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