Demimind: Chapter 32

Short and sweet. Enjoy Chapter 32, I’ll see about a bonus update on Friday or sooner, to make up for my illness last week. ❤

Love you all,

-Eris

(32) Season’s Refuge

In time, things change. In time, Summer, Winter, Fall and Spring make the journey to Season’s Refuge along with Silk. Thomas and the orphaned girl already live there- they’d transferred shortly after the… well, the Resolution.

Season’s Refuge stands on a low field, and rises near fifty feet up from the earth. The courtyard is enormous and open- no iron gates bar entry by foot. The walls are worn from disrepair. The path up to the great wooden doors is weathered. In the courtyard a great oak tree snakes up to the sky, and as a wind blows across the plains its branches sway and creak.

It’s Winter who leads Fall- who carries Summer’s baby- past the worn walls girding the courtyard. He stumbles on cloven hooves, trying to keep up with her, bent over almost comically as he leans down to follow her beyond the worn walls and onto the path.

The baby, who Summer had promises to name once she found one she liked, is sound asleep. Fall had taken to him instantly, to Winter’s surprise- and despite the poor experiences the infant may have had when he was kidnapped by Fall, the baby boy had been able to sleep soundly every night, and didn’t seem perturbed at all by the horned man’s care.

“Really,” He says quietly. “You could pretend to show a little restraint, you know. Have some reverence for your home.”

Silk, just clearing the courtyard and obviously a little uncomfortable, trails along behind the pair of them slowly.

Winter ignores them both, shoving the big doors open one handed and stepping into the Refuge, letting Fall’s hand go as she races inside.

It’s exactly as she pictured it, as she remembers it. Still, Winter’s eyes tear up as she takes a step into the great hall. Columns stretch up into forever. Before her, an immense stone table with finely crafted wooden chairs set around it, for more than two score guests to sit at. It strikes her at once as both wonderful and horribly lonely at the same time. It’s a bit of a relief that she’ll never have to be all alone now, not with Summer and Autumn and Spring here.

Dust has been disturbed- everything is neat and tidy. The Seasons rarely actually used the great hall for anything other than entertaining guests. The only people who actually ate things at it were Fall, whose energy was always decaying, Summer, who enjoyed the tastes, and any servants they might keep around. Said servants were all long gone by now, surely.

The stone here is near soft underfoot from overuse, but still sparkles in Winter’s eyes. She hugs herself then, slowing down, taking everything in at once.

“Miss Winter?” A voice calls. “Miiss?”

Winter looks up and around, and smiles when she spots Miri, dwarfed by the great stone table she sits at.

The girl smiles back, but it’s clear something is on her mind. She’s sharp, Winter thinks to herself. I hope she’s done well here with Thomas.

“Miss Winter? I dreamed you were going to come today,” She says shyly. “You’re gonna come live with me an’ Thomas now, aren’t you?”

Winter grins and nods. “Mhm! Where is he, do you know?”

Miri shrugs indifferently. “He’s around here somewhere. This place is big!”

Independent, too, Summer murmurs admiringly. I wonder who taught her that?

Winter turns to go look for him. Miri’s hand on her arm stops her dead.

Winter stares at her uncertainly. “Yes?”

“Your baby, Miss Winter?” Miri asks quietly.

“It’s not my-”

“She’s in trouble.”

Winter blinks. There’s a certainty in the child’s eyes that’s just plain disconcerting. And she?

A cry from the direction of the courtyard takes Winter’s attention, and it’s Summer who shifts, pushing Winter out of the way and taking over.

She runs across the stone of the hall, throws open the door to the castle and finds Fall standing there, backing away into the hall. A mass of people is gathered before the courtyard- a score in all. A few men stand around in white armor holding torches, swords or spears.  Women bearing bags of goods or food, maybe personal belongings, women holding babies or holding the hands of children.

They gather together. It’s midday- the torches can’t be to provide mere illumination.

“We’ve drawn quite a crowd,” Fall says wryly.

Someone steps forward from the gathered people. His blond hair is familiar to Summer, as are his eyes.

His armor shines, and his voice is steady. In one hand he holds a torch, the other a long knife. “We are the descendants of the Ivory Templar, journeyed here from Wheel. We’ve come to take back Black Refuge in our ancestors’ names.”

Let me handle this, Spring urges.

“Miss Summer?” Thomas whispers, right next to her ear.

She jumps, then steps aside as he brushes past her.

Looks like that job is being taken care of, Fall observes to Spring. Aloud, he says “Careful, Tom.”

Thomas just grins back at him before he stands in front of the man. All he carries is the haft of his spear.

“What’s your name, sir?” He asks politely.

Winter shifts in while Summer isn’t paying attention, and she reaches out for the baby. Fall hands him to her gently.

The child hadn’t cried once the entire way to Season’s Refuge.

“I am called Mark Danehood. And you?” Mark’s tone is wary.

“I go by Thomas. Just Thomas,” He replies easily. His entire posture is relaxed, and his completely nonthreatening attitude seems to take Mark by surprise. Still, he recovers.

“Well, just Thomas, who do you stand with?”

“I should think that’s pretty obvious, sir,” Thomas says, with just a hint of reproach. “I’m standing with the Seasons.”

“This land is ours by right,” Mark says quietly. “If you are with the Seasons, you stand against us.”

“I’m sure we can work something out,” Thomas says lightly. His posture is open, and Winter wants to tug him out of harms’ way.

But something in his stance eases her fears. This is a man who has been through more than mere mortals can dream, Winter remembers. Still…

It isn’t until he turns his head slightly and winks at Fall that she lets herself relax.

Winter cradles the baby in her arms thoughtfully before she walks back into the Refuge.

Thomas can probably handle this, especially with Fall at his back.

What’s important is that you got my son out of that potentially nasty situation, Summer whispers. But how did the girl know that was going to happen? And how did they get here?

Portal, Winter replies as the idea strikes her. They came here through the portal, journeyed from Everspring to Season’s Refuge, probably almost the same time we set out.

Still, something else doesn’t quite fit.

“Miri?” Winter calls.

“Miss Winter!” Miri’s voice calls back excitedly. “I’m in the study! Come see!”

Winter remembers where the study is by sheer luck. Summer nudges her in the direction of the door. It opens as if on greased hinges, swinging silently aside. Winter takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and steps inside.

Her eyes open again, and what she sees takes her breath away. Stacks and stacks of books, piled high, teetering here and there. There are so many of them that it makes her dizzy, stretching high into the air, some on shelves, some on the tile floor.

Miri sits in the middle of the room, legs crossed, grinning widely and holding a book. It’s title is in Eldritch, and Winter recognizes it as Poems, Songs and Sonnets from Ages. It appears ragged around the edges, as though it has definitely seen better days. The paper is old and  yellowed.

“Look!” Miri giggles. “It’s like the words you and Miss Summer use.”

“You can’t read that-” Winter starts, but Summer silences her. Miri opens the book and, flashing Winter a grin, begins to read.

No, not to read. To sing, in a wavering, but soft, pretty voice.

“Souls in cycle, follow along

Writ for wrote

Word for song

Souls in cycle, lead my heart

From place to place

From past to start

Beginning to end

First and now last

Find my heart in a looking glass

When demi of mind meets demi of soul

Push both together

And make them whole.”

Miri finishes, giggling, obviously pleased with herself. Then she frowns a bit. “What does it mean, Miss Winter?”

Winter blinks, smiles down at her and shakes her head. “It’s just a song. It’s a nice song, though.”

Like hell. That’s the song Fall taught you, Summer says flatly.

Yeah, Winter replies quietly. I think I understand what he meant by it, too.

Miri shrugs, though, obviously not accepting Winter’s answer, but not questioning it openly either. She stands up again. “Can I have it? The book, I mean?”

Summer’s baby stirs in Winter’s grip. Winter finds herself wondering at who his father could have been, and she’s so lost in thought that she almost forgets Miri’s question altogether.

“Mm? Oh! Yes, of course! You live here too!” Winter says hastily. “Just… well, be careful with it.”

“Yes, Miss Winter,” Miri says quickly, and scurries off, the book tucked under her arm.

What did he mean? Summer asks curiously, prompting her. Winter is about to answer her when she hears a clicking on the tile behind her.

Winter turns, and finds Silk standing in front of her, all of her arms folded.

“Half a mind and half a soul, both here together as one,” Silk says quietly. “With the Cycle broken and mended, with everything you could ever ask for right here…. can you forgive me, from so long ago?”

Winter blinks, then takes in a breath. In that instant, Silky puts a clawed finger to her lips, hushing her instantly. “No, don’t talk yet. I haven’t told you what I did and what I am asking of you. I haven’t told you what you’ve done.”

Winter quiets herself, curbing her own curiosity while Summer grumbles.

“Winter,” Silk says quietly. “Your daughter is mine by blood right. That is the oath I made to you long ago, that I would take your child.”

Winter nods slowly.

“The child you carry is yours as much as it is Summer’s,” Silk whispers. “Being of your blood, she is mine now by my law.”

Now wait just a second! Summer snarls in Winter’s head. Winter shakes herself, trying to make sense of it.

“What are you talking about?” She asks finally, heart sinking. “This child is a boy.”

“The boy is the dominant soul, yes,” Silk replies gently. “But underneath his shell and in his heart beats your blood, and with your blood a piece of you, Winter, as much as he is a piece of Summer.”

“How…?” Winter starts weakly.

“There was no union between you and any mortal man,” Silk says, and her voice is tempered by guilt. “Nor was there any such union between Summer and another. You two are bound together, but more than that- when your souls touched, I…” Silk closes her eyes for a moment, opens them again, her posture relaxing, claws falling to her sides. “I took advantage of your vulnerability. I used magic- my peoples’ magic- to create a child within you. I worried- and foolishly- that you would be incapable of having a child on your own so…” She pauses and then sighs. “I… violated your trust, my love.”

“Spells like that exist?” Winter asks, stunned, horrified, and wondering all at once. “And you cast one on me- you used magic on me without me knowing it?”

“It… It is more that I provided a spark for your own magic to use. But it was a spark made of all Seasons, from pieces of their magic that I plucked and spun together,” Silk says quietly. “All of you- Summer, Winter, Autumn, Spring- every one of you is a part of this being. Four children in one.”

“Why did you do this?” Winter pries, frowning. “Silk, you were- are- one of my most trusted friends.  Why? And why keep it from me, or from Summer?”

“You wouldn’t remember,” Silk says quietly. “And hopefully now you will never have reason to. It’s fine now- it’s worked out the way it needed to.”

“I don’t understand,” Winter says wearily. “But by now I think I’m used to that. I’ll figure it out later.”

“Are you going to run?” Silk asks quietly, as Winter starts to turn. There’s something almost desperate, something soft and hurt in her voice. Winter isn’t angry. She’s hurt. Like Silk is.

Feelings fight, boil and die in Winter’s heart. Running now feels like the only thing she can do… It’s too much for her to deal with right now, if she could just…

She’s a spider, Summer warns. She’ll lie and manipulate to get her way. I told you I had a bad feeling about her.

Winter wrestles with herself, takes another step, pauses. She’ll betray you again.

Summer means well. She means the best for her sister, truly she does. But…

Winter shakes her head, frowns, and stops, arms folded. “No,” She says finally, breaking into a grin. “I think I’ll walk.”

She turns to face Silk and reaches out. Silk stretches out her own clawed fingers to meet the fourth Season’s tentatively, gazing down at Winter, clearly a little worried for her love’s sanity. “Winter?”

“I don’t forgive you now,” Winter answers slowly. “And I’m not sure what to think. But I’d rather we found out together. I’ve spent too long without you, for all that I remember- that I’m starting to remember doing with you. I trust you, Silk, and I’m disappointed in you for not telling me the truth, but I won’t leave without you. And we won’t be gone forever.”

She cracks a smile, then, her eyes meeting Silk’s. For a moment, her heart skips a beat and she feels light. Silk returns the smile, obviously confused, but relieved. “Come on,” Winter says gently. “I think you’ve done enough moping.”

She grasps Silk’s hand and leads her away from the study, with the Seasons’ baby in the crook of her arm, unsure of where she’s going, but certain of where she belongs.

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 26

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

-Eris

(26)Bargain

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

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

Summer tries feigning ignorance.

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

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

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

“I don’t have it,” Summer snaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everspring appears in the gateway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?” Summer asks sharply.

Finally, some answers, Winter mutters.

I hope we can trust them, Summer replies silently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much life force?” Summer presses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter snaps back, thinking hard.

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

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

“What about my child?” Summer asks.

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

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

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

Summer ignores Winter, just gazes at Spring steadily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you going to do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer turns slightly, pausing at the gates.

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

“I will.”

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

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

Demimind: Chapter 25

A bit late, but here it is. Yesterday I was a procrastinatory mess. Today I no longer have to worry about the test or the speech I had to give in class, because I’m posting this in the interim between them. On the bright side I’m done with the speech and the test. On the negative side, I’m done with the speech and the test.

Enjoy.

-Eris

 

(25) Ash And Snow

Summer doesn’t get any more sleep that night. She sits, shaking still, on the edge of her bed, staring at Thomas’s sleeping form and the unconscious body of the man.

When the sun finally rises, it shines through, and Thomas opens his eyes to find her standing over him. “What-” he starts blearily.

“We’re leaving,” Summer says shortly.

“Right,” Thomas mutters.

Thomas leads Summer on through the city. Panicked on the inside, she still consents to the former gate guard buying provisions- food, mostly for him.

Summer isn’t hungry. Her Rose feeds her, trapped in the pocket of her tee. A sort of bitterness has settled over her. Thomas can’t understand it.

Winter can’t understand it.

Not even Summer really understands it, despite being the one who feels it pulling at her. Tugging at her.

Thomas had wanted to kill the man where he lay. Summer had let him. It had been quick, and Winter hadn’t complained. Why, then, had she stopped Summer last night?

Summer doesn’t know.

Buildings loom out at her, as she waits outside the shop- Iron Spoke.

A strange name for a shop, but she hadn’t dared to comment. The innkeep, whether he was dead or alive, hadn’t called pursuit on them. Summer is thankful for that. She feels like she should be thankful to be alive.

If not for Winter using her body, she feels like she would be dead. Mostly, though, she feels hollow.

“Maybe we should go back,” Summer whispers to herself.

Why?

Summer shrugs.

He’ll kill us.

“There are worse things.”

He might do them.

“Doing nothing is worse,” Summer says, loudly. “It’s worse not to do anything at all.”

People are staring, but Summer ignores them.

You didn’t think so a day ago!

It begins to rain.

There are no clouds in the sky, but it falls nevertheless.

Summer rubs the crusted blood on her hand. It had healed in the time she was sitting there, on the bed.

People seem to keep their distance from her, now, breaking in the stream of humanity, flowing around her like water ’round a stone in tide.

She closes her eyes a moment, leaning back against the shop door. It had boldly stated, in writing she could not read, that women were not allowed inside. A glamour could probably have fixed that. Or, failing that, she could have made herself look like Winter. Winter’s boyish body would do. Flat as a sapling and skinny besides, no one would question her.

But she doesn’t feel like it now, for some reason. Whether she’s lost her nerve or interest, following Thomas into the shop had not been at the forefront of her mind.

She can trust him.

Someone is approaching her, lifeforce breaking off from the stream around her. She opens her eyes and stares the child in the face as she steps towards her. The girl’s legs are quaking.

Summer just watches.

“What do you want?” She asks quietly.

“Please, lady- are you a hero?”

She blinks at that. “No.”

“O-oh. It’s just, my parents have been c-captured.”

Summer shrugs. But the girl is persistent.

“I t-thought you might h-help. You have the look of a noble.”

“Captured by who?” Summer asks. She’s surprised to find that she actually cares, and Winter acts as the guilty conscience wondering why she should be surprised.

The girl looks as if she wants to say more, but Summer can see the glowing tail of an enchantment about her lips. It hisses bright red as she opens her mouth, and she can see sweat break out on the girl’s skin. Something is preventing her from speaking her mind.

Summer reaches forward, grasps the magic, and gently pulls it away.

The Rose feeds on the energy, glowing brighter.

The girl blinks, then smiles quaveringly. Her face- which would be very pleasant if it weren’t for the dirt and grime covering it- looks about ready to burst into tears. “Lady-”

“Who did this to you?” Summer interrupts. “I imagine they thought it funny to leave the child unable to point them out to the proper authorities and tormented with the knowledge that no one could help them. And you are pretty brave. So just tell me who they are now, and I’ll beat ten kinds of shit out of them for you.”

Summer doesn’t know why she feels like she should do this. She’d never really even cared about humans much before. Except maybe Thomas. And that was a partnership of… convenience.

Right?

Will this help you find out more?

“It certainly won’t hurt,” Summer mutters.

The girl doesn’t notice. “P-please, milady, it was the Mage’s Guild.”

Thomas- how long had he been leaning with her?- stares. “Summer. Attacking the Guild- in any city- would be suicide.”

“We’re not going to attack,” Summer says simply, a plan forming in her head even now. “Lead the way, girl. And my name is Summer-Heat-Rising.”

The girl shows not a flicker of recognition, but she leads them on. The girl is probably too traumatized to introduce herself.

“Do you mean to just walk up to the gates and take her parents away from them? Lady Summer- have you gone crazy?” Thomas asks bluntly.

“Yeah, probably,” Summer replies lightly. “Come on.”

The Guild rises high into the air, an enormous stone structure. It doesn’t seem to be connected to the ground- rather, it floats, hovering gently, held up by magic- or possibly invisible pillars. The construction seems unreal to Thomas, but he’d seen enough strange things by now not to question it.

Summer frowns, though. That sort of magic could not have been worked lightly. She can feel it, can see it spread like an immense web. Winter may have the sight for magic words- Summer feels confident in her ability to see magic itself and the framework around it.

Before them, an immense gate. To either side the street widens, and fewer and fewer people linger here. Standing before the gate is one man wearing a grey robe, and in his fist he holds a large white staff. Whether painted or natural, Summer can’t tell.

It has no knob, and doesn’t appear to be very elaborate at all.

Humans. Robes are completely impractical for combat.

Summer strides towards the gate. She notes a large stone archway next to the gate, and a terminal similar to the one she’d seen in the past- the Serpent’s cave. The raised dais has different symbols on it, but she thinks she knows what would need to be done. But that isn’t foremost on her mind yet.

Though it might be useful later, Winter notes.

The man- who Summer can only imagine is the guard- stares at her. “Come no further, wench,” He says gruffly. “The Guild of Magi has no need of witches.”

“I am Summer-Heat-Rising,” She says quietly. “Second Season. Who are you to bar my path?”

The guard smirks, arches an eyebrow, and doesn’t answer for a moment. “I’m called Geoff. No fancy titles or nothin’. Just Geoff. And if you come near me, girl, I’ll knock your block off your pretty shoulders. Shouldn’t be wavin’ titles like that if you don’t know who they’re for”

All formal pretense officially dropped, Summer torches his lips off with the flick of a finger. In this city, with life all around her and the Rose at her hip, her magic hisses towards the guard’s mouth in a jet of invisible heat.

As he screams and paws at his face, running in comical little circles, Summer kicks his legs out from under him as she passes. Then she turns and punches down the fancy embroidered gate with one hand.

The crash it makes is deafening- spell-wrought iron slamming into the ground, the hinges splintering, the marble pillars cracking.

Her hand aches, but doesn’t blister- the iron isn’t naturally made, just as she’d thought. If it had been she’d have been jumping back and sucking on crackled knuckles.

Summer storms up the bridge towards the hall, power sheathing her in a heat cloak. Thomas and the girl just stare.

Summer enters the guild through the courtyard.

The guard stands up, rubbing his lips- which, while scalded, hadn’t actually been torched off.

“Are you alright?” Thomas asks.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” The guard mumbles weakly. “That was Summer of the Four Seasons.”

“I know. You should have believed her,” Thomas says, not unsympathetically. He walks over to stand next to the guard, dragging the girl with him.

“I always heard she had long blonde hair and was shaped more… you know, shapely. I guess the skin should’ve been a giveaway. Ow.

“She’s been ill,” Thomas replies dryly.

The guard doesn’t bother replying to that. He just leans back against the pillar and keeps his mouth open so that his tender lips don’t have to touch.

Summer, meanwhile, is busy.

The inside of the guild is filled to the brim with fancy decor- marble and ivory, pillars inset with precious stones. Engravings of wizards doing wizardly things are set in the stone on pillars and walls. Summer, however, is oblivious to any of it. She’s deep in conversation with the wizard in front of her- and it’s taking all of her concentration not to just roast the smug git and be done with it.

“Madam, we’ve no record of any urchin’s parents being held here. In any case, even if we did, the sheer amount of paperwork required to retrieve her would be ridiculous. I recommend you attempt to contact some form of personal detective for this work, rather than inserting yourself into what is obviously guild affairs and none of yours.”

The bearded man- wizard or not- is proving troublesome. Summer has developed a unique way of dealing with problems over the years, and she’s suddenly aching to use it. Something about him is irritating her.

“I’ve no time for this. You’re a sorcerer, are you not?” Summer asks sharply. “Show me her parents if you want to live.”

“Are you threatening me, madam?” The man asks dangerously. His beard twinkles at her. Who puts glitter in their beard? Cycle, who puts glitter in anything?

What a twerp.

Summer reaches forward, and her hand rebounds from an invisible field- well, semi-invisible. She can see it now, a shining field of red in the air between her and the man. So he knows a trick. She grits her teeth, but then stands straight and folds her arms. She glares at him, the barrier of his power all that separates him from incineration.

“I could break you one-handed,” Summer snarls. “All I want is the location of that ‘urchin’s’ parents. I’ll leave with them and that’s the last you’ll see of me.”

“My dear woman, what makes you think we’ll let you leave?”

Summer smiles grimly. “Do I look like I’m going to let you stop me?”

She lifts a hand. As power gathers there, she flings fingers of it at the wizard, who arches an eyebrow as the heat lashes his shield almost tenderly, breaking on it like waves against sand.

She twists her fingers and the shield, so strong before, blazes with heat again, boils on all sides.

“You’re good, for a hedgewitch,” the wizard concedes. “But not good enough. My guards will be here any moment, and they’ll soon overwhelm you.”

Summer forces a burst of heat, twisting and writhing, white light, to funnel forth from her hand. It splashes across the shield again, which glows in the air. The wizard takes a step back, visibly sweating.

Summer, no longer smiling, pushes the light again. That such a mortal could dare defy her… Worse, that he could near succeed in fending her off…

It’s simultaneously disturbing and exhilarating, to have something of a challenge. A flick of her fingers cuts the heat short, just shy of snapping the wizard’s shield into splinters. “You still have no idea who I am, do you?” Summer asks, feeling smug, but also hurt. The people of this city are either stupid, or simply don’t believe her. She’s not sure which one of those options she likes least.

The wizard, lips pressed into a tight line, answers by dropping the shield and unleashing a torrent of energy- cold and hideously powerful. It snaps into existence with a flash of blinding light, white and red twisted together. The tendril lashes at her, but Summer deflects it, power for power, drawing on the life in the city and sending the magic blow spinning aside. Nearby, a pillar liquifies, melting into molten, sparking dust. Part of her is shocked, and part of her is disgusted. To spend so much power without even thinking about the consequences- the arrogance of this human makes her sick.

She lifts her hand again, narrowing her eyes. She’ll end this man-

We need him!

Summer drops her aim, and the coil of her power strikes once- not at the wizard’s head, but at his belly. A blazing digit of power slams outward and carves a line across his midriff. His scream is satisfying.

As the wizard folds, Summer strides towards him. He’s clutching his stomach- which is an angry black and red, his robes burnt out around them. Staring at her in shock and rage, he lifts one hand, looks as if his mouth would form the words to a spell.

She doesn’t recognize it, but it doesn’t matter. Her hand reaches the man’s throat and she lifts him off the ground, heat gathering around her in a cloak. “Defy me again and I’ll boil your blood. I am Summer-Heat-Rising, and you are in my way.”

The man’s eyes flicker, and Summer throws him down again. She hears the clatter of staves on stone around her. Guards, no doubt. But she doesn’t really care right now.

The wizard, moaning and clutching at his stomach still- the blackened wound leaks red at an alarming rate. The blood should make her feel something, but Summer can’t pity him. She pities him even less as the other robed men- who by now surround her- catch her attention by raising their staves. And only now does she begin to feel a little vulnerable…

Their crimson robes make her sick in a fashion she can’t quite fathom. There’s something awfully familiar about them.

“Summer-Heat-Rising-”

She lashes out, spinning spreading her hands and hurling a blast of heat all around her, drawing the power in and letting it expand in a shockwave that forces everyone except the writhing wizard back, pushing them away from her with such force that two of them fall over, skulls smacking stone.

“Season or no, you’re violating the Guild law practicing offensive magic here!” A man shouts, though he shields his blue eyes from the blistering wave of heat. She rounds on him, hand curled, fingers extended. A single bolt should do, reduce him to ash. Winter, of course, realizes her intent.

No! If we start a war, we won’t find them! I know what you want to do, Summer, but this was never about you! We need these wizards- not only do they have the child’s parents, they might be able to send us to the shrine! You saw the portal outside, the gates- if it truly is one, we might be able to get to Spring and come back before Autumn finds us! We can get your child and be away before he knows what happened!

Summer hesitates a moment too long.

“Fates above, guide my hand- bind this woman with a brand!”

The chant is familiar, as if from a dream or a long lost memory, and its effects are immediate.

Searing pain caresses Summer’s back suddenly, and she snarls, whirling and loosing an instinctive tendril of energy at the source of the noise. A girl- could she be more than twelve?- stumbles back, Summer’s power crackling over her form as she falls. Her skin is blistered and it cracks under the heat. If the girl is screaming, Summer can’t hear it. Or anything, really. She stares blankly as the girl squirms in agony.

Part of her heart dies for a moment, catching in her chest, and she pushes it away.

She can’t move, she can’t hear, she can’t talk- nothing will work, and for a moment she wonders if this is what shock is, to be stunned by your actions, to be stunned into panic and to lose your life because of it. But…

The brand. The sigil that girl just cast- it’s draining your power, binding you.

Oh. That makes it a little more simple.

Summer twirls the Rose in her pocket, pulls it up and out, then squeezes, digging the thorns into her hand. Power fills her up, its wrath making her giddy, crackling over her arms and legs and shattering the sigil on her back.

She turns, Rose blazing bright in one hand. Her other hand sweeps up, and the men surrounding her fall back before it, cowering away from her fingers.

Don’t you care about what you’ve done?

Summer bites her lip, but such weakness could be the end of her here, so she swallows it down.

“Is that it? A girl can do better what men cannot do at all?”

“She is our head seer, little more than a child,” A man says listlessly. “And the Master of Light was also gravely injured.’

“I don’t want to fight. All I want are the urchin’s parents,” Summer says plainly. Her emotions roar at her, boiling beneath her skin. Right.

Crimson robes shuffle back a little. Her tone is gentle, but her green eye is blazing with fury, a trick she’d learned from Fall.

“They might be kept in the dungeon,” the same brave man hazards, gazing at her directly. He hadn’t stepped far. “Isiah, why don’t you go fetch them?”

“What- ah. Okay.

Summer stares at them suspiciously. But she has more questions, however shifty the answers she gets might be. “Fine, but what of the portal outside?”

“What of it? The gate has been closed for ages,” The man says quietly. “In a time before time it was sealed, by powers we cannot begin to imagine. We built this city up around it.”

Summer regards him warily. Green eyes and crimson robes, a sallow face and hands like wax run over a flame. This is what lesser magics will do.

Summer sighs, tosses her hair and releases her magic slowly, letting it seep back. “I can activate it again,” She says quietly. “But in return I want passage through and back, and the urchin’s parents.”

Every part of her is screaming at her to kill them all. But for once, Summer doesn’t quite feel like listening to herself.

“How will you atone for this?” The wizard asks of her, indicating the fallen Master and the burnt Head Seer.

“Blood shall be paid,” Summer replies steadily. “As a season, there must be balance. Take heart in that- it may not happen right now, but it will happen.”

“That hardly seems appropriate,” The man says mildly. “You’ve potentially killed two of our highest order.”

“I hardly think you’re in a position to demand more,” Summer snarls softly, temper flaring hot. “Or did you forget that I nearly killed two of your highest order?”

The sallow man’s eyebrows rise, then curl in anger. Those with power seldom feel good about losing it.

He glances at the Head Seer and the Master again. The Master has curled up and is breathing shallowly, the Head Seer is utterly motionless.

Summer watches the man wrestle with himself. But he seems to gather control again, for he looks up at her with a passive expression, even when behind his eyes he plots murder. Summer can read him easily enough, but his lack of fear she finds disturbing. There’s nothing she can really use here.

“I’ve got the girl’s parents,” A boy- can’t be more than twelve- volunteers, staring between Summer and the sorcerer with mixed fascination and terror.

Summer eyes him. He isn’t Isiah- Isiah was much older. She wonders where that one got to. His fire red hair had struck her as strange, and the blood of his robes had seemed strange too, marked with human runes. Nonsense, really.

Then her eyes travel to a pair of metallic spheres grasped in the boy’s hand. “What are those?” She asks quietly.

“T-travel spheres, miss,” The boy responds, shaky at having been addressed. “It’s- it’s a spe-”

“Irrelevant,” snaps the wax-skinned man. “Thank you Jeras. Dismissed.”

He turns to Summer. There’s a sort of jerkiness to his movements, as though controlled through extreme stress.

“Sir.” The Jeras boy deposits the spheres in the sorcerer’s hand and then scampers off.

“The rest of you- you all have work to do I imagine,” the sorcerer says quietly. “See to it. I’ll handle miss Summer.”

The circle of red robes scatters. A few seem to attend the Head Seer and Master, a few more simply fade, walking out of the stone arena and into the courtyard or passing through halls.

The green-eyed wizard turns to Summer and holds up the hand with the spheres. “These are the girl’s parents.”

“Release them.”

“Your bargain, miss Summer,” He growls. “First that, or I crush them and that’s the end of it.”

“What gives you the right-” One of the other red-robed men asks, but the look from the green-eyed one is murder, and he falls silent.

Summer is taken aback by how swiftly the tables have turned on her, but she shrugs. She was going to open the portal anyway, to get where she needed to go.

“What do you need the gate open for?” She asks quietly.

“Do you know how long we’ve existed on this side of the Barrier?” the man asks her. His voice, already dry, seems crackly now. “The Wheel has been here for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Summer stares at him. “What, exactly, is your point?”

“I want out,” He says quietly. “That portal- it can take you anywhere, yes?”

Summer shrugs. “Maybe. But there’s only one place I want to go. Then I can come back and continue on my way.”

“Well then. Lead on,” The man says.

She does, turning on her heel and walking out of the hall and into the courtyard, then down the bridge to meet Thomas and the girl. The portal stands dormant, the arch completely still and stone. Somber and solidly silent.

Summer walks up to the terminal, to the raised dais.

“We have tried every key, every combination of runes and sigils,” the sallow-faced man says. The girl, the urchin, is staring at him with something like complete hatred, and if Thomas were to let go of her arm, Summer feels she’d probably try to kill him.

“You don’t know the language,” Summer replies, wrenching her gaze away from the girl’s face. “How the fuck could you? All you know is fake magic, copied magic.”

“I think you seriously underestimate us-” He begins, but then stops as Summer presses one sigil and speaks one word, a word in a language beyond any reckoning, one that no human living had spoken.

“Fire.”

Summer’s hand blazes, the sigil flashes red, then sparks and crackles. Without further fanfare, the arch shimmers, then glows, bathed in a ruddy radiance. The portal is activated. Now all one needs to do is put in the right sequence of characters and-

A scream. A girl’s scream, Summer whirls, stares, sees a man- the sorcerer- wreathed in power, sees gold strands wrapped around the young girl, connected to his fingers. On the ground lie, still and cold, the bodies of two people- a man and a woman, side by side, hand in hand. Summer knows instantly, can feel that they are dead.

Her eyes lift to the man, who opens his mouth to say something, but Summer acts.

She punches her power at him before the words can escape his mouth, and his voice turns into a whine and the whistle of steam before his bones, incandescent white with heat, fall to the cobbles and collapse into ashes. The sallow-faced wizard is dead.

She slams one hand on the terminal as the girl falls, still wrapped in gold, in magic. She can feel the girl’s life-force ebbing.

The dais responds to her need, if not to her force, three symbols flashing in the air. The portal opens for her, showing a land of endless snow through the gate. Summer stares at Thomas, who stares back.

“Go,” She says shortly. “I knew it wouldn’t be this simple. Take her to Spring, he’ll know how to save her.”

He seems like he’s about to argue. His mouth opens.

“GO NOW!” Summer roars.

Thomas flees, picking up the girl- she must weigh nothing- and running through the portal. He looks back at her once from the snow before Summer slams her fist into the dais again, and the stone goes dark, before reverting to the blank ruddy red.

Whether or not she could fight all of the wizards in the guild was never the question. Whether she could protect Thomas and the girl both at once while doing so however…

You idiot! Why didn’t you just go after them and destroy the gate when you went through?

“We need to go back through!” Summer hisses. “Besides that, I don’t know that I even can destroy it. I only know the word to ignite it, I can’t put it out again! This way at least Thomas and the girl will be safe!”

Winter stops the mental retort, thinking about it.

Summer redirects the portal to the wastes of the Barrier. She twists the strands of power in the dais, taps out another few sigils….

But something is fighting her, and the terminal, the gateway, cracks under the pressure.

The red turns blue, cold and piercing, and impossibly, red-brown death lines the metal supporting the stone dais. A few runes glow sickly on the dais, and a sense of horrible foreboding overwhelms Summer’s senses. It can’t just be the destination- someone is fighting her from another side. But where could that be from-?

The runes are to a place she had never seen, but the title above them is quite familiar.

“Fall,” She breathes, disbelieving, backing away as the letters form.

The ground underneath her rumbles ominously, pitching back and forth, power crackling. She tumbles, rolling down the steps of the dais and landing on her belly.

Her body feels bruised, and she caught her elbow a nasty crack on the stone, but the shaking slows and then stops.

She pushes herself to her feet, turns towards the portal and comes straight face to face with her cold, blue-eyed brother. The clacking of His hooves on the stone is hideously loud in the sudden silence as He steps down towards her.

“That is my name,” Lord Autumn says pleasantly. “It is good to see you again, sister.”

Summer has a horrible feeling that he means it.

Demimind: Chapter 16

(16) Cover of Night

Somehow Summer manages to convince the dragon that they have need of it. Whether it could lift all of them- Fall, Thomas and her- wasn’t an issue. Whether it was willing was another matter, and one she solved readily.

“It won’t be a long trip,” She says apologetically. “But-”

-I owe you more than this,- The creature hisses. -It is no trouble, and time is, if what you’ve told me is true, of the essence.-

“That’s a different attitude than before,” Summer remarks.

-I did not know that the third season was destined to become a monster, or that the first would do nothing to stop his ascent. If things have advanced this far, there is no choice.-

Summer clambers up the smooth black scales and rests on the dragon’s ridged spine. The scales along the long, midnight back are longer and ridged, providing foot and handholds, though the way they grate together when the dragon moves is troubling- as if perhaps an errant motion might chop off her hands or feet where they are wedged.

“Is everyone ready?” She asks, knowing the answer. “We should make haste.”

Fall gazes up at her from his position on the ground, arms folded. “I’m not going.”

“Fine. Stay behind and look after Thomas,” Summer says. Truly she’d expected it.

Fall seems taken aback. “You don’t want me to come along?”

“I’d like some support, but it was pretty clear you wanted nothing to do with this beast from the start,” Summer sighs. “You can stay. Winter and I will be just fine.”

You sound pretty sure of yourself, Winter comments. And me, too. Kind’ve a sudden change in heart from a coupla days ago. Aren’t you scared he’ll find us?

“Yeah,” She whispers. “Of course. But if we don’t do this, we’ll die anyway.”

“Hey!” Thomas shouts from below. “You’re not leaving me behind, are you?”

The man shakes in his boots. His voice shakes with him. He’s terrified- as any mortal should be- of the dragon, it’s obvious in the way he holds himself. A few of the soldiers who had watched the wall are nearby as well. They’re all pointedly not looking at the dragon.

“Absolutely,” Summer says, smiling. “My servant would just eat you.”

“Well-”

Fall claps him on the shoulder and hisses something in his ear.

His face whitens, and he can’t speak now, just shakes his head. The gateguard backs away and waves helplessly.

“Stay alive until we get back,” Summer shouts down at them. Her new draconic friend is beginning to flap her large- but still undersized- wings. The long, serpentine body and the sinuous legs shift under her. Summer grips the ridged scales a little tighter. She should’ve had a saddle or something made. This is ridiculous.

“We’ll be fine,” Fall whispers. The breeze carries it to Summer’s ear. “Keep yourself- and Winter- safe, sister.”

He turns, arm around Thomas’s shoulder, and leads the man away. Still, Thomas turns his head a little and gives Summer a wink.

Something about the picture of it seems off, but by then the dragon hisses at her.

-Hang on tight, second season!-

Summer obliges, ducking down and focusing on keeping bile from staining the lovely black scales she clings to. Her eyes shut tight. There’s a jerking sensation, muscles rippling under her, and an immense force as the creature pushes straight off the ground. Wings flapping- but just for show- the dragon maintains and then pushes itself higher. Summer can feel its power- innate magic running, no, flowing over her fingers and legs. It’s a primal, a wild magic she can understand better than Winter ever could.

She exults in it, and for a few fleeting moments, she is Corevin, she is the dragon. Corevin is her name? Yes, she is Corevin. She can feel blood like fire running through her veins, the massive power behind each limb as it stretches, and above all, the joy of flight, the whistle of and hiss of wind as it pushes, snags at her. Yes, she needs to go this way- 

The link is cut. A massive presence in her mind peers at her suspiciously, shadowing Winter and Summer and making them cower in their own head.

-Watch where you pry, little season,- Corevin rumbles. -I agree to take you out of mutual need, not out of kindness or some imagined bond.-

I am the Second Season! I am Summer! Summer sniffles, as Corevin’s dreadful presence retreats. I shouldn’t have to deal with her looking down her nose at me.

Your grip is slipping, Winter says dryly.

Summer glances at her fingers, and realizes to her horror that Winter is right. The wind is monstrously strong, tearing at her fingers. Summer digs them in deeper into the scales and tries to ignore the vicious cold of the wind. They are quite high now, and the motion is making her nauseous- as well as taking her breath away. She tries to find the words for a spell that might make it easier on her, but none come to her admittedly foggy mind.

Here, Winter says silently. Take this.

It’s one of Winter’s spells, and will therefore draw on her power. Summer doesn’t really understand how Winter knew it so easily, but she’s grateful anyway. Winter takes her hand and pulls her through into her mind.

 –

Summer stands in the midst of a freezing cold blizzard now. She can feel her body against the scales of the dragon as it flies towards her Servant, she knows it. But she is also here. And try as she might, she can’t remember where here is.

“Summer,” Winter says. She’s a slip of a thing- four foot eleven, maybe, with short white hair. The snowstorm rages around them both, but it doesn’t even touch Winter. “Look at me.”

Summer does, her eyes finding her sister, focusing again through the snow. It’s so hard to stay awake when it’s this cold. Like thinking through a terrible cloud of suffocating smoke.

Winter is standing with her hands wide apart, skinny fingers spread. “Can you see the blizzard?” She asks quietly.

“I’m in it, you d-doofus,” Summer grumbles. The cold is making her bones creak.

“Watch,” Winter says, and claps her hands together.

Around them, the blizzard snaps into nothingness, vanishing as quickly as it’d come. Winter gives Summer a weary smile. “Remember.”

 –

Summer clings to her reluctant carrier. Her fingers are freezing. But she remembers. The clapping was just incidental- it should be possible to weave the spell without it. Whether she could always do this or it’s just a side-effect of being bound to Winter and likewise Winter being bound to her that allows them to share spells, Summer doesn’t know. But it works. She ties the threads of magic tightly together in her mind, intending as Winter did.

Spellpower floods her, roars through her cold, cold veins. She forces it outward, forces it to radiate from her skin, and suddenly there’s no wind at all around her. It doesn’t do anything for the cold already in her fingers, but she feels no wind, no force, no nothing but the scales- the muscles under her working tirelessly.

-Clever,- Corevin observes.

A bit sloppy, Winter snipes. Otherwise it’s serviceable.

“Thanks,” Summer mumbles weakly. Her stomach is rebelling, now that death isn’t an immediate concern.

She shuts her eyes again, so tightly that stars fill her black vision. All she can do is wait and hang on. Her fingers dig into the scales. “Are we almost there?”

-I do not think we have much further to go,– Corevin hisses back. -Do not worry. The Servant’s Lair is much warmer.-

It’d better be, Summer thinks grimly. I can feel my fingers contemplating frostbite.

The rest of the journey is taken by silence. The only sound Summer can hear is her own breathing and the grinding of Corevin’s scales. After what seems like an eternity, the dragon ducks, down, shifting. Summer looks up in time to see a wall of white. Then they fly through a cloud.

It’s freezing. Summer is drenched to her very bones, condensation sticking to her skin eagerly. She shuts her eyes again, gasping, trying to keep hold of herself as the cold sinks into her skin.

She finds herself shivering. There’s a pause as she lays there, flat against her dragon carrier’s back. She can’t hear the wind whistling, but she can feel her draconic ally’s muscles moving under her, can feel them twist in preparation. They’re about to land.

There’s a sharp impact, all the wind knocked out of her, and she’s flung from her perch, tossed off to the side. She feels herself start to fall. Something long and scaly wraps around her waist and stops her short. Her eyes open as blood rushes to her head. “Uh,” She manages weakly, staring down her waist at the long, spined tail wrapped around her.

It drops her on the ground.

She pushes herself up onto her knees. She knows this place well.

Dust and grit, sand and sorrow for miles around.

Nothing but crystal sands. There’s a stand of trees a few meters away, and nestled within the shade of their branches, an immense hole in the dust and dirt, with, she knows, steps of stone, ancient and worn, waiting for her return. She reaches out and touches Corevin’s flank as she pulls herself to her feet.

There’s an odd light here, as if cast by many moons at once. It’s bright, and yet pitch dark at once. Summer recognizes the feeling, even freezing cold as she is. Corevin’s tail is twitching back and forth, agitated, and her scaled lips are pulled back from sword-teeth in a snarl.

-He’s here,- She growls. -I can feel Him.-

“Who?” Summer whispers, though she knows the answer.

-Fall. The third season. Not the weakling you had with you, but something greater, something far more powerful. The Refracted One. He knew you would come. He is within.-

Summer shakes herself off, knocks some water off of her ears. Sand is stuck to her body in odd places. “Good,” She says. Suddenly, she’s not afraid at all.

Good? Winter asks.

“I’m in the mood to kick some ass.”

You cautioned me against fighting Him before, Winter points out dryly. In fact, you flat out yelled at me for it. You’ve recently had a birth. We’re not ready for this.

“I don’t care,” Summer replies grimly, striding towards the hole in the ground. Corevin watches with interest.

Summer stumbles when she reaches the hole, but recovers quickly. She sticks to the left side of the tunnel, taking her first step on weathered stone and keeping one hand on the stone wall for support. She steps down into the darkness slowly, edging her way into the unknown.

The stone steps are lined with faded runes that glow very faintly when she steps on them. They light the way back. If it were Winter’s body, seeing in the dark wouldn’t be a problem. It isn’t.

Corevin was right. The Lair is much warmer than it was outside. The heat is stifling, such that Winter has to hold in a mental yawn.

Summer is still shivering, though. The tunnel slopes, the steps continue down into the dark. She can feel an enormous concentration of lifeforce, and she can feel the threads of them connected to her, feeding her, giving her the strength to keep moving. Servants are crowded in the stone around her. She can feel their spirits stir at her coming. They wait here for ages, for years until a season or a god requires them. As she continues on her way, she hears something, on the very edge, at the very outside of her sense of hearing- as from a long, long way away… a clicking, hissing, and screeching noise in the walls and far above them.

Winter is suddenly wide awake. What is that? She whispers.

And all at once, Summer feels something that makes her want to hurry- for all her care not to trip and fall- that makes her wish she could run down the steps.

She steps faster, her heart thumping. She can hear voices down below. And a hissing, as of a tortured snake.

Gradually the tunnel flattens again, and she steps off the last stair. She turns for one fleeting moment- lights dance all the way up to the surface in a twinkling line- before she continues forward. The tunnel ground here is made of limestone, with scattered sand and ground grit covering smooth, slickly carved rock. More runes, recent ones, have been written on the walls here.

They glow with a familiar cold light.

Her heartbeat quickens and her hands clench. Summer keeps her mouth shut, her lips forming a grim line, her nails digging into her palms. Her body is tense- is it the closeness of Him… or something else that makes her feel so battle-ready? The hissing is growing louder, the voices clearer.

“Darling brother- are you sure she’ll come here?”

“I remember seeing her off, my sisters. Without a doubt she’ll be here.”

“Good. Do give me a ring when she arrives. I’d love to see the look on her face when you finish her off.”

“Of course.”

The voices, raised, come from around the smooth corner. The tunnel’s circular walls have given way to flagstone and an arch, separating living rock from worked construction. Summer takes a step onto a stone as quietly as she can.

Her future brother is expecting her. Just once it would be nice if things went according to plan. She takes a deep breath, preparing herself. She goes over the spell formula again, one more time, and takes a step around the corner. The hallway is too dimly lit here- the room beyond it shrouded. The voices have stopped. Is He looking at her right now?

We’ve come this far, Winter whispers. We can’t just go back now.

“Right,” Summer whispers back. “Here we go.”

She walks into the shroud, through it, and into the light. The cover of night slides away from her, falling like water as the light dries her and freezes her to the spot.

Waiting for her in the room beyond, her fallen brother stands, arms folded, light shining about His head like a halo, curling around His horns. At His feet lies the body of Jane, still and cold.

And in Summer’s heart, all she feels is anger, a sick green fury that burns so hot she’s sure she’ll melt the stone under her feet.

Demimind: Chapter 14

Maybe this will clear things up!

-Eris

(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.”

“Season’s 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?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“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.

“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.

“Wouldn’t dare.”

Demimind: Chapter 9

Back on schedule. Let’s end the week with something special.

-Eris

(9)Flight or Fight

Winter explains the fight with He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains insofar as she is able to recall. Summer is helpful too. It’s hard to speak around the lump of dread in her belly, but she finds the strength to tell Spring exactly what happened, leaving out only such uses of her own power as seem necessary to make Spring believe Winter was the only one capable of using it while Summer was bound.

He nods when it’s finished. “Yes, that does make sense.” He pauses, standing and rocking the baby, who had quieted at the sound of Winter’s voice. “Go, then. You’ve given me your blood, that’s all I needed from you. I won’t ask you to stay and fight Him in your condition.”

Winter stands, hesitates when she sees Spring and the child. “Come for it in seven days,” Spring says, his voice like stone. His face and his strange green skin are both lit by a cold, dread light from the window, as from the moon. It was midday when they arrived. “It will be here, if not in the shrine, safe in the ruins of it. Go now, before He finds you here and kills you. I will keep Him busy for as long as I can, but if He is driven there is nothing that will stop Him. Come for your baby in seven days- you cannot afford to slow down now!”

Winter dresses herself in frost, taking in power from the two men she murdered- so long ago, it feels- and expending it just as quickly, pushing her power into the shape of jeans and a shirt made of glittering cold. It conforms to her shape slickly, feverishly clinging as it was feverishly made. She looks around and spots the bead on the desk. She’d almost forgotten it. She strides over to it and snatches it up, puts it in her pocket with shaking fingers.

Thomas, never one to be left out, blinks in surprise. “She’s the one that man is after?” He says incredulously. “Winter?”

“Go!” Spring says, sharply now, ignoring Thomas. The light is much brighter outside now- still moonlight, halflight. And it’s wrong. Everything is quiet- no wind blows, no voices call, it is silent in the shrine, as if all the world were dead and this were the only refuge.

Spring pushes Winter towards the wall behind his desk, slaps a hand against the wood. It parts for her, pulling her through the newly formed portal into the outside. Not knowing what else to do, she runs.

Winter is quite experienced at running. In all her short memory, it feels like she’s done several lifetimes worth of running. It surprises her that someone is keeping up. She turns her head for a moment to regard Thomas, the gate guard, keeping pace with her, sandaled feet slapping the ground. “Let me go with you!”

She doesn’t answer.

The light from the sun is blocked by an oppressive darkness. The very ground under her feet feels hidden from her, though she can see it. It sneaks into her senses, outlining everything in gray. When she glances back- Don’t look back, dumbass! Keep running!- she can see the blinding light of a miniature sun- or a moon- shining at the gates. Past the gates, it strolls down the street, and she can almost hear the cloven hooves striking cobbles and stamping down on grass.

Then she tumbles, trips, but terror and adrenaline push her to her feet, the reflected light off her shimmering jeans and shirt cast over a tree root, and the bottom of the wall surrounding the city. When she looks up she can see it stretching high, dream-like, towering over her. No hope to climb it. But fortune favors her today- when she reaches out she finds a crack.

By sheer luck she seems to have come across a gap large enough for her. Spring, Summer says quietly.

It must be Spring, for the wood is bending out of her way, curling away from her as she slips through, Thomas following after her. Somehow, as with the spider-creatures and Jane, she can hear a voice, noises, fluttering on the breeze. She grasps at it, trying to hear it as she leans back against the wall, catching her breath. A few yards distant she can see the slope upward towards the forest and safety.

The noises- she can hear words in them. Some part of her knows it’s Eldritch- if a different dialect than with either Jane or the spider-women. It seems somehow more formal.

-Brother, so good of you to come! What can I help you with?-

The first voice is simple to decipher. It feels like the taste of honey mixed with bitter dandelion stems. It is Spring in a way that he could never hope to achieve with his body alone.

-As it happens, I came looking for our shared sister, Winter. Have you seen her?-

The second voice is pleasant, silky and sweet, but it feels like the taste of dead leaves as well, falling down and landing wet on the ground, of snow that fails because of the warmth, and plants that die because of the chill, leaving only slick sleet and empty bellies in its wake. It is extremely loud in her mind, and she clutches her head while Thomas can only watch helplessly.

-I have indeed. But we can discuss that over tea, surely?-

-Alas no, I am in a great hurry.-

There is one more word after that, in the same pleasant tone, but it coincides with a noise like the heavens shattering. The sound is so loud it is felt, all over Winter’s body, it picks her up and tosses her like a frightened leaf, end over end until she slams into the ground a good twenty yards distant. Thomas, when she rises, is nowhere to be seen.

Her feet shake under her.

She runs. Her feet carry her, wrapped in her own personal hoarfrost. The chill comforts aching bones as she pushes herself forward and away from the town where two brothers fight. Fight for her.

Fight because of her.

Her hands clench, but she stumbles along until she finds it- until the circle of heat, of eternal spring, seems to come to an end. She pauses a few moments, standing there at the very edge of frost’s breath.

And then, with Summer cursing her in her head the entire time, she turns. Descending from the sky towards her, towards the outskirts of Spring’s realm, there are lights, cold orbs of light that flash and pulse in the air, filling her with a dread, the sight of them making her mind weep in panic. They are like the lights she saw descending through the ceiling of the cavern, so long ago, the ones that slew Jane, and the memory makes her heart hard and chill with sudden fury.

Even as she trembles in terror she notices Thomas there lying in the grass a good hundred feet distant, and notices an orb’s light pause over him. And Summer, curse her, is uncaring, vicious, trying to seize control and pry her eyes away, but Winter beats her back, an internal strength borne of fury pushing her down. She staggers back down the slope she fled up, back into the valley of Spring, back towards the town, but mostly towards Thomas, who trusted in her sister’s words and wanted to come with her for answers that he might never get, who was willing to run with her and risk losing everything.

Who is about to lose everything.

Summer screams in her mind, but Winter reaches Thomas just as the orb descends, just as it’s about to brush one tantalizing tendril of light across his terrified face. The oppressive darkness closes about Winter.

A companion. Someone to help her where Summer can’t.

Does she deserve him? The answer doesn’t matter.

Winter reaches out. Summer had shown her the way before, the only thing she knew how to do, the only thing she had learned. She shuts her eyes and extends her fingers, her hand, lets the gap open. Her mouth utters a word in a language she doesn’t recognize, but one she heard before- though it had made no sound.

Feed

Her hand widens, time and space distort while she concentrates, she focuses on the orb, on its light, on the taste of it as she imagines, of dead leaves and cold, bright power. Her fury opens the floodgate and sucks the orb’s power inside whole, the power from it twisting, writhing as it’s dragged away into the vacuum of Winter’s space. The very fabric of reality seems to stretch, twisting, distorting the image of the light in its grip. The ribbon of force from the orb shines bright blue as it ripples through the air into her hand and is siphoned away.

Her foot strikes a root as the last of the power fills her. 

She stumbles in her run, drops down onto the grass, hands splayed to carry her tiny frame’s weight. Sheer power floods every limb, radiates frost from every single pore, seeps from her into the ground, instantly flash freezing the grass around her, the chill spreading like a cold wildfire, so freezing it’s hot in her. Summer is gone in a flash, in a second. Her mind vanishes, blown out in a fraction of a moment, leaving Winter alone in her head.

And Winter pulls herself to her feet alone, closing the last few feet between herself and the prone Thomas. The orb has fallen from the sky and thunked into the grass, lifeless. She notices that it seems to be a swirling sphere, filled with more spheres- glass. She reaches down and hesitates. She can’t lift Thomas like this. Not brimming with power like she is- instinctively she feels if she does she’ll snuff His life out in a moment, in a breath. She’s so very cold now that nothing, surely nothing could survive her presence.

Does she even like Thomas? The power makes it hard to think. She remembers him only vaguely from Summer. Yet as a keening fills the air, as a hissing cascades through the sky to land squarely at her feet and raise a horned head to gaze at her, she takes one step forward and stands directly in front of Thomas’s prone figure, arms apart and fury steady in her belly and chest, wiping away her terror.

Power crackles all over her, she can feel it. A breath of winter.

Her breath makes the air freeze- but just standing here in the cold light of her brother is making her legs quake. It gets worse as He rises to His full height and regards her, as His expression turns from detached interest to a kind of horrible anger, as His skin shines ruddy red in the light of His own power. She notices His feet, which are cloven, like a goat’s hooves, studies- in a terrifyingly calm way- the shape of His horns where they meet His head and curl.

“I’ve found you, my wayward sister,” He says, his tone amiable despite his expression of complete fury. “Now, why haven’t you fled, I wonder?”

Winter, without realizing it, stands in a circle of bitter cold, an almost palpable wall of antiheat separating her and Thomas from the horned man’s light. He paces around it now, circling her in a way reminiscent of a shark, or a tiger.

“Surely,” He says quietly, without waiting for her response. “You can feel my power.”

She can. She trembles, it makes her legs weak. Her heart, however, is crystal. It won’t move, it’s stopped beating, and slowly, as she stands there, she feels her trembling stop.

“Why?” He asks simply. “Now I am curious. Oh, I am angry as well. I can’t help that. But that can wait-”

Footsteps, crunching on frozen grass.

“Can it, brother?” comes a voice, and it surprises her as much as him that it comes from Spring, who stands, still holding Summer’s baby in one arm. The other hand is empty- no weapon, no glittering power like what simmers in the palm of their mutual brother. Instead it seems his hand is scarred, weathered and wrapped in vine. It smokes, suggesting it was burnt by something.

Fall arches an eyebrow, His glare falling on Spring, and then- though it’s only a for a moment- softening when it rests on the child. “Did you think that bringing a whelp would stay my hand? Our sister will give me back what she’s stolen with or without your interference.”

Spring raises his own hand and shakes his head ruefully. “I know I cannot stop you. I’m merely curious as to what she took from you, to make you so angry.”

He pauses, then smiles. “And perhaps a little curious as to how she could be defying you.”

“Were this not your domain, I’m sure it would be a simple matter,” Fall snarls. And it is a snarl, His voice taking on an almost bestial rage, fell and terrible. “As it stands, she has the advantage, being in a domain that stands close to her own. Rather, you have made your home nestled deep in the center of her dominion! Were Summer unbound I would kill her in an instant, here- as to what she took, she’s stolen the illmetal bead from me. It is that bead I seek.”

“Was the bead not hers from the start?” Spring asks slyly.

“Of course not-” Fall starts, straightening and turning. Winter strikes. A Word snaps into existence from behind He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains, dropping from Winter’s mouth and flowing for a moment before lashing out: Bolt.

The bolt of cold is made of almost pure winter power, focused and coherent. It screams, banshee-like, tearing the air to pieces as it passes before it slams into Fall from behind, washing over His back and knocking Him face first into the grass. He slides a few meters before coming to a rest.

For a few moments, nothing happens. Winter’s hand remains outstretched, her expression one of determined fury. She isn’t actually entirely sure how it had happened. No one looks more surprised than Spring, whose eyebrows have raised to the point of disappearing, and whose freckled face opens in awe, eyes wide.

He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains slowly pushes Himself to His feet. Frozen blood winds a small trail down His side, but it heats in the light shed by His radiance.

The blast has woken Thomas, who groans and, stiff from cold, manages to push himself to his own feet, swaying slightly. Winter almost reaches out a hand to steady him when she remembers, and so she urges him away from her instinctively, guiding a soft hand of frozen air to tug him out of her circle and out of harms way.

It’s just in time. Fall returns a burst of power, and Winter lets out a sharp cry. Instinct again takes over. She gestures at the ground, and her voice shapes a piercing whistle, in which a single Word is heard: Wall.

It springs into existence, ice and frost leaping high to shield her. She feels some of her power trickle into it, though the power from the orb still fills her up. The blast of Fall’s power washes off of it without even denting the swirling blizzard.

She hears, above the wind and frost swirling around her, another word of power. Fall’s Word, in his sickly sweet voice.

Ray.

There’s a sound like the smell of thunder, like the taste of lightning, a flash of heat that feels like it singes her hair from her skull, even behind the veil of frost she’s created. It swirls around her as well, an impenetrable globe of pure cold. She shuts her eyes, and behind them she can see the red glow. Her heart of crystal thumps slowly in her chest, but she stands firm. The hissing of steam, the explosive heat… it causes Summer to stir.

You- you’re fighting Fall! You idiot! Run!

“He knows where I am!” She shouts above the noise. “I can’t just run!”

Yes you can! Here, I’ll show you the way!

And Summer acts. Winter’s hand points behind her without her quite willing it. Summer guides her finger in an unfamiliar pattern. Lucky we’re so close to a Fount here- no wonder you’ve got so much power!

“What?”

There. The rune is ready. Touch it and you can go! Come on!

Winter risks a glance at the rune- and it is indeed there, hovering in midair, so solid it hurts to look at it.

And, Cycle curse him, Thomas is trying to push through the veil behind her. She can actually feel him, feel him pushing through the curtain of sleet and frost that surrounds her. She touches him, but only for a moment, and without hesitation.

She grabs his wrist and forces his hand to touch the rune.

Thomas disappears.

After a moment of temporal uncertainty in which Summer can be heard quite clearly, Winter vanishes as well, and her wall of frost likewise disappears.

You complete and total dumb-…

And then there is no trace of either Winter or Thomas.

In their place, a small puddle of water soaks into hungry burnt grass.

Still one second later, Fall stops His own casting, closing His hand into a fist and dropping it to His side. Steam rises from His body, and the ray of power vanishes. He turns His gaze to Spring, who shrugs.

“Women, eh?” He says, seemingly genuinely cheerful. “Want a bite to eat before you go, or…?”

“I have work to do,” Fall replies shortly. There is a bright flash of light, and the moon swallows Him whole.

Day comes quickly as the darkness follows Fall. The sun returns to shine as brightly as it had an hour previous, the birds again singing in the land of eternal spring. It’s possible, if one listens very closely, to hear the distant chittering of squirrels and the happy giggling of townsfolk caught up in the joy of life.

Bringer-of-Spring blinks a few times to clear his vision. He looks around hopefully, wondering if perhaps Winter had survived or maybe stuck around, and then sighs heavily. It looks like it’ll be a lonely walk back, then. He cradles Summer’s child, rocking it back and forth slowly. It just now has begun to wake- how on earth it managed to sleep through the duel is beyond Spring.

On the whole, he decides, that could have gone worse. He’d better go and tell the gatekeeper the bad news about his former partner. Thomas, right? Now why had he gotten involved too?

Spring kicks the dirt, suddenly feeling moody. Well. He’d have to ask about that, in seven days’ time. In his arms, the baby smiles.

Demimind: Chapter 8

(8)To All A Light Devoured

“You’re a monster.”

Winter stands, facing Summer with arms folded. The latter of the two takes a step back from the heat of that strange-eyed gaze. It’s one they share, though Summer’s is mirrored to hers- one green and one blue.  They stare, not like accusing orbs, more like accusing suns.

An accusing son.

He stands there now too, by Winter’s side. The concentrated force of their eyes makes her shrink away. The boy’s eyes are pale white. Blind? 

Her son.

Where did she learn that?

“Will you pay for what you’ve done?” The boy asks. His voice is like a dagger, cutting at her belly, its razor edges parting her skin, and now blood covers her lower body. She’s drenched in it, it cascades in a flood, a dam that has burst, dripping down her thighs and onto the cold, unforgiving nothing. Oblivion. She is standing on the edge of oblivion now, watching the blood spiral away into nothingness, the nothingness she’ll fall in, she’ll topple in if she gives way even for a moment.

She teeters, waves her arms for balance, but a hand reaches out of the slit in her belly and pulls her forward, grasping her neck, stretching impossibly long. Spring’s hand, Spring’s head has also slid forth from the cut in her womb and it grins at her, baring razor sharp fangs, no, not Spring, it is the Spider Queen, it is that fell eight armed monster and it hurts, it hurts so badly, she can feel her muscles tightening, tightening until they threaten to snap.

She pitches forward into oblivion, and for a few moments, hangs there.

Then she drops, a stone, a stone with a strangely aching cheek, as if something hard struck it, like a stone, like herself. For she is a rock. She is falling as a rock.

And now she is falling.

And now, she is falling.

Now.

now.

“Now!” Spring says sharply. And his hand is already swinging when she opens her eyes, so he strikes her cheek. Her gaze is a glare. It startles him so much he jumps, loses hold of the blade and hears a thunk as it slides to the hilt into a crack between the floorboards, missing his already sore toe by a hair.

And there she is, lying on the mat in front of him.  It’s Winter. Her cheek stings, Spring can feel it stinging, he can also feel his belly slit open. He glances at Winter’s belly- it’s whole, and decidedly unpregnant, for which he is grateful. He isn’t certain if unpregnant is a word, but he’s certain that it’s what he would use to describe her condition.

Yes.

He breathes a short sigh of relief, letting go of some of his tension. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath. If Winter’s eyes are open, she’ll be awake soon, and with some luck she’ll also respond to the cold favorably.

No twins, then. He stares at the bundle wrapped in the cloth, wrapped in the grasses from the skirt and shirt, the woven magics of Summer. He strokes the baby’s hair absently. Strangely enough it doesn’t seem inclined to cry. It breathes, though, so he doesn’t need to give it a swat. Besides that he’s not sure if that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. He’d only done a few births that had worked out. What happens if it doesn’t work out?

Summer nearly died. There had been more blood than Spring could’ve credited, it had taken the combined magic strength of the wand and the heat from the whole of his territory to provide enough magic power to heal her again. She’ll still have a scar.

Is it a boy? He studies the baby carefully. Or is it a girl?

Its skin is what worries him. Its skin is bronzeish peach from the waist down and incredibly pale, like fresh snow, from the waist up. It reminds him of Summer’s skin- the bronze, that is, and the pale could only belong to Winter. Very curious. In all his time pretending to be a doctor he’d never seen anything like it. Generally babies resembled both father and mother, but not having seen the father Spring can’t fathom what he looked like.

He decides it’s just a mystery. No sense finding out now. As his grandfather had always said: “It’s nothing to do with the money, all I really want is a drink, so here’s a hundred coins, go out and buy me a damn good drink or I’ll lop your ear off.”

Actually, when he’d got older he’d just sort of learned to take the coins and buy himself the drink. After his grandfather was dead, anyway. It’s not like he was going to use the coins. But ah, the mind does wander in old age. What was he thinking about?

The baby, that was it. Summer and Winter’d probably notice the difference in skin color and have a row, but it’s no big deal to Spring.

It’s not his baby, after all.

Winter stirs on the mat, and he starts, staring at her again. Will she wake?

She does.

Her eyes snap open, and she sits bolt upright, rubbing her arms, and sweating profusely already. Her eyes wander about the room until they lock onto Spring.

“Who are you?” She asks sharply.

“My name is Bringer-of-Spring,” He says smoothly. “You are Winter-Long-Frost, I suppose. We’re brother and sister.”

She seems to think about this for a moment.

“Yes. My belly feels sticky.”

She looks down at her belly, then turns and seems to notice the redness that soaked into the mat. Summer’s blood.

“Is this a hospital?”

Spring thinks for a moment about how he should answer that. “Yes and no. It’s more a refuge for the faint of soul.”

Winter, ever sharp, shrugs and sighs. “What’s going on? Why is it so hot?”

She focuses then, stares at the bundle in Spring’s arms. “That’s Summer’s baby,” She says flatly. “Why do you have Summer’s baby?”

“Well, aside from giving her hospitality, she had a forced birth on the mat you’re sitting on,” Spring replies dryly, all cheerfulness replaced by the tired feeling of explanation. “And, since you ask, I am holding this baby because Summer, obviously, cannot hold it herself.”

“It’s hard to think,” Winter says blearily, though it’s unlikely she heard herself. Her eyes are drooping for some reason. It’s the heat. Yes, that’s it. Heat saps her strength. She remembers that now. “It’s very hot.”

Spring blinks, then smacks his forehead and snaps his fingers, murmuring a word which drops into the air like flash-ice. Immediately a cool breeze floods the room, blowing in through a window and over Winter, clearing her thoughts and blasting through the heat fog.

“Ah!” She cries. “Summer’s baby! Is she hurt? Summer is bound, I can’t take care of her baby for her! I don’t know the first thing about it!”

Spring rolls his eyes and gives her a lopsided grin. “Well actually I think I’m the one meant to take care of it. Seeing as I helped to birth it and have a degree in medical science. Not that science is really valid here, I suppose. But if it were then I would be overqualified.”

Winter’s eyes narrow. “A bit overeager, aren’t you?”

“My dear woman, my sweet sister, why would I lie to you?” Spring asks quietly. His voice sounds as weary as Winter looks. “Think.”

“Well,” Winter begins, and then stops. “I don’t know. Who are we? Are you my brother? Really?”

Bringer-of-Spring stands up, easing tension in first one leg, and then the other. “Yes. We are related by blood. Only Summer knew of it. Well, technically only Summer is related to me by blood, but you’re both in one package.” He smiles. “You are related to me by mind.”

“That,” Winter says slowly. “Is a bit of a stretch. I barely know you and it’s a bit of a-“

“What I mean is,” Spring interrupts hastily. “We’re alike because we are both outshined and outmatched by our older siblings. Well, to be frank, your older sibling. Not your body-mate- in that you are sisters by coincidence.”

“My older sibling?” Winter says, though there’s a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach and she can’t say why.

“Better known by his name and title, Fall.”

At the precise moment that Spring utters the name, there is a rumbling beneath Winter’s rear- beneath the foundations of the shrine itself. Before she can react, everything is twisting and trembling.

The entire shrine is shaken to its very rafters, the lamp hanging from the wall guttering, the flame finally doused by its violent shaking and in a flash of sparks, a crash as it strikes the floor. It burns there, a tiny flickering fire, before a cold wind douses it again.

After the aftershocks fade away, and Spring relights and replaces the lamp, and only after that, does he talk again.

“Sorry, ah, He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains,” Spring says sheepishly. “I forgot.”

“How the hell do you forget something like that?” Winter asks irritably, rubbing her head where it smacked into the floor. She sits up again.

Spring’s only response is a shrug.

“Hey! You changed the subject on me!” Winter accuses. “Why are you so eager to look after Summer’s baby?”

“Why are you?” Spring snipes back, cradling the baby as if it were truly his own. “Tell me that, eh?”

“I’m not,” Winter snaps. “I’m just-“

“Excellent! Then I’ll do it!”

He rushes over to the desk on the far side of the room, picks up a quill from its surface and begins to write. There isn’t a chair for him to sit in, but it doesn’t seem to bother him.

“So what do we do?” Winter asks, peering over Spring’s shoulder. Her mind-brother shrugs again, flashes her a grin.

“That all depends on what you’re willing to give up,” He says quietly. “What would you do to have Summer unbound?”

“Would it solve my memory problems?” All Winter can think about is how nice it would be to have her memory back.

“Yes and no,” Spring hazards. “To be honest, I have no idea what it will do. I’ve never had need of it before.”

“How encouraging,” Winter mutters to herself. She glances again at what Spring is bent over. On the desk in front of him, the baby cradled in one arm, he draws frantically with a quill in what she prays is red ink. From the smell, though, thick in her nostrils, it’s probably something closer to liquid red licorice. The scroll he writes on is almost smoking, and his hand is moving in a blur she can barely even see.

“Why aren’t you using a pen?” She asks. She picks one up from the table and stares at it. Something about its length, about the words written on the plastic catches her eye…

“Put that down,” Spring answers without looking up. “They’re much more dangerous than mere pens, or I’d have more than two of them. It’s a wand.”

Winter arches an eyebrow, but says nothing, setting it back. Part of her feels uncharacteristically sharp, and she can’t put her finger on it…

I’m here, you doofus.

“Oh,” She says, very quietly. “I wondered when you’d wake up again. Did you know you had a baby?”

Yes. Spring is holding it.

“So you have paid attention,” Winter says, more dryly than she means to. Her belly is boiling with something like anger. It also still hurts, as if she’d been cut instead of her sister. “Why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant?”

I didn’t think it’d come up so fast!

“Well how much time were you going to allow for it?

Look, I never thought that time would progress for me while bound. Sure I was on the brink of bearing when I challenged He-Whose-Name-Shakes-

“You knew about the baby and you still decided to fight him?” She shouts, and then stops. Spring is giving her a queer look.

“Ladies,” He says softly. “Please calm down. You’re scaring the baby, and if it wakes up and decides it’s time to cry, if I get one rune wrong, this entire shrine could explode. While I’m sure I’d be fine, it’d hurt the townsfolk and probably kill you and Summer in your weakened states. Kindly save the shouting match for later. Thank you.”

His voice is quite soothing, so Winter decides to force a smile and a nod. On the inside she’s stone cold, and every single part of her trembles with barely contained fury. Summer had the nerve to talk to her as if she had no right! Clearly the woman has no sense of honor or duty or anything, always going on as if she can…

Her memory buzzes for a moment, hisses in her ears and her mind. There’s a splitting sharp pain searing through the top of her head. It drops Winter to one knee before it passes. What happened? What was she thinking about? As the pain fades, she straightens and leans on the desk. Suddenly her thoughts are worse than ever. But…

Yes, Summer. She really had no right to the baby. Winter is sure she can take care of it just as well as the woman in her head could. Which is a full change from before when she was equally sure she couldn’t, but she’s not about to admit it.

What is she going to do about Summer, anyway? How could she go about getting rid of her? The woman has been nothing but trouble so far, after all. Nothing but… trouble.

Winter stares at the desk, and at her hand splayed on the desk. Her vision swims, and for a single moment, her skin flashes bronze from pale white.

“Steady! Winter!” A voice says sharply, near her ear. She sways, is unsurprised when an arm wraps around her waist and a too-hot hand covers her mouth for a moment, forcing something between her lips.

“Swallow.”

Whatever it is in her mouth feels like a red hot coal, but she swallows it without thinking and lets it burn. At least the horrible chill will leave her for a moment. She’s so cold in a moment she’s sure she’ll be shivering. And so angry.

The arms release her. Her vision clears and her head stops spinning. She shakes herself to clear the feeling as well, but the cold doesn’t quite leave her. Which is right. She’s Winter, yes?

She turns and glances at Spring, who is shaking off frost and snow. She glances down at the floor of the shrine and notices, for the first time, that snow and ice have taken root in the floor- for want of better word- snaking in lines wherever her feet touch.

“Do try to stay calm,” Spring pleads. “It’s best for us all when I don’t have to touch you in order to keep you from going bonkers.”

“Oh,” Winter replies stupidly. “Well then. What have you made?”

“It’s… a latent ability preparation system. Or LAPS for short.”

“Laps,” Winter says flatly. “Really?”

“Oh shut up,” Spring snips irritably. “Anyway, it’s a pill which will keep you from needing to switch places with Summer for seven days. At the end of the seven days it releases the energy built up and allows Summer to function in her body for seven days. Then the cycle should, in theory, repeat.”

“What, forever?” Winter asks suspiciously. “What’s the catch?”

“The catch is that Summer’ll have to let you out at all,” Spring says dryly. “The only reason I’ve developed this at all is because it’ll piss her off to know she’ll need to allow you any time. And because I know it’s best to let Summer out as well as Winter. You can’t have one facet without the other- it damages your memories. This device-“

“It’s a pill,” Winter points out. “You can just say ‘pill’. I had it. Tasted like a burning hot coal.”

“-will make sure that you don’t go insane,” Spring finishes, ignoring Winter’s interruption.

Now that piques Winter’s light-headed interest. “Insane?”

Spring sighs. “When one of you is trapped, the other one gets all the stress of being confined. You’ll feel caged and it will get on your nerves to the point where you eventually snap. You have to feel both Summer’s and your own emotions, as well as the terror of being trapped which Summer can’t feel because the chemicals in her body aren’t active. Only yours are, so only you will feel it. Don’t ask me why it works that way, our brother is responsible for it,” He finishes smoothly. “As for why Fa- er, He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains- did this, I have no idea. I’m sure Summer could tell you some things.”

Winter listens carefully. She understands completely, of course. It all makes perfect sense. She nods when Spring seems to have finished. “Okay. I think I’ve got the idea. Thanks!”

Spring rolls his eyes and stands up straight. “It’s the least I could do, really. My sisters, now I need your help.”

Awfully to the point, isn’t he?

“You remember him, does he usually do this?” Winter hisses back.

Yeah, pretty much.

Spring ignores this and waits.

“Well, you did help us. What do you need?” Winter asks warily.

“A drop of blood,” Spring replies, suddenly sheepish and not looking at Winter’s face.

“I should think you got enough of Summer’s,” Winter says flatly. “It’s all over the mat.”

“Yes, yes,” Spring says hastily. “No, I mean I need some of your blood in particular.”

“How can Summer help with that?” Winter isn’t feeling so comfortable about this. But the man did help her, after all.

“She already has,” Spring says. “No, all I really need is for you to hold still and hold your arm out.”

Winter lifts the limb and stares at her brother warily. “What are you going to AH-“

She immediately tugs it away, clutching a hand over her arm, crimson seeping out between her fingers. Spring didn’t appear to move. One moment she’d stood there, arm out, the next Spring is holding up a vial filled with her blood and she’s clutching her cut limb.

And then as Spring returns to the desk and gently replaces the vial back on its surface, Summer notices the silence.

Something is wrong. It’s day still, isn’t it? There are no crickets, no birds. It’s dead quiet out there. And look at the windows!

Winter glances around. Darkness has flooded the world. It can be seen through the bare windows of the room. While never exactly bright, the shrine is now so shrouded in the black from outside it reminds Winter of the cave, back with her Servant.  She hadn’t noticed at first. Her eyes had just adjusted to the gloom. She’d assumed night had fallen…

But even then there’d be owls and similar making noises, right? But there’s not a sound from outside, and as Spring straightens and turns back, she can see that his smile has turned to a tight-lipped frown.

“Night comes awfully early around here,” He says quietly. “But it most certainly does not come this early. Something else is at work-“

The lamp flickers and gutters as another cold breeze hisses in through the windows. Spring moves to close it and reels back as another gust of wind hurls a flood of red and yellow leaves into the shrine. “Oh,” He says quietly, adjusting the baby in his arms. “Well.”

There’s the distant sound of the double gate guarding the entrance slamming open, then footsteps on stone.

Moments later a man bursts into the room, and Summer, still watching from Winter’s head, recognizes him as Thomas the gate guard. The baby, quiet until now, decides it’s time to cry.

“Bringer-of-Spring!” He shouts, panting for breath, trying to be heard over the baby’s wails and Spring’s desperate attempts to get it to hush. “A man, hooded, has appeared at the gates! He claims his name is forbidden and that he seeks a woman- by short name name of Winter! What should we do?”

Spring’s eyes lift from the baby- which hasn’t stopped crying- and pierce Winter, nailing her to the spot. Her blood runs hot under the pressure of that gaze. “I think it’s about time you told me why you’ve got your brother’s binding upon you in the first place, Winter,” He says grimly. “And I don’t even care which one of you it was who provoked Him.”

Outside and on cue, the wind howls as it tries to tear the shrine down around them.