An open, tortured plain stretches on into the distance. Withered patches of grass and old, dried mud litter the ground. Two children, a boy, tall and thin, and a girl with long blonde hair beyond her years sit next to each other. They’ve never seen each other before. In fact, they’ve just met. But the girl feels a kinship with the boy all the same.
“Summer,” the girl says uncertainly, brushing out tangles from her long hair. “My name is Summer. What’s your name?”
“Spring,” The boy replies quietly. His hair waves in the breeze. It’s fresh green and stands straight up, reeds growing from the top of his head. “But there are more of us.”
“How do you know?” The girl called Summer asks, staring at him. The boy frowns, and then shrugs his thin shoulders.
“I just do,” He answers lamely. “Come on, we can’t stay here.”
“Spring is a stupid name,” the girl says sharply, giving Spring a glare. “And why is your hair so weird?” She doesn’t know why she’s acting mean, and she regrets it as soon as she says it. But she can’t take it back, either, so the silence stretches on between them.
Spring doesn’t answer. He simply stands and walks off across the plain. The landscape is pockmarked with enormous craters and holes- the grass has overgrown them, twining around twisted bits of shining rock that jut up out of the ground.
Summer, not knowing what else to do, follows him.
Summer comes awake with a start. She is lying on a bed of straw. It isn’t the first time that she’s felt it under her. What disturbs her most is her lack of clothes, and the fact that she’s slept long enough to have developed another scar from the earthmetal blade that struck her.
She rolls over onto her belly, then pushes herself up to a standing position. Her hands hang loosely by her sides for a moment. She isn’t wearing an earthmetal collar, fortunately. No iron binds her. But there’s so little life around her she feels it can’t really matter. There hardly seems to be any way she could fashion new clothes. It’s quite dark here, and she simply can’t see anything from where she stands.
She concentrates, lifts a hand, and wills a flame into existence. Unsurprisingly, nothing happens. If she’d slept more than a few hours, it would probably be the lack of any living life source near her that did it. Combined with the lack of food for her physical body in some weeks… yes.
No wonder she hasn’t a speck of power left. She’s only alive because it’s still functioning on a vital level, preventing her from being hungry.
She walks to the edge of the cell and raps on the door sharply. It’s made of stone, but she barely notices. She feels weak- and it’s only confirmed when the door doesn’t snap to little splinters. The thuds her fingers make are swallowed up by the stifling dark.
And then she remembers the Rose.
She’d kept it with her. Nothing short of the works of another Season could have kept it from coming with her. She snaps her fingers and grasps it by the thorny stem as it appears. The sting as the translucent thorns scratch her hand reminds her she’s alive.
Hey- Winter says. What are you doing?
“Getting us out of here,” Summer replies quietly. “We don’t have time for this!”
She sucks in a breath, lifts a hand again, and wills the door to melt away. Threads of power, drawn in through the thorns of the Rose, thrum into action.
Heat discord vibrates through the stone. It turns molten cherry red for a moment, and then slides aside as Summer steps through. Pure energy flows through her veins- she feels giddy with it, almost consumed by it. It tingles in her arms and legs, and some of her old confidence returns.
Careful. I don’t know exactly what happened, but judging by the scar you’ve got, all that power didn’t help before. That girl cut you, and you dropped.
“She caught me off guard,” Summer hisses, and then stops, pauses in the doorway. An earthmetal sword would slice through anything she could conjure in a moment. Only true heat barriers would stop something like that, and even with all of her power it hadn’t been enough to stop that metal blade from carving her up. Whoever the girl Casper is, it seems suddenly prudent to have every assurance possible, should she run into her again.
At the same time, it feels almost as if it won’t make a difference. It still helps her steal the courage she needs to take a few more steps down the forbidding hall. It’s all made of stone, and the walls bleed wet at her as she passes. It’s cold enough that the heat surrounding her hisses and crackles.
Rose clenched in one fist, her other hand sheathed in flame, she continues into the darkness.
She comes to a turn in the smooth stone hall, rounds it, and is confronted with another long, dark hallway, as bland as the first. Presently, as she walks, she notices that the stone surrounding her is covered in marks, glyphs in the stone. She finds herself wishing it were Winter in this mess. Winter would know to read them, she’s sure. Though Eldritch had never been her strongest reading point… what she understood of it was basically limited to what she’d seen Winter read for her in the past.
Of course, asking for Winter’s help in the matter would be pointless. For whatever reason, magic like the Eldritch language would refuse to work unless read out loud, and unless one knew the word required… well, suffice to say that a helping thought from Winter would not be of assistance. Such work would take much longer than Summer feels she has.
It wasn’t, actually, the official language of magic. No, Eldritch was drawn from even more ancient roots. It wasn’t so much that it was defined by the structures of the creatures and trees around it as it was that it defined them. Naturally only words alone would not be able to completely define a whole world, so it was that several other languages, based on sight, sound or smell, also had been responsible for creation. At least, that was the theory she’d studied, so long ago. Where had that been? She doesn’t remember, but it must have been a different age.
She’d had more time then. Now, with the dimming of immortality, it seems to slide in her memory, as if slipping away from her. So much is lost with eons.
She rounds the next corner. This hallway is not a hallway at all. A double turn. There is a small, boxed room here, opened into from the tunnel. And up above, the sun shines down, raining light from above. If Summer could fly, she could escape in seconds.
She could be free in a blink.
She can’t fly.
A door prevents her from continuing. She doesn’t even bother with the handle, instead hurling a blast of heat at it. The door is blown off its hinges, charred to a crisp and turning to ash as it strikes the stone.
Summer steps through the doorway incautiously. So, the idiots had sought to keep her prisoner?
Careful! Winter snaps. Do you want to get us killed?
And just then, the corridor opens up into an enormous cavern. It isn’t as important as the grey-scaled man standing in front of her. He looks up as she enters, opens his mouth, framing the word ‘You-‘.
And is blown backwards, a fireball blossoming on his chest and sending him tumbling. Into the cavern steps Summer, lowering her hand and staring ahead- at the far end of the room is another door.
Does it lead out?
“I don’t know.”
She walks slowly, taking deliberate steps towards the door, though every instinct screams at her to run as she crosses the open hall. A flash to her left, a flicker of wild hair, movement. The patter of bare feet on stone. Words, shouted, in a language- not Eldritch, thankfully- she can’t understand.
Summer takes a deep breath and points to her left. Wall.
There’s a yelp and a scream. Aura couldn’t stop herself from running smack into it, and now the sick-sweet smell of burnt flesh fills Summer’s nostrils.
She falters, suddenly feeling an overwhelming pang of regret, half-turning before she catches herself.
No! Just keep walking! She’ll be fine. You don’t even like her, what’s wrong with you?
“I…” Summer starts, and then curses with feeling, whirling, backing towards the door but staring at the wall of flames. Aura stands to the right of it, clutching her arm and staring at Summer in a mixture of fear and hate. Her black skin is charred from the heat.
Summer backs away slowly, fire surrounding her like a blanket. A queer, unfamiliar feeling comes over her. She feels her body begin to tremble.
Abruptly, she feels a cold blade grazes the skin of her neck. And just like that, Summer’s magic drains away. Casper’s voice, from behind her.
She feels the heat leave her in a flood. Suddenly she’s too tired. She lets it go, feels the fire slipping out of her grasp.
“Why?” She whispers. “Why are you keeping me here?”
“The way I see it, you know something.”
“I know nothing of Aura’s sister. She brought me to the Lair and when I emerged she was gone. That’s it,” Summer says wearily. “Let me go.”
“I don’t think we can do that in good conscience,” Casper replies quietly.
The grayscale is approaching- brushing cinders from his chest, and the silver-haired girl from before appears to be tending to Aura. As the grayscaled man stands before her, Summer drops her arms to her sides. Casper withdraws the blade, and in a rush, Summer feels her magic return. Its momentary flight from her body had been disheartening.
She stumbles away from Casper, but the girl keeps her within arm’s length. “I can’t stay,” Summer growls. “A Season lies in wait for me at Everspring’s shrine. You must let me go.”
“It seems to me you are out of your league, little Season,” Aura’s voice taunts. “You’ll pay for what you’ve done to my daughter.”
“You’re a dumbass,” Summer snaps. “Seriously- I haven’t touched your stupid daughter! Don’t you have some stupid dragon trial or something? I remember that last time I was here.”
Dragon trial? Really?
“Shut up,” Summer hisses to Winter. “They aren’t proper dragons if they don’t have a dragon trial. It’s how it works!”
The grayscale stops midstep, standing right in front of Summer and staring at her. “We’ve never seen you here before, Season. Am I right in deducing that you are Summer of the Four, then?”
“Yeah, I’m Summer,” Summer snaps. “I was going to tell you before. But my name is Summer-Heat-Rising.”
“She fainted,” Casper notes. “From earthmetal. I didn’t know you were that vulnerable to it. Not even fey are hurt that much by it.”
“To be honest, it’s just me and Winter who suffer from that. I think it’s us being bound together, our weaknesses sort of overlap,” Summer admits. “I’m not sure whose it was at first.”
“Winter-Long-Frost is with you as well?” the grayscale asks incredulously. “How did she come to be bound within her opposite?”
“Oh, it’s always been like that,” Summer says vaguely. “I dunno if you’ve ever met Summer-Glory?”
“The current incarnation of Summer has that name,” Aura says, rage apparently curbed by curiosity. “Is she still around?”
“Yeah,” Summer grumbles. “And, you know, just so it’s clear- I’m from the future. I’m the next incarnation of Summer.”
Casper rolls her eyes. “Pull the other one.”
Azzy’s voice calls from the other side of the room. “I think she’s telling the truth.”
“And what the hell gives you that idea?” Casper asks, turning. Summer watches her eyes narrow, and turns as well, to see what she’s staring at.
A woman, bronze skin blazing with long blonde hair, walks with Azzy towards Summer. Her smile is triumphant.
“Found you,” Glory says.
Oh shit, Winter whispers.
Summer couldn’t agree with her more.