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.

Demimind: Chapter 2

(2)All Comes Crashing Down

Go. Goliath- I mean Jane- can handle keeping Him away. We can’t stay here!

“Why?”

He’s the one who bound me! He’ll kill us both!

“Maybe if I just explain-”

There’s nothing to explain. I challenged Him for power, He beat me and bound me, and now He’s coming to finish the job! He already knows about you! You ran from Him and used the last remnants of my power to phase in-

A ground-shaking rumble fills the cavern. The Servant rears, tail curling around Winter’s legs and pushing, pulling her towards a tiny shaft of light, an exit, a break in the wall that leads to a tunnel. She stumbles as Jane releases her, but runs in the direction of the light even so. She stops when she reaches the broken arch that girds the long, winding slope downward, deeper into the earth. Despite Summer’s frantic urging, she turns.

She glances back in time to see light glare down, white and pure, moonlight shining into the room she flees, the stone of the ceiling melted away, half-melted under incredible magic power. Shining in the light is a manshaped figure, with three arms, and hovering between three hands is a sphere of light with twisting color. She looks one moment longer before it sears her eyes and forces her to turn away.

Jane roars thunderously. Her massive body shifts and slaps the ceiling just above the exit with her tail, coils rippling with the effort. Winter ducks under the falling rubble just in time to avoid being crushed. Then there is no chance of going back, the stone has barred her way into the cavern. Her Servant’s thrashings cause more shaking, more rumbling. Winter feels a pang of regret, and then a sharp shock of pain, all over her.

She’s of your- well, my-blood, idiot! The closer to her you are, the harder it will be to move! She’s in pain, do you understand? You’ll feel everything at this range!

The young woman hesitates but a second longer before continuing on into the darkness. Her limping run is illuminated by glowing glyphs on the walls. There’s no time to look at them closely.

“What about J-Jane?” She asks weakly, as she leans against a wall, panting. Her body is most certainly not used to this type of exercise, and she’s growing a little tired of always fleeing for her life for as far back as she can remember.

Admittedly she can’t remember very far back.

Summer’s answer is short and sharp. She’s beginning to hate that.

She’s probably dead.

“What?” Her voice trembles a little.

You can bring her back. Or rather, I can. I mean, I have power over life. Yours is one of death and the doomed. I’d need your help but I’m pretty sure I can bring her back. Later. Now keep running.

The path curves, and then leads down, a slope which she needs to walk down with care, lest she trip and fall. The ground is littered with bones, jagged stones and little holes or pitfalls. She can just barely see them by the light of the sigils lining the walls.

She walks like this for a time, one hand out, brushing the wall to steady herself. Then, just as she wonders if she can go any farther, just as she’s sure she’s walked a mile, there’s an earthshattering roar, a thunderous rumble, and a piercing, awful pain in her heart that sends her to scraped knees, clutching at her chest.

Anngh…!

Even the voice in her head sounds weak and in pain at that. It’s an ache now, that won’t go away. It moves into her mind and shakes her to her bones, grinds her into the stone for a while before finally moving on.

When she comes back to herself, she’s sprawled on stone. Not bleeding, thankfully, but scraped in places and bruised all over from her thrashing.

She pushes herself to her feet again, shakily, leaning against a glyphed wall for support. Her arm is shaking. Her fingers are trembling.

“S-summer?”

There’s no response from her strange friend. It’s silent, in the tunnel. Frighteningly so, now.

She gropes around in the gloom, finding a rock and tucking it in her fingers. It doesn’t make her feel much safer, really. She’s achy and weak and her head pounds. But she needs something. With rock in hand she continues moving, limping now and unsure why, her heart thumping in her chest painfully.

After a time, a hissing dances on the edge of her awareness. Not like a snake, but as something hot being shoved into cool water, as steam. It doesn’t begin to grate on her nerves for at least a few minutes. She’s tempted to look behind her- where the noise is coming from she couldn’t say, she half-guesses it must be a trick of the tunnel- but focuses on moving faster instead. Her hands won’t stop trembling.

It’s almost worse than the silence. A scritchingly irritating sound, like nails grazing a board, like resonance in a wine glass raised to a screeching crescendo.

“This is insane,” Winter whispers quietly. The sound of her voice makes her feel just a little better. “All of it.”

Finally, though, the tunnel opens up slightly, and beyond a single stone door, she feels, must be the source of both hissing and humming. The door has the same runes as the one she opened to enter Jane’s cavern. Just smaller and less numerous. Still, there are some she doesn’t recognize immediately, as well as ones warning of danger even worse than her two-headed servant. She ignores them.

Her hand stopped bleeding a while ago. Her blood is dry, sticking to her hand like rusty black paint. The air here, just in front of the door, is stale and… oddly sulfurous. Still, she can’t allow herself to be turned aside. Weakness here could lead to death. Not only hers, but Summer’s as well.

Shakily, clumsily, she brings the rock up before her. No sharp edges, nothing she could use. She should have chosen a jagged one. She could grind it, given enough time, but time is something she isn’t entirely sure she has much of. He could come for her at any moment, and that terrible light could be searching for her even now. She shivers at the thought of Him melting His way through the collapsed rock to get to her, at the thought of that chilly, eerie light shining down the tunnel.

Not knowing exactly what to expect, she just sort of wills the rock to bear a point, to sharpen, bringing to mind the image of her blood-spear-sword thing, the one Summer had helped her make.

Nothing happens. It’s no worse than she expected. The sound of the hissing is drawing closer. Now she feels if she listens hard enough there’s a moan to it, as of tortured stone.

She takes another shuddering breath. After slapping her hand to the rune and achieving nothing, she realizes she needs a sharp edge. Needs it.

She strokes the stone, eyes closed. Sharp. Something trickles down her spine and gathers in her belly. Warmth spreads up one arm and centers around her fingers as they touch the stone. The rock itself seems to bubble, and the scent of brimstone fills the air.

Abruptly it shifts and tapers to a long, thin point. She can see it in her mind’s eye. Winter draws the sharp stone across her hand quickly. A flash of pain on her palm. She slaps her hand, welling with red, against the rune. The hissing is getting louder. But when her hand touches the rune and her blood fills the outline, the door pushes open. There’s a shock, a tingle as she crosses the threshold that runs down her entire body.

The girl’s eyes open again, and in time to feel the sharp pain in her palm and the panic of being exposed. Still, she turns and catches hold of the stone door, pushing it back into place, letting it grind closed.

Then she just sits, panting, letting her body relax. Letting out a short, choked sob. The rock in her hand slips from her fingers.

She gasps for breath, leaning against the door as it shuts. Something like relief clutches at her. She doesn’t know why, but she feels much safer in here. The room is familiar. The hissing has been silenced. The barrier of the door has stopped the noise, and for that she is grateful. But the humming still whispers in her bones and her skin.

She looks around for the source of it curiously.

The room is solidly built, constructed of smoothed stone that couldn’t have been mined by anything short of magic. Her heart, pounding before, calms. She remembers this place.

She takes a few steps inward, at ease for the moment.

Sigils and runes dance over the walls and floor, spiraling, twisting and turning in her vision. Their shapes leave playful shadows, some of them flying about the air. And at the center of the room, the source of the humming is an enormous column, a stone pillar marked with copper and bronze and silver.

She walks around it cautiously, and, as she stands there, whether by trick of the light or by magic, sees that inside the pillar there is a second pillar, a second column. It is made of a brilliant shaft of light that hums through the center of the first. And at this column’s center there is a tiny, incandescent bead.

“Illmetal. It’s said to grant the wishes of any who touch it with pure intent. ‘Illmetal’ is a bit of a misnomer. I’ve always thought of it as the Wish element. In all the world, this is all of it that’s ever been discovered, and had Summer not stolen it… it would be mine.”

She starts, whirls. The door behind her, the archway, her runes erased in a flash. Standing there is a tall, long-legged, spindly man with thin fingers. His head is adorned with two ivory horns which curl like those of a ram. His feet are clawed and one hand is outstretched. Light follows Him in, dangerous light, the twisting, torturous light responsible for melting through the ceiling of Jane’s cavern. His skin is pure white, so pale it almost hurts to look at it, and His eyes are a cold, cold blue. It was the light that made it look like he had three arms and three hands, surely. Except no, there as he turns and steps through the melted remains of the doorway, is his third arm, shining with light bright enough to make her eyes water.

The smell of brimstone is gone, erased by the scent of something much stronger, like white vinegar, sour and almost painfully real. The sight of the melted slag where her door stood makes her tremble where she stands, tremble with fear.

“And you would be… Winter? I suppose Summer is still bound, then. Were she not I would not have crossed this threshold alive.” There’s a smile in His voice. He isn’t being smug. His is the soft assuredness that comes from knowing He has won.

Winter, however, has gone white, pale skin going paler, backing away until she reaches the column. The playful sigils and shadows are gone from the walls and floor and ceiling, gone from the air. There’s a dreadful charge building, making her hair- short already- stand straight up and frizz out. As the man attempts to take a step forward, twin bolts of arcing lightning thunder forth from either wall and strike Him quite squarely.

He jerks, arches and then stumbles, going down on His knees for a moment while the bolts ground out, His arms and legs twitching spasmodically.

It lasts only a second though, for even as His clothes steam and smoke- and two tiny holes in His livery are stained with His blood- He stands. “Not bad,” He comments, His voice even and unstrained. “Pretty good defenses for a hedgewitch.”

“How dare you! This is my Sanctum and you will not desecrate it!”

The voice is Winter’s, but it doesn’t come from the frightened woman cowering against the pillar. Instead, a swirling spirit has taken form in the air, and as both she and He look on, it coalesces into a brilliantly sparkling crystalline woman about six feet tall. Its eyes burn, one envious green emerald, one pure blue sapphire.

“Go, Winter. His power is greater than mine, I cannot stop him. Touch the pillar and go.”

“Fascinating,” The hoof-footed man says. There’s something deeply unnerving about how calm, even pleasant He is. “A simulacrum made from crystal. I’m sure under any other circumstances it would be quite difficult to destroy, but I am in a hurry.”

The horned man extends one digit and unleashes a jet of thin cold light at the new threat. It is instantly swallowed by the crystal and refracted into a billion brilliant beams, each of which tear a tiny smoking hole in anything they strike, peppering the walls with dark dots. Winter feels sudden stabbing pain along the back of her hand where she hides, and can’t suppress a yelp of fear. The skin, when she looks, now bears two bloody holes, steam rising from each in a scalding little plume. If she stays, she’ll die.

She reaches out as light flashes again, bolts towards the pillar and grabs it. Go, the statue had said. There’s a sound, as a window shattering and an inhuman rumble of rage. Bits of shattered transparent rock scatter across the floor. Her guardian is not invulnerable.

At the same time, the doorway spits forth another two bolts of lightning, the energy leaping from stone. Though she can’t see that they strike Him, she knows, she can hear the hiss and smell the smoke, the sick scent of burnt flesh. His yell is drowned by the thunder which reverberates around the cavern. For a moment she prays He’s dead, but the statue’s words still ring in her head, echoing as the thunder fades.

If that were enough to stop Him He would have died from the first blasts. Jane would have killed Him with one swipe of her tail.

She touches the column, hands instinctively finding sigils she knows are right and thinks, wills, quite vividly. Away!

As everything dissolves into motes of color and her world shakes and twists, she hears, oddly distorted for a moment, her own crystalline, agonized cry and that same pleasant voice from the horned man, He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains:

“So you do feel pain. I can use that.”

Everything vanishes, whisked away in a flash of color, scent and sound.