This was gonna be posted yesterday. I won’t feed you excuses- suffice to say that my brain was off yesterday and for some reason it was never posted. 😦
On the bright side, surprise tuesday update!
(12)Land of Nothing
“Where is this?” Winter asks. Her voice echoes. The ground is a grey dust, and the sky is thundercloud black, shattered by bursts of heat lightning. The air is by turns blistering and cold- without Spring’s pill, she probably would be getting woozy.
Don’t you ever get tired of asking that? I already told you. It’s the Barrier. The Wall. The Edge. Lots of poetic names if you’re into that stuff-
Thomas, who can’t hear Summer, inadvertently interjects. “It’s called the Barrier, miss Winter. It’s huge, a wasteland. Just happens to be luck for us I brought a map!”
So the cheerfulness wasn’t fake, then. Now that is pretty amazing.
Winter sighs. “How does this help at all? The point of going into the city was to figure out where to go next.”
“I’ve got the whole world on this map here,” Thomas points out. “Can’t you just pick somewhere on the map?”
Winter rolls her eyes, but holds out a hand. “Show me.”
Thomas hands her a roll of paper, wrapped up in ribbon. He’d probably taken it from his pack. It feels like it’d blow away in the wind if she let go for an instant, so she keeps a tight grip on it.
She unrolls it, and feels a sudden surge of memory.
“We’re here, miss.” Thomas’s finger taps at an immense band near the very bottom of the map. To the south of it there’s a small illustrated city with the words ‘Death’s Edge’ written above it. Reassuring.
To the north of the band called the Barrier- her memory flashes backward for her, a hundred years back, ten minutes back, what’s the difference?- there’s a stretch of open fields with intermittent forest, and then to the east of that there’s an enormous expanse of forest simply called ‘Evercold’. At the northernmost point of Evercold there lies a small circle marked with a red dot and the words ‘Everspring’. It’s surrounded by snow and plains, but the southern tip of the valley touches Evercold, giving her a sense of scale.
Then her eyes fall on a point, far, far, far to the north, a large circle- a ring, really- surrounding a diamond. Written above the triangle are the words ‘Season’s Refuge’. It hits her like a brick. It knocks the wind out of her.
A cornier name just couldn’t be more appropriate, Summer says, but even her voice sounds wistful.
It was her home, once. All the home she’d ever had or wanted. What made her leave it? What drove her brothers and sisters to bickering?
Winter clenches her hands into fists, wrinkling the map. She’s shocked to find wet in her eyes, sparkling like her cold crystal heart.
“Miss, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t cry on my map,” Thomas says, a little lamely, gently maneuvering it out of her grip. “We still need it to get out of the-“
“Take me to Season’s Refuge,” Winter manages. “I have questions I need answered, and I have a feeling- just a feeling, that they’ll be answered there.”
“The Refuge?” Thomas seems a little surprised at that. “Now I can understand wanting to revisit the place of your birth, but I thought we were trying to avoid Lord Autumn.”
“He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains doesn’t rule there,” Winter growls, her voice choked with sudden anger. “And He never will. It may have begun with those fools… but… I think Spring had the most power there. I… should be at the advantage.”
“It’s at the least a two month journey,” Thomas says warily. “But if you’re sure, far be it from me to argue with a Goddess.”
Winter doesn’t bother to correct him this time. She doesn’t believe herself or her brothers Gods. “Lead on then, mortal,” She says dryly. Inside she boils with cool rage.
Now at least she knows where she’s going.
Thomas’s path seems to wander, but Winter doesn’t make comment. He seems to refer to his map often, and it’s something Summer can’t really understand.
That map is so big. How the hell can he know where we are? She asks anxiously. Are you sure we can trust him?
“You seem to trust him fine enough,” Winter whispers. “Have a little faith, I’m sure he knows more than we do.”
They walk for over an hour. Well over an hour, tracking a meandering path through the same grey grit. There isn’t even a landmark- not even a dune or something in the distance to focus on. The sky remains black, and the occasional flash still makes Winter jump, though it doesn’t seem to bother Thomas anywhere near as much as the white pocket dimension had. When Winter had looked for it after arriving, it had disappeared.
She can’t help but wonder how they’d gotten here in the first place. They’d entered the bloody thing in Everspring. It’s beyond her how they’d ended up in the Barrier, for all that it seemed to wrap around the map when she’d looked at it.
When she asks Summer about it, she goes very quiet for a while. Then…
You have to promise to tell no one.
Not Thomas. Not even Spring. No one. Got it?
“Okay! I understand!” Winter says impatiently. “Just tell me.”
“Miss Winter?” Thomas is giving her a weird look.
“Just talking to Summer,” Winter replies, blushing. She must look pretty crazy. “Sorry.”
“Don’t crack up on me,” Thomas says, his expression serious. “I’ll need you later.”
Okay. I checked up on it. There’s like a library of my memories, and apparently at one point I heard you talking about it, and when you found out I heard you you swore me to secrecy. Uh. It’s a closely guarded secret, are you really sure you want to know?
Well… Don’t flip out or anything, but it’s powered by lifeforce. Yours. It drains you in order to facilitate travel. At first it was probably automatically taking you to Season’s Refuge, but then your orbpower went out of control and, well, sent it off course. Those pocket worlds move- they’re like transports. By the time you woke up we were all the way into the Barrier, and the Barrier is sort of like a wild area. Pocket worlds don’t work so hot here. Not much magic does.
Winter tries very carefully not to flip out. Under the circumstances, she thinks she does quite well. She counts to ten and everything, breathing in and letting it out slowly. Then she asks a very reasonable question.
“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me that earlier?” She snarls, making Thomas hop about a foot in the air and spin around.
Her voice and his echo, bouncing around the empty plain of… nothing.
Well gee, I dunno, Summer hisses back. Maybe you were a bit preoccupied and it wasn’t important!
“If I’d stayed there too long I could have-“
Shutupshutpshutup! You wouldn’t have died! It was leeching orbpower out of you, it’s not your lifeforce! It was so concentrated on you it didn’t even bother with Thomas! If it was really dangerous I would’ve told you earlier, doofus, think! Why would I want you dead?
“Miss Winter?” Thomas asks, obviously concerned.
Winter blinks, snaps back to reality to listen to him. “Yes?”
“Could you argue a little quieter?” He volunteers. “It’s unnerving.”
“Oh. Sorry,” Winter replies vaguely. “She started it.”
“Just so long as it’s finished soon, miss.”
They track through the dust a while longer. She frowns to herself. How large is this Barrier? It didn’t seem too wide on the map.
But the horizon extends forever, and clouds of gray dirt and grit, stirred up by pockets of wind, fly in miniature cyclones. The sky constantly flashes and rumbles, and the air itself is by turns thick and thin. This wasteland doesn’t seem to have an end.
They haven’t been traveling further longer than another hour- in relative silence, Summer’s complaints slowly dying to whispers, then grumbling, then her own thoughts- when Winter catches sight of it, on the very edge of her vision. She waits until she’s sure it’s there, when she just can’t take it anymore, and then-
“Don’t look at it directly, miss. It won’t be there,” Thomas says wearily. “I’ve got these in my dad’s book.”
“What are they?” Winter asks, curious. It’s still bothering her.
“Shades. They’re like… visions of things. People who’ve died, things you want, things you miss or knew. It’s either magic or just plain normal weird, if you ask me.”
“Ah,” Winter replies. A flicker catches her eye again, and she resists the urge to look until she sees what it is.
Scales and fur, a long, long body. A tongue flicks out at her, but when she snaps her head around to look, it’s gone. Jane.
Her servant died to protect her.
You want her back, don’t you.
She was slippery, you know. She was always looking for opportunities to have one or the other of us for dinner.
“She can’t help her nature.”
Couldn’t, you mean.
“You said you could bring her back,” Winter whispers. Did Summer lie about that too?
Maybe I can, I won’t know until I try.
“Okay,” Winter says reluctantly. “We’ll see.”
Isn’t that always the way?
Thomas stops, and Winter almost walks right into him. She takes a step up beside him instead to see what he’s looking at.
There’s a murmuring on the very edge of hearing that Summer’s talking was drowning out. A whispering, a sort of muttering that can’t quite be understood.
And just in front of the two there lies an immense gorge, a canyon that yawns wider than she thought was possible, stretching on into the horizon.
“This isn’t right,” Thomas says slowly. “I wasn’t leading us towards the Line. I was leading us towards the northern side of the Barrier, so we could cross without any trouble. What are we doing all the way out here?” He stares down at the map dubiously.
“You are here because I called you here,” comes a whisper, directly between the two of them. “No, don’t look around. I’m not actually with you yet. I need your help.”
Winter glances at Thomas’s face, which is blank. “How could we help you?” She asks cautiously.
“There is a city, here in the Barrier, that is under attack. It is across the Line you see before you. It needs your assistance,” The voice whispers, its tone completely expressionless. “Come across and help and I will assist you in whatever else you need to do. I will give riches and artifacts and power to all who help.”
The whispers in Winter’s head are drowning out Summer’s response now. She can’t hear what her mindmate has to say, but it sounds indignant. She wonders if it’s anything like as loud for Thomas, who has a bit of a dazed expression on his face now.
“And you expect us to…?” Thomas starts.
Winter sighs. “For one thing I’m not sure-“
“Good,” the voice says in that same emotionless tone. “Step forward.”
Thomas takes one step forward and vanishes. Winter just stands there, stunned, disbelieving. He’d stepped off the edge of the canyon, right off into nothing, and instead of falling, he’d disappeared. She’d seen weirder things, sure, but-
Winter takes a step forward without quite willing it, and then she vanishes as well, her senses taken from her in a flash.
The map flutters down onto the gritty sand and, to the wind’s whistling satisfaction, is blown end over end across the dusty plain.