Long Stories: Rose Knight (3)

Aed and some of his band wait for her in the city, and they find her before she’s made it two streets. Her first inkling is the crossbow bolt as it flies past her nose and embeds itself in the wall next to her. She takes a step out of the alleyway to find the street almost entirely deserted. Aed has three friends now, not simply one, and stares at her. Among his friends he counts two mercenaries with crossbows (one of whom rewinds his) and a man holding a sword easily as large as Rose.

She mentally measures the distance to the nearest unlocked door– the library. With their crossbows and their speed they could catch and kill her before she made it, she’s fairly certain, and they stand between her and the temple district.

Rose sags. “And me, without my armor,” she mutters. “Good day, Aed. You have my attention. Whose did I attract today?” Continue reading

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Long Story: Rose Knight (2)

“I’m not well versed in the ways of women, especially not noblewomen,” the smith, whose name is Ith and surname is Sol, says quietly. “And well, Sandrys is a foreigner.”

Rose nods thoughtfully. “She is.”

Truth be told, no one in the city knows exactly where Sandrys was born. Rose knows that she was raised here in the city. A few years back, she’d told Rose that her old home had been horrible. Continue reading

Poem: Magic

A sword in stone

A chalice in hand

A cup that transports you here

Or there

 

Rabbit in a hat

A bag of the winds

Truffles that glisten with the heart

Of your sins

 

Magic in time

Magic in place

Magic to daunt

Magic to face

Magic you know you can’t use in the streets

Magic that all may learn and meet

Magic that’s sweet

Magic that’s dark

Perhaps it all seems to be naught

But a lark

Magic entwined in the science of things

Sorcery wrapped ’round political strings

 

It flows all around us like a Force or a being

In each baby’s smile

In the hearts of us all to keep us beating

And well

While everything else in sadness

Or doubt

Brings nothing but tears

And nothing but shouts

 

The magic in the air

In the books that we read

In the stories we hear from the people we need

That magic is sacred

That magic is real

The magic of all of our voices is real

But

Sealed

in the beliefs of a nation

Our nation

Which grew out of magic

From far

far away

and grew into an age

of today

 

And of wheels

Of today and wheels

And gears that turn

That never stop turning

No matter the hour

No matter the minute

No matter the month that their metal keeps working

An age where the magic we make is the same

Of mass-produced ‘art’

And tales spun of shame

 

True magic misses

This world we have

Floating and flying right by

 

So put down your laptop

Put up your keyboard

Set down the work of your empty labor

Put it all down and send it away

 

Then pick up a pen

From which ink ever sways,

And write

Write,

Write the magic in.

©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)

Poem: The Spade For Me

The Spade For Me

A poem by Sam Oliver [Eris]

 

 

I am not afraid

Of the man and his heart

Where he stands

Far apart

From me

His folded set face

The fingers in place

At his sides

Threatening

Me

 

When he comes close

I drift back

Shadows at my heart

Certain- shaken up- at

Me.

 

I am not afraid

Of the way his hands move

Of how his eyes dart

Over body, over heart

Over me.

 

His mouth as it moves

Says how ‘it behooves’

Who does he think

That he is to

Me?

 

My fragile, frail life

Stretched thin before that knife

Which shines in his hands

And shines in

Me

 

I am not afraid

Of the worn ruddy red

A hymn for the dead

Through metal-

Through me.

 

Life slips through

Fingers slick, askew

Like glasses that slide

From my nose

From me.

 

They shatter on the floor

Their noise I abhor

But distant now how

Can I see

Past me?

 

I am not afraid

Of this man standing now

Above and within

My worn, torn heart

In me.

 

He cuts without his knife

With words thickened by strife

His fingers wrapped tight

Round my throat

Round me.

 

He’ll choke out my life

Like the other cut with knife

While my heart beats it’s last

I’ll see

Just me.

 

But I am not afraid

No, not of this man

Who thinks he has me

Controls me

Is me

 

I break free of his grip

Flutter heart, faint quip

Brought to mind by years of abuse

“Your end is nigh,” Slips from lips

Dry as bone

But me

Part of me.

 

A hand reaches out

Mine or his, spell is shout-

-ed like thunder raging forth

From me

It was me.

 

The years I was his slave

I will take to the grave

Like dreams that haunt

Forevermore

In me

 

Now I am not afraid

Of this man

In his grade

Of soil’d earth’s grip

Met anew

 

For I am she- who cut him down

For what he did to me

With spells and light and song I came;

His crime is now repaid

Tenfold, now with spade

It is me

Who sets him

To rest.

 

No I am not afraid

Of this man

In his grave

I am not afraid anymore

I told myself my fears

Washed clean by my tears

I can’t take back

What he stole and he sold

 

But I am not afraid

Of his heart that now beats no more

and I am not afraid

of the cold

and the filth

that settles on my skin like mold

I’ll shrug it off now

Free of pain, freed from how

Dirty one man

Made me.

 

Because in my heart

While lonely from the start

In forests that I once knew

My hands thick with soil

My eyes set unspoiled

I know that I’ll start

Anew

 

I know now I’ll find

Something new

 

i know that i need

someone new…

Demimind: Chapter 29

Extra short. But in a reasonable fashion, and a reasonable timeframe after the last. Almost done with chapter 30. Let’s try to at least get a chapter out a week, hm?

-Eris

 

(29) Resolution

“Silk-” Winter starts quietly. There’s so much she wants to say now she could burst. The overwhelming feelings are turning her legs to jelly.

“You are a child,” her old friend replies sternly. “You meddle with powers you don’t even know how to control.

Winter says nothing to that, holding still and letting the Spider Queen talk. It takes everything she has to bite her tongue, and hold her words back.

“I can tell you what you need to know, in return for something.”

“What do I need to give you?” Winter asks immediately. “I’ll do it. I don’t care what it is- I owe Jane this. I can’t leave her-… I can’t…”

“Do you promise to agree to the terms no matter what they are?” Silk asks softly, her voice suddenly tender. “You may not like them once you hear them.”

“I’d give anything!” Winter says fiercely. “Just name them!”

Idiot, Summer hisses. Do you really mean that?

Winter, for her part, ignores her mind-mate. Of course she means it. This is Silky she’s dealing with, not some dangerous stranger.

“Bear my eggs before you reincarnate,” Silk whispers. “That is all.”

Before Winter can find her wits again and answer, her old friend changes the subject. Winter feels her heart sink, freeze in her chest before her friend even speaks. Silk’s arms are loose around her now, as if in sympathy.

“No matter how hard you try, you cannot bring Jane back now,” Silk begins slowly. “She is out of your reach.”

Winter struggles in vain, staring at the broken, battered body of her Servant, days and days dead.

“But- you-”

“I told you I would tell you what you need to know, Winter,” Silk replies solemnly. “And I’m telling you right now that what you wish is utterly impossible. The dead, once led from the Cycle, cannot find their way back again when they eventually return. Without a doubt, Jane and Goliath are already finding their paths to the shells they will next take.”

“T-that trade is unfair,” Winter whispers weakly, feeling the power fading from her, and cold despair taking its place. “Y-you tricked me.”

“Winter, I am not done talking yet,” Silk says mildly, voice soft. “There are a few things that I must tell you regarding your brothers and your sister…”

“I already know Spring is insane,” Winter snaps. “What else could there be?”

Silk seems to hesitate far too long. Silence.

“You didn’t know, did you,” Winter whispers. “You damn well had no idea.”

“Spring’s stability has never been without question,” Silk starts slowly, haltingly. “But why-”

“He threatened to kill me. He wants the illmetal bead so he can erase Fall from existence and break the Cycle of the Seasons or something,” Winter interjects bitterly. “He’s obviously gone batshit.”

Well duh, Summer snipes. Seriously, what part of his total mental breakdown didn’t you expect?

Silk loosens her clawed grip further. “That’s why you wanted Jane to come back…”

“I owe her,” Winter corrects. “She saved me. It’s a debt, and she’s a friend.”

“Servants that die are reincarnated unless they are called back within hours of their deaths, Winter. They aren’t like humans or animals, whose fragile souls break apart. They are like you, Winter, and they are like me. We are guardians of this place, its custodians and watchers. And a Servant, once killed, will come back in time on its own. Not in your life perhaps, but in your successor’s life.”

“I won’t see her again,” Winter says flatly. “And I can’t pay her back.”

“You don’t need to pay her, Winter. That balance was reset the first time. Or have you forgotten already what you did for her?”

“It’s not right!” Winter snaps, shrugging herself free from Silk’s grip and whirling on her friend. “Don’t you understand that?”

Silk’s stance, loose before, hardens, as well as her face. Those eyes are steel, and under their unwavering gaze, Winter’s legs shake.

“And would killing yourself make that better?” Ever-Widowed snarls. Her voice is dripping with fury. “Tell me, Winter-Long-Frost, did you really expect that by sacrificing yourself you could bring your friend back? Would you really pay any price?”

“What are you-” Winter starts, but Summer interrupts her.

She’s saying that you’d kill yourself, you dope! Life for life, right? Did you think you were an exception to the rules?

“No,” Winter says under her breath. “I never knew the rules.” The rage is fading. She takes a deep breath, letting the chilling feeling of her power spread all over her again and replace the anger with cold.

“But what do I do?” She asks out loud.

Her legs tremble, and the world around her spins.

“Who can I trust?” She whispers, almost to herself, almost too quiet for anyone but Summer to hear.

“Trust in yourself,” Silk says quietly. “Trust in your sister. Trust in Autumn and his ability to pull himself back from the brink.”

Oh come on. Whoever he was he isn’t that man anymore. 

“But-”

“No. There is no ‘but’. Autumn is your brother- he shares your tenacity and force of personality. Spring is a slippery snake, but worse than that, he is set. He believes without a doubt that Autumn cannot be saved, and in giving up hope, he will only perpetuate this broken Cycle instead of shatter it, as he seems to intend.”

“How can you know?” Winter whispers weakly.

“I’ve lived a long time, Winter of the Seasons,” Ever-Widowed replies gently. “Trust me.”

Winter sags, biting her lip. Then a part of her hardens. She straightens. “I have to stop him. I have to stop both of them. I have to get back my sister’s child.”

Finally, something we agree on.

She takes a deep, deep breath, steadying herself.

Silk looks at her carefully, then nods, as if she’s made up her mind. “Good. Stronger than before. Are you done running?”

“I hardly think I can stop either of my wayward brothers by standing here,” Winter says grimly.

Her love reaches out and pulls Winter close, six arms locked around her for a few moments.

Silk’s skin is smooth, free of wrinkles, and comfortably chilly. Her hands are chitinous and hard, but gentle where they touch Winter’s bare arms, legs and back.

“You’re a mess, but your will is enough, Winter,” Silk says softly. “There’s so much for you to learn yet. Come back when you are done, and we can talk.”

“You act so sure,” Winter whispers, burying her face against the Spider Queen’s neck. “I might not come back.”

“So much drama,” Silk snips, her voice almost playful. “Relax, Winter-Long-Frost. You’ll come back. After all…”

She whispers something, a clicking, a chittering that Summer doesn’t understand. Winter nods, though, smiling tentatively. She leans up on the tips of her toes and gives Silk a quick, tender kiss, and then steps away, unsure.

Silk, for her part, smiles back. There’s something sad in her eyes, though, and Summer feels as though something is wrong as Winter turns away.

Something is very wrong.

What did she say? Summer asks.

Winter doesn’t answer.

She walks to the edge of the cavern, to the great stone doors that had shut her in with Jane so long ago. Her hands touch the stone warily. “Do you remember how to cast that gate spell you used- the one that took us here?”

Yeah. Where do you need to go? I’ve got enough juice in me for one more jump. And you haven’t answered me.

“It’s nothing you’d understand,” Winter replies quietly. “And we need to go to Spring’s shrine again.”

What do you- oh, no. Thomas!

“Yes.”

Summer uses Winter’s arms, as her sister gives her control. She reaches out and draws a shimmering trail in the air before her, focusing her own energy in Winter’s fingers.

“That b-burns,” Winter stammers, startled.

Yeah, is all Summer replies. The line splits apart down the middle, showing a scintillating abyss. I dunno what this will feel like for you…. It’s a bit hot for me, so… just prepare yourself.

Without hesitation, Winter strides through the gate. There’s a gasp, and then she’s gone.

The world is blindingly hot, when she returns. Her entire body is covered in sweat, and the power inside of her feels suppressed, as if the heat is simply too much for it to compete with.

Her skin feels like one giant blister.

She reacts, pushing her power outward like a shield, sheathing herself in the chill as fast as she can, swaying on the spot, wondering if maybe she took a wrong turn somewhere in the gate, or if Summer’s formulae had been off.

A searing hot coal drops down from above, and as she takes in her bearings, it explodes in front of her from the contrast in hot and cold, bursting into steam and smoke.

Where is she? Did Summer’s gate spell go wrong? She looks around at the lacquered wood, at the hungry flames.

No. She’s in the right place.

The shrine is on fire.

It’s a roaring all around her, the wood, the mighty oak, is going up in flames, orange and red and yellow licking all about her. Her skin feels cooked.

Winter! You have to get out of here! This much heat will make you faint!

“Not without Thomas or the girl,” she whispers, looking around her desperately, choking, gagging on the smoke. Where would they be?

Where would he hide them?

She floods the area around her with cold, forming a clear sphere- the smoke around her drops to the floor, suddenly unable to rise, and the boards under her creak and hiss, threatening to crack and give way under her. The stress of sudden cold after being red hot is almost too much.

Finally she can see, and the inferno near her is parted. But all around her, it leaps on, flickering, dancing. It looks hot, it looks as though she should be dead.

She can feel it through the cold around her.

You can feel them, can’t you? You can feel their life-force.

Winter isn’t sure what she feels, at first. As she stands there, though, in the midst of the flames and the terrible heat trying to feast on her, battering at her sheltered, personal tundra, she realizes that she can feel them. She can almost taste them. The girl, dirty and scared, Thomas, determined and… hurt… ? And… terrified.

They aren’t in the Shrine. She can feel them outside of it.

Trap, Summer says, as Winter strides through the blaze.  But who…?

Winter knows the answer. She strides out of the Shrine, heart pounding.

Her answer stares her in the face as she pushes open the briefly burning front door. It’s dark, darker than natural, and oppressively so.

Standing in the courtyard, eyes triumphant, is none other than Fall. At His feet lies the urchin girl. Standing before her fallen form is Thomas- hopeless, helpless. In Falls hands sleeps Summer’s child.

Demimind: Chapter 28

A bit short. I’m beginning work on 29 immediately. It’s time to put myself to the true test of a writer.

Enjoy.

-Eris

(28)First Season, Fourth Season

 

“The following is the account of my late brother’s misdeeds as far as I am able to tell: murder, betrayal, treason and destruction of personal property amounting to over five hundred thousand gold and silver pieces to members of Guild, the South Island Trading Industries, and Soulfire Tower. In the absence of any real easy way to create order among the Seasons and regulate them, I am taking it upon myself to warn further incarnations of the perpetual Cycle that they are entering into- and to especially warn future carriers of the title of Fall of the acts they are destined to commit.”

Winter stares at the paper for a while. It’s unmistakably familiar, it’s definitely her writing. The cold, crisp manner to it, the intricacies of each letter as it curves. She can remember learning to write, but she couldn’t remember her name when she first came here. The meaning behind it seems simple enough. She can absorb what she’s reading.

“Fall is unable to help himself- destiny drove him to his fate, and it will continue to drive future carriers of the title to distance and sequester themselves from the other Seasons. While it would seem prudent to keep a close watch on them, it is impossible to track the movements of most of the Seasons, especially Spring, who of all the seasons, is the most vulnerable to Corruption. The filthy snake-tongued womanizer is a coward at his heart, though, and in a position of weakness would bargain with anything, even at the expense of his own brothers or sisters. Whether this is a constant in all of the incarnations of the First Season or whether it is only him I do not know.”

Winter hardly believes what she’s reading. Did her previous incarnation mean to say that Spring was the one manipulating Fall to be this way? At what personal gain? Yet- then again, Spring had tried to make Fall turn against them, hadn’t he… She had wanted to believe that Spring was good. She still feels skeptical though, so she forces herself to read further.

The Third Season, Fall, is the most unstable of all. His descent into madness is made easily explainable by the type of energy his mind craves and devours, and the research he will inevitably undertake in order to go through a process he always calls ‘Refraction’. He will shine the cold light of decay through his own body, using the magic of the Wish element in order to complete it- once he has done this, his descent into absolute madness will be absolute. There is no way to cure him but death and the cleansing of the Paths of the Dead, once he has gone that far.”

Winter blinks, at that. It’s troubling that her past incarnation had known so much- or had professed to know so much.

Beware, those wish to undertake the trials leading one to become a season, for the Fourth Season’s spiritual shell is inherently flawed, and will obliterate every part of the soul that attempts to take on the mantle. Truly the Fourth Season, that which governs Winter and death, is synonymous with spiritual and physical oblivion. This has been evident in both the past incarnations and, in truth, it was what happened to the soul which my spiritual shell swallowed in order to grant me the powers of the fourth season. I don’t know who I was, only what I am now, and future incarnations, won’t hear me.”

“If you are reading this, you know that the worst has happened. Whether you found this place hidden in the snow and were lost, seeking shelter- whether you are the next incarnation of the second season Summer, snooping in on me matters not in the slightest. The metal in here would be the doom of anyone but a mortal, and so I hope these documents, my testament, are kept safe here- either forever or until the time is right.”

Winter stares at the papers, almost disbelieving it. And how long had it been since that incarnation was around? Had she really lost all memory twice- once when she had first entered the ‘shell’ and again when Fall had bound her?

Yes, that would make sense. But she had regained much of the memory she’d lost when Fall had originally bound her.

She fashions a coat for herself, and boots, a deep blue t-shirt made of sparkling cold, as well as pants and undies. She pulls them on, stuffs the documents into a pocket with shaking hands, and then turns to stare at the frost covered-metal on the floor.

 

 

“The last tile is in place, fourth season,” the spider-armed one says. “Should I have a drone carry the documents in?”

“Don’t bother,” Pure-Winter-Snow replies quietly. “I’ll do that myself when the time is right.”

“That will kill you,” The spider-human states. It doesn’t articulate its emotions with its mouth, but the movements of its four arms seem to indicate distress- hanging limply.

“Be that as it may, it is what must be done,” Winter says simply. “And now I must face my brother.”

“Fall?”

“No,” Winter whispers.

 

 

A crunching noise makes Winter look up to the door.

“Spring,” Winter breathes, backing away from the metal and nearly tripping on the chair behind her. The first of the seasons stares at her from the doorway, and his normally waving green hair is twisted and withered, curling like dead grass.

“Winter,” He says slowly, flatly. There’s more malice packed into her name than Winter thinks she has ever heard before- from anyone. Her heart is a frozen core in her chest.

“You gave my sister’s baby to Fall,” Winter says, and the words drop like stones into the silence- at Fall’s name, the hut doesn’t pitch or roll, but it may as well for the trembling of the world as the accusation leaves her mouth. It clatters on the floor, striking the metal tile resoundingly loud in Winter’s head- had she gone too far? No, she’d already gone too far by coming here. She can see it in Spring’s eyes. But strangely enough, she doesn’t feel afraid.

“I did,” the Eldest Season says simply. “I won’t bother denying it, now that you’re here- and you would expect something different? He is invulnerable as He is, there is not a one among us who could face Him and win.”

His hands- there is no power there. His hands are limp and his eyes- his whole form is one of sadness rather than battle.

She wonders if he realizes it, but he’s standing just short of the doorway, just to the left so that if she were to run, she could easily slip by him before he knew-

It’s a trap, Winter, Summer hisses. He’s standing like that on purpose.

– it… Winter stops staring at the gap, forcing her eyes up to gaze on Spring’s own. And in his eyes she sees the ruse. The way his stance shifts when she meets his eyes with her own is nearly imperceptible, but Summer points it out to her.

He’s waiting for you to try to run. Here- in with so much metal- how can he touch you? In your own domain?

Winter steps back, bumping into the desk. Crackling with power that Spring can’t see, she keeps her hands behind her, gazing at him steadily.

“What do you want?” She asks, buying time to think.

“The bead, Winter. If you and Summer go to fight Fall, you will die, but more importantly, you will lose the only piece of illmetal in known existence. I need that bead to set things right.”

“What will you do with it?” Winter pries.

“What do you think, Sister?” Spring replies sharply. “With that single bead I can wish Autumn from this world altogether! Our wayward brother’s existence could be destroyed utterly!”

“Why don’t you simply create another?” Winter presses, biting her lip. Fall needed to be stopped, it was true. But to remove Him entirely…? Without decay, would the world even work?

“The creation of a piece of Illmetal even a tenth the size of what you hold requires the heart of a dragon,” Spring sneers suddenly, demeanor changing in an instant. “Why do you think the Council thinned? Why do you think they’ve learned to hate the fey?”

He paces outside the door now, glaring at Winter, hands clenching in a manner reminiscent of Fall.

Winter’s eyes widen. “You mean-”

No way, Summer whispers weakly. There are no real words to describe how twisted that is.

“I killed them off, Sister!” Spring’s lips curl, and his green eyes flare with anger. “The dragons are dead because of me! The ends justify the means- you now have my brother’s bead, and at this point one is as good as the other! He must be stopped!”

Her heart freezes further in her chest, and she wants to strike out at him then, now, to kill him where he stands. But she pushes it away. Unsurprisingly, Summer urges the opposite.

He should die. He’s been killing dragons. Maybe for years.

Some things don’t add up, Winter whispers in her own head.

“Why did you stop us from saving Autumn?” Winter asks. Now she’s curious- apprehensive, but curious.

“You can’t save Him,” Spring says fiercely. “History cannot be turned. Time is like a tide. I should know that better than anyone! The Cycle of the Seasons will play out- it would take an unimaginable force of magic to redirect it!”

“You deliberately caused Fall’s Refraction! You’re part of the reason he fell in the first place!” Winter accuses, words like venom.

Spring shakes his head, glaring at her, envious green gaze locked on hers. “Don’t lecture me on the peculiarities of time! Do you think this is the first such Refraction? He has played this out many times- every incarnation over and over since time immemorial! The cycle itself is flawed!”

Winter looks away, unable to stare her suddenly furious brother in the eye. The normally kindly face has turned into a vicious grimace, almost animalistic in its ferocity. “Give me the bead- don’t you see it’s the only way?”

“I won’t believe it!” Winter snaps. “Even if that was the only way to stop him then I still wouldn’t do it! I won’t murder my own brother!”

“Then face oblivion,” Spring snarls. “After all, I rebuilt you once, I can do it again!”

For a horrible moment, Winter wonders if he might simply ignore the metal and attack her. Her hands shake behind her, and even with the full might of her at the ready, Spring is a complete unknown. Whatever powers he has control over would surely be terrible for him to make a threat as grave as that and have any hope of fulfilling it.

Instead, Spring smiles a brittle, chilling smile, an unexpected frost in his voice as he calms himself, gathers his composure, and disappears in a cloud of dew that cracks as it strikes the ground, shattering into hundreds of glittering shards.

Winter, for her part, takes a deep, shivering breath, and lets it out in a long sigh, steadying herself, settling back against the desk and trying not to let her legs fall under her.

Winter- what will we do?

“How much were you awake for?” Winter asks wearily, barely daring to feel relief.

I read the notes with you…. and… it looks like we can’t trust Spring.

“Gee, you think?” Winter laughs, her voice weak. She can’t remember the last time she laughed- and even though it’s humorless it still feels good. “When was your first clue?”

She pushes herself up from the throne, power crackling with her. She doesn’t feel weak, even if her body acts the part well enough. But neither does she feel safe. Two mad brothers to contend with? Will it ever end? The betrayals- the lies!- She can’t deal with this!

She steps out from the shack moodily, easing over the metal, pushing her way out the door, turning to close it.

Shack secured, she stalks back through the snow, leaving the way she came and closing the door to her innermost sanctum. It makes a resounding boom. She has one more bit of business to settle here, Spring and Fall be damned. One more debt to repay before she deals with her wayward brothers. If she can deal with her wayward brothers.

Winter’s feet remember the way through the dark halls, back up the long cavern, all filled with rough stone. A hole in the wall, melted through with cold light, lets the darkness in. Here the air is stagnant, but as she steps through the hole, the passage through the rubble of the cavern she can feel the body of her most faithful Servant here. So close in link, how couldn’t she?

It seems as if she walks forever before her hand finds a section of scaled hide. Something protected her Servant from rot- something kept her embalmed here, dry and… warm still, as if from an inner light, an inner energy.

“Jane,” Winter whispers.

She shifts uncomfortably in the heat, the stifling warmth of the cavern. Summer draws back from her shock just enough to wonder at her behavior.

What are you doing? We can’t bring her back, you know- she’s dead now, we nearly died the last time and I was in control. I don’t think you can do it the same way I can.

“What’s yours is mine, Summer,” Winter says, half a smile gracing her lips. “Believe me when I say that this is well within my power right now.”

She can feel it- it crackles along toes, fingers and palms. It sparks and cries out to be used, a hymn, a resonance that fills her body.

She reaches out and rests her hand fully against Jane’s body, fingers splayed.

She closes her eyes, feeling her will- feeling with her will. The scales slide in her mind- dry now, cold and dead with age, but untouched by the horrors of rot.

There’s no way this will work, Summer hisses. You could kill us both!

“Trust me,” Winter whispers, eyes still closed. “This will work.”

She curls her fingers against her Servant’s corpse. Cold- no, pure frost hisses out from her hand, glowing faint blue as the magic coats Jane’s fur and scales. She takes a deep, shuddering breath, barely daring to believe what she’s trying to do. Can she bring Jane back on her own? The conduits seem familiar somehow, the energy flowing from her hand, from her heart, frozen so much she can practically feel Summer’s teeth chattering together in her head.

Eyes still closed, she can see the lines of her magic vaguely, and she forces more of it from her, focusing her power. Her whole body shudders suddenly, and it stings in her fingertips and pounds in her head, her every fiber singing with magic far more ancient than mere words- the power she is pushing into her Servant is pure, undiluted… energy.

Behind closed lids, the world flares blue and white, scars, flashes and blooms dotting her black vision. Her legs drop her- and now her mouth forms a word, a spell older than time itself.

“Life,” Winter gasps.

Winter’s power coalesces around her in a crackling, swarming cloud of blue sparks- as her eyes open she realizes her entire body tingles, stings and aches with it. It needs direction, and she hasn’t built the right channels for it to flow through. All around her, dust and rocks jump and hiss. She can feel it, frustrated, snapping in the air around her! But…

None of it flows into Jane the way it should. None of it will touch her still, dead Servant, and Winter, in the midst of a cloud of life, curls her fingers into fists, taken by despair.

It hadn’t worked. It isn’t working. Her hands shake and her teeth dig into her lip. She had been so sure.

“Winter,” A voice whispers, close to her ear, but when she turns, there is no one there.

A pair of clawed arms wrap around her waist from behind, and she yelps.

“I can tell you why it isn’t working,” Silk purrs softly. “But what will you give me if I do?”

Knight in Stone

SURPRISE UPDATE!

This story can be found under the black band under ‘Other Stories’. It doesn’t get its own page because I’ve decided I’m just making a link page to it (and others) rather than going through the bloody trouble of trying to set up a page for each short story, which could mean we’d run out of band and lead to awful clutter.

You can find the demimind chapters page here, if you’re new. Of course, if you just want to read this story I won’t blame you. Demimind is pretty thick stuff, and a lot longer than this one, despite the monster post.

Enjoy the story- it didn’t take all that long to write, but I certainly enjoy the characters in it!

-Eris

PS: Find typos, like something, don’t like something- whatever? This site is small enough right now that I can probably get around to reading the comments and fixing bits, editing it a bit. I do appreciate feedback, so don’t be shy!

Knight in Stone

A short story by Sam Oliver

[ErisDiscordant]

With the groan of ancient stone falling away from her limbs, a knight pulls herself upright, leaving the corpse behind her.

The sword is in its scabbard when she leaves the room. She doesn’t expect she’ll need it yet, but in these fell times it pays to be safe rather than sorry.

She feels the pain fade from her legs as she stretches her muscles. Fifty years in stone had not been kind. Whoever had woken her- the sight of the thing that had once been a woman lying in her own blood flashes again through her mind- had been desperate for aid. Her bones practically creak as she takes a few tottering steps away down the hall.

She passes a room she barely remembers- was it here before? The doorway is covered in red slickness. Some foul deed took place, and recently. She wonders at the blood from the woman- she had not bothered to check to see if she was still living, and with wounds like the ones the girl had suffered how could she be?

Still, it seems to her that there’s no way this much blood could have been from one person, and indeed when she smells the blood it has an odd scent to it. Definitely not human. Like sulfur and ammonia. Abnormal.

The knight steps through the doorway uncertainly. The trail leads here, and if she’d been called to avenge, which she most certainly had been, she should follow it to the source. She’s rewarded by a foreboding feeling, and the prickle of eyes on the back of her neck. Someone is watching her.

She takes another step into the room and turns around. The darkness bothers her, so she lifts a hand. Light flares in her palm as ancient words part from her lips, shining in the gloom and illuminating, for only a second, a long, scaled tail. It slithers out of view, and the knight’s heart quickens in her chest.

“Who- what- goes there?” She asks, her voice firm, but creaking from disuse. The ancient tongue she speaks is the same as always, and the sharp way it leaves her mouth leaves a bitter taste in her mind, a memory of times that were almost certainly better than forever guarding the weak. But, it was her choice, and a choice of the type she chose, once made, is not easily unmade.

It does not answer, but in the silence that follows, she catches, on the edge of her hearing, voices approaching from the hall she left. The trail leads from this room into her chamber, connecting with the hall here, but, the voices pique her curiosity. Perhaps friends of the woman who was killed. They may help her understand better what she is required to do.

She changes direction, turning towards the voices, again entering the hall, the dilapidated stone beckoning to her as the noise of conversation- human conversation!- reaches her ears.

She continues on her way down the hall, sword occasionally scraping on the walls. She wonders at that- why such a long blade? Why could she not wield a short blade instead? But it is the avenged who can call upon her to wield whatever they will, and this woman wished her to wreak her vengeance with a longsword.

She had used many things over the ages, hadn’t she? It is only now when she is not dreaming, the rare times when vengeance required some form of extra thought that she could recall. Those times the weapons had been simple and the desires simpler, but for the life of her the knight cannot remember a time when she had wielded something quite as elegant as the blade nestled in her scabbard. It seems a family heirloom, runes dancing over its surface. She hadn’t drawn it yet, but in her dream she had seen it.

Her steps gradually grow shorter as she comes upon the source of the voices. It is two men and a woman, one man with a sniveling voice, begging, at the hands of the man, who is stern faced, and the woman, who, to her surprise, wears full plate and carries a long, long staff with a curved blade at its top, and at her side wears a scabbard like the Knight’s own.

She pauses at the edge of the hall- for they are in a room, well lit by torches, and she is in the shadows, as yet unnoticed. She cannot understand what they are saying, and this strikes her as odd- always she could understand what the victim had been able to understand, those who needed avenging would pass their knowledge on.

It disturbs her that she had not known what these people had said. And complicates matters. She should announce herself and see if they are multi-tongued, or if they are truly strangers. Perhaps- and here lies just the faintest spark of hope- one would be a wizard and, if he were of enough power, perhaps he could undo the magics which bind her. She finds herself tiring of answering these calls.

She watches instead, standing in the shadows.

Their conversation is alien to her, but the emotions seem clear enough. The man is begging for his life by the way the tears run down his face, and the way the woman slashes her hand with every word means that she is unwilling to give it to him, though by the uncertain way she holds her polearm, she seems also unwilling to take it. The other man, stern-faced and holding himself slightly aloof, just looks to the shadows. He does not look the type to come to the sniveler’s aid, but twice his eyes brush over her. Then, they finally notice the light from her hand where it glows by her side.

He has no sword, but he lifts a short, curved metal rod and says something in that strange language, and the words are high and lilting, strange as they pass through her ears. The queer noise affects her oddly- she steps out from the hall, staring at the man uncomprehendingly. What sorcery is in his words, that he could order her so? Her feet moved without her willing it.

Then he speaks to her in her own tongue.

“Who goes there?” He calls. “Tell me thy name and I might spare thee. I am a magician of great power, thou hast trespass’d one step too many.”

“I am the Knight in Stone,” she replies haltingly. Her voice is unsteady from too many years. Her hand strays to the sword in her scabbard uncertainly. “What name do you go by?”

The avenged should have given her dormant knowledge of the attacker’s name. Without a doubt, if foe this man should be, a sign would be given in her mind.

“The name I carry is Carnilus of Trent. Is that name familiar to thee?”

“Nae,” she replies ruefully, and means it.

“For why does a wench carry a blade?”

“I could ask the same of thy companion,” The Knight in Stone responds quietly.

The man smiles briefly. He is bald. His face is weathered and old, and the rod he carries is leveled at her, as if he truly were a magician as he said. He carries no cane to aid in walking, and his voice comes out slowly. His armor appears to consist only of a long crimson robe, with an unfamiliar design upon it in hexagrams, octograms and other strange, eldritch signs.

“Knight of Stone, why have you come?” Carnilus asks cautiously. “And why as a woman?”

She shrugs her shoulders, the stone armor covering her crackling with the movement. “I am always a woman,” She replies simply. “And I am here to avenge a death.”

Carnilus of Trent eyes her warily. The woman and the man, who had stopped to watch the conversation, both suddenly seem to catch sight of her. Had they truly been so intent on their conversation that they had not seen her?

The woman’s hands both suddenly jerk on the staff, and she levels her weapon at the Knight.

The sniveler shrinks back. Why are his hands unbound?

The Knight in Stone draws her longsword. Well, if it should come to blows…

The shimmering blade draws a gasp from the woman, and Carnilus of Trent shoots her a sharp look. “Ease back thy blade, Knight, we are none of us the one ye seek. That bold beast slipped past us into the dark; we did not see where it went.”

The woman steps forward and snarls something at her, and then shouts something at Carnilus.

The old man arches an eyebrow at her, and she steps back, then turns again to the Knight. “She does not understand Eldritch. I am sorry.”

She waves a hand, stone grinding on stone for a moment. “That is fine.”

“That girl- when she ran forth into the dark, she took something of value to us. Will ye lead us to her?”

“What is thy relation to the one I must avenge?” The Knight in Stone asks carefully. Thinking is hard, so close to her true goal- this mage might be strong enough to free her!

But the grating pain of a quest unfinished forces her tongue silent about that.

“None- we were but companions, we stumbled upon her, already fleeing, and gave her what comfort we could before that thing attacked. Its blade did quick work- she was its only target, and we could do naught for her. She fled into the dark after, and we let her go.”

Something behind his words feels slippery, but she nods and shrugs her shoulders again. “I can lead ye to her. Thine words have the ring of falsehood, but if ye desire only to see the one I must avenge, I shalt do as ye ask without question. But ye shall not take from the corpse until my task is complete and my watchful eyes watch nae more.”

The woman says something to Carnilus that the Knight does not understand.

He responds with a nod, and she lifts her weapon at ease. She snaps a command at the sniveling man, who likewise nods and stands, staring at the Knight with open fear.

She turns her back on them, and stalks back the way she came slowly, making sure that they follow her. It takes a good three minutes at her pace, but she is unwilling to walk faster. Her joints ache and the armor is heavy around her shoulders.

The walls are ancient, the stone weathered as her hand, half-hidden by granite, brushes the rock.  It nearly crumbles at her touch, and to her this seems very strange. Had she been gone longer than she thought? But the people she leads seem to have garb similar to the time she left before.

She cannot remember the state of the walls from before.

She reaches the room wherein the woman lies dead, and stops short at the door, eyes narrowing. Something feels very wrong- she can tell from the air.

The body is missing, and a long line of crimson stretches from where the lady lay- drawn deep into the shadows. Her hearing, deadened by the stone around her, still seems to pick up the faint moan of someone in dreadful pain, and a purr that sounds horrible, and yet very, very familiar to her. The trail glistens in the gloom, but her magic eyes pierce the darkness.

She steps into the room, and makes no motion to stop the magician as he runs inward and kneels by the trail, plainly distraught.  Strange that he knew exactly where she lay…

A sense of foreboding falls over the Knight then, though. For a deep, dark growl echoes from the depths of the shadows around the room. The cavernous hall is large enough that it had hidden itself and its prey well, but now she feels its approach with every padding pawstep on the stone.

The Knight steps forward, rock boots faded with use grinding into the floor.

Carnilus turns to her, opens his mouth. He does not hear it? How could he not?

But all that dribbles down his lip is blood, and there is a ferocious roaring- then a sound again, like a sigh or a whisper, air being sliced clean. Two spikes, sharp and deadly, bounce off of her stone armor and land on the floor.

The padding draws closer as the magician slumps forward. Judging him to be gravely wounded, the Knight sets herself for the manticore’s charge.

Instead, there is a whooshing noise, and a hideous snarl- leathery wings bat the air, she catches a glimpse of them before it lunges down at her, volleying another pair of spikes at her with that vicious tail before swooping down, upon her already. The spikes glance away harmlessly, but the razor claws of the lion-like creature rake her, one finding a gap in her stone armor and tearing a line of white pain down her back. The weight of the creature rocks her for a moment, but she recovers quickly.

“You are not who I seek,” She says quietly. “I’m sorry.”

With one stone-gauntleted hand, she grabs its throat, and with the other, she pummels its struggling head over, and over, fist like a hammer. The blows fall hard, slow, and calm. It writhes at first, but its strength flees it quickly. When she is done, the manticore lies dead, and its thrashing tail falls still. Its head has been reduced to pulp.

“Mindless beast,” She admonishes gently. “Ye did not need to die here.”

The Knight winces as she puts a bloodied stone sheathed hand to her back where the claws of the monster had laid her open. No permanent damage- her soft inner body still remains mostly safe, though it leaks red at a rapid rate. Another scar to wear into the centuries. Still, it’s not like she has any true prospects. The Knight has no need for marriage. What use has a spirit of vengeance for matrimony, holy or otherwise?

A noise behind her makes her turn, though. She’d almost forgotten about Carnilus’s companions.

The Knight chews on her lip behind her helm. Hm.

The woman is trying not to retch. The man seems to have set his lips. She moves aside so that they might step over the corpse and go to Carnilus, who lies gasping on the floor, two foot-long black spikes driven through his back. The manticore’s surprise attack had been… rather surprising.

A shame. Maybe he had truly been strong enough to free her. She feels her heart sink back into despair, but the sting of the quest keeps her plodding towards the corner where the woman now lies. She can feel the girl’s presence- her heart is beating, which is strange enough in itself. How can she avenge a death…

She hears the woman wailing over Carnilus’s prone form. She hopes distantly that they have the sense not to try to pull the spikes out. That would cause much more damage, for they are no doubt barbed.

She reaches the fallen girl. She had been nibbled on, nothing more. A lost finger, a lost toe- what matter was it? She had somehow woken up after being slashed. The Knight in Stone blinks at that.

The girl’s body is breathing, shallowly. And now something like anger bubbles in the Knight’s chest. How is she to deal with this?

She slaps the girl across the face lightly, hoping vaguely that the shock will wake her. The Knight feels a bit guilty when she doesn’t stir- obviously she had been in great pain. Is it right for her to attempt to bring the girl back? She’s suffered enough.

Yet- part of her isn’t willing to let the girl die. Though surely it is the lack of her needing to be truly avenged yet- having not died- that is preventing the Knight from knowing the name of the one responsible, the Knight in Stone does not want the girl to die. Something compels her to help this woman live.

She turns to the warrior woman, who is glaring at the her with something like hatred.

“Can you understand me?” She asks, speaking slowly.

The woman’s reply is cloaked in venom. “Yes. I am not the fool Carnilus made me out to be. What are ye? He has- had- told us little. Can ye not help me heal Carnilus?”

“My task is to avenge the dead, not aid the living,” the Knight replies stonily. “He lied to me at any rate. Are ye not a healer? What of thine craven friend?”

“I am not craven!” the man snarls, immediately on his feet. His eyes flash with anger. “It t’would be foolish only not to be scared witless, upon having seen what I have seen! The man who lies dead here- Carnilus, his name, sorcerer, his trade- was an abomination! He killed my family. Are ye to tell me that I should not be afraid of that? It took but a finger’s stroke for each, and my father stronger, braver than me!”

“What a feat,” The woman says dryly.  “Truly, the man deserves nothing but praise.”

The one called craven shoots her a glare. Obviously he harbors towards her nothing of the terror on his face when Carnilus had been amongst the living. Perhaps he still lived, but if so, not for long. From what the Knight knew of manticore spines, they were likely venom’d. A poison would soon tear him apart from the inside.

There was no telling how long it would be, and no telling exactly when it would be, but the man would die and with no mage among them, the two of his former companions would surely be unable to do anything about it- whatever their motivations for his resurrection.

The Knight in Stone watches the pale form of Carnilus the sorcerer. She turns to the woman again.

“Who are ye?” She asks, wincing at the clumsy way her mouth formed the words. Oh, to be alive again.

“A companion,” She says flatly, in a way that, to the Knight’s ears, said ‘Lover’. The wailing had died in her heart, it seemed, leaving nothing but bare rock in its place. “I go by the name Shira.”

Shy-ra.

“Where didst thou come by that name?” The Knight asks slowly, frowning. “It seems such a long time, perhaps it will be a long time hence ere I hear it again. But please tell me how ye learned of it.”

“Are ye mad?” Shira asks, incredulous. “Where do ye think I came by it?”

“I do not know,” The Knight reproaches, in the same steady, earthy tone. “That is why I asked ye.”

“Surely ye don’t mean to suggest I stole it,” Shira says quietly.

They both stare at one another, the Knight with stone curiosity, the woman with a glare that dares her to say it.

“I see no other way ye could have come by it,” the Knight says plainly. “Ye are too young to slay monsters. Thy arm is too weak, thy thighs too thick and thy armor too thin.”

“Ye need not be a barren muscle-bound waif to win in combat,” the one called Shira snaps. “And who are ye to talk?”

“Dead,” The Knight in Stone says sharply. “I was nae warrior when I slew my first man. The stone armor protected me long before then. I am the Knight in Stone, ‘Shira’, slayer of monsters. It is my duty to avenge those who have fallen unjustly.”

This seems to infuriate the woman, but her thought is interrupted by Carnilus’s sudden scream of agony. The poison had begun its dirty work.

The noise wakes the girl the Knight is holding, and she feels a pang of guilt, suddenly, from nowhere. She moves, unsure of what exactly she will do, but determined to do something.

Her hand closes on the red robe of the fallen mage. “Are ye not a sorcerer?” She asks loudly. “Have ye nae spells that might heal ye?”

Carnilus gropes for something, anything, finally grasps at the stone paldron on the Knight’s shoulder. He raises his eyes, his expression grey as ash, his eyes already clouding.

“Are ye not a Knight?” He asks, his voice a rasping whisper just above a death rattle. Laughter, insane, horrible laughter bubbles up from his throat and flecks her armor with blood. It shakes his whole body, but his eyes now burn. “Have ye nae honor? The demon who forced this injustice to happen- is within!”

The last word is a shriek, a loud wail.

He slumps forward. But his body shakes, twisting and turning, writhing under some unseen hand’s control. Spines erupt from the robes and his head twists full circle as the bones under his flesh force his body to assume a shape not of the world of man.

Shira is screaming, the girl in the Knight’s arms stirs and moans, and the Knight in Stone takes one step backward.

When the man’s body erupts in heat, when the wave of fire washes over her and cooks the hair on her desiccated arms even within the armor, when her boots, touching the floor, cook and turn a brilliant cherry red, she knows the beast she is about to face will kill them all.

“A sorcerous death,” She whispers, backing away quickly and setting the injured girl down. “A battle on the inside that cannot be won.”

The heat from the demonic conflagration is making her skin crawl and sweat.

The Knight counts the demon’s spines as they emerge. Three. Four. Four dorsal spines. Then it is the warrior caste. It will fight her first. Perhaps giving the woman and her craven companion time to escape.

The man is shaking. He has no weapon on him, and the fiery blast had singed his clothes, burned holes in breeches and tunic, but his eyes are boring into the demonic shape coalescing before him.

It rises, bipedal, standing a full ten feet tall on craggy legs hung with burnt, tattered bits of robe, radiating flame and heat like a shroud. The warrior woman, Shira, is stepping away uncertainly, her strange blade-stick raised. The curved edge, fully a foot past the haft, seems tiny in comparison to the monster confronting her, and even two feet away it glows orange with heat.

The creature seems to gather its bearings, and confronts the woman, whose shaking posture and lax defensive position make the Knight wince.

The Knight in Stone steps forward quickly, shouldering the young monster slayer aside. The woman tumbles over in a clatter, but the Demon seems ready to accept the Knight’s unspoken challenge. Its guttural roar is felt more than heard- she can see the shape of it, an enormous humanoid with red skin, three lower legs and one long, spined tail. Its arms are huge, and while it bears no weapon, its hands are wreathed in white flame.

“What are ye doing?” Shira asks, plainly too stupid to still be afraid. “Ye should-”

“Run, idiot!” The Knight grits out. “Are ye that much of a fool? Run! Take thy companion and go!”

She squares her shoulders and stamps her feet, gritting her teeth and grinding stone boots into the stone tile floor. Here, in this place, before the altar- before her altar, the Altar of the Avenged- this demon, this monster dares to take shape? She owes it to all those who have fallen to slay this creature. And she feels sure that the sorcerer- or at least the demon inside- was responsible for the serpent-creature that struck down her newest charge. At last the foe is here, and she can feel it in her gut that it had called both manticore and lizard-creature in order to do its dirty work.

Shira grabs her craven friend and the two flee the room.

The Knight has enough time to wish that she had made them take her charge as well, and then the demon is upon her before she can even draw steel.

“Mortal!” It screams in Eldritch. “Too long have I waited to face you!”

It brings one clawed hand around in a lightning fast swipe. She takes the blow on her stone armor, letting it glance aside. The impact near breaks her shoulder, and she yelps without thinking, breath hissing between her teeth. She grinds back one step, drawing the runed longsword from its scabbard and taking up a vague fighting pose- how does one guard against a demon who can strike mighty blows with its hands?

The Knight frowns as the creature’s next cry reverberates up through her armor. The blows it rain down are much too soft. She blocks them with ease, standing her ground, the longsword practically parrying for her. Magic seems to be involved- it leaps from position to position with the slightest nudge, with even her thoughts.

The demon, whose face is shrouded and ripples in the heat haze, hisses in frustration as she meets each and every strike with cool, calculated defense.

But her armor is hot. Too hot- her skin is burning up in her stone prison. She breaks the engagement, backing away, sword down, struggling to catch her breath in the grip of stone that feels too tight and far too hot.

Sweat drips down into one eye. The armor that defends her better than any steel is naught but a liability here. And the demon’s strength is incredible, even if, with her blade, it is easily deflected. At any moment it may realize that fighting her is useless, and take advantage of her inability to give chase to go torment more people.

For some reason, the Knight finds this troubling. Her charge- had she ever seen one survive the attacks?

Something is different here, and she can’t quite place it.

The spiny tail whacks across her back, a blaze of searing heat against her spine making her yelp. She jerks forward, stone grinding, charging, sword out.

The demon had never been attacked quite like this before. It had expected its prey to be more defensive. Its misjudgment about her flexibility proves distressingly painful.

The Knight in Stone steps back, blood steaming on the blade. It isn’t demon blood, which troubles her somewhat. The severed limb, fallen and twitching on the ground, also bears more than a passing resemblance to a human’s arm.

“You argunt erif!” The demon roars, its rage forcing it to switch to a language both unfamiliar to her and painful to hear. It drives invisible spikes into her ears.

“You talk too much,” The Knight notes calmly, sweat dripping down her cheeks. Her longsword flicks again, sure and true, but the demon hops back this time, and the tip merely carves a line on its aberrant ribcage. The strike leaves her open.

The demon’s claws wrap around her throat and, one armed, it heaves her into the air, snarling. She swings wildly- though not desperately- and her blade leaves a searing ruin across its abdomen. The beast flings her- actually flings her, sending her flying across the stone hall. She hears the clatter of metal on the rock, and shortly after her vision blurs as she cracks against the floor, armor shattering under the impact. She strikes the wall afterwards, skidding and slamming against the bare stone.  Her head takes a nasty blow, though the helmet shields her somewhat, and her mind spins, struggles to make sense of the insanity.

Fragile bones, too long without use, harden again as she pushes herself up onto her knees. She can hear the clatter of the creature’s talons against the stone floor. It’s approaching her. She can hear it chuckle. Its heat is stifling, then actually painful as it stands in front of her.

Her head aches. Blood drips down through her hair. She has no weapon in her hands. She has nothing. Her fingers, clad in stone, dig into the tile, unearthing it as the monster laughs. She wrenches upward, the heavy stonework of the tile smashing into the creature’s head heavily, and it smashes into the creature’s face. It stumbles back, its remaining clawed arm up, and she takes advantage of its momentary weakness.

She drives one stone gauntlet into the beast’s belly. It’s like striking iron, but she smashes her fist into its stomach over and over, with all the strength she can muster. It grunts, crumpling, swiping at her, missing, but then rushing her, tackling her into the floor, bearing her down with weight and heat, its tail flicking and then coiling around her neck like a long, sinuous snake, squeezing

Impossibly, her hand, blistering with heat, grabs at the stump of its arm. Her fist rams into its snout. Her vision blurs and swims, her mind fuzzing over. She feels a snarl growing in her constricted throat, and it wants to burst free.

She slams her knee into the monster’s belly and pushes the demon over in the same movement, fingers digging into the stump of its arm, rolling on top of it, her thighs, belly and calves screaming in heat-agony. Her gauntlet rises and falls, like against the manticore, her fist smashing into the demon’s face again. And again.

Teeth are shattered, bones crunch. She can’t breathe, she can’t think- her heart fills her mouth and her limbs feel like lead.

But she smites the demon, that beast from the depths of hell with all her force.

It batters her with its tail, teeth snapping and clashing crookedly, unable to bite down on her fist, its grip loosening on her throat with the next hammerblow.

She sucks in air, foul with demon’s breath, brimstone and fire. Her body hums, her hair is burning and her heart pounds so hard she fears her ribs will break.

“She’s my charge,” The Knight says softly. Then again, as her fist smashes down with all her strength and the stone gauntlet crushes the demon’s skull, its bones finally breaking. The savage heat goes out like a fel candle flame, the eerie red glow fades, though her armor glows blood red and she can feel her skin burning, feel the hissing and screaming of all her nerves.

“She is my charge!” The Knight in Stone snarls. “You cannot have her, you cannot harm her anymore.”

The demon does not answer her. It lies still, its face a broken ruin, its boiling heart dead. Its tail twitches once, and then falls still as well. Its blood- a tainted human’s blood- coats her gauntlet.

Shaking.

Her arms, her hands, her fingers… Her whole body is shaking.

Through blinding, burning pain, the Knight in Stone rises.

She staggers to the girl where she lies. The scent of demon is thick on the Knight. She can smell it every time she draws breath. She can feel it saturating her skin, along with the sickly sweet smell of her own burnt flesh.

“Girl,” She says weakly, when she draws near. “Are ye safe?”

The girl stares at the Knight in awe, in terror. Had she watched the entire thing? In the gloom it is slightly hard to tell, so the Knight summons a light by her side again.

It all seems blurry now.

What puzzles the Knight most is that she no longer feels she need return to the Stone. The girl has been avenged, surely. The lizard creature could not have survived such wounds as it had sustained to leave the blood trail. Both the manticore and the demon who summoned it whilst in human shape were dead. The sorcerous man’s companions had nothing to do with it and therefore she need not kill them.

There is only the girl left, and, by a twisted turn of fate, she is alive.

It had never happened before, and the Knight feels lighter- and heavier- at the same time. Her heart sings- she saved someone. She had saved many people.

She would gladly go to rest in Stone now.

But instead of the pain of being parted from it for so long…. she feels only a baffled uncertainty. What should she do next?

“Are ye well?” The Knight in Stone repeats quietly. “I do not mean to bring harm to ye. I am the Knight in Stone. Ye called me to avenge ye.”

“Ye have avenged me already,” The girl whispers. She appears about to burst into tears… but no, the Knight can see she is stronger than that.

The girl smiles, and for a moment there’s a flash of red in her eyes, a spark of madness, perhaps. It troubles the Knight but a moment. Other things are on her mind.

For the first time in ages, she feels free. She has her own path to walk again-she feels not even the old compulsion to wear the armor.

Slowly, with trembling hands, she removes her helmet and tosses it aside. She slips out of the stone plate carefully, and the girl assists her- for it is no easy task. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, the Knight shivers in the cold of the cave.

The only thing she keeps is the scabbard. Though her clothes are old- ancient and fragile- they still seem serviceable after all these years. To feel the breeze, the draft, the air around her caressing her skin…

She had forgotten what it was like.

She turns to the girl and beckons once. Then she fetches the longsword and replaces it in her scabbard. The metal is reassuring.

“Can ye speak Common, girl?”

“Yes,” She responds quietly. “Yes, I can.”

“Good. Come with me to town.”

“Where are ye bound?” The girl asks. Then, “Where are we bound?”

The former Knight in Stone just shrugs helplessly. She doesn’t know where she wants to go first, but she knows for sure that she won’t stay here.

The girl, leaning on the Knight even as the Knight leans on her, walks out of the cave with her guardian, and they never once look back.

Demimind: Chapter 19

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

Things just seem to be getting weirder and weirder…

-Eris

(19)Servants and Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Spring.”

What does he know about it?

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

Fine. Where’s Goliath?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer has no armor except for her skin.

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

She stares at him. “No. Stand aside.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blonde one’s voice.

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

“Who are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Resting place?” Summer asks blankly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW DARE THEY?-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-WHERE IS SHE?- It snarls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-THAT IS NOT OF YOUR CONCERN, MORTAL.-

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

-THAT IS ACCEPTABLE.-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Demimind: Chapter 13

I have a feeling things are going to become more complicated. Hold on to your socks, people!

-Eris

(13)Time Like a Tide

She reappears, stumbles, and is caught. Thomas lets her go a moment later. “Are you alright, miss?”

“Yes,” She says, though she doesn’t quite feel it. Her head, hands and feet are heavy and her body feels like it’s been run through a strainer. “Where are we?”

“Getting ready for battle, miss. I was wondering when you’d arrive,” Thomas replies. “Or if you would.”

Winter looks around.

They’re standing on an immense wall, almost twenty full feet high. Crenellations form areas for cover along its front. Pillars set every ten feet hold up a sloped roof. It’s all made of marble, a feat she can hardly believe came from human engineering. All along its edges there are people standing, eyes on the horizon. Behind her, the wall slopes off into a town. No one seems to be in it- or if they are, they’re all inside their houses. If they could be called houses- the structures are all shacks, even what appears to be the main building at its center is only two stories tall and seems made of random material. In comparison to the wall surrounding it, the village itself is shabbily constructed. There’re no fires and no one seems to be dying.

It’s too quiet. And the sky is too calm- there isn’t a rumble, isn’t a sound from it, no flashes. It’s a white sky rather than a black one, which is a bit of an improvement. The temperature seems a bit more stable too, no longer fluctuating between states of extreme cold or heat.

“How long has it been?” She asks weakly. “I came in right after you.”

“I’ve been here about two nights, miss Winter,” Thomas says, his voice shaking slightly. “I’d begun to think that before, by the cliff edge, was a dream. The voices whisper to you constantly, miss, the voices of the dead. The people here think it’s magic, but to me it just feels like a bad omen.”

Winter pats Thomas on the shoulder awkwardly. “Well I’m here now. I can confirm that it’s a real place we came from. Do you know where we are?”

“At the edge of the Barrier. Seems to me someone set up a trap. A sort of… distress call. It brought everyone it could from any point in time, they said, to here. Uh. But only people who were in the Barrier. Some of them won’t fight…” He trails off. “But that’s not important. You’ll fight, won’t you?”

“If it gets me to Season’s Refuge faster, I suppose I need to,” Winter says grimly. “I’ll need to ask about that, I expect. Who’s in charge? And for the last time, where are we, Thomas?”

He takes a step back, taken aback by her tone. “We’re in a town- on the walls of a town- called Spiritfell. But the town itself seems empty, Winter.”

“Then who is-“

Summer finally gets through.

Spiritfell?! You’re kidding! Tell me he’s kidding! This town was wiped out a good hundred years ago! There wasn’t even a big stick left standing- did we go back in time or something?

“Why are we here?”

Fuck if I know. But if this is the eve of the battle where Fall leveled the place, I’d suggest we make ourselves scarce really, really soon-

“The voices say we’re here to do what must be done,” Thomas says quietly. “Do you know how to use a weapon, miss?”

Winter stares at him, then sighs. “No, but I’ve killed people before.”

They stand, side by side, on the wall, staring out over at the vast nothingness, the wasteland of the Barrier. Thomas seems at ease- but he’s had a position as guard all his life. Winter is apprehensive, and Summer is scared.

“Who is telling you all this?” Winter asks. “I mean, do the voices have names?”

“They’re talking to you too, aren’t they?” Thomas replies hopefully. 

“Yes, but I’ve already got Summer in my head,” Winter says dryly. “I don’t hear them as often as I hear her.”

“Well… they don’t give me names,” He says quietly. “It’s just a constant buzz, like… They’re all talking at once. I’ve never been one for magic, miss, it’s alright to look at, but I wouldn’t want to live with it.”

“It probably is magic,” Winter says, and leaves it at that. “Do your magic voices say anything about when we’re going to be attacked?”

Why do you even care? You’ll be long gone before they even get here, right?

Winter isn’t so sure. “I don’t know about that. That sounds wrong, to me.”

So does dying.

“I’m not going to die. We don’t even know if they’re going to attack us or not.”

“The voices say it’s an immensely powerful magic force,” Thomas offers. “But you’re really powerful too, right? You stood against Lord Autumn.”

Winter really isn’t sure about that. “That may’ve just been luck,” She says doubtfully. “I wouldn’t bet all my chickens on it.”

You’ve never bet any chickens in your life. Why do you say that so often?

“I don’t know. Do I say that a lot?” Winter honestly can’t remember.

“Say what, miss? About the chickens? That’s the first time I’ve heard you say it,” Thomas says distractedly. “I should think-“

He stops for some reason, but Summer doesn’t see it until Winter looks up.  Shit.

There is a man walking toward the wall, from out of the dust swirling. He’s cloaked in a cold, familiar light, and strides purposefully.

“Are you sure Spiritfell was destroyed?” Winter asks Summer, feeling fear stir in her belly and her heart thump with sudden dread. One man- he’s powerful sure, but it’s one man. It might not even be him. So why is she so frightened?

I’m certain! It was wiped off the map! He came, he conquered, and he left. No one knows why he did it. He never told us. Actually, come to think of it, he never told any of us about it. He just did it. We knew it was him, survivors said so. At least, I knew it was him. Um. Summer doesn’t sound as sure of herself as she claims.

Only one real way to find out. Winter fights the urge to throw up.

Toughen up, Summer offers weakly.

The man approaches within shouting distance of the wall. His feet are cloven. Cold light surrounds Him in heavy waves- yes. It is Fall.

He seems to be scanning the wall for something, and then He finds it and His eyes lock, lock on Winter’s.

His mouth opens.

And she knows. He’s here for her.

All her blood boils away in that gaze, her eyes shut and she looks down. Thomas, who sets his hand on her shoulder to steady her, feels her shaking. “Winter? Miss?”

Then Fall says: “Sister! What-“

Her memory washes over her like a wave.

“-are you doing here?” Fall asks curiously. Winter snaps her book closed and blushes, feels the wretched thing swirling about her cheeks. She sits up, but doesn’t meet her brother’s eyes.

“I wanted,” She whispers, so that no one, not even herself can even really hear her.

“What?” Fall presses. He stands tall- though not as tall as Spring- and his well muscled frame so close to hers is making her uncomfortable, especially when he leans down. He doesn’t mean it- he’s Fall, he looms like no other. She doesn’t want to edge away, she finds. Instead, she looks up at him and smiles. Through all the hardship she’s been through, through the torments her sister inflicts and the pain of being repressed constantly, there are only a few things she really knows.

“I wanted to be alone,” She says clearly, quietly. “But I’m happier when you’re here.”

“Why don’t you answer?” Fall shouts up, voice strained with emotion. “Is Summer behind this? She should show herself!”

Winter stares down at her brother, futile in His frustration.

“Would you take my freedom away?” She asks, her voice trembling oddly. “I’m not ready to relinquish it just yet.”

“What’s happened to you?” He asks, His voice like a sudden storm.

“You happened to me, brother!” She snaps. “You’ve chased me all over, pushed me to the brink of my sanity. I can barely remember a time when you haven’t been after me- and why? So you can fight me?” She grips the crenellation before her and leans forward. She feels her fingers digging into stone.

“What are you talking about?” He calls. “I’ve not attacked you. You are my sister! Kin!”

The last is desperate, confused and hurt.

And time, as she stands there, pulls at her like a tide. Her reply is waiting at the edge of her lips, her cruel rebuttal is poised to spill forth. She feels it, holds it to herself. This, she decides, is where it went wrong. This is where she pushed Him away instead of drawing Him toward her. But how did that happen? She was not here on the eve of this battle before.

Or perhaps she was. Is she merely reliving a memory? And Summer. Are there two Summers and two Winters now? There are too many complications to stay here, and if she leaves Him with her old self than perhaps the past will repeat. Perhaps, if she steps away now, she’ll have failed in some way. It’s all happened so fast.

Should she go where the tide asks? Should she reject him, knowing full well the consequences? No, her brother is smart. Frighteningly so.

High, high above, and unbeknownst to anyone below, the first flake of snow falls. It drifts through the air on tongues of cold until a warm breath of air, rising from the plains, turns it to a mere droplet and sends it spiraling earthward.

Winter relaxes her grip on the stone and half-smiles. Without thinking about it anymore, she lets her answer slip out. “And you, mine. Though I do not know it yet, though I have my own path to take.”

“I don’t understand,” He says helplessly. “What drives you so distant?”

“I-“

A slender hand slaps itself over her mouth, muffling her. Her eyes meet Fall’s again, panicked. And she’s pulled, struggling, away from the wall. Her assailant throws her down off the structure with sickening ease. She hears Thomas shout, and, as she watches him turn, she catches a glimpse of the face, grinning in triumph, as it raises a hand towards him.

No!

Then her head slams against flagstone and her mind erupts in a flash of pain and a nasty crack.

Dizzied she shakes herself, pushing up until she approaches her feet, but she wobbles, stinging tears in her eyes. She tries to get her bearings, shakes herself. And she hears a high pitched whining noise, a hissing. Her eyes fall on a small, molten pile of slag, an incandescent skeleton upright without its armor, glowing with heat before it falls over.

Thomas!

She hears him groan now, whirls and watches him stagger upright again. The fool plants his spear when he should be running. Another whining noise, followed by that same hissing. Her eyes slip over something, a slender figure, bronze skin, flowing blonde hair. Her eyes meet her own reversed- blue and green. But for the hair…

“Summer,” She says, shakily, trying to clear her head.

That’s not me! Look! Her hair is blonde, mine is white! Right? Winter, that’s not me!

“Summer! Why are you-?” She asks, taking a step forward. The other Summer, the impostor raises a hand.

A bolt of searing heat washes over her like a cloak of agony, boiling her nerves and setting her skin afire with agonizing pain. It’s so bad she wishes she’d black out.

“I don’t understand, sister,” Summer hisses. “In your future you have the power of a true god! People fall over themselves to worship and wonder at you. How have you sunk so low that a surprise attack such as mine could ever catch you off guard?”

I have no idea what she’s talking about, Winter’s bound Summer says. She seems in better shape than Winter, who sees double and can’t stop her hand from shaking as she lifts it.

Winter draws on the same need, on her memory. She focuses her orb power into a single word, pulled from the future and the past. It coalesces in her mind and frost forms around her hand.

If her false sister sees it, she doesn’t acknowledge it with so much as a look. Instead, she casts her eyes towards Thomas. He’s gathered a few soldiers now, two or three, and they stand by him.

“You can’t hide your feelings, either, Winter! I know you’ve feelings for mortals. I saw it in your future. I may not be able to change the tide of time, but I can sure as hell slow it down!” She casts a hand towards Thomas, but her mismatched eyes meet Winter’s again.

And Winter strikes, cold rage making her cast her power forth in a flash, hand lifted, fingers curved, directed right at her sister where she stands.

Bolt,” She breathes, the eldritch word twisting her tongue.

An intense, thin blast of crackling energy snaps out from her hand and blows through her sister, tearing a hole through her middle and crashing into the wall behind her. It rips through that as well, moving on and on forever, a blue line that vanishes in the distance.

Summer, her sister, stares at her, shocked. Then she disappears.

Heat mirage! She’s there!

And yes, there she is- now Winter can see her, a good ten feet distant, one hand still pointed at Thomas and keeping him and his in check. 

There’s a crushing sensation, as of her entire body being squeezed. Winter’s mouth is dry, chokingly dry as if she’d swallowed desert sand and washed it down with dust. She coughs, but remains standing. “Not bad, sister- but nowhere near good enough. Watch,” the other Summer says.

Thomas can only stand and stare. His soldiers (friends?) stand in their full plate mail. Thomas, wearing nothing but his metal studded gate-guard leather, levels his spear at not-Summer. Is it Winter’s imagination, or does he tremble?

The fake Summer grins. “Not afraid to attack a demigod, are you?”

Thomas, The same voice says in her head in a completely different tone. She’ll kill him.

“You’re nothing like her,” He says grimly. “I’m not afraid of an impostor like you.”

“Your friends don’t seem to share your sentiment,” evil Summer observes. Thomas risks a glance, and she lashes out the moment his attention flickers. Winter barely sees her move. That lithe, bronze body is there one moment, gone the next. It reappears next to Thomas. She’d lied- his soldiers stand there by his side. How they had come to be there and helping him, who they are makes no difference now, with Summer so close.

In a second, before they have time to do more than shout, they are ash in their armor. The whistling of steam, the plink of cooling armor, and now evil Summer leans against Thomas, up against him, over his spear, one hand on the shaft and the other on his chest. “You aren’t bad to look at,” She purrs. “Easy on the eyes. It’s a pity I have to- aggh!”

She recoils as if stung. Her palm is covered in welts for the moment it remains in view. Summer’s alternate form trembles with rage, her eyes narrowing. “Iron,” Thomas says slowly. “Your type just can’t take it. I didn’t believe my mother when she said. Now I think I do- you’re not a demigod. You’re one of them. One of the fair folk, aren’t you? Maybe the last of them.”

Winter blinks, uncomprehending, but Summer sneers. “Don’t compare me to trash like them!”

At the word ‘trash’, Winter suddenly feels her skin tingle. And now of all times, her mouth moves.

“Shut up,” She says, quite clearly. “And fuck off.”

Summer’s old self stares at Winter. Their eyes lock. Summer begins to smile.

“What did you just say?” She asks, her voice filled with the full blaze of a summer wildfire.

“I said fuck off,” Winter snaps, and she can hardly believe its her own words. The Summer inside stays silent. “I’m not the weak voice inside you. I’m the dying of the seasons, the end of the years, and the hostess who will usher in the new and finally force out the old. I am my own person, and you have finally pushed me past my limits.”

Orb power- what’s left of it- crackles around Winter’s feet, frost spreading over flagstone and grit alike. Winter tries hard not to sway.

Old Summer seems taken aback at that, and if Winter hadn’t convinced her, a voice behind her, cheerful- yet hiding a subtle fury- succeeds in telling her just how badly outmatched she is.

“You should go home, sister,” Fall’s voice is less than a whisper. “Before I become angry.”

Summer, turns, stares at Fall for one moment, and then flashes into smoke. Well, The real Summer says. Looks like she didn’t expect Fall to be on our side. What really bothers me is how she knew we’d be here in the first place.

Winter takes a step forward, stumbles, and feels horrible dizziness overtake her for a few moments. She reaches up and rubs the back of her head, feeling something slick in her hair. 

“You’re bleeding a little, miss,” Thomas says worriedly. “Are you feeling okay?”

She stares at her hand, which is now smeared in red. The bitter taste of iron fills her mouth. “A little,” She replies flatly. “This is a little?”

Then she falls forward and smacks into stone.

Demimind: Chapter 9

Back on schedule. Let’s end the week with something special.

-Eris

(9)Flight or Fight

Winter explains the fight with He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains insofar as she is able to recall. Summer is helpful too. It’s hard to speak around the lump of dread in her belly, but she finds the strength to tell Spring exactly what happened, leaving out only such uses of her own power as seem necessary to make Spring believe Winter was the only one capable of using it while Summer was bound.

He nods when it’s finished. “Yes, that does make sense.” He pauses, standing and rocking the baby, who had quieted at the sound of Winter’s voice. “Go, then. You’ve given me your blood, that’s all I needed from you. I won’t ask you to stay and fight Him in your condition.”

Winter stands, hesitates when she sees Spring and the child. “Come for it in seven days,” Spring says, his voice like stone. His face and his strange green skin are both lit by a cold, dread light from the window, as from the moon. It was midday when they arrived. “It will be here, if not in the shrine, safe in the ruins of it. Go now, before He finds you here and kills you. I will keep Him busy for as long as I can, but if He is driven there is nothing that will stop Him. Come for your baby in seven days- you cannot afford to slow down now!”

Winter dresses herself in frost, taking in power from the two men she murdered- so long ago, it feels- and expending it just as quickly, pushing her power into the shape of jeans and a shirt made of glittering cold. It conforms to her shape slickly, feverishly clinging as it was feverishly made. She looks around and spots the bead on the desk. She’d almost forgotten it. She strides over to it and snatches it up, puts it in her pocket with shaking fingers.

Thomas, never one to be left out, blinks in surprise. “She’s the one that man is after?” He says incredulously. “Winter?”

“Go!” Spring says, sharply now, ignoring Thomas. The light is much brighter outside now- still moonlight, halflight. And it’s wrong. Everything is quiet- no wind blows, no voices call, it is silent in the shrine, as if all the world were dead and this were the only refuge.

Spring pushes Winter towards the wall behind his desk, slaps a hand against the wood. It parts for her, pulling her through the newly formed portal into the outside. Not knowing what else to do, she runs.

Winter is quite experienced at running. In all her short memory, it feels like she’s done several lifetimes worth of running. It surprises her that someone is keeping up. She turns her head for a moment to regard Thomas, the gate guard, keeping pace with her, sandaled feet slapping the ground. “Let me go with you!”

She doesn’t answer.

The light from the sun is blocked by an oppressive darkness. The very ground under her feet feels hidden from her, though she can see it. It sneaks into her senses, outlining everything in gray. When she glances back- Don’t look back, dumbass! Keep running!- she can see the blinding light of a miniature sun- or a moon- shining at the gates. Past the gates, it strolls down the street, and she can almost hear the cloven hooves striking cobbles and stamping down on grass.

Then she tumbles, trips, but terror and adrenaline push her to her feet, the reflected light off her shimmering jeans and shirt cast over a tree root, and the bottom of the wall surrounding the city. When she looks up she can see it stretching high, dream-like, towering over her. No hope to climb it. But fortune favors her today- when she reaches out she finds a crack.

By sheer luck she seems to have come across a gap large enough for her. Spring, Summer says quietly.

It must be Spring, for the wood is bending out of her way, curling away from her as she slips through, Thomas following after her. Somehow, as with the spider-creatures and Jane, she can hear a voice, noises, fluttering on the breeze. She grasps at it, trying to hear it as she leans back against the wall, catching her breath. A few yards distant she can see the slope upward towards the forest and safety.

The noises- she can hear words in them. Some part of her knows it’s Eldritch- if a different dialect than with either Jane or the spider-women. It seems somehow more formal.

-Brother, so good of you to come! What can I help you with?-

The first voice is simple to decipher. It feels like the taste of honey mixed with bitter dandelion stems. It is Spring in a way that he could never hope to achieve with his body alone.

-As it happens, I came looking for our shared sister, Winter. Have you seen her?-

The second voice is pleasant, silky and sweet, but it feels like the taste of dead leaves as well, falling down and landing wet on the ground, of snow that fails because of the warmth, and plants that die because of the chill, leaving only slick sleet and empty bellies in its wake. It is extremely loud in her mind, and she clutches her head while Thomas can only watch helplessly.

-I have indeed. But we can discuss that over tea, surely?-

-Alas no, I am in a great hurry.-

There is one more word after that, in the same pleasant tone, but it coincides with a noise like the heavens shattering. The sound is so loud it is felt, all over Winter’s body, it picks her up and tosses her like a frightened leaf, end over end until she slams into the ground a good twenty yards distant. Thomas, when she rises, is nowhere to be seen.

Her feet shake under her.

She runs. Her feet carry her, wrapped in her own personal hoarfrost. The chill comforts aching bones as she pushes herself forward and away from the town where two brothers fight. Fight for her.

Fight because of her.

Her hands clench, but she stumbles along until she finds it- until the circle of heat, of eternal spring, seems to come to an end. She pauses a few moments, standing there at the very edge of frost’s breath.

And then, with Summer cursing her in her head the entire time, she turns. Descending from the sky towards her, towards the outskirts of Spring’s realm, there are lights, cold orbs of light that flash and pulse in the air, filling her with a dread, the sight of them making her mind weep in panic. They are like the lights she saw descending through the ceiling of the cavern, so long ago, the ones that slew Jane, and the memory makes her heart hard and chill with sudden fury.

Even as she trembles in terror she notices Thomas there lying in the grass a good hundred feet distant, and notices an orb’s light pause over him. And Summer, curse her, is uncaring, vicious, trying to seize control and pry her eyes away, but Winter beats her back, an internal strength borne of fury pushing her down. She staggers back down the slope she fled up, back into the valley of Spring, back towards the town, but mostly towards Thomas, who trusted in her sister’s words and wanted to come with her for answers that he might never get, who was willing to run with her and risk losing everything.

Who is about to lose everything.

Summer screams in her mind, but Winter reaches Thomas just as the orb descends, just as it’s about to brush one tantalizing tendril of light across his terrified face. The oppressive darkness closes about Winter.

A companion. Someone to help her where Summer can’t.

Does she deserve him? The answer doesn’t matter.

Winter reaches out. Summer had shown her the way before, the only thing she knew how to do, the only thing she had learned. She shuts her eyes and extends her fingers, her hand, lets the gap open. Her mouth utters a word in a language she doesn’t recognize, but one she heard before- though it had made no sound.

Feed

Her hand widens, time and space distort while she concentrates, she focuses on the orb, on its light, on the taste of it as she imagines, of dead leaves and cold, bright power. Her fury opens the floodgate and sucks the orb’s power inside whole, the power from it twisting, writhing as it’s dragged away into the vacuum of Winter’s space. The very fabric of reality seems to stretch, twisting, distorting the image of the light in its grip. The ribbon of force from the orb shines bright blue as it ripples through the air into her hand and is siphoned away.

Her foot strikes a root as the last of the power fills her. 

She stumbles in her run, drops down onto the grass, hands splayed to carry her tiny frame’s weight. Sheer power floods every limb, radiates frost from every single pore, seeps from her into the ground, instantly flash freezing the grass around her, the chill spreading like a cold wildfire, so freezing it’s hot in her. Summer is gone in a flash, in a second. Her mind vanishes, blown out in a fraction of a moment, leaving Winter alone in her head.

And Winter pulls herself to her feet alone, closing the last few feet between herself and the prone Thomas. The orb has fallen from the sky and thunked into the grass, lifeless. She notices that it seems to be a swirling sphere, filled with more spheres- glass. She reaches down and hesitates. She can’t lift Thomas like this. Not brimming with power like she is- instinctively she feels if she does she’ll snuff His life out in a moment, in a breath. She’s so very cold now that nothing, surely nothing could survive her presence.

Does she even like Thomas? The power makes it hard to think. She remembers him only vaguely from Summer. Yet as a keening fills the air, as a hissing cascades through the sky to land squarely at her feet and raise a horned head to gaze at her, she takes one step forward and stands directly in front of Thomas’s prone figure, arms apart and fury steady in her belly and chest, wiping away her terror.

Power crackles all over her, she can feel it. A breath of winter.

Her breath makes the air freeze- but just standing here in the cold light of her brother is making her legs quake. It gets worse as He rises to His full height and regards her, as His expression turns from detached interest to a kind of horrible anger, as His skin shines ruddy red in the light of His own power. She notices His feet, which are cloven, like a goat’s hooves, studies- in a terrifyingly calm way- the shape of His horns where they meet His head and curl.

“I’ve found you, my wayward sister,” He says, his tone amiable despite his expression of complete fury. “Now, why haven’t you fled, I wonder?”

Winter, without realizing it, stands in a circle of bitter cold, an almost palpable wall of antiheat separating her and Thomas from the horned man’s light. He paces around it now, circling her in a way reminiscent of a shark, or a tiger.

“Surely,” He says quietly, without waiting for her response. “You can feel my power.”

She can. She trembles, it makes her legs weak. Her heart, however, is crystal. It won’t move, it’s stopped beating, and slowly, as she stands there, she feels her trembling stop.

“Why?” He asks simply. “Now I am curious. Oh, I am angry as well. I can’t help that. But that can wait-”

Footsteps, crunching on frozen grass.

“Can it, brother?” comes a voice, and it surprises her as much as him that it comes from Spring, who stands, still holding Summer’s baby in one arm. The other hand is empty- no weapon, no glittering power like what simmers in the palm of their mutual brother. Instead it seems his hand is scarred, weathered and wrapped in vine. It smokes, suggesting it was burnt by something.

Fall arches an eyebrow, His glare falling on Spring, and then- though it’s only a for a moment- softening when it rests on the child. “Did you think that bringing a whelp would stay my hand? Our sister will give me back what she’s stolen with or without your interference.”

Spring raises his own hand and shakes his head ruefully. “I know I cannot stop you. I’m merely curious as to what she took from you, to make you so angry.”

He pauses, then smiles. “And perhaps a little curious as to how she could be defying you.”

“Were this not your domain, I’m sure it would be a simple matter,” Fall snarls. And it is a snarl, His voice taking on an almost bestial rage, fell and terrible. “As it stands, she has the advantage, being in a domain that stands close to her own. Rather, you have made your home nestled deep in the center of her dominion! Were Summer unbound I would kill her in an instant, here- as to what she took, she’s stolen the illmetal bead from me. It is that bead I seek.”

“Was the bead not hers from the start?” Spring asks slyly.

“Of course not-” Fall starts, straightening and turning. Winter strikes. A Word snaps into existence from behind He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains, dropping from Winter’s mouth and flowing for a moment before lashing out: Bolt.

The bolt of cold is made of almost pure winter power, focused and coherent. It screams, banshee-like, tearing the air to pieces as it passes before it slams into Fall from behind, washing over His back and knocking Him face first into the grass. He slides a few meters before coming to a rest.

For a few moments, nothing happens. Winter’s hand remains outstretched, her expression one of determined fury. She isn’t actually entirely sure how it had happened. No one looks more surprised than Spring, whose eyebrows have raised to the point of disappearing, and whose freckled face opens in awe, eyes wide.

He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains slowly pushes Himself to His feet. Frozen blood winds a small trail down His side, but it heats in the light shed by His radiance.

The blast has woken Thomas, who groans and, stiff from cold, manages to push himself to his own feet, swaying slightly. Winter almost reaches out a hand to steady him when she remembers, and so she urges him away from her instinctively, guiding a soft hand of frozen air to tug him out of her circle and out of harms way.

It’s just in time. Fall returns a burst of power, and Winter lets out a sharp cry. Instinct again takes over. She gestures at the ground, and her voice shapes a piercing whistle, in which a single Word is heard: Wall.

It springs into existence, ice and frost leaping high to shield her. She feels some of her power trickle into it, though the power from the orb still fills her up. The blast of Fall’s power washes off of it without even denting the swirling blizzard.

She hears, above the wind and frost swirling around her, another word of power. Fall’s Word, in his sickly sweet voice.

Ray.

There’s a sound like the smell of thunder, like the taste of lightning, a flash of heat that feels like it singes her hair from her skull, even behind the veil of frost she’s created. It swirls around her as well, an impenetrable globe of pure cold. She shuts her eyes, and behind them she can see the red glow. Her heart of crystal thumps slowly in her chest, but she stands firm. The hissing of steam, the explosive heat… it causes Summer to stir.

You- you’re fighting Fall! You idiot! Run!

“He knows where I am!” She shouts above the noise. “I can’t just run!”

Yes you can! Here, I’ll show you the way!

And Summer acts. Winter’s hand points behind her without her quite willing it. Summer guides her finger in an unfamiliar pattern. Lucky we’re so close to a Fount here- no wonder you’ve got so much power!

“What?”

There. The rune is ready. Touch it and you can go! Come on!

Winter risks a glance at the rune- and it is indeed there, hovering in midair, so solid it hurts to look at it.

And, Cycle curse him, Thomas is trying to push through the veil behind her. She can actually feel him, feel him pushing through the curtain of sleet and frost that surrounds her. She touches him, but only for a moment, and without hesitation.

She grabs his wrist and forces his hand to touch the rune.

Thomas disappears.

After a moment of temporal uncertainty in which Summer can be heard quite clearly, Winter vanishes as well, and her wall of frost likewise disappears.

You complete and total dumb-…

And then there is no trace of either Winter or Thomas.

In their place, a small puddle of water soaks into hungry burnt grass.

Still one second later, Fall stops His own casting, closing His hand into a fist and dropping it to His side. Steam rises from His body, and the ray of power vanishes. He turns His gaze to Spring, who shrugs.

“Women, eh?” He says, seemingly genuinely cheerful. “Want a bite to eat before you go, or…?”

“I have work to do,” Fall replies shortly. There is a bright flash of light, and the moon swallows Him whole.

Day comes quickly as the darkness follows Fall. The sun returns to shine as brightly as it had an hour previous, the birds again singing in the land of eternal spring. It’s possible, if one listens very closely, to hear the distant chittering of squirrels and the happy giggling of townsfolk caught up in the joy of life.

Bringer-of-Spring blinks a few times to clear his vision. He looks around hopefully, wondering if perhaps Winter had survived or maybe stuck around, and then sighs heavily. It looks like it’ll be a lonely walk back, then. He cradles Summer’s child, rocking it back and forth slowly. It just now has begun to wake- how on earth it managed to sleep through the duel is beyond Spring.

On the whole, he decides, that could have gone worse. He’d better go and tell the gatekeeper the bad news about his former partner. Thomas, right? Now why had he gotten involved too?

Spring kicks the dirt, suddenly feeling moody. Well. He’d have to ask about that, in seven days’ time. In his arms, the baby smiles.

Demimind: Chapter 3

(3)Banished

The ground here is freezing cold, but Winter can’t even feel it. Summer can, trapped in Winter’s head as she is. C-couldn’t have picked a better spot, She grumbles. What is it with you and cold?

“I don’t know,” Winter says quietly. “I… I must not have had a memory of somewhere warm. I still don’t know how I remembered this place.”

Did you mean to bring the Illmetal with you?

Winter shakes her head. “No. I didn’t know it would come along.”

She clutches the tiny bead in her fingers. She could put it in the pocket of her jeans, but she worries if she drops it it might disappear. The metal-stone had lost its luster shortly after arriving.

It’s useless without the column though.

“Yeah.”

The air is frigid. Trees stand here, covered in frost and ice, buried under ages and ages of white. Even the snow is frozen solid, so that she leaves no tracks.  For as far as the eye can see there are more trees, an infinite forest. The eye can’t see too far, of course.

She had hoped that the binding spell would leave Summer when she left the column and He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains behind. It hadn’t. Winter hasn’t the faintest where she should go, and Summer is too cold to be much help.

She looks all around, trying to find a path through the trees. She has as much time as she needs, really. Summer had told her, sleepily, the last time she’d woken up, that Winter needs only the occasional bite of life energy to survive.

Summer, on the other hand, needs to be surrounded by it in order to thrive.

It seems fairly inhospitable here, but if she concentrates, Winter can feel the presence- like tingling pinpricks on her thumbs- of life, far off to the east.

She decides that will have to do. She gives up her aimless wandering and sets herself off to the east.

Her clothes are stiff. Summer had guided her through the long, laborious process of conjuring them. Of course, Summer had also been half asleep. It figured there were some flaws in their creation- namely two long blank strips made of conjured material, but not dyed, and one long slash down the right leg where Summer had nodded off mid-teaching.

After a while of walking, she feels very exposed. A strong oppressive presence lurks nearby- she can feel it.

She can feel the sting, the dangerous hum of the scar on her thigh suddenly. And Summer is awake in her head.

Uh oh. Magehunting squad by the feel of it.

“You don’t sound too concerned,” She mutters.

Comes with being a demigoddess. We could probably take them under any other circumstances. I dunno that they’ll even know we’re magic users. Our type of magic is usually undetectable. We can get by without hurting anyone.

“I seem to recall you being much more-“

And suddenly, she remembers. And the memory hits her like a hammer.

“Come on!” Summer growls gleefully, lifting an arm and sending out a stream of power towards the nearest man. It vaporizes the poor soldier in his armor, leaving hissing plate in its wake. It withers some of Summer’s power, but she really doesn’t care. What does it matter? She’s never felt so alive. The sheer life around her is granting her power beyond any mortal dream.

“Are all of you cowards?” Summer’s eyes glint. Her body is the same as Winter’s, but bigger- taller, a little plumper and with golden bronze skin. The switch between hers and Winter’s is usually seamless. Only their hair remains the same- a short pixie-cut, naturally white-blonde. Summer’s eyes are green.

The men circle her. Their lead mage sets her arms, perhaps a little uncertainly. “I didn’t even feel it!” She shouts. “What type of magic is that?”

“Thomas is down,” One of them grumbles. “We should call for backup.”

“His fault, he wasn’t wearing antimagic plate.”

“How do you know it’s magi-” says a clever third, but he’s interrupted as his skin flash-fries. The sickly sweet scent of charred flesh and the hiss of his steaming blood as it escapes from his armor fills the air.

Summer’s finger smokes. “I told you,” She hisses. “I’m a demigoddess. You can’t fight me. You can’t lay a blade on me!”

Heat rises around her in waves. It’s enough to make the strongest of men uncomfortable. The sorceress backs away, lips pressed into a tight line.

The rest of the soldiers flee. And Summer stands there, laughing.

“-vindictive,” Winter finishes weakly. The memory had been quite strong. And very, very vivid. The smell of burning skin still lingers in her nostrils, no matter how much she wishes it wouldn’t. Summer feels a bit uncomfortable.

Different days. I’m a bit different than before-

Whatever else Summer was going to say is lost.  There’s a series of fantastic ‘pops’, and three figures appear out of thin air.

One is dressed in crimson robes. Another, obviously and emphatically female from the shape of her clothing and body, wears nothing but two strips of cloth and is being carried in chains. The third, holding the chains and looking particularly morose in a wide, black-rimmed hat, is wearing sensible working pants and a thoroughly sensible vest with leather armor under it and a metal circle  on the front. In one hand he holds the chains, in the other he bares a long metal blade. From the chill it radiates- somehow much more piercing than that of the cold around her- and the warping sense it gives off, the chain and the blade are both made of earthmetals, though what type Summer has no idea. The stuff would drain her magic if she were to try to enchant it, but fortunately Winter seems nonaggressive and probably wouldn’t try it.

“See here now, Argus! You’ve gone and given me the wrong coordinates again!” It’s a man’s voice, and it comes from the crimson robes. “It’s freezing cold! We’re probably in some godforsaken tundra-“

“Forest, actually,” The man in leather and vest says mildly. He doesn’t seem perturbed by the chill.

“You’re always getting us lost and- what?”

“Tundra are bare of trees. This is a forest.”

The woman in chains shivers violently in the cold and mutters something that might be a curse. Then her eyes look up and find Winter standing there, not ten yards away, under the shade of a frozen pine.

She lets out a clipped cry, and muffles it quickly, biting her lip and trying not to draw attention to Winter at all, a moment later.

The look had been a pleading one. Winter stands there, rooted to the spot and staring. Is that one of my- your disciples? Summer asks.

“How should I know?” Winter hisses. “I’ve forgotten pretty much everything!”

And then the men see her, too. The one in crimson robes seems to spot her first.

“Hey- Argus. There’s a woman there in the shade of that pine. Do you see?”

The man in leather is only a little slower. “Yes. I see her.”

“She’s standing there- gracious Cycle, is she barefoot? She should be frozen to the core.”

“Seems in fine enough health to me.”

“A bit rigid, perhaps.”

“It’s not exactly pleasant weather, my magical friend.”

They talk as they move toward her, carefully as though she might startle. It’s a hunter’s walk, a predator’s walk, though neither is likely to be aware of it. Summer notices, though.

Winter, these men are dangerous. That woman is a magic user, likely they’re transporting her to a prison for not having a signed doc for its use.

Winter backs away slowly, unfreezing.

“A slip of a thing, but clearly a Frostwitch. Natural, by the look,” the red-robed one says.

“You give her too much credit- she can’t be more than ten years, the idea of her using more than a cantrip to keep warm is ridiculous.” The other is still skeptical. Their respective life-forces feel exceptionally strong, this close. It’s making her strangely hungry.

They stop, some ten feet distant, still eyeing her, talking and shaking their heads. The woman doesn’t look at her.

Winter wants to keep backing away. You’ll have to fight them, Summer says grimly. The woman clutches the Illmetal bead tightly. I’ll help. Look, you can’t run- you might lose them, sure, but they can track you. I know how it works around here.

Winter clenches her fingers into fists. She raises one hand uncertainly. But she hasn’t the faintest how to fight, and she feels very silly.

Her stomach growls at her, throwing her off a bit. She’s quite hungry. She’s not sure why, but being near these three is making her very, very hungry. She tries anyway, bringing up the will, or trying to, feeling her scars begin to glow.

No, don’t use your magic. Just drain them. You need the energy anyway.

“Sort of a crooked nose, don’t you think?” says the one in his crimson robes. “A little on the ugly side.”

“She’ll sell,” Argus shrugs. “That’s all we need. Hey, kid!”

No, no. Not like that! Here, watch, Summer says.

There’s a moment where time seems to hiss and bend, where the world is distorted and everything is scrunched up tight. Summer makes Winter spread her fingers. There’s a sensation of tugging, of pulling in such a fashion that seems to make her legs wobble. The hunger inside, the gnawing emptiness reaches a glorious peak, settles in her hand, in her arm. There’s a wet sucking, popping sort of sound, like tugging a slick rubber dart off of a window.

Then there’s a brilliant flash of light. Two red streamers of twisting something leap from each of the men and writhe, twisting into her outstretched hand. The connection snaps just as the last of it is siphoned off. The last streaming tendril of energy whips out and then in, funneled to fill the emptiness in her arm warmly, snugly.

Winter just stands there, stunned.

The woman doesn’t appear to notice until the two men stop dead in their tracks and both topple, strings cut. The girl starts, at that- she can’t be more than seventeen or eighteen. Her eyes snap from the men, who lie prone, to the slip of a child who seems to have been responsible. She looks at Winter, at her outstretched hand, a mixture of pure terror and awe on her face. She shrinks away as Winter first moves.

But it’s only to stare at her hand. Her scars- visible all over her body in weird shapes and lines- are glowing brightly. She feels full again, the hunger is gone.

“What did you do?” She whispers, her gaze traveling all over her body. A feeling of horror comes over her.

Fed you, Summer says blankly. There isn’t even the slightest hint of unease.

And that seems to be that.

Or would be, except for the feeling of outraged violation Winter nurses. It contrasts sharply with the pleased, full contentedness of a good meal. It also cements something in her mind. She is extremely dangerous. And so is Summer.

The shaking in her legs she can tell herself is relief. The men were going to take her somewhere and sell her? Or take her to prison. That’s what Summer said.

Their deaths are on Summer’s conscience. Right?

Are they dead? Yes. Their lifeforce is gone.

Oh come on now. They just return to the Cycle. It’s not like you’re stealing their souls or anything. Toughen up, wuss.

“Shut up,” She hisses. “Don’t preach ethics at me, murderer.”

Hey, I’m just using what’s there to save our hides. If you can’t wise up and protect yourself, we both’ll die. If I have even the slightest bit of control, I’ll take it, Summer snaps. I’m in here too.

“It’s your own damn fault you got bound!” Winter shouts. “Don’t try and pin this on me! I never wanted you in my head!”

Winter, sweetie, I’ve been in your head from the fucking start. We just usually take turns.

“Liar.”

Think what you want, fine. Your memory’ll come back eventually, I’ll find a way to free myself.

“You’re just like you were,” Winter snaps bitterly.

Summer is silent for a moment.

“Did that hurt?” Winter asks. Summer’s silence is all she needs. “Good.”

Finally she takes a deep breath and turns to the woman. She’s since crumpled, breathing shallowly, on the snow. Her skin is blue and her eyes are shut.

Fiery anger is banked. Summer is still quiet, so Winter acts, rushing over to the woman’s side. She strips the first man of his crimson robes awkwardly, wraps the young girl up in it. The robes are probably cold, but much better than nothing. The woman’s skin feels warm to her, but she can’t trust her own sense of touch, and Summer won’t tell her what the girl’s real temperature is.

Winter eyes the chains. They’ll prove a bit awkward. She can’t afford to drag two corpses around. Searching the one named Argus reveals a set of strange metal things-

Keys. Summer grumbles. They go in the locks.

– which, with Summer’s reluctant guidance, Winter puts in the locks of the woman’s manacles and turns. Undone, she finishes wrapping the woman up, staggers under her weight, and sighs.

Here’s the formula for the spell you want. Summer offers, showing Winter the way. Borrow some of my power, it’s what it’s there for. This woman is giving me some, only fair I return the favor.

Unsure if she should trust her mindguest’s words but with little other choice, Winter recites the incantation. Her scars flare and magic floods her for a moment. It weakens her- tires her- but she finds the woman in her grip light as a feather now.

She turns. The woman’s lifeforce is strong- blurring her grip on where the faint forces were before- but she remembers the direction she was moving. The sun is hidden by treecover and clouds, but she knows it’s going to set. She needs to find shelter. With that in mind, Winter strides off through frost and snow, a new burden in arms.

The corpses of the two men lie silent in the snow, and eventually the thick forest surrounds and swallows them.