Demimind: Chapter 18

(18)Pockets of the Dead

Winter pushes herself to her feet shakily. She feels at her throat and, upon finding it unharmed, stares down at the ground, searching for Summer.

“I’m over here, doofus,” Her sister says from behind her. A bronzed hand clasps hers. Winter turns and gazes into her sister’s eyes.

“What have you done?” She asks weakly. “Are we dead?”

“Yeah,” Summer replies flatly. “Sort of.”

Winter stares at her. “Sort of?”

The ground underfoot is soft, like a meadow, and sprinkled with white, like snow. The air is comfortably cool for her. “What do you mean?” She asks, feeling stupid. “Sort of dead?”

“Yeah. This is a pocket dimension. Or universe or whatever. It’s where our spirits go before we’re reborn. The seasons can’t die, that’d cause complete chaos. I don’t know how I know that…” Summer says slowly. “But it’s just how it is. We can figure it out later. We need to move fast.”

“How fast?”

“Well… I’m no student of medicine like Spring, but how long would you say I have to live after a wound like that?” Summer asks, picking her way through long grass and tugging Winter with her.

“Ummm…” Winter begins. “Depends. About twenty seconds, probably.”

“We have twenty seconds,” Summer says shortly. She moves faster, pushing through the grass towards a familiar white wall at the edge of the meadow. Silver shapes move on it- it’s a translucent barrier. It all seems quite familiar to Winter. Yes, that’s right. It’s like the pocket dimension she was in before with Thomas.

Summer pulls her further, dragging her along the soft ground. As they approach the translucent barrier, they step onto a writhing, twisting area of white tendrils that tug, clutch at their feet and hold them fast.

“Shit,” Summer says in a whisper. “Twenty seconds?”

“You’re dead by now,” Winter hisses. “Whatever we need to do, do it fast and do it now.”

There’s an abrupt growling rumbling noise, and a low hum builds in her bones from her feet. The tendrils are vibrating, and they feel like they’re dragging her into the ground.

Summer focuses heat in her whole body, hoping against hope she doesn’t injure Winter.

Nothing happens. No lifeforce here. Everything is dead here!

Her expression turns to panic.

I’m mistress of the dead though, Winter thinks to herself. Summer can’t do anything here, there’s nothing alive. That means it’s up to me, and-

“Winter,” Summer whimpers. “Do something!”

Winter takes a deep breath- completely pointless, since she’s dead- and sighs. “Let us go, please,” She says quietly.

The tendrils relinquish their grip and withdraw back into the ground.

“We’re here to save a friend,” Winter continues slowly and clearly. “Can you help us find her? Her name is Jane. She’s a giant serpent thing. She died a short time ago.”

There’s a soft rumble in response, and then the membrane of the bubble opens wide, the barrier parting to let them past. Nothing but darkness lies beyond it.

Summer, eyes wide, leads Winter through it and into the blackness.

The membrane closes behind them, plunging them into pitch dark. Now there is nothing here but a ruddy red glow, and the heavy breathing of something massive. Summer tries to get a hold of herself.

Winter walks forward on stone of lime, fumbling in the dark- dark that even her eyes cannot pierce- until her hands touch something dry, hot and scaly. Her breath catches in her throat, and a sudden, irrational fear fills her. Then a double-pair of eyes gaze down at her from the darkness. Motion behind her, and a tongue flicks along her back. Oh, right. She’s naked.

-You taste familiar,- A deep rumbling, less a hiss than an earthquake, and one that makes her legs tremble. -You’re the fourth season. Winter. To what do I owe the pleasure of your… visit?-

Summer moves behind her to stand next to her sister. It’s very strange. She’d never been here with Winter like this, never been next to her like this, side by side. From as far back as Summer can remember the two of them had been together- but trapped. Bound within one another.

Now, to be next to her sister like this is… surreal.

She reaches out and grabs Winter’s hand, gives it a squeeze. Too soft. Her sister has always been too soft.

“Toughen up,” Summer whispers in Winter’s ear. “You’re shaking.”

Winter steadies herself, stands straight, and squeezes Summer’s hand back. “I’m here to take you back,” Winter says firmly. “Or at least Jane. You’re Goliath, aren’t you?”

The rumble comes again, stuttering a little in a chuckle. -Yes. That is my name. Jane is sleeping, but I tire of this place already. If you can take me from here, this land of eternal warmth and darkness, I will be shocked. Truly and to my dry scaled core. But then, you are the mistress of the dead. The doomed understand and are understood by you, and all of us are doomed, are we not? Lead me from here, little girl, if you dare.-

“Is there a price?” Winter asks quietly.

-There is always a price, Winter-Long-Frost. Always,- Goliath hisses, snorting a cloud of glowing red smoke. It sheds shadow and light in the dark, dark cavern. -But it is not a price you are unwilling to pay, or in the future I would be dead.-

Winter rubs the scaled muzzle in front of her. Hmm, She thinks. Yeah, that sounds about right. It’s probably not important that she doesn’t know what will happen in the future. What’s important is doing what’s right.

She owes her Servant already, for saving her. And even Summer, who doesn’t seem to care about anyone but herself, wants Goliath/Jane back. Right.

Winter lets out a soft sigh. “Yeah. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, even if I don’t know what it is.”

She pulls away from the scaled heads, and they watch her expectantly.

“Um,” She says weakly. What the hell is she supposed to do now?

“We have to get back to my body, Winter,” Summer whispers. “But I don’t know the way. It’s dead, so the pocket that holds it should be here somewhere. You have to find it.”

Winter looks down at her feet and stares for a while, thinking hard. When I came here first, the world changed to match my wants. So…

I want to find Summer’s body.

She thinks it as hard as she can, but nothing seems to happen, and she frowns. But it occurs to her that the world wouldn’t know who Summer is, would it…

She pictures Summer’s body now- about five feet and a few inches tall, golden brown skin, lithe and long with a scar across her belly- though her skin is otherwise mostly unmarked, unlike Winter’s- and long, flowing white hair. Summer.

Summer.

Hands smooth, unweathered by hard labor and soft, one green eye and one blue- but mirrored to her own, as if she’d taken what was left after Winter chose hers. A round nose, but slightly pointed ears. She pictures the shape of her breasts and the curves of her hips, things that Winter herself used to want. That she remembers she used to want.

Summer.

The cavern blazes unexpectedly, light flooding in from one wall- the wall to Winter’s left. It shimmers, and then ripples form on its surface for a few moments, the stone giving way to a murky, pearly substance. Shapes form there, and eventually it seems that she’s looking down on Summer’s body, which, as a bonus, appears to be lying on top of her Servant’s body still. There’s an awful lot of blood- and with a shock, she realizes it’s mostly hers. Or her sister’s. Theirs.

“Summer, is this a good idea?” Winter asks quietly.

“Too late to ask that, sister,” Summer replies ruefully. “We’re already in too deep.”

Summer takes her hand and they both walk to the edge of the cavern, where the real world is separated by a pearly portal. Goliath shifts, bringing herself closer, nudging Winter slightly with a scaled snout. -Well?- 

“All I need to do is walk through with you hanging on,” Winter says uncertainly, and realizes she knows it as soon as the words are out. “Just stay with me. I think this will work. Summer will do the rest.”

Summer nods, though she’s not smiling. Her face is grim and set. If it doesn’t work, they could be dead forever.

Winter is about to step through when Goliath nestles in beside her. She wraps an arm around her Servant, burying her hand in Goliath’s soft fur near the nape of her first scaled neck.

“Together,” She says weakly. “Ready?”

-I am prepared, little one.-

“Let’s go,” Summer says firmly.

Together, the three enter the portal.

Beyond it is utter chaos.

Bitter cold freezes Summer’s body. Boiling heat scalds Winter’s hands and feet both as she takes her first step through. Her eyes are half-screwed shut against what feels like a driving rain of acid- searing her, burning her. Patches of white hot pain hiss on her legs and arms. Knives are dragged down her back, slicing into her pale skin- though she still is too shocked to voice a cry. She almost forgets what she’s done, what’s happening, her spirit and body both near dead with shock. Her whole body is shaking. She can feel Summer next to her trembling as well.

The first step is complete torture. With monumental effort, ignoring the awful pain and the roar of Goliath next to her, of Summer’s labored gasp, the clutch of her sister’s hand as it tries to grind her bones together, Winter takes another step.

And it all fades away as quickly as it’d come. The pain leaves the two sisters gasping. In its place, there is cold, just chilling, numbing cold. At first it’s a relief, but very shortly it becomes uncomfortable, even for Winter. It smells, here, of decay and rot. A realm after her brother’s own heart…

In another three steps, they could be back in the cave- the portal, its eerie white light shining, is but three stripes away. They are standing on an endless plain of alternating bands- red and black. Right now they stand on a black band, about a foot across. Or at least, Winter stands there- the other two, her companions, shuffled forward to match her. She looks around and notices bubbles floating, and that the bands stretch on into the sky, that the bubbles have shapes moving in their translucent walls. And she remembers.

 –

“You are the mistress of death, Winter. You can take spirits away from the Pockets of the Dead, lead them through the doorway into their bodies- if you can brave the Band,” For some reason she can’t see who it is talking. But it doesn’t bother her- it’s a memory, and in the memory at least, she feels safe. 

“What’s the Band?” Winter wonders aloud. “What’s so bad about it?”

“The Band is an unfathomably enormous stretch between the worlds, connecting every conceivable area of the living with the Pockets of the Dead. Though rarely will you ever travel in it for longer than a few seconds, it is the most dangerous of places imaginable. Black stripes- sometimes represented in your mind as white bands- will allow you reprieve from the red. Briefly- if you linger longer than a minute trying to gather your strength, you will lose your way…”

“The red?” Winter asks, trying to keep her eyes open and yawning a little.

“Best you don’t ask,” The voice answers quietly. “Just remember- whatever you do, don’t let go of the people you guide, or you’ll lose them forever. You shouldn’t have to worry about such things- you’re still young. I don’t want to give you nightmares.”

“I want to worry!” Winter replies sharply. “I want to grow up-“

 –

The memory cuts short and Winter is flung into the present.

“We have to keep moving,” She mumbles. Summer doesn’t answer with anything but a weak nod. Goliath says nothing, but she can feel the serpent quaking under her hand.

A feeling of indescribable dread falls over her, clenching her heart like the cold clutching her feet. She stares at the three bands separating them from the portal.

“We have to step on each one,” She whispers to herself. “So-“

Winter takes another step forward.

By the powers of divine mercy alone she is spared from being thrust into unconsciousness, and she maintains her grip on Summer, as tight as she can manage, though her hand is suddenly slick with blood. Blood that runs down her skin in a sick wave.

Her skin feels as though it’s been flayed, all at once, and through the sheer shock of it she’s kept from screaming.

There are no words to describe the pain- every single nerve is ablaze, every part of her body is on fire, if she could catch her breath she’d scream until she couldn’t stop.

And it doesn’t abate. It won’t abate. She can hear Summer next to her through the roar in her ears, she can hear her shriek and wants to do the same, but instead, she tugs Summer forward one more step, onto the black band, lifts a foot sticky and slippery with blood, and steps forward.

She trembles, shakes, her body barely capable of standing upright, her heart pounding in an insubstantial chest. She can only imagine what it’s like for Goliath. With such an enormous body the pain would’ve been much more intense- with more of it to attack and more nerves to affect.

She gasps, trying to get her breath back. And her heart freezes, as in the distance, far off, and heard easily above her heavy breathing, there is a chilling, horrible moan.

How long have they been standing here?

She doesn’t know now. Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Days.

Too long. The dread is back, turning her feet to lead. The portal becomes a haze in her vision, though it’s another step away. So close she could almost reach out and touch it.

“Please don’t,” Summer whimpers, and she squeezes Winter’s hand. “We can’t stop. Please just hurry. Two steps. Come on. We’ll make it.”

Winter takes one step as the moaning comes again, closer. She pulls Summer with her, tugs on Goliath’s fur and forces all three onto the band adjoining the pearly portal.

It puts the previous bands to shame. The respite had dulled it, had even wiped the memory of it clean. The steps before it had attacked their nerves, attacked their senses. This one strikes at her heart and mind.

Something tears into her, rips her memories away, slicing through everything, ripping through certainty.

Who is she?

What is she doing? Where is this? There’s a glow ahead. What’s a glow?

Her body is unrecognizable. Someone is clutching at her hand and tugging her. Forward. Towards the glow. What’s going on? Who is this? There’s an immense monster right beside her! She wants to run, but the hand is keeping her in place.

The girl’s mind breaks, shudders with every new assault. Something is tearing her up inside.

Summer is shielded from it for some reason. Through the connection with Winter, though, she can feel her sister’s anguish and pain, feel her fear. Summer’s empathy cracks under the pressure.

Winter is out of it. Summer stares at the portal. It’s close enough to touch.

“Winter,” She whispers. “Winter!”

The girl hears it, hears the name and clings to it, just long enough to listen, just long enough to hear this woman’s words, to stare at her, into her green and blue eyes.

“Take one step forward. Step through the portal! We can’t go until you do, and-“

A horrific groan, tainted with a slippery, slick evil comes from directly behind Summer. They’ve already lingered too long.

She doesn’t turn around. Instead she shoves Winter with her body and bites down on a cry of fear. “Toughen up, you wuss! We’ll all die!”

Winter fights off the memories, fights off the pain, and stumbles through the portal, dragging Summer and Goliath through with her. As they leave that space between worlds, the portal snaps shut behind them.

Demimind: Chapter 17

Keep your head, Summer.

-Eris

(17)Solo

Summer breaks into a run the moment she has her bearings.

Jane… Winter whispers weakly. Here too?

Summer’s hands burn with heat. The ground underfoot- stone- smokes where her feet land, and power, gathered from a hundred waiting Servants, hums through Summer’s body as she closes the gap between herself and Autumn. A bolt of power slams into her shoulder. Autumn’s finger glows, His hand remains outstretched.

It doesn’t faze her. She lets the pain sink in and keeps running. He’s three yards away when He takes one step back. Two when His expression changes to anger from boredom. One when He throws up his other arm slowly, too slowly.

Summer slams into Him, the full force of her fury burning the air. She watches Him tumble away from her, watches Him pull himself to his feet.

Autumn reaches for His long sword, draws it from His scabbard. He holds it left-handed, leaving His right hand empty.

If Summer were thinking, she’d be cautious.

“You bastard!” She screams instead, throwing up both hands and shouting an Eldritch Word: Burst.

Power floods her arms, streams out of her fingertips and leaps outward, striking snake-like in a long, red line towards Autumn. He slashes it, deflects it with His blade, struggling for a moment before sending it soaring away. It hits the far left wall- stone ripples, then explodes outwards in a brilliant wave of heat. It melts through the solid rock and leaves a smoking crater. The shockwave shakes the cavern and the wall of wind that flees the explosion blows Summer’s long hair back.

Autumn’s face twists in anger.

His blade is steaming now, flashing brilliantly, and His eyes are wide.

“Why?” Summer growls, her hands low again, crackling with barely restrained energy. “What the hell has she done to you? She wasn’t even involved yet, you monster! Have you gone completely insane?”

She can see Autumn’s eyes narrow, see Him open His mouth to respond.

Vanish,” He says, and does, disappearing in a crack and a puff of brimstone.

She has just enough time to wonder where He went when she hears the clack of His hooves on the stone of the room. They pause after a moment. From behind her, near the entrance and only exit, she hears “I need no reason for doing what’s right, Sister. Enjoy cradling your dead pet-”

She whirls and points at the exit. “Wall!” She snaps. Immediately a wall of pure fire splashes upwards and ignites on the ceiling, filling the arch by which she’d entered completely, and casting red, eerie light all over the dim room.

Silence from her brother. Either He’s left, or He’s waiting to strike now, Summer thinks. 

Why did He kill her again? What had Jane done? Why did she have to see it again? It’s so much easier, in Winter’s head, it’s so much easier when you’re shielded from it. Summer trembles with fury. Tears evaporate on her cheeks, leaving salt. Jane had been her friend for so long. To meet an end like this without knowing why…

“Hiding now, brother?” She snarls. “What a difference from the last time we fought! Have you weakened so much now that you fear me?”

She searches the room, one green eye, one blue eye, staring into corners, into shadows.

Suddenly, a click behind her, and a white lash of pain draws itself over the back of her thigh. Something slippery drips down her leg, and she stumbles forward for a moment. There’s a clatter. She whirls again, sees the long sword- edge half-melted and glowing cherry red- drop from thin air. She throws up one hand.

Strike!” She hisses. Again the power streams into her from the slumbering Servants. It gathers in her hand and jumps forth in the blink of an eye- this time taking the form of a whip, a tendril of energy, thin and crackling. It sweeps out and catches her brother directly. The glow illuminates him in an outline before he’s flung by the force. The invisibility Word fades.

His thin, tall frame flies away, slamming into the stone floor several feet away  once, and again after striking a pillar. The sound reaches her next, a thunderclap that shakes the ancient dust from the ceiling.

It’s too much to hope that he’s dead. He rolls over and then slowly gathers himself.

He pushes himself to His feet, glaring at her, one hand clutching His midsection- His clothes are torn and burned, and blueish red drips from his lips and runs down his middle.

“I cannot fight you here,” He growls, spitting the strange blood. “But mark my words, you both will meet your end. Quite. Soon.”

He reaches out, fingers curled, and peels reality open as if tearing through paper. Summer’s legs feel heavy as she watches Him step through the gate. It snaps shut behind Him, leaving her alone in the gloom. In the distance, the screeching noise is growing louder. In her head, she can hear Winter sobbing.

Summer’s recently regenerated left hand aches horribly. Her shoulder drips blood and the back of her leg bears a short, deep cut that flows slowly. Her bones ache and her head throbs.

She kneels down next to Jane’s body. After making sure her Servant is truly dead- the heads and serpentine form are both still and cold as marble- she tries again to understand where she is. The room is huge- and must be to contain even a young Goliath. 

On the far, far southern wall there is an enormous dark mirror and a small raised dais before it. The dais bears a few strange stones on it, and she remembers now. It’s a Seeing Terminal. The old castle back in Season’s Refuge- well, Black Refuge right now- had one.

She only knows the combinations for her friends and family, of course. The sort of magic that runs in the old stones here is common enough, though she’d never seen it on quite this scale.

Why would he do this? Winter repeats. Why?

“He cut off our support early. He’s trying to make us waste our time,” Summer says softly, furiously.

She stalks over to the strange terminal and stares at it. The screen is made from a strange crystal- from within there can shine a light to illuminate images that dance across the mirror’s surface. She’s not really sure how it all works, but at the moment it doesn’t matter.

She takes a deep breath, shoving the corpse of her friend out of her mind, and depresses four stones on the dais.

The screen flashes a multitude of colors, light playing over the mirror and sending eerie shadows over Summer’s face as she stands near it and waits. There are two of them here. Will it focus on the future or the past?

The screen goes dark for a moment, and then shows her Fall.

Her brother stands there on a hill, shading his eyes as he looks out over the wall around Spiritfell and into the wastes of the Barrier. His expression is at peace, and its image contrasts sharply with the one of the enraged Autumn she’d fought. Similar, but far from the same. Past and present.

“Brother,” She says quietly. “Why?”

He starts, looks around. That’s right, Summer thinks. It transfers voice too!

“Summer?” He asks the open air. His voice can be heard, like a whisper, though it’s plain he’s speaking out loud. He’s all alone on the hill though.

“I’m talking to you through a screen,” She says plainly. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” comes the faint reply. “Is everything alright? What’s a screen?”

“Jane is dead. And there’s no time to explain.”

She watches Fall’s expression slide from anxious to grieved in a flash. “What?” He asks. “How?”

“Autumn was here waiting for me.”

“Cycle above. Are you hurt?”

Summer shakes her head and sighs. “Yes, but it’s nothing that won’t heal.”

“How about your uh. Your hand?”

“It regenerated before I left,” Summer replies dryly. “You were there for that, brother.”

“Right. What will you do now?”

“Bring Jane back.”

“How will you do that?” Fall asks, arching an eyebrow at nothing. “There’s no way to bring back the dead.”

“Goodbye, brother,” Summer replies quietly.

“Summer-”

She slaps a hand against a stone, cutting the connection. The screen goes dark.

She finds that she’s trembling again. It’s hard to believe that Jane’s death would take her quite like this.

She walks back over to Jane’s corpse, taking another long, deep breath. Her Servant doesn’t stink, like a normal body would. There’s no mark on her, no sign that she died in pain.

We heard her before, Winter says grimly. While we were coming this way she was in pain.

“Yes,” Summer replies stonily. “I am Summer- I am responsible for life, like Spring is for renewal. I remember that.”

And I am for death, like Fall is for decay. I’ve figured out that much.

“Are you prepared for what we need to do?” Summer whispers to herself.

I will do whatever it takes. We need to do this twice in any case- now and in the future. Just show me the way. Winter sounds determined. She’s changed now- as Summer has. In so short a time, they’ve both changed, and Summer, while she doesn’t understand it, thinks she might enjoy the feeling. After so much time being a monster….

Summer looks around her for a stone or a knife, but all she can see are pebbles. But they’ll serve. She draws on the heat of the now silent Servants. She gathers a few pebbles in her hand and in a flash of heat, fuses them together into a mass. The heat tickles a little, and the smell of burning rock nauseates her.

“Sharpen this, Winter.” Her voice is emotionless. She moves back to stand over the still body of her friend “Hurry.”

It’s so clear to her, here. She’d done it. It had been done before. She’d never needed to think about it- she’d just known that she’d done it, that she’d brought back the dead. Winter will have to help, but she’s part of me, Summer thinks. She wants this as much as I do, even if she doesn’t know the way.

I know the way. I’ve known it since forever.

This will just be the first time I’ve done it, though I’ve done it before. Does that make sense? More importantly, will it work?

Why? Winter asks. But she wills the melted stone sharp with all her heart, and, as Summer’s grip tightens on it and it lengthens to a razor sharp tip, she realizes that was the vast majority of her energy.

Summer holds the makeshift knife out. She takes a deep breath, drawing on the life of the Servants above her and flooding herself with power again. Everything has a price…

Her vision flares, white and black. She is sheathed in white, her Servant sheathed in black, the shadows glowing and the very surface of the stone beneath her feet etched in her eyes when she closes them. She can see, she can feel everything, every little twitch of every little cave creature… Every hiss, squeak, squeal and click from the Servants above her, in the tunnels surrounding her.

Following memory, Summer grips the stone knife in white knuckles. She floods everything around her now with her power, eyes shut tight and heart pounding.

“Life for life,” Summer whispers. “Blood for blood.”

It’d be comforting if the words shimmered like she did, but they sink like stones in the dark, swallowed up. And the dark waits for her.

She jams the sharpened edge of the stone into her neck. The rock tip bites deep, thrust through bronze skin. With waning strength, she pulls it out again, lets the flood loose. 

Blood washes out thought, and Winter’s scream is drowned out by the roar as it floods from her severed veins in a ruddy stream, soaking the hungry stone and splashing on her dead Servant’s scales. She slumps forward.

Demimind: Chapter 16

(16) Cover of Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Hang on tight, second season!-

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

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

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

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

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

Your grip is slipping, Winter says dryly.

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

Here, Winter says silently. Take this.

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

 –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 –

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

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

-Clever,- Corevin observes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It drops her on the ground.

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

Dust and grit, sand and sorrow for miles around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good? Winter asks.

“I’m in the mood to kick some ass.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They glow with a familiar cold light.

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demimind: Chapter 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.