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 14

Maybe this will clear things up!

-Eris

(14)Past and Present

“She’s awake!” comes a gleeful cry.

“Good,” Fall’s voice drifts. “The food won’t go to waste this time.”

Winter’s eyes open. Someone in ragged clothing lies before her, weeping. His eyes meet hers, and he snivels pathetically. She reaches out, lets her fingers touch his hair, stringy and greasy. And she- Winter- she is so hungry.

“Overexertion, dear sister,” Fall’s voice says casually. “You should have something to eat. We caught you this man- he was wandering the wastes and in fair condition.”

“Food?” She asks weakly. “But I don’t eat people.” She tries to get her brain in working order. It doesn’t seem to be operating near full capacity.

“Why not?” Fall asks. She looks over at Him. He’s at a table, watching her carefully. Searching for something.

“I can drain the life force of anything,” Winter says, sitting up. She is so hungry. “Why would I eat people when I can have anything else? People are people, not food. We’re people, not monsters.”

Fall breathes a sigh of relief. “Good, you’re still you.”

“You’re testing me,” Winter accuses, still muzzy from a mixture of exhaustion and aches. “Have I woken before and tried to eat people? You stopped me, didn’t you?”

“No, you haven’t tried to eat anyone. I don’t know what separates you from the Summer/Winter pair we have roving this timeline, what makes them so much more ruthless. I didn’t believe it at first, until your guard Thomas and, uh, your Summer apprised me of events.”

He pauses. He turns away and won’t meet Winter’s eyes. “What I said before, below the wall, I…”

“Talk after you give me something I can drain,” She says irritably. “I’m very hungry.” Confessions can wait, Winter thinks. Besides that, there’s no telling what he might say. And, unused to the idea of a Fall who isn’t actively trying to kill her, Winter isn’t sure what she’ll say either.

Thomas steps forward. “I caught you something, Miss.”

And yes, she can feel it, too, an immense lifeforce contained within a tiny thing, clamped in a jar between Thomas’s hands. He holds it out near her, and she takes the jar from him quickly, nearly fumbling it in her hurry. Curiosity stays her power, though.

Butterfingers, chides Summer. Careful. Don’t want that thing out of the jar.

“What is it?” She asks. The light looks almost like the orblight that her brother can generate, but it’s infinitely wilder, twisting, writhing constantly behind the glass and sending out streamers of rainbow energies. And how the hell did you catch it? Summer adds silently.

“It’s a will’o’wisp,” Thomas replies cheerfully. “It should get you back up to full power in no time flat.”

“You truly are a man of hidden talents if you managed to catch one of those troublesome creatures,” Fall comments. “They always evaded me when I was interested in catching them, I found.”

“I wasn’t interested at first,” Thomas admits. “They only come near you when you’re lost or doomed. They’re supposedly poor omens, but I’ve never had trouble with them.”

Winter looks at the creature in the glass. It pulses with what seems like rage and anger. She finds herself feeling more than a little sorry for it, despite its eerie appearance.

Oh come on!

“What?” Winter asks. “It can’t help its nature.”

Summer thinks for a while. Yeah, I guess you’re right. But you need to eat.

“Yes. I do.”

Winter sighs, reaches inside of herself, and opens the channel, focusing on the will’o’wisp. It’d taste of sadness, probably, of cold, dark emptiness and loneliness, the dread of being doomed and the pain of dying alone. Things that it in turn would feed on if it was given the chance…

The will’o’wisp is sucked away, its lifeforce siphoned off to feed Winter’s hunger. Interestingly enough, it seems to pass right through the glass and into her spirit. How long was she out, for her to have become so hungry? It’d probably only been a few hours or so- she was already starting to get a little hungry when she passed out.

The will’o’wisp’s energy does indeed fill her up, but darkly, distressingly so. She feels empty even though she’s full, and her frown must tip off the men to her plight.

“Was that not right, Miss?” Thomas asks. “I could’ve grabbed a pixie. I saw one of those.”

“You’re a fool,” Fall grumbles. “Now she’ll have evil thoughts.”

“Hardly,” Winter snaps. “It was… fine, Thomas. Thank you. I really needed it.”

The gateguard beams at her from his chair and gives Fall a smug smile. “See? No problem at all.”

Aches suddenly hit every part of Winter’s body. She finds herself shuddering all over, and lays back down on the bed, sighing. “Why is this ragged man really here?”

She probably should be more polite. It isn’t like her at all to be rude to someone she’s just met, but then, she isn’t feeling all herself either. And the aches aren’t going away.

“He hasn’t said anything. I was wondering if you knew him,” Fall says.

Her eyes fall on the man. His clothes are tattered, ruined from months and months of travel, and stained with dirt and blood. His eyes meet hers steadily, and there’s a sort of fierce determination in them.

“What do you have to say for yourself? Why are you here?” Winter asks.

The man opens his mouth and where his tongue should be there is nothing. Not the hint of a chopped edge of tongue or tooth, just a yawning black abyss which makes Winter sick to her stomach. She shudders and looks away. Who did this? Summer asks.

“Who did this?” Winter echoes, gripping the sheets, and once again meeting the man’s eyes. “Where can I find them?”

He stares at her for a moment.

He can’t write, Summer says flatly. He can’t read, he can’t write. He’s a peasant. The only reason he made it this far is his determination to see you.

“Heal him, Summer.”

Summer winces mentally, but knows Winter can’t see it. Sweetie, you know I wish I could. It’s just… I don’t have my body. I can’t do shit without my body. And the pill won’t wear off until midnight.

Which means… she was out for a little over five days. Incredible. Well, it does explain why she was able to talk to Thomas. No doubt it was a strain on her body to be forced to move with Summer’s will.

“Stay here until midnight, and Summer will heal you,” Winter says quietly. The man stares at his feet. He seems to curl up a little, but nods.

Winter lays back on the bed and stares at the ceiling. It’s too hot and stuffy in this place. With her new power, she decides she may as well cool it down a bit. “Thomas, why don’t you go occupy this young man’s time for a while,” Fall says slowly.

“With respect, Fall, sir, you can shove it,” Thomas replies. “I can’t leave you here with miss Winter alone. Last time you were with her you tried to kill her, and I don’t know much about timelines, but I’m a firm believer in destiny, milord.”

“Well said. Now get out.

Thomas’s legs carry him outside. Halfway to the door he beckons to the mutilated man. Thomas’s skin is white as new paint, and Winter can see him fighting it, but when the man arrives he just gives up and lets the power take him outside the shack.

“Now that we’re alone,” Fall says quietly. “I think it’s time you told me what I’ve done.”

Winter stares at him blankly for a moment. “In the future, where I was, you tried to kill me,” She says quietly. “You attacked and nearly killed Summer, but ended up binding her within me so that we can’t switch at will. Rather than being a freedom, to be wrestled with between us, you locked her inside. I could only switch by being subjected to great stress or heat. It was a binding on both of us. I believe it was meant to drive us insane.”

Fall looks taken aback. “Really?” He asks. He actually seems incredulous about it, and Winter’s resolve falters a moment.

“As well, you… well, there was something about your name. Fall. When spoken, it makes mountains shake, there. In that timeline your power is palpable, even when you’re at ease,” She shudders as she remembers. “And for some reason you were after this.”

Without knowing quite why, she reaches into her pocket- and pulls out the illmetal bead.

But hadn’t her clothes fallen away before? Did it stay with her because she owns it? Did it stick to her skin?

She knows only that she felt its presence before she mentioned it. It was just there.

Fall leans forward, piercing eyes gazing on it intently for a moment before he simply nods. “Yes, that sounds about right.”

“What?” Winter asks. “You mean you knew you would try to kill me in the future?”

“Something of that nature. I was just about to take precautions against it, actually. You’ve distracted me a bit, dear sister,” He says impishly. “The process I was thinking about undertaking- I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It’s called refraction. It involves splitting one’s soul and shining pieces of it through each other. It multiplies power, but the cost is obvious.”

He pauses. “This was shortly after you disappeared,” He says grimly. “I thought you went to strike at the human group who took over Refuge.”

“Season’s Refuge?”

He laughs at that. “No, Winter, the Black Refuge. It’s long been theirs- for longer than I can remember, certainly. We’d talked- jokingly I imagine- about assaulting it before. I’m sure you don’t remember that. Is it called something else in your time?”

“Season’s Refuge,” Winter mutters.

We’re a long way back.

And a long way from home. Wherever that is.

“That suggests we took it,” Fall muses. “It would’ve taken power unimaginable- their magi aren’t overpowerful, but they are an amazingly prolific race, humans. They’ve no doubt infested all of it. Or had. And it was called Season’s Refuge in your time?”

“Yes,” Winter says. “I remember living there with Spring and Summer and Fall. That Fall. He was the same as you are, he… he cared for me and he looked after me, as far as I can remember. But… how did we take it, then, if-“

The past rolls into the present, and her mind sparks and hisses in protest.

Winter, are you sure about this?

“We need it done,” She answers. Her hands shake as she lifts the vial to her lips.

It will change us. Maybe hurt us.

Winter closes her eyes and drinks it. It has no flavor, no substance, like drinking cloud, like drinking water. But it isn’t water.

It burns, it hisses inside of her like an enraged snake and makes her twist. She can hear Summer screaming in her head, and her body shudders all over. She’s broken into a sweat. Her skin feels like knives. She can’t see, she can’t hear, her mind is rent in a dozen different ways, twisted and pulled until she can’t stand it and finally, after an eternity, after a second, it’s over.

And all she can hear now is her breathing.

And all she can feel now is cold.

She opens her eyes again. But something is different. She feels powerful.

She feels incredibly powerful.

Frost cracks across her body, twirls around her in a cyclone. Blue energy crackles around her wrists and sparks about her legs as she pushes herself to her feet again. The tiles underfoot are covered in the pure, untempered power. They tremble under every step.

Winter’s eyes are closed, but they open again, wide. She steps away from the shrine, draws a single shimmering sigil in the air, and vanishes.

Distance. She moves from the shrine in a small clearing at the edge of Black Refuge to the glade her brothers have been occupying for years now. Only one brother is here.

She reappears, steps out from the air, and makes Fall, jump. For a moment he seems ready to strike, but then he realizes it’s his sister that’s entered.

“Sister- what are you doing?”

“Making us a home,” Winter hisses, voice leaving cool trails in the air, every word flashing and then disappearing without really being heard- just felt. “Would you like to watch?”

“I took it,” Winter says weakly. “We did, I mean, Summer and I.”

“Took Black Refuge?” Fall asks. “Alone?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. I just know that we did,” Winter replies wearily. “I’ll need to see it in order to know how, I think. It’s where I was going in the future anyway.”

“I’m going to be here soon,” Fall says flatly. “In order to complete refraction I’d need a bead of Illmetal, and you carry the only piece anyone has been able to find.”

“I could give it to Him- you- I guess,” Winter says doubtfully. “But I’m not so sure that’d be a good idea at all. From what I’ve seen you’ve gone mad with power already- future you, anyway.”

“If I am allowed to complete refraction, I’m not likely to keep what’s left of my sanity,” Fall’s tone turns grim. “Do stop me, sister.”

“This is the last thing I expected to do,” Winter comments dryly. “I thought I’d be dead when I saw you approaching the wall.”

Fall smiles and then shrugs. “I certainly wasn’t expecting a warm welcome from you at first. But the Winter I knew surely isn’t the same as you are.”

“This time travel is confusing me,” Winter says weakly. “I think I’ll call you Fall, and the future you Autumn.”

“In the future my name shakes mountains,” Fall grins. “Really, you flatter me.”

“Don’t compare Autumn to yourself, brother. You haven’t seen him,” Winter says, and sighs.

“I think I shall call you Winter. The Winter who lives in this time I’ll call Frost,” Fall says quietly. “Much more fitting for her- like first frost, she’s flighty and shy. I’ve never known her to make a decision without first listening to Summer. Er.” He stops and rolls his eyes.

“She gets a name too,” Winter says. Then, “Let’s call her Evil Bitch.”

Fall looks thoughtful.

“Tempting, but not exactly catchy,” He says. “How about Blazing Butthead?”

“Alliteration,” Winter observes. “That’ll make it easier to remember. Shortened to BB?”

“Sure,” He says graciously. “I don’t mind.”

Fall gets up and sits on the edge of the bed.

They sit like that, in comfortable silence, smiling. A thought strikes Winter.

“Actually, what’s her name? Is it different, here?” She asks.

“I don’t know,” Fall admits. “I think her name is Summer-Glory.”

“My Summer’s name is…”

Summer-Heat-Rising.

“Summer-Heat-Rising,” Winter finishes. “Your turn.”

“To name?” Fall says, then grins. “Fine. My Summer can be Glory, formally. Otherwise I think BB will fit.”

I’d like to stay Summer, if it’s all the same to you, Summer puts in, with the dryness of a midseason day.

“Summer says she’d like to remain Summer,” Winter says, and then giggles, feeling a little giddy.

“That sounds good,” Fall says, but he’s not smiling anymore. “What will you do?”

Winter blinks, then sighs heavily. “I need to stop Autumn, I need to get to Season’s Refuge, in the future. There are memories there I need to get back.”

“Since Spiritfell took you here, it can probably bring you back,” Fall replies seriously. “As for stopping Autumn, the best way to do that is to study up to become more powerful than He is. Here you have as much time as it’ll take for him to arrive.”

“It’s a different timeline,” Winter says slowly, barely daring to hope. “Can he even come here?”

“If he’s undergone partial refraction, it’s within the realm of possibility,” Fall says darkly. “We can’t ignore that.”

The sisters and brother are quiet for a while. The only noise in the shack is the creak of old timber and the gentle hum of the Illmetal bead in Winter’s hand. Even Summer is quiet, though that could be just because of the falling temperature.

“Well, let’s list our assets,” Winter starts. “I have you, Summer… Thomas…”

“Your Servant too,” Fall points out.

“In the future she’s dead,” Winter says bitterly. She fights back tears for her guardian. “Before I even really knew her.”

“She’s alive here. You should go and ask her for help,” Fall says grimly.

“You don’t sound too happy about it,” Winter observes.

“She’s loyal to Frost and BB, here,” Fall grumbles. “Likely as not she’ll flat out refuse and try to eat you.”

“We’ll handle her last, then,” Winter says, shrugging.

“Unfortunately, we may not have a choice,” Fall sighs. “If we wait too long, Glory will try to cement her Servant’s loyalty a little further on the off chance that you might be successful.”

“She may’ve already done that!” Winter argues. “What’s the point of going?”

“She’s extremely strong, Winter. If she’s against us, what little chance we have could be crushed,” Fall says simply. “We’ll deal with Goliath first.”

“Okay,” Winter says, stifling a yawn. “So what do we do now?”

“I’ve got a song I’ve been meaning to teach you, if you wouldn’t mind spending the last hours of freedom learning it with me,” Fall says sheepishly.

Winter doesn’t even know if she knows how to sing. But her brother’s face is so hopeful she gives in. “Fine, but you better not laugh,” She replies, a touch ruefully.

“Wouldn’t dare.”