Maybe this will clear things up!
(14)Past and Present
“She’s awake!” comes a gleeful cry.
“Good,” Fall’s voice drifts. “The food won’t go to waste this time.”
Winter’s eyes open. Someone in ragged clothing lies before her, weeping. His eyes meet hers, and he snivels pathetically. She reaches out, lets her fingers touch his hair, stringy and greasy. And she- Winter- she is so hungry.
“Overexertion, dear sister,” Fall’s voice says casually. “You should have something to eat. We caught you this man- he was wandering the wastes and in fair condition.”
“Food?” She asks weakly. “But I don’t eat people.” She tries to get her brain in working order. It doesn’t seem to be operating near full capacity.
“Why not?” Fall asks. She looks over at Him. He’s at a table, watching her carefully. Searching for something.
“I can drain the life force of anything,” Winter says, sitting up. She is so hungry. “Why would I eat people when I can have anything else? People are people, not food. We’re people, not monsters.”
Fall breathes a sigh of relief. “Good, you’re still you.”
“You’re testing me,” Winter accuses, still muzzy from a mixture of exhaustion and aches. “Have I woken before and tried to eat people? You stopped me, didn’t you?”
“No, you haven’t tried to eat anyone. I don’t know what separates you from the Summer/Winter pair we have roving this timeline, what makes them so much more ruthless. I didn’t believe it at first, until your guard Thomas and, uh, your Summer apprised me of events.”
He pauses. He turns away and won’t meet Winter’s eyes. “What I said before, below the wall, I…”
“Talk after you give me something I can drain,” She says irritably. “I’m very hungry.” Confessions can wait, Winter thinks. Besides that, there’s no telling what he might say. And, unused to the idea of a Fall who isn’t actively trying to kill her, Winter isn’t sure what she’ll say either.
Thomas steps forward. “I caught you something, Miss.”
And yes, she can feel it, too, an immense lifeforce contained within a tiny thing, clamped in a jar between Thomas’s hands. He holds it out near her, and she takes the jar from him quickly, nearly fumbling it in her hurry. Curiosity stays her power, though.
Butterfingers, chides Summer. Careful. Don’t want that thing out of the jar.
“What is it?” She asks. The light looks almost like the orblight that her brother can generate, but it’s infinitely wilder, twisting, writhing constantly behind the glass and sending out streamers of rainbow energies. And how the hell did you catch it? Summer adds silently.
“It’s a will’o’wisp,” Thomas replies cheerfully. “It should get you back up to full power in no time flat.”
“You truly are a man of hidden talents if you managed to catch one of those troublesome creatures,” Fall comments. “They always evaded me when I was interested in catching them, I found.”
“I wasn’t interested at first,” Thomas admits. “They only come near you when you’re lost or doomed. They’re supposedly poor omens, but I’ve never had trouble with them.”
Winter looks at the creature in the glass. It pulses with what seems like rage and anger. She finds herself feeling more than a little sorry for it, despite its eerie appearance.
Oh come on!
“What?” Winter asks. “It can’t help its nature.”
Summer thinks for a while. Yeah, I guess you’re right. But you need to eat.
“Yes. I do.”
Winter sighs, reaches inside of herself, and opens the channel, focusing on the will’o’wisp. It’d taste of sadness, probably, of cold, dark emptiness and loneliness, the dread of being doomed and the pain of dying alone. Things that it in turn would feed on if it was given the chance…
The will’o’wisp is sucked away, its lifeforce siphoned off to feed Winter’s hunger. Interestingly enough, it seems to pass right through the glass and into her spirit. How long was she out, for her to have become so hungry? It’d probably only been a few hours or so- she was already starting to get a little hungry when she passed out.
The will’o’wisp’s energy does indeed fill her up, but darkly, distressingly so. She feels empty even though she’s full, and her frown must tip off the men to her plight.
“Was that not right, Miss?” Thomas asks. “I could’ve grabbed a pixie. I saw one of those.”
“You’re a fool,” Fall grumbles. “Now she’ll have evil thoughts.”
“Hardly,” Winter snaps. “It was… fine, Thomas. Thank you. I really needed it.”
The gateguard beams at her from his chair and gives Fall a smug smile. “See? No problem at all.”
Aches suddenly hit every part of Winter’s body. She finds herself shuddering all over, and lays back down on the bed, sighing. “Why is this ragged man really here?”
She probably should be more polite. It isn’t like her at all to be rude to someone she’s just met, but then, she isn’t feeling all herself either. And the aches aren’t going away.
“He hasn’t said anything. I was wondering if you knew him,” Fall says.
Her eyes fall on the man. His clothes are tattered, ruined from months and months of travel, and stained with dirt and blood. His eyes meet hers steadily, and there’s a sort of fierce determination in them.
“What do you have to say for yourself? Why are you here?” Winter asks.
The man opens his mouth and where his tongue should be there is nothing. Not the hint of a chopped edge of tongue or tooth, just a yawning black abyss which makes Winter sick to her stomach. She shudders and looks away. Who did this? Summer asks.
“Who did this?” Winter echoes, gripping the sheets, and once again meeting the man’s eyes. “Where can I find them?”
He stares at her for a moment.
He can’t write, Summer says flatly. He can’t read, he can’t write. He’s a peasant. The only reason he made it this far is his determination to see you.
“Heal him, Summer.”
Summer winces mentally, but knows Winter can’t see it. Sweetie, you know I wish I could. It’s just… I don’t have my body. I can’t do shit without my body. And the pill won’t wear off until midnight.
Which means… she was out for a little over five days. Incredible. Well, it does explain why she was able to talk to Thomas. No doubt it was a strain on her body to be forced to move with Summer’s will.
“Stay here until midnight, and Summer will heal you,” Winter says quietly. The man stares at his feet. He seems to curl up a little, but nods.
Winter lays back on the bed and stares at the ceiling. It’s too hot and stuffy in this place. With her new power, she decides she may as well cool it down a bit. “Thomas, why don’t you go occupy this young man’s time for a while,” Fall says slowly.
“With respect, Fall, sir, you can shove it,” Thomas replies. “I can’t leave you here with miss Winter alone. Last time you were with her you tried to kill her, and I don’t know much about timelines, but I’m a firm believer in destiny, milord.”
“Well said. Now get out.“
Thomas’s legs carry him outside. Halfway to the door he beckons to the mutilated man. Thomas’s skin is white as new paint, and Winter can see him fighting it, but when the man arrives he just gives up and lets the power take him outside the shack.
“Now that we’re alone,” Fall says quietly. “I think it’s time you told me what I’ve done.”
Winter stares at him blankly for a moment. “In the future, where I was, you tried to kill me,” She says quietly. “You attacked and nearly killed Summer, but ended up binding her within me so that we can’t switch at will. Rather than being a freedom, to be wrestled with between us, you locked her inside. I could only switch by being subjected to great stress or heat. It was a binding on both of us. I believe it was meant to drive us insane.”
Fall looks taken aback. “Really?” He asks. He actually seems incredulous about it, and Winter’s resolve falters a moment.
“As well, you… well, there was something about your name. Fall. When spoken, it makes mountains shake, there. In that timeline your power is palpable, even when you’re at ease,” She shudders as she remembers. “And for some reason you were after this.”
Without knowing quite why, she reaches into her pocket- and pulls out the illmetal bead.
But hadn’t her clothes fallen away before? Did it stay with her because she owns it? Did it stick to her skin?
She knows only that she felt its presence before she mentioned it. It was just there.
Fall leans forward, piercing eyes gazing on it intently for a moment before he simply nods. “Yes, that sounds about right.”
“What?” Winter asks. “You mean you knew you would try to kill me in the future?”
“Something of that nature. I was just about to take precautions against it, actually. You’ve distracted me a bit, dear sister,” He says impishly. “The process I was thinking about undertaking- I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It’s called refraction. It involves splitting one’s soul and shining pieces of it through each other. It multiplies power, but the cost is obvious.”
He pauses. “This was shortly after you disappeared,” He says grimly. “I thought you went to strike at the human group who took over Refuge.”
He laughs at that. “No, Winter, the Black Refuge. It’s long been theirs- for longer than I can remember, certainly. We’d talked- jokingly I imagine- about assaulting it before. I’m sure you don’t remember that. Is it called something else in your time?”
“Season’s Refuge,” Winter mutters.
We’re a long way back.
And a long way from home. Wherever that is.
“That suggests we took it,” Fall muses. “It would’ve taken power unimaginable- their magi aren’t overpowerful, but they are an amazingly prolific race, humans. They’ve no doubt infested all of it. Or had. And it was called Season’s Refuge in your time?”
“Yes,” Winter says. “I remember living there with Spring and Summer and Fall. That Fall. He was the same as you are, he… he cared for me and he looked after me, as far as I can remember. But… how did we take it, then, if-“
The past rolls into the present, and her mind sparks and hisses in protest.
Winter, are you sure about this?
“We need it done,” She answers. Her hands shake as she lifts the vial to her lips.
It will change us. Maybe hurt us.
Winter closes her eyes and drinks it. It has no flavor, no substance, like drinking cloud, like drinking water. But it isn’t water.
It burns, it hisses inside of her like an enraged snake and makes her twist. She can hear Summer screaming in her head, and her body shudders all over. She’s broken into a sweat. Her skin feels like knives. She can’t see, she can’t hear, her mind is rent in a dozen different ways, twisted and pulled until she can’t stand it and finally, after an eternity, after a second, it’s over.
And all she can hear now is her breathing.
And all she can feel now is cold.
She opens her eyes again. But something is different. She feels powerful.
She feels incredibly powerful.
Frost cracks across her body, twirls around her in a cyclone. Blue energy crackles around her wrists and sparks about her legs as she pushes herself to her feet again. The tiles underfoot are covered in the pure, untempered power. They tremble under every step.
Winter’s eyes are closed, but they open again, wide. She steps away from the shrine, draws a single shimmering sigil in the air, and vanishes.
Distance. She moves from the shrine in a small clearing at the edge of Black Refuge to the glade her brothers have been occupying for years now. Only one brother is here.
She reappears, steps out from the air, and makes Fall, jump. For a moment he seems ready to strike, but then he realizes it’s his sister that’s entered.
“Sister- what are you doing?”
“Making us a home,” Winter hisses, voice leaving cool trails in the air, every word flashing and then disappearing without really being heard- just felt. “Would you like to watch?”
“I took it,” Winter says weakly. “We did, I mean, Summer and I.”
“Took Black Refuge?” Fall asks. “Alone?”
“I don’t know. I just know that we did,” Winter replies wearily. “I’ll need to see it in order to know how, I think. It’s where I was going in the future anyway.”
“I’m going to be here soon,” Fall says flatly. “In order to complete refraction I’d need a bead of Illmetal, and you carry the only piece anyone has been able to find.”
“I could give it to Him- you- I guess,” Winter says doubtfully. “But I’m not so sure that’d be a good idea at all. From what I’ve seen you’ve gone mad with power already- future you, anyway.”
“If I am allowed to complete refraction, I’m not likely to keep what’s left of my sanity,” Fall’s tone turns grim. “Do stop me, sister.”
“This is the last thing I expected to do,” Winter comments dryly. “I thought I’d be dead when I saw you approaching the wall.”
Fall smiles and then shrugs. “I certainly wasn’t expecting a warm welcome from you at first. But the Winter I knew surely isn’t the same as you are.”
“This time travel is confusing me,” Winter says weakly. “I think I’ll call you Fall, and the future you Autumn.”
“In the future my name shakes mountains,” Fall grins. “Really, you flatter me.”
“Don’t compare Autumn to yourself, brother. You haven’t seen him,” Winter says, and sighs.
“I think I shall call you Winter. The Winter who lives in this time I’ll call Frost,” Fall says quietly. “Much more fitting for her- like first frost, she’s flighty and shy. I’ve never known her to make a decision without first listening to Summer. Er.” He stops and rolls his eyes.
“She gets a name too,” Winter says. Then, “Let’s call her Evil Bitch.”
Fall looks thoughtful.
“Tempting, but not exactly catchy,” He says. “How about Blazing Butthead?”
“Alliteration,” Winter observes. “That’ll make it easier to remember. Shortened to BB?”
“Sure,” He says graciously. “I don’t mind.”
Fall gets up and sits on the edge of the bed.
They sit like that, in comfortable silence, smiling. A thought strikes Winter.
“Actually, what’s her name? Is it different, here?” She asks.
“I don’t know,” Fall admits. “I think her name is Summer-Glory.”
“My Summer’s name is…”
“Summer-Heat-Rising,” Winter finishes. “Your turn.”
“To name?” Fall says, then grins. “Fine. My Summer can be Glory, formally. Otherwise I think BB will fit.”
I’d like to stay Summer, if it’s all the same to you, Summer puts in, with the dryness of a midseason day.
“Summer says she’d like to remain Summer,” Winter says, and then giggles, feeling a little giddy.
“That sounds good,” Fall says, but he’s not smiling anymore. “What will you do?”
Winter blinks, then sighs heavily. “I need to stop Autumn, I need to get to Season’s Refuge, in the future. There are memories there I need to get back.”
“Since Spiritfell took you here, it can probably bring you back,” Fall replies seriously. “As for stopping Autumn, the best way to do that is to study up to become more powerful than He is. Here you have as much time as it’ll take for him to arrive.”
“It’s a different timeline,” Winter says slowly, barely daring to hope. “Can he even come here?”
“If he’s undergone partial refraction, it’s within the realm of possibility,” Fall says darkly. “We can’t ignore that.”
The sisters and brother are quiet for a while. The only noise in the shack is the creak of old timber and the gentle hum of the Illmetal bead in Winter’s hand. Even Summer is quiet, though that could be just because of the falling temperature.
“Well, let’s list our assets,” Winter starts. “I have you, Summer… Thomas…”
“Your Servant too,” Fall points out.
“In the future she’s dead,” Winter says bitterly. She fights back tears for her guardian. “Before I even really knew her.”
“She’s alive here. You should go and ask her for help,” Fall says grimly.
“You don’t sound too happy about it,” Winter observes.
“She’s loyal to Frost and BB, here,” Fall grumbles. “Likely as not she’ll flat out refuse and try to eat you.”
“We’ll handle her last, then,” Winter says, shrugging.
“Unfortunately, we may not have a choice,” Fall sighs. “If we wait too long, Glory will try to cement her Servant’s loyalty a little further on the off chance that you might be successful.”
“She may’ve already done that!” Winter argues. “What’s the point of going?”
“She’s extremely strong, Winter. If she’s against us, what little chance we have could be crushed,” Fall says simply. “We’ll deal with Goliath first.”
“Okay,” Winter says, stifling a yawn. “So what do we do now?”
“I’ve got a song I’ve been meaning to teach you, if you wouldn’t mind spending the last hours of freedom learning it with me,” Fall says sheepishly.
Winter doesn’t even know if she knows how to sing. But her brother’s face is so hopeful she gives in. “Fine, but you better not laugh,” She replies, a touch ruefully.