediately. “I’ll do it. I don’t care what it is- I owe Jane this. I can’t leave her-… I can’t…”

“Do you promise to agree to the terms no matter what they are?” Silk asks softly, her voice suddenly tender. “You may not like them once you hear them.”

“I’d give anything!” Winter says fiercely. “Just name them!”

Idiot, Summer hisses. Do you really mean that?

Winter, for her part, ignores her mind-mate. Of course she means it. This is Silky she’s dealing with, not some dangerous stranger.

“Bear my eggs before you reincarnate,” Silk whispers. “That is all.”

Before Winter can find her wits again and answer, her old friend changes the subject. Winter feels her heart sink, freeze in her chest before her friend even speaks. Silk’s arms are loose around her now, as if in sympathy.

“No matter how hard you try, you cannot bring Jane back now,” Silk begins slowly. “She is out of your reach.”

Winter struggles in vain, staring at the broken, battered body of her Servant, days and days dead.

“But- you-”

“I told you I would tell you what you need to know, Winter,” Silk replies solemnly. “And I’m telling you right now that what you wish is utterly impossible. The dead, once led from the Cycle, cannot find their way back again when they eventually return. Without a doubt, Jane and Goliath are already finding their paths to the shells they will next take.”

“T-that trade is unfair,” Winter whispers weakly, feeling the power fading from her, and cold despair taking its place. “Y-you tricked me.”

“Winter, I am not done talking yet,” Silk says mildly, voice soft. “There are a few things that I must tell you regarding your brothers and your sister…”

“I already know Spring is insane,” Winter snaps. “What else could there be?”

Silk seems to hesitate far too long. Silence.

“You didn’t know, did you,” Winter whispers. “You damn well had no idea.”

“Spring’s stability has never been without question,” Silk starts slowly, haltingly. “But why-”

“He threatened to kill me. He wants the illmetal bead so he can erase Fall from existence and break the Cycle of the Seasons or something,” Winter interjects bitterly. “He’s obviously gone batshit.”

Well duh, Summer snipes. Seriously, what part of his total mental breakdown didn’t you expect?

Silk loosens her clawed grip further. “That’s why you wanted Jane to come back…”

“I owe her,” Winter corrects. “She saved me. It’s a debt, and she’s a friend.”

“Servants that die are reincarnated unless they are called back within hours of their deaths, Winter. They aren’t like humans or animals, whose fragile souls break apart. They are like you, Winter, and they are like me. We are guardians of this place, its custodians and watchers. And a Servant, once killed, will come back in time on its own. Not in your life perhaps, but in your successor’s life.”

“I won’t see her again,” Winter says flatly. “And I can’t pay her back.”

“You don’t need to pay her, Winter. That balance was reset the first time. Or have you forgotten already what you did for her?”

“It’s not right!” Winter snaps, shrugging herself free from Silk’s grip and whirling on her friend. “Don’t you understand that?”

Silk’s stance, loose before, hardens, as well as her face. Those eyes are steel, and under their unwavering gaze, Winter’s legs shake.

“And would killing yourself make that better?” Ever-Widowed snarls. Her voice is dripping with fury. “Tell me, Winter-Long-Frost, did you really expect that by sacrificing yourself you could bring your friend back? Would you really pay any price?”

“What are you-” Winter starts, but Summer interrupts her.

She’s saying that you’d kill yourself, you dope! Life for life, right? Did you think you were an exception to the rules?

“No,” Winter says under her breath. “I never knew the rules.” The rage is fading. She takes a deep breath, letting the chilling feeling of her power spread all over her again and replace the anger with cold.

“But what do I do?” She asks out loud.

Her legs tremble, and the world around her spins.

“Who can I trust?” She whispers, almost to herself, almost too quiet for anyone but Summer to hear.

“Trust in yourself,” Silk says quietly. “Trust in your sister. Trust in Autumn and his ability to pull himself back from the brink.”

Oh come on. Whoever he was he isn’t that man anymore. 

“But-”

“No. There is no ‘but’. Autumn is your brother- he shares your tenacity and force of personality. Spring is a slippery snake, but worse than that, he is set. He believes without a doubt that Autumn cannot be saved, and in giving up hope, he will only perpetuate this broken Cycle instead of shatter it, as he seems to intend.”

“How can you know?” Winter whispers weakly.

“I’ve lived a long time, Winter of the Seasons,” Ever-Widowed replies gently. “Trust me.”

Winter sags, biting her lip. Then a part of her hardens. She straightens. “I have to stop him. I have to stop both of them. I have to get back my sister’s child.”

Finally, something we agree on.

She takes a deep, deep breath, steadying herself.

Silk looks at her carefully, then nods, as if she’s made up her mind. “Good. Stronger than before. Are you done running?”

“I hardly think I can stop either of my wayward brothers by standing here,” Winter says grimly.

Her love reaches out and pulls Winter close, six arms locked around her for a few moments.

Silk’s skin is smooth, free of wrinkles, and comfortably chilly. Her hands are chitinous and hard, but gentle where they touch Winter’s bare arms, legs and back.

“You’re a mess, but your will is enough, Winter,” Silk says softly. “There’s so much for you to learn yet. Come back when you are done, and we can talk.”

“You act so sure,” Winter whispers, burying her face against the Spider Queen’s neck. “I might not come back.”

“So much drama,” Silk snips, her voice almost playful. “Relax, Winter-Long-Frost. You’ll come back. After all…”

She whispers something, a clicking, a chittering that Summer doesn’t understand. Winter nods, though, smiling tentatively. She leans up on the tips of her toes and gives Silk a quick, tender kiss, and then steps away, unsure.

Silk, for her part, smiles back. There’s something sad in her eyes, though, and Summer feels as though something is wrong as Winter turns away.

Something is very wrong.

What did she say? Summer asks.

Winter doesn’t answer.

She walks to the edge of the cavern, to the great stone doors that had shut her in with Jane so long ago. Her hands touch the stone warily. “Do you remember how to cast that gate spell you used- the one that took us here?”

Yeah. Where do you need to go? I’ve got enough juice in me for one more jump. And you haven’t answered me.

“It’s nothing you’d understand,” Winter replies quietly. “And we need to go to Spring’s shrine again.”

What do you- oh, no. Thomas!

“Yes.”

Summer uses Winter’s arms, as her sister gives her control. She reaches out and draws a shimmering trail in the air before her, focusing her own energy in Winter’s fingers.

“That b-burns,” Winter stammers, startled.

Yeah, is all Summer replies. The line splits apart down the middle, showing a scintillating abyss. I dunno what this will feel like for you…. It’s a bit hot for me, so… just prepare yourself.

Without hesitation, Winter strides through the gate. There’s a gasp, and then she’s gone.

The world is blindingly hot, when she returns. Her entire body is covered in sweat, and the power inside of her feels suppressed, as if the heat is simply too much for it to compete with.

Her skin feels like one giant blister.

She reacts, pushing her power outward like a shield, sheathing herself in the chill as fast as she can, swaying on the spot, wondering if maybe she took a wrong turn somewhere in the gate, or if Summer’s formulae had been off.

A searing hot coal drops down from above, and as she takes in her bearings, it explodes in front of her from the contrast in hot and cold, bursting into steam and smoke.

Where is she? Did Summer’s gate spell go wrong? She looks around at the lacquered wood, at the hungry flames.

No. She’s in the right place.

The shrine is on fire.

It’s a roaring all around her, the wood, the mighty oak, is going up in flames, orange and red and yellow licking all about her. Her skin feels cooked.

Winter! You have to get out of here! This much heat will make you faint!

“Not without Thomas or the girl,” she whispers, looking around her desperately, choking, gagging on the smoke. Where would they be?

Where would he hide them?

She floods the area around her with cold, forming a clear sphere- the smoke around her drops to the floor, suddenly unable to rise, and the boards under her creak and hiss, threatening to crack and give way under her. The stress of sudden cold after being red hot is almost too much.

Finally she can see, and the inferno near her is parted. But all around her, it leaps on, flickering, dancing. It looks hot, it looks as though she should be dead.

She can feel it through the cold around her.

You can feel them, can’t you? You can feel their life-force.

Winter isn’t sure what she feels, at first. As she stands there, though, in the midst of the flames and the terrible heat trying to feast on her, battering at her sheltered, personal tundra, she realizes that she can feel them. She can almost taste them. The girl, dirty and scared, Thomas, determined and… hurt… ? And… terrified.

They aren’t in the Shrine. She can feel them outside of it.

Trap, Summer says, as Winter strides through the blaze.  But who…?

Winter knows the answer. She strides out of the Shrine, heart pounding.

Her answer stares her in the face as she pushes open the briefly burning front door. It’s dark, darker than natural, and oppressively so.

Standing in the courtyard, eyes triumphant, is none other than Fall. At His feet lies the urchin girl. Standing before her fallen form is Thomas- hopeless, helpless. In Falls hands sleeps Summer’s child.

Demimind: Chapter 28

A bit short. I’m beginning work on 29 immediately. It’s time to put myself to the true test of a writer.

Enjoy.

-Eris

(28)First Season, Fourth Season

 

“The following is the account of my late brother’s misdeeds as far as I am able to tell: murder, betrayal, treason and destruction of personal property amounting to over five hundred thousand gold and silver pieces to members of Guild, the South Island Trading Industries, and Soulfire Tower. In the absence of any real easy way to create order among the Seasons and regulate them, I am taking it upon myself to warn further incarnations of the perpetual Cycle that they are entering into- and to especially warn future carriers of the title of Fall of the acts they are destined to commit.”

Winter stares at the paper for a while. It’s unmistakably familiar, it’s definitely her writing. The cold, crisp manner to it, the intricacies of each letter as it curves. She can remember learning to write, but she couldn’t remember her name when she first came here. The meaning behind it seems simple enough. She can absorb what she’s reading.

“Fall is unable to help himself- destiny drove him to his fate, and it will continue to drive future carriers of the title to distance and sequester themselves from the other Seasons. While it would seem prudent to keep a close watch on them, it is impossible to track the movements of most of the Seasons, especially Spring, who of all the seasons, is the most vulnerable to Corruption. The filthy snake-tongued womanizer is a coward at his heart, though, and in a position of weakness would bargain with anything, even at the expense of his own brothers or sisters. Whether this is a constant in all of the incarnations of the First Season or whether it is only him I do not know.”

Winter hardly believes what she’s reading. Did her previous incarnation mean to say that Spring was the one manipulating Fall to be this way? At what personal gain? Yet- then again, Spring had tried to make Fall turn against them, hadn’t he… She had wanted to believe that Spring was good. She still feels skeptical though, so she forces herself to read further.

The Third Season, Fall, is the most unstable of all. His descent into madness is made easily explainable by the type of energy his mind craves and devours, and the research he will inevitably undertake in order to go through a process he always calls ‘Refraction’. He will shine the cold light of decay through his own body, using the magic of the Wish element in order to complete it- once he has done this, his descent into absolute madness will be absolute. There is no way to cure him but death and the cleansing of the Paths of the Dead, once he has gone that far.”

Winter blinks, at that. It’s troubling that her past incarnation had known so much- or had professed to know so much.

Beware, those wish to undertake the trials leading one to become a season, for the Fourth Season’s spiritual shell is inherently flawed, and will obliterate every part of the soul that attempts to take on the mantle. Truly the Fourth Season, that which governs Winter and death, is synonymous with spiritual and physical oblivion. This has been evident in both the past incarnations and, in truth, it was what happened to the soul which my spiritual shell swallowed in order to grant me the powers of the fourth season. I don’t know who I was, only what I am now, and future incarnations, won’t hear me.”

“If you are reading this, you know that the worst has happened. Whether you found this place hidden in the snow and were lost, seeking shelter- whether you are the next incarnation of the second season Summer, snooping in on me matters not in the slightest. The metal in here would be the doom of anyone but a mortal, and so I hope these documents, my testament, are kept safe here- either forever or until the time is right.”

Winter stares at the papers, almost disbelieving it. And how long had it been since that incarnation was around? Had she really lost all memory twice- once when she had first entered the ‘shell’ and again when Fall had bound her?

Yes, that would make sense. But she had regained much of the memory she’d lost when Fall had originally bound her.

She fashions a coat for herself, and boots, a deep blue t-shirt made of sparkling cold, as well as pants and undies. She pulls them on, stuffs the documents into a pocket with shaking hands, and then turns to stare at the frost covered-metal on the floor.

 

 

“The last tile is in place, fourth season,” the spider-armed one says. “Should I have a drone carry the documents in?”

“Don’t bother,” Pure-Winter-Snow replies quietly. “I’ll do that myself when the time is right.”

“That will kill you,” The spider-human states. It doesn’t articulate its emotions with its mouth, but the movements of its four arms seem to indicate distress- hanging limply.

“Be that as it may, it is what must be done,” Winter says simply. “And now I must face my brother.”

“Fall?”

“No,” Winter whispers.

 

 

A crunching noise makes Winter look up to the door.

“Spring,” Winter breathes, backing away from the metal and nearly tripping on the chair behind her. The first of the seasons stares at her from the doorway, and his normally waving green hair is twisted and withered, curling like dead grass.

“Winter,” He says slowly, flatly. There’s more malice packed into her name than Winter thinks she has ever heard before- from anyone. Her heart is a frozen core in her chest.

“You gave my sister’s baby to Fall,” Winter says, and the words drop like stones into the silence- at Fall’s name, the hut doesn’t pitch or roll, but it may as well for the trembling of the world as the accusation leaves her mouth. It clatters on the floor, striking the metal tile resoundingly loud in Winter’s head- had she gone too far? No, she’d already gone too far by coming here. She can see it in Spring’s eyes. But strangely enough, she doesn’t feel afraid.

“I did,” the Eldest Season says simply. “I won’t bother denying it, now that you’re here- and you would expect something different? He is invulnerable as He is, there is not a one among us who could face Him and win.”

His hands- there is no power there. His hands are limp and his eyes- his whole form is one of sadness rather than battle.

She wonders if he realizes it, but he’s standing just short of the doorway, just to the left so that if she were to run, she could easily slip by him before he knew-

It’s a trap, Winter, Summer hisses. He’s standing like that on purpose.

– it… Winter stops staring at the gap, forcing her eyes up to gaze on Spring’s own. And in his eyes she sees the ruse. The way his stance shifts when she meets his eyes with her own is nearly imperceptible, but Summer points it out to her.

He’s waiting for you to try to run. Here- in with so much metal- how can he touch you? In your own domain?

Winter steps back, bumping into the desk. Crackling with power that Spring can’t see, she keeps her hands behind her, gazing at him steadily.

“What do you want?” She asks, buying time to think.

“The bead, Winter. If you and Summer go to fight Fall, you will die, but more importantly, you will lose the only piece of illmetal in known existence. I need that bead to set things right.”

“What will you do with it?” Winter pries.

“What do you think, Sister?” Spring replies sharply. “With that single bead I can wish Autumn from this world altogether! Our wayward brother’s existence could be destroyed utterly!”

“Why don’t you simply create another?” Winter presses, biting her lip. Fall needed to be stopped, it was true. But to remove Him entirely…? Without decay, would the world even work?

“The creation of a piece of Illmetal even a tenth the size of what you hold requires the heart of a dragon,” Spring sneers suddenly, demeanor changing in an instant. “Why do you think the Council thinned? Why do you think they’ve learned to hate the fey?”

He paces outside the door now, glaring at Winter, hands clenching in a manner reminiscent of Fall.

Winter’s eyes widen. “You mean-”

No way, Summer whispers weakly. There are no real words to describe how twisted that is.

“I killed them off, Sister!” Spring’s lips curl, and his green eyes flare with anger. “The dragons are dead because of me! The ends justify the means- you now have my brother’s bead, and at this point one is as good as the other! He must be stopped!”

Her heart freezes further in her chest, and she wants to strike out at him then, now, to kill him where he stands. But she pushes it away. Unsurprisingly, Summer urges the opposite.

He should die. He’s been killing dragons. Maybe for years.

Some things don’t add up, Winter whispers in her own head.

“Why did you stop us from saving Autumn?” Winter asks. Now she’s curious- apprehensive, but curious.

“You can’t save Him,” Spring says fiercely. “History cannot be turned. Time is like a tide. I should know that better than anyone! The Cycle of the Seasons will play out- it would take an unimaginable force of magic to redirect it!”

“You deliberately caused Fall’s Refraction! You’re part of the reason he fell in the first place!” Winter accuses, words like venom.

Spring shakes his head, glaring at her, envious green gaze locked on hers. “Don’t lecture me on the peculiarities of time! Do you think this is the first such Refraction? He has played this out many times- every incarnation over and over since time immemorial! The cycle itself is flawed!”

Winter looks away, unable to stare her suddenly furious brother in the eye. The normally kindly face has turned into a vicious grimace, almost animalistic in its ferocity. “Give me the bead- don’t you see it’s the only way?”

“I won’t believe it!” Winter snaps. “Even if that was the only way to stop him then I still wouldn’t do it! I won’t murder my own brother!”

“Then face oblivion,” Spring snarls. “After all, I rebuilt you once, I can do it again!”

For a horrible moment, Winter wonders if he might simply ignore the metal and attack her. Her hands shake behind her, and even with the full might of her at the ready, Spring is a complete unknown. Whatever powers he has control over would surely be terrible for him to make a threat as grave as that and have any hope of fulfilling it.

Instead, Spring smiles a brittle, chilling smile, an unexpected frost in his voice as he calms himself, gathers his composure, and disappears in a cloud of dew that cracks as it strikes the ground, shattering into hundreds of glittering shards.

Winter, for her part, takes a deep, shivering breath, and lets it out in a long sigh, steadying herself, settling back against the desk and trying not to let her legs fall under her.

Winter- what will we do?

“How much were you awake for?” Winter asks wearily, barely daring to feel relief.

I read the notes with you…. and… it looks like we can’t trust Spring.

“Gee, you think?” Winter laughs, her voice weak. She can’t remember the last time she laughed- and even though it’s humorless it still feels good. “When was your first clue?”

She pushes herself up from the throne, power crackling with her. She doesn’t feel weak, even if her body acts the part well enough. But neither does she feel safe. Two mad brothers to contend with? Will it ever end? The betrayals- the lies!- She can’t deal with this!

She steps out from the shack moodily, easing over the metal, pushing her way out the door, turning to close it.

Shack secured, she stalks back through the snow, leaving the way she came and closing the door to her innermost sanctum. It makes a resounding boom. She has one more bit of business to settle here, Spring and Fall be damned. One more debt to repay before she deals with her wayward brothers. If she can deal with her wayward brothers.

Winter’s feet remember the way through the dark halls, back up the long cavern, all filled with rough stone. A hole in the wall, melted through with cold light, lets the darkness in. Here the air is stagnant, but as she steps through the hole, the passage through the rubble of the cavern she can feel the body of her most faithful Servant here. So close in link, how couldn’t she?

It seems as if she walks forever before her hand finds a section of scaled hide. Something protected her Servant from rot- something kept her embalmed here, dry and… warm still, as if from an inner light, an inner energy.

“Jane,” Winter whispers.

She shifts uncomfortably in the heat, the stifling warmth of the cavern. Summer draws back from her shock just enough to wonder at her behavior.

What are you doing? We can’t bring her back, you know- she’s dead now, we nearly died the last time and I was in control. I don’t think you can do it the same way I can.

“What’s yours is mine, Summer,” Winter says, half a smile gracing her lips. “Believe me when I say that this is well within my power right now.”

She can feel it- it crackles along toes, fingers and palms. It sparks and cries out to be used, a hymn, a resonance that fills her body.

She reaches out and rests her hand fully against Jane’s body, fingers splayed.

She closes her eyes, feeling her will- feeling with her will. The scales slide in her mind- dry now, cold and dead with age, but untouched by the horrors of rot.

There’s no way this will work, Summer hisses. You could kill us both!

“Trust me,” Winter whispers, eyes still closed. “This will work.”

She curls her fingers against her Servant’s corpse. Cold- no, pure frost hisses out from her hand, glowing faint blue as the magic coats Jane’s fur and scales. She takes a deep, shuddering breath, barely daring to believe what she’s trying to do. Can she bring Jane back on her own? The conduits seem familiar somehow, the energy flowing from her hand, from her heart, frozen so much she can practically feel Summer’s teeth chattering together in her head.

Eyes still closed, she can see the lines of her magic vaguely, and she forces more of it from her, focusing her power. Her whole body shudders suddenly, and it stings in her fingertips and pounds in her head, her every fiber singing with magic far more ancient than mere words- the power she is pushing into her Servant is pure, undiluted… energy.

Behind closed lids, the world flares blue and white, scars, flashes and blooms dotting her black vision. Her legs drop her- and now her mouth forms a word, a spell older than time itself.

“Life,” Winter gasps.

Winter’s power coalesces around her in a crackling, swarming cloud of blue sparks- as her eyes open she realizes her entire body tingles, stings and aches with it. It needs direction, and she hasn’t built the right channels for it to flow through. All around her, dust and rocks jump and hiss. She can feel it, frustrated, snapping in the air around her! But…

None of it flows into Jane the way it should. None of it will touch her still, dead Servant, and Winter, in the midst of a cloud of life, curls her fingers into fists, taken by despair.

It hadn’t worked. It isn’t working. Her hands shake and her teeth dig into her lip. She had been so sure.

“Winter,” A voice whispers, close to her ear, but when she turns, there is no one there.

A pair of clawed arms wrap around her waist from behind, and she yelps.

“I can tell you why it isn’t working,” Silk purrs softly. “But what will you give me if I do?”

Short Story: Grim

This story is old.

I wrote it a long while ago- almost a year, I think- and it’s easily one of my better works in my opinion. I’m posting it on site as both an apology and a hint as to things to come. It’s fantasy, natch- I’m still working on the sci-fi story and will be for a while.

‘Forthcoming’ is vague for a reason- my time lately has been limited. As soon as I get home I will be posting Chapter 28 [You have my oath], finally, and then, after I’ve finished the short story [Discord of the Saints], I’ll be working full tilt on Demimind until it’s finished and I can put all of the beautiful chapters in one clean section and start on my next main project.

Thanks for your patience everyone, and I hope you enjoy this new old story.

-Eris

 

Grim

By Sam Oliver (Eris)

 

I mean to kill him.

I curse his quickness, jerking my morningstar back into the air, ill-dealt hatred boiling in my belly. Both of us are stained with blood and grit, and the very ground is slick with the sweat of our battles, becoming so much salty mud. Or is it the rain that pours down around us?

I am the guard, however. The time will come when he will slip past me- it has been told, written, and cast down in iron through the ages.

I won’t budge, flinch, or waver.

A raven caws, distracting me for one crucial moment.

A spatter of mud catches me in the face, the force of it spinning me around and clouding my vision. It stings like ten blazes. “Oh, illness take you, Lak, that’s cheating!” I sputter.

Gods beside but I am such a ditz sometimes.

I stumble, come up against a wall, and fall over. A hand catches me in the forehead. My good-for-nothing helmet smacks into the mud with a thunk that seems a total waste.

His runed quickblade dabs at my throat almost gently, splitting my larynx and chopping through my windpipe- also mercifully slicing through my veins. My blood spills over onto the ground, pooling around me as all of it rushes out of me and turns the mud an ever so slightly different shade of boring brown.

Fortunately I’m dead before I can see it.

Or at least, that’s what would have happened if he’d used a real blade. As is it just tapped my throat.

“I win,” He murmurs in his rocky, casual tone.

I grit my teeth and sit up.

“Oh come on.”

I sigh, wiping muck out of my eyes. When I can clear my vision again I stare him in his etched face.

“Why do you go so easy on me? You could have cut my head off. I’d have been gone for a day at most,” I grumble. Lak shrugs his bare, grizzled shoulders. I wince. It always looks like it hurts. He has so many scars.

“Because you’re a girl,” He says gruffly.

“Am not.”

He pokes me in the forehead and his voice drips with amusement. “You are. You have a girl’s brain even if you were granted a boy’s body. You’re better at sewing than you are at holding a sword, you can’t curse, you can’t fight to save your life, and even Baldy pushes you around.”

I don’t know how to answer that with words as I stand up.

I don’t. I mean to knee him in his stupid boy balls, but he trips me with obvious ease, knocking me to the ground with one hand and the aid of a cleverly placed foot. I barely see him move.

Ow.

I thud into the mud. Another trip to the stream to wash up, then. And get the mud out of my hair.

I spit out dirt, push myself to my feet. Lak is offering me a hand but a boy wouldn’t take it, so I don’t.

“Come on, let’s go get something to eat. I’m sure the feast hall is filled- it always is.”

The dining hall is packed, as usual. As from a distance, I watch myself enter and sit down with Lak, watch myself eat my meal, chattering animatedly. My body feels out of control, my words just pour out.

We’re not the only two at our table. We have our own little group- Griz, Laur, Mella.

But no one else sits next to us but those two. I can’t hold my liquor, so I drink tea.

Griz sometimes sneers at me for that. Out of everyone I care for Griz the least.

I don’t think anyone else cares by now. Laur doesn’t drink either, but she’s a bloodslurper, so I guess that’s natural. The darkval seems particularly morose tonight, not even talking to Mella, who I’d naturally assumed was her girlfriend.

And I’d forgotten to hit the stream before I came. Another thing to worry about, then.

A drunk vike with an eyepatch wanders over and all but begs Mella for a date. When she refuses, his words turn rather venomous.

“Bah, who’d take a dyke like you anyway? I’d rather roll with a mare than a bootsniffing sadfaced darkval-lovin’-”

In slow motion, I watch myself stand.

I watch myself say something.

He responds with a stream of abuse and raises a hand. I watch myself cringe. I watch him laugh.

Lak moves. To the vike’s credit, he has pretty good senses.

The vike whirls, and meets Lak’s hand coming the other way. The scarred demi’s strength and speed are nearly unparalleled, and the man is knocked on his end, then over backwards he goes. He’s unconscious before his head strikes the floor.

I watch myself flee the suddenly silent feast hall.

As soon as my foot strikes the outside I hear the roar of a brawl start up. A chair follows me out.

The stream is perfect. Its temperature is wonderful, and feels great as I wash the dirt loose from my body.

I barely even register it.

I just sit there and let the water flow and split around me. It’s never deep enough to be a danger.

The banks are softstone, rare in Newrath, but common enough here. The smoothness of it feels nice. It squishes beneath my toes as I stand and walk up out of the water. I think that’s clean enough.

A folded furred robe smacks me in the face as I turn. I struggle into it and nestle into its folds, holding it across and over my wet body automatically.

“Grim.”

“What?” I squeak. He just surprised me, that’s all. Lak always does that. “Were you… watching me?”

“Grim, this is the public stream. Why in ten blazes wouldn’t I watch you?”

“I’m a boy.”

“You’re a girl.”

“No I’m not.”

Lak gazes at me steadily, until I feel myself burning up.

I wish he’d look away.

“C’mere.”

Unwilling and confused, I still can’t stop myself from taking a few steps towards him.

“Lak…”

“Look, I know you, Grim. I watched you die, I saw the val that brought you here.”

“I…”

His arms reach out and pull me against him. His skin is hard and scarred and his hands and arms are well muscled iron. I’ll admit it’s a comfort.

I’ll admit my heart beats faster.

I want to push him away. He’s too close, it’s too soon, I’m not ready to be this close to him, it’s been days, months, years.

I struggle out of the poetry this realm wants to enforce on me. I don’t push away, I just slip out of his grip.

“Grim, you’ll be miserable if you don’t admit to who you are inside,” Lak says evenly. There’s no tremor in his voice. He doesn’t reach for me. “You’ll suffer.”

I look at him.

He stands tall, though only two fingerspans taller than me. He has a slim, scarred build. He’s covered in scars, in old battle wounds. So much so that he’s nicknamed Whitewelt by some. His hair is blonde and he has no beard. His eyes are brown, but flare like fire when he fights. He’s also unbelievably fast and strong.

And he’s a demi. I’m a vike. I got here after I died, he’s been here all along.

I haven’t asked him who sired him. The question hasn’t come up. Never comes up. Not during training, not while I sleep. It’s no secret that I’m his apprentice, either, no secret that I help him put on his armor and that I serve him in his room. It’s an honor- he’s seen so much battle.

I still don’t know what he sees in me. What he wants from me.

“What do you want?” I ask, my voice soft.

“I want you to be less of a coward and face up to who you are, Grimnell.”

If only I could know who I am.

“My bed, tonight.”

I blink at him, uncomprehending. It’s later in the day. We’re preparing for our battle. There’s one almost every day.

“You’ll be sleeping in my bed tonight,” Lak says, giving me a grin. “Unless you can best my kill count.”

“You assume I’ll survive,” I grumble. “And anyway, what gives you the right?”

“You made an oath once. I don’t think you expected me to hold you to it, did you?”

I roll my eyes and pull on the leather-padded armor.

It had taken time to stitch it together. I pride myself on my work with stitches.  Oh, I could have a demi sew it up for me if I really wanted to- or at least, Lak could ask one to. But while I can’t fight, I know how to sew.

Lak is right, and curse him for it.

He’s also right about the oath. I swore to him that I would best him in battle one day, and until that day came he could bed me like a wench for every day I failed.

In fact, that was shortly after I met him and before I knew he was a demi. At the time he’d laughed.

The idea of him actually taking me up on the vow makes me nervous, and maybe a little disgusted with myself. If disgust is even the right word. Mostly I’m excited. I have a goal now.

As his apprentice, I will enter battle with a long staff made of oak and my morningstar. We’ll be fighting the mountain men today.

Their colors are black and grey, while ours are green and brown. We have the greatest distribution of demis of any clan in the Gate. The mountain men have only one, maybe two. It should be a rout, but I’ve heard tell that their vikes are among the strongest of the dead.

I smile at that thought. Perhaps I’ll be lucky and he will kill no one. Though he tends to be a bit put off the next day. That won’t do.

“Hm.”

It’s a worrying noise, from Lak. I turn to find him staring at me.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing. Help me into this, Grim.”

I assist him in putting on his chain hauberk. He prefers to fight light, but the last time he went out without mail someone cut him in two. A demi, I think. Lak’s bones are too thick for any mundane vike to chop down.

I bring him his iron greaves and strap his feet into them. I lock strong steel bracers around each of his arms.

The metal is magical, I’m told, able to deflect almost any blow and stop sword swings better than a buckler. I don’t know where he got them from.

He carries no weapon- he prefers to fight with his bare hands. Though he uses a quickblade in our training sessions, he complains that he can’t move as freely with a sword in hand. I don’t argue- his muscles are such that I’ve watched him dent bronze with his bare fists.

The older heroes only use copper armaments anyway. The soft metal will be easy to chop through if it is not enchanted.

I breathe easy when his armor is set in place. My own leather is studded with precious iron, gleaned from those who have moved onward and left it in the stone. With Lak by my side… well, I think it should be clear now. Lak enables me to do so much. There’s almost never a time when he isn’t there to assist me. He helps me, and I’ll never understand it.

A horn calls, out on the field outside of the longhouse. The call to today’s battle. Fierce, loud, and joyful. Should I be filled with that same joy?

Without warning, Lak storms to the door. He wrenches it open and marches on without me. As I walk to the edge, I see him turn and stare at me for one long moment. “The choices you make I cannot make for you.”

I stare back at him. I understand, but I don’t say anything, and then he turns away and marches towards the field, already filling with the hundred vikes who share our longhouse and feasting hall, our clan.

And just like that he’s gone.

He’s lost in the throng, like always, and I’m running onto the field, like always. The ground is slippery- constant battle has caused it to turn to muck. It slides under my feet, but I steady myself.

I keep my quarterstaff in hand.

And it occurs to me that I haven’t kept to my oath, or even survived one of these battles since I came here.  It occurs to me that Lak might be getting tired of looking after me, of looking out for me constantly. I tighten my grip on the smoothed oak and make my way into the crowd. My entrance does not go unnoticed.

“Hey! Grimnell finally decided to show some balls!”

“Oho, really?”

“Where is the prissy git?”

“He just walked on. I almost forgot what the color of that blaze-cursed armor looked like.”

My focus wavers for a moment. This suddenly seems to be a horrible idea. Why am I here?

“Lost yer demigod lover, have ye?” A vike grunts nearby.

“Everyone, quiet,” Someone hisses. “Whitewelt is giving the speech.”

And just like that, everything falls to silence.

Everyone is quiet except for Lak, who stands tall at the front line. I push my way through the crowd until I can see him better. He’s addressing the entire crowd.

“I’ve stood here a few times now. I think we all know what this means,” He says. His voice carries even though he speaks softly.

“We’re not fighting for honor, or glory. We’re fighting for fun. It’s our reward- each of us must love it in some way. I encourage all of you to enjoy yourselves in your own unique way.”

His eyes lock on mine, and for one brief moment he smiles.

My heart jumps in my chest.

Then he turns away. “Follow me into battle and we’ll have a nice, even fight.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more welcome sound than the cheer his speech rallied. It fills my heart and head, rousing an old but familiar battle rush I haven’t felt in forever. In the sky, two ravens caw, flying circles over our group.

I close my eyes, memory clouding my mind.

Silence, as the cheers die. There’s a rumbling as of a thousand feet pounding the ground at once. I know it is our foe. I can feel them, see them, even though my eyes are shut.

I remember the clang of metal on metal and the thud of metal on flesh, the thick, the din and the chaos of it all. I remember it as if it were yesterday, instead of an age, an aeon ago. And my heart is warmed.

And… I remember hair, my hair, long and red and braided, and I remember my eyes, grey and stormy. I remember my name and my arms and armor. I remember the fights, the glory, the honor. I remember the feel of a true rage, of a true battlelust that would make a bloodslurper cringe. And… something else, something inestimably important that I’m missing…

A roar brings me back. I gaze out across the field.

Then my eyes find the host of the mountain men, some hundred spans distant. They are not led, they are rabble, and they are rapidly closing the distance between us.

Their forces are great- too great. And I’m in the front lines.

Oh, there is nowhere else I would rather be. Fire rises in my arms and chest.

I’ve talked to my val about why I was chosen.

My val chose not to answer me. I never really knew why. I mean to find out one day. There’s something about my memory that doesn’t fit, just as Lak said. And this melancholy which has gripped me for so long seems nothing short of witchcraft. I used to love battle. I used to live for it. For ages, years it has been nothing but another chore. Something has been dreadfully wrong. And now, again it is right, but…

All sound fades for a moment as we stand firm, lips grim and tight as the foe charges towards us in an unruly mass. I eye their front lines- wolfskin clothes, broad axes with wooden handles, short swords and long copper daggers.

My heart is pounding. It’s the only sound.

I set myself for the charge…

A line of assorted weaponry drops as the first line jumps towards us. An enormous man covered in wolf furs swings that axe up and over his head and gets no farther as a blade from my right passes between his ribs.

He falls backward into the mud and immediately another two men jump to take his place.

A warning from my side makes me duck, and I pitch my weight backwards, stumbling. An axe swings over my head. The two men in front of me bear down on the vikes to my right and left, ignoring me completely after the initial strike.

I bring my quarterstaff around in a sweep, catching one on the back of his hand and spinning his weapon out of his fingers with a snap.

“Aw blaze,” I hear him mumble as the tip of my quarterstaff strikes him in the forehead. He’s down, and instantly set upon by my allies. The other of the pair has already been dealt with, and a spear protrudes from his ribs.

A broadsword chops down towards my face heavily. I just barely manage to bring the quarterstaff up to block it, and still the strength of him makes me stagger. A chip of wood flies, but, battle rush still roaring in my ears, I kick out and drive my foot into his stomach, heaving forward and throwing him off balance. His guard is down for a brief moment.

The end of my staff catches his chin and slams him backward. With him dealt with, I take a moment to catch my breath.

 

Is my chest flat in my memories of the other, the previous life? Am I a warrior or a woman who took up the sword to protect a village? Am I wearing plate or am I in leather?

I don’t know, I can’t remember for once. I remember nothing but the battle, the sword biting into my neck, my blood spilling and finally falling, with me, onto the ground. I remember red hair. It was so long, so, so long ago. I remember my stormy grey eyes. I remember braiding my hair, I remember… my mother braiding it, showing me the braid… Her words… Does she say ‘my daughter’? Or am I imagining it?

The din of battle snaps me back.

 

Familiar shouts make me turn.

A wedge of mountain men is driving its way into our host’s flank.

“Grim! To me!”

It comes near that wedge, and I catch sight of blond hair and a figure carved out by gods. Lak.

I run, pushing through the crowd of black and green armored vikes.

It parts ahead of me. I use the staff to boost my speed.

“Runnin’ off already?” A vike yells, to a chorus of laughter I leave behind.

Finally the mass of my tormentors parts, and there stands Lak. His opponents lie dead around him, the wedge disabled. He certainly works quickly.

He grins at me. “Good news. I’ve asked the valkyries about your true nature.”

I stare at him blankly. So had I. What could he have learnt that I had not?

“They’ve confirmed it- you’re really a girl!”

For one uncertain moment I can believe it. My body is aligned with my mind, and I feel myself waver.

My eyes widen.

“Behind you!”

He swings his blade back behind him, casually spinning about and letting the arc of his blade take his opponent’s head from his shoulders.

It’s beautiful, and I find myself falling madly in love with this man. I close the gap between us as he turns and wrap my slim arms around his sturdy frame to press a kiss to his strong, manly lips.

Or at least, that’s what I would have done. In retrospect the fantasy seems stupid, but at least it’s better than the reality.

He got himself killed.

The first blow from behind struck him about the neck and nearly severed his head.

I have to cover my mouth to keep from retching. “Oh blaze,” I say faintly. “And it was going so well, too.”

The mountain men have no demis, it’s true, but standing before me is one of their skinchangers.

He’s taken on the skin of a bear, come up behind Lak and struck in one blur. By the time the warning has fled my lips, Lak is dead.

I back up somewhat, but a ring of vikes pushes me back.

And… it occurs to me that the main battle is a little far away at the moment. These are mountain men.

“What’ll you do with yer man dead, red hair?”

It’s a familiar voice. The drunk.

The skinchanger backs off and the drunk vike from before enters the circle. He gives me an indescribably foul grin. Little evils like this are fairly common, even here. But justice is justice, and he’ll have his even when I die. But something bothers me…

“You betrayed him?” I ask, incredulous. “He’ll kill you every day for the rest of your miserable afterlife, you stupid git!”

“But he ain’t ‘ere right now, izee? Ye know the first rule o’ war here issat victory means th’ wenches are all ours, right? So if yer a wench on th’ inside…”

Oh, blaze no. He’s got to be kidding me.

“You killed him for one hour with a girl shaped like a boy.” I say flatly. “You’re mad. Madder, because even if you do get your hour he’ll be back tomorrow and slaughter the entire clan. He’ll challenge you.”

“Hah. I’m not th’ only one who’s affter ye, and it ain’t just ye. Tha’ dyke has had it comin’ fer a while.”

Most people don’t even use their supposed victory time for anything, in our clan. In fact, my people don’t carouse much, either. This doesn’t sound like anyone I know. It’s too… chaotic. He can’t truly be from our clan. We’re honorbuilt and oathbound- it’s odd enough that he would have approached a darkval. Arrogant, downright brash…

“That’s not right,” I say slowly. I think I know. “You’re not a vike.”

“Oh?” He says, tone changing, interest catching him, baiting him.

“You’re Odin!”

For a heartstopping moment I’m uncertain, I’m wrong, he’s just a vike and it’s over. But his form flickers.

The drunk shakes, and splits, shifting shape.

The Allfather blinks at me, rising up. Further up.

I’d breathe a sigh of relief, but his magnificence is making me shake in my well-stitched leather boots. I feel as though I’m being crushed against the dirt, even though I’m still standing. And I am still standing, right?

“This is awkward,” He murmurs, in a rumble that reaches across the battlefield. All around, the sounds of battle stop.

“Huh,” I whisper. “Wha?”

“You know most people guess ‘Loki’? What gave me away? I’m honestly curious.”

For a moment I worry I’ve swallowed my voicebox.

Then I manage to squeak out my response.

“The eyepatch.”

“Explain!” He roars. My bones ache from the force of it, and I feel tiny. It takes all of my courage to form a reply.

“Loki is too vain to take the form of a drunk, and you looked as though you honestly did not have an eye,” I say, trying to keep the words from escaping all at once, forcing myself to speak slowly and clearly. “Loki could do that, but he would shape himself with both eyes anyway. You can’t shape yourself with your eye.”

“Hmm.” The Lord of Valhalla smiles at me. A lot of people have been doing that lately. “I see. This is unexpected.”

I just stand there, trying to keep from trembling out of my armor.

“Would you like to become one of the valkyries? We always have spare horses. I feel I must reward you somehow.”

I bite my lip, then glance towards Lak’s corpse, and then down at myself.

“He’ll be brought back.”

“Thank you,” I manage. Another thought occurs to me.

I stare at my feet. “Valkyries are women.”

“You are a woman, my dear. There was…” He pauses, brow furrowing, expression darkening. “A mistake. Your valkyrie formed you as a man despite your spirit’s looks. In this holy place you are meant to take the shape of your soul regardless of your body. A valkyrie should honor that.”

“How do you know that?” I ask, before I can stop myself. When his eyebrows knit together I add, “I’m just curious.”

He laughs, at that, and it’s probably meant to lighten the mood. I can hear the gathered vikes and mountain men around me clattering in their armor.

“I am the Allfather, Grimnell. Is it so hard to believe that I could know so much? Just take it on faith.”

…Ahahaha.

“What happens now?” I whisper weakly.

“Do you want your spirit’s form?”

I blink. I need to actually think about this one.

I stare at myself. Really stare at myself.

I have a flat chest. I have no hips, I have thin legs and arms. I’m slim and frail. My long red hair is messy with mud and blood.

I hate my body. It’s clumsy and weak and even in full battle rush it can’t do anything right. I do no more than weaken my opponents. My confidence has been nothing for so long. I’ve been trying to fool myself for so long.

All this time. All those years.

I glance up at Odin again. He stands there, waiting for my response.

Yes. I frame in my mind, opening my mouth to say it.

Before the word can leave it, his reply thunders through me. Tearing me, reshaping me, twisting me in a hundred different ways.

“It is so.”

I wake up slowly.

My whole body feels as though it’s afire, but in a good way. I sigh, staring at the ceiling of the longhouse and smiling. It’s been a long day. Of course now I begin to remember I had other questions for Odin.

But it’s a little late for that.

I sit up on my bed and inspect myself. My hair is messy, but longer, and fiery red.

I have breasts. My memory is kind of fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure they’re about the same size as before I was chosen. My skin is freckled and soft, but still scarred from battle, and I’m grateful for that. I may be a woman again, but I was chosen by a val. I won’t let anyone forget. I look down the slope of my body, gazing at myself for a while. There’s awe in my heart.

It’s… amazing. I’m not the prettiest girl in the Halls, not with demis and shifters and vals around, but I’m certainly more of a girl than I’ve been in years, ages, aeons, and it happened so fast.

I look up and around, suddenly a little self-conscious. But no one is here except one man. And I rather expected him, so I settle down again, breathing easy.

Lak is standing a span away,  back to me.

I blink, at that.

It strikes me that I’m wearing no clothes. I am also a woman, as Odin promised. I’m in no real hurry, either- it’s closer to night now. No battles, no feasts to worry about.

I slip into the fur robe Lak gave me- someone had set it on the bed next to me. I stand and then hug him around the waist from behind. I can feel him tense up.

“How did you do it?” I whisper. “Why?”

He doesn’t answer. Instead, he turns and holds me, arms around my body like back by the river, with the added bonus of me being the right shape. It feels good, but I’m not to be derailed.

“C’mon,” I say, trying to keep my voice firm. “Just tell me why, then, if you don’t want to admit how.”

“You were miserable,” Lak says, without the merest hint of rock, sounding choked up. “Dying for you is the least I wanted to do, Grim. The very least.”

“So everything you did…”

“Was to get Odin’s attention on you.”

“How often was he watching?”

“He always watches. He watches over his sons pretty carefully. That was a test of his own devising, though. I asked to be the bait.”

“What were the conditions?”

“If you’d won through combat you would be restored to your body’s original form. It would have been fair- life for life.”

I stop and think for a moment. And it dawns on me. So I was a woman originally then, not just in spirit, but in body as well. Something else is nagging at my brain.

“You would have died?”

“For good. Odin agreed it was a fair price to pay. But I’m back because you talked him down instead. You must have impressed him, even if it was a girl’s way of winning. Or maybe because it was a girl’s way of winning. Father always had a soft spot for women.”

I feel my heart swell. “You think so?”

“I would not be here if you had messed up.”

I breathe out a happy sigh and sit down, patting the bed beside me. “Cmere.”

He sits down next to me and I hug him again, pressing myself just a little closer. “You blaze-cursed fool. Just how happy would I have been without you? You’re just lucky it all turned out right.”

I feel Lak run his fingers through my hair and I find myself smiling. I curl up against him. It feels awkward right now, but good, too. It’s right in ways that before it wasn’t. I close my eyes, content to rest a while like that.

I think I’m going to enjoy the rest of my afterlife.

 

Forthcoming Short Story, Chapter 28 Arriving Soon As Well

The title says it all, folks. Yes it’s been forever, but I’m finally ready to post chapter 28 of Demimind and I’m working hard on a new short story, to boot. This next short story is going sci-fi, and I might turn it into a mini-series if I like it well enough, in preparation for my next biggish book idea.

I expect to have both the short story and the next chapter up by friday, if not sooner.  Life is life, I’ve been swamped to hell, but this is something I know I have to do, so EXPECT IT. I will get it up somehow, even if the process is a trial by fire.

-Eris

PS: Short story’s working title is Saints of Discord. I look forward to posting it once I’m done and to reading the feedback.

PSS: In other news, recently my family came into possession of the latest of the long line of Discworld novels from Sir Terry Pratchett. When I am not reading and revising, working, doing homework or otherwise, you can bet I will be nose deep in that.