Short Story Challenge #5: Core

Small vibrations on the path behind me take me by surprise. I can feel them in my core, just out of my memory’s reach. Who is it? Who followed me this far? Is it someone that I can deal with? There’s no way to know without looking, and with all my core I fear that moment, that instant of recognition or regret. The pain inside is too great right now. I’m not sure if I can control my faces. I keep my panes dark to the rear, pretend not to notice those steps as they approach. It must be human. There are no other organic bipeds on this planet.

It stops behind me. The steps stop behind me. I feel their vibrations fade. I don’t dare let even a little light touch reflect from the pane facing this intruder, this fragile human who now dwells in my temporary sanctum. Fragile, yet more dangerous than any of us ever imagined.

“Sob all you like,” comes the vibration of the human’s voice. It’s high enough in frequency that I think it might be a bearer, but I have been wrong before. “It won’t bring him back.”

If the statement is meant to provoke me, I show no outward sign that it has. Inwardly I feel my core blaze up slightly.

“What are you doing here, Margaret?”

It’s the same wave pattern, so I can assume I didn’t ignore another speaker. A minute difference in the frequency pattern indicates that the human is exercising restraint in wave amplitude.

I still don’t respond. My panes remain dark. I remain facing away, core swiveled forward. The human lets out a breath of air. I can feel it, a disturbance around me. I make note of the expulsion only because of the violence inherent in it.

He isn’t going to be here anymore,” the human repeats. “The Eye of Glass killed him. There isn’t even a speck of silica where he once stood.”

The words seem obscene: he, him, his.

Human words for a Coran who did its best to avoid everything they stood for.

Searching my core, I find data on the Eye of Glass. Yes, it probably had destroyed Zenith. It’s a human artifact– one from before we ever were made, before the first Coran machine was ever constructed.

“Come on, Margaret,” I hear the human say quietly. “You can’t mope here forever. We have things we need to do.”

Finally I recognize who it is, and allow the bearer’s name to come to the surface of my internal data crystal: SiLan.

I dignify the bearer with a flick of the shutter near my back panes, letting light shine down on her and illuminating her completely. I can see SiLan perfectly clearly as I force the panes at my back translucent.

I flash the little human bearer a message: You go.

She stares at my pane, squinting a bit. “Repeat.”

I flash the message again.

I watch her, core shifted backward, turning to face her fully.

“You can’t mope here forever,” she repeats. The little bearer seems fixated on that point. “Margaret.”

Elevated wave amplitude indicates a strong stress component to her voice.

I message her again. The process is painfully slow compared to contact between other Cores, but that’s to be expected. Frankly, it is somewhat amazing that we can communicate at all– our physiology is much different, even if our thought patterns are similar. Circumstances have been kind to Humanity and the Collective alike.

I am not sad. Go.

There is no room for lying in our shared language. SiLan stares at my pane a good long while before she turns and I feel her footsteps as she walks out of my sanctum. Some of the tension between my composite electromagnetic tendons relaxes. I relax, exposing my core.

I snap the panes shut again, though, as a rumbling foretells the arrival of another of my kin. I feel the vibrations shaking me to the bones. Its central leg breaches the far east chamber wall carelessly, and as its core, barely visible behind its panes, turns to face me, I recognize the signature mark: Dane.

We talk, projecting messages back and forth rapidly, signing them each time, panes flicking open, shutting, sending simultaneous messages.

 

The stone still holds you, Dane? -Margaret

As a matter of fact, it does. -Dane

Where did you go earlier today? -M

One has not the faintest idea. One overwrote the memory shortly after earning it. -D

Do you have any plans for the evening? -M

Do you? -D

No, not really. This one was going to go to the Stone Sending ceremony. -M

For Zenith? -D

Yes. -M

 

The torrent of information, questions, and answers ends. I manage to find the strength that I need to process it, but it takes me some precious seconds before I can come up with anything to message back for the next sprint. In that time, Dane has already sent another stream of questions– ones that I have no solid answers to. Still, I try.

 

This one feels that you should be careful around SiLan. This one watched the human leave your chambers. Do you understand how dangerous the bearer is? -Dane

This one knows. -Margaret

Then why do you insist on associating with it? -D

One does not know. -M

Perhaps what you feel for this human has grown to be more than guardianship? -D

This one will disregard further comments of a disparaging or disrespectful nature from you, Dane. -M

One meant no disrespect. One only hoped to imply that Stone and Flesh are not to join for any purpose other than the Guarding. If your relationship with SiLan has grown to be more…? -D

It has not. -M

Good. -D

Good? -M

If your relationship had changed, then one would be forced to do something about it. -D

You lack the authority, Dane. One is not threatened by irreverent commentary on religion from an ancient mining chassis. -M

You would be surprised at what this one is capable of. -D

 

The message session ends. A three second processing period. Then Dane steps forward until its panes are near level with mine. I can almost feel its algorithms running, can almost feel the comparison equations being made, it testing the odds of succeeding at a pin.

Immediately upon Dane stepping into my electromagnetic zone, I am overcome by a bombardment of messages. Likely this is an (usually vain) attempt to distract me from the closeness of Dane’s core to mine. Its panes are halfway apart. This time is different, of course. This time the messages are all presently relevant, so the urge to respond is overpowering.

 

Did you think you could escape? -Dane

One will have you, you know. This time there is no out for you. You will give in. -D

Are you frightened? One can help you. Give in and let us both go to the Stone Sending for Zenith. -D

One can feel you shaking, Margaret. One waits for your response. -D

How is your stone sibling, Azide? -D

Did he know you would meet me here? -D

Do not be afraid, Margaret. Once one and you are the same, the fusion will be marvelous. -D

 

It’s the last message that gets me.

 

Do you think that any one would enjoy being part of you, Dane? One does not expect that any who have not completed a Merge would ever choose to be a part of you! -Margaret

 

Shocked– surely the Core did not expect me to ever answer– as it is, Dane doesn’t react fast enough. The fraction that I open my panes to respond isn’t enough, thankfully, for the merge tether to poke through, so despite our closeness and the uncomfortably powerful electromagnetic field our combined strength makes, nothing happens. Nothing, that is, except for the merge tether bouncing off of my closing pane lewdly before hanging limp. Dane’s intentions are completely clear now.

Mustering some remaining power, I force myself forward, setting my core to repel subconsciously, letting it push Dane out of the way as I bolt out of my chambers, my sanctum. Now I am frightened. Playing or not, Dane was dangerously close to subsuming me, as surely it would if it had the opportunity. I am not ready to be absorbed. I like my consciousness where it is.

I take advantage of my greater speed, afforded by a day and a half of sitting in the High Sun. Its lingering power still tingles in my panes as I bound out of the small, claustrophobic chambers and out into the air, using my front legs to spike the side of the nearby cliff. I doubt that Dane is capable of following me. The armor surrounding its core is meant more for crawling than climbing. Its chassis is built around the idea of mining.

It could always shoot me down. A single pulse from its crystal disabling cannon might destabilize the cliff my legs stick in, or stun me and force me to fall. I scramble up faster as that thought flickers through my processing unit.

Only the noise of my climb reverberates through me. I can sense nothing else.

Eventually I find the top of the cliff, spike my front legs into it, and clamber up onto it, taking in air and letting it out again repeatedly, more out of habit than anything else. My core is operating at a sickeningly high frequency. Its processes are audible as a low hum, which means to any human observing– of which, my panes admit, there must be a few– it is probably a roar. Their sensory equipment is much sharper than a Core’s in many areas, but especially so in the auditory sense. Several of the humans nearby vainly try to put their claspers over their auditory sound input devices, in an effort to dampen the noise.

Others bring their weapons up to their shoulders and train them on me directly.

“Identify!” One of them shouts, at the top of its auditory amplifier’s capacity.

I am not feeling cooperative right now, with Dane sure to be fast in following. Still, though the pulse rifles humans wield as their main form of attack and defense are potentially irritating, these humans are not any large threat to me. I ignore them completely.

Crying out in distress, several scatter as I scuttle forward. One takes my movement as a sign of aggression and fires. Several tens of depleted uranium slugs are deflected by my outer armor. I barely even feel them.

I’m tempted to remind the humans why they need our Guardianship, but my core stays cool. I need to get away from Dane.

The subconscious repulsion field, though, is still active, and as I move forward it forces the human who tried to strike at me down into the ground, crushing it into the earth. I intercept several transmissions in that time, and realize it had a communication channel open, even as I step over the human’s gasping, choking form.

I flick off the field as I read the transmission. The human below me struggles, and rights itself. Its gun is broken into a coiled mess. Ludicrously, the little creature runs towards my nearest leg, one clasper curled into a fist.

“You bastard! You big, mechanical bastard! You think you can treat us like dirt, huh?!”

I don’t dignify that with a flick of my panes, instead moving forward. A heavy, hard boom resonates through the ground, though. Through me.

A surprisingly powerful thunk is felt, shortly afterwards, and I swivel a belly-mounted pane to look. The human has cracked the armor around my leg. I focus on its arm and realize that it’s using some new thing. Some new human weapon. Its whole arm is sheathed in armor, silvery and light, subtle under the sleeve of its uniform. Its clasper’s digits are sharp as glass as they scratch down the stone outer shell of my leg, as it pulls back its arm for another solid strike.

I don’t have time for it. Lifting my leg, I brush the little human aside.

I am rewarded with a shock of jarring sensory input, a wave of the most uncomfortable sensation I have ever felt reverberating up through my leg. And my leg will no longer move. The roar from my core turns to a low hum, and I feel it preparing a retaliatory thermal ray. I shut it down, more shocked than anything else, stopping my movement as well. I can feel liquid silicate dripping down my leg. My blood.

I flash the pane above it once, twice.

Stop.

To my further surprise– when have humans ever listened?– the human stops. It looks up at my belly-pane.

I repeat the message.

Stop.

I feel my scientist routines locking in, overwriting my fear response to Dane’s unwanted merge attempt.

I realize that I’m forgetting some forms of etiquette, that the human is waiting expectantly, as if dumbfounded, gazing up at me.

Presenting the following ID for verification: Margaret, Scientist Class Four, Coran-Human Stewardship.

I flash the serial code then, moments later. The human, as if in a trance, reaches into its small-scale storage unit and pulls out an item my data memory recalls quite well– a notebook like the one SiLan uses. I conclude that this human is probably a bearer as well.

It formats the notebook to copy down my serial code, and then bobs its sensory casing once.

“Good! Uh. Thanks.” Its frequency is low, and its own panes don’t meet mine anymore, its gaze dropped to the ground.

“TiLan! Tell it you’re sorry!” The voice comes from a human standing, weapon holstered.

The human still doesn’t look up. “Sorry. I don’t know what came over me. Thank you for understanding.”

Slight variations in its pitch and amplitude– its voice seems to come across much softer than before– indicate a recovery from a recently heightened stress level.

I try to move my leg, and find that it won’t budge. I note, via increased vibration rates in the ground around me, the approach of another Core. From the vibrations alone it is difficult to pinpoint the direction.

I refocus my panes in every conceivable direction, though, and finally manage to locate the source. It is not a Core.

On the horizon is the very image of what my databanks described the Eye of Glass to be.

It is a titanic construct of black metal and alloy, with a round dome in the center of its main chassis, facing the sky. Four spider-like legs arch out from it, moving in arhythmic, jerky motions, as if injured– or damaged. They propel it forward in little bursts. It isn’t larger than me (I make a quick estimate that we are approximately the same height, if not diameter), but the electromagnetic readings showing in my processor indicate that it has an incredible potential for energy production, and that, as I continue to scan it, it is scanning me simultaneously.

This is the machine that obliterated Zenith.

Crippled as I am, I don’t believe that I would be able to escape it if it chose to push all of its power to its motivators.

Some of the humans near me are staring at it, stunned.

One of them is the first to move, unslinging his weapon and leveling it at the approaching blackmetal mass. The humans erupt into conversation.

“Open a line to A1! We’ve got an unidentified Spider-class automaton approaching!”

“There’s no time for them to respond! There’s the Remnant, remember? And there are only two Cores here!”

The last thing that I would like to deal with is Dane. My processor runs through the possible scenarios.

If the Eye of Glass is coming for anyone, the only Command Class Core in the area is Dane, in its old mining chassis. If it is coming for the Remnant town under the cliff, then it is part of my duty to SiLan to deal with this construct. I can’t risk the idea of it destroying the town. I can’t idle by and do nothing.

I am not the Core for this job. Zenith was a Scientist Class as well– no, Zenith was a hybrid Scientist/Command model. There is no reason to think that I can do what Zenith couldn’t. Even if Zenith was caught by surprise, the chassis the Eye of Glass uses is the predecessor to an observation Core. How it could manage to destroy a Core of the Scientist AND Command class is unfathomable.

All of this I run by my memory and ethics units. It would not be right to attempt escape. It would not be right to abandon the humans in Remnant. It would not be right to destroy another Core, even if it is a non-sentient Core made by humans before the Guarding ever became an objective.

Zenith had one of the strongest processing cores of any of us ever made. It was said that it had merged with many, many different Cores, even Cores outside of its own class. I had long hoped to be able to merge with Zenith. To have that hope broken, and to have the object that destroyed it in sight…. There is a word humans use for this feeling, this strange feeling.

The unfamiliar feeling stirs something in my core, in what the humans refer to as the heart. I can’t define it properly, even as it burns there, wiping out smaller command processes. Without even willing it I can feel my thermal ray projector warming up.

I turn all of my main panes to face the oncoming bulk of the Eye of Glass. Its monolithic surface gleams wickedly and as I watch it, a gathering charge seems to coalesce around the dome at its center. Is this to be like the shot that destroyed Zenith?

My core’s frequency rises to a pulsing, a pounding.

My non-functioning leg sends increasingly distressing messages about a lack of silicate, which flash red in the depths of my main readout.

The flash is visible only moments before a flickering wash of energy overloads my thermal imaging frequencies with bright, burning crimson. Warnings suddenly flood in from every limb in my body, from every piece of me at once.

Stunned, I realize that the flood is unending, that rather than a single pulse, the Eye of Glass means to reduce me to ashes right away! How can an observationsfzdt

ggl

s zzc

ct ts prf zz

————-

OVERHEAT. WARNING.

OVERHEAT. WARNING.

SECONDARY HEAT SHIELDING ACTIVATING.

PROCESSOR ONLINE IN THREE STANDARD SECONDS.

————

Recalibrating.

————

 

The Eye of Glass.

I return fire as the shielding– meant to protect me from the hottest of unexplored regions– finally activates, deflecting the thermal energy entirely. It washes around me in waves so intense I can still feel it even in the extremes of the spikes on my front and rear legs.

The pulses launched from my own thermal projector strike the sand around the Eye, not the Eye itself. Sand made from granite and shell turns molten. The molten aggregate sticks to its legs. It is a hundred yards away now and closing quickly.

A scream sounds and is cut short, drawing one of my belly-panes to look.  A human, backing away from the shape of the Eye of Glass, backed too far too fast, entering the field of potent heat around me. Now its upper half is missing, turned to ash in an instant, and its lower half collapsed on the ground.

The feeling in my core is multiplied by a thousand. It spikes to an extreme and I finally have a word for it– albeit a human one:

Rage.

The humans below and nearby seem ready to scatter, but the bearer I offered my identification to keeps its head.

“Stand your ground! Where are you going to run? This Core may be our best hope, but does that mean you want to let it fight alone? What will you do if it dies?”

“This is crazy!” a human, carrying the melted hilt of a pulse rifle, shouts, and as it does so the Eye of Glass stops firing for a moment.

I process the change in its electromagnetic field. It’s changing the frequency to short-wave… and…

A pinpoint burst of energy draws a flash of red across my thermal imaging pane. In the next moment, the human who shouted falls to the ground, blood pooling around it, soaking the sand. There is a steaming, pinpoint hole directly through its heart– and the burst passed through its spine. It lies there, still, soundlessly, as two humans rush to its aid.

None of them are looking at me or my panes. Incapable of flashing a warning, I force myself between the Eye of Glass and the humans, blocking its line of fire completely. From here, with the humans now within my electromagnetic field, firing the thermal ray could very well overload their fragile systems and shut them all down. Unlike with Cores, sudden shut-downs could lead to permanent shutdown. It is a risk that, no matter how I attempt to calculate it, I cannot take.

More thermal blasts a hundred times more intense but a hundred times smaller scatter across my shielding as the Eye continues to approach. Each blast is preceded by a tiny flash, a pinprick of visible light in its dome. The dome is made of glass, making it completely immune to thermal energy attacks– at least, those in ray form.

I am unequipped with anything more than the thermal ray, and modifying my electromagnetic field right now to focus a blast large enough to do damage might destroy the humans beneath me. Locked like that, I wait, helpless. The Eye draws closer, the heat grows more intense. Some of the shielding begins to melt, exposing tiny pieces of my inner armor to the focused energy. Though it is not yet unbearably uncomfortable, the warning messages are distracting.

 

—-

 

TEMPERATURE AT UNACCEPTABLE LEVELS. REQUESTING IMMEDIATE REMOVAL OF UNIT FROM HIGH TEMPERATURE AREA. – Right Front Motivator

OVERHEAT. WARNING. OVERHEAT. WARNING.

Margaret! -Dane

OVERHEAT. WARNING. OVERHEAT. TEMPERATURE AT UNACCEPTABLE LEVELS. REQUESTING IMMEDIATE REMOVAL OF UNIT FROM HIGH TEMPERATURE AREA. -Left Front Motivator

MERGE CAPABLE CORE WITHIN RANGE OF ITS TETHER CABLE. SETTING ALL PANES TO CLOSED POSITION. -Merge Advisor

OVERHEAT.

OVERHEAT.

 

—-

A bright green orb of energy ricochets off the Eye of Glass, knocking its aim aside and cracking the glass of its central dome. Crystal destabilization cannon– that’s what my databanks supply, though for a moment I feel that they must be faulty. There is only one mining chassis in this Remnant.

 

 

Margaret! -Dane

 

I flick one pane open at Dane where it climbs the cliff edge behind me. Somehow the fool manages to drag itself up, behind the humans. Opening the pane exposes my core, but I’m too tired to care. The heat is starting to seep into my system, little by little. I can’t process things clearly enough to wonder if it’s a good idea or not.

 

Margaret, this one read your distress call! -D

 

I never sent one. It would probably be attributable to the fact that I have several system-wide errors being reported. A malfunctioning distress beacon is the least of my worries right now. If Dane is here then things just went from a bad situation to a tragedy. If it took advantage of my weakness from battling the Eye of Glass there would be nothing I could do.

SiLan needs me to destroy the Eye of Glass. If I need to do this with Dane’s assistance, so be it.

 

Help, Dane! -Margaret

 

Flashing that message hurts more than I thought possible. Heat floods in and fries some of my circuits. Even as quickly as I close the pane, I can feel it flashing some of the silicate in my system to gas.

There is a pause then, as the Eye turns its single pane to look at Dane, processing the new Core.

I risk moving a belly-pane to look at the humans below and behind me. None of them appear damaged.

My shift in focus means that the reverberating boom of Dane smashing into the Eye of Glass is unexpected. The bulk of Dane’s mining chassis crashes against the ancient observatory prototype in a screech of metal on metal, stone on stone. Minuscule pieces of rock shower me, close as the Eye is, and I feel a pang of ludicrous, artificial glee at protecting the humans beneath me.

The Eye of Glass focuses its monstrously powerful thermal ray on Dane, and in one, precise, terrible burst, cuts through three of Dane’s legs on the right side.

Dane, left off balance and no doubt in terrible disarray, wobbles. Silicate hisses as it touches the boiling sand, floods forth from the melted gashes the ray left.

I don’t have a weapon I can use.

The Eye of Glass focuses another burst and cuts through Dane’s drill, raking the beam along, tracing a molten line along the side of my friend’s armor, exposing its inner circuits and flashing a few panes to vapor.

The tip of Dane’s drill falls to the sand like a broken sword, rolling, stopping near me.

There is a blur, a terrible, shrill, mechanical moan. Shaking with the effort, I push the drill tip into the Eye of the rogue machine. With all of my strength, fueled by the burning fusion in my core, I batter the drill piece in like a pick into ice, using both front legs, leaning, pounding, stamping until the glass shatters, shatters, shatters.

The Eye’s insides are finally exposed. I grind them apart with the claws I use for climbing, with the feet I use for running and jumping and exploring, I tear apart its circuitry, its silicate innards splashing my climbing-claspers, splashing my front motivators and their intricacies. The blood of my foe coating me thus, I push it down until its servos, blank after I tear through its main processor, collapse, finally.

Pieces fall in sparkling silence, dust falls in sparkling silence, Dane falls and collapses fully, core dim and dark, exposed fully, all panes reflexively open, staring towards me, up towards me.

In turn I open both front panes and stare down at it, at my partner and friend, at my courter and enemy.

Three of its four legs on the right side are gone. The tip of its drill is gone. Liquid silicate is hissing in the sand, more of it than I thought possible– but it IS a mining chassis, after all. All of Dane’s power lies in its legs, its ability to propel itself through solid stone.

 

Dane? -Margaret

Dane, this one is worried about you. -M

Dane…? -M

 

I can’t really reach out to Dane without my right rear motivator working. I’m not going to be able to move until help arrives. My distress signal is malfunctioning, and I am not even certain how many of my main systems are damaged. I could shut down at any given moment.

“Margaret! Oh sweet circuits no– Dane, too. Someone get command on the line now.”

I recognize the amplitude and wave pattern of SiLan’s voice raised in a shout. I wonder where she came from, but only for a moment.

I flick a pane open near my injured hind leg to find SiLan standing there, running cautious fingers across the shattered metal and stone, shaking her head. My metal. My stone.

She looks up at my pane, face wrought with human worry.

“Are you okay?”

I think of a dozen responses in a split second, but go with the easiest.

Yes, I flash. See to partner.

“We’ve got some industrial welding we can do, short term. He’ll be messed up until we can get replacement legs, but I think we can save him until your people get here.”

My system blips a warning of imminent shutdown– warnings I’ve received since the battle started. Now, though, it seems more likely since the danger of true death is past. Like Dane, then, I will be here, at the mercy of the humans I saved, until they decide to reactivate me.

Thinking of their bravery and SiLan’s true side– her compassion, it’s something I decide I can live with. As my world fades away to grey and non-essential processes are terminated, I struggle to pull myself a little closer to Dane. I want my rescuer to be the first thing I see when my system restarts. I think I have an apology to make.

©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)

Story. Finished. Sick. Sleeping now.

<3s,

Eris

 

PS:

Comments, questions, otherwise? I don’t bite. Go ahead and leave me something. What stood out? What made the characters unique, if they were? Where have you seen something similar? What did you like? What DIDN’T you like? All of that is welcome. Or, y’know, I’ve lurked before. If you wanna just lurk, feel free to do that. I’m just happy you read it.

Demimind: Chapter 19

Now that you’re back, where will you go? And where did Goliath get to?

Things just seem to be getting weirder and weirder…

-Eris

(19)Servants and Dragons

Winter and Summer lie together for a moment, panting. Goliath is nowhere to be seen. The stone beneath them is cool and comfortingly hard, bereft of magic and torment that the world before had been full of. Mistress of death and mistress of life hold each other, clinging like twins, blind and hurt but neither willing to admit it.

After a while, Summer pushes herself upright, out of Winter’s clinging grip. She reaches up and touches her neck, tracing a long, jagged scar, proof of her sacrifice for her Servant. She turns, stares at her sister, at Winter, who lies still on the stone, moving only with her breath.

As Summer watches, the girl shimmers and fades, turning into a hundred sparks and dancing lights.

“Wait-” Summer starts, moving towards her, but by the time she reaches Winter’s physical form, the process has near finished. Touching her yields nothing- she is as insubstantial as a breeze. She smiles in her sleep- and seems completely at peace. Summer can feel the sparks joining with her, and finally, again she can feel the presence of Winter in her mind. It’s a relief- though she finds herself wondering why Winter couldn’t just stay out of her head for a while. But it’s a good thought. They’re back.

Summer sits there, shocked for a moment, then hits herself in the head lightly. “You scared me, you dope!”

Sorry. I think I scared me a bit, too. I guess it just takes a moment for me to rejoin with the piece of myself I need to leave here, Winter says uncertainly. Really we need to talk to some experts about this. We’re just stumbling around right now. But who…?

Summer shakes herself, standing up and brushing herself off. Her muscles feel stiff from lack of use… how long was she gone? But she knows who has the answer.

“Spring.”

What does he know about it?

“I think it’s time we figured that out.”

Fine. Where’s Goliath?

“When we brought her back, she was reborn. She won’t be useful until much later, but at least she’s alive now. She’s probably with the other Servants.”

Okay. But why were we not just ‘reborn’ too, then?

“I get the feeling it’s a bit different for us. We’re… not a part of the Cycle like she is,” Summer replies dryly. “But I’m not sure. We’ll need to talk to Spring, and soon.”

Summer feels along her thigh where Fall’s sword had bitten into it, ages ago it seemed. Sure enough, there’s a jagged little line along the back of her leg. Her shoulder aches still, dully, where the bolt of her brother’s power had struck it. The skin had boiled and blistered, but now it is calm- another scar to add to the set.

Summer walks towards the exit of the cavern, snapping her fingers and dismissing the wall of fire.

She nearly walks right into the woman standing beyond it. She wears full leather armor and levels an earthmetal spear right at Summer, who just stares at her.

“Lady Summer,” She says, her voice trembling slightly, though her grip remains strong on the haft of her weapon. “Stop.”

Summer, in no mood to play games, reaches forward and grabs the shaft of the spear, and in one smooth motion, tugs the woman towards her, literally pulling her off her feet. “You’re in my way,” Summer says cheerfully. “You know who I am, what do you hope to accomplish?”

She pushes the woman back, wrenching at the spear one handed. The girl, though heavily built and far from weak, is flung backwards and smacks into the stone of the wall, grip broken as easily as that. Summer bends, then snaps the spear in two with just her fingertips, carefully avoiding the metal of its tip. The two halves clatter on the ground.

The woman draws a dagger from her belt sheath desperately. Summer, grinning, grabs the woman’s wrist, twisting, and-

Stop.

-pauses, the woman caught, her eyes shut tight, Summer’s thin, strong fingers forcing her hand to the very brink of breaking, so that tendons creak. So that a tear forms on the edge of the woman’s eye and drops down her cheek, though she doesn’t make a sound. She’s breathing hard, frightened to death.

Summer. She can’t hurt us- leave her be!

Summer lets go reluctantly. “It’s better to finish what you start,” She mutters, and leaves the woman to nurse her hand.

It’s better to not have to fight at all.

“So I’m told,” Summer murmurs with a weary sigh. She continues down the hall, back the way she came.

The way up is blocked, two men standing there, iron long blades held nonchalantly down by their sides. Neither of them seems surprised to see her. They are wearing half-plate- straps of metal and chain and leather, all over to provide adequate protection from blade or arrow. The one on the left has blonde hair, long and unhelmed, the other wears a metal cap for protection, and appears bald in any case. His eyes, though, are grey and sharp. The plate does well to hide their musculature- they’re both likely to be incredibly strong, if chosen to keep her in.

Summer has no armor except for her skin.

“Did you kill her?” the blonde one asks casually.

She stares at him. “No. Stand aside.”

“By your own orders we are not to let you pass, Lady Summer,” The grey-eyed one replies grimly. “We will draw swords on you, though we’ve been loyal servants for years. You are not yourself.”

And memory trickles in. How the thoughts of servants fade. Like that man, so long ago, who had confronted Winter- though he had been misguided and thought her one and the same with her sister. It had never been that simple, and even that scheme would be far off for herself now, so far in the past she’d stepped. How the memories fade.

She can’t even remember their names. Both of these men are blank, dolls to her now. Dolls threatening to hurt her, but guided by her own hand. A display of idiocy she’d set up for herself. How to kill herself in the future? The mindboggling stupidity of it serves as a buffer between herself in the past and the now.

It is the test of time that she rails against, and the doings of herself in the past. At the time it had probably seemed just. Or at least amusing. Now it just seems pointless.

She could kill them without moving, but instead she just walks by them. If they try to touch her, her skin would melt their blades. Earthmetal, while effective against her in theory, would never reach her.  And certainly not in the hands of these fools. She takes the first step onto the stairs, and an arrow bursts into flames as it passes her face, hisses into ash and sprinkles down behind her. The trail it leaves almost makes her sneeze.

“One more step, lady, and the next one strikes your eye!” A voice calls from high above her. There, at the top of the stone steps, five figures, each holding strung and nocked bows. Where is her dragon friend? Probably ran off.

Or dead. She feels bitterness at that. Had Summer saved her only to have her die here? How meaningless.

She looks up at the figures again. She raises a hand, aiming directly at their feet, squinting to make sure she has the angle right-

Don’t kill them! Winter hisses. They’re following your own orders!

Pff. Well. Summer wrinkles her nose and aims lower. Spell formulae rise and fall in her mind, and then click together to form one word: Wall.”

A sheet of flame roars upwards, rising perpendicular from the floor. Power rushes through her again for a moment. She hears shouts from behind the crackling barrier. There’s a twang, and then an arrow, on fire, hisses to ash a few inches from her nose. She does sneeze this time as it crumbles against her face and sprinkles down in a gray cloud. Unmoved, Summer continues upwards, climbing the stairs slowly. Behind her, she hears the spell of her presence break as the two men reach for their swords.

She hears one clattering step behind her falter. “Lady-”

The blonde one’s voice.

“What?” She asks, without turning to look.

“Who are you?”

She doesn’t deign to answer that. They already know who she is or they wouldn’t have been guarding for her.

As she approaches the top, she hears nothing but silence beyond the roaring flames. No voices are raised.

She steps through the flame barrier, shunting the heat away from her briefly to keep Winter awake. This far from the Servants she feels their power fade a little. But all around her, living creatures have taken up positions, bows shaking in their hands, spears held unsteadily, swords held in limp fingers down by their sides.

She lets the curtain of flame snap out, and she’s left in the center of the silence, at the top of the stairs. She takes another step out, and the ring of people around her takes one step backwards as one. Grass, sparse though it is, burns at ten feet from her, smoldering.

“Well?” She asks, and her voice is hot like a flame.

A man with short red hair and an officer’s suit steps forward from the press of soldiers around her, salutes shakily, and seems ready to bow. Summer just stares at him until he seems to get the message.

He settles on a trembling smile. “Good evening, Lady,” He says weakly, just barely managing to keep the tremor out of his voice. “Your humble servant of the Eastern City greets you. We did not expect you to rise from your resting place so soon.”

“Resting place?” Summer asks blankly.

“Yes, Lady. You said you were going to rest for a while, and that if you were to attempt to come forth too soon, we were to detain you.”

“How long am I expected to ‘rest’?” Summer’s voice has caution in it now, picking slowly.

“We were told not to tell you that, Lady,” The man says wretchedly. “Um-”

Summer sighs. This could be difficult. Winter doesn’t want her to kill anyone, and she owes Winter for a few things now- saving her life and helping bring back Goliath. She figures that if she makes it out of this alive, Winter will be satisfied.

Truth be told, Summer realizes she doesn’t really want to kill anyone either. It’d be the sort of thing she’d do. Glory would probably torch the lot of them and be gleeful about it.  Summer would be denied her servants if Glory were in her position. It’s the sort of thing she’d think of- the deaths of a score of humans serving her past sister? What would Glory think of the past, if she were Summer now? If their positions were reversed, Glory would kill them all. She wouldn’t even think about it.

Whether it’s a test, or Glory vastly underestimates Summer’s power, it’s also almost an insult. Humans standing in Summer’s way. Without Winter to hold her back…

She’s still thinking about it when she feels something like a hundred blazes boiling in her, and a mental roar.

HOW DARE THEY?-

She can feel leathery wings above her, beating against the air…

Summer has just enough time to cross the distance between herself and the officer, and Winter steals her lips for a moment to shout: “Don’t!”

And then the whole world rains acid. It evaporates before it even touches her- how could it be near her at all? Her power creates an impenetrable dome of heat around her.

It’s bright yellow, it sticks to the skin, it burns like fire and boils flesh and bone away to nothing. Several soldiers are caught in the first blast, and after a few mercifully short screams, they are reduced to nothing but half-melted armor.

The rest throw down their weapons and, as one, run. Several stumble and fall as their legs melt away in the wash of it, and they drop without a sound.

The officer is left, stunned, and as the dragon lands in front of him, rears back and spits a stream of the corrosive bile, she pushes him behind her and says one word, lost in the roar.

Her outstretched hand diverts the flow, causes it to split and run around her in a stream, in a wave. Formulae and nature collide, and nature gives way. The officer picks himself back up and stands as close to her as he dares. He doesn’t question it, doesn’t dare say anything, breath coming in frightened gasps as the stream hisses around them.

Finally it’s over, the acid melts into weathered stone and sand, and the dragon- not hers, though its scales are black, hisses at her lengthily, at the human who stands there and defies it.

-WHERE IS SHE?- It snarls.

Summer lowers her hand patiently, waiting for the roar to subside. The man behind her is stock still with fear- and sweat. Being so close to her is as dangerous as the acid.

Asking after her dragon friend? Careful, Summer… you could end up killing yourself here. But then, she’d never been good at subtle.

“Dead,” She replies flatly. “Or missing. I don’t know which.”

The spiny tail of the creature flicks out. Summer falls to her knees as a flash of fire licks along her legs and one arm. Her blood drips down in twin trickles, and the dragon hisses its fury at her.

“Kill me and you’ll never see her again,” Summer says, her voice calm even through the acid pain that eats at her resolve. “I’m your only link to her.”

Winter is trying not to scream. The pain comes in sharp waves, crippling even her thoughts. She can’t imagine what Summer must be feeling, to be directly linked to it.

Summer rights herself again and stares directly into the dragon’s burning red eyes. “Well?”

The draconian beast regards her silently, staring at her until her knees feel weak. But she keeps herself upright while it looks her over.

-YOU WILL COME WITH ME,- It roars in her mind. It occurs to her that it might not be speaking loudly on purpose.

“Where are you- we- bound?” Summer asks quietly.

-THAT IS NOT OF YOUR CONCERN, MORTAL.-

“May I have a word with my companion, then?”

-THAT IS ACCEPTABLE.-

Summer turns- albeit shakily- to the officer, who doesn’t bother saluting. He just stares at her.

“There is a woman at the entrance of the lair who needs medical attention, along with two shaken soldiers. I don’t care if you make a run for it now, it’s fairly obvious that I can’t protect you, and Glory… well, she’ll want to see you dead for failing to stop me. Just run. Take your friends at the bottom of the steps and go,” Summer says softly. “In the Barrier there is a city calling to you. Wander long enough and you will find it. It isn’t much, but it’s not owned by any Season.”

“That will be enough for me,” The man replies weakly. “Who are you, really?”

“Summer. Summer-Heat-Rising.” She pauses, then smiles. “I hope to see you there when I return. Tell Fall… Tell him I’m sorry. That we’ll be on our way soon.”

“Fall, Lady?” He asks, uncomprehending. It’s clear he doesn’t understand her interest in him either. Which is good. Summer isn’t sure she understands it herself.

“You’ll know him when you see him. Goodbye,” Summer whispers.

She turns and nods to the dragon, who had been waiting impatiently for the two mortals to stop their pointless conversation. Now it stares at her, gives her a draconic grin, black lips curled away from razor sharp teeth.

There’s a crackle, a snap of magic around her, and then a sudden impossible pressure forces her into blackness, crushing every piece of her until she is nothing at all. The last thing she sees is those teeth opening wide and snapping forward towards her.