(18)Pockets of the Dead
Winter pushes herself to her feet shakily. She feels at her throat and, upon finding it unharmed, stares down at the ground, searching for Summer.
“I’m over here, doofus,” Her sister says from behind her. A bronzed hand clasps hers. Winter turns and gazes into her sister’s eyes.
“What have you done?” She asks weakly. “Are we dead?”
“Yeah,” Summer replies flatly. “Sort of.”
Winter stares at her. “Sort of?”
The ground underfoot is soft, like a meadow, and sprinkled with white, like snow. The air is comfortably cool for her. “What do you mean?” She asks, feeling stupid. “Sort of dead?”
“Yeah. This is a pocket dimension. Or universe or whatever. It’s where our spirits go before we’re reborn. The seasons can’t die, that’d cause complete chaos. I don’t know how I know that…” Summer says slowly. “But it’s just how it is. We can figure it out later. We need to move fast.”
“Well… I’m no student of medicine like Spring, but how long would you say I have to live after a wound like that?” Summer asks, picking her way through long grass and tugging Winter with her.
“Ummm…” Winter begins. “Depends. About twenty seconds, probably.”
“We have twenty seconds,” Summer says shortly. She moves faster, pushing through the grass towards a familiar white wall at the edge of the meadow. Silver shapes move on it- it’s a translucent barrier. It all seems quite familiar to Winter. Yes, that’s right. It’s like the pocket dimension she was in before with Thomas.
Summer pulls her further, dragging her along the soft ground. As they approach the translucent barrier, they step onto a writhing, twisting area of white tendrils that tug, clutch at their feet and hold them fast.
“Shit,” Summer says in a whisper. “Twenty seconds?”
“You’re dead by now,” Winter hisses. “Whatever we need to do, do it fast and do it now.”
There’s an abrupt growling rumbling noise, and a low hum builds in her bones from her feet. The tendrils are vibrating, and they feel like they’re dragging her into the ground.
Summer focuses heat in her whole body, hoping against hope she doesn’t injure Winter.
Nothing happens. No lifeforce here. Everything is dead here!
Her expression turns to panic.
I’m mistress of the dead though, Winter thinks to herself. Summer can’t do anything here, there’s nothing alive. That means it’s up to me, and-
“Winter,” Summer whimpers. “Do something!”
Winter takes a deep breath- completely pointless, since she’s dead- and sighs. “Let us go, please,” She says quietly.
The tendrils relinquish their grip and withdraw back into the ground.
“We’re here to save a friend,” Winter continues slowly and clearly. “Can you help us find her? Her name is Jane. She’s a giant serpent thing. She died a short time ago.”
There’s a soft rumble in response, and then the membrane of the bubble opens wide, the barrier parting to let them past. Nothing but darkness lies beyond it.
Summer, eyes wide, leads Winter through it and into the blackness.
The membrane closes behind them, plunging them into pitch dark. Now there is nothing here but a ruddy red glow, and the heavy breathing of something massive. Summer tries to get a hold of herself.
Winter walks forward on stone of lime, fumbling in the dark- dark that even her eyes cannot pierce- until her hands touch something dry, hot and scaly. Her breath catches in her throat, and a sudden, irrational fear fills her. Then a double-pair of eyes gaze down at her from the darkness. Motion behind her, and a tongue flicks along her back. Oh, right. She’s naked.
-You taste familiar,- A deep rumbling, less a hiss than an earthquake, and one that makes her legs tremble. -You’re the fourth season. Winter. To what do I owe the pleasure of your… visit?-
Summer moves behind her to stand next to her sister. It’s very strange. She’d never been here with Winter like this, never been next to her like this, side by side. From as far back as Summer can remember the two of them had been together- but trapped. Bound within one another.
Now, to be next to her sister like this is… surreal.
She reaches out and grabs Winter’s hand, gives it a squeeze. Too soft. Her sister has always been too soft.
“Toughen up,” Summer whispers in Winter’s ear. “You’re shaking.”
Winter steadies herself, stands straight, and squeezes Summer’s hand back. “I’m here to take you back,” Winter says firmly. “Or at least Jane. You’re Goliath, aren’t you?”
The rumble comes again, stuttering a little in a chuckle. -Yes. That is my name. Jane is sleeping, but I tire of this place already. If you can take me from here, this land of eternal warmth and darkness, I will be shocked. Truly and to my dry scaled core. But then, you are the mistress of the dead. The doomed understand and are understood by you, and all of us are doomed, are we not? Lead me from here, little girl, if you dare.-
“Is there a price?” Winter asks quietly.
-There is always a price, Winter-Long-Frost. Always,- Goliath hisses, snorting a cloud of glowing red smoke. It sheds shadow and light in the dark, dark cavern. -But it is not a price you are unwilling to pay, or in the future I would be dead.-
Winter rubs the scaled muzzle in front of her. Hmm, She thinks. Yeah, that sounds about right. It’s probably not important that she doesn’t know what will happen in the future. What’s important is doing what’s right.
She owes her Servant already, for saving her. And even Summer, who doesn’t seem to care about anyone but herself, wants Goliath/Jane back. Right.
Winter lets out a soft sigh. “Yeah. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, even if I don’t know what it is.”
She pulls away from the scaled heads, and they watch her expectantly.
“Um,” She says weakly. What the hell is she supposed to do now?
“We have to get back to my body, Winter,” Summer whispers. “But I don’t know the way. It’s dead, so the pocket that holds it should be here somewhere. You have to find it.”
Winter looks down at her feet and stares for a while, thinking hard. When I came here first, the world changed to match my wants. So…
I want to find Summer’s body.
She thinks it as hard as she can, but nothing seems to happen, and she frowns. But it occurs to her that the world wouldn’t know who Summer is, would it…
She pictures Summer’s body now- about five feet and a few inches tall, golden brown skin, lithe and long with a scar across her belly- though her skin is otherwise mostly unmarked, unlike Winter’s- and long, flowing white hair. Summer.
Hands smooth, unweathered by hard labor and soft, one green eye and one blue- but mirrored to her own, as if she’d taken what was left after Winter chose hers. A round nose, but slightly pointed ears. She pictures the shape of her breasts and the curves of her hips, things that Winter herself used to want. That she remembers she used to want.
The cavern blazes unexpectedly, light flooding in from one wall- the wall to Winter’s left. It shimmers, and then ripples form on its surface for a few moments, the stone giving way to a murky, pearly substance. Shapes form there, and eventually it seems that she’s looking down on Summer’s body, which, as a bonus, appears to be lying on top of her Servant’s body still. There’s an awful lot of blood- and with a shock, she realizes it’s mostly hers. Or her sister’s. Theirs.
“Summer, is this a good idea?” Winter asks quietly.
“Too late to ask that, sister,” Summer replies ruefully. “We’re already in too deep.”
Summer takes her hand and they both walk to the edge of the cavern, where the real world is separated by a pearly portal. Goliath shifts, bringing herself closer, nudging Winter slightly with a scaled snout. -Well?-
“All I need to do is walk through with you hanging on,” Winter says uncertainly, and realizes she knows it as soon as the words are out. “Just stay with me. I think this will work. Summer will do the rest.”
Summer nods, though she’s not smiling. Her face is grim and set. If it doesn’t work, they could be dead forever.
Winter is about to step through when Goliath nestles in beside her. She wraps an arm around her Servant, burying her hand in Goliath’s soft fur near the nape of her first scaled neck.
“Together,” She says weakly. “Ready?”
-I am prepared, little one.-
“Let’s go,” Summer says firmly.
Together, the three enter the portal.
Beyond it is utter chaos.
Bitter cold freezes Summer’s body. Boiling heat scalds Winter’s hands and feet both as she takes her first step through. Her eyes are half-screwed shut against what feels like a driving rain of acid- searing her, burning her. Patches of white hot pain hiss on her legs and arms. Knives are dragged down her back, slicing into her pale skin- though she still is too shocked to voice a cry. She almost forgets what she’s done, what’s happening, her spirit and body both near dead with shock. Her whole body is shaking. She can feel Summer next to her trembling as well.
The first step is complete torture. With monumental effort, ignoring the awful pain and the roar of Goliath next to her, of Summer’s labored gasp, the clutch of her sister’s hand as it tries to grind her bones together, Winter takes another step.
And it all fades away as quickly as it’d come. The pain leaves the two sisters gasping. In its place, there is cold, just chilling, numbing cold. At first it’s a relief, but very shortly it becomes uncomfortable, even for Winter. It smells, here, of decay and rot. A realm after her brother’s own heart…
In another three steps, they could be back in the cave- the portal, its eerie white light shining, is but three stripes away. They are standing on an endless plain of alternating bands- red and black. Right now they stand on a black band, about a foot across. Or at least, Winter stands there- the other two, her companions, shuffled forward to match her. She looks around and notices bubbles floating, and that the bands stretch on into the sky, that the bubbles have shapes moving in their translucent walls. And she remembers.
“You are the mistress of death, Winter. You can take spirits away from the Pockets of the Dead, lead them through the doorway into their bodies- if you can brave the Band,” For some reason she can’t see who it is talking. But it doesn’t bother her- it’s a memory, and in the memory at least, she feels safe.
“What’s the Band?” Winter wonders aloud. “What’s so bad about it?”
“The Band is an unfathomably enormous stretch between the worlds, connecting every conceivable area of the living with the Pockets of the Dead. Though rarely will you ever travel in it for longer than a few seconds, it is the most dangerous of places imaginable. Black stripes- sometimes represented in your mind as white bands- will allow you reprieve from the red. Briefly- if you linger longer than a minute trying to gather your strength, you will lose your way…”
“The red?” Winter asks, trying to keep her eyes open and yawning a little.
“Best you don’t ask,” The voice answers quietly. “Just remember- whatever you do, don’t let go of the people you guide, or you’ll lose them forever. You shouldn’t have to worry about such things- you’re still young. I don’t want to give you nightmares.”
“I want to worry!” Winter replies sharply. “I want to grow up-“
The memory cuts short and Winter is flung into the present.
“We have to keep moving,” She mumbles. Summer doesn’t answer with anything but a weak nod. Goliath says nothing, but she can feel the serpent quaking under her hand.
A feeling of indescribable dread falls over her, clenching her heart like the cold clutching her feet. She stares at the three bands separating them from the portal.
“We have to step on each one,” She whispers to herself. “So-“
Winter takes another step forward.
By the powers of divine mercy alone she is spared from being thrust into unconsciousness, and she maintains her grip on Summer, as tight as she can manage, though her hand is suddenly slick with blood. Blood that runs down her skin in a sick wave.
Her skin feels as though it’s been flayed, all at once, and through the sheer shock of it she’s kept from screaming.
There are no words to describe the pain- every single nerve is ablaze, every part of her body is on fire, if she could catch her breath she’d scream until she couldn’t stop.
And it doesn’t abate. It won’t abate. She can hear Summer next to her through the roar in her ears, she can hear her shriek and wants to do the same, but instead, she tugs Summer forward one more step, onto the black band, lifts a foot sticky and slippery with blood, and steps forward.
She trembles, shakes, her body barely capable of standing upright, her heart pounding in an insubstantial chest. She can only imagine what it’s like for Goliath. With such an enormous body the pain would’ve been much more intense- with more of it to attack and more nerves to affect.
She gasps, trying to get her breath back. And her heart freezes, as in the distance, far off, and heard easily above her heavy breathing, there is a chilling, horrible moan.
How long have they been standing here?
She doesn’t know now. Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Days.
Too long. The dread is back, turning her feet to lead. The portal becomes a haze in her vision, though it’s another step away. So close she could almost reach out and touch it.
“Please don’t,” Summer whimpers, and she squeezes Winter’s hand. “We can’t stop. Please just hurry. Two steps. Come on. We’ll make it.”
Winter takes one step as the moaning comes again, closer. She pulls Summer with her, tugs on Goliath’s fur and forces all three onto the band adjoining the pearly portal.
It puts the previous bands to shame. The respite had dulled it, had even wiped the memory of it clean. The steps before it had attacked their nerves, attacked their senses. This one strikes at her heart and mind.
Something tears into her, rips her memories away, slicing through everything, ripping through certainty.
Who is she?
What is she doing? Where is this? There’s a glow ahead. What’s a glow?
Her body is unrecognizable. Someone is clutching at her hand and tugging her. Forward. Towards the glow. What’s going on? Who is this? There’s an immense monster right beside her! She wants to run, but the hand is keeping her in place.
The girl’s mind breaks, shudders with every new assault. Something is tearing her up inside.
Summer is shielded from it for some reason. Through the connection with Winter, though, she can feel her sister’s anguish and pain, feel her fear. Summer’s empathy cracks under the pressure.
Winter is out of it. Summer stares at the portal. It’s close enough to touch.
“Winter,” She whispers. “Winter!”
The girl hears it, hears the name and clings to it, just long enough to listen, just long enough to hear this woman’s words, to stare at her, into her green and blue eyes.
“Take one step forward. Step through the portal! We can’t go until you do, and-“
A horrific groan, tainted with a slippery, slick evil comes from directly behind Summer. They’ve already lingered too long.
She doesn’t turn around. Instead she shoves Winter with her body and bites down on a cry of fear. “Toughen up, you wuss! We’ll all die!”
Winter fights off the memories, fights off the pain, and stumbles through the portal, dragging Summer and Goliath through with her. As they leave that space between worlds, the portal snaps shut behind them.